Fascinating BBC doc on history of recorded music featuring a whole lot of EMS synths including the Synthi 100 “Delaware” modular system (pictured below). Fun Fact: Years ago I had the opportunity to buy a Synthi 100 system in beautiful condition for a very reasonable price. For reasons I can’t explain now, I passed on it. Honestly, it would have been a nightmare to maintain and very impractical, but look at that thing. I still regret the decision every time I see a picture of a 100. These days my synth acquisition pace has slowed quite a bit, mostly just holding out for a Memorymoog LAMM and a Prophet 5, then I’ll be done.
Retro Synth Ads has some great scans of various electronic music equipment from the 70’s and 80’s. It’s interesting to observe how the sophistication of advertising design in niche industries — like music technology — predictably lags behind that of the mainstream. These are pretty far along and represent output from some of the biggest names of the day, but examples like this and this are fascinating in their simplicity. I’m guessing the engineers who built the machines were moonlighting as their own designers in these cases. Loving the TL-12, makes me wish I had a MSQ-700.
Pictured above are some shots of the various models in Access Music’s Virus TI2 line. Of all the musical equipment manufacturers out there, I’d have to say that the Recklinghausen, Germany based outfit are making some of the most innovative and powerful sound synthesis tools available today. But aside from that, they’re incredibly beautiful and well-crafted machines. I’ve owned several and have to say I’ve always been amazed at the build quality and attention to detail they put into their equipment. I love how they take subtle cues from the past — the perfectly measured application of wood is a perfect example — while still pushing the design forward. As I’ve said before, it doesn’t get any better than stainless steel and wood, and the TI2 KB features a stainless steel/wood sandwich on the endcaps. Sort of like the amazing Jupiter 6 caps, but with wood (I sold a Jupiter 6 once. Worst mistake ever). But none of this comes cheap, these are also some of the most expensive synthesizers out there (probably the most expensive VA’s). I’d have to say they’re well worth the money though, the sound is unmatched and they’re built to last.
What I really admire about what Access is doing is that they’re doing it all from within the festering pit of mediocrity that is the music technology industry, an industry dominated by bad taste and terrible interface design. I don’t know what it is that drives industrial design in music technology, but you’d swear every new keyboard was designed by the backup drummer from Ratt. So I really admire it when a company steps up and chooses quality design over gimmicky superfluousness and nonsensical hyperbole (Tubes? Really? I bet they’re not even in the signal path). Roland is the saddest example of a once great company committing egregious latter day design sins. This is the company that brought us the iconic 808, 909, MSQ-700, SH-5, and Jupiter 8. Music machines with incredibly well thought out interfaces which were also durable and aesthetically pleasing. The best they can muster now are bloated, plastic, messes that look like a cross between a dvd player and a karaoke machine. And they don’t sound any better than they look. Oh yeah, once in a while try to reclaim their former glory with a cheap knockoff of their own product (to be fair, Korg is just as guilty of this as Roland).
But I digress… If you’ve caught some of my posts on the studio or seen the live show you may have noticed that I’m quite fond of my Virus C synthesizers. Of all the VA (virtual analog) synthesizers out there, I’d say the Virus has the most warm and unique sound. When it comes to VA’s, I think it’s all about the converters. The modeling can be dead-on but if you’re running through some space-age, 24-bit converters, the sound is going to be cold and rigid. That’s the thing that (used to) set the Virus line apart from the rest, the converters. They were warm and gritty, you could really feel the sound, it was authentic. First came the Virus A, which many still consider the best sounding of the Virus line (I wouldn’t know, I’ve only used the C line and on). Then came the B, which I heard had a little cleaner converters (read: worse). And right around the time I became aware of the Virus they came out with the C line. I was sold the first time I played one. They come shipped with the bucket full of useless euro-trance trash patches that are apparently legally required to preload on a new synth, but once you get past those and start digging in and programming, you can make them sing.
A couple years later they came out with the TI line and I got a TI Polar. To tell the truth, I was pretty disappointed by the sound. It was just too sterile, too pristine. They had apparently implemented the new 24-bit converters and you could hear it. I ended up selling the Polar and sticking with my C KB and Indigo Redback. Which was unfortunate, because the TI’s are just so beautiful. And also because Access no longer makes the mainboards for the C models. One bad power setup at a show and my Indigo is toast, for good.
This one is for all you analog synth geeks out there (but mostly just Beamer): Tom Oberheim is producing a new line of SEM modules. This is big news for any synth enthusiast as the Oberheim SEM (introduced in 1974) is widely regarded as the best sounding synthesizer ever made. Unfortunately they are very rare, complex, and expensive machines so until now it’s been pretty difficult acquire and maintain a working example.
I have an Oberheim Four Voice (pictured below) and while it’s not the synth I use the most, it’s certainly the prize of my collection. I really do love working with older machines, but for the sake of reliability I prefer using newly manufactured versions of the originals (e.g. the Moog Voyager). That is, of course, as long as they sound like the original and according to Mr. Oberheim — see video above — these new SEM’s are very faithful to their predecessors. Here’s hoping someone will make a faithful recreation of the Korg Mono/Poly because it’s pretty scary knowing my favorite synth is about to turn 30 years old.
Oberheim Four Voice sitting atop a Fender Rhodes
Joe Zawinul (Weather Report) at the Oberheim Four Voice
And just for good measure, here’s Jan Hammer (who also used an Oberheim Four Voice) freaking out on a Minimoog: