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New synthesizers return to analog origins

Dave Smith’s newly released Prophet-6 synthesizer is turning electronic musicians’ heads with its retro styling and sound. After a long trend of minimalism in keyboard design, knobs and sliders are back in style.
Dave Smith’s newly released Prophet-6 synthesizer is turning electronic musicians’ heads with its retro styling and sound. After a long trend of minimalism in keyboard design, knobs and sliders are back in style. Dave Smith Instruments

If you’re an electronic musician, it’s 1979 again.

Or at least it felt that way at the National Association of Music Merchants’ trade show earlier this year in Anaheim, Calif.

There, new keyboards being hawked by musical instrument manufacturers weren’t notable for their futuristic, streamlined designs or innovative new sounds.

Instead, retro is back, in the form of knobs, buttons and sliders on a fresh crop of analog synthesizers — those alien behemoths that powered prog-rock and new wave.

Synth revolution

You know an analog synth when you hear it. It’s what makes the warm, buzzy arpeggios in the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” and Keith Emerson’s epic solo in “Lucky Man.” It’s what powers Wendy Carlos’album “Switched-On Bach,” which went on to become a classic. It’s even what gives Star Wars’ R2-D2 his distinctive bleepy-bloopy voice.

Early synths looked like science fiction movie sets. They were modular — free-form banks of components that had to be strung together with a tangle of cords to generate sound. The possibilities were almost endless with these setups, but the learning curve was steep and they required enormous time and patience.

Robert Moog’s introduction of the Minimoog in 1970 changed the game with a streamlined unit controlled by 27 knobs, 16 switches, two wheels and a 31/2-octave keyboard.

Unlike modular synths, the Minimoog offered immediate gratification. Even a novice could create screaming high leads and thunderous bass rumbles with minimal tweaking.

And so a revolution was born. Other companies such as Korg, ARP, Oberheim, Sequential Circuits and Roland began rolling out increasingly sophisticated synths, each offering its own distinctive flavor.

But these analog beasts didn’t come cheap. The cost of each sound-generating module, knob and rotary controller added up, with high-end units listing for $4,500 and higher. They were out of reach for many musicians who didn’t have the luxury of a record deal or a lucrative day job.

Going digital

In the 1980s, digital technology helped equalize the synth divide. New, cheaper digital components let manufacturers replace a bank of 16 expensive analog knobs with a couple of sliders or buttons and corresponding LED display.

Sure, that meant you had to go “menu diving,” using a button to select a parameter, then another control to adjust it. But prices began to drop drastically. As the decade progressed, most synthesizers produced sound with no analog components at all.

But these digital machines were much more complicated to program, and that “did not encourage interaction with the musician,” according to Dave Smith, founder of Sequential Circuits and original developer of the revered Prophet-5 analog synth.

“So, the products cost less, and often had more features — both positives — but were not as much fun to play,” he said.

The perks of analog

As the ’80s wore on, musicians also were eager for new sounds, and analog machines fell out of favor as new generations of digital synths and later, computer software, offered startlingly realistic versions of real instruments.

But many musicians find those machines predictable and cold.

“A digital instrument is an exact copy, like a cellphone or computer,” Smith said. “An analog synth is always just a little different, which provides a sonic difference that musicians prefer. I often hear from professional musicians that the analog synths fit better in a song, more like a traditional instrument.”

Kansas City electronic musician Max Justus is versed in both virtual and physical synthesizers, and he says they force the player to interact with them differently.

“I think a big part of the appeal of tactile interfaces is that they encourage experimentation in a way that software interfaces can’t,” he said. “Every synthesizer and effect is a unique beast, and you really have to play around with them to get a feel for what they’re capable of. When those synthesizers and effects are little windows on a screen I find that I tend not to bother exploring them to the same degree as I would their hardware counterparts.”

Endless possibilities

Serious electronic musicians today have an almost limitless number of affordable toys to choose from. Digital sampling has become a remarkably mature technology, putting hyper-realistic string ensembles, grand pianos and just about any other acoustic instrument well within reach of anyone with a computer and a relatively inexpensive software suite. Native Instruments’ Komplete, for example, offers literally thousands of virtual instruments — more than most players will ever take advantage of — for $500.

“Analog synthesizers were always fun to play with, but for those musicians who demanded perfect strings and perfect brass and perfect Rhodes piano, the analog approach was never quite there,” said Manhattan, Kan., native Tom Oberheim. He founded Oberheim Electronics in 1969, and its OB-8 and OB-Xa models are still among the most coveted and pricey synthesizers on the second-hand market today.

But now everyone has multiple synths, he said, “so it’s back to having fun!”

Richard Devine is one of the world’s leading electronic sound designers and musicians, having contributed research and development to a wide variety of electronic instruments, both virtual and real-world hardware instruments. Where does he think the state of the synth is headed?

“It’s hard to say,” he wrote via email. “I have never been good at predicting fads or certain trends, but I think people are getting back to using hardware again in general.”

Key analog synthesizer moments

Wendy Carlos, “Switched-On Bach” (1968)

The record that started a revolution of often-terrible albums of classical music rendered on synthesizers. The electronic instruments of the period didn’t offer many ways to play expressively with dynamic volume and tone, so Bach’s mathematical compositions were an ideal choice for Carlos.

The Beatles, “Here Comes the Sun” (1969)

The thick tone of a Moog doubling a guitar line was one of the first times the instrument reached a wide audience.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Lucky Man” (1970)

Keith Emerson’s wild solo is still distinctive today.

The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (1971)

Pete Townsend’s synthesized loops are an integral part of the song’s structure, foreshadowing the precise rhythmic dance music that synthesizers excel at.

Kraftwerk, “Autobahn” (1974)

The German group’s robotic persona and simple lyrics (“We are driving on the Autobahn”) laid a significant part of the foundation for new wave’s detached posture.

David Bowie, “Low” (1977)

The ultimate rock chameleon decamped to France and Germany to create the first of his “Berlin Trilogy” with experimental electronic musician Brian Eno and producer Tony Visconti. Eno layered burbling atmosphere, often working alone with his famed EMS Synthi AKS “suitcase” synth.

Donna Summer, “I Feel Love” (1977)

The single’s production by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte is generally regarded as the first mainstream hit to use a completely synthesized backing track.

Giorgio Moroder, “The Chase” from the “Midnight Express” soundtrack (1978)

Moroder’s driving theme shares much of its DNA with “I Feel Love” and influenced a generation of electronic movie scores.

Gary Numan and Tubeway Army, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” (1979)

Americans know Numan for his later hit “Cars,” but the debut of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” on “Top of the Pops” was synth rock’s big breakout moment in his native U.K.

Van Halen, “Jump” (1983)

The guitar heroes embraced the synth in a big way with their 1983 smash — and one of the final musical walls between synths and rock fell for good.