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.

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