I think I have finally found the synthesizer for me (note – in what follows, anyone who doesn’t self-identify as a geek or gear-head can look away.) It’s a Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08.
As you both know I play regularly in a band called Stealer, which plays covers of what is generally known as classic rock - songs by Deep Purple, Led Zep, Queen, Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, you get the idea. THE classic rock keyboard is the Hammond B3 or C3 organ. For this I have a digital recreation, the Hammond XK1, which sounds totally authentic. Most video demos of this keyboard are poppy or jazzy but one shouldn’t be fooled. It can roar in truly Keith Emerson/Jon Lord style. You can here a more typical example in this Stealer demo.
The Hammond accounts for about 80 per cent of everything I play in Stealer. It’s almost always ferociously overdriven and occasionally fed through an old-fashioned keyboard phaser and a ring modulator for extra hard-rock grunge.
Sometimes, though, one needs other sounds – piano, electric piano, strings, swooshy etheral background splurges, Hammer-Horror pipe organ and so on. For that I have a Korg TR61, which for quite a few years now has been my go-anywhere, do-anything Swiss-Army-Knife keyboard. It does rock piano for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, spacey synths for Pink Floyd tracks, grand-guignol schlock for the Oeuvre of Ozzy, and even (with a little tweaking) some fairly respectable lead synth sounds (as shown here in our cover of the Fleetwood Mac song ‘Green Man called Lesley’.) It can do a passable Hammond impression, too, so it tends to be the keyboard I take with me if I can only take one keyboard to do everything. (I did have a lovely electric piano, too – a Yamaha P80 – but sold it at was too big, too heavy, and not used nearly enough to justify the backache.)
So, there, I’m all set. All bases, as they say, covered. Except that, as anyone who likes gadgets knows, one is always hankering after something else. For me, the hankering takes the form of a desire for a synthesizer that does more old-school sounds. The Korg TR61 is brilliant, but I’ve always wanted something more squelchy and less shiny. In other words, a synth with an old-fashioned analog signal path, rather than a digital recreation thereof.
I have owned two analog synths in my time, a Korg EX800 (a modular version of the Korg Poly 800) and a Sequential Circuits Pro-One. The former was fun, great for lush swooshy sounds, but hard to edit, and didn’t quite have the character, nor – there is no more delicate way to put this – grunt of an analog synth. The latter had grunt to spare, but was hard to keep in tune; you could only play one note at a time; and you couldn’t save a patch (a sound) for later recall. So it was largely restricted to making weird farty bass noises at home, which frightened the cats and intrigued Crox Minor, a baby at the time. I have owned the Korg MS2000, and its module version, the MS2000R – digital synths that claim to recreate the analog signal path but in digital terms. These had storable presets, polyphony, and stayed in tune, but somehow didn’t have that indefinable gritty analogue-ness. Just too squeaky clean, despite a distortion circuit. So I am left with the Korg TR61 which does its best and almost succeeds [I mean, it does a decent impersonation of screaming self-oscillating filters - what more do you need? - ed.]
Now, you can get old-fashioned analog polysynths on eBay … but they are heavy, expensive and unreliable. If only there were analog synths, still made today, that were made with digital control for such things as tuning stability; could store presets; and came with a warranty.
Well, little did I know that my whims for which can be catered prepositionally, in the form of Dave Smith Instruments. Now, synth aficionadoi will know that Mr Smith was the genius loci of Sequential Circuits, the manufacturer of the Pro-One, back in the day. His most famous creation was the Prophet 5, a true classic – but now rarer than a hygienic hagfish and as expensive as something very expensive. Sequential went the way of all analog synth makers in the digital revolution of the late 1980s. I do remember playing one of its last creations, the Prophet VS, on a demo in 1986. After SC’s demise, Dave Smith went to Yamaha (which owns Korg) and pursued the idea of the VS in the Korg Wavestation (yes, I have also owned that too, in keyboard and module form.)
But Dave Smith has resurfaced with a range of synths for people like me, and the Prophet 08 would suit me just nicely. It’s a proper analog synth, but is polyphonic, stays in tune and has presets. It wouldn’t replace the TR61 – far from it – but would do many of the old-fashioned sounds one needs in a classic rock band far better, and with more ‘presence’, than a digital emulation. Big, swooshy background sounds. Stentorian, Keith Emerson- and Tony Banks-style lead synths. Authentically naff and wobbly strings. Great slabs of brassy brassiness. So, in terms of the band I’m in, yes, I could justify this.
But if I don’t get one from Santa, the only way I can get hold of one is by saving up for it – old-fashioned synths deserve old-fashioned financing – or having some of my books turn into massive bestsellers.
Dear Reader, you know what’s expected of you.