I’ve been minding with some interest the promotional campaign for Spectrasonics’ new instrument Omnisphere (click here to watch the three videos thus far posted).
Aside from the obvious point that the marketing materials are as slick and crafty as anything out there, this new software instrument is fairly remarkable in its technology. It’s taken them years to create, and there are some very talented people working at Spectrasonics, well known in some circles for past ventures. The instrument has a massive sound library that appears to have been extensively indexed to reduce user-side complexity, it bears an advanced synthesis engine, creative and labour intensive recording techniques and a long list of unusual sound sources.
And yet, and yet…
Give a listen to any musical snippet made with the instrument in any of the promotional materials, and, for something built on such rich source material and advanced technology, it seems intended for the same over-produced schlock that commercial soundtracks have been mired in for the past twenty years: too much reverb, too much delay, too many twinkling layers of sound, oppressive stereo widening, over-enhanced bass. It’s as though the goal was to build a better form of bland, creating remarkable tools for unremarkable applications.
Eric Persing, head of Spectrasonics, talented guy and longtime purveyor of said over-produced soundtrack material (see Roland rompler workstations of yore), notes in the third video that some of their sound collection techniques used for Omnisphere were updated forms of the techniques of Harry Partch and John Cage. And when you listen to the raw recordings of the sounds, particularly those of Diego Stocco, you hear what he’s talking about, and the sounds strike me as rather exhilarating just as many things Partch and Cage have been exhilarating (although, personally, I lean much more in favour of Partch). But then they demonstrate how those sounds have been shoehorned in to their great machine, results from which are the polar opposite of what Cage and Partch were after, and lo, we hear the next twenty years of movie trailer pabulum. Which admittedly is a) Spectrasonics’ stock and trade and b) where the money is in the softsynth/rompler business, so I can’t fault Spectrasonics too much.
Except that it all feels both like an opportunity missed, that these advanced tools are let down by middle-of-the-road tastes, and like it’s just part of the constant mainstreaming of the counter-culture (a social mechanism witnessed in, for example, George Bush Sr.’s use of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” as his campaign song in 1988), appropriating into the machine that which exists outside of or is opposed to the machine, such that, on paper if not in reality, the two become confused . There’s a strain of history that would have us believe that Green Day and Bush are on the same page as Mudhoney and Sonic Youth, just as there will be a strain that would have us believe that the electroacoustic experimentation of the 1950s and Psychoacoustic Sampling® are related. The best intentions of those involved aside, don’t believe it for a second.