Sunday, December 21, 2008

Loving the Prophet

When I pulled out my old synths and decided to return to music as an avocation, to keep me sane, etc., I realized that, although I loved the sounds produced by both my Sequential Circuits Prophet 600 (P600, 1983) and my Korg Wavestation EX (WS 1993), I did not like programming both of them. I simply did not (and still do not) care to learn the sound architecture and endless paging through endless menus that it takes to program the (supposedly technologically better) digital WS. But I love to program my P600.

The good news for an old school analog guy like me is that analog suddenly became cool again in the late '90s and that hasn't changed. Analog is still cool. They've come up with all sorts of "softsynths" (computer generated software synthesizers) that (attempt to) emulate the old analog sounds. Heck, I don't need that (you young music-store whippersnapper) I actually have an old synthesizer! (Although I love the softsynths that come with my DAW, Logic Express.)

Before I left the high school garage-band scene in the early '90s, I used to have to apologize for having an "old" analog synth like the P600 - I just couldn't afford better. But my heros were analog programmers and I secretly resented having to apologize in the first place! I loved my P600 then as I do now and knew it was a good synth. But I had teenaged gear lust and so was in conflict with myself over it. Now I can go into music stores and say "yeah, I've got an old P600 that still works (more or less) and hasn't even lost its presets!" and they all just say (if they even know what I'm talking about) "wow, cool. you'd better hold on to that." I intend to!

For over-all descriptions of these synthesizers, check out the links on their names in the paragraphs above (they link to articles about them on Vintage Synth Explorer; Google is good, of course). Here is a youtube video of a P600 in action. (The guy has somehow figured out how to sync this ancient beast to midi clock - yes, I am jealous.)

Here is why I am posting about this synth: I started to feel small and inferior to all the programming heros out there on the net now. Especially all the ones using their own RAD modular set ups. I started to think: if I were really cool, I'd ween myself away from the mere milk of hard-wired analog and start biting of chunks of the real meat of modular patch bays.

I mean I really started feeling the limitations of my little P600. It represents (one of the best of) the very first synths that were not only hard-wired rather than modular, but also designed to be economical and to remember patches in a little built-in dedicated computer. Not only that, but my P600 was THE first synthesizer on the commercial market that sported MIDI. Not bad. But to some, not good. Digital patch memory, MIDI, and the like, tended to pave the way for the "keyboards" to come. What I mean here are those electronic instruments with speakers built in to them that you can pick up at Mart or Radio Shack. Okay, so maybe I am still a snob about some things. Anyway, they weren't synthesizers - you couldn't program them.

Now, the P600 is programmable - but not fully. It already lost "patchability" by being analog rather than modular. That's okay, so did the Minimoog. But, I am guessing in order to enable digital patch recall, even the pots that it has are far more limited in scope than those you would find on the older early analogs. I mean, I just can't do as much with my little LFO as you can do on some of the other analogs and modulars! Not only is routing limited, but I can't go super slow or super fast - I can't push the edge of audibility like a "good" LFO should. That is because the P600 was kind of an early "keyboard": a cheaper, more portable, user friendly, factory preset presentable synth for those that wanted to gig but couldn't program or carry around a Rhodes or an organ. "Nothing funky or weird here please, I just need to bang out some chords." Humph.

Anyway, these were where my sad and gear-related self-deprecating thoughts had been meandering for a while. Until I returned to the roots. Among those who program synthesizers (at least the circles with which I care to associate) if you can ground your thought or practice on something Brian Eno has ever said or done then you are good to go. Quoting or referencing Eno is like quoting the Bible or the constitution in other circles. (Check out his site.)

I remembered how Eric Tamm in his book about Eno described how Eno hated synthesizers with lots of options. And that for all sorts of (good, in my mind) reasons. It violated some of Eno's notions of the value of minimalism. When you lower your options, that is, create creative boundaries for yourself as an artist, you actually boost creativity, productivity. Eno also eschews gear-lust: the notion that newer features and more features always means a better instrument. Eno used his EMS AKS almost exclusively for over a decade. Then he switched to his DX7 for at least that long, and, as far as I know, is still using (several of) them. Limiting possibilities, learning what you know intimately well = good. So too having six amazing sounds rather than 6000 mediocre ones.

So, I defer to the master. I am no Brian Eno, but darn it, my little P600 is my DX7! And I am sticking to it. (Another example: I have a Korg Kaoss Pad KP3. It is rad. I have left it on the same effect, "Talk Filter," pretty much since buying it. I still haven't exhausted how cool that effect is, so I'm shamelessly and unapologetically sticking to it for a while!)

Another example: I've recently decided that I can never tire of filter sweeps. As far as I am concerned, from now until I die (unless I should change my mind, to which I reserve the right) I'm going to have a filter sweep in every piece I produce (that is, assuming I ever actually finish something).

Future posts: commentary on some of my ground rules and practices for musical productivity and some theoria on the notion of limiting possibilities in order to unfetter creativity as a parallel to ascesis.

Thanks for reading, thanks for the support, and three cheers for my Prophet 600!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.