Using a Synth vs. Designing a Synth

“Maybe what’s missing with quite a few synthesizer manufacturers these days is a little more two-way interaction between the artists and the makers,” says Dave Porter. You’ll have heard Dave’s work. He’s the Los Angeles-based TV and film composer whose original scores graced Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.

Dave is chatting with us about the future of synthesizers, and we’re joined by Stephan Schmitt, who started Native Instruments in the ‘90s and left the company in 2012 to found Nonlinear Labs in Berlin, Germany. You’ll have heard Stephan’s work if you’ve come across Nonlinear’s impressive C15.

Stephan agrees with Dave about the importance of interaction between maker and musician. “It’s very valuable for us to meet or watch users and see where they struggle or where they succeed,” he says. “Prototypes are important, too, at an early stage. We can show them to people and have them say what is easy and what is difficult for them—and at a stage when we can still change something. It becomes more difficult and expensive later to change dedicated parameters and dedicated functions.”

Dave suggests that manufacturers ought to provide better accessibility to the parameters that make the most difference in the shortest amount of time. “And that’s without sacrificing the ability to really get deep and explore the instrument—and, if you want to, to get some really unique results,” he adds. “In my day-to-day work as a film and TV composer, I’m moving very fast. And the reality for me is that if I need to get to a sound in my head, I have to get there as fast as possible. Otherwise I’m out of time, the inspiration is gone, and I’ve got to get on to the next thing.“

What is it that frustrates this quest for speed? “In general, it’s if I can’t find a very simple parameter that I need to address,” Dave replies. “And you’d be amazed at how many synthesizer manufacturers miss out on this stuff—simple things like being able to toggle the effects on and off. As simple as that. Or being able to solo one oscillator or noise source at a time so you can work through and get to something simple. Changing attacks and releases, too—all the very simple stuff.”

Of course, we all work in our own sweet ways. “How I use a particular instrument may not be at all the same as a teenage student who wants to take it to their friend’s house and play along in the basement,” Dave says, “or, say, someone who loves to play live gigs on the weekend. And that’s the trick for manufacturers—they have to be able to accommodate lots of different kinds of users.”

Is it possible to cater for everyone, Stephan? “Well, back when I was at Native Instruments, a large number of our customers were from the electronic producer scene, electronic dance music, and so on,” he tells us. “These people understand their tools and how they want to work, but they don’t ‘play’ anything—they’re not hitting the notes, they’re programming the notes.”

He says he’s always been fascinated by what he calls “real” musicians. “That’s because I’m more from the old-school approach,” Stephan explains. “I like people to improvise. I want to watch somebody playing and risking every note, or at least everything that’s possible, in real time. And, you know, I see the biggest potential in concepts that are based on software, even inside a hardware instrument. So you can change the structure, change the workflow. I like to have options for evolution.”

Stephan gives us a quick glimpse at what’s to come from Nonlinear. He says they’re developing a new product that, among other things, has a larger screen than the C15. “Let’s just say we’re working on where we can take the C15 in the future, in a package that is more affordable and also more compact, in a way. There’s another new project, a smaller instrument, but in both cases we’re drawing on my background and the background of many people at Nonlinear in software. We want to give very good access to something that actually is software—but it shouldn’t feel like software.”

Nonlinear Labs C15
Nonlinear Labs C15

Some synth makers seem these days to be obsessed with re-creating sounds from the past. Does that get in the way of what Stephan just described as evolution? He says the trend isn’t just the fault of makers. “I think it has to do with the very wide field that you can open up with synthesizers. Users can get lost in the possibilities, and so I think they look for references. What is the original? What is authentic? They need some ground to stand on. And it means we’re demanding so much from our customers if we come up with new concepts in synthesis. They need to learn a lot about that stuff, and spend time, and also they need to risk getting some unsatisfying sounds along the way.”

Dave has also noticed this trend to what we might call retro-obsession. “It’s a source of frustration for me, to be honest, when I see instrument manufacturers having to put out videos on YouTube comparing their shiny Something New to their handsome 30-year-old Classic, and having to tweak every parameter to prove that it sounds as identical as possible to the one made decades ago. And unfortunately that is the reality of what a lot of the synth-buying public out there is looking for.”

He recalls what he describes as a golden period for synthesizer development, back when Dave was a teenager in the ’80s. “Every few years there was a massive leap in the technology of what a synthesizer could do. Some were simple things like going from one note to polyphony. To having memory. To having wavetables, digital synthesizers with analogue filters, all this growth. Of course, as the technology got more complex and mature, that progress naturally slowed, and advances and new ways of creating sound are harder to come by—and inherently more complicated.”

Perhaps a fear of too much complication in a new instrument encourages an emphasis on the relative safety of retro-styled synths? “If you want to make a groundbreaking instrument like Stephan’s,,” Dave continues, “how do you make it do something new, aurally? How do you make it expressive in a way that other synthesizers haven’t been in the past—and yet still make it interesting to enough people to make it a worthwhile business venture? And then you also probably have to backtrack a lot to make sure it does all the old stuff, to appease enough people to buy it who are only going to use it to do the old stuff. Which defeats the whole purpose of having invented something that does something new!”

Stephan reckons part of the trend to synth nostalgia is wrapped up in a yearning for old-style knobs and other physical controls. “Back to the hardware,” he says, “back to the simple things. If you see a program, you see lots of menus and lots of possibilities—and you might be scared. If you see 15 or 20 knobs, you know there are no more controls. That’s it! And so after a while you will probably master all these knobs, say on a Minimoog or whatever.”

That kind of limitation can be a bonus, he suggests. “We made the decision with the C15 to make the engine and the number of components very small. That’s why it’s only two oscillators, two filters, and after a while you know them very well. There’s not something tucked away where you can open up a menu and get a different filter, a different effect, a different oscillator waveform, and so on. The principle I try to follow with product design is to have a powerful concept but with a small number of components, so that after a while you really know them all. And that’s similar to the classic electronics.”

Stephan moves into the garage for a minute. If you own a car today, he says with a smile, and you open up the hood to look at the engine, you’ll see a lot of things that you don’t understand. “In the past, many drivers understood everything about their cars and how to fix them. But you can’t do this any more; there’s too much electronics. It’s similar to synthesizers, and it can create negative feelings with the users, that they have too many possibilities. Again, they get scared. And therefore you can only address a small… let’s say a small elite of people who are ready to dive in there. You can change this maybe by education, perhaps, but that can be complicated to put in place.”

When Dave sits down in front of one of his instruments, there is one quality above all that he hopes for. “I want to find it inspiring. I want to be excited to be in front of it, to discover—maybe, probably, more often than not by happy accident—something that it can do, that I can do, that we can do together, that feels exciting and unique and feeds that creative inspiration. Because it’s that first step that’s the hardest in making any musical journey. That first step. I think what we’re all chasing as music makers is that quick inspiration that’s going to get us down the path.”

Sometimes, though, it can feel that what you’re chasing is just out of reach. “Maybe you have your first experiences with a simple subtractive synthesizer,” Dave concludes, “and it’s all fascinating and amazing—for a while, right? It’s like a drug. You get hooked on it, you get interested in it, and you need to see what the next level might be that it can take you to. That, for sure, is the challenge for instrument makers now: How to find that elusive ability to create some little bit of magic.”

About the Author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include Electric Guitars: Design And Invention, and London Live. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at

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