When you have friends with similar interests and desires as you, sometimes you have to be willing to experience the pangs of jealousy. I’m not just talking about romantic jealousy – for us musicians, it can be about the gear. When I was in grade school, there was a bright and talented kid a year ahead of me named Mike Ladd who has gone on to make some fantastic records in recent years, one of which was recently released under the title Holding It Down, and is to my ears the finest record to come out this year. (More about that record in a future post.)
Mike lives in France now, and I enjoy keeping track of what he’s up to on Facebook. He frequently posts pics of his favorite tool, the EMS Synthi AKS, showing settings he uses by setting the controls of the instrument which look like the pegs in the children’s game Battleship. I looked up this vintage synthesizer online and found that now-expired auctions had listed the instrument for well north of $10,000. Wondering if the benefits of living in a country with socialized medicine had allowed Mike to acquire this precious box, I sent him a message saying, how’d ya do it? He wrote back saying that the French had nothing to do with it. He had purchased his Synthi for $250 from a friend when he was still living in New York. That’s when the jealousy began to set in. I gave up on my budding plans to move to France, and accepted a teaching position in one of the most anti-union states of the United States in a fit of resignation.
That’s also when I realized I would probably have to stick with the closest thing you can get to a real Synthi, the virtual emulation I had already purchased from Soniccouture. I was interested in Mike’s hardware version because I had just used my software copy to record the extended ending of “Shine Upon Me Like the Moon,” along with a few other digital recreations of other vintage Korg and Moog synthesizers I can’t afford.
Now, I can understand the aversion to virtual instruments that emulate instruments that have nothing to do with electronics. But to me, the synthesizer, a piece of electronics to begin with, are well suited to being translated into software. I mean, the idea of rejecting an instrument made famous in popular music by Kraftwerk, authors of songs like Computer World, seems downright bizarre.
The German maestros themselves have praised Native Instruments’ emulation of the Minimoog, called the Monark, which was released earlier this year. Proving they still understand the threat modern technology poses to humanity better than the electronica movement they inspired, they provided the best of the celebrity sound bites on NI’s website: “”Monark….(we are) programmed just to do anything you want us to….we are the robots.” (Please don’t hold them accountable for the way Coldplay lifted the melody of the above tune Computer Love.)
If you’re lucky enough to get an original Minimoog for $250 from a friend or a clueless yard sale proprietor, I’m sure they are preferable to software. But today you can buy a Monark or a Synthi from Native Instruments or Soniccouture for $50, during sales events they have going on this weekend. My advice? Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Soniccouture make particularly interesting products that have a historical focus on capturing early proto-synthesizers like the Novachord and the Ondes Martenot, and instruments that come from the worlds of modern classical music, like the Martenot, the Xtended Piano library, and their collection of Glass instruments, all 3 of which I used on Spare Parts. With presets that evoke folks like Harry Partch, Olivier Messaien and yes, John Cage, you’re a long way from the bland techno fare that characterizes most virtual instruments – and most of the music that is made by people who buy products from Soniccoutre and Native Instruments.
I’m less impressed with Soniccouture’s virtual instruments that are adaptations of non-western instruments. Not just because they sample non-electronic instruments, but also because they remind me of the way most samples of “World Music” are funneled into pounding techno tracks that turn the sitars and congas into figures for the subservient sweatshops of neoliberal capitalism in places like Cambodia and China, where the workers march to beats programmed by corporations like The Gap and Apple Computer nestled comfortably in the post-hippie corporate theme parks of suburban San Francisco. Of course, the resulting products are present in my apartment in spades, so I’m a part of all that regardless of where the sounds I use come from.
I entered The Wrong Tree in a contest Soniccoutre held for tracks made using their instruments back in September, the prize of which was $500 to spend at their store. My deep seated bitterness over not winning is not entirely to blame for my feeling that the songs that made the final round were uniformly dull and in many cases smacked of the crass appropriation of the sounds of the Global South that seemed prime for a promotional spot for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I think it’s better to actually play those instruments yourself rather than sample them if you can, like the great Sandy Bull did. They’re a little bit easier to get a hold of than an Ondes Martenot or a vintage EMS Synthi. I recently bought a cheap oud to see if I might like to learn to play it, and ended up wishing I had gotten a nicer one cuz I love it and now wish I had one with nicer wood.
I have done the opposite on a few occasions – there’s a part on Blood Feud from Spare Parts that was played with a MIDI keyboard triggering samples from the Balinese Gamelan library co-produced by Soniccouture and Native Instruments. But then, as Steve Albini once said, we all become what we despise.