If you’re a died-in-the-wool keyboardist, you probably recognize the names: Tom Oberheim, Alan Pearlman, Roger Linn, Bob Moog, and Dave Smith as the names behind our first electronic instruments as well as many of today’s virtual analog synths. This interview in Keyboard Magazine with Dave Smith talks about the intervening years of analog synthesis since digital keyboards, and in particular, sample playback synths (like the Korg M1), were invented.
Was that the beginning of analog’s long slumber?
The real death blow was when the Korg M1 came out, which was by far the most popular keyboard ever made. It even outsold the DX7. Finally, here was what keyboard players always wanted—real piano, brass, strings, organs, basses, leads. This is somewhat unfair and I’ll tell you why, but it put synthesis innovation into a 20-year dark age, because ever since the M1 every company just kept building M1s. More voices, more and better sounds, more precision—just more, more, more.
In some ways, they’re still doing it. So why was that unfair to say?
Because it’s what 90 percent of keyboard players need to play gigs, which is different from players who are into synths for their own sake. What’s cool and different now is people are once again playing synths as synths because they’ve already got their Nords and Motifs and so forth to cover all the other sounds they need. So if you buy a synth now, it’s because you actually want to play a synth. That’s why I think this time it’s going to be different from last time. There’s not going to be something digital that comes in and makes true synthesizers go away again.
When I played a DX7 in the 80’s, I was mostly playing sounds that I created from scratch. But the first Keyboard I bought was an Korg M1 precisely because it gave me what I thought I wanted and what I thought keyboardists were supposed to do-emulate “real” instruments.
It took my love for the acoustic piano, to finally understand that sample playback instruments have a very real static component to them that our ears easily detect. Whereas a real instrument is constantly evolving.
In this way, a real instrument is much more like a waterfall or a fire – similar, consistent, but never exactly the same and always slightly different and evolving. More like a fractal.
While I’m not against sample playback, and I’m not against attempting to emulate real instruments (I do this all the time), my fascination is really with sounds that don’t produce a recognizable picture in your mind when you hear them, yet are nevertheless emotive.
How an unrecognizable / unvisualizable sound can be so compelling is a profound mystery to me, but one that I love exploring.
All that to say, the “dark ages” that Dave Smith references is this period in the wilderness looking for the promised land of perfect emulations of real instruments, when it never crossed our minds that perhaps what keyboards are really good at is something else altogether. Keyboards are good at synthesizing sound.
So I do use sample playback in my arsenal. But more than that, I am looking for compelling sounds that evolve and change like a waterfall or like a fire, just like a real instrument does, so that our highly-attuned ear stays interested.
Food for thought, and I welcome your feedback.