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The man/machine interfaces

"The more things change, the more things remain the same". (Anonymous).

The above surrealistic dictum - which deliberatedly contradicts the entropic model - reflects the state of synthesizers technology

Since decades, synth manufacturers have felt obligated to endorse the same paradigm used in the automotive industry : one or two synth models
has to be introduced on the market per calendar year! Too often, the introduction of these new products does not reflect what the market really wants, nor does it represents the end-users real needs.

This leads to a sort of perverse situation, where all new models introduced on the market are not intrinsically innovative per se but,
are really there for pure cosmetic reasons -such as adding a new line of text on a small LCD screen, or a LED here
and there or, worse, to "patch-up" or correct the overall inconsistencies of the original blueprint. Thankfully, the end-users are
rarely fooled: the result is, often, an overstock of flashy new gear that nobody wants.

In view of that, there is an urgent need for reforms in the man/machine interfaces equipping our current hardware/software synths.

Closed vs. open systems

In the 60's, when the synthesizer revolution began, there were only a handfull of expensive modular synths available on the market. At that time,
manufacturers chose an open system approach for patching their new gear : standardized patchcords were used to interconnect all modules I/O.

By the early 70's, except for a few synth manufacturers continuing to offer open systems, most manufacturers chose to migrate the technology towards a closed or semi-closed systems : all signals were routed using various switches or a combination of X/Y matrix switches. At best, a few external patch points were provided to override the internal normalized connections.

In the mid 70's, the majority of manufacturers chose to take the technology a step further by providing duophonic/polyphonic keyboards: this is the era known as the mono synth mutation towards a non-modular gloryfied polyphonic organ environment.
But, aside from these changes, the systems still remained more or less closed (all signals continued to be routed using various switches).

As everyone knows, the 80's and the 90's saw the advent of digital multitimbral synths and sampling machines : these two new technologies - which used closed systems configurations - precipitated the decline of the standard analog monophonic gear.

It is worth mentionning, that a dramatic change occured in the man-machine interface developped for these new technologies: the introduction of a ridiculously small and badly lit LCD screen, used for visual feedback, and the use of an awkward digital master knob - to be used in combination with directional cursors- to access menus pages/sub-pages allowing the editing of one or more parameters.

Virtual Analogs : the panacea?

In recent years, the introduction of software driven "virtual analog" systems saw the return of much more open systems than in the past. By mimicking the features of conventional analog synths, this technology tries to offer the best of both worlds, while offering total portability.

But, the openess of a system is not always the cure to solve all patching problems : controlling ten parameters, by voltage control, is an easy task for
a modular hardware synth : controlling ten or more functions with a VA, in real time, is a difficult challenge to meet!

But, with the exception of a few synthesizer brands, promoting a combination of software-driven knobbed hardware stations philosophy, most VA man/machine interfaces needs to be improved : turning a virtual knob on a screen, with a mouse, is like trying to draw a perfect elliptic curve with a
potato in your hand!

Also, except for the standard analog audio mini-jacks I/O, the majority of VA manufacturers don't provide dedicated I/O ports allowing the simultaneous connection of one or more external hybrid controllers to their system. This is a serious drawback...

Worst, there is a general lack of creative hybrid controllers available on the market. And, NO, I am not talking about keyboards, sequencers or wind controllers...

In my opinion, the richness of timbres and the unparalleled smoothness of sounds generated by an analog hardware synth will remain unchallenged for some time. Why? because of the "infinite resolution" achieved by analog machines!
Some software bigots might argue that we are getting there and that, in theory, it should be technically possible, some day, to reach this goal by digital means...

Huh?...Forget it : mimicking infinite sampling rate would be too costly in resources to even think about it!

Having said that, the VA machines are here to stay : this new technology will allow a new generation of musicians to (re)discover the pure joy of synthesis. Hopefully,this creative move will eventually kill, for good, all the insipid factory sounds cluttering our present musical environment!

André Stordeur