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The Synthesizer, Solo

Dr Mike Metlay


That's not a misprint. I am not talking about the synthesizer solo, that mainstay of so many genres that can take the form of everything from eloquent expression to playful banter to outright wankery.


I am talking about the synthesizer, solo. As in, one synthesizer, played on its own, with no other instruments, no overdubs, no multitracking, no sequencing, no MIDI, nothing. Just that one synth.


Has it been done? Yes, a few times that I'm aware of. The classic example is of course "Alaska", that tour de force on the Yamaha CS-80 delivered so powerfully by Eddie Jobson. Another, somewhat less-known, is "Earth Man", Anthony Phillips' "Polymoog improvisation attempting to shatter all in its path". I'm sure there are others, but they don't spring to mind immediately. If you can think of any, let me know.


Why is this something I'm thinking about at the moment?


Third: it's a commentary (a nice euphemism for "attack") on Poindexters who think that a digital emulation of a real instrument is "obviously fake" because you can hear subtle differences when A/B testing them against the real thing solo. To which I reply, when the hell would something like that ever happen? Stop referring to the very reasonable observation that the difference would be completely buried in a mix as a "copout". Even if you don't say it out loud, you shouldn't even think it; worrying about stuff like that only gets in the way of your creativity.


Time for the first of probably many times in this blog that I'll state one of my most important musical credos: "If it sounds good, it is good." 


Second: it's a commentary (not really an attack this time) on what people really mean when they talk about a particular keyboard being a "do it all" device. What they really mean is that that keyboard contains multiple different sounds, usually including drums or sample loops, as well as an effects rack, a multitrack sequencer to play it all, and maybe other gubbins like audio inputs for live recording or sampling. It's a device that does it all by putting multiple devices inside the same chassis, which on some level isn't quite the same thing. Creating on it isn't an immediate thing; you go through lots of iterations to make a complete arrangement on it. It doesn't present entire compositions live in real time.


That observation gets closer to the heart of the matter...


First: the idea of a single synthesizer doing everything in real time is fascinating to me. What instrument can realistically stand on its own on a naked stage or in an empty tracking room? What would that entail?


I would argue that you'd at least have a shot at getting there if your instrument combines two things: an engaging sonic character that won't bore or weary an audience, and a level of real-time expressiveness that allows the player to get the most out of it. This definition holds for the two keyboards most famous for being able to carry an entire song on their own: the piano and the organ (the latter particularly in a worship setting)... as well as many non-keyboard instruments like the guitar or violin.


In other words, you're looking at an instrument that responds with nuance to the physical actions of the player with a range of sounds that are arresting to the ear ("pleasing" is a tricky adjective, and "good" way more so). Are there any out there? I'd love to know your thoughts and potential candidates for such a thing.


It's not fair for me to simply put the question out there with no opinion of my own, so let me lay down a couple of examples. Aside from historical candidates like the CS-80 and Polymoog, what else? Are there modern options?


I think one would be the Ashun Sound Machines Hydrasynth. The Deluxe has a nice big keyboard (and lets you do splits and layers, which we can argue about over beers as to whether it's cheating), but even the smaller models have so much nuance available to them, and such a rich variety of sounds, I think that I could be quite content with one as my desert island (or empty stage) instrument.


The other would be the Nonlinear Labs C15, which when it was first released proudly did away with MIDI and stated that if you wanted to get sound out of it, you had to play it. I think it's an amazing machine in that regard – certainly well beyond my meager keyboard chops to take to its limits. It has a particular character that interacts beautifully with the player's hands on the keys and feet on multiple pedals, and it's highly expressive and beautiful as a result.


And then, of course, we have the Expressive E Osmose, which is still making its impact felt in the world as more and more get into players' hands. It's being heralded as a sea-change in how players interact with their synthesizers, and it will be fascinating to see where it goes after the initial flush of "next big thing" goes away and we're left with people actually playing it on a regular basis.


This all comes around again, of course, to my main interest: how people interact with musical instruments. I would posit that if any electronic instrument had at hand a wide variety of musically useful expressive possibilities, then it would be well on its way toward being something you could truly play for an audience – solo.


What do y'all think?


















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