The problem with synthesizers

February 23, 2009

Last week I got an email from a student conductor who is performing a piece by John Adams, needing a synthesizer, specifically a Kurzweil K2500 or 2600. I knew that Robert Winter had a K2500 in his studio, otherwise I had no idea what to recommend. I asked him to tell me what patches the score called for, thinking we could come up with some generic sounds that would come close to what John wanted. The problem is that both synthesizers are no longer in production, and, although there are still some used ones around, there probably won’t be any in a few years.

Our world-famous composer is now tasting a bit of what I experienced: investing time and energy in writing music for instruments that are dead.

Between 1992 and 1994, I wrote three cantatas for gay choruses whose core instrumentation included three or four live synthesizers: “Hidden Legacies”, “Letters to the Future”, and “Flashpoint/Stonewall”. The synthesizers I used were the Yamaha DX7, the Yamaha TX802, the Roland D50, and the Kurzweil K2000 — all now long dead. I still own these synthesizers, but there is no software available that can download the sounds into them. I have held onto old computers with old operating systems in hopes that someday I can resurrect them. Many of the sounds that I used were sounds I designed myself that have no equivalent in traditional orchestral instruments or synthesizers, so there really is no substitute for these old dead sounds.

An alternative is to create a recording of the accompaniment in a kind of Music Minus One format. The problem here is that conductors are control freaks: they are opinionated about tempo, balance, and dynamics. They don’t like being a slave to a click track or the shackles of a prerecorded accompaniment, and for this reason alone, this doesn’t seem to be a viable option.

Synthesizer manufacturers treat their products like cars: they are hot for a year, then they take them out of production and replace them with a new, updated, better and improved version. These are financial decisions, not artistic decisions. So, composers who have composed music for them, and I mean notated music in the grand classical tradition, are just out of luck. What does John Adams plan to do about this? or his publisher, Boosey and Hawkes? Will the piece die because of this problem?

I have always hoped that someday a Glass Bead Game-type instrument would appear one day where one could punch in a number and have any historical synthesizer available at their fingertips. The problem seems to be that Roland owns its sound architecture, and Yamaha owns its, and so on.

Recently, virtual synthesizers have replaced physical ones. But the problem has been that we can’t access ANY of the sounds we created on the original instruments, much less import our old sound libraries into them. What good was that? Why has no one tried to update Opcode’s librarian software, or its suite of programming software designed for individual synthesizers? Part of the answer may be that certain sounds sound dated: but since when has that stopped a musician? We have a panoply of “early instruments” carefully maintained and used to faithfully reproduce the old traditions of performance and repertoire, but new music gets relegated to the chopped liver category.

Musicians who work in popular media use synthesizers for a CD, and then use them on the tour. After that, they move on to the next album. Their final product is a CD, not a score. But for those of us trained to be composers who create scores, so that people can re-create our music in years to come, we are out of luck.

With this current reality, I would advise all composers to NOT write for synthesizers in the traditional way, meaning notating music with patch changes and specifying synthesizers. Rather, they should specify “Synthesizer” and use generic terms that describe the kind of sounds you have in mind.

The instrumentation of the orchestra is closed. The only section whose instrumentation still evolves is the percussion section. Sure, you can put synthesizers in your score, just as you can a sitar, or erhu, or koto, but there is no guarantee that, in the future, anyone will be able to play those parts.

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