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April 7, 2011

Filed under: music»tools»digital

Touch vs. Turn

If Korg's DS-10 synth is a portable Reason, all dangling virtual cables and signal flow diagrams, Nanoloop (newly released on Android this week) is like a pocket-sized Ableton Live: simple geometric shapes laid out conceptually. It's an approach designed for screen interaction and readability instead of mimicking its' non-virtual counterparts. I like both Nanoloop and the DS-10. But I suspect I like real synthesizers more, even though they're bulky and inconvenient, solely because the real thing isn't trapped behind a sheet of glass.

Which is not to say that Nanoloop is not very cool. I never owned a copy of the Gameboy version, because I couldn't quite justify spending $40 on a cartridge for a 20-year-old game system, but its simplified layout (originally created for greyscale LCDs and few buttons) works well on a touchscreen. The built-in synths don't quite have the classic feel of a Nintendo sound generator chip, but there are more of them, including a built-in sampler (the Android version even allows importing custom samples from the SD card). Nanoloop's synth engine is certainly less powerful than the DS-10 (modulation routing is one of those things where the patchbay metaphor really does make sense), but it does fit the channel controls on a single screen (Korg's software has separate screens for subtractive synthesis and patching), and that really puts the emphasis on fast, efficient composition. So while I'm still terrible at tracking, this is an easy way to burn some time while waiting for the bus.

On the other hand, neither program is anywhere near as much fun as mucking around with a big analog-style synthesizer--I'll get lost in one of those for hours, and I don't even like playing keyboard. What's the difference? Big, chunky knobs, switches and buttons that I can physically handle to get a "grip" on the sounds. There's just something viscerally better about tactile synth controls. I feel the same way, incidentally, about my bass effects--no matter how many cool things I could do with virtual pedalboards, I always went back to stompboxes eventually. Nor am I alone: even in the age of touchscreens and DAW plugins, people keep inventing ways to make music software physical through devices like the arc or various control surfaces. It's like there's something people just really like about turning knobs and flipping switches.

As a generally pro-digital kind of person, I was kind of bothered to realize this about myself. I have no sentimentality about e-books, for example, and I'd rather suck lemons than record on analog tape. The more I think about it, though, the more I see the role of the tool as the distinguishing factor. Stompboxes and synthesizers are performance-oriented--they're all about process and inspiration. It's important that they be responsive in ways that are instantly intuitive, even if that requires extra bulk or lowered flexibility. Recording and editing audio, on the other hand, are (mostly) results-oriented activities: I'm not trying to discover new sounds, just rearrange existing elements, so I'm happy to deal with them at as high a level as possible.

Clearly, then, there's a thin zone between abstraction and control that makes a performance instrument satisfying. Given too much abstraction, you take away the player's expressiveness. With too little, they're overwhelmed. Virtual instruments and touchscreen interfaces aren't inherently unsatisfying, but they almost always require musicians to maintain a higher level of mindfulness to use them, the responsiveness will be less dynamic, and the feel just won't have the same richness to it. Where each player draws the line is probably up to them. Since I don't really consider myself a synth player, software synths like Nanoloop and the DS-10 will be good enough for now. On bass, though, I'll stick with my stompboxes.

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