When I was coming up as a synth player, we walked to the gig carrying our gear on our backs. Ten miles each way barefoot in the snow. Uphill. Both ways.
No one really ever wants to be talked down to like that, do they? Because the facts are, (A) we didn't do any such thing, and (B) while my own talent has surely played a role in my success, more than a few lucky breaks and privileges have as well, and that applies more or less to everyone. Nonetheless, I'd like to explore that classic old-grouch aphorism as a counterpoint to a lot of people I hear saying all things synthy were so much cooler "back in the day."
True, vintage gear often is perceived to have an ineffable character or X-factor. But those who think that fact alone made it a picnic to use -- especially on the road -- probably weren't there. And when today you can't throw a rock without hitting something that offers serious bang-for-buck as well as stability, I'll take the modern stuff 99 times out of 100.
To take a popular example, in 1978 dollars a Sequential Prophet-5 cost $4,595. For five voices of polyphony (enough, said Dave Smith recently, for the fingers of one hand), no splits or layers, and until retrofits came out, no MIDI. In fact, when I was playing in cover bands in Santa Barbara from the late '90s through the mid-2000s, I rented one for a gig because I too thought it would give me some sublime vintage-analog experience. There was nothing wrong with the unit, but compared to the Kurzweil K2000, Yamaha Motif, and Roland VK-7 organ it was sharing the stage was, it stood out for being ... unruly. Despite some careful pre-show programming, I couldn't seem to get a handle on entry volumes of patches matching up, for one thing. And of course it lacked anything like onboard reverb or EQ, so I also unracked my TC M300 from the studio.
In 2018 dollars, the Prophet-5's original price is equivalent to approximately $13,650 in purchasing power. But for just $2,000 of today's Washingtons, Dave would be happy to sell you a Prophet-REV2 with 16 analog voices, a much deeper synth engine, and rock solid reliability. There's one sitting next to me right now (yes, videos are coming), and I can vouch for that. A similar great deal the Korg Prologue, which throws in a digital oscillator on top of the two analog ones and offers eight voices for $1,499 or 16 for $1,999. A lot of healthy debate has gone on about Behringer seemingly planning more cloning than the Jedi in Episode II. That requires an entire op-ed of its own, but at first blush lowering the barrier to entry to synths whose original versions are hunted to extinction on eBay seems like a good thing.
I also recently had the opportunity to compare a pristine vintage Jupiter-8 with the Jupiter emulation mode on the Roland System-8. Getting as patch-for-patch identical as I could, it was dead-on, even though the System-8 is a digitally modeled virtual analog machine. The only differences I could detect were in control scaling, that is, how much a parameter audibly changed given moving the physical knob or slider X amount. I could literally find no reason for the expense of a vintage Jupe, and if I could, it would remain hallowed in my studio while the modern equivalent was exposed to the rigors of the road.
Even as synths became more sonically well-behaved throughout the '80s, my beloved DX7 could be a s***show at times. It had a noise floor that was literally intrusive on quieter passages (necessitating the use of a gate, which is its own can of worms) and there was the 1-100 MIDI velocity range, which meant it might not play nice with other connected instruments.
Today, by contrast, we can get a fully convincing grand piano or Rhodes sound out of a phone or tablet. Musicians who want a more personal synth-crafting experience can get into the wide and wonderful world of Eurorack modular. I'm really not trying be a curmudgeon and remind people of the days before child labor laws and vaccines (though given the current U.S. administration, I soon may not have to). Instead, I'm trying to offer a word of encouragement:
It's perfectly fine to love vintage things for vintage's sake. (My wife might tell you I have a little British car problem. And I do admit there's nothing like being in the room with a Hammond B-3 played through a real spinning Leslie.) But whether you can afford the $300 Behringer or the $2,000 new Prophet or the $3,500 Minimoog re-issue, you are absolutely not missing out if you can't afford, access, or maintain vintage synths.
What do you think? Are there synths everybody waxes nostalgic about that you don't miss? Or do you insist on that vintage X-factor for certain applications? Let us know in the comments below or find this post on Facebook or Twitter and do so there. Now let's play!