Saturday, August 1, 2009

The most sophisticated synthesizer of all

I titled this blog the most sophisticated synthesizer of all. I realized my error immediately when I realized that the most sophisticated synthesizer is the human voice. That being said, what I really had in mind is the violin (or really any in a broader category of bowed instruments). The bow truely offers a very subtle and effective way to control the timbre of a string. A violin for example, can allow the skilled musician to create such sweet and often subtle variations in the timbre of the instrument.

Now certainly, there are now knobs, plugs, sliders, switches or any of the normal parts of a module that would be part of a modular synthesizer. Or for that matter, the controls that you would find on any synthesizer soft or hard, modular or semi modular.

And yet, some musicians have spent their lives learning to play only that one single instrument, refining more and more their techniques. Often these techniques are learning just the right movement of the fingers and hands to create a kind of magic. And to add to the mystery, one can't really teach this other than by an exchange of listening and playing the instrument. An instructor can show technique and critique style by listening but ultimately, it is the work of the musician to learn by feel just the right way to play an instrument to get a certain sound. There is no patch sheet or preset to pull up or program change to make.

With synthesizers, we can get lost. There are so many options, so many sounds. We can see them and repeat them and often, just by hitting a button, turning a knob or moving a slider but the magic can disappear into a sea of possibilities.

Now I don't mind all those options. I can delight it going from parameter page to parameter page on my M3 to tweak a sound or design one from scratch but there is something about having a limited number of possibilities so that the ones that I do have stand out. I can learn to not just turn knobs but learn to turn them while I am playing so get just that right sound at the right time in a song. To me, the Moog Voyager offers this opportunity. A universe of sound is right in front of the musician and its all there. Not buried in menus but all accessible. It can all be part of the performance.

Sure, in the end there are limitations but if the violinist can delight in one sound, perhaps, I can delight in the beautiful sonic universe of a Moog Voyager and perhaps, find a sort of magic there that happens when a musician plays an instrument that with hard work, will give up its secrets in time to create beautiful music.

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