Today is my fiftieth article so far in the One Synthesizer Sound Every Day series that I started on January 5, 2011. Throughout the process of presenting these sounds, I have been learning about new instruments, old instruments, and reflecting on my personal music technology background and philosophy. Today as musicians, we experience a vast wealth of sonic possibilities never before possible throughout history. How do artists that are fortunate enough to experience and participate in the invention and use of these instruments find a distinct voice?
This is something that I have pondered since my childhood exposure to synthesis in the 80s. My dad brought home Tomita records and a friend exposed me to Wendy Carlos, Jean Michel Jarre, and Laurie Anderson. This led me to my first synthesizer; a Moog Rogue monophonic with a broken key. Next, after disciplined savings, came a Korg Poly-800. Polyphony and MIDI implementation opened up a new realm of possibilities, but I missed the expression of tactile controls. Unfortunately, the replacement of costly knobs and sliders with cheap LED displays and a few buttons was an industry trend by the time I started performing regularly as a keyboardist.
By the early 90s, sampling overshadowed synthesis. Many chose, and still choose, to use samplers to play analog and acoustic sounds rather than lug the instruments themselves. These are often choices of convenience rather than an aesthetic decision. I became, as many of us did, frustrated by these “slabs”; featureless keyboards with hundreds of presets, but only programmable through a two inch wide LCD and minimal set of cold buttons. I largely rejected the “slabs” and looked backwards in time at Hammond organs, the Hohner clavinet, the Rhodes electric piano (my main axe to this day), and my favorite monosynth of all time, the Sequencial Circuits Pro-One. I used processing, such as delay, distortion, wah wah, and a Leslie cabinet to augment the sound of the Rhodes and Pro-One. These instruments are still a dominant voice in my work. Simplicity and expressiveness is what led me to this palette.
The key to finding this voice was limitations. I like that the Pro-One has no way to store presets, no MIDI, and needs to be tuned. I have learned to use it expressively and quickly dial in approximations of the sounds I’m after. The Rhodes is limited to one sound, but it’s mechanically velocity sensitive – much more dynamic than a mere 128 possible levels of loudness. We are easily lured into embracing magnificent technological devices that can do everything and more than the last thing, but is this what’s best for our musical psyches? Personally I aim to discover new ways of using my instruments. With the lack of sonic limitations that many new instruments achieve, every way you use them is new. New discoveries are a button press away. There’s no path to discovery, it’s just there at one’s fingertips. I need the path. Along the path we learn, experiment, develop, gain experience, and ultimately become better musical communicators.
The One Synthesizer Sound Every Day project has initiated a period of exploration for me. I have opened myself up to the possibilities offered by a new subset of instrumentation. While this is a fascinating time and I have already begun composing music with these textures, I understand that I will need to scale down the possibilities and create a new set of limitations in order to find a path to producing meaningful work.
Lost on Enceladus