Friday, September 11, 2009

analog poly

As the school year begins I find myself caught up in the swirl of activities that force my vocation front and center. My avocation takes the periphery. Yes, that is right, my beautiful and seemingly endless sabbatical is over. But, God willing, my avocation is not to disappear along with it.

I have been snatching time for music and alternating between two joyful tasks in learning mode: Firstly, I have been studying this great book about chord progressions and building pop songs from chords called The Song Writing Sourcebook (Rikky Rooksby). Most of my study of theory has been from "official" art music sources, or on the fly from folks that understood the pop stuff. When it came to pop, it was usually just about memorizing standard progressions. What is great about this book is that it analyzes the why behind pop chord progressions. And it helped me with my art theory as well. Why didn't they tell me that the harmonic minor scale isn't really a scale at all but is really about collecting the right notes together to allow the dominant (V) chord to be major in what would otherwise be a minor key? Now I get it.

But the other half of my avocational time has been spent navigating alien territories in the form of my new Alesis Andromeda A6. Sorry, the name is so cool, I just have to write it all out, at least the first time. Progress plot: unlike the analog poly's of the 1980s, the Andromeda combines lots of knobs and switches (in the form of encoders, rather than actual potentiometers, sadly) with the same kind of digital interface that many synths of the late 80's and 1990's. That digital interface forces you to "menu-dive." There is no way of knowing from the position of things on the surface what may actually be lurking deep in the depths underneath. So although it is a genuine analog poly, it does not have the genuine interface of an analog poly.

Let me be clear. I am not complaining. A month or so ago I was complaining ("why, oh why hadn't I bought the Poly Evolver! "). I kept imaging the kind of poly synth I was really looking for. I realized it was basically my Prophet 600 with a bit more modulation routing, an extra LFO, an extra envelope and maybe some overdrive in the VCA. But as my mind wandered I realized something: I have that synth, it is my new beautiful A6 that I keep ignoring. So, I realized, rather than whining, I ought to shut up and actually get to work. Time for some serious menu diving.

So I signed up for the A6 forum. I asked the folks there how the heck I could tell the difference between the pre-wired modulation routings and all the multitude of software derived modes via menu-diving. They kindly and politely told me one thing: stop whining and build your own blank patch. The process of zeroing everything out (and they did mean everything) would, itself, teach me all the modulation routings while at the same time provide me with my own tailored start-up patch for building my own.

Well, of course, they were absolutely right, and I am so glad for the kindly forum advice I received. I've become familiar with this strict machine, and am beginning to take some joy in programming it. There are things that are still a mystery to me, of course. But I have much more of a handle on the device. It turns out I am not an idiot. It turns out I actually do have some basic talent and knack at analog synthesis. I am looking forward to future posts where I can show off some of my own A6 patches. Right now I am just having fun making my FM-ed oscillators scream in all their metallic glory. Which leads me to the final reflections of this post and check-in.

With my complaining days behind me, I have begun more rationally to reflect upon what it was that led me to that initial and unnecessary despair at programming my A6 in the first place. And I hinted at it above. It is genuinely analog, that is to say, at least in terms of its VCOs, VCFs and VCAs, which is good enough for me. But its user interface is not genuine analog poly. That is why I included a picture of the patch-chart for a p600 patch, above. Look at its beautiful simplicity. What you see is what you get. No secrets under the hood. If a knob is turned one way you know that it is really turning and churning the electricity (although, sadly, it is true that there is pixilation with regards to the p600 because of the way in which the pots had to be digitally mapped in order for its patch memory to work).

So, two reflections. First, part of the beauty of the analog poly was just exactly the way in which in limited your choices. It was the pre-patched and pre-made-choices, at least in part, that gave each analog poly its distinctive voice, tone, feel. You are forced to work with what you have got. And the limited canvas forces creativity. Standing before my A6, I realize that sometimes I am stunned by the possibilities. The way I get around that now is by building, in my mind, the analog poly I want to pretend that I am working with. I set those "hard-wired" parameters in the menus then I work within my artificially derived limitations. So, again, don't get me wrong. I love my A6. I am delighted that I get to build my own imagined limitations. All I am saying is that the user interface itself forces me to loose the humble familiarity that I feel when I start playing around with my p600.

Frankly, I just don't know how the modular-kings do it. Jealous? Yes, of course. But, paradoxically, content. Besides, comparing the analog poly to a modular just isn't fair. Did the analog poly evolve, technologically, from the modulars before it? Yes, of course. But I am beginning to see them as really different electronic musical tools. Some synth histories tell the story as though the development of the analog poly was like a great fall from glory and grace, or like the decline of the Roman Empire. But the story doesn't have to be told that way. When I think of the lush tones that come out of a Crumar Performer, it just can't be compared with, say, a screaming lead out of a Moog. It's apples and oranges. And I like both. But I lean towards oranges. And what if the move from modular to poly is like the decline of Rome; and what if that decline is a good thing. You know, like it is actually sometimes nice to throw off the oppression of imperialism.

The analog poly inspired its own kind of music, especially in the realm of pop. It is what defined the early 1980s. No analog poly, no Prince, no Duran Duran, no Peter Gabriel. They could not have made those arrangements, even with a string of modulars acting polyphonically. The poly is its own kind of synth.

But where my mind is wandering next is towards what exactly it is about analog that drove me to give up my powerful Korg Wavestation? Why is analog "better" than digital in this regard? I don't mean in some audiophilic kind of way. I mean metaphysically. I think it is about the difference between analogy and univocity, between participation and representation. But, alas, it is late, I am tired, and such ruminations really deserve their own post. So that's all I've got for now. Thanks for following, and thanks for the support. Peace