Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Thoughts on the Analogness of Things

Analog instruments are doing fine, judging from high-tech exhibition NAMM.

As usual there were lots of comments about how one couldn't justify the cost of analog when there's so much software around.

Like I probably mentioned before, I used to be in that party as well, thinking that digital emulation had evolved to the point that real analog was obsolete. When comparing two isolated sounds back to back, it's often true that the tonal differences are insubstantial or not worth noting. So for instance, if you use virtual analog for a lead sound or a pad in a rock song, that'll usually do the trick.

But when you begin to stack up synth sounds, it's another matter altogether. There is a thickness, richness, warmth that derive from the juxtaposition of analog sounds that you just don't obtain with virtual analog.

I had this revelation when I bought the Little Phatty. At this point I was still a believer in the "software is good enough" theory, but I thought the instrument was too beautiful to pass on. Then I did an experiment. I re-recorded one song I had done with Gforce's Minimoog emulation, but this time using only the LP trying to program similar sounds. The result was amazingly different. It was deeper, warmer, more musical. The software version sounded dull and sterile.

Oh yes, analog is a luxury, there's no doubt about it. It's like photography... you can do a good photo with a shitty compact but when you've got specific expectations about the rendition, it comes at a cost. I don't think most people see the technical difference between photos shot with this or that sensor, but when you expect a certain quality, you do notice. But you can make do with almost anything if you're talented.

But anyway, analog is no longer a niche for the old school purist and/or the wealthy. It is clearly a market on its own, with plenty of exciting new products.

1) Moog's new synth, the Sub Phatty (gee, those names...).

A terrific design, all retro-futuristic and metal, reminding me of the old EMS synths, with more knobs than the Little Phatty, which is certainly commendable (one thing that always bothered me about the LP is that the same knob controls filter cut-off and resonance, which is possibly the worst design ever for filter control).
The Sub Phatty is basically a modified Little Phatty, with a smaller keyboard and no LCD screen.
Judging from the (not-too-interesting) videos, the Sub is smaller than the Little Phatty, but bigger than what the official photos have you expect. I had wished it was a very portable Moog. It's stilly somewhat bulky.
Its main advantages over its bigger brother are a multidrive mode that deliver a more agressive yet warm tone (these very distorted, controlled sounds, you can't easily do that with the Little Phatty), and the added presence of sub osc making an obvious difference on the low end.

2) Korg's MS20 reissue

At an expected price of 599€, this is amazing news and I've duly pre-ordered mine.
I have no doubt that self-proclaimed analogue purists will argue about how close this is to the original, but I couldn't care less. I would get the Mini even if they'd name it Korg SXW48. Just the fact that it's a rather complex, semi-modular (pseudo-modular?) monosynth with a very characterful filter is enough.

3) DSI Prophet 12

While sticking to his talking point that the Prophet 12 was his best synth ever, analog hero Dave Smith has kept a somewhat low profile on the fact that it doesn't feature analog oscillators. That came as a big suprise to me, and my 2 cents is that an instrument in that price range should offer analog oscillators besides digital ones. That said, much of the sound depends on the filters, and they, for one thing, are analog. All in all, I can't say that I was blown away by the demos, but I'm sure that it's a pretty powerful beast.

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