Do you remember the first synthesizer you ever saw? I do.
It was 1981. I was rehearsing with my band in a damp cellar in Oxford, and we'd stopped for a
break. The bloke who ran the rehearsal room had packed all the gear for his own band at the far end of the room. On top of a bass amp was the wackiest instrument I'd ever seen. It was yellow and black with a flat keyboard and rows of knobs on top.
Now, in 2013, I know what I was looking at - a Wasp. A quick search on Google will tell you all you need to know, produced by Electronic Dream Plant between 1978 and 1981, designed by Chris Hugget who went on to create the OSCar...
At the time, I knew none of this. And I wouldn't have been interested if you'd told me.
To me and my band the keyboard looked pretty silly. Still, I was interested enough to switch it on. The sound that came out of its tiny speaker wasn't promising... a high-pitched buzzing. I plugged it in to an amp. It was much louder, and hard-edged. I was intrigued. The rest of the band thought it was a joke.
Being of a sheepish nature, I fell in with them. Keyboards were shite! None of us liked Depeche Mode or any of the other synth bands, all of whom were also shite. It was guitars or nothing.
The owner came down and found me fiddling with his synth. I took the piss out of him for having it - what was it for? what could you do with it except make insect noises? I remember him raising his eyebrows and patiently switching it off.
'It's good for some things,' he said.
'All sorts of weirdness.'
We went on with our rehearsal and the strange yellow-and-black synth was forgotten.
Twenty years later
It's 2001 and I am mooching about in a music shop on London's Charing Cross Road. I've long since given up on the idea of 'making it', but I've recently bought a 4-track mini-disc recorder and want a decent microphone.
I have some time to kill and wander over to the back of the shop where there are banks of keyboards. Idly, I hold down a single key...
I don't know how it's happening but I appear to be creating an entire backing track with one finger. The sound is staggering. I experience a kind of revelation.... 'So this is how they make the music you hear on the radio!'
An assistant asks if I need help. I want to know what it is I'm listening to. He tells me it's a Korg MS2000 - a 'virtual analog'.
He gives me a quick rundown of the functions, all of which goes over my head. I'm more interested in the sound.
'How does it do that?'
'It's got a sequencer.'
I return to my flat, where I live with my partner and our 2-year-old daughter. I'm bouncing the toddler on my lap and excitedly talking about this 'machine' I've discovered.
'It's like magic. You press a key and a song comes out.'
Fast forward, again, to 2013
My kids (two of them now) joke about me being a 'synth nerd' and groan when I listen to the Sonic State podcast while I'm cleaning the kitchen on Saturday mornings.
My youngest daughter wants to know why I love synths so much.
I tell her I love the sound of them, the history of them, the magic of them, the wonderful characters behind them, the online community that bickers, enthuses and waxes lyrical about them. She isn't convinced.
It's an ongoing battle to resist gear lust. Money is tight, and there are always more pressing things to buy. Even so, I've bought and sold quite a few synths and drooled over many more. At present I have just two - an old Roland SH09 and an Access Virus KC.
I am still amazed when I switch on the Virus and hold down a key to create a shimmering arpeggio or sweep the filter on my SH09 and listen to its pure, sizzling saw wave. Nothing sounds quite like a synthesizer.
I have a theory about music. It's not much of a theory, but it goes like this. For something to work (a great song, a great gig, a great band), you must have all the right things in all the right places at all the right times. Chance occurrences, chance meetings, the right line-up, the right location, the right time, encountering the right bit of music technology... everything has to be in place - if a single toothed ridge is even slightly wrong then the key won't turn and the door won't open.
If Vince Clarke hadn't heard Dave Gahan singing at a jam session in a scout hut in 1980 we'd probably never have heard of Depeche Mode.
I would love to have been in a synth band. Something about those catchy synth hooks gets me every time. Only I grew up in a city where there weren't any synth bands and me and my mates thought synthesizers were a joke. All the right things were not in place. Had I been born in Basildon, you see, things might have been different. You never know - I might even have been in Depeche Mode, which would have been very cool. I could have handled it.
Matthew Tanner is a copywriter and amateur musician. He played his first gig when he was 13, carrying his drum kit to the gig in a shopping trolley. He has been into home recording since he bought a Tascam 144 Portastudio in 1979.
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