I never know where these whims come from, but lately the electronic music whim has been making a return visit.
It’s an itch that’s easily and cheaply scratched to a degree, if you undertake the learning curve of open-source softsynth apps. I have amsynth, Bristol, and Rack recently installed on my Linux box, and they’re fun to play with.
But my first synth experiences back in the 1970s were with hardware synthesizers, and I miss hardware. Clicking and dragging is okay for word processing but for synthesis, there’s nothing like twisting knobs or pushing linear pots. It’s not just a visceral thing, although it partly is. But besides that, you just can’t manipulate a GUI the way you can a hardware front panel.
(Granted, my MIDI keyboard has some knobs and buttons that can be mapped to softsynth controls. Which is OK if you only want to control a subset of the softsynth parameters via hardware knobs or buttons, whose layout doesn’t correspond to that of the on-screen ones. I mean, it’s cool, but not as cool as a real front panel.)
So ever since my college days I’ve had at least in the back of my mind a desire to have and play with hardware synthesizers. Unfortunately for me, the first synthesizer I ever played with was an ARP 2600 — and I took a mini course on electronic music from Alan R. Pearlman himself. That kind of spoiled me.
The 2600 wasn’t mine, of course, it was my college’s (and Pearlman’s alma mater’s). Anything since then I could afford has naturally been a far cry from that early experience. Nonetheless, in the late 1970s I bought a PAiA Gnome kit and built it and amused myself with it for a while. My recollection is it cost about $75;* that’s something like $300 in today’s money. Around 1990 or so I started thinking about synths again and at one point I started trying to build an ASM-1 synth but that project never got very far. Then ten years ago I bought a Gakken SX-150, a cheap but fun toy, and not altogether dissimilar to the Gnome, costing $46. (Not sure what became of it. It might even still be around here somewhere. I did just stumble across an old Radio Shack mixer I’d forgotten I still had, while looking for the Christmas lights. Edit to add: And I stumbled across the Gakken a couple weeks later.)
Five years ago I finished building a Weird Sound Generator which isn’t necessarily deserving of the term synthesizer, but is synth-adjacent. I also had ambitions of pursuing a homebrewed microcontroller-based digital synthesizer but that didn’t get far.
Despite my continuing interest, monophonic analog subtractive synthesizers went out of fashion in the 1980s, displaced by polyphony, FM, samplers, and digital units that could do things the old Moogs and ARPs couldn’t do. Korg and Roland followed the trends and thrived; ARP didn’t and went under. Robert Moog left his company and started up Big Briar which made effects pedals and what’s reputed to be the best theremin on the market; later, after Moog Music went under, Big Briar acquired the Moog name.
Meanwhile, surprise, analog came back. Apparently the mid-80s pioneers of acid, house, and techno couldn’t afford the modern synthesizers and instead rescued commercial failures like the Roland TR-909 drum machine and TB-303 bass synthesizer from oblivion. As that music surged in popularity, vintage analog synths became high-demand items. In time various smaller companies like Doepfer started selling new synth modules and modular systems, with the Eurorack becoming a popular standard. And of course before long the bigger companies started dusting off old schematics, making new analog systems and reviving old ones: Korg has a new, downsized version of its old MS-20, and has even brought an ARP synth, the Odyssey, back to the market. And Moog got back into the synth business as well with both high-priced reissues of vintage designs and new systems at lower prices.
I don’t have $35,000 for a Moog IIIp. I could come up with $200, though, which is the going price for a Moog Werkstatt-01. A pretty amazing price for a synthesizer with the Moog name on it, but not quite capable enough to really tempt me.
But the Moog Mother-32 did. A tabletop semi-modular synth, Eurorack compatible, with builtin sequencer and 32-point patch bay, and a price about two times the Gnome’s — after inflation! I spent most of Thanksgiving weekend contemplating it. Finally I told myself forty years is long enough. Buy one. I did.
Like an idiot, I selected no-rush Prime shipping to get a $1 credit. Most times when I do that they tell you it’ll take about a week and a half to arrive, and then it actually arrives in about two or three days. This time it took a week. It’s what I signed up for but not what I’d expected… anyway, it arrived today.
I’ve only played it through headphones so far, and not used the patch panel, nor the sequencer other than the default sequence which is just a single note, nor the MIDI In. And yow, yes, it’s a synthesizer, and there’s a lot you can do with just the knobs and switches! I’ll get set up for recording pretty soon.