It has never been a better time to be an electronic musician, at least as far as options for composition, sound design, and collaboration are concerned. After synthesizer manufacturers moved to digital instruments, for a short period of time the older, analog instruments plummeted in price. Enthusiasts like to brag about finding the $50 Minimoog or a $100 ARP 2600. I’m sure that happened for some people, but once musicians grew tired of Spartan, single-slider data entry (a la DX-7) the demand for used analog instruments brought their prices back up.
By the early 1990s, very few manufacturers were still making analog synthesizers. So the used market for the old analogs really heated up: $1000 and above for the old Roland TR-808s and TR-909s, $1500 for the TB-303, and $2000 for Prophet-5s were not uncommon sale prices. The problem with this equation was simple: no one was making new devices to stem the demand that had risen for the old sound.
That said, what was happening at the time was the rapid growth of digital systems. Synthesizers and samplers based entirely on digital circuits got better and better. So did the computer systems, too. In the late 1990s, affordable digital systems that could not only sequence and track music but also create the musical lines proliferated. In 1997, The Propellerheads released their classic program called ReBirth (now available for iPad, it turns out), which packaged the most coveted analog classics of the time into a single, self-contained program you could buy for a fraction of the cost of just one of the old machines.
Of course, the Internet too was ascending at the same time digital music instruments were becoming more mainstream, and with the rise of the Internet so too rose the communities of musicians, collectors, collaborators, technicians, and engineers working on musical electronics. Those communities brought people interested in what were probably fringes of musical technology together for local meetups, gear exchanges, discussions, and so forth. This ushered in today’s golden age for electronic music.
Now, there are literally hundreds (perhaps thousands) of small manufacturers across the globe developing musical electronics and software. Moog’s famous modular synthesizer of the 1960s has been recreated several times over today. Standardized rack formats, power supplies, and interfaces allow anyone with an idea and a soldering iron to plug in new sound generators and modulators.
Taking orders over the Internet also makes short runs of esoteric, specialized hardware such as the Monome and the x0xb0x actually feasible. Many of these new generation of music hackers release their source code and schematics online for free.
Software is not left behind in this revolution. There are countless developers out there cranking out code to implement new digital signal processors, synthesizers, and sequencers that plug in to each other using common interfaces, like Apple’s Audio Units API or Steinberg’s VST. One can build a complete studio with multitrack recording, sampling, synthesis, dynamics processing, equalization, mastering, and more using nothing more than a computer and free software. Using Open Sound Control (OSC) and tools like OSCulator or Max/MSP, one can even connect a Wii remote or an iPhone to the studio for musical expression.
Most recently, we have seen new developments for musical technology in mobile devices, like the ubiquitous iPhone or now the iPad. Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn recorded his most recent album using only an iPad while on tour.
The number of musical instrument applications for the iOS platform alone is staggering, ranging from generative music inspired by Brian Eno to serious commercial music instruments from Moog Music and IK Multimedia.
Here at SXSWi 2011, Ge Wang of Smule demonstrated some of the invigorating applications his team developed for the iPhone and iPad. To be honest, I was skeptical of the iPhone as an expressive musical platform. Seeing and hearing Smule’s innovations and drive for true expressiveness in their iOS products made me a believer.
Perhaps the only drawback to all the great musical options out there is deciding just where you want to go with them. New poly analog keyboards? Old classics? Piecing together a modular synth using boutique, limited modules? Writing an album on your phone? All options are on the table. To me, that is a very good thing indeed.Posted: March 13th, 2011 | Tags: gear, hardware, software | 5 Comments »