A Change Of Program
Programmability on synthesisers - a convenience or an essential part of the evolution of electronic instruments and music? Tim Goodyer considers the real implications of something we all take for granted.
A TRUE STORY: a man (he shall remain nameless; the story is not intended to humiliate him) recently made enquiries about the secondhand Moog Rogue analogue monosynth he was considering buying. "Where can I get some good sounds for it?", he asked. It's an old machine - non-programmable, he was told. "So where can I get some sounds?", he persisted. Eventually he came to realise he was going to have to provide his own sounds and set them up afresh on the front panel each time he wanted to use them.
There is no particular moral to the story, just the realisation that we take programmability as found on modern synthesisers very much for granted. And why not? It's been around for a good few years now, and it's made synths considerably easier to use - there's no longer a need to keep reams of photocopied patch charts to refer to every time you want to recall a sound, and no need to limit your music to a couple of sounds you can set up quickly and consistently. Instead you can spend your programming time diligently pursuing a sound in your head, and press "Store" when you've captured it or think you've made a significant move in the right direction. And your programming needn't even be confined to one working session, as you can readily resume working where you've left off. On stage you can run through a lexicon of synth sounds that can be called up in an instant from a single instrument if necessary, simplifying your job and making your music (at least theoretically) more interesting for your audience. But the implications of synthesiser programmability reach far beyond these conveniences.
Without programmability there could have been no DX7, for example - at least, not in the form in which we accepted it. The number of interrelated parameters involved in FM synthesis is daunting enough, but consider having to recreate a patch manually using a single parameter-access system. And you'd have to check each parameter even though it may not need adjusting, simply because it's not readily visible.
Then there's the burgeoning industry in "third-party" sounds - sounds programmed by a company other than the instrument's manufacturer. Today you can buy selections of sounds for most popular synths; these can save you many, many hours of programming time, or offer you access to sounds beyond your own abilities as a programmer (though, of course, they are not exclusively your sounds). The only way to trade in sounds for a non-programmable instrument is with patch charts and more hours of button-pushing.
A further example of the benefits of programmability can be found in the demonstration of synths. How much easier it is for demonstrator and purchaser alike if a synthesiser's capabilities can be quickly and easily demonstrated and its potential readily appreciated. And how much more powerful is a sequencing setup that is able to incorporate sound changes on an instrument into a piece of music than one that is not? Whatever your answer, it couldn't be achieved without our friend programmability.
The moral isn't that programmability is such a significant musical innovation, but that technology often brings benefits that slip into our lives without recognition or comment. Take a careful look around - you might find the world isn't quite what you thought...
Editorial by Tim Goodyer
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