Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

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Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

Post by KBD_TRACKER » Tue Dec 10, 2013 11:11 am

Ok, the title is not so well worded ... My question is: was it the unavoidable fate of synthesizers to become merely a more sonically powerful and versatile form of what are acoustic classical pianos ?

For example the importance that many synth users attach to polyphony. A bit as if a synth is not all it should/could be unless one could do with that 4-pole-filtered-LFO-modulated PWM-square-wave ... a Dm7 chord.

Then comes the issue of keyboard: the user interface on a synth is very similar to that of the piano, so one who knows how to play piano could understandably wish to play the synth using the same physical skills acquired while learning to play a piano.
So much so that after having learnt the basis of synthesis, a synth player is nowadays basically an "enhanced" keyboard (ie "piano") player....

Of course historically, one can also surmise that equipping synths with a piano-like keyboard was a way to give a certain reassuring, bourgeois legitimacy and "seriousness" to synths as accepted and acceptable music instruments.

But did we lose a chance to "think outside of the box" in terms of the possible ways a human being could "play" music, when the synth industry got under way, structured, and developed ?

Probably this whole issue is now water under the bridge, the turn being taken long ago: ie synths ARE now keyboard instruments and maybe it is well that minor harmonies can be as easily done on an andromeda or prophet 8 synth as on an old majestic bosendorfer ....

Still one wonders ...

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Re: Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

Post by ppg_wavecomputer » Tue Dec 10, 2013 11:25 am

In a word: No.

The synthesiser is not to blame for the adaptation of the keyboard interface as everybody knows it. This quickly reduced the synthesiser to nothing more than being some kind of fancy organ while being sniffed at by piano players for having no proper keyboard at thesame time.

If you look at these people into modular stuff these days, hardly anybody uses an ordinary keyboard controller as the main player-instrument interface, and I wouldn´t call these synthesisers piano-like neither in timbre, nor in shape, nor in approach.

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Re: Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

Post by ryryoftokyo » Tue Dec 10, 2013 3:02 pm

When you look at the amount of available controllers ranging from weirdo modular things like the "source of uncertainty", the Continuum, ribbon controllers, hex layouts, tenori on, theremin, thunderbird, etc it's hard to call the synthesizer an enhanced piano. Beyond that, not all synth players care about polyphony. Many of us prefer monosynths.

As for missing a chance to think outside the box, I think that's the very spirit of the instrument, is to think outside of conventional sound and sculpt your own. Of course that isn't to say the synthesizer hasn't felt the impact of it's most common controller scheme, placing emphasis on more piano like features, but I suspect this was inevitable, and shouldn't have a terrible impact on the instrument in the long run.
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Re: Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

Post by cornutt » Tue Dec 10, 2013 4:46 pm

Yeah, I have to disagree with the premise of the post. The OP seems to have confused the world of "arrangers" with synth players. It is true that the majority of elecronic instruments sold these days are arranger keyboards whose purpose is to reproduce and imitate accoustic instruments. However, I don't think of that as being part of the world of electronic music -- people who do that kind of stuff are only using the electronics for convenience, not to do anything that couldn't have been done by more conventional means.

As for polysynths: Well, chords are a part of music. It goes with the territory that sometimes composers will want to play them. A polysynth is a quicker way of getting there. It's not essential; back in the days before there was such a thing as a polysynth, lots of people did chords by overdubbing one note at a time on tape. And, since polysynths do have their limitations, some people still do it the old-fashioned way, at least part of the time. However, if the polysynth will do what you want, why not use it? There's also the matter of live performance, where overdubbing a note at a time isn't an option (or at least it wouldn't be very interesting for the audience).

I think nearly everyone in electronic music recognizes that the organ keyboard as a means of controlling a synth was a historical accident, an artifact of the technology limitations of the time. However, it's a useful one in several respects: the keyboard is one of the easiest musical instruments for beginners to learn scales and get started on., much easier for someone who doesn't play an instrument than it would be to learn, say, guitar or saxephone. Even so, note what's happened with the synth keyboard over the years: it has gained the capabilities for sensing velocity, release velocity, aftertouch (maybe poly aftertouch) and had pitch and mod wheels added over to the side, plus maybe sustain and expression pedal inputs. You sure as heck can't do all that on any non-electronic keyboard instrument. And there are probably more alternate controllers than ever available these days, ranging from non-traditional keyboards (like the Axis 64 or the H-Pi keyboards) to guitar controllers to completely different things like the Buchla Lightning. Or, bringing it back down to earth just a bit, the various launchpad-style matrix controllers that are all over the place lately.

I think the concern would have been more valid about 20 years ago, when it looked like the entire synth market was going to go to sample-playback keyboards. But since then, a ton of stuff has happened: the analog renissance, the new Golden Age in modulars, alternate-technology synths like the Neuron and the K5000, and now soft synths are starting to mine some really alien territory. And note what else is happening: the packaging is changing so that, in most cases, the means of control is being separate from the synthesis engine. That lets you mix-n-match synthesis methods and controls, something that we would have killed for back in the '80s.
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Re: Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

Post by meatballfulton » Tue Dec 10, 2013 6:01 pm

The OP is falling into the trap of thinking all keyboard instruments are related. One look inside a pipe organ, a piano and an accordion will disprove that!

It would also be foolish to consider electronic keyboards as "improvements" on the piano since pretty much all pianists look at them as instruments of convenience...cheaper, more compact, more portable, but overall inferior.

As far as polyphony, there will always be a place for both monophonic and polyphonic instruments. A single string guitar would be pretty boring, for example. The beautiful sound of harmonizing vocalists requires two or more people to create.

Ensoniq's invention of dynamic voice allocation was the real breakthrough for polysynths, one instrument could now do the work of several...a tremendous cost savings. To me, polysynths without a multitimbral mode are a bit of a waste.
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Re: Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

Post by Automatic Gainsay » Tue Dec 10, 2013 6:23 pm

The first true synthesizer was a keyboard-operated synthesizer. And, before you start raging about the situation where Thomas Edison so violently oppressed Nik- oh, wait, I mean the situation where Bob Moog and his evil empire crushed poor Don Buchla*... I'm not talking about 1964. I'm talking about 1900-1906. The Telharmonium was a keyboard-operated synthesizer. The keyboard was chosen because it is a very logical means of arranging frequencies in a linear fashion so that they can be accessed by fingers. Let's not forget De Forest's Audion Piano, Theremin's oscillator keyboard, the Ondes Martenot, the Warbo Formant Organ, the Hammond Novachord, all of the optical synthesizers of the 1930s, the Melochord, and more.

The keyboard has, on average, always been the controller for synthesizers (although, amusingly- not for the first two devices first called "synthesizers").

And, it has always been problematic. The Hammond Novachord might have started a synthesis revolution if not for the war, but also because of the confusion it inspired in musicians. Was it a piano? No, it had TERRIBLE ACTION. Useless. Was it an organ? No. It only made weird non-organ noises, and was confusing to operate. Was it an electronic instrument for the new 20th Century composers? h**l no... it looks like a piano! Yeah.
In addition... people always expect piano-type outcomes when they play a device with a keyboard. I personally blame the concept of voltage-controlled synthesizer polyphony entirely on the ignorance of rock musicians who immediately tried to play chords, and then were less interested in purchasing the unit when it didn't play chords.
Even today, everyone wants synthesizers to behave like pianos... individual filter and VCA articulation per key, velocity, etc. And why? I don't know! I mean, those things are great and everything, but the initial motivation wasn't "here is a new instrument, let's see what it does..." it was "this piano don't play right."

When Bob Moog and Herb Deutsch were working on Bob's prototype, Bob chose a set of organ keyboards to activate it. This wasn't surprising, as Herb was (is) a jazz composer, and thought it was the best way to access the diversity of frequency the synthesizer was capable of. Bob thought a lot about it. Vladimir Ussachevsky HATED the idea, and warned Bob against it. Some composers thought the keyboard would limit composers to thinking within the realm of tonal, "traditional" music. Herb's classic response to this is "well, the keyboard didn't stop Arnold Schoenberg." And that's something to think about.

Don Buchla was a free-thinker. When Morton Subotnick, an avant-garde composer, commissioned a sound/performance creation box from Buchla, there was no talk of keyboards. The Buchla synthesizer wasn't so focused on timbre as it was sound, noise, and random or guided performance/noise generation. Buchla did not employ a keyboard, and Subotnick didn't want one.

A variety of factors led to Moog becoming the "big name in synthesizers." Bob saw this as a financial opportunity after his success at the 1964 AES convention... it was a way to make better money than just making theremins. His design was novel, as he employed transistors, voltage control, and functionality that was a culmination of what 20th Century composers were looking for, he got down to the business of business, and lastly... and not leastly... his synthesizer had increased accessibility to musicians who weren't 20th Century composers or sound technicians... because it had a thing that every musician recognized hanging off the front of it. It looked like an airplane cockpit, but it had a cultural touchstone in the form of a keyboard.

Of course, Buchla was less interested in starting a big business than he was in art, his work, and the scene he was creating his great equipment in. And that's why the keyboard sort of trounced him.

The keyboard is a marvelous way for human hands to activate frequencies for durations. But over time, non-keyboard players became increasingly interested in synthesizer sounds due to the popularity of popular electronic music. With the advent of MIDI sequencers, step-recording, and etc. non-keyboard players were able to control synthesizers. Finally, people didn't have to learn keys to make sounds. As such, Buchla and Subotnick's paradigm has become quite popular.

I moderated a panel at Moogfest 2012, one of the most interesting aspects of it was listening to Subotnick and Deutsch describe their viewpoints about how the keyboard has affected the development of synthesizers. Of course, I had to leap between them a couple of times... but it was a really fascinating conversation!







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Re: Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

Post by commodorejohn » Tue Dec 10, 2013 7:36 pm

h**l no it's not. For starters, in order to be an "improved piano" it would have to be better than a piano at being a piano, which, to my knowledge, has yet to be accomplished - even when you get the basic tone right, a synthesizer hooked up to an amplifier just doesn't radiate sound in the same way as a wooden box full of wire cords. And as much as I'm exasperated by all the snobbery directed at traditional Western chromatic music (guys: if all your microtonal/continuously-variable hoo-ha is valid music, then chromatic music certainly isn't any less valid!) it's quite true that there is no requirement for a synthesizer to use a piano/organ-style keyboard other than convenience. The piano and the synthesizer are just two entirely different instruments.
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Re: Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

Post by Dr. Phibes » Tue Dec 10, 2013 9:49 pm

KBD_TRACKER wrote: Of course historically, one can also surmise that equipping synths with a piano-like keyboard was a way to give a certain reassuring, bourgeois legitimacy and "seriousness" to synths as accepted and acceptable music instruments.
You could say that and I have indeed read stuff to that effect, often from those with the disposable income and spare time to maintain large, expensive modular setups :roll:

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Re: Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

Post by Ashe37 » Wed Dec 11, 2013 9:30 am

He said 'bourgeois'... art school detector went off...

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Re: Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

Post by CS_TBL » Wed Dec 11, 2013 10:17 am

I'll be brief 'n simple about it;

Musical instruments have always had some kind of scale, unless it's untuned percussion. So, apart from harps and some harmonicas being diatonic, and perhaps some other instruments being pentatonic, other instruments are simply chromatic instruments. Mankind has a whole history of chromatic and diatonic music, is it that strange that a synth has a traditional keyboard then? And for all out there saying that a synth could go beyond chromatic scales, fine; if you want to make the next weird noise, restrict yourself to the C-4 key and be happy with it.

Yes, whatever the "keyboard-boohoo" synth-elite says about this matter leaves me cold.. let's just be practical instead.. :) I mean, I've done completely atonal sounds in FM8 as well, yet it does have a keyboard.. seriously, what's the big deal?
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Re: Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

Post by synthroom » Wed Dec 11, 2013 4:28 pm

I once ran across a thread on Usenet from 1720 where someone posted if the fortepiano was and "improved" form of the harpsichord...

Improved, perhaps. Depends on your goals.
Different, yes.
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Re: Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

Post by vicd » Wed Dec 11, 2013 5:43 pm

CS_TBL wrote:I'll be brief 'n simple about it;

...So, apart from harps and some harmonicas being diatonic, and perhaps some other instruments being pentatonic, other instruments are simply chromatic instruments. Mankind has a whole history of chromatic and diatonic music...
O'RLY? Nice try :mrgreen:
What about the (numerous) indian and arabic scales and instruments? Don't let yourself get locked on the "western" ones, there's much more to see...

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Re: Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

Post by rhino » Wed Dec 11, 2013 6:50 pm

Sorry. That's like asking if the computer is just an "improved" form of typewriter.
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Re: Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

Post by commodorejohn » Wed Dec 11, 2013 7:24 pm

vicd wrote:O'RLY? Nice try :mrgreen:
What about the (numerous) indian and arabic scales and instruments? Don't let yourself get locked on the "western" ones, there's much more to see...
That's certainly a fair point, but it doesn't mean that someone whining about how "bourgeois" it is to offer an instrument in a Western chromatic scale doesn't have their head up their a*s.
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Re: Is the synthesizer simply an "improved" form of piano ??

Post by cornutt » Wed Dec 11, 2013 8:01 pm

Marc, very interesting writeup... thanks for that. Regarding Moog and Deutsch, my own reading had led me to the conclusion that once they had decided they needed a conventional means of control, the keyboard was simply the most convenient technology available. Given the technology at the time, something like, say, a guitar interface would have been very difficult. But if technology had been such that a guitar controller were the easiest way, my impression was that Bob at least would have been okay with that, since he himself didn't play a lot anyway.

And let us not forget the impact that Walter/Wendy Carlos's choice of the Moog modular and the success of "Switched-On Bach" had on the music industry. It's hard for people to realize today, but that album was a big commercial success, and it had everyone wanting a Moog all of a sudden. (At which point Bob realized he was over his head, and he went looking for an investor... and the rest is history.)

As for the invention of voice allocation, I'm pretty sure it was someone at Oberheim who came up with that idea, circa 1975. The FVS was the first commercially produced polysynth that used that concept. It used E-mu's scanning keyboard that Rossum and Wedge had developed, but I don't think that the idea of voice allocation per se came from E-mu. Someone who knows the history better, correct me if I'm wrong.
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