Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Clone wars and compromises

Behringer's Moog Model D clone

Last year's (in)famous announcement by Behringer, that it sets out to clone the legendary MiniMoog Model D, has driven social and specialist media into overdrive.

Purists, retro enthusiasts, gear heads, and countless other categories of people involved in any way in electronic instruments and electronic music have vented pros/cons (sometimes on the rational side) and everything from joy to outrage (on the emotional side).

This was followed by a "fake news" hiccup, when Behringer website announced a whole range of legendary synth clones, promptly taken off the website and, according to Behringer, it was merely a technical hiccup rather than an intentional marketing stunt.

Cue social and specialist media overdrive... again.

Now that we are counting the days until NAMM 2018, which undoubtedly will have its fair (or again overblown) share of retro technology in new robes as the nostalgy market is driving this insatiably, Behringer makes another announcement.

While the Model D clone is yet to turn up in shops, but pre-orders are made, the company announces not just an Oberheim OB-Xa clone, but also its estimated timeline.

Behringer UB-Xa clone of Oberheim OB-Xa

Cue social and specialist media overdrive... yet again. The OB-Xa's characteristic sound was present on myriad albums of artists ranging from Mike Oldfield to Jean-Michel Jarre to Depeche Mode and Gary Numan, to name just a few.

The repeated furore could be grouped essentially around the following topics:
  • How dare they clone the legends, making considerably cheaper versions?
  • The clones will not sound "good enough" compared to the originals
  • The quality will be worse compared to the originals.
Well, while everything in life is a compromise, above main threads have one huge elephant in the room, as uncomfortable it may be.

The price point, objectively, to anyone in the electronics business who is not subjectively swayed by nostalgia, is not a scandalous one for Behringer, it is actually a scandalous one for the likes of Moog.

The production of Model D in today's world, even with using the retro components that were reportedly in short supply (if we believe the classic marketing stunt), is a fraction of what it was back then.

The price point, regardless of individual synth musicians' pocket sizes (and the snobbish threads that ensued due to this, discussing affordability and who would spend what on what), is an unrealistic one - the real central driver is the name, the legend and the emotional capital factored into it. Full stop.

The "good enough" sound is a perhaps eternal topic. Again, it comes down to motivations, priorities and... compromises.

Even if the clones approximate the originals, they are expected to be "better" than virtual analogue reincarnations of the originals. The elusive (and often subjective) difference may not matter in the final mix, and would not be (even in case of virtual analogue) detectable by vast numbers of people listening to the final mix on whatever sound equipment they have.

However, this just brings the traditional battle between virtual analogue and true analogue to another level, it is a battle between hearing the differences between true analogue original and clone.

The original and legendary Oberheim OB-Xa

Naturally, as with all such discussions, the central question remains whether the certain differences matter or not to the audience.

Famously, when Daft Punk recorded a track's narration with three different microphones belonging to three different eras talked about in the track, somebody asked: who will hear the difference? The sound engineer replied: Daft Punk will.

But then the big question is, if only the artist hears it, does it matter... and then we land in a stormy sea of heated debates that ultimately start regurgitating tenets of subjective vs. objective reality from age-old philosophy trends.

Regarding compromise, a certain difference then becomes also a matter of price difference vs. audible difference. This then becomes even more personal and tuned to the specifics of the music project. Therefore generalising takes on this lose all meaning, no matter how purists start sizzling in social media threads.

The quality point is also a self-defeating one. Sure, fundamentally it has to be "decent". Even at the price point of the clones, nobody wants it to fall apart within months or a few years. Considering how latest greatest offering from some of the biggest names is suffering of frankly outrageous quality issues nowadays, and there is a clear trend toward the negative, the picture is again a bit foggy.

A lot of anger was vented in threads about Behringer quality, endless sarcastic memes and posts circulated for months - but again the authors miss the central point.

Exactly as a hand-stitched leather seat in an Aston Martin does not alter the engine performance and "oomph" we feel driving it, in the same way the price-inflating claims of Moog about lovingly and individually hand-crafted parts do not alter the sound.

They may contribute to an overall feel of uniqueness and "made just for you" with a serial number we end up framing on the wall, but... the central logical phallacy in such takes is that the overall feel is not in any way related to the specific detail or difference in detail that is being argued.

It is impossible, due to human nature, to avoid such phallacies and their pitfalls when it comes to these topics. Especially when many look at their synths as things that define them as musicians instead of mere tools in their creative work.

However all purist thinking is by definition a deplorably self-limiting one. It is not a problem that one ends up limiting one's own choices (including the creative ones), but it is also human nature that the same psychology makes its possessor feel a desperate need to tell others to have the same self-limiting approaches to their creative processes and choices.

So instead, let's herald the superb OB-Xa reincarnation, if Behringer does produce it (frankly, credibility has taken a huge beating lately and some marketing or involuntary actions backfired).

As with the Model D clone, the UB-Xa (as it will be called) will naturally find its way into categories of sound designers and musicians' work places as Model D clone and virtual analogue imitations of true analogue originals have.

Everything is a compromise, and all synths are instruments - mere instruments in realising an imagined sound world.

How that instrument is used and whether it is "good enough" is down to, and only to, that creative musician.

As soon as the instrument becomes a tool for self-definition and therefore inevitably snobbery, it and its discussions are dead ends for the purists.

No comments:

Post a Comment