Thinking outside the black box

I have come to a recent and welcomed discovery of late. As much as I have become a collector of all things virtual, and the need to be up to date with sample libraries, and having the latest must have VST synth is deemed the way forwards, I’m now travelling full circle back to a world where hardware synths are not the enemy. I understand super fast productivity, I really do. I try and not let too many a day slip by without composing my heart into various cues. Even on a brief-less, project-less day, I’d prefer to sharpen my inner tool set and create. But I’m not powering up analogs waiting for temperamental VCO’s to reach barely tunable stability, I’m not loading in disk after disk of sounds via floppy disk (come on we still remember those, don’t we ??), or hoping a performance template on a Roland has recalled hours worth of tweaks. Oh no…..I’m firing up a basic work template and all my needs are up and running in a matter of seconds. On a bad day it’s a couple of minutes with a bigger template, it’s time absorbed into the duty of making coffee and scratching my behind in earnest. But for all those years of having it easy, and trust me when I say this, I’m a big fan of the way we have moved forward in music production – what has happened to the explorer??? What did we do with that inner kid synth tweaker? There is no love for anything that’s hands on much these days, and it scares me a little. I mean OK, if someone said to you the studio of the near future would be so seamless, you could just rattle off cue after faceless cue and spend as little time dwelling on the detail, this would surely be a good thing right???

I disagree, or at least I do now lol!

Once upon a very long time ago, I recall the utter joy and adventure of trying to coax a sound from a Prophet V. I know that wading through disk after disk on an Emu II+ just delivered so many A- HAH moments I have lost count of, that lost inspiration fix I got from hardware fooling that I don’t seem to get from virtual synthetics and Kontakt libraries. In fact it’s  little more some days than identifying what can be super useful for daily use, organising short cuts and mini templates, and making a mental note of where might be handy to go, again, in a super fast productive manner. But at what juncture in your composer life did you lay down and succumb to just plain ‘code’??

It all feels really disconnected and cold to me now. That quick fix joy of instant satisfaction is losing its appeal. I have a D50 that had spent years stored underneath my bed. A legend taking a long nap. But after spending so much time again harking back, I know that this precious time can offer so much more. So I took the leap of faith and bought a Moog Phatty and a Waldorf  Blofeld with more to follow. I just miss that exploratory side of me, when I’m able to really connect with an instrument. I know some of you might be thinking, ‘Yes but this is hardly being one with a classic Les Paul, a limited edition strat, a hand carved percussive instrument, or a luthiers wet dream of a middle eastern guitar of some kind!’, but its the exact same thing regardless of what you interact with. I do get some hands on vibes from my virtual gear, I won’t deny it, but it still feels somewhat disconnected and impersonal. Being face to face with just code and a GUI leaves me wanting so much more.I have no immediate plans to gather a world of synthetic hardware and struggle. I won’t be replacing all my instances with Kontakt, Omnisphere or Zebra with a poly Moog or a Elka just yet. But I will integrate, and whilst I’m making this cross over, I WILL be having fun again.

It’s not just gear lust, or being nostalgic. Ok, maybe just a little, but if  it does take a little longer one night (and let’s say we sacrifice watching our favourite TV show to spend an hour finding some amazing one off gems!), with our hands, connected, interacting, is this such a bad thing??

It’s what I miss about being a creative. I can program a virtual synth and I can mouse click my way through the process, but it ends up feeling just that, a coded process on a PC monitor. If you have any means to delegate some of your time to this lost part of yourself that you shunned in favour of a mouse gesture, I’d urge you to do it. Entertain the kid in you. That sweaty palmed teen who was so sure a Fairlight CMI would make you an 80’s super star, or that if you had one day with a wall of Moog modular you too would become Tangerine dream or Vince Clarke overnight. It’s good to feel this way. Its good to dream and be immersed. A lot of this hardware is very affordable now too. Ok, there is still an unruly price tag on a lot of analog classics, but search and you WILL find – that is for certain.

For those who remember fondly the good merits of hardware, that sheer moment of knowing you made it happen in a very direct way, that there was no super fast short cut, just time to digest sound, and a pallet of colour you forfeit when you just click preset sound after preset on Omnisphere etc – you will feel some of this longing too. And I swear categorically it will definitely make you 100 times the programmer you think you are now, or maybe you just don’t feel you are. It will instill that sense of joy and empower you with knowledge that directly connects you to the daily VST world.

So what about the cross over hands on tablet based apps I hear you mumble in discontent?? Well, you’re right. You’re so right. And the beauty of some of these is that with a little thought and not a huge financial investment, you can get that hands on buzz and a means to integrate into your setup with a lot less pain and potentially head scratching!

I would urge you to just take a leap of some kind. Even for the £12.99 app synth on a lazy sunday afternoon with the headphones on, trying not to annoy the dog with random saw wave/noise osc  meltdown screams, it does something positive to the creative in you. Even if it’s just that you play that guitar a little more than you do now, or dust off the drum kit in the garage/shed –  just make sure you have time to re boot and connect with expression and being connected with sound that doesn’t only involve your familiar PC/Mac rig. There is life outside of the box, trust me, and the rewards are there in spades.

Written by: Russell Bell

  • Terry Jones

    Although i can’t go back quite as far as the classic analogue synths, I do have a sudden urge to get out my old EMU Proteus’ 1 & 2 out and have another go at programming some weird and wonderful sounds now.

    Good article Russ. :)

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