Nouveau Retro?

by Craig Anderton


Whether it’s acoustic guitars, vintage synths, vacuum tubes, or Nick at Night, a lot of people seem to be looking to the past for inspiration instead of trying to invent the future. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; the past is a treasure trove of ideas, and studying it keeps us from reinventing the wheel (as well as making the same mistakes over and over again). However, I must admit the whole “retro” phenomenon concerns me to some degree, because I think it shows just how much today’s musicians are busy worshipping technology instead of the muse.

Take analog synths, for example. Once reviled as dinosaurs and sold in pawn shops for a few hundred dollars, now they command premium price tags because of their ability to create sounds you can’t get with today’s digital synths (which may or may not be true, but we’ll leave that topic alone for now). Granted, people are always looking for new sounds, and having been abandoned for so long, analog synths seem fresh. But hold on a second — didn’t people stop playing analog synths in the first place because they wanted new sounds?

The fact is that the analog synth revival started on the dance floor, creating a new type of music that hadn’t been heard before. And that’s precisely the point: these old machines are being used to make sounds for types of music that weren’t around in the analog synth’s heyday. Back then, synths were the domain of “switched-on (fill in the blank)” albums and progressive rock. Now they sway to the strains of house, techno, jungle, and ambient. But what’s interesting to me is that this shows just how lazy people were with synths the first time around. Musicians in the 70s weren’t saying “let’s use these things in a more creative manner…hmmm, how about real technologically-oriented dance music?” Instead, the attitude was “well we don’t want to sound like Rick Wakeman, so let’s try something else.”

Then in the late 80s, some folks over in Europe dug out their analog synths and decided to do something creative. But it wasn’t the analog synths supplying the creativity: it was people. There’s no reason we can’t be equally creative with the tools we’re using right now. People think sample playback synthesis has reached a dead end because we still don’t have the perfect sampled piano, and because most players insist on using these boxes in a very conservative way. It’s always a disappointment to me when I check out a new synth and find that 90% of the ROM space is devoted to emulations of acoustic instruments instead of unusual waveforms and complex synth timbres. Companies are starting to break out of that self-imposed straight jacket (e.g., E-mu’s Orbit synth), but users aren’t: they assume if a sample says “bass,” then it’s usable only for making bass sounds. But by transposing out of the bass range, cutting off attacks, or layering the sound with other timbres, a bass can do a lot more than hold down the bottom end. People are starting to get the concept of pulling digital audio off of sample CDs and creating collages, but they still don’t create collages inside their own instruments.

Or, let’s shift from keyboards to some other instruments. We’ve never had more options available for coming up with creative guitar sounds, but so often we get the same recycled heavy metal or blues cliches. Only recently have drum machines been used as instruments in their own right (again thanks to the influence of dance music) rather than just glorified metronomes, or a cheap way to avoid having to pay a session drummer.

We have the greatest set of musical tools available since music was invented. Not only do we have a rich family of traditional instruments, we have a whole new generation of computerized goodies that have brought music-making within the reach of a greater number of people than ever before. Miles Davis once told one of his musicians something along the lines of “never play anything expected.” Try to keep that philosophy in mind when you reach for that familiar piano or bass patch, or bend the guitar string from flatted seventh to the tonic.

There’s a world of expression out there, and we haven’t even tapped the surface — the retro revolution has proven that, by using old tools in creative new ways. I think it’s about time we started using new tools in new ways as well.

–Craig Anderton



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