Thursday, 26 January 2017

In the aftermath of NAMM 2017

NAMM 2017 has finished recently, and although it is always far from just an electronic instrument show, it has further emphasized a very solid trend among big and small synth manufacturers alike.

If one questions the countless retro and retro-emulating gear being paraded again by the the big and small names, and the scarcity of truly innovative thoughts, well, this is merely a response to a demand.

Synthesizers are, fundamentally and by definition, unique instruments in their ability to create and shape old and new sounds. Also, they can bridge the sonic and temporal gap between many centuries' and many distant realms' musical tradition - they can produce an often-thought-to-be impossible sonic world that can be, at the same time, ancient and contemporary, even futuristic, in the right hands.

However, while they had been the vehicles and, no pun intended, instruments of sonic and musical innovation for decades, the present shows a different direction.

Unprecedented technological advances created an everyday and increasingly affordable reality in which, to quote a recent line from Klaus Schulze, one can only be limited by one's imagination and not the instrument's capabilities.

Is then electronic music of today marked by unprecedented sonic innovation? Are the newer and newer synth and studio gadgets forward looking innovations to facilitate this sonic progress?

Occasionally, and increasingly rarely, yes.

Occasionally, there are leaps in sound-making and sound-shaping ability - think of samplers, FM synthesis, granular synthesis, variphase processing, morphing filters...

Occasionally, even if underlying mathematics and technology are relying on pre-existing concepts, the instruments themselves represent leaps in how a musician can unleash his/her creative powers. Think of compact affordable modular synths, or the astounding music workstations like the M1 and its successors, or the vast sample libraries shaped further by complex processing plugins and/or sampler keyboards.

However, as the latest NAMM also demonstrated, a heavy trend is filling rooms with... recycled history.

Some are caught in a loop of releasing endless remakes and variations of their glorious classics from the past decades, others add more polyphony to previous classic models and/or architectures.

Certainly, there is a demographic element that creates insatiable demand for such retro gems being recycled endlessly. The blogger is part of that demographic, but hopefully not yet caught in this mental loop.

As it happened with motorcycles, there is an age group that once dreamed about those beasts, but now can afford them in much beefed-up versions. There are entire new genres established that are nostalgically re-creating past trends in electronic music, or in general, of music that was predominantly relying on electronic instruments.

Beyond this demographic phenomenon, there are new generation musicians who reach for the retro sounds and retro instruments' recreated or souped-up versions with an aim to add a certain special flavor to established mainstream electronic music sub-genres.

But... in many ways, we are witnessing a polarisation of electronic music.

Apart from the still purely academic ventures in the vein of IRCAM experiments, in the accessible electronic music there are extremely few names who truly make use of these instruments' unique capabilities.

The rest are using eminently unconventional instruments in extremely conventional manner - and when innovation is celebrated because it sounds exactly like a sequencer-laden track from 40+ years ago, then something is very warped in our perception.

To return to NAMM, one of the highlights was the Arturia Matrixbrute - and an otherwise superb demo showed the sequencer capabilities... heralded as a major sensation and as an innovative beast of an instrument, whilst the produced music sounded exactly like Tangerine Dream's Ricochet from 1975. Yes, it was 42 years ago.

The time warp could not be more complete nor more obvious.

Nobody can produce quantum leaps in musical instruments every year, but perceptions of what is innovation are being distorted by mere addition of more polyphony, more sampling disc space, more pre-existing synth engines crammed under a single bonnet, more step sequencer buttons now affordably bolted on top of some otherwise unremarkable analog engine.

While this perception distortion is occurring in the market, it is then also occurring in the music that is produced with these "innovative" instruments.

With notable exceptions, some popular trends in electronic music are re-tracing their steps or someone else's steps, and media heralds them as "new voices" while they are faithfully reproducing decades-old sounds (in widest sense).

There have been and there are some extremely popular electronic musicians in mainstream genres, who could blend the dance music of their era with gregorian choir passages... or high-octane EDM with sounds of the '50s, or with sounds of distant musical cultures.

However, while even media perception is warped by the retro "innovations", there is a danger that the most imaginative and boundless instruments are predominantly becoming mere tools to clear or smooth some beaten paths or widen them a little bit.

If our expectations of what sonic exploration is does not get out of the grip of retrospective loops, then we must not blame manufacturers for coming up with endlessly regurgitated history,

They are running a business and they are responding to demand that does not seem to decay any time soon.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Retro progress

Korg ARP Odyssey FS (2017)

The new year began with some retro legends like the ARP Odyssey full-size version hitting the market, as a result of Korg's continued dedication to analogue revival.

However, the somewhat philosophical aspects of this growing retro revival are something notable... and undoubtedly controversial.

The surge in the use of analogue modeling instruments, and then true analogue (new, old or remakes of old) instruments and sonorities has been with us for some time. Even dominant mainstream electronic music trends, also some of the biggest names in some of the very "here and now" electronic music sub-genres (think of Daft Punk), have returned very self-consciously to the analogue sound world.

However, two aspects are of concern - one is related to the instruments themselves with their marketing strategies, and the other related to the new-old and old-new sound aesthetics in the creative thinking.

To begin with the creative aspects, a highly controversial question could be posed very easily while looking at recent decades of synthesizer use. What percentage of musicians create individual, hence new, sounds with the instruments that are, above all, for the synthesis of unlimited palettes of new sounds? How many spend time to sound original, instead of using vast number of presets from vast number of libraries that the vast number of incredibly powerful new instruments offer?

The number is infinitesimal.

One cannot help thinking (not just feeling) that, based on contradictions between what technological progress brought and how much originality is heard whilst using that technology, there is a regressive trend of some proportions.

There are some notable and successful attempts in sounding (or, in case of some of the synth music legends, still sounding) original and exploring ever more stunning new sonic worlds. As in the case of even legendary old-timers like Gary Numan, it means many months of painstaking attention given to the creation of a personal artistic and sonic world that serves the concepts behind their works.

The opposite and considerably more superficial trend is what happens in fashion, too. It may seem like a trivialized parallel, but it could not be more accurate analogy: classic denim trousers of certain tailoring are revived with some twists by a certain brand - and posters say: 'be individual'. With a, one may add, mass-produced piece of clothing that millions wear after the first days or weeks of novelty are over.

Cue the legendary synths of yesteryear, always at some price tag and always with some marketing to make the old legends seem and sound even more individual and personalized.

The superficial and increasingly omnipresent approach to individuality is a musician resorting to the limited edition old-new, new-old, sounds and instrumentation. Oh look, a rare lead line from a Model D revamped version! Ah those filters from the Odyssey! That chorus from the Polysix!

What is happening, and this is factual reality in current electronic music, is the non-functional 'vintage for the sake of vintage' artistic (?) approach. Kudos to those, who integrate the vintage legends into their already individual sonic universe. Again, easiest example is Daft Punk, but going back through the years, even veterans like Jean-Michel Jarre can still use the old in novel ways to this day.

The problem is when the instrument, electronic as it may be, is not an instrument any more. When it is not 'just', with all its specifics and personality, a source of sounds to realize a sound world as imagined by the musician.

When it becomes a goalinstead of being an instrument, then we have the large parts of the analogue revival on our hands... where analog legendary sounds are used without any overall artistic concept, just for their 'refreshing vintage individuality'.

The most bitter irony is when some talk of the analogue warmth these legendary instruments bring and then they use them in the coldest, impersonal and superficial manner.

One does not spend weeks or months shaping his/her sound world, in order to be individual - one resorts to the most recent revived legend and saturates his/her compositions with the vintage sounds (or their emulations). Tada. A new revolution in sound... purely by returning to the past - exactly as one pulls the vintage tailored denim off a shelf.

The marketing of these instruments unfortunately plays very much into this phenomenon, exactly as it did with the mentioned classic pieces of clothing.

The instruments themselves, especially when it comes to the revived legends like the Odyssey and MiniMoog Model D, show a predictable and questionable duality that support the more impersonal and less creative impulses in amateur and established musicians alike - kudos to the increasingly few exceptions.

While they are undoubtedly unique in terms of their characteristic sound, they are highly specialized (and therefore often limited) in their capabilities - as legendary and revolutionary they may have been in their heyday. Their production costs are infinitesimal compared to the originals.

However, their price tag can be hugely out of sync with their physical realities. One, naturally, pays for the name, pays for the legend - and to make the contradictions in the performance-price-manufacturing costs triangle less strident, the manufacturers resort to the emotional side of even hardened electronic musicians.

It is made as very limited edition. It is made by hand. It is, to quote, "aged" before it gets to our studios. It is released in different colors and sizes. Above all, we buy a legend. It is, as one of Ray Bradbury's classic stories says, the haunting of the new.

While manufacturers, even hugely respectable ones with long tradition of sustained innovation, are after the money by releasing different sizes and color versions of the same revived electronic legend, something is deeply wrong. Their interior essence has become less important than their exterior superficial properties.

The electronic and other musicians who use these resurrected oldies for something new, and fuse the newest with sometimes the oldest (think of Theremin revival), are in a tiny minority.

We are chasing something warmer and more human, while we feel drowned in a vastly complex digital world - this is quite acceptable and even predictable, but most of this drowning is our own making as we let the instruments take over rather than be instruments in our creative processes. In many technology areas the same trends and counter-trends occurred and are occurring, as a reaction to some perceived dehumanization.

It is just vastly and deeply ironic, that in some (often mainstream) cases the false perception of some dehumanization results in a mechanical and rather reflex-action reaching for the ultimate in perceived 'warmth' and 'humanity'.

The bad news is, as too many electronic music creations of recent years show, that the result of this mechanical chase for vintage warmth is the very opposite of what the chase was about.

We ended up with countless albums of mass-produced, soul-less and cold electronica that wants to be so desperately individual, like the mentioned denim, that ends up being indistinguishably bland - while reduces, deplorably, the vintage sonic legends, too to mere gimmicks.

As it happened in other areas and in other eras, hopefully this chase for the superficial humanity and warmth again suffers some normalization. Such overcompensation, aided by misguided marketing, has happened countless times - and hopefully this time, too, the revived or genuine vintage legends can occupy a more functional and personalized corner in our studios, in physical and metaphorical sense.

(Post also available on the Niume platform now).