Korg, Roland, and Yamaha: Please Stop Faking It

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 at 8:17 pm

I am, admittedly, biased in how I view any particular piece of gear. I exist in a particular zone of music: IDM, electro, and acid house. Raymond Scott, Aphex Twin, and Brian Eno. I regard most workstation keyboards such as the Korg Triton to be the realm of dull pop producers. This doesn’t mean they aren’t any good; it just means they are of little use to me — the aesthetic they strive for is one I avoid in droves. They are designed to strip the studio of its complexity and allow J. Random Hiphopper to focus on his MCing. Me, though, I relish that complexity. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

Recently, there are many more J. Random Hiphoppers than there are Electronic Musers. This is reflected in what you see when you walk into a brick-and-mortar music store, and in what gear manufacturers build: workstations for hip hop and pop. Keyboards with organ and rhodes sounds for kids covering Pink Floyd. Electric pianos for people who play classical music. There will be five or six offerings in each of these three categories… and maybe, buried in the back somewhere, is whatever limp-dicked “virtual analog” synth Roland put out that year, and a couple Korg Electribes. It bums me out.

I got into writing music in the late 90’s, when virtual analog (VA) was still a new thing. Plugins were just starting to get serious, and Propellerheads relased Reason. There was a Guitar Center down the street from my high school, and I’d often head there during lunchbreak or after school to kill time — my friends quickly learned not to let me in there, because I’d refuse to leave. Many well-known, loved lineages were just kicking off: Access Virus. Korg MS2000. Novation Supernova. There were at least a dozen grooveboxes, which were regularly swapped out for new ones. There was a computer running Reason, which I’d never used before.

Since then, I feel most major manufacturers have been coasting. I am entirely bored with VA synths. I bought a couple, and I really have no need for any more, especially ones that are pretty much the same as last year’s. Access released the Virus B, then the Virus C. The MS2000 grew a cancerous mass and became the Radias. Reason is now in version 4. New Electribes come out every year, largely the same as last year’s… and the floor space devoted to all these has continually shrunk, to the point where I don’t bother going to Guitar Center any more. What happened?

I don’t think there’s any one reason, but I can think of many that definitely contributed. First and foremost is the decline in electronic music’s popularity. People went wacky for it in the late 80s through most of the 90s, then largely abandoned it for hip-hop. This is no one’s fault; it just is. I’m sure it’s been fantastic for anyone that likes hip-hop too, and I’m not bitter about letting those people have a turn. Someday, the wheel will come around, and electronic music will be trendy again. There’s still enough of a market that they update their keyboards each year, but not much is put into R&D. Just more polyphony and storage.

The second reason is the rapid advance of computers, and plugins. Why buy a synth when you can download one for free? Well, hardware sounds better, it’s more fun… but it takes some experience to get this, and even those with the experience often lack the cash. I feel this is best exemplified by Native Instruments — their software is iconic, innovative, and succinct. Why buy a handful of grooveboxes when you can build custom ones in Reaktor? The only thing missing is the tactile control. Consequently, NI branched out into hardware controllers. It’s a reversal I find amusing — instead of hardware inspiring software, software is now inspiring hardware.

But, most hardware is now DSP-based — a purpose-built computer that would be a useless hunk of metal and plastic without — you guessed it — software. This gives us reason three: software is not only more convenient for many musicians, it’s more convenient for manufacturers. They can design one computer board and put it in a dozen products, changing only the software and external controls. If there’s a glitch, they can release a patch instead of having to do a recall. The engineering is easier — three guys at computers can do what used to require 30 people, oscilloscopes, multimeters, wave-soldering machines, PCB prototypes, and more. Why not design one board, fire 27 of those 30 engineers, and do it all with software? It’s an accounting exec’s wet dream, and a nightmare for someone like me.

A handful of smaller outfits still cater to me and my ilk — doepfer, analogue solutions, MFB, frostwave, and so on. Unsurprisingly, they charge a premium. So, people scour eBay and Craigslist for hardware. 20-year old keyboards command a higher price than new ones. A big company like Roland spots this, and tries to capitalize on it. They develop something like the Roland SH-201, a same-board-different-software DSP synth. The name is a mashup between the absolutely classic and beloved SH-101 and MC-202. Initially, I was excited to see Roland drop hints like that… then I tried the thing, and I nearly lost my lunch in the middle of Guitar Center. Most plugins I have sound far better than the Roland SH-201. I bought a real SH-101 instead, off the Internet. Roland, meanwhile, keeps squeezing out turds that completely miss the point. They sell a few to people who know enough to recognize the naming references, but not enough to recognize what they’re actually buying.

This is not to say that everything they put out is bad — when it comes to synths that are openly DSP-based, such as the V-Synth, Roland still has plenty of balls left. But, for the analog-and-modulars crowd, most of the huge names — Korg, Roland, Yamaha — are completely out of touch. There’s still oodles of innovation all over, just not from these companies. Today’s products resemble yesterday’s in name only. The proper stuff is left to small, new companies, to Craigslist, to people building things themselves. Perhaps it’s in the best financial insterests of these corporations, but it sure is depressing to me.

Today, though, I found out about something that gives me hope: The Korg Monotron. The thing is actually analog! It’s not a computer. I have no idea if it sounds any good, but they claim to have used the MS20’s schematics (and the MS20 is fantastic). The real kicker: it’s going to cost under $100. If there’s anything I miss about having bigger companies on the boat, it’s their ability to drive the price down, through volume.

So, Korg, if you’re listening: thanks for trying something, anything like this. If reviews are good, I will buy one… and I am really hoping that they will be good. Roland, Yamaha — are you watching this?

Take a look at the Electrix Warp Factory. The signal path (sound) is analog, but it has all the benefits of digital (MIDI, tuning accuracy, and so on). The sound is there, and it integrates well. I’m only against digital when it tries to squeeze analog out of the picture — when it fakes the orgasm. Faking it makes for lame sex unless the gal is really good at faking it. Even then, it’ll never be as good. I’m not expecting Korg to dig some dusty old parts off the shelf and start building MS20’s — that would be backwards and financially insane. The monotron, on the other hand, represents a formula I hope to see much more of: take a classic design, slim it down, figure out a way to manufacture it with modern parts and techniques… without faking anything.

Update: Someone has pointed out to me that the Warp Factory is in fact entirely digital. D’oh! Let’s pretend I said “Moog Voyager” instead, OK? 🙂

Categories: gear, philosophy, software, studio

6 Comments on “Korg, Roland, and Yamaha: Please Stop Faking It”

  1. Good rant, but the Electrix Warp Factory is all digital. Check the AH archives.

  2. Whoops! I half-suspected it might be, but VSE didn’t say and I couldn’t find much on Google. Thanks, I’ll update it…

  3. I agree 90%. Only qualm I have is the electribes until they pretty much hit a wall, were always a great step forward building a more innovative product out of ideas from a previous model. The er-1 and ea-1 mashed together to make the first em, the es being the first sampler, then they released the emx and esx which had a higher sample rate and were all around great products.

    I used to drive an hour and a half to Guitar center, and (now sam ash) Mars music in the bigger cities just to play with new synth toys, and it was well worth the drive. Seeing a nord in person for the first time, or even getting lucky enough to catch a Virus in the synth room. If I was really lucky I’d find a store that had a plethora of va and maybe an odd used vintage analog (like a juno or ) or hybrid (ie alpha juno). Those were great and very inspirational times.

    I can recall a room at either Mars, or maybe just a local but big music store. There was a Waldorf micro q, Virus A, Jp8080, Jp8000, Novation Nova, nord lead 1, Korg Ms2000, 3 Electribes (er, es, ea), and various other toys. Everything had either dedicated monitors or headphones. It was a true playground. However most every store I’ve ever been to says that synthesizers are just not a good thing to keep in stock. Not enough interest, stores don’t always have an employee that knows enough about them to make a good sale, and they can pretty much always be found in just as good as new condition on ebay for a lot cheaper. So it’s a double edged sword I guess. Great for the musician, a pit for the retailer.

    There are still some stores that follow this trend though, Nova musik, Analogue Haven, and a few mom and pop type stores found in large metro areas.

    That said, I love digital, I love analog, and I love hybrid. Vsts are great for their ease of use, but hardware whether analog or just a tiny microprocessor, is so much better to bounce ideas off of and get lost in.

  4. Hey good stuff. Well written post!

  5. Good one!

  6. Its the classic digital vs analog argument. That’s what this boils down to. I’m not a expert on electronics but I think digital is fitting for modern day music. I don’t hear the “warmth” in analog. Maybe the old tape machines or whatever have a certain warmth. As far as keyboards and synths go well its suppose to sound cold and synthetic. I thought that was the point. Even before I played keys I was aware of this. I mean digital is just the modern sound. It fits well with whats going on in the world. Dig it.

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