TWO BOOKS TO DEMYSTIFY THE SYNTHESISER
Geoff Twigg and Neville Unwin cast a critical eye over two books aimed at taking the mystery out of synthesisers, and come to vastly differing conclusions.
The Complete Synthesiser Handbook
by Michael Norman and Ben Dickey
Zomba Books, £4.95
If you're looking for a book that'll explain, in reasonably simple terms, the techniques a synth-based group uses in the studio these days, this book may be what you are after. If, on the other hand, you pick it up hoping that it will lead you through the mysteries of synth programming, you may well be disappointed.
The chapters themselves are organised logically enough. First, 'Synthesiser Language' mentions additive synthesis, explains subtractive methods (still the more common) and mentions both computer-based direct synthesis and FM instruments like the DX range, with promises of explanations later. The problem with the explanation of subtractive methods is that it's just too dry: there's no 'what if?' section to show you how sounds are affected by different settings for individual components. The authors have succeeded in describing each element in the Voltage Controlled Synthesiser, but they've missed the point that voltage controlled devices can be affected in different ways by the same voltage - one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of the technique.
The second chapter, 'Monophonic and Polyphonic Synthesisers', is basically a historical introduction to the instruments that have influenced the development of synthesis since Moog's first system in 1965. Meanwhile, chapter three outlines the various different methods used to control synthesis, making mention of some of the weird and wonderful techniques. Breath, keyboard, wheel and guitar-based systems are all discussed, but with no real conclusion as to why some systems are more popular, or more musically effective, than others.
Chapter four describes drums and drum machines and gives a suggested technique for programming a Linn as an example. Simmons kits are also given a good deal of attention (in the book, as in real life) and Warren Cann's drum rig, as used on the Ultravox Monument tour, is given the editorial once-over. Interfacing, probably the most important - certainly the most misunderstood - aspect of current and future synth usage is roughly described in chapter five, while chapter six talks about synthesisers in the studio, with particular reference to the recording of Heaven 17's 'Temptation'.
Dedicated Music Computers (actually, Vince Clarke's use of the Fairlight - nuff said) form chapter seven, and the techniques and ergonomics of live synthesis make up number eight. Worthy enough, this, particularly the description of how Ultravox performed 'Vienna' live on stage during the Monument tour already mentioned.
The final two chapters are made up of brief interviews with electro producers Conny Plank and Martin Rushent as well as a few suggestions from the authors as to what the future may hold for the synthesist.
In all, Norman and Dickey's effort is a disappointingly light read that gives prominence to the ill-formed chatter of the famous at the expense of much objective information-spreading from the authors. If an insight into how a couple of famous synth users is all you want out of a book such as this, you'll be happy. If it isn't you won't be.
The Synthesizer and Electronic Keyboard Handbook
by David Crombie
Dorling Kindersley, £9.95
A 160-page colour hardback that aims to cover basic and essential information on electronic keyboards of all kinds, as well as the fundamentals of sound, electricity, amplification, recording, playing techniques and music theory. The man behind it is Dave Crombie, one-time E&MM contributor and keyboard store co-owner, who's in as good a position as anybody to write objectively and comprehensively on what's becoming a wider and more complex subject as each week goes by.
There's also a foreword by Thomas Dolby who also crops up with remarkable frequency during the rest of the text. That remainder is divided into five sections, each of them devoted to a different aspect of the subject and colour-coded for easy reference, while an introduction comprises a necessarily short history of keyboard playing since about 1900, from ragtime and boogie to today's pop synthesiser bands.
The main body of the book is devoted to explanations of the working processes of synths and comparisons between different models. Beginning with histories of the harpsichord, clavichord, piano and organ (complete with diagrams of their working mechanisms), the first chapter continues by examining the evolution of electric keyboards, and it's here that specific models are related to relevant artists for the first time.
This is followed by a study of how synthesisers work, the author starting from basic building blocks. What we find here is a control guide, a plan of the component modules of a typical synth and an examination of some different types and models. And taking a Prophet T8 as an example, the synth's control panel is analysed in both technical and aural terms. Some readers might be confused to learn about VCOs under the heading 'Voltage Controlled Filter', but for the most part the style is easy-to-understand and clear diagrams complement the text throughout.
Finally, a variety of subjects not encompassed by the headings electric or acoustic keyboard are also covered, and these include digital synthesis, sound sampling, computer music and sequencers. Portable keyboards and rhythm units also find their way into what is something of a hybrid area, but don't go looking for completeness here; one and a half pages won't teach you All You Need to Know About Drum Machines. The same goes for the section on home micros: all very well if you're new to the subject but pretty rudimentary otherwise.
Back to the good points. It may seem slightly incongruous to include a chapter on the theoretical side of music, but this section does fulfil a useful function not usually included in a more technical book of this sort. And not only does the chapter contain a guide to the fundamentals of playing technique, it also gives suggestions on how to practise, and a complete guide to musical notation. This may already be common knowledge to many people, but for beginners it represents a tutor that's neither childish in outlook nor excessively traditional, as many beginners' music books tend to be. Instead the subject is neatly presented with clear sets of instructions and diagrams.
The Synthesizer and Electronic Keyboard Handbook is a comprehensive and authoritative publication, well written, superbly packed, and blessed with a rather unwieldly title. It's unlikely that everyone will find each section of the book interesting, but the area covered is so wide that there's bound to be something of interest to most readers. Above all, it provides an excellent introduction to the world of Electronic keyboards, and there's certainly no shortage of more complex material on the subject once this book has awoken your curiosity. The only slight problem is the book's vulnerability to rapid market change, but then again, there's always E&MM to fill you in on the latest developments as and when they happen.
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