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

Greg Cole explores the trends      05/06/13

VA hardware had established the credibility of a synthesiser generating its sound purely from lines of code and mathematical formulae so when home computers became powerful enough it was inevitable that we would see this code being ported to these ubiquitous machines rather than expensive bespoke hardware.

The soft-synth was born and its popularity continues and when you can run a whole production studio in an average laptop I can't see this changing any time soon. The advantages of total recall, compact size but huge sonic power at astonishingly low prices have transformed the world of music creation. Now pretty much anyone has the tools to make music on a modest setup to a commercially viable standard and while that means some major changes in the music sales business, more people having this artistic freedom can surely only be seen as a good thing.

So that's the end of the story right? We all make music on laptops and iPads, tweak virtual knobs and gaze lovingly at the perfectly rendered 'wood' end caps which add that certain something to the latest soft-synth we've added to our increasingly bloated studio computer.

Well, inevitably, no it isn't the end, people started to think that maybe there wasn't the same soul in looking at a picture of a synth on your laptop, that maybe that certain something that you used to feel touching the keys on an analog synth and reaching out and tweaking a knob to change a setting was more fun. There even started to be talk about synths being too stable now, that what we needed was little randomisation algorithms to introduce slight tuning instabilities in the oscillators. What we needed was a little bit of hiss and for the sound to be a bit less polished and clean. What we needed was for the poor manufacturers who'd spent all this time making things perfect, stable and reliable to go back and make them wonky again. Oh and a 4 track cassette recorder too please, pristine 96kHz digital is so last week. What a fickle lot we are.

And thus the phat is back, a host of manufacturers now making beautiful warm analog and analog/digital hybrids from low budget like the Arturia Minibrute, Novation Bass station and Dave Smith Mopho to astonishingly expensive boutique items like the Schmidt. A few years ago we even started seeing the return of the dangly cables of modular and thanks to Herr Doepfer kick-starting things we now have an insane number of options for building a modular analog/digital synth as large and individual as our imaginations and bank managers will allow. This year's NAMM and 'Messe announcements were a great illustration of how much things have swung back in favour of analog.

So is that the end? Well honestly I doubt it, Heidi knows best and 'the public', just like the leopard or the hormonal teen, can't change its spots. I would certainly say that over the years you can see that despite huge swings in the industry there are factors which are lasting in popularity. Musicians still love something about analog despite the fact that to all intents and purposes software can replicate the sound. Musicians still love hardware, the feel of it and the interface of it despite the much greater cost of it compared to software, despite the fact that it does not integrate into the DAW workflow as cleanly as software synths do. Things will continue to change for sure but I think there will be key features that will stay with us.

We can now have the best of both worlds, a few choice soft-synths for time-swallowing sonic adventures coupled with 2 or 3 (add a couple of zeros if you're Vince Clarke) warm organic analogs for fun, fatness and twiddlage.

It's been a pretty wild ride so far but it's an exciting time to be an electronic musician and I personally can't wait to see where the imaginations of the synth designers and the fickle desires of 'the public' takes us next.

Greg Cole is an electronic musician, budding writer, photographer, occasional reluctant IT geek and all round hippy. A life-long synth enthusiast he firmly believes that a good synth is a good synth whether analog or digital, software or hardware. He records music as Octopus Empire, claiming it is “genre-spanning”, which is an excuse for not being able to settle on one particular style. He's also a firm believer in the effectiveness of a small studio setup, limitations and knowing your gear well and programming in preference to use of presets. His favourite colour is orange.

 

 

Write for Sonic State




More From: ANALOG

16 Comments...  Post a comment    original story
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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