Analogue vs Digital Synthesis

What can I say on this subject that hasn’t been said before?

Try this…

I’ve never been convinced by the fetishisation of analogue synthesis (or outboard gear, or recording…). Soundwise, Analogue is what you want when have one synth part to carry the whole weight of the track – so it needs to be big and powerful. In the days of the monosynth, it makes sense to have a fat, bassy, harmonically rich sound as the *only* synth line. But in multilayered music, it’s a damn sight easier to mix and less tiring to listen to if each layer’s sound is a bit thinner and less harmonic. (I suspect Albino3 produces sounds that slot nicely into the mix because it is quite digital-sounding. For the same reason I used Finger Bassline to do the acid on my latest instead of Rebirth – less authentic-sounding, perhaps even a bit “plastic” if you look too closely at it, but I hardly had to do anything to get it to play nicely with the many other layers). I’d probably only use a genuine 303 if it was a 303-only track, Hardfloor style, then I’d want to hear all those harmonics singing away. But with many other layers above and below, pads and leads and squeaks and runners and basslines, those harmonics would be inaudible, their only effect to cause unwanted lack of clarity around their frequencies and make it much harder to get it mixed right. I reckon an analogue acid line would tend to melt into a somewhat background instead of being sharply defined,

I see Digital as having its own special powers. You’ll never get an analogue lead synth to cut right through the mix, or to trepan straight into your brain like cold steel and deliver a precise, controlled, zap of electricity, the way a nice sharp-edged digital sound can. And the psytrance kick is an example of Digital’s strengths – tightness, precision, highly focussed power, efficiency (use only the required frequencies and minimum necessary energy), exact reproduceability (leading, before long, to ubiquity… but unlike every other sound that has ever been in fashion, everyone seems content for it to remain the standard indefinitely, as it works so perfectly in balance with the typical psytrance bass, and it sounds flippin awesome on Funktion 1).

Analogue vs Digital to me is like Wood vs Metal. We need them both. You can’t say either one is objectively better. Both are useful in sombunall situations, for sombunall types of widget/music, in ratios that may vary significantly according to what you are making, and preference.

I’ve always tended to write the kind of music that, as well as being multilayered, has a certain feel to it that somehow implicitly mandates a fully- or mostly-digital soundscape. Without ever having planned it, almost all of my music evokes a backdrop of outer space. or hyperspace, or mindspace… There’s something a bit “sci-fi” about it. Such journeys call for a shiny sleek silver spaceship, not a wooden horse.

Wood’s home is down to Earth, down on the farm, in the lounge or kitchen, at a barbecue or chilling in the park, sweat and claustrophobia, flesh and blood, humour and lust and the unexpected happenstances of life… Wood is organic, and only a wide, rich, harmonic, organic, alive sound can appropriately convey the complexity and enormity of lifeforms, of life, of being alive. Whales have been synthesising suitable substrate sounds for the Song of Gaia for millions of years, but if you’d like to join in, an analogue synth is a rather more portable and easily controllable instrument, though let me be absolutely clear that they are unlikely to work underwater, and it is generally recommended to use the internet for communication, rather than the sea channels, not least in case some randy sperm whale misinterprets your wobbly bassline as a threat (or worse, an invitation)…

In short, take the rough with the smooth. Make room in your heart and in your DAW for both analogue and digital, and use your instinct to decide which should dominate for a particular track according to its setting, its feel, and its complexity.

On the occasion of a local sporting result

I’m told that a group of men who swear affiliation to Southampton (despite most of them having no apparent connection to the town), have successfully kicked an air-filled pigs’ bladder into a giant net (for reasons unclear to me) more often than some other group of men similarly mysteriously affiliated to some other town, and have apparently thereby all been promoted directly into saints… which seems a shame as that implies they all died, doesn’t it? I may have misrepresented some of the finer detail, as the complexities of this sport are far beyond the capabilities of my mind to comprehend. Regardless, well done gentlemen, and may you all rest in peace.

One size does not fit all

I wrote this in reply to an insightful article by Jenni Tennison giving an insider’s view of the UK government’s current project to unify all of its websites into a single one. I agree with the doubts she raises about this project, because I’ve been there, done that before…

Some years ago, I worked on a long-term project which was funded by the then Public Record Office. When that institution was rebranded as the National Archives, complete with shiny new website, they decided that our hitherto independently-styled and -managed website must be rebranded to mimic theirs in look and feel.

This was far from easy, partly because their design had a horrendously messy implementation, and partly because (of course) it had been designed without any reference to us or how our data delivery might fit into it. It was imposed on us as a fait accompli, and we had to – somehow – squeeze our square peg into their round hole.

We spent a full year smashing our clean, lightweight design into pieces and gluing it back together in order to fit their restrictive, bloated one. I didn’t much enjoy doing it (can you tell?), but I like to think we did a good job.

Possibly too good. What we found when it went live is that users got confused: our site, now a subdomain of theirs, looked and felt so similar to the main site that users expected it to work in exactly the same way, but this was ultimately impossible as ours had a fundamentally different set of functions than theirs. Those areas where we overlapped had been made to work identically, but this just led to confusion where the functionality diverged.

One size does not fit all. And the more distance there is between those responsible for the design and management of a site, and those producing the content for it, the more likely it is that some of that content will be presented poorly, or not at all.

I don’t think people really want all government websites to look the same, or to be in the same domain1. I think what they want is for information to be easy to find and easy to access. The best way to ensure that is to keep the designers and managers of the website as close as possible to the people producing the information. By all means have standards to ensure best practice, but keep them as minimal as possible, with a mechanism for those bound by them to suggest changes if they find them too restrictive.

And let different things look different, because that helps people to realise that they are different.


  1. URLs are irrelevant to many non-technical users, who nowadays routinely rely on search engines – even to find sites that they visit every day, as evidenced by the “Facebook Login” debacle 

Creativitus interruptus

Listening in the car to an old tune of mine called “Funkmuppet” (subtitled “Dance Like A Muppet”) I suddenly realised that it’s in need of a rap. I’ve never written one before, but I immediately knew precisely how the rhythm of the lyrics should play out, how my tone should undulate, what style of rapping I wanted to do. It was crystal clear.

But just as I began to consider which topical subjects of the day I might want to cover in my lyrical discourse, Afrika Bambataa started rapping over it in my head instead. “What’s this phoney ceremony, hanging around…”, lyrics that are familiar to me solely due to their use by Bassheads in their classic upfront progressive house tune “Is there anybody out there?”. It fitted perfectly.

Now my role in the piece seems to have been relegated to waiting until he sings “Just get up and dance, you got to get up and dance, y’all just get up and dance” and then shouting “LIKE A MUPPET!”.

I think perhaps it’s best if I just try to forget that any of this happened.

Another day, another WTF

Can’t find the customer’s home country in the database? That’s ok; just pick any country with a vaguely similar-sounding name, that’s good enough.

A bizarre bit of code in the e-commerce software1 I’m currently fixing up does exactly that; it uses the Soundex algorithm to look for an approximate match to where the customer lives, according to the similarity of how the countries’ names are pronounced, rather than the more conventional considerations like geography.

There are 27 countries in the database that share a Soundex value with at least one other (mostly just pairs, but the largest matching group is 4: Ghana, Guam, Guinea and Guyana). In each group, all the countries would be rewritten to whichever was first alphabetically. Addresses in Greece would appear to be in Georgia; Norway became Nauru.

This sort of thing is nice and easy to fix (finding it is the hard part), but leaves a strange aftertaste… the insoluble mystery of just what was going on in the mind of whoever decided to write that code that made them think it would be a good idea…


  1. The software in question is an extended version of OSCommerce with lots of add-ons and customisation. I’m not sure whether the code in question originates from one of the add-ons, or is a specific customisation of this site done by their previous developer. In a way, I hope it’s the latter, so that other sites aren’t being affected…