“Doink”. Next. “Deenk”. Next. “Dwo-wo-woink”. This will be a familiar procedure to anyone who plays a synthesiser or makes music on a computer; and, my goodness, there are a lot of us these days. “Brrrr-b”. Next. “Br-ru-rub”. Next. “Piaowww”. It’s the interminable scroll through preset sounds, a tedious search through the synth’s pre-programmed noises until boredom sets in, at which point you just settle for the least worst option. “Piaowww”. Yeah, that’ll do. “Piaow piaow piaow piaowww.” I have to admit that I’m getting tired of “piaowww”, and of the musical path that inevitably leads me to choose “piaowww”. Still, I guess it sounds all right. Let’s move on.
But wait. Maybe I’m not really a synth player at all. Sure, I play the black and white keys with my fingers and pleasant sounds come out, but those sounds have been approved by manufacturers. There’s an industry devoted to creating endless presets for us to choose from, the assumption being that we’re too lazy to bother creating sounds from scratch or to explore the capabilities of the instrument. It’s a fair assumption. Synthesisers today, whether balanced on keyboard stands, mounted in racks or installed on computers, are insanely powerful tools of musical creation. Countless sound sources can be manipulated in infinite ways via ludicrously complex interfaces; they’ve almost become too powerful. As a result, they barely have their surfaces scratched by the millions of people who use them, including me. I choose a sound, I play the notes, so my input into the musical equation is limited to what key I press, how hard and for how long. Essentially, my fingers are inputting digital information into the synth – a job that could be done far more accurately by a computer, or even by the synth itself. I am redundant.
This relatively inexpensive synth appears in the opening of The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again; Pete Townshend fed sustained organ chords through the filter of the VCS3, creating a sweeping, rhythmic pattern
This surely isn’t what electronic music was meant to be about. After all, the word synthesiser is taken from the Greek word for composition; it should be synonymous with invention, creation, exploration. But with their surge in processing power, synths have suppressed the spirit of invention rather like the home computer. In the early 80s you could become the master of the ZX81 or the Commodore 64, discovering all its capabilities by programming, hacking and playing with it. Today, there isn’t a person on the planet who knows everything about the computer I’m typing this on. Benign software packages sit between us and the computer’s awesome power, directing us to use it in certain, approved ways. The computer, and by association the synthesiser, is in control.
The Oramics to Electronica exhibition at London’s Science Museum leads me through the electronic sound experiments conducted by musician and composer Daphne Oram in the 50s, in which a playful freedom collided with scientific rigour and musical experimentation; her work eventually led to the establishment of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, a unit producing sound effects and new music for radio and later television. In all the exhibited photographs of pre-synth pioneers at work in the studio, manipulating tape, primitive electronics and home-made effects, there’s an intensity and pleasure on their faces which stands in stark contrast to my own expression as I scroll wearily through presets in my own home studio. Something has evidently been lost. I want that spirit of discovery back; that feeling of excitement about what electronic sound can do.
“It’s a bit grumpy this morning,” says London-based musician Dave Ross. He’s trying to coax sound from a disparate collection of electronics he’s connected together inside a suitcase. As a ferocious, seemingly uncontrollable tone emerges from the speakers, he reduces the volume and explains, “This is a VCO, or a voltage-controlled oscillator.” He points to a single knob. “It’s a cornerstone of synthesis. A waveform is generated, perhaps a sine, square or triangle wave, which is affected by applying a voltage to it.” There’s no keyboard in Ross’s suitcase; that single knob minutely adjusts the frequency of the waveform and thus the pitch of the note, allowing you to explore the exciting space between B and C, or D and E flat. Ross guides me round the rest of the suitcase, pointing out the multicoloured patch cables that pass the voltage from the VCO to other parts of the system.
He points to a VCF, or voltage-controlled filter: a low-pass filter which, as its name suggests, allows low frequencies to pass through while removing higher ones. There’s an LFO or low-frequency oscillator, usually inaudible in itself but able to affect the characteristics of the sound, perhaps by making the pitch waver. “These things – filters, oscillators – they each have a unique character,” Ross explains. “If you push them to extremes, they can begin to self-oscillate. The arcane interaction of these things is the juicy stuff for the synthesist.” Finally, there’s the VCA or voltage-controlled amplifier, which converts the waveform into something audible. This is Ross’s synthesiser in a suitcase, stripped back and laid bare, all the components clearly visible and accessible. “Nothing’s hard-wired,” he says. “You just plug it up how you want. Anything can be connected to anything else.” It’s what’s known as modular synthesis: you decide how the components interact with each other by connecting them up yourself. Ross pauses and considers it for a second. “It’s such a beautiful principle,” he says, “that sound is analogous to electrical current, with sound and control voltages both travelling down cables… It’s almost a miracle! I’ll never understand it, it’s almost spiritual.”
This principle has fascinated us ever since Léon Theremin first produced a wild, eerie sound from the instrument that bears his name back in 1919. The Theremin is the most basic synthesiser of all, operated by the movement of the player’s hands in the air; two antennae sense the movement, one hand controlling the frequency (or pitch), the other controlling amplitude (or volume). Theremin’s work inspired many experiments with musical electronics over the next 40 years, but these were largely confined to well-resourced laboratories that could afford the expensive vacuum tubes used to make the oscillators. The first programmable synthesiser, the RCA Mark II, was installed (and indeed bolted to the concrete floor) at Columbia University’s music studio in 1957 at a cost of $125,000. Back then, even a single oscillator could cost as much as $400 (more than $3,000 today). But the invention of the transistor in the mid-50s changed everything. Two pioneers, Robert Moog and Don Buchla, seized that opportunity, developing instruments that changed the way we make music.
Transistors were cheap. While it took many years for synthesisers to become affordable, transistors would swiftly democratise electronic music-making. The huge modular systems developed in the 60s, and subsequently used by the progressive rock acts of the 70s, would give way to more compact units which, by around 1980, were cheap enough for punk-inspired musicians to start experimenting. All the instruments in a traditional rock band could now be replaced by synthesised equivalents. Pioneering digital synthesis took this even further during the 80s, making it harder to tell the difference between the real instrument and a synthesised version. You effectively had a band in a box, and that emulation (as opposed to creation) would end up taking over in a way that Moog and Buchla could never have envisaged.
Even by the mid-70s, as the public’s enthusiasm for such prog rock keyboard heroes as Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman was on the wane, synthesisers were still priced way too high for most punk musicians. “In 1977 I paid $1200 for my first EML synthesiser,” recalls Robert Wheeler of American rock band Pere Ubu. “That was a huge amount of money, and I wouldn’t have been able to afford it had I not been in a bad car accident where the settlement just about covered the cost.” The Polymoog Keyboard 280a, whose string sound became famous in Gary Numan’s Cars in1979, cost $3995 (around $15,000 today). No wonder magazine subscriptions and reservoirs of patience were seen as a more realistic route to electronica; Chris Carter from experimental band Throbbing Gristle largely worked on homemade instruments, while Joy Division’s first synth, a British kit synthesiser called the Transcendent 2000, was built by Bernard Sumner over several months.
For those who did have the time or money to invest, great musical rewards were on offer; particularly for anyone excluded from music by an inability to sing or play guitar. Not only were synthesised sounds relatively easy to come by, they could also be powerful and totally unique. “I liked the fact that you didn’t need any training,” says Pere Ubu’s Allen Ravenstine in a recently released documentary about modular synthesisers, I Dream Of Wires. “That idea of playing notes was never interesting to me.”
Operating an analogue synth was, and is, a hands-on experience with your every movement resulting in a real-time effect. You are in control, but at the same time you’re not entirely sure what’s about to happen. You’re also aware that you might not be able to recreate the sound you’re making. “Up until around 1983 there was no preset recall,” says sound designer and synthesis teacher Andrew Mavor. “If you had a synthesiser you’d have a bank of printed-out patch sheets – pieces of paper. Perhaps 40 of them would come with the synthesiser and they’d be called things like ‘oboe’; and of course it wouldn’t sound remotely like an oboe. But in the process of calling up those patches, you’d realise that while you moved from one to the other there’d be a million sounds in-between. Happy accidents. Unexpected, other-worldly sounds that blow your mind. Synths are intrinsically capable of that; indeed, they want to do that.”
Tom Haines, one half of composition and sound design team Brains and Hunch, sees that absence of preset recall and the transient spirit of early synthesisers as supremely liberating in today’s digital world. “The very idea of not having a save button is so alien to us these days,” he says. “It’s fantastic that those sounds are ephemeral, that they just disappear.” His writing partner Chris Branch agrees. “That approach also forces you to start with ideas and then realise those ideas,” he says. “Often the sound informs your ideas, and that’s not always a good thing. For example, one big film company has banned the use of one plug-in called Stormdrum in their trailers, just because it’s so overused! If you’re lost for inspiration and don’t have any ideas, you’ll aimlessly scroll through sounds rather than sitting down and having a bit of a think.”
That’s a pretty accurate description of my preset hell. Andrew Mavor, who has written thousands of presets for software synth companies such as FXpansion, explains how things started “going wrong” in 1983, with the launch of Yamaha’s hugely popular digital synth, the DX7. “It was a perfect storm of 80s design ethos, ergonomics and economics,” he says. “Instead of having lots of knobs and patch cables there was just a one-line LCD display. You had to program it using digits. It looked cool, but performance was massively sacrificed.” Few people could be bothered to edit the sounds of the DX7; the manual was weighty, operation was counter-intuitive, and the existing presets sounded great in any case. From that point, reliance on presets became the norm in rock and pop music. The DX7’s sugary E. Piano 1 sound is omnipresent in mid-80s ballads like Al Jarreu’s After All and Hard Habit To Break by Chicago. The Roland Alpha Juno 1 gave us What The?, a patch commonly known as the ‘hoover sound’, which was initially used by Dutch techno act Human Resource but quickly spread throughout dance music. “People realised that if you distorted it, it sounded awesome,” recalls Mavor, “and it made kids in warehouses go nuts. Then you had the Lambda patch on the Korg Poly-800, a beautiful pad sound that showed up everywhere. Even today, an amazing plug-in like Native Instruments’ Massive is mainly used in just one way: to make super-growly dubstep.”
The most popular synth of its day (the late 80s). A combination of samples and synthesised sounds made for some exceptional and much-used presets; Pizzagogo is the plucked sound at the opening of Enya’s Orinoco Flow
Presets seems to have fostered a mindset of laziness while also creating a paralysis of choice. “It’s like opening Spotify; because you can listen to anything, you listen to nothing,” says Branch. “Limiting your options is so crucial these days.” Mavor believes that the effects of this are toxic. “Sadly, bigger packs of presets sell more units,” he says. “The whole ‘10,000 sounds for $29.99!’ thing. It’s crazy. And not knowing the nuts and bolts of making your own sounds – that’s like being a painter but not knowing how to work with primary colours, only pre-blended ones. This is hugely problematic when you want to actually define your own sound. A true chef doesn’t make stuff out of premade sauces; he or she gets in and works out how the individual ingredients interact.”
For Simon Lynch, ingredients are everything. His group, London Modular Alliance, performs only using modular synthesisers, many of which are on display at the London Modular shop in Hackney Wick, east London. Lynch, a qualified sound engineer with a background in electrical and mechanical engineering, is delighted to show off the capabilities of his gear, limited only by the number of patch cables at his disposal (“Only £3 each!” he grins, brandishing a handful.) The sound is powerful, instant and seemingly untamable, but Lynch plugs, unplugs and tweaks with dexterity, coaxing the noise into musical shapes. There’s no wistful nostalgia here, no dusty racks of vintage gear. All the modules conform to a new standard known as Eurorack, developed in Germany by modular synth wizard Dieter Döepfer and now hogging 90 per cent of the market. Dozens of small manufacturers operate out of bedrooms and garages, selling their modules online and through shops like Lynch’s. “There’s a huge resurgence of interest in this stuff,” he says. “People are tired of computers. DJ and club culture is saturated. This is something very different. It might be seen as a bit wacky by the mainstream, but for me it’s about being excited by the possibilities. Our last gig was total bedlam.”
With unwritten rules that state no recording, no cameras and no recall, London Modular Alliance’s approach to performance is very much “in the moment”, organised chaos that tries to recapture some of the spirit of those early synth pioneers, if not the actual sound. In my experience, if you stand in front of a modular synthesiser with a few patch cables in your hand, you’ll lose hours just playing with it. It’s hugely pleasurable. “And it’s popular with kids,” notes Lynch – children are often taken into the shop by parents. “Their jaws drop, they take to them really quickly. Because it’s hands-on, in a playful way.” The flipside of that playfulness, of course, is the scientific side of synthesis, the problem solving that appeals hugely to the ‘geek’ community. “Some people do get caught up in the aesthetics of it,” says Lynch. “Sometimes I feel like a drug-dealer in here. Guys go overly crazy for it, and I have to keep them calm.”
This enthusiasm hasn’t gone unnoticed by bigger synth manufacturers. Korg, whose early machines fuelled the critical success of electronic and post-punk bands like The Normal and OMD back in the late 70s, are working with New York-based electronics firm littleBits to make a small modular system that demystifies the traditional analogue synthesiser. The Radiophonic Workshop, revived by the BBC as an online venture, is also collaborating with littleBits to make a Radiophonic Workshop in a suitcase for kids. Once again, we’re being encouraged to play with sound.
For a while, the advent of digital synthesis in the 80s seemed like a boon. All the problems associated with old-style modular gear – tuning, unpredictability, transportation, preset recall – were eliminated at a stroke. Digital did precisely what you wanted, time after time. Prices fell. Sampling brought about a musical revolution. The very idea of modular analogue synthesis seemed absurd, and people began to chuck their units out. “Nobody wanted them,” recalls Jonny Trunk. “While I was buying records in junk shops featuring stuff with old electronics on – which, at the time, people thought were crap – the instruments themselves were ending up in landfill. Barry 7 from the band Add N to (X) found an old EMS synth in a skip!”
Those old modular synths are now, of course, highly sought after and are again the preserve of the very wealthy. Meanwhile, the rest of us are confronted with a disorienting array of tools for electronic musical production: computers and modular, analogue and digital. “It can become a never-ending obsession,” says writer and synth fanatic John Twells. “That’s why electronic music has blossomed so much over the last decade – it’s now way easier to produce music than it is to join a band.”
Yet it’s undoubtedly true that computers can make you feel, as Tom Haines puts it, like you’re “putting music into a spreadsheet”, participating in a repetitive act of drudgery. “If you’re not having fun,” says Haines, “you’re not going to be making music for very long.”
“Playing a synthesiser should be just like singing,” says Dave Ross. “It’s a thing going on with the brain and sound. Whether or not you’re musically trained to play or understand harmony, everyone has emotive feelings surrounding music, and synthesisers can give you that immediate response.” He turns one of the knobs in his little suitcase, and the sound we’re listening to shimmers slightly. “The right point might not be there,” he says, twisting it, “but it might be there. You couldn’t say why, or explain it. But you learn from it. You learn from the music. And if you spend enough time with it, you really start to feel it.” As we continue to turn knobs this way and that, the “piaowww” of my computer seems a million miles away.