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The Ill-Tempered Synthesizer

"What The Hell Is That Noise???" The Synthesist's Conundrum

It's a glorious bitch, playing a synthesizer. On the upside, the sound can be jaw-droppingly weird, beautiful, startling or incredibly rich, even when used in a quiet, intimate manner. On the downside, the darned things can be annoyingly obvious and stick out like a 300-pound goose at a cotillion when applied badly, which is all too common.

The main problem is that unlike other instruments, a synthesizer has no mature, established design like a guitar or piano and thus no solid image in the average person's mind. Aside from a very basic flow-chart relative to the fundamentals of sound production (pitch, tone and a defining shape over time), there's nothing like a string or drum head to put your mental finger on. Worse yet, the details keep changing because the field upon which they reside is driven by consumer electronics, with each manufacturer trying to trump the others month by year, assuring that the proverbial paint will never fully dry on what the thing is supposed to BE. On top of that, although its basically a keyboard world, there are string, woodwind, brass and percussion controllers for triggering sounds, as well as software-based tools that dispense with actual performance gestures as anything but a concept for assembling the notes. It can befuddle even serious devotees.

I am jazzed to have a whole orchestra or percussion ensemble under my hands if I choose, as well as any traditional keyboards I can name. I am even more intrigued by the splicing of various elements into hybrid sounds or unfolding sound EVENTS one could not elicit from other sources. However, it still comes back down to the age-old question of "Now what?" Time and again, in various online groups, I find myself reminding people that the technical aspects are secondary if you have no proper musical goals. One desire in music is almost as good as another; if you are using Apple's GarageBand program or perhaps the popular Acid to make dance loops for the simple fun of it, that's perfectly acceptable and often engaging to hear. However, so many people focus on the technical aspects of quirky designs, fussy computers and software incompatibilities that they seem to miss the spirit of the process. I have often seen people complain of losing their inspiration by the time they turned their toys on and got the wunderboxen booted up. It says a lot about the matter.

There is a certain sneering tone about "instant gratification," "canned (synth) patches" and what is perceived as too great an ease with which you can get a clever sound to pop up. I understand this; its partially valid. I also have friends who amassed the equipment for photography, astronomy, various labor-intensive computer-based activities or yes, music… and then came to a halt when neither the inspiration nor sheer time required for making them strut their potential came to light. The flip side is that too many tools, as glossy as they may appear appear to be, cloud the point of gathering them.

In addition, with synthesizers, you often have to not only play the keyboard effectively and at least partially compose the material, even with simple loop-based goods, but be an engineer, marketer, graphic artist, computer troubleshooter and repeated remover of cats or small children from the top of the stack. Its not like simply picking up a guitar and hitting the deck. I grow increasingly impressed with anyone who can release a decent CD at all; the workload is not something to be taken lightly.

John Trubee recently posed to me the question of how music could maintain its worth in a world of recorded artifacts that lack the power & humanity of a live concert and where the marketing of blatant crap by fast-shuffling money-hounds has turned it into a commodity more than a repository of human merit. I responded by saying that even played through a cheap boom box, Beethoven retains his impact, because the heart of it transcends the medium like a champ. I also pointed out that Beethoven and his contemporaries would have damned near swooned to the Nth power to merely have a computer, a recording program and one good synthesizer in hand, because despite the hassles and compromises involved, the gains can lead to a universe unto itself. The liberation comes with restrictions, but the reverse is also true.

So the debate really boils down to finding a way to reach people and take them to other places, which is not a matter of the hardware, but the wielder thereof. My various shiny tools are pleasing (and sometimes downright daunting as well), but the best of them is my recollection of seeing Christopher Parkening center several hundred people on a small spot comprising a guitar, his hands and untold hours of creative sweat. All one needs to avoid a swelled ego is to consider the unseen people upon whose shoulders everyone stands, no matter what the venture. After all, the term 'synthesis' means "to assemble from varied components." Funny how the ultimate goal of a synthesizer comes full circle to the point of the very root word's origins. Wavetable, string maker, sing me a song.

HellPope Huey
When I get to Heaven,
I want to go to Japan and shop for toy robots