First ramblings of a synth geek – Analogue Synths, gawd luv em!

Well Hello there… my that’s a smashing blouse you have on!

I’m an ‘ahem’ 40 something year old IT administrator, Hubby to Nikki, Dad to my two little girls Amy & Alice. As being the only male in a house full of girls I shall be no doubt be blogging about them soon!

This is my very first blog, so I’d like to start with one of my main passions, music!

I’ve always been pretty much obsessed with music, from starting out trying to sing and record quietly in my bedroom in the early days… then onto singing in bands, recording & producing a few of them and my own, or playing an actual instrument! (guitar/keys woooh!) with the latter being my weakest skill but favourite instrument, yes… I’m a synth nerd at heart.

As I’m getting on a bit I suppose the obsession came appeared sometime in the mid seventies, following pretty much every child’s interest at that time…. the moon landings!

Then with that came the mass of Space-themed films with their scores & effects utilizing the recent explosion in music technology….. the analogue synthesizer, which fit in perfectly with everyone’s ‘future’ vision of sound.

Things that really stick in my head from this era are just the weird noises and soundscapes from such British TV shows like Space 1999 (inc. ‘That’ scary episode! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9WKfEj5JpwA ), Blake’s 7, Doctor Who & the amazing sounds on The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy original radio show (BBC radiophonic workshop at their best). Those, along with Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds’ made a young/quite hyper-minded 7/8 year old pause and put down his Six Million Dollar man action figures, put on my Dad’s MASSIVE headphones and listen!

I also remember the ‘orrible cheesiness of Disco and mid seventies ‘pap’ (Georgio Moroder excluded), although at the time I was quite into a 50’s throwback do-wop british group called ‘The Amazing Darts’, yes I have just admitted that online…. I WAS SEVEN YEARS OLD ALRIGHT!!

When synth-pop first hit the charts in 1979, I remember taping ‘top of the pops’ from the TV via a portable mono Philips cassette recorder and holding the mic to the TV speaker, whilst ‘shushing’ my Parents and sister as I hit record & play. I saw this weird looking bloke, with other weird looking blokes on odd looking keyboards playing a weird sounding song…… and I really liked it! It was Tubeway Army’s ‘Are Fiends Electric’ with our Gazza doing his best android impression.

After a brief fling with Adam & the Ants, culminating in my Dad catching me parading around my bedroom with a white stripe of chalk across my nose and swinging my sisters ‘wand’ around like I was in the video for ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’, it was back to the synth bands & Gary Numan….there was an explosion of synth pop with bands around 1980, like OMD, Human League, Visage, Ultravox, John Foxx, Depeche Mode, Eurythmics, Yazoo closely followed by the slightly more corporate bands like Duran Duran, Spaundau Ballet, Thompson Twins etc etc.

I hadn’t really discovered the synth ‘underworld’ at this time with the pioneers like Fad Gadget or Throbbing Gristle etc as they were a tad harsh to my delicate young ears 🙂 although I do remember hearing some stuff late night on my transistor radio as I fell asleep… It was probably John Peel’s show or something similar. I mainly stuck to the pop side of it all.

That era was really exciting to me, no two sounds sounded the same, possibly down to lack of preset sounds and everything needed programming from scratch every time. The record labels around 1979-83 also pretty much gave anyone with a synth and a bit of talent ‘carte blanche’ on their albums with minimum interference, and some amazing tracks & albums were released as a result, until the labels figured out their ‘pop business model’ anyway.

I started to move away from synth based pop around 83/84 as it went more progressively digital, corporate and sanitized (although I didn’t understand what the differences where at the time) and into the guitar based ‘indie’ scene then onto rock & metal later, which will probably be the subject of a future blog…. if anyone’s interested.

I still dabbled with synth music through this time though and after having used a plastic keyboard ‘overlay’ on my Commodore 64 & Amiga to make simple music and beats I purchased my first synth around 1987 (after a visit to my friends house where I saw a real Moog up close and being used in anger!).  It was an Elka EK22 – DCO poly analogue . This was followed a year later by a rather beautiful pristine beast – a Yamaha CS30 for £80 found in a charity shop.

These synths were incredibly unfashionable at the time, read ‘cheap-ish’ to a 17/18 year old. The digital synth market was huge and the old unreliable analogues were being sold off really cheap or even thrown away in the latter part of the 80’s…. sacrilege!

A local music shop ‘Sound Centre’ even had a TB303 in the window for years in a fading box that no-one was interested in. (I think it was well under £100 and alongside a TR606 & 707 that were much more expensive!). I walked past it most weekends wondering how you played it and whether it was any good as it looked like a toy. Funny that Roland TB303’s now can go for upwards of £1000 on the s/h market.

All the rage from the mid-latter part of the 80’s was digital synthesis, with FM synthesis, Phase Distortion, Wavetable & Linear Arithmetic being the main types If I recall correctly.

I never really tried these types much, they baffled me somewhat and for years until very recently was an Analogue ‘purist’, I think in retrospect this was down to a couple of things:

Firstly in the mid 80’s it became fashionable to have an LED or LCD display, but they were in their infancy and usually could only display up to 16 characters per ‘line’, and a synth would have maybe two lines at a push, a lot had just 8 digits on one line and quite a few just had a two digit LED!. This wasn’t conducive to easy hands on programming away from the presets, especially as the 2nd fashionable thing was that:

The 80’s streamlined everything back to a minimum, it was a favourite of all the synth designers to do away with all the wood paneling, metal fascias, knobs and sliders and just put a few piddly little buttons that accessed a number of sub menus (which were usually designated by a 2 digit hex number). this wasn’t very intuitive at all and subsequently a nightmare for programming or just quick experimentation.

They also required a full signal path diagram printed on the plastic casings with all the sub menu numbers. Probably down to keeping costs down and tying in with the improvement of IC’s and software.

This, combined with the most popular synthesis: FM being just a tad confusing, I believe resulted in the latter part of 80’s synth-pop sounding very homogenized, where the DX7 dominated almost every track (and Stock Aitken Waterman!). Instead of being programmed effectively, which since i’ve heard some amazing demos, it seemed to end up with the standard presets from the DX cartridge sets being heard everywhere across the charts (Whitney Houston electric piano sound anyone?).

The interesting thing about the mid-latter 80’s was also the appearance of the sampler, now that was much more interesting to me, and I purchased an Ensoniq Mirage DSK-8 for a substantial £500 also in 1988, daft money for someone earning £35 a week! It was awesome, albeit a buggy beast, but the best thing I found, apart from sampling belches and farts, was it’s analogue filter.

Still, being into Jarre, Art of Noise, Pet Shop Boys, Numan (still!) etc along with my new found Indie & Rock music passion I could belt out a few sampled & synthesized tunes, which unfortunately (or should that be fortunately) I don’t have anymore as I binned all my old cassettes over a decade ago.

Then… in late 1989, it all changed again. Probably down to analogues being so cheap, they were picked up by early dance musicians an used on a lot of the emerging house music, acid house being my personal young clubbing favourite. This was the TB303’s rise to expensive fame years after it was considered a flop.

I used to go clubbing in these days to ‘the Palace’ nightclub in Blackpool, dancing like a knobhead with an acid house smiley face for an earring…… it was quite tragic really! 🙂

Then I discovered the power of ROCK, i found the Who’s 70’s output & Pink Floyd, Yes etc and there they were, the analogue ARP/Moog modulars, moog mini’s & EMS Synthi’s producing amazing lush sounding pads, drones and bleeps, years before I’d heard any of the synth-pop & TV scores I mentioned earlier!

Since then, analogues have had a resurgence, then gone out of fashion for the 2nd time, then like riding a wave (d’ya see what I did there?) they were back with ‘Virtual’ Analogues and eventually they’re back to producing full true analogue synths with reliable tuning in larger numbers (and most much cheaper this time around).

They’re still my favourite instrument of choice, a good subtractive synthesis analogue, and especially overdriving it’s filter can make a machine seem alive in my opinion, and done well can compete with the heaviest of guitars and the lushest of strings.

Now all i need to do is learn how to play keys better!

that’s enough waffling for now. See I told you it was a ramble!

Ta fer reading my personal musical history drivel 🙂

Kev

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4 thoughts on “First ramblings of a synth geek – Analogue Synths, gawd luv em!

  1. A very cool read Kev! I should post a similar to my own WordPress. I’ve barely posted anything though as well, I don’t have any readers! Lol.
    As I’d burbled elsewhere – quite a few similarities to my progression in the synthworld. The Mirage was also my first sampler in ’86 iirc. 🙂

  2. Wow this is really cool, I own 2 SX1000s one with a broken VCO and one with VERY scratchy pots. I have one major problem, I can’t seem to get the knobs off, I am afraid of ripping the pots to pieces if I pull them any harder. Do you have any suggestions? I really don’t want to break either of my favourite synths in the process of fixing them…

    • I take it they’re the push on types you’re on about? Some Jens have all knobs with grub screws and some have all push on (apart from waveform, noise & range selector knobs)

      I’ve had a few that were really difficult to remove, personally I just got some large pliers and a rag to protect them and used my knuckles as a lever to prize them free, if you get my drift.

      Some come off ok but the odd ones do take more effort, they do always seem to get to the point of ‘oh my god I’m going to destroy the chuffin pot!’ Heh, but they should come off ok, sometimes violently 😉

      Don’t worry too much though, they have a locking nut underneath so even if you snap a shaft you can replace the pot ok without worrying about damaging a pcb.

      Good luck!

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