But then appeared the green-eyed monster, and its name was the Factory Patch. Technological advances made it possible to store what had previously been patchcord connections in the instrument’s memory for immediate recall. This, of course, was a boon for the traditional forms of performance, and probably the most significant marketing advance in the history of the instrument. However, it did not encourage what these instruments were all about — the creation of new sounds- synthesis… As a teacher I observed that learning electronic music now meant mastering the latest hardware/software sequencer and tweaking the final mix. Now, don’t get me wrong — this is an essential part of every musician’s training in the 21st century. But synthesizers had their genesis in the desire, if not the need, to play with sound. Allen Strange from his forward to Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming by Jim Aikin.
Perhaps unsurprising that the author of one of the most coveted books on electronic music should be a curmudgeon. Yet I think he certainly has something of a point. The soft-synth market is absolutely saturated with presets from legendary artists like Ian Boddy, Richard Devine, Himalaya and Simon Stockhausen.
What you’ve never heard of them?
Well you probably have heard their work as they are three of the most prolific preset designers behind the sounds of popular softsynths like Camel Audio Alchemy, Native Instruments Absynth, DCAM SynthSquad, the AniMoog and more. I don’t want to imply that this is the only thing the artists do, but preset design for soft and hardware is a fairly lucrative sideline for the electronic music composer. Historically presets have been used to showcase the possibilities of each instrument. Often with hardware synths they are deployed so the future owner can be WOWed by an impressive in-store demo. The factory default banks are often included on a disc or downloadable as the idea is that the presets are superceded by the users creative manipulations, and recalled only if necessary. Back in the day presets were provided in books like this and were part of the experience learning how to program the synth.
I’m working on some material for teaching synthesis and, aside from uncovering many gaps in my understanding, i’ve also realised that I have a very subtractive approach, not to synthesis but to the entire process of composition. This approach I would argue is fairly common these days and it works pretty much like this:
- grab an interesting sample or preset sound
- mangle the sample or randomise the preset until they are barely recognisable from the original
- drown them in effects and layer them with similarly created sounds
- release (to utter indifference)
Reading about the history of synthesizers and the real nitty-gritty of analogue synthesis, even in a physically modelled situation, makes feel more than a little like I don’t 100% own what it is that I do. While it is arguable that presets in modern soft-synths can be used as learning tools for further user manipulation I wonder how often this is the case? Do people really buy these things because they want to learn how to program their synth? Or are they merely after a greater set of parameters to randomise between? Also how easy is it to learn how to program a patch from someone else’s preset when this is your user interface?
A comparatively clean interface but it’s like learning to use a flight simulator. There are so many dials, knobs and displays that with each patch it is very difficult to see the forest for the trees. My M-Audio Venom comes with librarian software that allows you to morph and randomise presets. However there is no facility to turn everything off and start from scratch and there isn’t a single basic preset. I spent 15 minutes turning all the modulation and filtering off on the simplest sounding preset so that I could have a simple 3 oscillator preset to start with. This is common with soft-synths as well. No wonder I tend to just hit random until I get something interesting and use that!
I am starting to understand why people gravitate towards modular setups though i’m definately not in the market for the physical manifestations yet (what with no money, no space and a 1yr old getting around!) I feel that it is very hard to understand synthesis without a clear understanding of signal flow and therefore the idea that presets can be used as learning experiences depends more on the interface than the preset. My current favourites are Tassman 4 and Vaz Modular 3. Both are modular environments that focus on physical and analogue modeling. Both are quite old with the versions originating in the early to mid 00’s. Neither have had major updates for a while. This is what they look like.
Both excel as building blocks for learning synthesis because they demonstrate and model the signal flow quite clearly. They are not alone in this regard but for me they succeed as systems modelling real musical objects really well as opposed to object oriented code like Max/MSP (which still stands out clearly in the realm of new media manipulation) But is my burgeoning love modelling the behaviour of analogue fetishists?
I recall something Tom Ellard expressed in an interview I did with him for my AV research which relates to this question somewhat:
A big problem is the balance of how versatile / how complicated a tool is. Jitter is very versatile but does not have the suggestive form of a good instrument – that is, the form that suggests a practice. Something like Grand VJ is much less versatile but has an obvious workflow.
To me, the tools that I have found the most effective have been those that offer modular approaches. Audiomulch, Bidule, Artmatic, Isadora, Pure Data, Max/MSP, Quartz Composer. Whether these are the best tools for the job, they are the ones I find the most satisfaction actually making music with. I think it is because I get to design the workflow and therefore feel like I comprehend and control the end result more. I feel like I can build a useful instrument for whatever circumstance and not be fumbling over how it works. Modular synthesis in real and modelled forms offers both greater control and also a greater chance of creating a horrible mess and therefore more reward for success. So I guess i’m interested in the opposite of Tom… a reconfigurable instrument, as opposed to a classic design with a proven workflow. If I were to compare Buchla VS Moog i’d say Buchla’s process-based design and independence with Moog’s instrument design and ability to modulate anything with anything.
Something else Tom said in that interview made me think about the thought process involved with constructing sound.
Long ago, about 1988, I said out loud that I wanted one small box like a suitcase in which I could do my work. This came from the amount of real estate and plugging that things needed back then. So the one small box is here and in just the last few years has been an excellent thing. The utopian idea was that it would make things easier so that people could do more than they once did. The reality is that it’s a surface which suggests a practice. That is, small box makes for small boxy artworks.
While I know i’m still using a computer, my practice in private and public has been improved by the addition of external controllers. However i’m still essentially using a small box. Computers are like a metal Matryoshka, they are boxes filled with boxes. Modular systems are really no different however the ability to create a messy spiders web of connections that push the ability of the system in different directions is a subversion of the implied order, however proscribed. This to me does not feel like a box so much as it feels like a Pink Floyd album cover.
With regards to “The Included Middle” and other soundtrack projects currently in progress… I see no reason why the subtractive approach is not appropriate as there is usually less time and a need to present sounds that others can easily grasp. Sounds that fit a required mood. But for experimental work i’m going to try and limit myself to only sounds and vision I can create myself, either through phonography, photography, videography or modular synthesis of sound and image. I’m not doing this as a purity drive or to denigrate my previous work but I feel “Anthropoclasm” was designed to close a chapter in my top-down approach to composition. I need a change and it just so happens that my work is pushing me in this direction. Now i’m thinking with modules.