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

Greg Cole explores the trends      05/06/13

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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