vintage synths

For many musicians, vintage analogue synthesizers will always be sexier and more desirable than any guitar. Even if the machines have been surpassed technically, your basic analogue nerd will still love them for their retro-futuristic appeal and fat, classic sounds.

The first bona fide synthesizers was built at RCA in America in 1955. It was the size of a house but it paved the way for pioneers like Alan Pearlman, inventor of the ARP synthesizers, and Robert Moog and his legendary Moog range that demonstrated the potential of manipulating analogue waveforms to create and attractive, harmonic and thoroughly musical tone.

The way analogue synths work is a big part of their appeal, so here’s a crash course. Each key is a switch that turns electronic circuits on and off to trigger a soundwave. This is a three-step process: the electronic signal passes through an oscillator (which produces the soundwave), a filter section (which shapes the wave) and finally an amplifier (which raises of lowers the height, and therefore the volume, of the wave). At this point, with speakers or headphones attached, you’ll be able to hear the key you’re pressing and what it sounds like.

Analogue synths use voltage controlled oscillators rather than the microchips you’ll find in the digital counterparts. The tiny variations that occur when using analogue elements automatically give vintage synths a more “organic” sound.

After your basic waveform has been created, it’s the task of other control elements to monkey about with it. These usually include such baffling terminology as cut-off frequency, resonance, the envelope of the sound (its attack, decay, sustain and release, or ADSR) and modulation (Low Frequency Oscillation of LFO).

As these controls are normally adjusted using banks of knobs, dials and sliders, the appeal of vintage gears becomes clearer. An analogue synth is capable of producing a myriad of oddly musical noises and by twisting dials in real time, the operator can immediately hear the synth respond and the sound change.

Much of the appeal of vintage synths is the same as for classic guitars: the romance of buying a piece of history. Some even love idiosyncrasies like unstable tuning and a total lack of memory. But today’s technology means that retro sounds can be simulated with recpectable accuracy, whether as software (Propellerheads or Reason Studio, of instance) or new hardware such as the Clavia Nord Lead, a modern ‘virtual analogue’ synth.

Midi controller keyboards offer hands-on knob-twisting interaction for software and many modern synths even feature detune controls to simulate the drifting tuning of vintage synths. In fact, the world of the synthesizers came full circle this year with the release of Arturia’s incredible software emulation of the MiniMoog. Even Bob Moog approved.

For some, though, it’ll always be about the vintage construction and innate charm and character of an original analogue synth. A golden era is a golden era, whatever the instrument, and an original is always hard to beat. Jonathon Wilson

© NME August, 2002

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