Why I Switched from Percussion to Synthesizers

Access Virus TI2 Polar synthesizer - top

When I decided to switch from bass guitar to percussion in 1996, one of the main reasons was my fascination with timbre. The same fascination had led me to experiment with synthesizers in the mid-1980s as a supplement to my bass guitar. My first synth in those days was the duophonic analogue Octave Cat. In 1988 I bought a Sequential Circuits Pro One, a monophonic analogue synth. The Pro One had the big advantage over the Cat of staying in tune!

I found that early experience with synths frustrating. Synthetic timbre that could be dramatically manipulated in real time promised a wealth of musical expression. But I found the range of timbres very limited and easily falling into cliché. Worse, I found the uni-dimensional timbral variations I could achieve in performance crude and inhuman. It felt like playing an instrument with gloves on. In contrast, I could make subtle variations in the bass guitar's sound just by the way I played it with a plectrum or fingers. It was a much more immediate and human experience. Perhaps I would have had a better experience if I had played some of the higher-end synths that were then available. Or perhaps this all says as much about my stage of development as a musician at the time as it does about the available synthesizer technology.

At any rate, by the time I was ready to try a new instrument in 1996, I wanted nothing to do with synthesizers, in the light of my previous experience with them. Instead, percussion was the obvious choice. A decent-sized collection of percussion instruments had the potential of vast timbral range. And I was particularly attracted to those percussion instruments that allow varying how they are played to make good timbral variation.

Fast-forward to 2010. It was time for another change. The timbral range that can be produced by percussion is highly related to the size and variety of the collection of percussion instruments available to the musician. As my collection of instruments grew, this ceased to be a problem in my home studio. But what I could do at a gig depended on what gear I managed to bring. An evening at one of the local Wellington venues that puts on improvised music nearly always consists of three to five acts each playing a single set about half an hour long. Sometimes I would make a determined effort and bring lots of gear or some of the big beautiful instruments like gongs. It could easily take over three hours to dismantle the gear at my place, set it up at the venue, dismantle it at the venue and set it up again back at my place afterwards. And of course there's virtually no money in improvised music, so I had no team of roadies to do the work for me. All this for a half hour set. It did not add up. So more often I would take a much more manageable subset of my instruments. I honed my choice of what to take to provide the maximum variety for minimum effort. But it became frustrating. And the older I got, the more fed up I became with lugging gear around.

Another foray into electronics became more and more inviting. At first I still did not want another synth. In 2010, I bought my first electronic instrument, a Korg Wavedrum. This uses acoustic modelling technology, not MIDI, to convert the sounds played on its real drum head into variations on samples of real instruments, mostly various types of drum. So, unlike the synths I had played in the 1980s, the Wavedrum is very responsive to the way I play it: hands, sticks and mallets each sound like I am playing the emulated instrument that way.

I was inspired by the potential for what modern electronic technology could now achieve. So, just six weeks later, I bought an Alternate Mode MalletKAT. This is a MIDI controller that is played with mallets, like a vibraphone or marimba. As the MalletKAT takes both hands to play, I got a sample player (a Yamaha Motif-Rack XS) rather than a synthesizer to provide the sounds. I enjoyed having my first instrument for many years on which I could play a full range of notes.

But it became clear that, if I was going to be able to manipulate timbres in performance in any way comparable to what could be done with some percussion instruments, I was going to have to get a proper synthesizer. And by now I was aware that synth technology had come on a long way since the 1980s. I was still concerned that an analogue synth might sound dated. So in 2011 I bought an Access Virus TI, a polyphonic digital synth that can tolerably mimic analogue synths while covering sonic territory that analogue synths cannot get anywhere near. In late 2013, the allure of the genuine analogue sound led to me buying a Moog Voyager, a monophonic analogue synth. Its warm tone fits in particularly well with the acoustic instruments my collaborators mostly play. On the other hand the Virus is polyphonic and more versatile. Each has its uses!

(Photo: Access Virus TI2 Polar synthesizer)

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