The Appeal of Analog Synthesizers
What is it about analog synthesizers that is so appealing? When considering this question a while back my initial thought was that it was because of the music I had been exposed to. For a lot of people my age the first major electronic music I heard was Switched-On Bach. It is possible I heard analog synths used in other pieces of music prior to this. Progressive rock and artists such as The Beatles, Monkees, Beach Boys had incorporated analog synths in some of their music. Switched-On Bach was something unique though. It was an album where all the instruments were created from this machine with knobs and and switches. Some of it seemed to emulate real instruments while other sounds were completely foreign. It is difficult to say if the impact on me would have been as big if the chosen composer was someone other than Bach. To me, Bach is the greatest composer in history and even Bach played on a banjo is still better than the majority of other composers. I believe it still would have made an impression, but Bach and Moog were a perfect combination.
So Switched On-Bach was the first vehicle for exposing me to analog synths. What was it about analog synths that continued to keep my attention? Well, initially, I didn’t become interested in synths of any kind until years later. I certainly came to appreciate analog synths with the arrival of Kraftwerk. Radio in the 1970s was full of variety and I enjoyed pretty much all of it. It also served as a jumping point to other things as I found out there was other music to be explored that wasn’t played on radio. I spent a lot of time in my room with headphones on, absorbed in the sound. I continually looked for more music to listen to and there always seemed to be more waiting for me when I got around to discovering it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I also was starting to enjoy sound for its own sake.
Like most people I ended up wanting to play an instrument. I attempted piano, violin, guitar, and drums over the years. Lack of patience and discipline pretty much doomed any chance of me learning to play an instrument in the normal way. I wanted to play like a pro but didn’t want to practice. Can’t I just skip over the boring practice stuff and play the good music right now? It seemed like I would have to just stick to enjoying music and leave the performing to others. A few things would end up happening though, that would change my relationship to music and my level of involvement.
I wasn’t too aware of what was happening in England in 1976, but by 1978 the effects were becoming evident. There was an explosion of new music starting. By 1979 there was so much new music that I was struggling to keep up. I wasn’t greatly impressed with punk even though I enjoyed quite a bit of it. The “do it yourself” message resonated though. As music evolved into post-punk and all its offshoots, suddenly there was music made by non-musicians. Of course there has always been music by non-musicians, I just hadn’t been aware of it. Here, the context was different and of course every generation has to discover their own version of “new”.
In addition to the change in the music scene, technology was making it possible for most to be able to afford cheaper instruments. My tools for attempting to make music at this point were pretty minimal. A friend had given me a Lyle guitar that was a copy of a Gibson SG. I had picked up a Rockmate drum machine from somewhere. I used a Panasonic tabletop cassette recorder and initially had to borrow another cassette recorder to make recordings as I played along with the tabletop. Eventually I picked up a regular cassette recorder and also a Realistic Electronic Reverb. My brother had purchased a real bass guitar that I was able to borrow. That was the only reasonably quality instrument I would have access to for a while.
Sometime in the early 1980s my parents bought a Realistic MG-1 analog synth. Although it was fun I was a little underwhelmed. I ended up opening it up so I could try to run my guitar through it. I had no idea what I was doing but found some spots where the guitar sound came through the synth, but sounded electronic. It quit working at some point, probably due to me poking around where I shouldn’t. I became more interested in sampling and got a Casio SK-1 sampler when they came out. My next analog instrument would be an Arp Omni 2 that I bought in the early 1990s. It was a very heavy keyboard and more “string machine” than synth. So as much as I liked the synth sound, I was kind of unimpressed again due to its limitations. Sadly I wasn’t aware of people dumping their analog synths in the 80s. I probably couldn’t have afforded them anyway, even at the reduced prices at that point.
In some respects I lost interest in analog synths. Sampling had greater sound manipulation potential. Also workstation synths were coming out that could do everything. These were an easy way to get a large variety of sounds and were good at emulating real instruments. This, along with multitrack cassette recorders allowed for some major creative sound exploration and creation. Nord introduced the first virtual analog instrument in 1994. It was out of my price range, but two years later I was able to get Roland’s JP-8000. It sounded like analog to me. Of course I had never heard or even seen a Roland Jupiter-8.
I bought other virtual analogs including the Korg MS2000, Yamaha AN1X, Alesis Ion and others. Even the analog samples in workstations were very good. It would be a while before I bought an analog synth again though. During one of my trips to visit Hal McGee I got a chance to play a Moog Voyager rack synth that he had. I was very impressed with it. The variety of sounds that can be coaxed out of Voyager is pretty amazing. I was able to get one not long after that. I also bought a Moog Little Phatty around the same time and figured that was it for analog synths. With the resurgence in popularity in analog recently I have ended up with a few more. Maybe more than a few.
So, what is it that is so appealing about analog synths? I happen to like synths of all kinds and sound creation devices in general. But even with that in mind, there are some things specifically about analog synths that are appealing.
Some of these might not apply to people that are younger. When I was growing up analog synths created the sound of the future. These were strange and unique sounds. They made the sounds of space ships, ray guns, aliens (especially Martians) and other strange sounds to represent unimaginable things.
For me they also are tied to exploration and the ongoing search for new and unique sounds. Depending on your instrument of choice, exploration is more of a compositional tool. Analog synths are sort of chameleons capable of an immense variety of sounds. So they tend to be more sound explorer and potentially less musical explorer. As a failed musician I feel more connected to sound creation than song writing.
Another reason for my attraction to analog synths is their relation to radio. I’m not sure why I didn’t make this connection a long time ago. Analog synths are a lot like shortwave radios minus the stations. You can only “tune” the sounds of shortwave (or AM), but have a lot of control over the synth sounds and how they are shaped. The sounds of some distorted voice on shortwave from around the planet could just as easily be a traveler from Mars as a strange station from outside of Moscow. As you turn the dial on the shortwave you can get all types of strange sounds, sometimes rhythmic and evolving and then fading to nothing.
So for me analog synths are the sound of the future. They are also the sound of the past. They are the tools for exploration for the non musician. The sounds they create can include violins, organs, clocks, wind, alien communications, trumpets, drums, spaceships, insects, water, electricity, and things you haven’t imagined yet. Devices for creating from your imagination. No musical experience required.
zim zim (Martian ambassador to the United States)
Great analog synth memoir. It parallels my own story in a lot of ways, except my parents never sprang for a Concertmate. They did get me a cassette recorder, a Bell & Howell, which I used to record everything, including stories I made up to entertain my brother. But I remember being wowed by Switched on Bach. Our principal in my elementary school had an assembly in which she played it for us. But, really, I have to confess that it was the kind of music I had never heard before that really sucked me into it. Gary Numan. Not the greatest artist or musician, but "Cars" sounded otherworldly to a 10 year old boy in rural Virginia. My first synth was a Roland JX-3P, which I worked construction for a summer to buy. I also got a Korg 770, which, like you with your Concertmate, I pulled apart. In my case, like a dingus I left it on hold so I could live with the rising and falling harmonics of synced oscillators in my room every day, all the time. Yes, it burned out. But this is the heart of my love of analog synths, the shifting harmonics, either from synced oscillators or tweaked filters. Love my resonance! Love that famous Moog filter. Like an idiot, I would love to buy like a dozen filter modules for my modular synth, just so I could enjoy tweaking each one for hours.
What exactly is a dingus and what is its function in an analog synth?
dingus, n. : A fool or incompetent person. Like a "fool or incompetent person, I left the synth on hold 24/7. Because dingus. But, yes, the primary meaning is "something whose name the speaker cannot remember." So, the dingus flipped the dingus on his electronic doohickey to make constant noise in his bedroom.
Thanks for the comments. Gary Numan made a big impression on me also. John Foxx was another one who had a unique sound. There were so many different ways groups incorporated analog synths in the early 80s. It is interesting that these synths have a unique enough character that you can immediately associate them with certain artists. I automatically associate DAF with the Korg MS20, Kraftwerk with the Moog Minimmog, Genesis with the Arp Odyssey and so on. I agree about the Moog filter. It's an amazing musical sound. I always thought the dingus button was on the back of the synth between the mid ports and the "instant Vangelis" switch.
I never seem to be able to find that “Instant Vangelis” switch. Been looking for it since 1983.
Walter/Wendy Carlos certainly broke through many barriers, sound and social, and considering all that, the fact that his/her recordings reached well beyond the regular set of electronic music fans into the mainstream of global society... I find that to be absolutely amazing (although I'm guessing that lots of purist Bach lovers were initially appalled by the whole "Switched On" experience).
Thanks for the comments and for bringing up something I didn't address. I completely agree that the looks of these things is also a major reason for their appeal. I only have modern day analogs, but even those are very cool looking. How can you not like something that has so many knobs and sliders on them? I'm jealous of the Micro Moog.
Awesome story. Would love to hear some of those early recordings. Also zim zim is the bee's knees.
Thanks! The real early recordings are pretty rough even by DIY lo-fi standards. Some of it might make it to my Bandcamp page eventually. In addition to being the Martian Ambassador to the United States, zim zim is also a huge fan of the Arp Odyssey.
Nice music auto-biography Phil. There always will be something about analog synths for me even though I've used computer programs for quite a while now. I still have almost all (missing that Echoplex I used to have) my analog synth gear and I keep reassuring them that I will return to them some day "soon".
Dave, it's cool that you still have most of your analog synths. I use software quite a bit and of course it can do a lot that analog synths can't. It's nice to be fortunate enough to have access to both. Never owned an Echoplex but enjoy using UAD's software version.
Grear article Phil, of course you know I love anslog synths, not very fond of digital ones but have used, I love my Moog Rogue all original book, box all bought up bunch of analog when everyone went digital, now they want em back lol, My aarp axxe burnt up, Dave Fugle has it now, have used aarp 2500, 2600, gave Dave a keyboard for the 2600 as well, I sold my Moog Prodigy, needed bucks, wish I never sold it, but had a ms20 for a while, used the buchla, All Carls stuff thats dead now many different rolands give me a analog over digital any day, a analog over my vsts anyday. Wel I am rambling, I even used the aarp avatar gave my schematics to Louis Boone deceased now, but I loved my casio dead PT80, do still love my korg poly 800, Rhodes Electric Piano, all of it well enough rambling talking bout gear not the new emulated gear thats supposed to sound like analog today. Some good stuff though the new ones that emulate.
Chris, I'm jealous of that list of synths! Would have enjoyed owning or having access to the arp 2500, 2600. I have to settle for Korg's resurrection of the arp odyssey. Always enjoy listening to your analog compositions and your collabs with Hal!
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Phillip Klampe has been enjoying music and sound since that little pocket radio in the late 1960s started sharing music and weird noise on the AM band. Failed attempts at piano, guitar, and violin over the years eventually led to experimenting with music in the late 1970s thanks to the D.I.Y. methods exposed by punk and post punk music. The rise of the cassette tape networking of the 1980s resulted in the first homogenized terrestrials sounds being made available (1986). Since settling on that name, there have been many releases over the years as well as collaborations and a few performances. Related hobbies are photography, drawing, digital graphics, and buying synths (both hard and soft).