The Circle of Progress

I checked out the software Oberheim OBX (Obxd) and it is pretty faithful to the original. But as I went through the preset sounds, I was reminded of what it was we really wanted out of a synth back then..to be able to recreate actual instruments (strings, horns,drums,bass,etc.). The race was on and the Yamaha DX7 emerged as an early winner for certain sounds such as Fender Rhodes and Electric Bass (“Seinfeld” Slap Bass, anyone?). The drawback was that you needed a Phd to operate the beast. Roland mega synths such as the Super JX tried to enter the “imitative” fray, sadly ignoring its actual strength as a very cool DCO synth. But Roland was working on a type of synthesis (“L.A”) that grafted the attack part with a sample (i.e.. a string bow or horn blast) onto a synth wave with their D-50. Korg, who’s Poly 61 was looked at as a “toy” synth, blindsided everyone with the relatively low cost “M1”, a synth that borrowed the D-50’s architecture.
So we now had the tools to create an entire production within one synth; the M1 (like the Ensoniq ESQ-1) had a built in sequencer that allowed the user to compose an entire track. Classic synths were relegated to the pawn shops as larger and larger “workstations” were brought to market with more sounds,more voices,more tracks. Companies started to market them in 19” rack modules; my own rig at that time was contained in 3 large flight cases and housed about 12 different modules.
But at the heart of every modern synth was a sound card and a small computer. As processing and memory dropped in price, it became possible to have it all within one computer. All you needed was a keyboard to control the sounds in there and voila!..your Mac (or PC) was your “all in one” synth and sequencer. Even the pristine quality of a fully sampled orchestra was at your fingertips..simply add the ability to record audio (Logic/Cubase/Digital Performer,etc)  and you’re looking at a “studio in a box”

At the same time, all the limitations and sonic drawbacks of those early synths started to become desirable again (think vinyl). People missed the “analog” sound and hands-on control of knobs that a mouse can’t give (yes,I know all about assigning midi controls to midi controllers..I just don’t think we’re there  with that yet).
All of this has been very positive for synths, both hardware and software. If a musician wants to go deep, there are software ones like Alchemy that do everything except pick up your laundry. For the less technical user, there are about 3,000 preset sounds in that one as well. Hardware synths by pioneers such as Roger Linn and Tom Oberheim continue to push the envelope while maintaining ties to their distinctly analog roots. And new comers such as Teenage Engineering are gaining fans among those who wish to explore sound creation/design from the ground up.

Freddy’s Dead

This has been a sad time for music. Aside from all of the high profile musicians that have passed away, we have also lost Fred McFarlane .

fred-mcfarlaneFred was one of the nicest and most talented musicians that I have ever known. I first met him at a small studio in NYC where he was part of a thriving studio/live scene. We wound up on the “D Train” live crew, Fred as one of the 4 keyboardists and myself as road manager/FOH and monitor mixer. As we started gigging, I wound up writing and producing a fairly big radio hit in NY  (for which I saw almost no money…that’s another post) and Fred made the joke at sound check “We’re the only band where the roadie has a bigger hit than the band”.

D Train was a band of top level musicians and Fred fit right in…in all of the performances, he never made a mistake..not even one. He had a great sense of humor and was incredibly generous. When I asked him to help out on a project of my own songs, he traveled down to D.C. and laid down tracks for 12 songs for free.

Fred later ended up playing keyboards on a few songs that I had written for other artists (including “I Think I’m In Trouble” by Expose, co-written with Kevin Calhoun and Shelly Peiken), and working with artists like Madonna.

He was also generous with his time and expertise. An early adopter of synthesizers, he knew his way around the Oberhiem synths backwards and forwards. I just found a free software version of the OBX and can’t wait to see if it does him justice.obx_d