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 Many of the still surviving, and largely outdated, stereotypes about the "digital sound" artifacts originated in this era.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

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