The search for synth heaven

Clifford goes on about synthesizers
12 March 2017
The Roland Jupiter 8

The Search for Synth Heaven

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Anyone who knows me, knows that I have a bit of a thing for synthesizers. Perhaps an obsession might be a more accurate description.

It all stems from an early 80’s keyboard sales demonstration I attended when but a whipper-snapper probably only 13 or 14 years old when, as memory serves, the legendary Dave Bristow of Yamaha (aka the face of the DX7) and some other synthesizer luminary whose name I can’t recall, gave the most stonking electro-pop synth demo I had ever seen, utilising a barrage of funky looking keyboards sporting more lights than a party in Santa’s bedroom, and pumping out such a set of groovy phatness that I couldn’t wait to take one of those keyboards home and introduce it to my mum. Especially the Roland Jupiter 8, which I fell in love with just because it looked so totally and utterly coooooooooooooooooooool. From that moment on, my fate was sealed.

When the much anticipated time in my life actually came around to start shopping for a studio, I found my budget far more limited than I had hoped (nothing much changed there) so unfortunately my bedroom wasn’t going to be populated by stacks of Yamaha CS80’s and Memorymoogs up to the ceiling as I had imagined. Luckily however it was the early 80’s, the perfect time to consider starting a home studio with a hot-off-the-press Yamaha DX7, a marvel in organic sounding synthesizers, with an astounding digital brightness and more bite than next doors Rottweiler.

Of course every digital synth needs a partner (otherwise it gets lonely, didn’t you know that?) and the contenders of the time were of course the Roland Juno 60 and Korg Polysix, both now widely acknowledged as two of the most legendary synthesizers of all time. Paradoxically, rather than choose between those two lovelies, I opted for the little known Siel Opera 6, which was the very first affordable polyphonic synthesizers WITH velocity sensitivity. Okay, for those of you not obsessed by keyboards, that means that the harder you hit it, the louder it sounds. It turned out to be the right decision, as my first Album Ascension was greatly enhanced by the rich warm tones from that little known Italian synthesizer manufacturer, although I must admit I lay awake for more than one night making that difficult decision!

The 80’s were an exiting nadir for electronic instruments, and it wasn’t long before my fledgling studio took possession of the very first commercially available budget sampler, the Akai S612. Laughable by today’s standards, and with tiny little floppy disks that would store barely a gnats cough of sound, the sampling revolution did not escape me, and I spent countless hours turning bird tweets and baby wails into violin samples for my second album Spring Fantasy. Then signed to the New World Music label, multiple album productions for composer Nicholas Land and a two album production deal for Yardbirds member Jim McCarty as the band Stairway saw the arrival of my first (and only) monster monosynth, the Oscar, a synth with more punch than Mike Tyson and buttons so phat your fingers would constantly get stuck between the grooves. I was a happy bunny.

With my core instruments in place, the studio changed little over the ensuing years, although it did witness a parade of part-time synthesizer stand-ins, including the Korg M1 (lovely orchestral sounds, but sadly no knobs to fiddle with), the Sequential Circuits Six-Trak (no Prophet 5, that’s for sure), the Roland D50 (warmer than leaving the central heating on overnight), the Roland JX-3P (more squelch than a muddy walk), the Ensoniq VFX, the Yamaha SY85, the Novation Supernova II (at one point I had two of these babies. A great look and more buttons that Sulu’s console, but to my ears no real sonic character of it’s own) and in later years I acquired the gargantuan Roland JD-800 (no problems with knobs there!) but synthesizer technology was inevitably starting to make way for something even more astounding – the birth of the virtual synthesizer. With computer technology politely following Moore’s Law of exponential growth, it wasn’t long until the hardware synthesizer started to look a little obsolete, and my keyboards began gathering dust in the corner whilst all the work was being done on screen, utilising a never ending plethora of virtual synthesizers with no real buttons to speak of. Eventually the time came to part with all of those hardware keyboards of the past and to fully embrace the future, and I did so with stoic resolve and a brave face for the future. Have you ever seen a grown man cry over the parting of his synthesizer? I was there, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

Nowadays, all of my musical works tend to find fruition behind a 21 inch monitor, with not a button in sight. Yet I still seem to hanker for the glowing LED’s, sliders and faders of a bygone era. Occasionally I succumb to temptation, as the Alesis Fusion gathering dust on my keyboard rack attests, and I still have the recurring dream of wandering into a room in a house I don’t recognise, containing more synths than Jean-Michel Jarre’s bedroom, and find myself waking up in the middle of the night with a burning desire to recapture the past and spend my final years vanishing in a dial-spinning haze of layered strings and whoosing bells. Ah well…maybe one day!

Classical Beauty
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  2. Aphrodite // The Gods of Olympus
  3. Atlantis // Atlantis
  4. Ares // The Gods of Olympus
  5. The Power Within // The Healing Touch
  6. Eternity // The Healing Touch
  7. New World // Atlantis
  8. Hermes // The Gods of Olympus
  9. Reawakening // The Healing Touch
  10. Poseidon // The Gods of Olympus
  11. The Journey Begins // Revelation
  12. Into Infinity // Revelation
  13. Eternity’s Ocean // Revelation
  14. Rapture // Revelation
  15. Forevergreen // Revelation
  16. The Blessed // Revelation
  17. The Golden Years // Nature's Symphony
  18. Revelation // Revelation
  19. Worlds in Motion // Nature's Symphony
  20. Tears of Innocence // Revelation
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  22. The Never Ending Dream // Revelation
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