It may have started as the eccentricity of a handful of established keyboard artists, but the movement back to analogue is fast threatening to overtake everyone involved in keyboard and synthesiser technology. Not least amongst these are the manufacturers who, predictably, are taking the brunt of people's dissatisfaction with the direction digital technology has taken us.
My thoughts on the subject were focussed by a letter in last month's Communique where a reader posed the question, why can't Yamaha design a CS80 for the '90s? Thinking about it, one can only conclude that there is no reason at all. No reason either why Roland can't produce a new Jupiter (...perhaps with a contemporary MIDI implementation) or someone recommence manufacture of the Prophet range. The cost of such instruments with their huge complement of controls and switches would, of course, be high, but this would be offset by the almost total absence of any research and development costs. It was all done ten years ago. Presumably, manufacturers with a cutting-edge image to protect might feel some embarrassment at such a retrogressive move, but with the current demand for controllable analogue synthesisers in preference to menu-driven digital designs, that embarrassment would, I feel, be short-lived. In any case, there is absolutely no reason why both strands of technology cannot be developed in parallel. As I pointed out in reply to last month's letter, people are not interested in analogue for analogue's sake. In areas such as sequencing and signal processing, digital has become the preferred medium and will continue to be so.
But it's not a universal panacea, and manufacturers only have to look at the lengths people go to to mask the effects of digitisation for evidence that many would opt for an analogue alternative if it existed. The switching to low sampling rates, for example, to achieve rougher, grainier samples; the use of excessive reverb to muddy up a mix; the sampling of deliberately noisy loops and even the introduction of vinyl crackle and surface noise: all these techniques point to a dissatisfaction with squeaky clean digital sound and a belief that progress in these areas hasn't necessarily lead to improvement.
It's easy to understand why. In contemporary music terms, feel is of critical importance. But often, feel has as much to do with what isn't heard - or what is obscured - as it does with what is. There are obvious parallels here in world of photography where the black and white image was never surpassed by colour and where graininess is a quality to be taken advantage of and indeed, used in a creative way.
For many people, the imposition of digital sound is the aural equivalent of switching on all the lights at a party. Useful if you're trying to identify what you've been drinking (or who you've been drinking with), but capable of destroying atmosphere at a stroke. It's time manufacturers looked to their roots - just as musicians often do - and re-evaluated those instruments on which their fortunes were based.
Editorial by Nigel Lord
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