Monday, October 31, 2011

In War Times

In Which a Science Fiction Author Writing About Jazz Completely and Unexpectedly Illuminates Why I Play Synthesizers

If I was 10 years older I’d probably be a sax player instead of a synthesist.

But I didn’t know that until I started reading Kathleen Ann Goonan’s book In War Times. Goonan writes amazing novels. They’re thick, heavy, and deep. In the best of ways, of course. And they’re filled with music, with jazz. Now I like jazz, but would not call myself an aficionado. Keith Jarrett, Branford Marsalis, Etta James, even, all favorites of mine along with many others. I’m much more of a rocker, though. But if I’d been born in 1940 or ’50 instead of 1960 maybe I would have turned out much like her characters. 

The beauty of Goonan’s writing is how I feel almost immediately immersed, even though I’ve never been to those 52nd Street jazz clubs, or to the ones in Harlem. And when I was the impressionable age her characters were when they were listening to their first jazz platters, for me there was Switched on Bach, Yes, ELP, Genesis, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Larry Fast, and later, in high school, Tangerine Dream. It was all over after that. I am to this day haunted by the textures of the movie version of A Clockwork Orange. So compelling, so beautiful, and making the movie all that much more intense.

As a preteen, though, my world was filled with the textures of the then new synthesizer. Just like the people in Goonan’s novel discovering the magic of jazz, in my slightly different time I was awakened to the birth of the synthesizer. I remember the disgust and outrage about these new “so-called instruments.” They were unnatural, synthetic, offensive, which was a common complaint. They would cost orchestras their jobs was another. But to me, it was eye-opening. The world of my father humming Greensleeves while conducting invisible musicians on the radio was what I was brought up with, followed by the ’60s with the “hippy” music, thanks to my sister and her DJ boyfriend. But then the synthesizer happened, and that was it for me. And like Goonan’s characters, I was taken in, swept up, and swirled away into a new world. That magical box of textures, sounds previously undreamt of, the joining of music and technology, just as in her book, that happened to me, too. 

If I was just a little older, I might have picked up a saxophone. But it was the Moog that got me instead. But Goonan’s book got me as well, grabbing me in its headlong rush into jazz and physics and world conflict. From the first page it had me, and who knows where it’s going to take me as I’m only 21% in (thanks, Kindle, for stealing page numbers out from under us!). And I admit that sometimes at the end of her books I’m left wondering what I just witnessed, but in some ways that’s half the fun. I’m always left with a “wow,” regardless. 

This is not a review of In War Times, nor is it even that much about the book at all. What this is about is the sense of discovery, the exhilaration, the newness of something that had never been heard before. For Goonan, maybe, jazz. For me, the synthesizer. No, what this is about is her unbelievably accurate description of me, as a kid, hearing the synthesizer for the very first time, with its magical textures that uprooted my world. Even though I’m not actually in her novel of course, yeah, she was writing about me. 

So I’m writing this to say, “thanks” to Ms. Goonan. She somehow managed to finally put into words exactly how I felt, and why I chose the synthesizer to fill my life. Why I had to. Even though the novel was jazz and the ’40s, it was also about me in the ’60s.

Yup. She nailed it.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Animoog for iPad

So today was the first day I really sat down with Moog’s new Animoog app for the iPad. Not for any good reason, but I stayed up after midnight on the night of the announcement to see what it was about, and when I saw that it was only $1 (temporarily) it was basically a no-brainer. And for a few days after that I picked out presets and played with the knobs a bit and thought it was pretty cool. I even downloaded the manual. (Which I have now read. Twice.) And while there’s been a bit of controversy over their “First Professional Synth Designed for the iPad” tagline, I have to say that after spending some quality time with it I’m pretty much blown away.

At first I thought it would be a cool toy, but after using it for most of the afternoon today I’ve come to think of it as a “real” synthesizer and not just an iPad app. First off, it doesn’t just have a few waveforms. Instead it has 56 different “waves,” plus one silent one. They’re not static waves either but rather actually synthesized tones. It’s almost like they’ve taken an analog synthesizer and a wavetable synthesizer and made a mashup on the iPad.

But it goes further than that. They’ve done things with Animoog that you really couldn’t have done on an analog synth because the whole playing surface of it is touch sensitive, and the “keyboard” responds to multi-touch. It’s almost like they’ve taken a synthesizer keyboard and a Haken Continuum and formed them into a 2D synth controller that responds to poly-pressure. It’s actually strange that such a unique and interesting keyboard came out of Moog, but apparently Bob Moog made an actual physical keyboard like this for someone decades ago, and the Animoog keyboard is modeled after that. And the glass playing surface is perfect for it. You can play individual notes, and you can slide your fingers left to right to slide between notes. You can also slide up and down on a note to change the timbre of the tone as well. There’s a pitch correction control as well. Set all the way up makes each note discrete, set all the way down makes it slide evenly from note to note as if you were playing slide guitar. You can also set up the keyboard to play in a scale, either one of the preprogrammed ones or one of your own making.

In addition there are all the “standard” synthesizer elements such as a multi-mode filter, delay module, envelope generators (three of them), etc. Beyond that, there are things like four fully routable modulation paths. But what’s totally cool is that it’s four-voice polyphonic. When they said “professional synth” in their marketing copy I took it with a grain of salt, but after spending some time exploring the synth I have to say that it’s true. I might not have used their “first” bit, but the thing is an incredibly expressive instrument, and I can’t wait to finally hook up my iPad to a MIDI keyboard (although honestly I think I’m going to miss the on-screen keyboard because it’s just so good).

But in some ways all this, while nice, is not even the interesting part. What they’ve done is to add on an X/Y pad like they have on the Minimoog Voyager. The pad is divided into 8 vertical and 16 horizontal zones. The true power of the Animoog is that you can assign a different sound to each of the 8 vertical zones if you want to. You can then change timbres by moving your finger around the X/Y pad. Moving up and down changes between the 8 basic timbres you’ve chosen, and moving side to side changes some parameters of that zone’s sound. It’s hard to explain but simple to do. There’s a great animated image showing exactly what’s going on with the X-Y pad, and in this case a couple of images will save me a few hundred words at least.

But it goes beyond even this. The TRUE true power of the Animoog synth is that you can animate the X/Y pad in several ways. Notes you play on the keyboard are not static, but rather they move around the X/Y pad, and in doing so the timbre constantly changes as the note crosses the boundaries between zones in the 8 x 16 grid. But wait, there’s more. It’s not just that the notes move, it’s that you can draw a path that the moving notes will follow. It’s a simple idea, but that’s what makes this synth generate its unique sounds. While it’s certainly possible to make a static sound that just sits, there are so many elements of motion you can impart to your patches that it’s just hard to express in written words what this thing can do.

Oh, and did I mention the sound-on-sound recording module that has layering and overdubbing? Almost forgot.

So all marketing hyperbole aside, Animoog is an incredibly powerful synthesizer. And while I’m totally looking forward to getting an iPad/MIDI interface soon, 10 minutes with Animoog has made me wish I had a Continuum. And if someone out there decides to make a physical 2D flat surface keyboard I’d definitely consider plunking down some dollars just so I could use the Animoog synth to its full potential.

This is by no means a complete review of every feature the synth has to offer. It has a 9 page manual, but even though that doesn’t sound like much the Animoog has a tremendous amount of depth to it. I’ll try to record a few examples of what it can do over the next few days and post them here. And just to balance out my bubbling praise, there are a few rough edges. Like when “turning knobs” I’ve sometimes managed to hit the change module buttons in the middle of adjusting something. That’s probably my fault, but I’ve managed to do it a bunch of times. Many Mac software synths give you a choice between rotary or linear control of the knobs and I guess I’d prefer rotary. And I have to say that the way you save your patches is completely unintuitive and that’s being polite. It’s also barely mentioned in the manual. It’s not a huge deal as once you figure it out the first time (hold the Save button for an indeterminately long time and you’ll be OK) it’s easy enough to do. Another thing I’d like to see is sound banks. There’s only one, and while that’s fine I’d rather have the built-in bank separated from my own patches. And oh yeah, if you’re going to play live with this, make sure you turn off notifications unless you want to hear all those Words With Friends notification sounds while you’re playing. These are all pretty minor niggles, though. In case you couldn’t tell, I think this thing’s amazing.

Animoog for iPad, from Moog. The real price will be $30 in a month, but for now it’s only $1 (as is their Filtratron app as well). If I didn’t already have an iPad, this app would make me go out and buy one. It’s that good. This is the Moog polysynth I’ve been waiting for.

Update — here’s an Animoog tune I just did: