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Sounding Off: David Abernethy

Published January 2016

Synthesizers: why vintage will always be king.

What is it about old stuff that keeps us fascinated? Is it just nostalgia? A hankering for the good ol’ days? Or is it a respect and admiration for the original creators of classic instruments, and an appreciation of how far technology was stretched to produce all those ground–breaking products? To be specific: what’s so great about vintage synthesizers?

First up, I have to confess that I am indeed a vintage synth junkie. You would therefore be forgiven for thinking that my argument is slightly biased. But what the hell, here goes...

There are many new synthesizers available now that are based on vintage models: the Korg ARP Odyssey and the DSI Sequential Prophet 6 being two recent examples. They have an analogue signal path, heaps of real–time control and loads of character, and they are certainly a lot more reliable than the original ARP Odysseys and Prophet 5s.

One thing that new instruments will always lack, at least in their early life, is a well–known musical history. Back in the good old days, certain classic synth sounds were created that still remain a benchmark today. To pluck a random example out of the air, take the Minimoog riff in Gary Numan’s ‘Are Friends Electric?’. There’s a reason this song was a hit: it sounded damn good, and it had precisely the sort of synth sound that still pushes our buttons today.

Modern synth emulations are generally close enough for most applications and are certainly more affordable than the real thing. The fact that these classic sounds appear time and time again in the presets of modern machines is because of their broad appeal, but these recreations also serve to reinforce the iconic status of the originals.

It’s remarkable that a classic instrument like the Minimoog continues to set the standard, given its simplicity, and yet modern instruments that emulate vintage sounds are made with far more advanced technology. This gives us high expectations — we expect new machines to have a zillion features, to create mind–boggling sounds with very little effort, and to be rock-solid and reliable. Granted, they can make some great sounds, and in the right hands they can make some great music, but will we regard today’s instruments as classics in 40 years? I believe this is unlikely. Think about it: what are the classic milestone instruments in synth history? The Minimoog, the Prophet 5, the DX7, and maybe the Korg M1. Then what? Once you get to the ‘90s, iconic instruments just don’t stand out; they’re all sort of the same. Technology had reached a point where manufacturers could make high–quality instruments easily and cheaply, and so the challenge had gone.

To me, using a vintage synth like the Minimoog or Prophet 5 is like tapping into an important era in music history and drawing on the inspiration of those musical and technological breakthroughs. The appreciation of the technology, the challenge of working it, the classic sound it produces and the real–time performance aspect of these machines is truly inspirational.

I believe, compared with the their modern counterparts, the relative simplicity of these classic pieces is a real strength. Take the electric guitar, for example: it only has six strings, a couple of pickups, some passive controls and an amp. The general design and technology hasn’t changed since its invention over 60 years ago, yet it is the most popular instrument today, and certainly the most prominent in modern music. Why? Well, it certainly has a classic sound, which we all know and love, and I’m sure most of us would cringe at the sound of a synth trying to play ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. But despite its simplicity, the guitar is very expressive. It is very good at enabling the user’s creative juices to get out. To my mind, vintage synthesizers have a similar quality.

Despite the many ‘new retro’ synths available today, I personally think that the second–hand vintage synth market will always be buoyant. The classic collection pieces, like those mentioned earlier, will always be highly valued. These types of instruments and the music that was made on them will always serve as an inspiration to synth manufacturers, software geeks and musicians for decades to come.

About The Author

Sounding OffDavid Abernethy is a musician, writer and electrical engineer. Although mainly a guitarist, he developed an interest in vintage synthesizers, and is the author of The Prophet from Silicon Valley: The Complete Story of Sequential Circuits.

Published January 2016