A New Synth Dilemma (What’s a Dimella?)

On the first page of the manual for the Dave Smith Instruments Pro-2 synthesizer, the brilliant sound designer and magician Dave Smith who gave us the Prohet-5 and Pro-One Synthesizers writes this:

No doubt about it: It’s an exciting time to be a synth geek. You only have to look around you to realize that we’re experiencing a renaissance of sorts for synthesizers. From stompboxes to modulars, synths are here in a very big way. With the current demand for all things analog, I’ve been asked many times if I would ever consider reissuing the Pro-One monosynth. My response has always been the same: “You’ve got to keep moving forward.” The simple truth is, I’m happiest creating new instruments—synths that put more power and better sounds into the hands of musicians with every iteration. But actions speak louder than words, so here’s the last one on that particular subject: the Pro 2. It’s light years beyond the Pro-One in every way and is the culmination of my many years designing synthesizers. It’s also the deepest and most powerful monosynth I’ve ever created, so it should keep you busy exploring the outer limits of sound for quite some time.

Now there’s truth and there is also a lot of bullshit and spin in that opening page of the manual. Dave Smith always talks about how he will never recreate an old synth and he is often heard at trade fayres and on the internet saying the same little soundbites over and over again: “This is my most powerful and best sounding synth yet” or “This is my best synth ever”. It’s simply not true, if it were, he wouldn’t have to keep telling everyone again and again. His best ever synth is the Prophet-5 and it’s mono version the Pro-One. Vince Clark made millions out of the latter. If you listen to music you will have heard these synths many times. What does he mean by power? I think he means the immense new capabilities it has for coaxing new sounds and he’s also implying that the sound itself is more ‘powerful’. Trust me, it’s not. Nothing he makes now will ever sound as powerful or rich as those old synths. Fact.

Incidentally, Dave Smith has just released his latest synth which is called a Sequential 6. It looks the same as the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, just smaller and he is using his old Sequential Circuits name again (Rather than Dave Smith Instruments) because he has been given it back after going bust in the 80’s. Is that looking back or creating something new? It’s clever marketing because people will buy it thinking it will sound like a Prohet-5 because it has the same name.

I don’t want this blog to be a lecture on synths or their history but some of that does come into it. There are some important things to note. Even though The Beatles were the most sonically pioneering band in the world, there aren’t any Beatles songs with screaming synth lines or huge synth bass or noises although they did make use of a Mellotron, a kind of pre-sampler made in England. I’m not sure why this is but it’s probably something to do with the fact that before the Mini-Moog came out in 1970, the same year the Beatles split up, synths were either crap or chaotic and huge and difficult to use. As a musician I know that after you’ve spent years learning to play an instrument properly, like the guitar or piano, you are not drawn to anything that is difficult to use.

In a nutshell, after the Mini-Moog, synths used to be, more or less, a box with knobs and a conventional keyboard. Usually, there was a knob or a slider or switch representing everything that the synth could do. At some point this changed and certain functions (if not all) of the synth were hidden away and accessable via some digging around and using certain procedures to get to them. This is not ideal for some musicians and the manufacturers now tag these procedures as ‘Under The Hood’, and tell us that in certain cases it’s fine to have stuff hidden away. When these synths came out we were of course told that it was now better this way. We were also told that Valve amps are shit compared to transistor ones. There are some classic synths out there which don’t have any knobs on them but people tend to use them for certain sounds rather than interacting with them.

When we signed our record deal back in 1997, we got some publishing money which we all used to buy some decent gear. We had James playing keyboards but he played a hammond organ (after he refused to be seen with the Casio we initially gave him to use). During the recording of our first album someone walked into the pub opposite the studio and gave us a Moog Prodigy. At the time James wanted to get a Moog but they were not practical back then because they went out of tune and polyphonic ones (you can play more than one note at the same time) were difficult to find. James bought a synth which had just come out at the time called a Nord Lead. Nord are a Swedish company who initially I think made drum machines and then they made what is now known as ‘virtual analogue’ synths. A synth manufacturer once explained to me what virtual analogue means; it’s basically computer software in a box which you can access the parameters of with real knobs and it sounds better than a computer synth because it comes out of nice sounding dedicated digital to analogue converters.

I have to say that the Nord was really great for our band and you can hear it all over our records. It had a preset setting on it which we called ‘Goth Wind’ and James used to love to throw in a bit of Goth Wind here and there. It could also do a great Wurlitzer sound (Ten Places To Die) and had an arpeggiator which no one could ever figure out how to get in time (Always Waiting For). James spent £1000 on that Nord and it never left his side. Whenever we got the Moog Prodigy out it was out of tune or something malfunctioned on it. We had to take it down to London to get it serviced and when it came back, it lasted about a week before the Glide / portamento switch got stuck in the ‘on’ position, renedering it useless again. It actually never made it onto any recordings.

So anyway, why am I writing this? Last year I sold all of my modern and vintage synths. I did this for two reasons. One, I couldn’t see through the shit anymore. Although I love the idea of buying new gear I know that I function best with less. Limitations force you to dig deeper into what you’ve got. I have a friend who has tens of thousands of pounds worth of synths and he once told me ‘It’s better to have one synth and just really get into it properly’. I believe that. The other reason was to buy a motorbike with the money and celebrate 20 years of marriage and 50 years of me being on the planet, with a trip around Europe.

Anyway, the deal was that I would sell the bike after we got back and buy some synths back again and update our Mac which was now, after 8 years, in dire need of replacing. So, because of what my mate said about only having one synth, I decided to only buy two. Here is the dilema. Should I get something I used to have and loved or try something new? Do you buy an old synth or a new one?

Like Dave Smith said in his manual, these are amazing times for anyone wanting a synth. It’s not the same as it was when we signed our deal. Now you can buy old stuff off eBay, all sorts of new analogue or virtual analogue synths and also even re issues of classic old synths. This creates all sorts of problems though. There is a big debate about old versus new which I am now once and for all going to put to bed. There are 3 main differences between the old and the new. Some of the new ones can’t be compared to the old ones because they are different and have there own sound. However, the new ones will not sound as good as the old ones. Whatever anyone at Korg or Roland tells you, this is a fact.

Korg have recently gone as far as actually recreating two synthesizer classics, the MS20 and the Arp Odyssey. They tell us, with their hand on their coorpotate hearts, that these synths sound exactly the same. They are even going to great lengths to tell you that they are designed by the same boffins who made the originals. However, if you get an old Korg MS20 and put it alongside a reissue one, you would have to have cloth ears not to tell the difference. Essentially they are both the same, yes, but one will sound supremely cinematic and the other one simply won’t. You won’t notice that the modern one doesn’t sound as good until you put it alongside the old one. The other big difference for me is the resonance. All synths have a filter, it’s mainly this that gives the synth it’s distinctive character. The resonance is a knob that you turn to make the filter feedback on itself. When you do this with a vintage synth you will get an incredibly juicy creamy whistle or snarl that is most pleasing to the human ear. When you do it on a modern one it just sort of sounds shrill. The modern ones will all sound the same while the older ones may all differ slightly. I talked to Zia from the Dandy Warhols about this. The Dandy’s don’t have a bass player, Zia plays all the basslines on a Korg MS20. She has three of them and told me they all sound different and there is one in particular that sounds better than the others. I have also had this conversation with Peanut from the Kaiser Chiefs who also told me that he has 3 MS20’s that all sound different from each other.

The other difference between the vintage and new ones is reliability and usability. Yes, you will get this cinematic sound and rich filter but (quite literally) at what cost? If you fill your studio up with Vintage synths you will need two telephone lines. One for friends and family and nuisance calls and the other, preferably a red one, as a hotline to a mate (believe me he will actually become your mate) who can fix or mend things that are fiddly and electronic. I have two vintage keyboards in my studio at the moment. A Hammond and a String Machine. The String Machine drones all the time and one of the keys is about 8dB louder than the rest. When you play it you have to consider transposing what you are playing down an octave so as not to hit this key and you have to use a mute button to switch it on and off while you are recording. (This was what it was like after all the other shit that was wrong with it was repaired). The Hammond also intermittently cuts out if you move one of the switches. So often, while I’m laying down this cinematic sound I have to stop halfway through and do it all again because it crackled or just cut out completely. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened and I’ve come close to taking a hammer to it.

Hey, they both sound great though!

So which synth should I buy? Tricky. I’ve decided against the old vintage ones. This is mainly because I can’t be doing with driving around getting them fixed and walking over to use one only to find that, mid song, mid compositional inspiration, it crackles and pops and something goes wrong with it. I also have a theory which I call the bicycle spoke theory. This means that if you have a bike with dirty wheels you don’t clean one spoke because then you will have to clean them all. If you leave them all dirty, no one will notice how dirty they are. You can apply this theory to many things. For example, if like me, you went to see Mercury Rev a couple of years ago and they decided not to play anything off the first 4 albums then that’s fair enough. However, they then went against the bicycle spoke theory and threw in a tune off Deserters Songs. The otherwise happy crowd was now suddenly made aware of just how shit the new stuff is. If you write a good song which has a great bassline, it’s generally because of the order and timing of the notes and the way everything hangs together that makes it a great bassline. No one ever didn’t sign a band or buy the music because the bassline was recorded with a new Moog rather than a vintage one. Some of my favourite records sound like shit. Back when recording technology wasn’t as ‘clear’ as it is today, those old instruments were great in the mix. It’s not so important nowadays and in many ways having such a huge rich sound in a recording can also be counter-productive.

Take Fischerspooner for example. They are a great band / artistic movement and they do everything inside a laptop. Their music sounds amazing to my ears. It has this extremely spacious and clear production with a very impersonal and slightly cold sound that almost disengages the listener. They did this on purpose, it’s how they like it and it’s what they wanted to achieve. If they suddenly used a Korg MS20 or Moog Model D it would completely ruin their sound. Disclosure, a modern band (just two guys) who the kids love and who’ve sold shed loads of music used a computer and a Roland Gaia Virtual Analogue synth on their first album. If you listen to it, you might not like the music, but it stil sounds really modern and tight and has a very high standard of production which has been highly praised by top record producers and won many awards and is now often imitated.

Out of all the synths I’ve had, the one I probably used most was my Moog Little Phatty, a modern style analogue synth designed by Bob Moog himself for a modern era. However, I’m not going back to that one because it is after all just a little brother of the Moog Voyager which one day (Waynes World moment) will be mine. So anyway, I’ve decided to buy a rather small and cheap synth called an Arturia Minibrute. I used to have one of these but for the life of me I can’t think why I got rid of it, probably because the car broke down or something else happened that forced me to sell it. Times can get rough when you are an artist.

Why the fuck am I writing this? (because you wanted to start doing your blog again Chris, and someone out there might find this interesting! Remember all those twats in the Forums who know everything about the way things sound but never make any music because they are too busy in forums banging on about the way things sound)

Really?

In this modern synth renaissance era, for me, it’s this synth that really harps back to the golden age of synths without pretending to be something else. It’s a modern analogue synth and it’s not trying to be old and it’s not trying to emulate or copy anything that’s gone before. It doesn’t have a preset on it called ‘Shine On Diamond’ or ‘MS howl’. It’s also the first analogue synth that the company Arturia have made and it’s French. The french know their synth music. It also has only one oscillator, which I have come to prefer. There is something charming about a one oscillator synth, they sound a bit cheeky and have to work a bit harder with what they have and I also find them easier to record because they are slightly thinner sounding. The minibrute also has it’s own punk rock sound, a sound that no other synth has, a sort of industrial chime. The other thing about it is that it is built very much to be interacted with. When I had one before I found myself loosing hours with it and making it sound like a theremin. The next day I couldn’t get the same sound back but I got something else equally as good. It takes you on a journey.

That’s what it’s all about.

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3 comments

  1. Bless you Chris. Really enjoyed that blog. I used to drunkenly play around with a Casio synth in the 80’s. Would spend hours on the presets and tunings, to get the best sound in the world. Damned if I could reproduce it in the morning though!

    Zia McCabe I love. Tina Weymouth I love. Bass player from Ash I saw throwing shapes at the Wedgewood Rooms recently with only 3 strings, I love. If it sounds good and it’s right for the band, who gives a fuck if your part isn’t played on the right instrument or in the right way? Music is about soul and how it moves you. Accountancy is about systems, processes and doing things correctly. Music isn’t. FFS, If all vocalists were to be good singers, we’d never have Johnny Lydon.

    Love hearing your inner thoughts Chris, makes me appreciate your music more. Cheers.

    1. Hi Matt,

      There is indeed a Moog Synth on Because but according to Ian McDonalds book ‘Revolution In The Head’, the song was based around a three part harmony in C sharp minor inspired by Beethovens ‘Moonlight Sonata’.

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