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The Future of Synthesizers

It's More than Just Sound

by: Andrew Kilpatrick, Founder of Kilpatrick Audio

In the course of my work designing musical equipment, I meet a lot of musicians and music technology enthusiasts, and I find myself telling the same story over and over. The gospel, according to Andrew, I guess you could call it, although it's constantly being refined and perfected as I learn more each step of the way. My musical background is a classical one mostly. For better or worse, I found myself in university studying opera singing. School gave me time to explore electronic music and start building music electronics. But back in 1998 electronic music and recording technology were about to be radically transformed. Digital audio and computer music production was already a thing. Indeed I'd been using MIDI sequencers for a few years by then. But it was clear to everyone that once we had computers with enough CPU power and storage to deal with audio data in real-time, everything would change.

It was for this reason, that it would be another ten years before I would seriously pursue the development of music-related devices again. The software music craze that swept the planet convinced everyone, for a time, that hardware was no longer necessary, other than a fast computer. I got caught up in this when I bought a Macbook in 2006. Finally I could make any sound with just my laptop! The hardware designer in me was sad that my childhood dreams of big mixing consoles and tape machines and racks of gear in my own personal dream studio were no longer necessary. But I felt rather empowered to have so much potential available in a piece of software.

But as time went on I found myself less and less interested in making music with a computer. Fighting with plugins and settings and getting programs talking to each other is no fun at all. Something that worked one week would stop working the next. None of this software really felt as solid and proven as the hardware it was meant to replace. The response time was bad when playing with a keyboard controller, and none of it really seemed to sound as good as dedicated gear either. Even just playing around with some musical ideas took so long to set up, that by the time sound was ready to come out, the inspiration was gone.

Although I've always played the violin, it wasn't until I seriously got into playing electric guitar that the role and importance of dedicated hardware in making music really made sense to me. The player, instrument, effect pedals, amp and speakers all work together in such a connected, intimate way that there really is no other way to obtain the same experience other than by using the real gear. Little signals running through cables, heat from tubes, maybe a bit of a hum, the feel of strings under fingers, and the sound of a good amp filling a room: these are the things that can only be real to be right.

Nobody would ever suggest that a guitar player simply make music on a computer, even if the computer could perfectly emulate the sound of a guitar. Because it's not just the sound that matters. I believe that the connection between the player and the instrument, and the way that an instrument is designed and feels affects not only the sound, but also the kind of notes a player decides to play. That's why guitar music sounds different from piano music. They can both play chords and melodies, and they can both play a wide range of pitches, but the kinds of music that are typically played on each of these instruments is widely different.

And that brings me to the point of this article, which is to discuss what I believe is the future of synthesizers.

Synthesizers have gone through massive changes since their first major appearance in the 1960's. They went from big racks of laboratory-style equipment, to portable performance keyboards, to big rack units and "workstation" keyboards, and then simply to computer software. The synthesizer's flexibility in adapting to technological change has also been its weakness. The synth concept has adapted well to new advances in the wider world of electronics and computer technology. Certainly early modulars pushed the envelope of discrete circuit design. And the big analog polysynths of the late 70's crammed more chips into a box than probably anyone thought possible. Early samplers and wavetable synths pushed the boundaries of available memory and CPU power in their time.

But with all this innovation has come some loss. When you implement a system using the latest technology, it's easy to forget that there was value in some of the technology that was being used before. In the 60's and 70's, although synthesizers were somewhat limited technically, they offered realtime control of every function, no latency in playing, and what is now regarded as very raw, powerful sound. What followed in the 80's were essentially attempts to cram more functions into less space at a lower cost. Certainly many of the "classic" brands failed in favour of the big players like Roland, Yamaha and Korg. They had the advantage of being able to develop advanced technology and manufacture custom chips to be able to make advanced synths for low cost.

Low cost and mass market manufacturing doesn't just result in streamlined technology inside a product. The outside changes too. Certainly one of the most expensive parts of a synthesizer is the user interface. Knobs and switches are expensive, so manufacturers eliminated most controls, opting to have players navigate menus on small displays instead. Gone were the days of being able to adjust every setting with its own control. Apparently this didn't matter because with digital patch storage, any sound was just a button-press away. This is probably good for some players, but for others who prefer to interact with a synthesizer's sound while playing, this was nearly impossible. Synthesizers had become little more than pianos that could make different kinds of sounds.

With the loss of user control, it started to seem like the primary purpose of a synthesizer was for calling up different sounds. Indeed many players probably never bothered to try making their own patches, since the patches from the factory were good enough. This factory-preset and difficult-programming way of life was how I, and probably many others, learned about synthesizers. Being a poor keyboard player, I always felt that I shouldn't bother getting too interested in synths, since they seemed to be rather keyboard-centric instruments.

During the software synthesis revolution, this morphing identity of the synthesizer occured once more. Not only was it not about hands-on controls anymore, but also it was not about real equipment at all. "Synthesis" had been reduced to some programs which could generate sounds completely digitally on a computer - quite a far cry from the legacy of synthesizers having been real, hands-on instruments with controls for every function and dedicated circuits producing the sound. If you could make your computer behave itself, and could tolerate slow response to player input, you might end up with some sound that you like.

But thankfully, in 2010 things are beginning to change for the better. Hardware synthesis has been making a slow but steady comeback. Software is still getting better, to be sure, but now there are viable hardware alternatives from a growing number of both new and old companies. Analog synthesis is back, hopefully for good. Digital wavetable synths are also getting popular again, and modular synthesizers, most often associated with Moog and the 1960s are getting to be more popular than ever. And now is a better time than ever before to start enjoying all this potential. Through the internet, it's now easier than ever for people to learn about synth technology, trade ideas and tips, and to buy and sell both new and used equipment. The ability of small manufacturers like Kilpatrick Audio to make and sell specialized products is more feasible than ever. Better manufacturing options, high-tech parts and materials, and worldwide access to customers result in a growing range of quality products available in the industry.

We have only just scratched the surface of what is possible in the world of synthesizers. We went through growing pains as manufacturers and players were quick to adopt new technologies at the expense of proven ones. But we are at a perfect place in technological history to combine the best of everything we've discovered so far. I'm doing my best to pick and choose the best concepts from synthesizer history to incorporate into my products, and I know that other designers are doing the same. So although I strongly believe that computers will remain an important part of music production, the role of dedicated, purpose-built instruments will continue to grow.

So if you've been caught up in the software music world for too long and feel like you want to reach out and touch all those virtual knobs on your screen, perhaps it's time to take a fresh approach and get your hands on some real hardware! It doesn't just sound better, it feels better too.

- Andrew Kilpatrick - 2010

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