The analog synthesizer truly came into its own in the 1970s, when R. A. Moog released the Minimoog, a fixed-architecture music synthesizer with a built in keyboard that was within the financial reach of middle-class people. Now the electronic sounds of experimental artists of earlier decades could be harnessed by a larger number of people. Shortly thereafter, simpler, more affordable synthesizers such as the Korg Micro Preset and the EDP Wasp hit the market, paving the way for the explosion of ‘80s synth pop.
The pioneers of DIY cassette culture also eagerly embraced these instruments, whose sounds would increasingly appear in the midst of their free-spirited audio alchemical concoctions. As synthesizer technology moved from the analog to the digital era, DIY musicians were able to snatch up the old analog gear that many musicians were dumping so the latter could enjoy the reliability and predictability of digital instruments. Gone were problems with tuning and remembering complex patches. With digital, sounds could be recalled with the press of a button and they would always arrive in tune.
Just as was the case in other advances in audio technology, however, plenty was sacrificed with those gains. Predictable can sound sterile. Listen to the same sound for too long, and the ear gets weary, the mind bored. Minimalistic interfaces on synths made “programming” sounds a time-consuming chore, and musicians increasingly relied on factory presets. Now the radio was filled with songs that had the same signature sounds from the same expensive digital instruments (e.g., Yamaha DX-7).
Eventually, a groundswell of interest, driven in no small part by DIY electronic enthusiasts as well as the persistent murmuring of musicians frustrated by the particular limitations of digital synths, eventually led to a new golden age of analog. Now the market is flooded with both analog and digital synths from scores of companies and cottage manufacturers to the point of a veritable glut. Korg’s Monotron series puts analog synthesis in the hands of anyone who has 40 bucks to spare. DIY artists have a dizzying array of choices, and the internet serves as a giant secondhand market. The Craigslist of any town might offer a used synth reasonably priced. Keep your eyes peeled!
Is there a downside to all of this? Only that you may become more consumed with the process of acquiring gear than with making sound art. It happens. A lot. Ever encounter the acronym G.A.S.? Gear Acquisition Syndrome. It’s a half-joking term. Half. Entire online discussion fora are devoted to people obsessing over gear. These fora suffer from the same problems many online discussion venues do—more heat than light. An unsuspecting artist can go to a discussion board to figure out how to solve a problem uploading the latest firmware and get caught up in interminable threads about what Dave Smith should have done when he made his latest flagship polyphonic dream synthesizer. The aptly named "gearslutz" is notorious for its countless pages of whingeing from guys who spend more time and energy collecting a picture-perfect assembly of pristine, exorbitantly expensive music gear than they ever devote to making music.
DIYers beware! In the DIY spirit, I don’t think it is anyone’s job to tell you how much or how little time or money you should spend anywhere. You’ll make your own decisions and you won’t take what I am saying as a prescription. That’s how we like it. But you might be thinking that you are not happy with where you are and you want to be inspired to create more art. In that spirit, I say: Pick up a soldering iron or a pen/stylus. Close that discussion board window on your desktop. Press the record button in your DAW, cassette deck, or micro-cassette recorder. Make art. Make or bend instruments. Now is the best time ever to bask in the light of your own creative spirit.
~ Lumen K (recovering gear addict)
is an electronic sound artist