By Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West
Last Saturday, on a wind-swept 81-degree winter’s day (ha!), I slipped behind the Orange Curtain to attend my first National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show at the Anaheim Convention Center, which is literally across the street from the Disneyland Resort. The traffic was horrendous, but you would expect that, given the sunny weather and the proximity to two famous theme parks on a weekend.
Once you manage to get inside the main hall, the intensity level cranks up from there. You are smacked head-on with a cacophony of music and talking from every direction, a bewildering number of exhibits, and armies of attendees – mostly young, often copiously tattooed, with many in deliberately outlandish, attention-getting getup.
Such is the brave new world, but in my particular area of interest – keyboards – the prevailing theme that I noticed at NAMM this year seemed to be Back To The Future. There was a time 40 years ago when only a handful of hardcore devotees regretted the abandonment of the original modular synthesizers, with their mad tangles of patch cords like an old-fashioned telephone switchboard gone haywire. But it’s clear now that they have returned with a vengeance. Everywhere I looked, there were new, often hulking synthesizer consoles with acres of dials and jacks, with wildly-colored patch cords connecting one module on the panels to another.
Not merely content to sample sounds from vintage analog keyboards, several manufacturers are bringing back the old instruments physically as well as sonically. Korg has gotten the rights, to, and has resurrected, the ARP Odyssey synthesizer, reproducing not one but three different original editions of the instrument at 86% scale – which means, unfortunately, that the tiny reduced keyboard is difficult for anyone over 8 years old to play. The Mellotron is back in production; Dave Smith – who created the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 – has a line of analog instruments, including the new Prophet 6.
The Moog Music booth was packed with fans gawking at new, re-created modular synthesizers and shiny, spacey-looking successors to the famous Minimoog. Malcolm Cecil, 78 – the synthesizer pioneer who helped Stevie Wonder fashion his unique electronic sound world on the albums Music Of My Mind, Talking Book, Inner Visions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale in the early-1970s – drew an avid crowd as he jammed on a monster Moog System 35 in tandem with Max Ravitz on a System 55. Moog’s historic `60s rival, the Buchla, with its touch plates instead of a keyboard, is back in fashion, too, and there are German outfits like Berlin’s MFB that design their synths like the old favorites.
All of this links up with the long-standing craze for vintage guitars, not to mention the recent astounding sales surge of vinyl LPs. It’s partly a rebellion against the digital world in search of warmer, perhaps more comforting sounds from a time when a lot of great, lasting, boundary-pushing music was being made.
Yet it is also a desire to finally realize the potential of electronic music through the open-ended nature of these analog-styled instruments, freed from pre-set choices determined by some corporate manufacturer. Plus, there are the benefits of 30 years of research in the digital era, for these new instruments are far more stable in pitch, more programmable, presumably more reliable, and thus better-suited for live performance than the original models ever were.
With these back-to-the-future instruments, perhaps some young (or old) musical genius attending this show will be able to change the world like his predecessors did. It’s harder now, but hopefully not impossible.