As recently as a few years ago, the classic synthesisers of the late 70s and 80s were scarce commodities. Selling for thousands at online auctions, producers and enthusiasts madly scrambled to get a hold of the few remaining boxes that shaped the early years of dance music. For two decades, a cottage industry of imitations (both software and hardware) did all that it could to feed the demand. Now, the classics are back in the shops and ready to fill studios with their alien sounds once more. Well, sort of.
Last year, Japanese manufacturer Roland released an entire line of products based on their most legendary models: the 303, 808 and 909. Just last week, Korg announced the release of a revamped ARP Odyssey – the original was used by everyone from Vangelis to Kraftwerk – later this year following reissues of the Korg MS-20 and Volga. Even Moog, the very first company to manufacture synthesisers, are getting in on the act: reissuing a limited run of three modular synths created in 1974.
The news will come as a disappointment to the analogue obsessives who have waited years for this moment. Almost all of the aforementioned products digitally reproduce the sounds of the originals rather than using analog components. In other words, they're different machines inside, and often, outside. With their components replaced by chips, many purists will find the new models lacking in the variables that gave them their own unique charm.
While they might not be the real deal, there is one good reason to welcome the return of the discontinued synthesisers. It will give a whole new generation of producers a chance to get their hands on instruments that were long inaccessible to all but the privileged. As mesmerising as it is watching masters like Jeff Mills work a 909, what might a younger set of producers, without the weight of dance music history behind them, accomplish with the technology. Who knows, perhaps these machines might become a driving force in dance music once again when freed from pastiche.
Mills working his magic on a 909.
Some might question whether the resources of Roland and Korg could have been better spent on creating new instruments instead. As Jason Amm, producer of synthesiser documentary I Dream of Wires, tells me the track record of manufactures over the past two decades has been mixed: "For a long time the big companies were releasing the most boring and uninspiring instruments." Contributing to this stagnation has been the rise of production software giving producers dozens of virtual synthesisers to play with in a single package. This has be made up for by successes in other lines, like MPCs (Music Production Controls) or pads, which have become crucial in studio set ups. It remains to be seen, however, whether a fresh lick of paint and a familiar name can make up for a lack of real innovation in syntheziers.
To recapture the magic of the past, we might have to look even further back than the 909s and MS-20s to the earliest synthesisers. Last week, Moog announced it will release a limited run of three of its most famous modular synthesisers: the System 55, System 35 and the Model 15. Unlike the Roland and Korg reissues, these are the real deal and they don't come cheap. Back in the 70s, Giorgio Moroder, Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream used these towering synths to compose their masterpieces. By the mid 80s, Moog had already stopped manufacturing modular synths as the smaller and cheaper Mimimoog overtook them in popularity. Come the 90s they had all but disappeared.
From a layman's point of view these eccentric boxes seem like artefacts from futures past – both anachronistic and modern. Imposing wooden enclosures pockmarked with inputs and inexplicably complicated looking dials, scattered with tangled wires, these machines looked capable of anything. They elevated electronic music to a science, made its operators seem like technicians as well musicians. They romanticised the role of the producer as a mad genius giving life to a Frankenstein creation that even they can't quite understand or control.
What, though, do modular synths have to offer now in an age where software has made musical creation entirely digital? "I think producers have got really bored of working on computers. They spent a lot of time learning how to make music on a computer and they just found that it was lacking," says Amm, who also produces music as Solvent. Rather than just a countervailing reaction to digital ennui or a passing nostalgic fad, modular synthesisers might actually be the future of hardware. Unlike software synths, it's possible to create sounds completely from scratch with a modular and manipulate them in almost any way imaginable. In other words, its potential is seemingly limitless.
Synth enthusiast and techno oddball Legowelt.
Only recently have producers begun to rediscover the modular synthesiser. "You'll never buy another synth that sounds like it because it's endless what you can do with it," R&S-affiliate Blawan told Resident Advisor. As one half of Karenn, together with fellow Hessle Audio producer Pariah, the pair perform entirely improvised hardware sets of blistering techno with a rig that includes modulars and a 909. They're not the only ones: Legowelt, Patricia, Hemlock boss Untold, Simian Mobile Disco and Luke Abbott have all been experimenting with modulars of late.
Part of the problem, though, is that they can turn into obsessions as the lure of customising and upgrading the individual modules takes precedent over the music. "It can be moreish… like taking up crack," warned Border Community Records founder James Holden in Attack Magazine. Are they, then, better left as a hobbyist's pursuit? "I think that everyone who is into modulars is a quite obsessive type of a person," admits Amm, "but it's not all a bunch of noodlers behind this, there definitely is a place in popular music for this right now which you couldn't say that about modulars during the 80s."
Karenn's live setup.
In an age where production software has democratised music production, the return of classic hardware seems like a backstep rather than an evolution. Costly reproductions of synths like the Moog and ARP Odyssey are out of reach for all but the highest-earning producers. Likewise, reimaginings of timeless machines like the 909 do nothing to sate fetishists and seem disappointedly backward-looking for all their updates. For those unable to forkout thousands for new old gear, modulars might be a compromise between the past and the future. With a thriving DIY scene and relatively affordable startup costs, there is hope yet that it could become what the Raspberry Pi is to computer science. Instead of riding the wave of nostalgia for vintage sounds, modulars are opening up strange new worlds for sonic exploration. Perhaps it is possible to teach an old machine new tricks.