Technology For The Common Man
The distance between the affordable and the state-of-the-art. Is it getting narrower?
Five years ago, when E&MM was in only its second issue and most people associated the term 'synthesiser' with huge sprawling networks of leads and dials that looked more like telephone exchanges than musical instruments, there was a yawning gulf between what state-of-the-art music technology could offer, and what the average musician could actually afford.
In 1981, the princely sum of £199 (including VAT) would have bought you the extremely worthy — but unquestionably basic — Wasp monophonic synthesiser. There were such things as sampling instruments and digital sequencing packages, but at selling prices of around £20,000, they weren't exactly within easy reach of the musician in the street. The difference between the affordable and the ultimate wasn't just a difference of scale, but one of concept. The Fairlight of 1981 didn't just do things better than run-of-the-mill electronic instruments, it did things that had an entirely different technical and musical purpose to them.
In 1986, Fairlight have unveiled the logical successor to those early systems, the Series III CMI. As you'll read elsewhere in this issue, its price is high, its specification state-of-the-art, its range of facilities almost unrivalled. It will record external sound sources, store them digitally, and reproduce them as faithfully as today's technology will permit. It will allow you to utilise those sounds as part of complex musical compositions, all of them assembled within the machine itself. And it will mate beautifully with hundreds of other electronic instruments, incorporating their systems within its own to produce a musical network of even greater sophistication.
But there's nothing really new about the new Fairlight that isn't a refinement of established principles. The Rhythm Composer is simply a revamped Page R, the sampling facilities are merely orders of magnitude better in quality and quantity than their predecessors, and the CAPS composing/arranging software, when it appears, will be no more than the Australians' interpretation of what a state-of-the-art music composition system should be.
In short, the Fairlight Series III has come about through a process of evolution, not revolution. It's an astonishing machine, full of cleverly written software that presents itself in an attractive and accessible way, so that above all, the new CMI is vastly more usable than the technology of five years ago allowed its ancestors to be.
But the concepts that are the new Fairlight's building blocks are little different to those used by many downmarket instruments like, for example, the Casio RZ1 sampling drum machine also detailed in this issue. Next to the Fairlight, the Casio's sampling sound quality is poor, its composing facilities very limited, and its interfacing potential restricted. But for £350, the RZ1 offers precisely the same combination of basic features as the CMI, in a much cruder but also much more affordable package. Five years ago, such a state of affairs would have been unthinkable.
PPG's new Realizer, another of this month's featured instruments, provides more of a contrast between the simple and the sophisticated. In the Realizer, the Germans have succeeded in producing a music system in which even the basic building blocks can be altered, moved around, and swapped about by the user. No other machine offers programmers a chance to create entirely new methods of sound-creation by writing new software, and that in itself has only come about because technology has advanced in the direction it has.
But it could be argued that even the Realizer represents no more than the logical extension of existing ideas. Its routing facilities, for instance, are simply a more versatile, software-based version of what used to be possible with the telephone exchange systems I mentioned at the start, and what Oberheim have continued to develop with their Matrix Modulation System.
And the Realizer's manipulation of software techniques is being copied by the Japanese even as the Germans are putting the finishing touches to their £40,000 wonder-machine.
Akai's new S900 sampler will offer disk-based software that will transform into a sinewave synthesiser, while Yamaha's SPX90 multi-effects processor is a prime example of how much flexibility can be wrought from simple electronics, if enough of the machine's operating system is based in software. There seems no reason, either, why Japan's new software-based resynthesis systems — such as Roland's SAS — couldn't be used in a broader context than the electronic pianos they're presently being employed in.
It's fairly clear, then, that the gap between the affordable and the state-of-the-art is narrowing, and fast. That won't signal the demise of all the upmarket companies, however. Because just as there will always be people who want a car that runs quieter, smoother and quicker than a Ford Sierra and will willingly spend the extra on a Jaguar, so there will always be people who need a musical instrument that is more sophisticated than a Casio RZ1, and who will gladly fork out something in the region of £50,000 for a Fairlight or a PPG.
Then again, maybe the final nail in the coffin of the upmarket companies lies behind the Iron Curtain. As this issue's exclusive profile reveals, the Zlatna music technology co-operative in Bulgaria looks all set to shake the musical instrument industry to its foundations, with some new machines that really are new in both concept and execution. Astonishingly, they all seem to have a selling price of £199.99.
Will we see them in the UK? Only time and the five-year plan will tell.
Editorial by Dan Goldstein
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