Saturday, 4 February 2017

What Synthesists Want

It started off, as most things do with me, quite naively. It was then, as is quite proper for the Internet, completely misunderstood and someone chose to be so offended that they left. I had been looking at an article about the Nonlinear Labs C15 which is a software synthesizer designed by the founder of Native Instruments and the creator of Reaktor, Stefan Schmitt, that is essentially built inside its own custom controller. Thus, it has the power and flexibility of a software instrument but wants to beguile the person who can't put away their need for tactile control. It is advertised as being made for people who like playing musical keyboards and now has numerous demos provided by Federico Solazzo on the Nonlinear Labs website. You might be wondering why me looking at an online article about a curious synthesizer caused Internet outrage. It did so because, musing on what I'd seen, I then went to my Facebook group, Electronic Music Philosophy, and wanted to start a discussion and so I proposed, in the manner of a debating contest, that "the most powerful synthesizers available today are software synthesizers". I was referring to their possibilities, flexibility and "bang for the buck" qualities. It unleashed a deluge of commentary (and one person leaving the group).

Nonlinear Labs C15, a software synth in a box.

John Bowen, who was the first official Moog clinician before moving to work with Dave Smith in 1976 (he's responsible for pretty much all the Sequential Circuits presets thereafter) and later worked with Korg (he was product manager for the Wavestation and helped voice the Korg Z1), in the past few years designed and brought to market his own synthesizer called the Solaris. The Solaris, I saw advertised in one video I watched about it, was said to be a hardware synthesizer designed to be like a software one. This about face from the usual claims of synth manufacturers, a territory that is chock full of software designers telling you how much like hardware their digital plugin sounds, was jarring at the time and it stood out from the crowd of those hawking their products. It's what? Its a hardware synth that wants to emphasize how like software it is? I'm pretty sure I remember John Bowen saying this on a video I watched. This claim must surely have set all sorts of alarm bells ringing for some. I have never played a Solaris so I cannot comment on what it is like but I understand that it has some pleased owners. Some, so I read, were a bit baffled by its complexity.

The Solaris, designed by John Bowen

Perhaps the people in charge of Roland heard of the Solaris too. Bowen went through many iterations of the Solaris before he finally produced the one which would be the production version. So maybe somewhere in some dark room at the Roland headquarters in Japan some eagle-eyed soul saw this claim of being a hardware synth but with the functionality and features of a software one and a light bulb clicked on above their head. What Roland did was invent what they call ACB which stands for "analog circuit behavior". This is a fancy term for the modeling of all the componentry of an analog circuit in order to compile a digital recreation of it. This process is the basis of all the Roland Aira devices of the past few years as well as the Boutique recreations of the much more analog Jupiter 8, JX-3P and Juno-106 and the new flagship System 8. These are hardware devices which contain what are essentially soft synths. Indeed, the System 1 and System 8 synths use what are called by Roland "plug out" synths which can also be used as soft synths in a DAW environment. Its an interesting concept and in some contexts I'd have cause to criticize it. But not today.

The Roland System 8, essentially several soft synths in a custom case.

Autechre are a leading avantgarde electronic act beloved by many and with a hardcore fanbase of often tech savvy people. They have evolved to work exclusively with Max/MSP, a software platform which enables them to essentially build whatever devices they need. Thus, they have the flexibility to design a rig that is a custom fit for exactly what they want to do musically. In interviews they claim to have lost interest in hardware synthesizers with throwaway comments such as that they have not even bought a hardware instrument for at least 5 years. In this they are not like their fellow fan favourite of the electronic intelligentsia, Aphex Twin. He has a well known love for all things hardware and software. For Autechre, though, their move into software is simply led by their musical desires. As they have said, what they want to do can only be done if they can build their devices in a custom way from the ground up. Digital software is the only game in town for that. Autechre have said that they could not replicate in hardware the things they can do in software. Its food for thought when they are making music that many would regard as "cutting edge". In distinction to many electronic musicians like them today, you never see any pictures of Autechre posing with the latest hardware super synth or a giant modular rig. Their musical dictates have led them to some outwardly unimpressive code in a box. 

The above was just a few examples of developments in instrument design and usage from the present. As I write all three of the instrument types I named are current products and Autechre are going strong having toured and released a 5 part, over 4 hour long album in 2016. So I have been talking about the contemporary electronic music scene here. But, of course, this isn't the whole story. Yet its notable in an electronic music world that is more recently noted in headlines for its "return to analog" or even just to hardware that software platforms are still going strong. And I suspect there is a hidden multitude of software users out there. In 2009 Native Instruments launched their product Maschine, a groove-based software platform that destroyed the old hardware platform of the Akai MPC for a while. Akai have had to painfully reinvent the MPC as a result but now we find it has re-emerged as what is essentially a DAW in a stand alone box. It can be argued that the invention of Maschine was also a factor in Ableton's creation of Push, a pad controller for its Live software. All the power of Live or Maschine is in the box, as the modern parlance has it. The controllers are saps to the human need for a feeling of direct control over the machine. The same can be said for the recent development of so-called MPE controllers such as the Roli Seaboard or the Linnstrument. They are ways for modern players to catch up with the expressive potential of digital synthesis in the box.

Now although you may have been deceived into thinking by the previous five paragraphs that I'm here to big up software synthesis in this blog, you'd be wrong. I take no sides in any hardware/software battle  and much less in any analog/digital debate. I think those debates are pretty much pointless just as many people do. I think that electronic music is about sounds and any device that can produce sounds is alright by me. I am platform agnostic. This means that my original thought which presaged the debate that was had was heuristic and exploratory in intent. It was meant to tease out the issues and find out what was at stake. I think that people who make electronic music should think about this because it helps them to define where they want to go and what might be useful in doing that. Fortunately, the electronic music community is full of lots of thoughtful people who do exactly this in both physical and coded domains. There are Facebook groups for designers of hardware and software instruments and seemingly growing communities of electronic music makers who want to try their own hand at creating things custom built by them, for them. This is all to the good. 

But within that same community I divine that some lingering prejudices do remain. One, of course, is to value presence over absence, to value tactile physicality. This, I think, is why some come to the defence of hardware over software at any mention of the latter. Immediately, comments appear about the tactile nature of hardware, the fact that a certain user "just doesn't feel right" using a mouse and how its not the same or as much fun. I hear this. But I also note this isn't really a musical criterion. Its an ergonomic one and that doesn't mean its unimportant. It just means its not a musical criterion. Its nothing to do with sound or sonic possibility. Its to do with you as a person. I personally dislike touchscreens and I am profoundly annoyed by the recent moves to push this technology and make synthesis dependent on touching a screen. But if I heard music that had been created by others whilst touching screens it would be irrelevant to me. The touchscreen is not a musical issue in this respect but an ergonomic one for the person who uses a touch device or touch-enabled synthesizer. Some people in my debate mentioned how they disliked DJs on laptops but as a DJ who used a laptop and used CD players before that I can report that over 20 years of active research leads me to the conclusion that such people are the odd ones out because I never recall anyone mentioning it to me at a party or disco. I do recall lots of people laughing, dancing, smiling and generally having a sweaty and enjoyable time. As a listener you just experience sound. If you listen to analyze where it came from and critique it on the fly you're a very strange bird indeed. Especially at a disco.

In the course of the debate that my original comment initiated there were some insightful points and relevant comments. I had never meant to suggest that software synthesizers were the be all and end all. Such a statement would have been as dumb as saying the opposite. When talking about sound any and all sources are in play for they, together, constitute the whole of the possibilities. But we live in a finite world and so this necessitates choices. Some users of modular synthesizers, specifically Eurorack, wanted to argue that their modulars could go head to head with soft synths in the power, flexibility, functions and features stakes and hold their own. This might very well be true if you have a setup of Richard Devine proportions but how much did that cost and how much space is it taking up? There can be no doubt here that in software one can pack in features and functions (and expandability) in no space at all since its simply code. To replicate that physically would require a large wallet and a large space... and it wouldn't then be portable. (Richard Devine's live rig is much smaller than his studio setup.) You can now buy software that emulates Eurorack modular in any case and the only limitation is your CPU. In other places I have criticized a software like Softube Modular but now I find, in this context, that actually you can have modular synthesis but its in your computer and you don't need to worry about power rails blowing or rack rash.. or your wallet so much. Want another LFO? Just click and you've got one.

Softube Modular, which is an emulation of the Eurorack hardware format and some actual Eurorack manufacturers have licensed models of their modules.

So what do synthesists want? Well if the discussion that I started is any guide, and it may or may not be, they want functionality but not at any cost. They also want a certain sound quality... which shouldn't be confused with sound quality as an absolute. Some seem to want a kind of sound as opposed to "the best sound", whatever we decide that might be. (I think thats why people want Minimoogs, for their sound. In terms of mere functionality they are less appealing.) In my discussion some said digital plugins had the best sound possible whereas others said hardware couldn't be beaten for sound. Synthesists also seemed to want "musicality" which sounds very like an amorphous, subjectively-judged quality to me. Those who spoke most about musicality were those trying to make some point against software which, so it seemed, they thought was not as musical as something they could touch. 

Some synthesists conceded that, in terms of the most possibility for the least effort, software was clearly the king. There are numerous platforms (Reaktor and Max/MSP being just two) in which you can essentially design entire synth rigs to your own specifications. No hardware setup can match that since you are always stuck to the limitations of the hardware devices as they've been designed by others. But at the same time many noted that the limitations of a physical world are not bad. They are good. It is not necessarily the creative ideal that you have every function and feature at your fingertips for then you will simply achieve overload which is creatively destructive and you become a synth collector rather than a synth user. 

Some synthesists, and I have my suspicions that this might actually be a silent majority, wanted the convenience of a format in which you can save things, including the most complex of software patches. And your modular machine from the future can't do that. The same people wanted to live in a land that was not bound by physical limitation in the same way that a person with hardware is. These same synthesists wanted a device which could do additive, spectral, granular, formant and virtual analog synthesis types and have the ability to morph between the types on the fly. We are very much in the software realm here. 

In the end synthesists want a lot of different things and they aren't always the same. But this is good since, when it comes to sound, variety is strength and is the factor which makes music as a whole as interesting as it is. The cold, dull world would be the one in which all music was the same.

If you want to read the full unexpurgated discussion that inspires this blog, with comments supporting all sides, you'll need to join Electronic Music Philosophy. 

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