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Just how far have synths come in the last 20 years?

Posted: Tue May 12, 2015 1:44 am
by ZeeOne
So I've been window shopping for a new (or just new to me) keyboard. In the past, I had a Korg Z1 and a Roland JP-8000. I ditched the Z1 because I got tired of all the menu-diving involved in editing and I parted with the JP because I started feeling weird playing a piece of technology over 15 years old (yes, I do know what site I'm on). Looking back, I preferred the "knobiness" of the JP, so I'd like to get back to that. The newest board within my budget (~$600) in that style would probably be the Roland Gaia SH-01, but it has an octave less keys than my old JP. Then I remembered the previous SH-201, but that came out in 2006, which is almost 10 years ago now. The Gaia has twice as many memory slots, one more oscillator, greater polyphony, and seemingly tougher construction, but the SH-201 has 49 keys as opposed to 37. In the end, the number of keys is very important to me because I don't subscribe to the "latch the arpeggiator and twist some knobs" style of synth playing. But, once again, the Gaia is newer...

...and then I got to thinking...

Probably the greatest period of progress in synth technology occurred between 1965-1981, before I was born. We went from giant modular stacks that could only play one note at a time and were prohibitively expensive for working musicians to more compact designs that could play two notes and were somewhat more affordable and had relatively better tuning stability. Fairlight brought us the ability to not only record sounds digitally, but also manipulate them with far greater ease than you could with tape. And Yamaha really changed the game with the DX7, bringing out a synth that not only used a new kind of synthesis and was much more stable tuning-wise, but was also cheaper.

Since then there's been, what, MIDI? That can be had in pretty much every keyboard above the home hobbyist dating back to the mid 80s. Virtual analog? Sorry, but in the end that's just a digital synth with a more hands-on control interface. Soft synths? Maybe, but I'm thinking hardware, not software.

So my question for the forum is two-fold; 1) Is my preference for the latest gear a bit misguided and/or neurotic, and 2) has there really been all that much progress in synths since the mid 90s?

Re: Just how far have synths come in the last 20 years?

Posted: Tue May 12, 2015 2:17 am
by priima
As for the desire for new gear over old gear, my view is that any instrument can not become "old". I believe that an individual synth model such as a DX7 is in itself as much a singular instrument as a piano or a guitar. It's like saying that pianos are the NEW harpsichords, and harpsichords are the NEW pipe organs, just because they are instruments with keyboards. Yet, all those instruments are still played as NEW instruments today in music that was written today, for today. Nobody goes around saying "oh I don't play piano because its old, it came out all the way back in 1750!"

Each synthesizer that has it's own recognizable "sound" becomes a new instrument entirely, which cannot become old in any way besides the physical age of the electronics and case. When someone records new music with a DX7, it is not "retro music", but music performed with the synthesizer known as the DX7!

Re: Just how far have synths come in the last 20 years?

Posted: Tue May 12, 2015 2:44 am
by rschnier
For me, the only criterion as to whether a synth is "old" and I would perhaps feel "weird" playing it, is that it's become unreliable/unstable and critical parts are no longer available to keep it in proper working order. Otherwise, every synth is a particular moment in time, captured in physical hardware. And I do question the notion that there's been all that much "progress" in the past 20 years on the things that really matter -- for example the lifelike quality of the sounds.

The main area I could agree there's been progress is that the CPU chips being used as master controllers have gotten much faster and can thus do a better job of keeping up with real-time input that the user/performer is throwing at it.

Re: Just how far have synths come in the last 20 years?

Posted: Tue May 12, 2015 3:10 am
by commodorejohn
In my opinion, the best progress synthesizers have made in the last twenty years has all been going backwards, ironically enough. We've seen a return to knobby, hands-on designs from the spartan parameter-access keyboards of the late '80s/early '90s, and then a revival of interest in analog synthesizers and synthesizers in general (as opposed to the landscape of the mid-'90s, which was pretty much ROMplers from horizon to horizon.)

Re: Just how far have synths come in the last 20 years?

Posted: Tue May 12, 2015 10:31 am
by Hybrid88
I don't know about misguided but you be crazy to buy things new if you're on a budget, second hand deals can be had at half the price and often they are in almost the same condition.

But as to how far synths have come, I still maintain that the user interface of the V-Synth hasn't been outdone since, it's an absolute joy to work with. I don't know why after having the beautiful immediacy of the touchscreen we've gone backwards to seeing dot matrix displays with menus again. That said the new OLEDS are stunning and thankfully we are seeing more and more of them... now give me a colour touchscreen with OLEDS and I'd be in heaven. 8-)

Re: Just how far have synths come in the last 20 years?

Posted: Tue May 12, 2015 3:26 pm
by ppg_wavecomputer
How far have synth players come in the past twenty years?

You can't blame the tools for the people who use them.

A hammer is a hammer is a hammer is a... valid tool to build houses with. Or chairs. Or smash your neighbour's head with.

Stephen

Re: Just how far have synths come in the last 20 years?

Posted: Tue May 12, 2015 3:55 pm
by commodorejohn
ppg_wavecomputer wrote:You can't blame the tools for the people who use them.

A hammer is a hammer is a hammer is a... valid tool to build houses with. Or chairs. Or smash your neighbour's head with.
You can discuss the relative merits of tools as tools, though. A hammer isn't exactly the same as every other hammer.

Re: Just how far have synths come in the last 20 years?

Posted: Tue May 12, 2015 6:11 pm
by Walter Ego
Computing power and chip technology has continued its geometric growth. SMT tech has allowed companies to squeeze a ton of power into a tiny footprint. The KORG miniturization empire has been enabled by this trend. The actual technologies involved may not have advanced incredibly, but bang for buck has certainly increased. From what I understand, SMT has positively pulled down production costs for analog and digital devices. I think one of the ways synths have come forward in 20 years is in falling prices. Yes, vintage prices on many instruments are pretty high at the moment, but new, very capable machines are cheap; almost no-brainers. There's a great abundance of affordable synthesis on the market right now.

Re: Just how far have synths come in the last 20 years?

Posted: Tue May 12, 2015 6:40 pm
by meatballfulton
In 1989 I bought an Ensoniq SQ-80. It had 8 voices, an 8 track sequencer capable of holding 20,000 events and stereo outputs, 40 patches in memory and 80 more in a cartridge, floppy disk for data backup. Real time controllers were aftertouch, expression pedal, pitch wheel and mod wheel.

In 2011 I bought a Motif XF. It has 128 voices, a 16 track sequencer holding 128,000 events, two pairs of analog stereo outs (one doubled on SPDIF), a stereo sampler with 2GB of memory, eight dual-effect processor inserts, three global effects processors, 512 user patches along with 1024 presets, MIDI over USB, MIDI and 16 out/6 in channels of audio over Firewire (including VST integration), WiFi/Ethernet and USB for data backup (including streaming stereo audio to/from WAV files). Real time controllers are aftertouch, two expression pedals, pitch wheel, mod wheel, ribbon, two assignable knobs, six knobs with fixed assignments and eight sliders with fixed assignments.

The difference in price? SQ80 $2000 in 1989 dollars, Motif XF $2400 in 2011 dollars.

Re: Just how far have synths come in the last 20 years?

Posted: Tue May 12, 2015 6:46 pm
by CS_TBL
'Virtualisation' is the keyword here. It happens everywhere; generic systems mimic other systems, or they mimic things we used to do non-virtual. So, yea, that would point to software anyway. But that's really been the landmark development in recent times. It's everywhere; reading a website for news rather than a newspaper. Watching a website rather than watching a tv. Using Photoshop rather than a canvas with paint. Using a word processor rather than a typewriter. Using a dating website rather than going to the local pub wearing your best tux. Using samples rather than real instrument players. And so it happens with synths too. It may not always have to be a conventional computer, synths with built-in computers that run plug-ins are also running virtual synths/things.

Re: Just how far have synths come in the last 20 years?

Posted: Tue May 12, 2015 8:01 pm
by musden
roland juno 60 - up - oberheim xpander - up - korg z1 - up - roland varyphase - up - andromeda - up - waldorf q and microwave - up - nord modulars - up - v-synth - up - virus total colonization - up - kurzweil VAST - up - octatrack - and then - down - moog voyager - down - arturia microshit - down - korgy toys - down - random modular stuf tomorrow will be forgotten - down - roland "look! It is our new hybrid keyboard" (as if somebody really gives a f**k about analogue and digital mystical orgasmic combination, and it seems someone does) - down - akai timbre dog - down and so on

roughly, of course

Re: Just how far have synths come in the last 20 years?

Posted: Tue May 12, 2015 11:26 pm
by griffin avid
priima wrote: Nobody goes around saying "oh I don't play piano because its old, it came out all the way back in 1750!"
I'd add that when someone wants to buy their home/child a piano in 2015, they don't go looking for a "vintage" piano. They may want classic styling, but they visit stores with modern selections. Perhaps, if you are budget conscious, you buy used. I also don't know piano/ (players) have had a silver age and golden age that are harped (no pun intended) about.
ZeeOne wrote:So my question for the forum is two-fold; 1) Is my preference for the latest gear a bit misguided and/or neurotic, and 2) has there really been all that much progress in synths since the mid 90s?


I have felt that tug when I looked at my studio and saw all old gear. It made me question my ear and relative....relevance, musically, in modern times. Are my sensibilities tied to the past? Is me ear locked in on an era?
Are we STILL Making 80s synth-heavy styled music cause that's what we loved as a teen?
Am I adding on to the musical landscape or rehashing my favorite bits from various beloved recordings?

And I felt that I need to change/adapt/grow with the times.
That means, get some modern gear and make some current-sounding stuffs- and no I don't mean 'radio hitz' I mean stuff that doesn't sound like a found recording from a previous era. That's a sound design concern- combined with playing/creative techniques.

Then I remember technology or better yet quality is not linear.
Yeah, a toaster from the 50s was meant to be the only toaster you ever bought.
So it's about making music along my journey that sounds fresh, but chooses the best instruments possible to create the sound I'm chasing. Sometimes it's modern gear sometimes it's something that they don't make anymore.

Re: Just how far have synths come in the last 20 years?

Posted: Wed May 13, 2015 12:18 am
by commodorejohn
griffin avid wrote:I have felt that tug when I looked at my studio and saw all old gear. It made me question my ear and relative....relevance, musically, in modern times. Are my sensibilities tied to the past? Is me ear locked in on an era?
Are we STILL Making 80s synth-heavy styled music cause that's what we loved as a teen?
Am I adding on to the musical landscape or rehashing my favorite bits from various beloved recordings?
Here's my answer: who cares? I see people spouting this notion all the time:
  • Such-and-such is "irrelevant" or "dated."
  • Such-and-such is therefore somehow artistically invalid.
But the vast majority of the time what they're really saying is this:
  • Such-and-such doesn't interest me.
  • Therefore nobody else should find it interesting.
  • But I want to make my opinion sound like objective fact.
  • So I'll appeal to something like "progress" that sounds vaguely impersonal and impartial, and present that as a Q.E.D., even though it isn't.
I mean, sure, if you feel like you're stuck in a rut, you should work to branch out a bit and explore other directions. But so many people seem to think that means they have to "move on" to whatever is hip and trendy at the moment and abandon things they actually like, just to appease a bunch of people who want validation for being on what they think is the cutting edge. That's just sad.

Bottom line: don't forget to broaden your horizons now and again, but don't let anybody stop you from making the kind of music you enjoy making.

Re: Just how far have synths come in the last 20 years?

Posted: Wed May 13, 2015 1:07 am
by Chewy
:agree:

Well said

Re: Just how far have synths come in the last 20 years?

Posted: Wed May 13, 2015 2:29 am
by synthroom
I embrace the rut I'm stuck in...