Why everyone making electronic music should try an analog synth
So mentioned in my previous post that there were several booths at NAMM that featured analog synthasizers in some shape or form. This was a bit of a revelation for me, as all of my music composition has been done using software based synths, or devices that created sounds digitally inside a stand alone device. I learned a few things while at NAMM, and one was the everyone that produces electronic music should at the very least play one of these things to get a feel for the way synths used to be.
For those who, like me did not know much about the different types out there or how they worked, let’s look at the different types first. Analog synths can be divided into two forms. The first is your prototypical keyboard with a configurable synth built into it. This is best typified by the Moog synths, or some of the items made by Dave Smith instruments, and look like this:
This is what I would expect to see when looking to buy a musical instrument…it has keys, and many knobs that can be configured to alter the sound in interesting and amazing ways. But these are not the only type. There is a second, and far stranger breed that lives on the fringes of the music and sound design realm, called the modular analog synth. These beasts very greatly in size and shape, but usually look something like this:
That thing that looks like it belongs in a mad scientists lab actually makes sound (and video in some cases), and throws the whole idea of a “musical” device straight into the garbage. I’ll get to this in a minute.
Now, the Moog style synth is great because it compares directly to software synths that many modern producers are familiar with, such as Massive and Alchemy. You get a set of oscillators to tweak, plus a variety of filters and LFOs to assign. What sets the analog versions apart from the software devices lies in the sound, and the direct feel of the knobs and switches. The analog oscillators have a warmer sound, which is very hard to put into words. The best analogy I can think of is that if the digital synths sound like scissors cutting a sheet of paper, then the analog synths sound like scissors cutting a damp piece of paper. Very similar, but with just that touch of hard edge removed. That might not make a lot of sense now, but I promise it will when you get your hands on one. And when it comes to the direct feel of the input devices, there is no comparison, even when you midi map all of you soft-synth parameters. The Moog stuff in particular has a great sort of ‘click’ and ‘snap’ and ‘glide’ feel to the controls that feels both fine and secure, and makes you feel very close to the final sounds that you make. Now I realize some people out there might be thinking, “Yeah, that’s all great, but what happens when you change something and lose a great sound that you made?” And my response is that you get to go back and keep playing with the sound. It almost demands that you know the device extraordinarily well, and that you be as creative as possible. That might seem like a limitation, but I believe that when you know the device well enough, your limitations fall away.
So as much as I have been gushing about these things, why would you want to use a modular synth that has no keys, or direct input? Well….the truth is that modular synths are not for everybody. They can be fiddly, difficult to operate, and not user friendly in any way. But for all their issues, what they give you is something that has become a MASSIVE problem in the current era of digital music making and publishing…a truly unique sound. To better understand how this is possible, let’s go over a bit about how modulars are put together.
Modulars are built into a rack a lot like a PC computer tower. You get the case, and that comes with a power supply and a bus bar. After that, you look at what the different module makers have, make sure they all fit your rack, and start building your sounds. And that is one of the parts that can make your sound very original. On a Moog, everything you have is made by Moog, and you Moog will sound like every other one on some level. With the modulars, you can get an oscillator from one company, filters from another, and some crazy effects built by a guy in his basement as a hobby (I met these guys at NAMM, and they love what they do).
So okay…now you have this insane Frankenstein box that makes funny noises, and you have spent many moons creating the perfect combination of settings to set the world on fire. Only one problem…there is no keyboard, no way to play the device musically! Never fear, as the digital world will be your salvation. The beauty of most DAWs now is that they can sample, chop, and pitch shift almost anything. Is your sound too high pitched? Try shifting a sample down a few octaves. Is it too long/short? Time-stretch baby! Starting to get the picture? There is a good chance that no one in the WORLD will have the exact sound that you have made, and odds are that they never will. There will not be a youtube video where some kid describes how to set up Massive to make your sound, and when people get curious about how you do you thing, you get to show them a picture of the insanity you went through, and feel proud of your accomplishments.
Does all this seem like a big effort for nothing? Then maybe these little guys are not for you. They certainly are not light on the pocket book. The Moog stuff runs at LEAST 800 bucks for new items, and goes WAAAY up from there, and the modulars get even more insane. That big 6 deck monstrosity above? Try $60,000. But that’s been built over a long time as well. For my money though, these guys offer an amazing chance to make truly original sounds and music….and that is priceless.