ANALOGUE BUBBLEBATH

As the synth market continues to go analogue-mad, MT senior ed Andy Jones warns: be careful what you wish for…

The synth market has always been an odd and unpredictable force to be reckoned with. On the one hand manufacturers totally ignore what people ask for, and on the other they end up overcompensating, perhaps a little too late down the line. The new-fangled digital synths had polyphony, they could emulate real instruments, they could play loads of different sounds, and they could play them simultaneously. The workstations that were born of that era could do just about everything, in fact. And they did, for a long time…

But what was happening in the background was a demand for the complete opposite. The sparse, stripped-down sounds of underground dance music used the now cheap analogue sounds as their ingredients, not the layers of digital sheen from a Korg M1. So the synth industry (eventually) responded and went virtual analogue. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t, and yet the demand for true analogue never went away. Software synthesis entered the fray and offered such an easy and cheap way of accessing synths that many forgot about the quality and went for the quantity instead.

Analogue renaissance

There’s been a shift again, though. Cheaper software has enabled project studio owners to divert budget into high-quality hardware — interfaces, monitors, mics and so on — and now there’s a resurgence and a need for quality hardware synths — and the best, in terms of sound quality, will always be analogue.

This year’s Frankfurt Musikmesse — the show where all the big new releases are announced -confirmed this. The new Novation Bass Station II and Korg Volca stole the headlines, while Clavia’s Nord Lead 4 will almost certainly take virtual analogue to new heights. Then there were the mountains of modular analogue synths, the $25,000 8-voice analogue Schmidt (yes, you read that price right) and plenty of other knobs to tweak. It was like stepping back in time 20 or 30 years — but that is what you, the customer, have demanded, right?

Well possibly. Certainly, we’ve had the analogue synth sound — in one form or another — for well over half a century now, and while that sound very much comes in and out of fashion you could argue that we’re due for something new by now. On p25 of this issue of Music Tech, synth pioneer Wolfgang Palm, the inventor of wavetable synthesis (so arguably the godfather of the digital synthesizer) shares his belief that there is a gap in the market for a new kind of synth altogether. But until the demand is there we’ll just have to put up with analogues… albeit some very good analogues.

One thing is certain, though: you’ll never get those digital synths from the 90s making a comeback. What’s that? Digital Sunsations from UVI? Oh, OK. Next month, we go digital and back to the 90s. You asked for it…

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