Tuesday, March 25, 2008

ISSUES FOR IDIOTS -- Keyboards & synthesizers according to Sweva, Part 1

It's a very long and complicated debate.

They have the power to enhance a listening experience to ethereal levels that defy description, and can also come in from left field to obliterate a perfectly crafted song like a bulldog in a china shop.

They're called synthesizers...love 'em or hate 'em.

There's a wide variety of "synth" out there...today I'll put my spin on what is "cool synth" versus "cheesy synth."

...and don't think for a minute that there isn't a difference.

THERE IS A DIFFERENCE, DAMMIT! Don't question me, gentle reader, until you read what I have to say.

Generally speaking, the following are "cool" synth instruments that tend to have a minimal cheese factor:
  1. The piano. Classic, elegant, beautiful, indisputable.
  2. Most organs, specifically the Hammond B3. Not the one at the ballpark.
  3. The mellotron. Some may find it a bit dated, and yes it's out of the 60s, but I think it sounds really cool. It can bring great emotion to music; it's sorta the cello of the electric keyboard family.
  4. Most electronic synth since the 1990s. I don't know if the sound improved, or if it was the way bands employed the use of synthesizers since the 1990s...maybe a little of both...but the cheese factor seemed to essentially go away around the mid-90s. The emergence of hip-hop and post-grunge alternative rock bringing the use of some more obscure keyboard sounds into the mainstream may have helped to eliminate the stigma that cheesy synth was associated with prog-rock bands in the 1970s and 80s. You could probably draw several variations on this from many variables...ask me again in 10 years; perhaps I will have changed my mind on this.
The following synth instruments tend to "bring the cheese out" in any artist, for the most part:
  1. The mini-moog. Sadly, this instrument has destroyed more songs than I care to name. Whoever invented this should be shot.
  2. Most MIDI mechanisms from the 1980s. That thing that makes a song sound like a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
  3. Most loops and sequencers out of the 1970s. Generally I'm not much of a fan of these, due more to the fact that they stifle creativity and show laziness on the part of the musician, unless they have NO hands and feet free, then using them sparingly might be understandable. Generally, however, they annoy too...especially something out of the 70s.
The following are examples of "cool" synthesizer use.

  1. Anything by Jimmy Smith. The jazz master of the Hammond B3... he's the one who brought the instrument into the jazz forefront, which in turn heavily influenced other music mediums.
  2. "The Speed of Sound" by Coldplay. Great example of colorful synth use that adds incredible depth and mood to a song.
  3. "Lazarus" by Porcupine Tree. Modern song using the good 'ol piano...beautifully and artfully, I might add.
  4. "Good New First" by Rush. A good example of the mellotron being dusted off and brought back into modern rock for great effect. It's in the background, but adds to the dark flavor of desperation in the tune.
  5. Voyage 34 by Porcupine Tree. I hate to bring up a band twice in the same example, but Porcupine Tree's 1993 album focused almost completely on synthesizers, in a new age sense. An excellent example of well-crafted synth as it was emerging out of the 80s and into new frontiers in the 90s.
  6. Enya's catalog. I can think of no other artist who helped to "de-cheese" electronic synth in the 1990s more than her. Enya gave key instruments an almost ethereal quality.
  7. "Green Onions" by Booker T. & the MG's. A perfect example showcasing the soul of the Hammond B3, and how it works in a classic rock setting.
The following are examples of "cheesy" synthesizer use.

  1. "Magic Man" by Heart. The best example I can think of where a great song is rolling along minding its own business, and BOOM! It gets broadsided by a tidal wave of dated synth cheese that makes a Packer game at Lambeau Field seem like mere topping on nachos. My only question to Ann and Nancy Wilson would involve this and something to the effect of "WTF?!?!"
  2. "In the Beginning" by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Another perfectly good song - a LOVE SONG to boot - and then it takes a turn for the worse as this cornball outer space synth jam takes over the outtro like flying saucers square dancing across the sky.
  3. "Dream Police" by Cheap Trick. A perfect example of a cheesy loop and artist laziness. Not that the song is that great, but... Why? Why use this? Whenever I hear this all I can do is mock the synth loop and pretend that there's actually a keyboard player in the band by having my fingers dance over whatever's in front of me at the time...otherwise I'd probably go nuts and chew on plastic flashbulbs.
The jury is still out on the following examples... mainly because these are classic songs. I would argue that part of what makes these songs classic is good songwriting, and the fact that in most cases the synth is used sparingly.

  1. Elton John. The best example I can think of. There was a definite display of cheesy synth that he employed in the 70s, and he seemed to relish in it...this is where showmanship trumps everything else, obviously (see photo at top).
  2. "Baba O'Rielly" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" by The Who. These are classic songs, and Pete Townshend was an innovator. He employed something unique in those tunes, but they are a bit dated, no argument there.
  3. "Tom Sawyer" by Rush. Two debatable issues here... there's the opening "meeoooow" (as a good friend of mine likes to refer to it), which appears through out the tune. I actually find that to be very cool and unique. Then there's the synth jam right before the guitar solo, which was actually taken from Geddy Lee's old warmup routine. I could take it or leave it.
  4. Duran Duran's 80s catalog. 80s MIDI was the central part of their sound...but this is the ultimate 80s band, so it's hard to imagine the D's (and the 1980s, for that matter) without this sound.
  5. Bon Jovi. I'll try to keep a straight face here, as the name conjures up scary imagery of metal hair band members running rampant. Yes, it's the 80's once again, but in more of a metal sensibility (just a bit). Again, this was the synth decade, and the keys are part of the Bon Jovi sound, but sheesh. Arguably OK, but still barely tolerable. "Livin' On a Prayer" brings back memories of a friend in college who used to grab the mic at parties when he'd had too much, and a terrifying version of The Wedding Singer would ensue...I think I have permanent brain damage from that...
  6. Yes' catalog. It's a big part of their sound, and some of it does in fact sound cheesy, but Rick Wakeman and many of the other keys players in Yes were masters at their craft so it's hard to knock them. This is one of those rare cases where the virtuoso element trumps much of the cheesyness, and many of Yes' thematic elements were enhanced with the use of the cheesy synth...listen to Tales from Topographic Oceans...thematically it's a total brain melt, which tends to trump the way synth is used. It actually blends in with the overall music very well.
So let me know your thoughts on this critical issue. This post was inspired by constant ribbing over the years from various people in my life who find my pet peeve with cheesy synth to be amusing... especially one person in particular, who insists on harassing me with voice mails and text messages to the effect...so Shindog, this is for you.

...and thi
s debate has ONLY JUST BEGUN, so I'll leave it here. To be continued...

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