The recent Winter NAMM show saw an interesting development which might be seen as going against the grain of the progress that we take for granted in the world of hi-tech recording. Analogue is back! Analogue synths never really went away of course, but significant new analogue (or analogue-ish) products appeared at the show. Roland showed the JD800, which recreates the classic Jupiter 8's analogue architecture in digital form, adds a whole host of new waveforms (plus multi-timbrality, and digital effects) and once again offers one-slider-per-parameter editing. Oberheim are back in business, and going back to their roots with a massive analogue synth module, the OBM, and are once again selling the Matrix 12.
These are only a couple of products of course, and they are expensive ones at that, but they indicate an increasing recognition of the importance of immediacy in the user interface — forget the details of what lies behind the interfaces of the new products. This in turn is perhaps a healthy sign of maturity in equipment design. The technology of music is seductive, and anyone who uses synthesizers knows how easy it can be to fall for something because it has a couple of great sounds, but there's far more to creating music than one or two good noises.
The problem is that the processes of programming (both sounds or equipment) and composing have become increasingly separated; hopefully what we are seeing now is a movement towards bringing them together again. Creating music is — for me at least — essentially a semi-conscious process. Why did I choose that chord at that point? Who needs a reason? Hell, it worked.
Programming sounds is different — a linear descent through menus and parameters. The times when I feel inspired to write music do not necessarily coincide with the times that I'm in a mood to wrestle with the 500-plus voice parameters on my K5; programming can break the flow of composition in a big way. Tweaking knobs on my SCI Pro-One doesn't, and that's why I still use it despite its lack of MIDI, and a tendency to go out of tune on any day of the week with a 'Y' in it.
A more immediate interface creates an entirely different situation. Moving a knob or a slider becomes almost a part of your improvising, and you are at the heart of a single creative process rather than two. The recognition of the value of this is perhaps even clearer in the software field: sequencers have for some time offered tremendously powerful music processing facilities, but musicians have been put off using many of them simply because it's not convenient enough. The emphasis that major software houses place on the ease of use of their programs, and the number of processes that can be carried out in real time, indicate that they are moving in the right direction.
However, whilst immediacy in programming is highly valuable, knobs and sliders are expensive, and not everyone will want to pay the premium. Also, an old-fashioned analogue interface is not just expensive, it's actually inappropriate for many instruments. The synthesis techniques at our disposal are now very advanced, but the musician's control over them is, in practical terms, still limited. It will be interesting to see just how instrument and software designers address this problem.
Editorial by Paul Ireson
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