Throughout the hi-tech revolution, the major instrument manufacturers have made our dreams come true - or have they? Does the industry look after the musicians?
Talking to a guitarist friend of mine recently (yes, a few guitarists still speak to me), I was treated to a rundown of his current guitar collection. It included a number of guitars that had been heavily modified - fitted with different pickups, bridges, machine heads and so on. He even kept one guitar, a Strat, to use as a "test bed" for new pickups and bridges.
It was then I realised that what guitarists have been doing to guitars for decades, and what keyboard players used to do to their instruments during the '70s, has fallen by the wayside and is only just being rediscovered - I'm talking about "hot-rodding" instruments.
I suppose it was as a result of the MIDI communications standard and the growing use of custom VLSI chips that the average synth player/enthusiast was effectively prevented from customising his rig beyond the choice of instruments and effects units that constituted it. A couple of years ago, the home-built synth modules and production-line instruments that had "grown" non-standard pieces of circuit board seemed to have all but disappeared. The only people really able to perform surgery on their equipment were the electronics buffs and, more recently, the computer addicts who were knocking out their own patch librarians and editors.
Then electronic dance music, with its leanings towards old synths, heralded the resurgence of analogue sounds and technology. That technology came complete with its accessible circuitry and its inability to speak MIDI. The first step, then, was to find - or build - a MIDI-to-CV converter. Roland's discontinued MPU 101 four-channel MIDI-to-CV converter has become a much sought-after item, and a number of smaller companies like Philip Rees, Groove Electronics and Cision have taken advantage of the situation and begun producing their own. The different pre-MIDI triggering standards saw many old instruments acquire an extra socket or two (my Minimoog trigger inverter was stolen from a BT circuit diagram). Groove's services modifying a growing selection of old '70s analogue equipment to suit the '80s musicians' requirements, bears out the growing interest in old sounds. And in the interview elsewhere in this issue, Simon Harris makes some pretty damning comments about the way the musical instrument manufacturers are responding to the requirements of many of today's musicians. So just what is going on?
It seems to me that people respond to adversity - and I'm including musicians in this category. If you tell someone they can't have it, or that they can't do it, they're sure to want it that little bit more. Some of the most interesting records have been cut in spite of the technology rather than because of it. You can only give people what you want (or what you think they want) for so long before they start looking for it somewhere else. Well, they're looking and they're starting to find. And, right now, there are more people with hot rodded gear around than there have been for quite a while. How many DX7s carry E! boards? How many S900s are fitted with Marion Systems 16-bit enhancement boards? The boys at Cision are even offering circuit diagrams to help you modify your SH101 to talk MIDI more fluently.
In one sense what's going on is a bad reflection on the industry we all depend upon to bring us new instruments and ideas. In another it's good to see musicians doing it for themselves and each other, and to see the shape of the industry changing because there's a demand for services that the older companies don't offer.
Editorial by Tim Goodyer
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