Saturday, 7 April 2018

Sequenced Alternate Universes: Christopher Franke at 65

Chris Fanke, a pivotal former member of the electronic music legend Tangerine Dream, is one of the rare and still active persons who can be inextricably linked with the characteristic sound of the Berlin School of electronic music. On 6 April, he celebrated his 65th birthday.

The originally jazz drummer Franke has become a superlative pioneer in the use of sequencers, which were used by many to produce repetitive sequences of melodic notes or percussion.

The live use of sequencers, notoriously unstable in the analogue era and in need of sometimes heroic on-the-fly re-tuning, was pioneered by him and the other legend of German electronic music, Klaus Schulze.

While Schulze has used it in his solo performances that even now, on archive or bootleg tapes are spellbinding and mind-bending, Franke used them in live jams in a band that demolished any pre-conception on electronic music having been something robotic and pre-determined.

Chris Franke's contribution to Tangerine Dream's and electronic music history's seminal album Phaedra cannot be overstated. Speaking of heroics, one can hear, forever immortalised in the studio recording, Franke's on-the-fly re-tuning of the sequencers as they drift out of tune.

But then there is Ricochet, Tangerine Dream's first live album. Listening to it in 2018, it is still mesmerizing in its use of humanly impossible to perform multi-layered sequences.

Franke has not only expanded electronic music light-years beyond what was humanly playable, but his seminal contribution was that a musician was literally jamming, as in a jazz group or a fiery progressive rock outfit, with the rest of the band, whilst using the dreaded analogue sequencers.

The resulting sound has become a defining one, and even many decades later, known as the  quintessential Tangerine Dream sound.

Even the characteristic "ratcheting" of the sequencer patterns are making their way into the most state-of-the-art synthesizers manufactured now - just think of Arturia's Matrixbrute, demonstrating Tangerine Dream-esque "ratcheting" in its product demo clips.

But this is not about technology.

Yes, he has performed his mind-bending sonic imaginings on often custom-made gear that was way ahead of its time, but the essence of what was happening in his performances was eminently that of a musical mind. Yes, when he did his sequencer magic, it was almost unimaginable to most fans of electronic music that the so far rigidly and repetitively used sequencers can be played as any other instrument.

Chris Franke, as very few others, have demonstrated that superlative use of technology with a through-and-through musician thinking can propel music to levels and spheres never before even imaginable. Any Berlin School electronic music fan will have involuntary pulse rate changes when one mentions seminal live albums like Poland, which even decades later is an essential lesson to wannabe or even self-proclaimed sequencer masters.

Although his split with Tangerine Dream in the late '80s, and his setting up of a California-based solo career has many debated and perhaps painful elements to fans and others alike, it was a musically and technologically interesting move.

One could never expect the superlative master of sequencers to release a, what one might call "new age", introspective and impressionistic album - but that is exactly what his first solo album, the simply beautiful Pacific Coast Highway, is.

Franke has also produced soundtracks with remote over-the-satellite-link recorded symphonic orchestra and state-of-the-art electronics, like Universal Soldier or the hugely successful Babylon 5 TV series.

Whilst he has ventured into architectural photography, too, showing the same connection between a musical and visually creative mind as Vangelis has done, one has to recall with nostalgy the simply superhuman tour de force he has performed during his decades with Tangerine Dream.

However, if one wishes to revisit the sequencing mastery of Chris Franke in a more up-to-date robe, then his London Concert is a good reference point.

One hopes it is in no way offensive to any hardened Tangerine Dream fan or any of the current members, after the hugely regretful passing of Edgar Froese... but Chris Franke, or as he will be forever known, CF, has had a lasting and forever defining impact on what we know as the "Tangerine Dream sound"... and with that, one is actually labeling a whole and hugely significant Universe within the multitudes of electronic music of past, present, and future.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

A subtle but epic journey: Ourdom by Solar Fields

It is safe to say that by now one can firmly expect Solar Fields albums to have impeccable production, delicate care taken in sound design, subtle details in the mix and no self-indulgent technological showing off.

Ourdom, the very recent release by Magnus Birgersson aka Solar Fields is no exception - but apart from the polished technical elements, the musical aspects of the just-under 80-minutes-long album don't let expecting fans down either.

In today's collapsing attention span, shrinking to almost a singularity, it is quite uplifting to see an artist trusting us with well-structured, seamlessly flowing long pieces in the vein of the epics by Klaus Schulze.

Burning View, the album's opening track, is gently introducing the epic musical adventure with a floating ambience and subtle sonic ornaments. The gradual transition to solemn piano chords in Shifting Nature, then to the anthemic uplift of Into The Sun is a typical and very satisfying Solar Fields construct.

One can fully expect to be gradually taken to climaxes like Mountain King and Moving Lines, which are high-octane, but perfectly economically done EDM pieces with imaginative changes and variations.

Tracks like Wave Cascade provide a repose and a chance for introspection between the energetic currents of the aforementioned tracks, and Ourdom is very capable of shifting us between inner states as it does so with musical epochs, too...

Joshua's Shop with its ascending playful notes is taking us from electronic ambiences to a classical period, when the first glassy harp-like notes appear... As a delicate, nostalgic and exquisitely economic piece, it again shows how sound design, musical elements and thinking in structures can produce a concise and evocative sonic picture.

If one was not convinced by the range of imaginings heard so far, then A Green Walk and Parallel Universe can show us how eminently ambient atmospherics and spacey harmonies can fit in with the more soaring and driven passages of the album.

One can appreciate in some perfectly put-together long mixes the way in which different moods and tempos can be combined into a whole sonic journey, the mix becoming greater than the sum of its parts.

However, to state the obvious, here we have original material composed of 13 tracks, each seemingly conceived to be organic parts of the greater unit: just inspect closely the subtle way in which musical elements of a track can reference other sections they build up from or dissolve into...

It is a rare treat, and in a rushing world it is perhaps outrageous to strongly emphasise that Ourdom is best enjoyed, due to above reasons, as a single musical journey - and not track by track. Having said that, each track perfectly functions on its own, and, again, in typical Solar Fields fashion, each is a little electronic gem.

The album flows and connects very distant moods, from pure atmospherics to playful melodies to energetic motions, but the transitions are never with harsh edges...

On Ourdom, there are no right angles nor sharp edges, only ascending and descending waves and curves...

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Across centuries & continents of musical traditions - Vangelis at 75

One could try something unusual for the 75th birthday of one of the most prolific synthesizer artists: instead of reviews of selections from his musical output spanning many decades, some factual information alone could depict the significance of the almost impossible phenomenon in electronic music that is Vangelis.

Regardless of one's taste or preference for certain sub-genres of contemporary electronica, there are a few unique facts related to his body of work, its impact and significance in synthesizer music.

Having shot to fame as the keyboardist and one of the musical brains of Aphrodite's Child, his musical output soon ventured far outside the confines of progressive rock, and far outside what nowadays one understands stereotypical "electronic music" to be.

Even in 2018, it is a curious fact that one is unable to name another synth artist whose musical output spans the following categories, styles, genres and sub-genres - whilst uses electronic instruments as creative tools to connect and blend these vastly varied genres...

There is early music, specifically Medieval and Renaissance secular and sacred music. There are Far-Eastern, African and Celtic, Greek and Arabic influences and deep ethnic flavours.

There are choral-symphonic oratorios with resonances of Penderecki or Orff, but at the same time Medieval characteristics that are returning to the days of early polyphony. There is jazz-rock and even good old-fashioned rock & roll.

There are space rock suites, ambiental tone poems and abstract sonic paintings. There are "new age" and mainstream electronic vocal-instrumental works.

There are minimalist works with the shamanic and hypnotic traits of Reich and Glass. There are eminently experimental electronic adventures with echoes of IRCAM sonic collages and tone paintings.

There are Greek ballads and folks songs from the Middle Ages transposed into spacey electronic works. There are futuristic soundtracks with era-defining impact from cult film classics.

There are piano poems of twenty-plus minutes comfortably sitting within symphonic and electronic structures. There are ancient Middle-Eastern arrangements coupled with electronics, that evoke worlds that are distant in time and space.

One can travel from the dark processions of the Inquisition to the peak of Mount Everest, from delicate Chinese ornaments to vast Gothic vaults, from African tribe's ceremonial polyrhythms to the hustle and bustle of a modern metropolis's nerve centre, from intimate folk ballads to the unleashing of colossal powers by ancient and future deities and demigods...

Above list is not exhaustive, but all this can be found in the discography of one man who looked at synthesizers as creative tools serving any musical imaginings... instead of specific instruments for a specific genre limited to specific sound worlds.

Looking back at many decades of musical output, perhaps the central characteristic that made all this seemingly impossible musical range a reality was and is the refusal to treat technology as a dominant factor in the creative process.

First and foremost, there is a, as some said, great Romantic in front of those keyboards - hence comes an eminently human passion that puts technology in the service of the imagined sound worlds that refuse to listen to artificially imposed boundaries of styles and genres.

It is an interesting quasi-paradox in the case of Vangelis: treating complex, and often trailblazing, technology as just any other conventional instrument, allowed him to produce the most unconventional results that move freely across the musical traditions of many centuries and many thousands of miles.

Vangelis in electronic music demonstrated what the late Ray Bradbury demonstrated in literature: using the characteristic tools of the most futuristic outer realms of a chosen art form, one can create eminently evocative, passionate and hence emotional works that are not hampered, but instead are augmented, by the possibilities of the chosen creative tools.

Someone asked a few weeks ago on a synth music forum, what genre does his music belong to. As all music journalists and reviewers struggled over the decades, so did the numerous forum members... except for one answer, which was: "the genre is called Vangelis"...

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Converging worlds, stable antagonisms

Famously, and somewhat infamously, Klaus Schulze's first fully digital recording Dig It proclaimed the "death of an analogue" in one of its tracks.

Although the lyrics were ironic, and digital was understandably called an "automat" at that time, 1980 was not quite the best moment for heralding a tectonic shift toward an exclusive relationship with the emerging digital instruments.

Eminently digital synths (from early samplers to the later FM synths and beyond) have expanded the sonic palette to before unimaginable dimensions - but when it came to an "analogue" sound, they had been operating with a couple of crucial limitations.

In terms of sound synthesis and processing, the available computational power  was one of the factors that had been limiting the bit resolution and sample rate of the digitally represented signals that the synth operated with. This then introduced sonic artifacts, e.g. the especially notorious aliasing and a puny performance of early digital filters. Many of the still surviving, and largely outdated, stereotypes about the "digital sound" artifacts originated in this era.

The revolutionary Fairlight CMI
Both sample size and sampling rate also meant memory impact, especially for samplers. The characteristic sound of a Fairlight was partly due to its humble 8-bit sampling. 

Early Emulators used nonlinear compression tricks from the field of telecommunications standards, which exploited the way in which we hear things. Ergo they could store increasingly decent audio with fewer bits, hence with less (ludicrously expensive at that time) memory usage.

In an FM synth, like the revolutionary Yamaha DX7, the processing power was limiting the signal representation, the precision of the mathematical operations and how many of those it could perform in real time. 

The maths involved in even much later synths, like the E-mu Morpheus with its mind-bending morphing filters, limited how much control and changeability they allowed the humans to have in real time.

This was another key issue: how much we, users, could meddle in the inner digital processes and how much instantaneous control we have over the parameters that shaped our sounds.

The user interfaces on these digital synths were notoriously minimal, compared to the analogue synth users' joy of having an immediate, continuous and direct control over myriad parameters via many lovely knobs.

Even if some "programmer" kits helped one a little bit to get inside the digital beasts, the processing power still meant that one could not expect major real-time control over major number of key synthesis parameters. Notorious example, alas, is the aforementioned DX7, but even something like a Roland D50 engine was not a dream to deal with even with the programmers manufactured for them.

However, the analogue and digital worlds began to converge, and with huge steps in more recent times. NB convergence does not mean that the two (may) end up absolutely indistinguishable from each other, nor that someone may have the sheer audacity to claim that. Latter would immediately assemble the either purely digital, or purely analogue (never hybrid) execution squads in many internet forums...

The age-old debate about how much, in what conditions and in what way can one hear or not the differences between real analogue synths and their digital emulations have never been more heated.

It may be obvious, but it is most often missed: the very factor that makes such debates on increasingly subtle aspects even possible is the huge strides achieved in the digital/analogue convergence. At the time of  the release of Dig It, the topic would have been hilariously absurd.

With current sampling frequencies and bit-precisions achievable in internal computations and sample representations, with current volatile and non-volatile memory amounts, and considering the sheer processing power in multi-core engines, the ability to emulate analogue circuit behavior has increased exponentially. So did our ability to control the processes - think of the user interface of a Roland System-8 or Korg Radias for example.

VA, or virtual analogue, synths have the increasing ability to handle many tweaks to many beloved knobs, altering in real time the synthesized and processed signal. We take this for granted now, but not so long ago this came at huge expense, if it was even possible. Also, the level at which characteristic irregularities in analogue circuitry can be modeled have vastly increased.

The Roland JV-1080 (and its successors) tried, for example, to imitate some crucial irregularities and instabilities with what they called the "1/f modulation". Fast forward, and now certain Roland VA gear, like the Boutique series, have detailed circuit modeling with even a control to adjust the age of the instrument - in order to simulate the components' sound-altering decay over time.

Which then lands one in the everlasting debates about how "good" they sound or whether analogue reigns supreme, full stop.

Roland Boutique series JP-08 VA synth
The answer to latter, looking at some forums, is typically a resounding quick "yes", or similarly emphatic "no". 

However, both such irrational extremes disregard a core contextual element.

"Analogue sounds best" is still very true, for...  the sphere of analogue synth sounds, especially within the confines of substractive synthesis. 

There is a very obvious reason why even decades ago creative minds embraced all other synthesis methods, too, including eminently digital gear... but even in current times some lock themselves into an exclusive, hence by definition self-limiting relationship with just one specific corner of the sonic Universe.

Latter is possible within the confines of certain sub-genres of electronic music, so exclusion of vast other sonic possibilities is not an issue. 

There is psychology at work, too, especially if one defines oneself by the used tools - instead of treating them as just tools. Musicians fall into the very same trap as e.g. photographers have been doing for ages, we really are not as different nor special as we sometimes would like to believe.

While many photographers were caught up in film vs. digital debates, the creative bunch embraced both technologies and used what was best for a certain purpose - same goes for synth artists of recent past and present.

Taking such shamelessly utilitarian approach, it boils down to something eminently simple but missed completely on a daily basis in many forums: is the tool in question the best one to use for the task?

Questions like "how can I create a realistic piano with my XY analogue gear" or "how can I do multi-operator FM synthesis via analogue means" (to quote two concrete examples) show how the use of the right tools for the job is entirely ignored in favor of a bordering-on-fetish approach. 

In the two examples, the approach itself is a by-definition failure from the start. If one thinks of e.g.  multi-operator FM synthesis's vast sonic changes introduced by minute alterations of some parameters, lack of precise and exactly reproducible control in a purely analogue approach makes the task eminently pointless.

Also, the task in question may well have not just parameters like music genre, musical or sonic style, technical range etc., but also crucial factors that define personal work flow.

If one needs instant recall and stability, then one goes for a hybrid or a fully digital tool, in order to be able to focus on reproducing the needed sounds as quickly and precisely as possible.

If one puts the sound source through (no pun intended) convoluted chains of processing, the "I can hear the difference immediately" between an analogue or digital source may no longer actually mean nor matter much- especially not in the final mix. Internet forum rhetoric is superb, until one plays games with an audience and subjects them to creatively processed sounds from plethora vastly different origins.

There is also the effort element in the workflow. It is often left out of the sizzling debates, exactly because it is highly personal and goes to the creative process of one or the other individual.

Ansel Adams's superb prints can be appreciated not just because of their visuals, but also because of the dark room efforts they involved - latter efforts can be nowadays reduced by order of magnitude in a digital dark room. Let's just think of his elaborate multi-masked dodging and burning, which required often a dozen paper cut-out masks to adjust precisely and locally the tones... However, he and many others used the best possible tools available to achieve what they set out to visualize.

Ansel Adams in his darkroom
As fundamental as it sounds, it is remarkably absent in many debates: as much as one may subjectively appreciate the mechanics of translating ideas into images or sounds, those are just the mechanics of the process - and some actually distance one from the end goal. It is admirable to suffer through a certain workflow for the sheer heroics involved, but...

Even seasoned judges in photography competitions have fallen into the trap of trying to guess, when separate categories were not defined, whether the photograph emerged from a digital or a traditional dark room. Watching them agonize over the prints was in a way entertaining. Did the origins of, and workflow leading to the image, really matter? In some cases, perhaps, but trying to reach judgement centered on content and message while mixing it with considerations on medium, process and tool-related aspects was and is symptomatic of the subjective traps.

There is marketing and financial side, too. Clearly, spending vast amounts on a certain piece of kit takes a huge degree of objectivity and honesty to allow the owner to admit that some kit at a fraction of cost is "close enough" for what the end result wants to be. It is not different from the debates about whether an Alien Skin plugin reproduction of the special je-ne-sais-quois feel of a certain film stock is good enough compared to shooting on that very film, then scanning and post-processing it...

Even digital relics have been brought into the present, with extra oomph... The Synclavier monsters' computational power nowadays can fit multiple times in an ordinary laptop,  and a Fairlight dinosaur can come to life in a cheap plugin. A legendary monster like the PPG Waveterm is nowadays wonderfully reproduced by apps like Audioterm coupled with a super-affordable Waldorf microWave or Blofeld that emulates the PPG Wave's characteristic analogue filters.

Roland Boutique VA synth can reproduce "well enough" the analogue originals at a fraction of the cost.

It is a cliche by now that the compromise between "good enough" and cost & effort is an eminently personal one.

Perhaps warranty periods and obtainable state-of-the-art (and affordable) components outweigh in some studios subtle differences in sound.

However, putting to one side psychology, ego, preferences in work flow, personal finances and priorities (feeding into the subjective), the brutal technological fact is that if something nowadays has set out to be a good VA instrument, then it has unprecedented chances of coming "close enough".

In some debates on "close enough", the use of arguments centered on aliasing, converter bit precision, computational precision and complexity are rather anachronistic nowadays, unless it is a really badly made gear. The subjectivity of such arguments is betrayed by how much they are in denial of the signal processing realities lurking under the bonnet.

When it does go wrong, it may actually add character... Waldorf Blofeld's surprisingly bad metallic reverb is horrid to some ears, but perhaps in someone else's studio it adds a characteristic thing that is missing in the other superb quality digital effects... In certain patches, it actually becomes essential to the final sound and pumping it through good quality reverb loses that certain something...

So while the galaxies of personal motivations, attempts of self-definition via the used tools will continue to swirl on and on, the convergence up to a point of the two (in some minds still) antagonistic worlds is also unstoppable.

Does true analogue sound best? Yes, for true analogue sounds, if that is all one needs... and when target audience can hear the current VA vs. analogue differences... and when they self-consciously care.

Does the audible differences in analogue-wannabe digital imitations matter? Yes, if in the sonic creation we make that authenticity a priority over myriad other artistic elements. Even eminently analogue legends perform nowadays with their vintage pieces emerging live from digital and hybrid gear, while internet forums of home musicians spiral into a frenzy for months and years debating some VCO vs. DCO sonic differences.

Thorsten Quaeschning of Tangerine Dream
While Daft Punk famously replied "Daft Punk" to the question "who will hear the difference between the three different microphones" on the track Giorgio by Moroder (from the album Random Access Memories), they embraced all technology at their disposal for achieving the creative goal.

How many listeners of Tangerine Dream's expansive improvised live sets on recent Sessions I and II albums lose sleepless nights trying to identify where the Doepfer modular ends and the JD-Xa's digital engine part begins?

As simple and obvious as it may be, countless such electronic artists, who do not have cramps about self-defeating puritanism about one sort or another, have demonstrated that even having attention to detail at obsessive levels is not an obstacle in going for the main goal that matters to them: putting every available tool in the service of creativity

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Tangerine Dream's The Sessions II : sonic visions on a cosmic scale

Recorded live at the E-Live Festival in the Netherlands, the fresh double CD by Tangerine Dream comes shortly after their 50th anniversary of continuous electronic music making.

As one of the pillars of the so-called Berlin School of electronic music, their musical output has always been a demonstration of how often the most cutting-edge technology can be just an instrument in, rather than an overpowering dictator of, an artistic vision.

While Kraftwerk is currently touring with their decades-ago created music that had built a unique aesthetic of a future world that is by now firmly in their (and our) past, Tangerine Dream has not stopped creating and imagining new sonic worlds. The latter visions are not those of some Mensch-Maschine, on the contrary - once again, Tangerine Dream creates an eminently human sonic Universe.

The two tracks, both of almost fifty minutes in length, are live improvisations.

As the band founded by the late Edgar Froese has been doing, this album, too honours the listener with a high degree of trust: in a world where attention spans are shrinking to a point singularity, Tangerine Dream trusts us to follow their journey through tens of minutes of continuous musical adventures.

And adventures they are indeed...

Both Tulip Rush and The Floating Dutchman unleash vast powers from analogue and digital engines at work on stage - but this is no self-indulgent showing off.

While largely improvised, the discipline with which the sonic paintings are structured, elements are introduced and layered, the way in which the technological beasts are unleashed and tamed in mind-blowing cycles is quite remarkable.

The sheer expanse of the musical pieces benefits from the possibilities of the medium itself - we could not imagine this in the era of vinyls, exactly as Klaus Schulze in the past could not truly expand his lengthy sonic visions to their full scale.

There is something about Mellotron (or nowadays Memotron) flutes, choirs and strings that is simply addictive, especially when Tangerine Dream layers them with, or sets them up as counterpoints to, pulsating and mind-bending sequenced patterns.

These two vast tracks are no exception, and if we wish to feel nostalgic about the tonal world of let's say Rubycon or Phaedra, then yes, even for just that one aspect, this double CD is a must-have.

But... the double album is so much more.

It does not do justice to the tracks to pick out elements or details, and one would highly recommend to actually treat the two pieces as a single sonic experience...

However, who can forget even after a first listening session the way in which in-between Earth-moving unleashing of sequencer improvisations (oh yes, Tangerine Dream have always shown us this is not a contradiction in terms), Hoshiko Yamane's violin gently steps in with soaring improvised lines that float above the electronics?

It is a testament to the eminently human, and not man-machine, electronic music produced by the band that one of the most organic and emotive instruments, the violin, finds a natural-sounding cosy home among the electronics. It does not sound like a sonic contrast, on the contrary, it blends in seamlessly with the synthesized textures.

Or, how those Mellotron flutes delicately soothe us before and after the tectonic movements caused so thrillingly by the intricate and complex multi-layered sequences that still to this day only Tangerine Dream can truly execute, in a live setting no less...

The listener is treated to lush chords, serene intros and interludes between these cosmic tidal waves of power, delicate melodic elements and self-confident power trips. Something is always changing, evolving, and nothing loses its way into some kind of self-indulgent technology showing-off.

This is TD, with an unmistakable and trademark sound - the post-Edgar Froese line-up of Thorsten Quaeschning, Ulrich Schnauss and Hoshiko Yamane take us on a very human and utterly passionately improvised journey that fully benefits from the possibilities of current digital media.

Recently, after the utterly superb Quantum Gate and Sessions I albums, the topic of whether the present TD is "still TD" has come up in an internet discussion. One may have the audacity, after having listened several times to the full Sessions II, to state that if there was a fresh and resoundingly affirmative answer to that question, then it is this live release.

Anybody familiar with the introspective, but at the same time expansive and perfectly structured, Tangerine Dream compositions is guaranteed to enter a familiar, but even after half of a century, a constantly evolving and surprising sonic world.

Monday, 5 February 2018

The haunting of the new

Korg Prologue

The title of a classic Ray Bradbury short story, borrowed here temporarily, describes something that happened at the start of this year, and it shows how increasingly limited number of designers can think in novel ways when it comes to, paradoxically perhaps, re-visiting legacy technology of yesteryear. One manufacturer has proven yet again that when putting the musician at the centre of the design thinking, the result can be again a step evolution with something that nobody ever created in a hardware instrument.

We have seen years of retro synth offerings that were inundating the insatiable current market without offering much that the state-of-the-art technology could add as extras to our (home or other) studios of today.

When there was some innovation, usually, with extremely few exceptions, big and small names alike have come forward with instruments that, at best, had small variations on a theme, or added something that then stopped well short of what it could have become.

As usual, the beginning of the year and the NAMM show was expected to parade, even if in the preliminary states of not quite market-ready teasers, the latest and greatest offerings from music instrument makers.

Perhaps NAMM 2018 was one of the most polarised so far, in terms of the samey, endless variations on previous and current themes vs. the truly innovative ideas in the field of electronic instruments. As the ancient saying goes, light shines brighter in darkness - and this year there was one and only one step evolution that made the absence of innovation in the other products all the more evident.

Once again, countless new analogue variations, new modules, new re-spins (this is no longer a contradiction in terms, in the retro wave...) of the past, recent past and even present.

Innovation does not mean adding some extra polyphony or extra oscillators, an age-old matrix sequencer or whatever long pre-existed component to an existing design. Whatever name may stand behind it, let it be Moog or Dave Smith Instruments or Novation, this is simply a re-iteration (as illustrious as it may be) of existing technology.

Among the manufacturers that in the past months did not just regurgitate old ideas or just put new spin on essentially the same previously marketed instruments, Waldorf did stand out with the flagship Quantum. However, even this is merely bringing hardware instruments in line with software plugins that existed for decades.

Still, finally, a granular synthesis engine integrated with something else inside a tangible instrument... but no step evolution here, nothing that many others have not thought of before in terms of sound generation.

Waldorf Quantum

Going back a little bit, in the slightly less immediate past, Roland has thought of hybrid analogue / digital instruments, and produced a while ago the JD-Xa. However, apart from its frustrating user interface, the most frustrating is the stopping in conceptual thinking half-way through. It is a horrendously limited instrument compared to what the marriage of digital and analogue engines could have been.

Roland JD-Xa

Yamaha has produced the Genos, that in their breathtaking audacity (and by definition shocking  incorrectness) they dared to call a workstation. For many decades, the Korg M1 has defined and back then basically create the category - and even on a superficial scan of the Genos specs, it fails fundamentally and spectacularly.... and it is, at best, a sample-based arranger keyboard on steroids.

Yamaha Genos

Long gone are the days when Roland and Yamaha have produced step evolutions and presented entirely new ideas in usable instruments. Apart from endless re-spins of their glorious past (distant past...), what we see is the same synthesis engines being re-spun endlessly, in the best of cases, with some tweaks and expansions...

Even the Yamaha Montage was merely a beefed-up re-spin of their FM and sample-based AWM2 dual engine synths, with a user interface innovation. The brutal fact is that since FM synthesis (in the era-defining Yamaha DX7) and variphase engines (in the innovative Roland V-Synth), these manufacturers have not produced anything other than gradual increments of pre-existing technologies. Nor have many others...

The only step evolution produced and presented in mature form, winning also the "best in show" award at NAMM 2018, was the Korg Prologue. The major step is not because of them releasing yet another analogue instrument, not even because it is a hybrid digital + analogue synth.

There was a lot of discussion on its modulation capabilities with one LFO... which, incidentally, was also the case of several era-defining analogue instruments of the past... Somehow we have not seen legendary Prophet 5 synths tossed in dustbins by annoyed owners because of their single LFO :)

What those discussions and the subjective debates missed entirely, was what we could witness for the first time ever in a hardware synth... Apart from a hybrid architecture that did not stop half-way through the quest of capitalising on its possibilities (as Roland did with the aforementioned JD-Xa), it introduces user-definable, user-programmable digital oscillators and digital effects (!) in the multi-engine.

The ability to define whatever digital oscillator (also digital effects) with a software development kit (SDK) to be released in April, to have 16 of these user-definable units that operate seamlessly as any pre-defined oscillator in the Prologue synth, well, it is something we see for the first time in a full-fledged non-modular hybrid synth keyboard... and as the cliche goes, possibilities are really endless.

Korg Prologue versions

What it shows again, is that in a landscape dominated by the retro movement, somebody can come up with a brand new idea that instead of repeating the same old concepts, elevates them to entirely new heights.

It showed off the increasingly painful difference between thinking with purely marketing minds (let's re-spin a many decades old engine and violate even consecrated instrument category definitions with a huge price tag, one may guess what keyboard this applies to...) and with musician-oriented engineering minds.

Roland a while ago has introduced the plug-out concept, where essentially a software plugin could be loaded into their System-1 and System-8 keyboards. However, once again it fundamentally limited itself: the plug-outs are only done by the manufacturer, there is no open software development, and the plug-out slots are extremely limited anyway.

It was another example and another frustrating case when one gets close to an idea, completely misses the potential and with a very profit-oriented approach produces an almost-solution that does not have the musician and sound creator at its centre,  instead it firmly keeps the manufacturer's marketing thinking at its centre with an iron grip.

Even in this backward-looking market-driven world, Prologue, with the extremely few exceptions of some smaller manufacturers and some modular offerings, it shows there is hope. It happens to come from one of the big names, but it seems possible to come up with something new. As in the case of Kronos, the superlative workstation, this is again something that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

However, it is also symptomatic how devoid of innovation the entire landscape has become, where a few, increasingly few, new ideas stand out.

As in Ray Bradbury's wonderful tale, the newly (re-)created embodiments of old technology can have, in this case, exciting and entirely novel spirits haunting it in the best possible sense.

It also shows that innovation can be propelled by a user- and musician-centric approach, even if it now demands quite a technological skillset in order to capitalise on the offered potentials.

Hopefully, this spellbinding haunting of the new will continue in some, let it be small or super-large, names in the industry.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Three years on... the Dream continues

Edgar Froese (Photo: commons / wikimedia)

Edgar Froese, the founder of the electronic legend, well, almost institution that was and is Tangerine Dream, passed away three years ago, on 20 Jan 2015.

As a prominent and eminent figure of what became known as the Berlin School, he has navigated through almost five decades of tumultuous musical, technological and social changes with his band.

As a figure of speech, we can probably say countless studio and live albums, a long list of illustrious soundtracks have been created, plus of course numerous solo albums.

A quintessential characteristic of his philosophy and that of the music of Tangerine Dream has been the fact that technology never took over and never became the ultimate goal. It always served a purpose as a mere creative tool, as revolutionary as it was in Edgar's and his band mates' hands.

Edgar would be very happy to see the band today and his legacy - and he may well be extremely happy at, as he put it, another cosmic address he moved on to in January 2015.

The 50th anniversary album, Quantum Gate, which was also reviewed here has been a great success.

The number of not just electronic but rock and other music magazines that have almost re-discovered Tangerine Dream was a joy to see.

The return to improvised live performances and the release of these lengthy pieces are a superb renaissance for the fans, who last heard such concert pieces several decades ago.

The current members of TD, Thorsten Quaeschning, Ulrich Schnauss and Hoshiko Yamane, have taken Edgar's overall musical and creative philosophy successfully into Edgar's posthumous period.

There is something remarkable happening, and Edgar would be, we can be sure, all too happy to witness this: unlike bands like Yes, who without a defining figure joining them live have really lost their way and leading to rather mechanical live album releases, Tangerine Dream is continuing with vast bursts of new creativity.

While the sound stayed instantly recognisable, it is a TD of the 21st century and with state-of-the-art, but musically functional as ever, technology.

On a personal note, I first came into contact with Edgar and TD's music as a teenager, beyond the Iron Curtain. I like to always point out for people who could access any music at any moment in any circumstances, that getting my hands on such music was a lengthy but rewarding adventure... and what escapism it was!

However, I would never have thought that more than three decades later I shall be treated to fresh and invigoratingly scintillating Tangerine Dream albums that have the unmistakable presence of Edgar's musical spirit still.

While remembering with sadness Edgar, there is joy in witnessing a quite unique phenomenon in the contemporary music scene.

Rest in peace, tremendous wizard of sounds, of time and space - and very glad to still have You with us in the continuing story of the phenomenon called Tangerine Dream!