Not Yer Grandma’s Minimoog

If you’ve been around electronic music for a couple of decades, as I have, you may perhaps be forgiven for thinking you know what synthesizers do, and how to use them. But the world keeps on turning.

This week I started working on a review of a plugin called Nest, from German software manufacturer Sugar Bytes. I’m not going to tell you about Nest, not today. You’ll have to read the review, which should be available on the Synth & Software website in a couple of weeks. But to whet your appetite, here’s what it looks like:

When I first saw that panel, I knew I had to write about it, because I didn’t understand it! One of the best ways to learn about things, I’ve found, is to write articles or books about them. As a bonus, you get paid, but the real benefit is that in the course of writing you have to develop your understanding to a rather high level.

Nest makes music using patch cords, as you can see, but it’s not a synthesizer. It’s a host for four synthesizers. What you do on that panel is, you build an algorithm that will send notes to the synths. Calling it a step sequencer on steroids wouldn’t quite do it justice, but you get the idea.

So I’m digging through the Sugar Bytes website, and I find two more instruments — and yes, these are synthesizers — that I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to review. What I like about them, quite aside from the fact that the sonic textures produced by the downloadable demo versions are unusual, is that I have not the faintest idea what’s going on. I need to learn about these instruments!

Here’s one of the user interface displays of Aparillo, and below that the main front panel of Obscurium.

It’s already the case — it was true 20 years ago — that today’s instruments will do things that don’t fit into any known musical vocabulary. How might one use the sounds that come from a panel like that? I have no idea. But I claim that it’s a question worth investigating.

It’s not as if Sugar Bytes is alone in their quest to embrace the weird. Consider Torsion Lab, a Rack Extension for Reason from Lectric Panda that was released (or unleashed) more than three years ago:

This granular synthesizer can host up to six long sampled sounds at once (the image above shows it with three loaded). It’s monophonic, so it won’t play chords from the keyboard, though of course any of the samples could contain chords. It has (gasp! shudder!) no filters and no envelopes! On the other hand, the LFOs (the little waveform displays in a column on the left) have hundreds of weird waveforms.

What are we supposed to do with all this audio strangeness? I wish I knew. But if I knew, I might get bored and want to move on. The fun part is finding out.

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