The Latest Analog Craze... Synthesizers?

Aug 21, 2017

The return to analog sound in this digital age isn’t limited to the resurgence in popularity of turntables and vinyl LP records.  Many keyboard musicians and sound artists are returning to the analog synthesizers whose sound they grew up with, favoring them over the newer digital varieties.  WMRA’s Calvin Pynn reports.

Over the past few years, analog synthesizers have been slowly making a comeback as nostalgia for media from the late 1970s, the 1980s, and early ‘90s has saturated American pop culture.

(Sound of an Arturia Minibrute)

Modern film soundtracks are paying homage to earlier composers such as John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream, and modern rock bands are taking hints from Kraftwerk and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. While digital synthesizers and interfaces have imitated the features and sounds from the original analog counterparts as technology has advanced over the past couple decades, the older machines haven’t lost their place.

Here are a few notes played on a 1979 Yamaha Analog Synthesizer.

(Sound of a 1979 Yamaha)

And here they are again, on an OBXD Virtual Synthesizer.

(Sound of an OBXD Virtual)

That difference may be hard for the untrained ear to pick up, but many musicians, including Harrisonburg’s Matthew “Snake” Osburn, say there’s no substitute for the real thing.

MATTHEW OSBURN: I tend to believe that the digital market has always come close, but it is a sound that is often imitated but never equaled, and the audiophiles will always notice. The technology is temperamental, and that’s what makes it beautiful.

Osburn plays primarily as a guitarist in his band, Psychonaut, but was drawn to the synthesizer, or “synth” for short, a few years ago when he learned of its capability to sustain notes. His repertoire includes three synthesizers – an Arturia Minibrute, a Moog Minitaur that he uses in place of a bassist in a different project (Nat sound – Moog Minotaur), and the TWA Great Divide, which he uses to process effects for his guitar (Nat sound – Great Divide). These are all monophonic synthesizers, which can manipulate one sound in many different ways, as opposed to polyphonic synths, which are capable of creating multiple sounds.

Osburn describes analog synthesizers as one of the more user-friendly instruments that are accessible to those who lack a formal education in music. Some are keyboard controlled, while others, like the Moog Minotaur, can be controlled by a pedal resembling those found at the feet of a pipe organ. Ultimately, it’s the rows of knobs on an analog synthesizer that really create the sound. All the different possible settings can be overwhelming at times, as Osburn says he often has to take a picture to remember just how he turned the many potentiometers and oscillators on his synthesizers to get the right sound.

OSBURN: The most difficult thing is to find a great sound with an analog piece of equipment and then later on duplicate the exact sound if you don’t remember what it is you did, that’s a fool’s errand.

Leading synth manufacturers such as Korg and Moog have tapped into that challenge in recent years, creating synthesizers with presets and sequencers.

But the older machines that created sound throughout the 1970s and ‘80s are being resurrected as well. Some have been lying dormant for years, and almost all have needed some repair. Elliot Downs, who owns Wonder Records and Skate Shop in downtown Harrisonburg, works on the analog synthesizers that players frequently bring in.  And sometimes, those machines find their way to a new owner.

As luck would have it, synthesizers have made their way to Downs’ work bench as more people have walked into the store asking about them.

ELLIOT DOWNS: We’ve always tried to pick up synthesizers, we’ve just been getting a little more recently than we had in the past. But they do move pretty well, and we try to pick them up.  They’re just cool, they’re weird.

Among the “weirder” finds?  A couple of Soviet Russian synthesizers that Downs says were made with repurposed military parts.

DOWNS: They’re all from Soviet Russia so it’s whatever was sitting around, really. They’re typically copies to some extent of a more popular American or European synthesizer but just slightly off or slightly different, so you get some really bizarre tones out of them.

With a wave of beginners eager to explore analog synthesizers, Downs advises caution: he says do your homework and figure out what sounds you’re looking for with a digital synthesizer before going analog.

Matthew Osburn says the recent rise in popularity of analog synthesizers ultimately boils down to nostalgia. As a child of the ‘80s himself, he says the sound brings back plenty of memories.

(Sound of a Roland SH-2 Synthesizer)

OSBURN: Whenever people hear that, it speaks to what is familiar to them. I know in my own case I hear video games, I hear ‘80s film soundtracks, I also hear killer rock bands from the 70s that influenced me. It’s a very powerful connection that grabs people and speaks to what is familiar to them.

Osburn predicts that analog synthesizers could stay at the musical forefront for at least another few years.