Sunday, 8 September 2019

Misynformation: synth reviews in the post-truth world

The term post-truth (or post-fact) was coined by Steve Tesich in the early 1990s in his essay The Nation. It has been widely used in political sphere, denoting a situation where not the factual details matter. Instead, one appeals to emotions, and there is, as a key characteristic, rejection of factual comebacks.

One would not expect to see the same shift from facts to a post-factual discourse in something as technological and inherently objective as the world of engineering specifications for electronics and within that, electronic instruments.

However, a recent trend is that not only manufacturers, but also reputable synth technology-related media have shifted to a surprisingly post-factual style.

Marketing was always about overstatements, let's face it. Whether that comes from the manufacturer or secondary forums that have a vested interest in promoting / selling the products, is not a key distinction.  They are information sources for prospective buyers / users, therefore they all have quite a responsibility.

However, one could see the intentional eroding of even fundamental instrument categories, mechanically repeated by thought-to-be technically informed and reputable media. One could see sensationalist headlines along the lines of "is this the future of...?" when they reviewed products with features running more than a decade behind the times.

It seems in synth world, too, the increasing  hype and sometimes desperate overcompensation from some manufacturers, in an attempt to hide the lack of actual ideas, is being parroted by even specialist media without even a quick comparative look at specifications.

Countless social media debates then promptly denaturate into typical post-factual discourse: if some come with an objective point based on glaring technical facts in the product specification or its real-life use, such comments are attracting the "fake news" type instant dismissal.

It is rather interesting to see this phenomenon in the sphere of electronic music technology.

Examples abound... but a note in advance: many terms here are considered to be known based on long-standing, even historic, definitions. To use analogy based on the Blackadder comedy series of yesteryear, Baldrick's hilarious "cat = not a dog" definition does not detail what a dog is, if latter is well-defined and well-knownm and 2 seconds in Google can provide it :)... But back to a (slightly) more serious look of sometimes hilarious synth reviews...

Before going to glaring and monstrous examples of media mis-stating fundamental aspects of new products, a more subtle (and in need of erudition) case is that of the recently released and exciting Mostro FM synth.

Even SynthAnatomy chose a headline that is shockingly unaware of signal processing fundamentals and of actual synthesizer history, seeing more than 2 FM operators as "DX7 backstory" that the reviewed product has none of.

Why can any DSP person say this is shocking lack of awareness of signal processing fundamentals? Well, the "DX7 backstory" (or lack of, in this case) is not actually a DX7 backstory.

It is fundamental mathematical reason stemming from Dr. Chowning's revolutionary paper on FM synthesis. DX7 did not chose to have more than 2 operators on a whim, but because it is necessary for sufficiently complex audio spectra.

Not having more than 2 operators in an FM synth is not a plus... for very fundamental reasons. Again, the more than 2 operator FM synthesis is not a "DX7 back story", it is fundamental need for complex spectral changes in FM synthesis.

One can ask, how can such reputable synth media make such headlines and completely side-step not only mathematical but also synth history facts?

Regardless of subjective preferences for brands, a notable misinformation case was that of Yamaha Montage. It was accurately marketed as a synthesizer, not as a workstation, by Yamaha. However, countless very reputable and usually serious/informed media wrote about it as "flagship workstation"  or "best workstation synth", to quote just a few examples.

This got even more tragicomical when its cut-down repackaged version, the MODX, was written about even by SynthAnatomy as "workstation".

It was and remains factually and fundamentally incorrect to categorise it as a workstation, kudos for even Yamaha accurately stating the correct category for these instruments.

One of the very few serious synth and studio technology reviewers that emphasised from the start the key difference was, as usual, Sound On Sound, who have re-stated several times the distinction.

The post-factual furore was at full swing in social media, from YouTube to Facebook groups and so on. Correcting this huge misnomer attracted endless subjective furore, exactly as certain factually wrong or self-contradicting political tweets or articles do...

This particular example is merely about overcompensation for long-established pre-existing features lacking in these products, whilst those features are actually central to the instrument category definitions themselves...

However, similar eloquent cases can be found when manufacturer over-uses the word "new" - and even reputable media mechanically repeats this, proving the fact that even simple comparative look at specifications, informed by instrument and technology history, has not been done.

Such case is the very recent launch of Roland's Fantom workstation.

The fact, that the manufacturer hyped the product, is understandable and forgivable to an extent. However, in the era of post-factual media, it is more important to note how automatically the factually incorrect claims have been repeated by even serious synth review sites and retailers.

Andertons are asking: is this the future of workstations?...  A simple look at the specs, even before getting hands on with the new product, would have eminently told one that this is the past of workstations, if one considers e.g. synth engines and sampler parts. Why not be honest about the novel UI and the performance capabilities, instead of putting "new" where there is none - and even old feature is more limited.

Others even labeled it "the ultimate workstation", again forgetting the simple fact that it has series of missing features and considerably more limited or lower-performance features compared to long before existed workstations out there. Others introduce it as "all new" in their first sentence, whilst is has many merely repackaged and long before existed elements and subsystems.

Not only it repackages long-existed synth engines (e.g. from XV family of synths), but it actually lacks key features that existed for long time in other synth workstations with several times higher specifications.

For example, the sampling ability is shockingly limited both in functionality and capability, if one does a very quick comparison with e.g. the long-existed Kronos. Even OASYS had several times more synth engines integrated with a single user interface front-end.

The "seamless transitions" do not exist for Fantom programs and effects, even the review video has clear and not seamless transitions... They only and only work for the so-called scenes, whilst other long-existed workstations can make seamless transitions between programs, combinations of programs, with entire effect chain transitions.

The problem is not that manufacturer, repackaging pre-existing elements into a new product, the real problem is the overstating the "novelty" element.

The bigger problem is how end users can be subjected to many synth reviews and demos that, without basic specification checks, repeat falsehoods or hype the product without realising that long before existed products had the same, and better performing features.

In the sphere of social psychology, it would be quite an interesting topic to dig deeper into this trend, where post-factual rhetoric is permeating even formerly technical facts-based discourse.

Within the world of synths, as end users or technology aficionados, one has to wonder how we can actually end up here.

There seems to be a strong correlation between endlessly repackaged pre-existing technology and the hype overstating novelty, even when it is glaringly missing in specifications - let alone in terms of factual synthesizer history. 

This may exacerbate over time, and social media with typical post-factual treatment of objective comments is making it increasingly easier to drown out factual discourse.

As the late Umberto Eco postulated, in the hyper-real world fakes can seem more real than the real thing. And that seems to go for synth review claims, too.