Blog: The Rise and Fall (and then rise) of Analog

Greg Cole explores the trends   05-Jun-13

As supermodel and TV host Heidi Klum is fond of saying, "in the world of fashion, one day you're in and the next, you are out". The world of fashion isn't the only place this is true, 'the public' are a fickle lot and while one day you may be the hero of the masses, the next you may be cast aside like a forgotten toy in the corner of a child's bedroom.

The story begins with Robert Albert Moog and his invention: the voltage controlled synthesiser. Not the streamlined, user-friendly little box that we're familiar with nowadays but a wall-sized, impenetrable behemoth covered in knobs and sockets that made no noise unless you plugged cables into it to join the various 'modules' together.

Not many could afford the luxury of these hand-made instruments and soon Bob was to change the world of music forever with the launch of the Minimoog. With not a patch cable in sight and producing a sound designed, not to replicate anything in particular but to produce a whole new world of sounds that had never been heard before, the Minimoog was to go on to become one of the most successful synths in history. Many other manufacturers joined the fray and for just over a decade musicians happily devoured the warm full-fat goodness. Until 1983 when all that fatness got put on a serious diet, well for a while anyway.

I remember playing a friend's Yamaha DX7 for the first time, raised on a diet of analog I pushed the squishy green buttons and marveled at the cold, harsh clangy results. Before long, analog synths were being dropped in skips, the factory presets from the DX7 were on everything and no band could hold its head up if they didn't have at least one DX7 on stage for their Top of the Pops appearance.

The idea of presets was around before the DX7 but I believe the fact that the DX was, let's say challenging to program meant that a new way of thinking came with it. Synths became not necessarily things you programmed, you could let the boffins spend their time doing that and you could just get on with the task of writing music. Unfortunately this meant you were destined to explore a tiny fraction of the power of the instrument you had purchased but for many this didn't matter and it continues to be a standpoint that many musicians take today - empowered by the vast preset libraries coming with the synths they buy and with little interest in programming.

As the 80s and 90s ticked by, interfaces became ever sleeker and more minimal. As a keen programmer I personally find this quite a dark time for synthesisers but undoubtably some true classics were produced during this period.

The Roland JD990, the D50, the Korg Wavestation, challenging to program yes but capable of expansive, clean, evolving soundscapes that no analog synth had ever produced. As memory prices dropped, the rise of the Romplers took us further down the dark path and then along comes Virtual Analog to give us knob-twiddlers some hope of salvation. Suddenly we have the likes of the JP8000, Supernova, MS2000 and Virus to play with, not analog but the general architecture is the same so we can relate to it, covered in knobs so we can tweak settings and sweep filters without squinting our way through 17 menus on a screen the size of a matchbox.

Finally we had a decent interface with which to interact with the instrument again, life was good!

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16 Comments... Comments are closed while we transition to Disqus

brian from usa    Said...

I have to disagree with your post a little bit.

I think the single biggest driver of the analog revival is the growth of electronic musicians who aren't interested in traditional music performance or playing a keyboard. When the impact of the DX7 is discussed why is it so often overlooked that it was 16 voice polyphonic (double that of any analog of the time) plus had velocity and aftertouch. Suddenly keyboard players could utilize their pianistic technique on a synthesizer AND it opened up new types of sounds that were impossible to create with analog. That's the real reason why Yamaha sold about 20 times as many DX7's as Moog sold Minimoogs. A few years later Korg repeated that phenomenon with the M1 thanks to realistic (for the time) sample based sounds.They displaced not only analog synths but organs and electromechanical pianos as well.

When I see analogs with only 25 keys or (worse) membrane or ribbon "keys" I see instruments aimed at players with no keyboard technique.

Meanwhile on a few forums I frequent (including the Moog forum) it's fascinating to see how many recent converts to CV are starting to see the limitations. Sure, stepping is gone but in it's place are annoying scaling and tuning issues (something MIDI addressed). There's something to be said for instruments thaht are actually in tune when you turn them on. Then there's the hypocrisy of proclaiming "no presets" and then bundling free VST editors that provide presets!

It's nice to see analog coming back but I'm not encouraged at all by the glut of sub $1000 monosynths. How many limited feature analog monos do I need?

It'll be interesting to see how this all plays out over the next few years.

05-Jun-13 09:26 AM

GTRman    Said...

I love analog synths but how many can one have before sounding monotomous (there is even the word mono in this word). Musicians need a variety of synths. A mixture of both analog and digital is a must. Todays synths need to have all the modern features like patch storage, full size keyboards and midi. They should have new designs & fresh sounds. To me there was no rise and fall of analog. Both analog and digital synths have sat side by side in my studio. I hope the future will bring us new innovative synths and not the same old synths reliving there youth from the 80's. Lets move on people. Keep it fresh sounding.

05-Jun-13 11:41 AM

Spinkterbrain    Said...

I enjoyed this article.I too am exited about the analogue come back. A point i would like to make is this...For those generations of people who were around from the first Mini Moog onward & were using those instuments as they became available.. You have had the good fortune of witnessing the evolution & transitions leading up to our current technology. I have been here on earth during that period but was too young at the start of that.I had to pick up synthesis much later on.Deprived of those essential building blocks. If analogue synths in their more basic & crude form didn't come back, future generations of electronic musicians would never learn the true bones of real instruments & the essence that they have as a real playable tool...Not just for programming but demanding some human hands-on interaction ! My first taste was a virtual analogue & while it taught me some essential lessons i have learned much much more about signal & voltage flow from a couple of basic real analogues. I feel that the new analogues will teach me & others AND they will prevent future ignorance and/or stupidity. In a nutshell...If you know your roots, then you know where your coming from ! (Yes that is a quote from a certain great & famous artist...But true !

05-Jun-13 04:12 PM

WaveFormTX    Said...

The sub$1000 synths are my forte. I am not a piano player, I prefer to tweak and create sounds. I was born in '76 so the 80s and 90s are in my blood. I always had a fascination in these unreal, exotic sounds. In my teens, I learned synthesis on my church's under-used Roland JV-880. I programmed that thing to death. When I got my hands on a K-station, I was off in my fantasy world of knob-slider-button heaven.

The most complex instrument I've ever owned was the FantomX6. By then I used a Cubase set up and soon I had all the tools that everyone else was using. Then I lost my inspiration. I had everything but what I needed was limitations to conquer.

Now I still use Cubase for editing. multitracking, and sequencing but all sound creation is done buy an ALesis Ion, Electribe EMX, and any one of these cheap analogs in future.

I for one am thrilled that analog is back and that there are legitimate tools at price ranges that suit all levels of musician.

05-Jun-13 05:02 PM

whitenoise    Said...

I agree we Spinkterbrain. I'm in my 20s and have been a pianist my entire life, but I've only really become aware of and interested in synthesis (and synthesizers) over the last couple of years. Personally I'm very excited about the trend toward affordable analog synths. My first synth was a VA, but I traded it in for a Minibrute because I found that I would end up just playing with sounds I had previously made more than I was making new sounds, and I'd often create a sound and then forget exactly how I had done it. The Minibrute forces me to know exactly how to create the sounds I want when I want them, and is both a great sounding synth and a great learning tool. And it'll integrate well with modular gear (which I've taken a great interest in).

Speaking of modular, Eurorack has both made it reasonably affordable and opened up an insane amount of possibilities with so many different modules available from a variety of different manufacturers.

Certainly there are also many great digital synths available, and they are capable of many things that are difficult or impossible for analog, but I think the inherent limitations of analog make it much more approachable for a newcomer.

I'm glad there are so many options available to me, I think I picked a pretty great time to get into synthesis!

05-Jun-13 10:47 PM

Tmanny of Del    Said...

Musicians playing analog blips and bleeps are boring for any commercial listener. It might be fun for a person playing, but definitely not for the listener. To create a hit song you need something that sounds different and new. The 80's had DX7,D50 & M1 keyboards that produced completely new sounds which took music to a new level. Analog has not changed in over 30 years so it has becomes stale sounding. To make it big in the music industry you need to sound different, fresh and new. Coping old analogue instrument is not the best way to accomplish that goal. Some instrument can stand the test of time (like the famous B3 sound or the twang of a Fender Telecaster guitar) but not analog, it is too boring for the public listener. Sorry analog geeks but most people are tired of that sound. I wish the instrument companies would come out with something new & exciting instead of just reproducing old outdated synths that people heard on 1000's of tracks before. Where has all the innovation gone.

06-Jun-13 08:10 AM

Wicked Will    Said...

I have to disagree with Tmanny of Del.

The piano(forte) is older than the aforementioned analog synth, and it is in no way outdated. It's a matter how the instrument is used, and the content in which its sounds are arranged and placed!!

06-Jun-13 11:11 AM

Tribrix    Said...

Responding to the offhand comment about analog cassette four track recorders. I remember reading, many years ago that Bjork had produced her latest album on a laptop, in a hotel room in Ireland and I wondered about and wished for the day that my laptop could produce a "technically" commercially viable album. About 5 years later, I had such a machine and I was in heaven. Anything I could imagine, I could do, using virtual instruments, piano rolls, live recording . . . About 5 years later still, I can't imagine ever recording on a computer again. Having rediscovered the joys of analog tape (and the tedium, lol) I can't imagine going back to digital. Which isn't to say I've totally abandoned software instruments, I still use iOS and the Korg DS-10, but no more piano rolls or DAWs . . . for now. What may be out, may also come back in.

06-Jun-13 11:54 AM

Protech    Said...

I agree with "Tmanny of Del" that anolog synth sound is old and overused today. Give us something new. I remember when the D50 first came out. Wow what a sound. There has not been any big advancement in keyboard instruments in over 10 years. Now the instrument companies are just remaking there old outdated analog instrument but with cheap China labor and crappy China parts. There is a lot of junk kiddy toy instruments (if you can call them instruments) out there lately. Where has all the innovation gone.

07-Jun-13 06:52 AM

Ding dong    Said...

You got that right Protech. Because of the economy instrument companies have become kiddy toy manufacturers.

07-Jun-13 07:06 AM

ByTheBy    Said...

Oh ! Looking in here i see what started out to be a nice article about the rise & fall /& rise again of analogue has turned into another off subject fest for snooty trolling arseholes to attempt to rub noses in the dirt... ...Good luck with that.I saw this on another recent article here. Using words like "Boring" & "cheap" & "Crappy" Way off the point guys !...A woodlouse walking up a wall, that's BORING, not analogue synthesizers making awesome blips & bleeps. Those blips & bleeps can be made into fantastic loops & phrases & could add sparkle to ANY hit record (If you like commercial hits that is) Regarding those hit songs...There's more to music than sheep food ! I like my analogue gear! Mixed with a bit of V/A ,some digital or analogue fx in the mix,raw waves, samples, whatever produces the desired result. They're all just tools.It's all subjective. A good producer could make a tin can can sound good ! Haha....Many a good tune played on an old fiddle !

09-Jun-13 01:21 PM

factualAct    Said...

Protech and Ding dong.You guys are sounding like dinosaurs! When those new cheap gadgets get into the right hands,you'll be wandering why the next generation left you standing in the dust. The new cheap stuff is the evolution of next gen' design.The more they sell,the more they can invest in the progress of their synthesizers. Do you think that Bob Moog started out with a Minimoog?...Don't think so somehow.

09-Jun-13 01:31 PM

DingDong    Said...

When they get into the right hands nothing will happen because they will be broken in less then a year. You get what you pay for so buy quality instruments if you plan to work in the music industry. Thousands of these cheap instruments will be on eBay within 6 months for half the price just like the Minibrute.

09-Jun-13 06:06 PM

factualAct    Said...

You're missing an essential point.These instruments are aimed at ANYONE who has the motivation to do whatever they feel like with ...Not everyone WANTS to be in the music industry. The tools are not exclusive to any single individual. I love my electronic gear & the sounds it can make but have zero interest in making any money from it at all. So..For some people the cheaper gear will give them a leg up onto the ladder.Some of 'em might make it but they all have to start somewhere & then for some other folk, well, like me, couldn't give a damn about that side of things. I just enjoy music with a passion. AND, if thousands of used units end up on ebay, thousands of less fortunate would-be's might stand a chance of getting a usable tool cheaper.Everybody's happy !

09-Jun-13 06:38 PM

DingDong    Said...

factualAct that was well said. You are 100% correct and there are a ton of people that just love music and will never tour with there instruments. I totally agree. Sometimes I am a Dingdong.

10-Jun-13 07:03 AM

WaveFormTX    Said...

Some argue that there is nothing new. Remember the Hartmann Neuron or the Fizmo? The Neuron was offered up new forms of synthesis but people just weren't interested in it to justify the price and it faded. In the end, it's really the bottom line that the big synth corps are interested in and they are skeptical of new ideas if the past shows that no one really wants them.

10-Jun-13 04:44 PM

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