Vintage Synthesizers

TR-808

Most of my synthesizers are old, of the 70s and 80s variety. In fact, I barely have any new pieces of equipment. This isn’t because new synthesizers aren’t any good. There are plenty of great, brand new synthesizers that can either do things that old synths cannot, or else they can do the same thing as old synths (but just much more reliably). So that begs the question: why have old equipment? My answer has always been simple albeit a little unsatisfying: I just like old synthesizers.

I also like old computers. My stockpile of old computers is thankfully nowhere as extensive as my synths, but I’ve definitely got a soft spot for those old computers from the 80s. Part of it, I’m sure, is nostalgia. I picked up an Epson Equity 286 computer not long ago, because that’s the only computer we had through my entire childhood. I’ve got the granddaddy of all IBM compatible computers: the IBM 5150. I bought it because I thought it looked really nice (it’s built to cold-war nuclear shelter specs) and because of its place in computer history.

In general, I like old things. I’ve always just assumed it was a matter of asthetics or nostalgia for the past. For $100, you can buy a software version of the Arp 2600 which sounds, to my ears, identical to the $6000 original. Or you can get the DOSBox emulator for free and relive the experience of computing in 1984 without all the pains of keeping aging and flaky computer hardware running. At times I’ve asked myself if I’m simply being snobbish or elitist by clinging to the authentic originals.

Recently I was reading an old interview with John Chowning that Keyboard magazine did back in the late 1970s. The timing of the article couldn’t have been more intriguing. Chowning describes FM synthesis, but this is well before Yamaha made it into the mega hit of the 80s with their DX-7 synthesizer. To Chowning, FM synthesis was just one among a great stormcloud of impending digital developments that were about to upturn the world of electronic music. Chowning talked exciting about all sort of other soon-to-emerge concepts. He talked about the ability to use tunings other than the traditional western 12-tone system without the phase dissonnance that often came with experimentation in alternate tunings. He talked about being able to have unprecedented control over tonality and timbre. He was excited about what computers would soon be doing for music. In short, he seemed giddy with anticipation for what the next few years of technology would bring to the world of music.

That same exuberant optimism is also prevalent throughout older computer literature. People marveled at the ability to balance their checkbook with Visicalc. Writers couldn’t contain their enthusiasm for word processors. Umerto Eco spent the whole first chapter of¬†“Foucault’s Pendulum” oozing on and on about the glories of backspacing and saving files.

I like old computers and old synthesizers because it reminds me to appreciate the utter opulence¬†of our technology-saturated lives. We are technological royalty, having been gifted with unthinkable power. I take it all entirely for granted. I forget how precious these things would have been to someone 10 years ago, or shocking to someone 20 years ago, or unimaginable to someone 30 years ago. I’m reminded that someone in 1982 would have paid dearly for what I can casually do today.

To really cover all my bases here, Jesus told the parable about the stewards who were entrusted in varying sums of money. The famous moral sums up “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Not that I see any underlying moral virtue in using old gear, but I like to be confronted with just how much we have been given these days. Using old equipment helps me remember that. I like to be reminded of how painful and limiting technology was just a few short years ago.

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