Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Tyranny of the Computer

For a long while now, I have been revolting against the computer plug in revolution. At the same time, I have been looking for all sorts of alternative controllers. I saw no connection between these two until now. It dawned on me today that the reason that I feel this way is that a soft synth is something disembodied. What I mean by this is that the instrument part of the synth (the controller) is removed sound generating part of the synth. This has led up until recently in a stagnation of controllers that since the time of early synths has remained stuck in the mire of pitch bend and mod wheel and spongy MIDI controllers that are little more than toys.

Now don't get me wrong. I like to program synths (soft synths to) and I can take delight in the strange new sounds that sometimes come from my monitor speakers but often, those patches, are not very useful musically. Sure, they sound really interesting but using them in a composition is a different story.

Some have claimed that hard synths are on their way out. I beg to differ. Here is why. On a hard synth, at least a good one, there is an integration of the controller/s and the synth. A classic example in the Korg M3 which is vastly underated. The M3 has expansive controller capabilities not just because of the built in joystick, ribbon and XY controlers, sliders and buttons but it's ability to mix controller signals and to assign a controller to a vast (and I mean vast) array of parameters including effects. It also has a real keyboard especially the 88 key version which is the one I reccomend. It feels closer to a piano than any MIDI controller you can find.

The key here is integration. The M3 is not a disembodied synth but a synth in which the instrument part is integrated with the sound.

Now I also have a Minimoog Voyager. I recently listened to an interview with Bog Moog that I really love in which he speaks of the synthesizer as instrument. The Voyager's knobs are part of that instrument. On soft synths, these are either relegated to a mouse or one of the lustiest generic controllers like those for Live. I like thse but they are not instrument specific, they are not integerated. Native Instruments has also tried to create a parameter sets that makes up a pseudo instrument in products like their Kore and also products like Massive that integrate this into the synth.

This is not the same as a Voyager. Once you play the Voyager for a while, you get to know it. It integrates with you and as I said, every knob becomes part of the instrument.

Now lately, I have bought into the tyranny of the computer and bought a Macbook pro as the one computer to rule them all (the synths). Problem is I have driver problems. Frankly I am a musician and composer and I don't want to have to be a computer tech to get sound to come out of my computer. Menu screens on my hard synths I can deal with but some invisible driver and a generic message that something is not working, that aggravates me and takes me away from the music which is what it's all about right?

That brings me to recording. I remember back when I first started to play guitar I bought a 4 track cassette multitrack. I still have it of course no one would really want to use it today but I loved this thing. Why? Because when I recorded I knew what was going on. Everything was tactile and in front of me. Even the sound of the tape drive motor going on made it like an instrument, something directly related to the music I wanted to record.

Now I know that programs like Live are very sophisticated recording studios and don't get me wrong, I live Live. I have Live 7 on an old dying computer that I am trying to replace with a Macbook Pro and liberate my softsynths (not as easy as it sounds). I also know that multitrackers are meant to be portable and not really for the studio. Really? Are not studios just larger versions of these? How many studios just use Live? I suspect because there is something tactile and direct about a mixing board and don't tell me that the Live controllers are mixing boards because they are not.

So I have thought about a Korg 3200. This is definitely a mixer. Sliders, knobs and buttons that make recording very tactile. OK, a major drawback, a terrible small screen but everything else looks great on it. It also has a lot of automation options which is important to me and has MMC control and scene changes More on why this is important to me latter but believe me, I have plans on how I can integrate all my equipment. The nice thing is that it can easily be moved and I need to do that a lot. What it does is integrate recording in one place including burning a CD. Let's say I have recorded tracks and I just want to tweak the mix a bit but I am going to be away. I can just put the thing in the car and I don't have to connect an interface to set it up. Just headphones and a place to plug it in will do.

I am seriously considering buying one. When I do get my drivers working on my Macbook, I am going to use it but only as an instrument using Live, but not to record. That advantage is that I am not dependent on a single computer to do everything and generic musical instruments. I want my hardware and software tightly integrated and not subject to failure.

So that is where I am going right now musically and with recording. Hope to post more on this soon. In about a month I should be able to have the money for a K3200 and while I have not bought one yet, I suspect that I will. If in the meantime my Macbook is working, the plan is still the same.

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