Vintage synthesizers: can you love them too much?
I'm in a prog rock band. And this is never a good thing. You see, being in a prog band means that you're officially allowed to become a vintage analogue bore, and I was one — one of the people that put the 'anal' into analogue. I counted Rock Walkman, Emerson Lakeson and that hairy bloke out of Focus as my mentors. "Oh no”, I would opine at the AA (Analogues Anonymous) meeting, "there is simply nothing like the real thing, it's about physics, it's all about the knobs”. What I didn't realise was that it was all about knobs, but more about the one doing the talking in this case.
Last summer, my studio contained a Jupiter 8 (mint, natch); a Prophet 5 (mint); a TR808 (beyond minty, this was actually knocking on the door of aniseed); two TR909s; a Prophet 600 with new cheeks and a complete set of P5 knobs, all the way from Wine Country Sequential in the USA; and a Roland CR78.
But then the inevitable problem would kick in when it came to actually make some music with all this sonic porno: I'd get gear blindness. Which one of my babies would give me the fattest square-wave bass, or the sharpest sync lead? Which one would provide the ultimate pad capable of warming the coldest analogue heart? In the end, the answer was none of them. I found my modern-day, bog-standard Japanese ROMpler did the job 98 percent of the time because it was quicker, easier, more reliable, in tune, easy to edit and easy to forget about while I moved onto the next bit.
When I'm not hobbit bothering, my main bread and butter is jingles and TV music. As anybody who's tinkered with this line of work will tell you, everybody's pitching for the same jobs, everybody's doing the pitch for free and everybody submitted their pitch yesterday. There simply isn't time to get out your patch cords and rustle up an oboe sound for the new series of When Biscuits Attack! This is real life. Indeed, the few times I actually got around to using one of the old girls' warbly offerings, I'd be so excited that I'd put it way too high in the mix, resulting in an inevitable request from the client to 'lose the Bontempi'. Nobody's noticed that the sounds they get from me are now largely software generated, and that the 909 kick is a sample once again.
The ghastly truth is this: in the real world where people are real people, clients are real clients, and real money pays for one's real mortgage, nobody actually cares about your vintage synths! Real people have about as much interest in your minty Moog as a bee does in the atomic weight of Cadmium, but you should probably keep this to yourself lest you get roughed up by a bloke with an oscilloscope and a copy of What Beard? magazine.
Sure, if you're planning on bringing the world Hooked On Electro Paganini On Ice On Fire Volume 1, and you've grown your beard, and you've got your fortune to blow on it, I shall give you a manly hug, step aside, and look forward to hearing it in 2024. The world does need a person like you, and maybe another one as a backup in case your Moog modular falls on you.
However, if you're like me and counting yourself extremely lucky to be making a living through music at all in these troubled times, what really matters is speed and consistency. It doesn't matter if your pads are coming from a Memorymoog or an iPhone, as long as the job gets done. But if you choose to stay old‑school, be sure you're prepared to lose a few weekends a year while you drive all your beloved old kit to and from the menders.
As for me, I've got my weekends back, flogged the lot and jumped headlong once more into the world of the soft synth. I cured my gear blindness and I'm back to churning things out in no time at all, for clients who couldn't care less about how my virtual Jupiter 8's VCOs bear no resemblance to the actual thing. Allegedly.
The down side is that I now have to actively heat my studio in the winter, but on the up side, my blood pressure is back to normal and I've got lots of lovely free surfaces upon which to put my tea.
Jem Godfrey lives on a hill and doesn't get out much. He wrote this while struck down with swine flu and craving a bacon sandwich by way of revenge.