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.
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