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Sounding Off

Paul Nagle
By Paul Nagle

You can't bend a virtual circuit...

One of the reasons I've clung to my analogue synthesizers is that, should anything go wrong, I've a fighting chance of getting them repaired. More importantly, if there's something I want to change, that's possible too — whether we're talking about an ancient EMS or a brand new Moog. Despite the advances in analogue modelling, this is one area where a physical circuit always trumps its software equivalent: you don't need its creator in order to perform enhancements. I recently encountered a new analogue synth, the Korg Monotron, and it has already been subjected to a barrage of modifications. Analogue circuits — even tiny ones — invite exactly this kind of interaction and customisation. In contrast, there's very little chance of personally hot‑rodding your Roland Fantom or Nord Wave. And by very little chance I mean, of course, no chance.

This issue isn't exclusive to synthesizers. It just seems weird that soft synths (whether hosted on a computer or by dedicated hardware) are such closed systems. After all, you can add an extra pickup to your guitar or electrify your cello, but the best hope to circuit‑bend a Korg Prophecy or Waldorf Q is to locate the developer (or developers) and plead a good case. This pleading must happen within a narrow window of opportunity in which requests and even bug fixes are considered and potentially acted upon. It's sometimes no easy task (especially as a lone voice) to get your point across, even assuming you provide a sufficiently technical explanation. Even if you successfully convey the value of your request and engage the enthusiasm of the creator, other obstacles can still arise. The effects on existing users must be considered and the coding time has to be costed in. A request from one dazed hippy for an obscure feature nobody else cares about is unlikely to drive the wheels of any large corporation, especially if those wheels are already turning for the next product.

Once upon a time, with some electronics skills and a bit of imagination, an ARP Odyssey or Roland SH101 could be transformed, personalised and have its life‑span extended. Whether adding filter FM to the SH101 or fixing the Odyssey's annoying LFO behaviour (it resets each time you play a note), a good techie can perform those tasks and more besides. But where are the freelance software technicians capable of the same amazing feats? Even if such individuals existed, they'd need access to the arcane secrets that spawned each piece of gear in question. Those secrets may not be forthcoming — understandably — and as time passes some of them will be lost forever. Already at least one company says it cannot go back and bug-fix a 'legacy' synth because it no longer has the hardware environment required to run the appropriate compiler. I'm sure this isn't an isolated case.

There are some positive signs — typically from small, progressive companies. For example, Genoqs, the creators of the Octopus sequencer, released its OS as open source. This move puts development into the hands of keen enthusiasts who are both willing and able to fine‑tune its operation for years to come, out of sheer love. Result: the whole community benefits. How many times have you added a synth, drum machine or sequencer to your shopping list, then, prior to purchase, heard about one or two little niggles? Do you wait for the niggles to be fixed? After all, if everyone waits, the gear in question could be dropped as 'unpopular', in which case development halts forever. If you take the risk and jump in, hoping that fixes and tweaks will come along, do they? As someone who's done his fair share of grovelling for software updates, all I'll say is it's immensely frustrating to feel so powerless.

Putting aside my rose‑tinted spectacles for a moment, I'll willingly concede that it's great to have software‑based instruments with their vast polyphony, huge patch libraries and endless complexity. I have plenty of them myself, some of which would be dearly missed if disaster occurred. Even though I can't change them, I truly hope they have the longevity of my analogues. Already I've had to retire musical hardware and software associated with old computers, but I've given up on other kit too, either because of a lack of specialised parts or simply because a small annoyance I assumed would be fixed never was. Software offers incredible power and flexibility, and I'm all for it — honestly. Yet it has contributed to the decline of uniqueness and individuality that made early electronic instruments so exciting.

About The Author

Paul Nagle has been tinkering with synthesizers for over 30 years and hopes to get the hang of them one day.

Published August 2010