Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The state of 21st century Roland.

So this video was posted from a panel of select, clout-filled names to discuss the "state of 21st century synthesis".  Though many good points are made and interesting tidbits of information is thrown around, I can't help but feel that most of these people are totally missing the mark.  Even some of Mark Vail's comments surprised me - with his love and documentation of vintage gear, I am surprised that he sold off his original Minimoog.  You have a panel of people that for the most part, are stuck in the mindset that musicians love repeatability, presets, and program recall.  Eric says a few things about the empty slate pallet of a modular synthesizer and I agree with him on a couple of points but his example  that he shows on the serge TKB controlling the Modcan is incredibly boring and lack luster - he might as well be using a Roland D50 with aftertouch and his modular sound is pretty generic - the praise that it got is comical.  I am sure that he could have come up with something better than that to show the expressiveness of the TKB.  Furthermore, there is no mention about modern TKB's like Detachment 3's Archangel, which is a shame because it really blows the Serge away and is more similar to the Haken Continuum.  The example of the Continuum is my favorite part.  The musicianship and understanding of the sound vs the interface is well mastered.

The discussion sounds like a bunch of people talking about what instruments they should play when they compose the next soundtrack where everything is expected to sound like Vangeles or (now) Trent Reznor.   Music is one of the most expressive, creative artforms we have.  There are unlimited possibilities.  To put the preset patterns and sounds into the hands of the musical instrument manufacturers is suicide.  To copy trends and jump on bandwagons is nonsense.  We had this poisonous gibberish fed to us throughout the late 90's and we are only now recovering from that mess.  The great thing about the 70's and 80's was the experimentation with sound.  It is finally coming back in vogue and manufacturers (like Dave Smith) are going to have to think further outside of the box in order to keep up.

Here is the video for what I am talking about:

Points that I would like to make or correct.

1) Additive synthesis does not make a limited pallet of sound. Many synthesizers that have attempted additive synthesis have been so limited in processing power or features that they make additive synthesis seem limited.  But in fact, a synthesizer like the Kawai K5000 is one of the most amazing feats that a digital synthesizer manufacturer has ever created.  If a discussion about additive synthesis is taking place, it seems criminal not to mention the K5000.

2) Analog synthesizers have an infinite amount of adjustability and if you think of each knob being playable, then it is infinitely expressive and any parameter of the sound can be controlled on the fly.  You don't even need a Continuum or TKB to be more expressive, just reach the knob!

3) In the analog world, every synthesizer might sound slightly different.  This is mostly because electronic components rarely match the exact nominal value.  For instance, a resistor may be labeled as 100k, but it may actually be 98k or 103k.  You can buy components with tighter tolerance (0.1% instead of 10%), but all components still have a tolerance and the sound may be slightly different from instrument to instrument.  It is a good thing and very inspiring that analog synthesizers don't sound exactly like each other.  It is the exact reason that a cellist, guitarist, or trumpet player will carefully select his or her instrument and maybe even try several of the same model to choose the exact one.  Every instrument should sound slightly different.  I don't want to go from instrument to instrument and hear the exact same sound.  Repeatability is a void for creativity.

4) The idea that a synthesizer manufacturer wants to make boxes that are virtual analog and feel like analog is completely beyond me.  The only reason for virtual analog synths is if you are running them on a computer or iPad and you want them to sound a bit more 'analog'.  If you buy a stand alone synth that claims to have analog sounds, it should have analog circuitry, 1 knob per function, and not have any nested menus.  Programmability is optional and can be limiting.  Knobs are inspiring.  Changing sound by movement, turning, twitching, gesturing, where every aspect of the sound is changeable by a different means is what makes analog or modular synthesis great.  In 2 short words:  flexibility and controllability.  Sequential's Prophet 8 and 12 may sound good, but the interface is not as immediate as a Prophet 5 (mostly because of the nested menus and multi-function knobs), and therefore; it loses the ability to inspire because in order to change a particular aspect of sound, you may have to change modes or menus so the knob can now control that function.  Many modern synths are like this and they all miss the mark.  Somehow, manufacturers (like Smith) seem to think that the immediacy of recalling a preset is inspiring.  It is not.  The immediacy of changing any or all parameters on the fly with infinite resolution of fine tune is inspiring.  Korg and Arturia are some of the few manufacturers that "get it" and their synths are selling like hot cakes.  One problem with memory/programmability is that the knobs do not directly control the circuitry any longer - they go through an A/D (analog to digital) converter and then recorded digitally, then either a D/A converter back to the circuit or a digipot.  Many times, a synth with many knobs had a single A/D or D/A converter and it was multiplexed or switched to each knob on the panel.  Having dedicated, direct knobs to the circuitry allows an octopus to turn all the knobs at once with infinite resolution down to the carbon atoms while holding a key down - who wouldn't want that to happen?

On a similar note, I have to rant a bit on the new Roland TR8.  Talk about a company that is off the mark.  Once again, Roland continues to push away fans and customers with their insane corporate ideas.  There is little difference between this box and Rebirth (a simulation computer program of 909, 808, and TB303 sounds with effects that has been on the market for nearly 20 years).   I don't know who is behind marketing at Roland, but they need to start talking to musicians and stop analyzing numbers.  My statement to you, Roland, is this: 'It is not about recreating the same "classic" sounds at all.  It is about flexibility and controllability.  The thing that makes the 808 and 909 great is that each sound has dedicated knobs to control the analog circuitry with infinite resolution.  They can be fine tuned to fit the song.  Since your TR8 is digital, there is a finite number of steps.  It is like taking a shower and adjusting the water slightly and it goes from being too hot to too cold with no in-between state. The other thing that you have completely missed is an individual output for each and every sound.  This leads to ultimate flexibility in the mix.  Studios love to be able to process any sound they want through whatever processor they want.  Having two assignable extra outputs just does not  cut it - it needs an output for every sound, much like your 707, 909, 808, etc.  Also - giving the 606 individual outputs is one of the most common modifications done to it.  As it stands, you just put a lot of time and energy into making another groove box: it is just another D50 in a new box with more PCM memory.  You did the same thing with the Jupiter-8 a few years ago and still have not learned your lesson.  If you are going to compare a new product to an old one, you need to understand what features make the old one great.  Obviously, no one at your company seems to understand this yet.'


  1. I love my D50! And my Tempest!

    But like you, I would take analog over digital any day of the week. Wish I could afford a real 808 or 909, but I'm thinking about purchasing a Machinedrum for its Tr-style sequencing.

  2. Jon, this whole post is so dead on the mark. It's like Roland love shooting themselves in the foot.