Imagine if Tim Cook fired up the production lines and started churning out the Apple II instead of the latest Macbook Pro. The world would think he had gone barking mad. After all, what company in its right mind would decide to start rebuilding technology last manufactured in the 1970s?
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But in 2013, that was exactly the business decision made by the bosses at Korg, a Japanese multinational corporation that is one of the world’s biggest musical instrument manufacturers. Rather than spend their R&D cash on developing a digital instrument of the future, they decided to start once again building an analog synthesizer called the MS-20, which was considered cutting edge when it was released in 1978 before being dismissed as worthless trash less than a decade later. Their gamble clearly worked, because the instrument sold out across the world. Now its competitors are widely tipped to be considering making the same move, with synth fans hoping that other Japanese giants like Yamaha and Roland will bring much-loved designs back from the pre-digital past.
The Japanese multinationals might just have a fight on their hands for once because these notoriously conservative firms are just gatecrashing a party that is already been drank dry by dozens of smaller, boutique manufacturers. In the past year alone, several companies once known for their digital products have started producing instruments the old way, going back to using solder, transistors and capacitors instead of the ones and zeroes of digital programming.
Legendary synth designer Dave Smith, who recently won a Grammy for his role in developing a protocol called MIDI which allows musical instruments to communicate, told me the music world was experiencing a second analog “golden age” – and he should know because he was one of the heroes of the first one. His firm, Dave Smith Instruments, is at the forefront of this renaissance in music making and his analog instruments are once again a common sight on stages around the world.
“Musicians appreciate being able to buy new analogue instruments,” he said. “Before, they were buying vintage stuff that was over thirty years old, unreliable and basically falling apart, just because they wanted that sound. Now this time, musicians have so many choices, and many are deciding that they like the sound, look, and feel of an analog instrument.”
In tech terms, analog synthesis is distinctly vintage. It was perfected and marketed in the 1960s almost simultaneously by Robert Moog on the East Coast and Don Buchla on the West, with Moog’s idea of synthesis coming to set a template for most analog instruments. Simply speaking, an analog synthesizer works using a process called subtractive synthesis. This works by combining basic waveforms generated by two or more oscillators to produce a more complex wave, which is then filtered to remove certain frequencies, which is why it is described as subtractive. The attraction of these instruments lies in their warm, organic electronic sound, but also their ease of use. Even an amateur could pick up Moog’s famous Minimoog or another analog instrument, twiddle its multitude of knobs and be blasting out interesting sounds within seconds.
Analog reigned supreme between the 1960s and the mid 1980s, when cheaper digital synths flooded the market. These were often much better at imitating conventional sounds like pianos or bells, but sounded cold, sterile and plastic. To modern ears at least, they evoke the cheesiest, most embarrassing music produced in the 1980s while the older synths still sound powerful, organic and alive. The most popular of these synths, Yamaha’s DX-7, used FM synthesis, which is so complex it practically requires a physics degree to program anything but a boring chime. This instrument and others like it also suffered from a distinct lack of knobs, which made them almost impenetrable. Nonetheless, digital synths sold so well that they put all of the main analog manufacturers out of business. These were dark days for synthesis.
Dave Smith’s firm Sequential Circuits, whose brash, vibrant-sounding analog Prophet 5 synth can be heard all over early records by Madonna or Talking Heads, had to shut up shop. But after he did so, this beautifully crafted, wooden beast of an instrument just became more desirable along with other analogs, because musicians craved the rich, three dimensional sound that digital failed to deliver. In the years that followed, prices of old instruments soared because no-one was making them, even though demand was still high. Then, digital hardware synths began to be replaced by software versions, which essentially performed the same calculations but came in at a much cheaper price. It looked as if three dimensional, real world synths were dead. Which, if you remember, was what was said about vinyl records, until sales picked up again. Both claims were wrong.
Now, almost 30 years after closing Sequential Circuits, Smith is well and truly back in business, along with many of his old competitors and friends. Moog, the company which was responsible for some of the most famous synths of all time, has also returned and is producing exceptionally high quality analog instruments from its base in North Carolina, although the firm’s founder sadly died in 2005. Just two months ago Don Buchla once again began producing the Music Easel instrument he first sold in the 1960s. Tom Oberheim, whose distinctive white synths were used throughout the 1970s, has also returned to making analog instruments, whilst last year a British firm called Novation started production of a new version of an old instrument called the Bass Station.
It is fair to say that we are seeing something of an analog heyday, which coincides with an unprecedented craze for EDM (Electronic Dance Music) in the US, which has repackaged thirty years of British music history into a high octane rave culture. Few people are more excited about this than Dave Smith. Having watched his business go under almost half a lifetime ago, it is easy to sense his excitement at once again seeing the musical world go crazy for his instruments.
“In a way, this new golden age of analog is bigger and better,” he continued. ”The first time around, synthesizers were still very new, and technology changed very fast. Musicians would often gravitate toward the latest products. When the DX-7 came out in the 80’s, it became one of the biggest selling synths of all time. Now, there is no market for those instruments, but everyone still wants the analog synths that came before them.
“This second golden age is great for my company, but there are also dozens of small companies making analog synths, which are fun to play with but also sound good, which is ultimately what it is all about.”
Another firm that is cashed in on the analog resurgence is the French firm Arturia. It once sold a highly successful range of software programs which imitated classic analog synths including designs by Moog and even Dave Smith’s Prophet 5. Early in 2012, they released a natty little instrument called the Minibrute, which sounds just like its name suggests it might. It was so successful that shops across the world sold out and held it on back order for months. After its success, rather than doing the obvious thing and releasing a beefed up version of the Minibrute, Arturia made the strange decision to release an even simpler synth last month called the Microbrute, which retails for just under $300. Needless to say, this charming synth was found under many Christmas trees.
Frederic Brun, President of Arturia, was taken aback with the success of his cheap but characterful instruments. “When we started working on MiniBrute it was absolutely not obvious we would enjoy such success,” he told me.
Just like Dave Smith, Brun believes that this reemerging space is best served by small, nimble firms. “Larger companies have a hard time with change and innovation,” he continued. “This is true in any area. Sensing enough musicians would be interested in analogue instruments called for a good understanding of the market. But I don’t think large firms lack this. The real difficulty is to challenge your own business by moving into a different technology, a different type of marketing speech and a different sort of expertise.
“When you have a big business and a big organisation with inertia and much more to lose, it is significantly harder. The current trend for analogue, even if it looks like a step-back, is calling for a fresh and modern approach.”
One important thing to note about the resurgence of the old ways of engineering is that its highly reliant on the internet. Instrument designers often correspond with their fans to produce synths that are tailor made to musicians’ requirements, something I witnessed in action at the Edinburgh flat of a synth engineer called Ken Macbeth. Sometimes jokingly known as McMoog – a name he hates – Macbeth’s analog instruments are widely regarded as the best in the world, known for their luxurious design and luscious sound. They are also among the most expensive on the market, with his latest desktop unit selling for a sum in excess of $3,000 dollars. Yet famous musicians like The Orb, Jean Michel Jarre and Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer all own his beautiful synths and thousands of people follow him on social media, lusting after his latest creation.
He is a hard man to track down and communicates with his fans using Youtube and Facebook, but he once gave me an opinion which which sums up the appeal of the old way of doing things.
“The digital world is about zeroes and ones, but I work between zeroes and ones,” he said. “Look at vinyl: even though it has pops, clicks and hisses, it has a reputation for having a warm, lush sound. Analogue synths have a similar reputation.”
In January, the music world will descend on Anaheim, California, for a trade show called NAMM. It is here when musicians will hear if another big firm has decided to capitalise on this growing passion for analog instruments. Yet for the smaller firms, the die has already been cast. The old school methods create better sound and make money. In this new fight, I would not bet on the big boys.