As most of the computer/digital/electronic music gear blogs are talking about it, I figure the release of the new software synth, Sonic Charge Synplant, was as good a reason as any to break my blog silence of the past month. I’ve been moving toward the idea that blogging is a mostly futile endeavour, but since I’ve built the pulpit, may as well pontificate. Before talking about Synplant, here’s what it looks like:
Pretty, isn’t it? You can click on the picture to see the full-sized screen shot. Now that you’ve seen the synth, you know most of the story, as interface is its reason for being. The only other necessary tidbits to understand the whole are that 1) you move the plant fronds to alter the sound, 2) each frond corresponds to a note in a twelve-tone octave, such that each note can make a different sound if you’d like, and 3) you can access a list of parameters to more conventionally change the sound if the plant fronds just aren’t cutting it for you. This instrument, which has a modestly interesting although mostly generic synthesis engine at its core, is less specifically about how it sounds (or how it makes sounds) and more specifically about how the user interacts with the synth engine. It even says so in the marketing blurb:
Did you ever wonder if the convention of imitating hardware in software is the final word on friendly user interfaces? Is it indisputably the most efficient, creative and inspiring way of interacting with a software synth? We asked ourselves these questions and we created Synplant.
They aren’t selling sounds, as most software synthesizers do, but rather an experience. I find it an interesting idea. There’s a suggestion in there that the future of sound synthesis isn’t in technique but rather interaction, although I can’t help but be cynical about it. Sure, people are bored with rows of knobs that are laid out to look like a Minimoog. I, for one, am happy to see a sea change toward fewer hardware metaphors in software. But, those interfaces have proven remarkably flexible and immediate, and it’ll require a good think on how best to move that interface forward to produce previously unattainable results.
The hyperbole surrounding Synplant I’ve seen so far on forums and in blog comments borders on religious. Synplant’s fronds are an excellent exercise in lateral thinking, in much the same way that Eno’s Oblique Strategies are, but that’s nothing especially new. It puts to mind the monome, which at its core is a set of programmable buttons and LEDs, and yet I’ve seen users speak of it as though it somehow redefines electronic musical instruments. Which, handy and well-designed as it is, it does not do. It is for all intents a tabula rasa upon which the user can project their identity. Apparently many users choose to project the image of the heroic iconoclast.
In these two examples, Synplant and monome, there is a narrative being told not about instruments but about the people who play them. There’s this thread in it in which folk are suggesting we’ve been blocked by our instruments, that the means in which we interact impedes inspiration and creativity and ultimately innovation. For this narrative to have any credibility though, we seemingly have to ignore that musical inspiration and creativity and innovation abounds most everywhere you look.
I’m not against new, innovative design in anyway, but I generally prefer actual newness and innovation to be present in these kinds of things rather than only superficially suggested. It’s like in the late ’90s when the lollipop-coloured iMac was suggested to have re-invented the personal computer when really all it did was outfit the room with new drapes. I’m all for new drapes from time to time, but new drapes do not make a new room. I think there’s a missed opportunity in the inclusion of the parameter list in Synplant, which feels to me like the hedging of bets by including the most conventional interface imaginable (a vertical list of parameters with horizontal sliders) as a back up in case twiddling a plant is too alienating. I think it should have been all about the plant twiddle and nothing else.
But in this need for new modes of interaction to enable inspiration, I’m mostly a perplexed outsider. For me the means to make music isn’t elusive. Sometimes I tap into it, other times I give in to a lethargic acceptance that I’ll have to tap into it another day. Effort and desire generally being the foundation upon which any useful results are made.
On a forum this morning in conversation about Synplant, one user suggested to me that there is a wall between the performer and the sound designer, to which I’ll have to take his word because I’ve seen no evidence of such a wall existing. I think many of those who seek inspiration by injecting novelty into their lives do so in avoidance of deeper, personal impediments to greatness, most commonly avoiding admitting that they simply might suck and maybe could stand to improve some.
None of this should be taken as a criticism of either Synplant or the monome, though. I like both, and I like that people are trying to innovate, I just hope that the innovation becomes substantive along the way, rather than remain mostly on the surface.