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.

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