Gear | April 4, 2012

The Grand Synthesizer Research Project

I often refer to myself as a Keyboard Player. It’s a convenient shorthand, but closer to the truth would be to say that really, I’m a Hammond organ player and a pianist. I occasionally dabble in other sounds but even then I’m more drawn to electromechanical keyboards (and their emulations) such as the Clavinet, or Wurlitzer and Rhodes electric pianos.

My first experience of playing was probably scrabbling onto the bench of my grandfather’s home-made three manual electric organ, or standing on its pedals and marvelling at the racket I could make. Shortly after that I followed the well-worn path of childhood classical piano lessons and after a few years managed to borrow the school’s Yamaha SY35 synthesizer over a school holiday. Shortly before I left home for University, I managed to buy myself a second hand Yamaha SY55. I must confess, at that point I was a little disappointed in it. Despite having a higher model number and workstation feature set, it felt and sounded inferior to the SY35. Nevertheless, armed with it, my Yamaha pf85 digital piano, and a double tier X-frame stand I made my way out into the world ready to find myself a band.

Around that time, fate introduced me (at 6am on a Sunday morning, I seem to recall) to the sounds Deep Purple and, more specifically, Jon Lord. Why was constantly struggling to get The Right Sound For The Sound by mucking around with an array of sampled clarinets, flutes and violins and strange synthetic bleepy noises when someone like Jon Lord could play the same sound on every record and always sound glorious? Shortly after this I ditched almost all the sounds on my SY55 and replaced them with organ sounds of various sorts with various levels of distortion.

And so my days as a normal synth/keyboard player ended. My keyboard rig eventually settled on a Roland VK7 hammond clone and, on some occasions, a digital piano. I had found my voice in the mighty sound of the Hammond organ and would devote myself to that.

Well, sort of. Since then I’ve still occasionally flirted with synths, mainly in the form a distorted sawtooth lead sound I’d programmed on the rackmount sibling of my old SY55, the Yamaha TG55. And with Fusion Orchestra 2, I started taking advantage of the synth section on the Nord Stage. And there was that Novation Nova I’d bought a while ago when I last had a crisis of identity.

What’s finally starting to dawn on me is that it’s not so much synths that I don’t really get on with, it’s poor quality imitations of instruments and variety for its own sake keyboard sounds. The “Now With 1000 New Sounds!” workstation keyboards. And, at the risk of offending a great number of people with my offensively purist streak, keyboards sounds that of the semi-automatic sort, which encourage to hold a note and twiddle a knob as the arpeggiator does the rest.

So the upshot of this long, meandering auto-biography is that I’ve decided on a project to start researching synths. I think I know roughly what sorts of sounds will work for me in terms of composing and performing, but beyond that it’s all a bit vague.

About a month ago I decided to take the plunge and buy a Prophet 08 rack. I’ve fiddled with it a bit and will write some sort of review in a bit. I’ve also ordered a second hand Roland Super JX-10 on a whim and dusted off my Yamaha TG33 (vector synth) and Novation Nova (virtual analogue). I’ve got my eye on ebay for a few other “vintage” synths too.

So, lab coats at the ready, and let the research commence!


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