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The Man/Machine Interfaces (Part 2)

In a previous column, I deplored the lack of vision of the present breed of digital and VA synthesizer
manufacturers and the absence of sophisticated man/machine interfaces in their synths.

This time, I am focusing on the man/machine interfaces equipping vintage and new analog hardware machines,
presently available on the market.

Historical perspectives
Since the early 60's, two schools of thoughts have permeated the synthesizer industry. The first one, was the result of an association between engineer Bob Moog and classical pianist Walter (Wendy) Carlos. Working in tandem, they developed the first
keyboard oriented synthesizer : the standard of all future commercial synthesizers was defined.

The other school of thought, was the result of an association between electronic wizard Don Buchla and clarinetist Morton Subotnick :
the result was an "electric box", with many esoteric functions, controlled by a sequencer/touchboard : the synthesizer standard for Academic circles was defined.

The rest, as we know, is history... Or, is it? : these two schools of thoughts are still dividing modular synth manufacturers at this present time.

Innovative vs. classic gear

"A classic design is intemporal and should never be changed ": this appears to be the holy mantra of modular manufacturers
still in business to-day.

Indeed, with the exception of a couple of daring boutique designers developing innovative modules by themselves,
manufacturers of vintage - and new analog synths - seem to think that it is O.K to continue to offer the
same four decades old technology, without changing an iota to the original design!

Personally, I feel there is a danger to push this kind of reasoning to the absurd : freezing a technology in time,
without offering the possibility to upgrate it, is detrimental to the creative evolution of our analog gear.
Indeed, there is no reason why analog gear should not continue to evolve, in parallel, to the present digital
technology : both should not be exclusive but, complimentary to each other.

Strangely, one has the impression that designers of modular gear are either too timid, or lack the imagination of their elders,
to develop new innovative modules. If they dared doing so, it would complement, advantageously, the other "classic
modules" they are currently manufacturing...

What I am thinking about here, are new versatile "all-in-one" slewing modules providing a range of multi-functionalities, in
the same vein as Serge's famous DSG (Dual Slope Generators).

User's feedback
Alas, too many good synth designers don't have the slightests ideas how their modules are used in a "Live" musical situation.
If they knew, they would'nt continue to develop the same old man/machine interfaces.

Also, what they believe to be an elegant or sharp design is often not very useful to the synthesist. For example, equipping a synth with two identical VCF, having a -24 dB slope, is often an unneccessary overkill.
Indeed, for standard substractive synthesis, better results can be achieved with two VCF - with only a -12 dB slope - but having
different designs characteristics.

Evidently, it is of the greatest importance for synth designers to work, in tandem, with experienced and knowledgeable musicians :
their feedback is essential on key issues like, the logic positioning of all functions within a module or the best lay-out for an ergonomic patchboard.

Suffice it to say, substractive synthesis is not just connecting modules together : it is also providing proper attenuation
or signal inversions at all stages in the process. As it is too often the case, synth designers forget to
provide enough inverters or attenuation pots in their synths :this often hampers the synthesist in his quest to produce a
subtle and meaningful patch.

For example, an attenuator/inverter pot is most welcomed when interconnecting heterogeneous synths together:
an imported signal having a -10 Volt gate can be easily inverted and attenuated to a +5 Volt gate for syncing purposes.
In my opinion, there should be a minimum of four "all-purposes"attenuators/inverters for a small synth configuration.

Also, the use of "non-stackable" jacks/mini-jacks on most patchboards, implicitely calls for sufficient sets of
"multiples": to allow a signal to be routed to several points. Indeed, it is not rare to see manufacturers
equip their medium sized synths with only two sets of three-jacks multiples! In my opinion, a small synth should have
a minimum of four sets of four-jacks multiples.

Worst, designers often cut corners by skipping some important functions in a module, like the absence of
an FM pot, controlling the modulation index, on a VCO or
by not providing a much needed second envelope generator.

In conclusion, there is still room for creative analog manufacturers to complement their classic offerings
with new innovative products. Everybody will benefit from it...

And, Yes!, I am throwing them a challenge!

André Stordeur