05. ARP 2600
There aren’t many synthesisers more recognisable in looks alone than the ARP 2600. Released in 1971 and in production for a decade, this gigantic blue semi-modular towers over other synthesisers in the studio. Comprising of three individual cabinets, the synth voice, an optional sequencer and separate keyboard, there are different configurations that can be seen on stage or in the studio of various producers.
The 2600 is on record from Frank Zappa to George Duke, Joe Zawinul to The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder to Todd Terje and a myriad others that fill up a whole page alone here. One artist I want to focus on in particular though is that of Dexter Wansel.
Wansel is one of the artists I most closely associate with the cosmic jazz idiom that was so popular in the mid-to-late seventies, but Parliament Funkadelic had their idiosyncratic style, as did Wansel. His music is much grander orchestrations, with smooth saxophone, blissful strings, ethereal chord progressions and crunchy Rhodes. More David Axelord than Sun Ra.
Below, he discusses layering his synths with the orchestra, something so obvious to us now, but at the time the synthesisers was still seen as its own entity almost.
Dexter perhaps isn’t as much of a household name as some of the aforementioned artist in this section, but he’s been sampled by the likes of J Dilla, Pete Rock, DJ Shadow, Lupe Fiasco, Lil B, Action Bronson, Royce Da 5’9” and Wiz Khalifa.
N.B I’ll deliberately omitted HUGE samples from other artists that have samples drums or non-synthetic elements, otherwise the above list would include Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Ta-Ku, Tyler the Creator, Eric B. and Rakim and Rick Ross.
Life on Mars (from 1976) is perhaps one of his magnum opus, with a sound like Dr. Lonnie Smith, Isaac Hayes and Pharoah Sanders write a film soundtrack together.
The 2600 is responsible for some of the most sci-fi sounds of our time (think R2-D2) but what Wansel got out of it was a really musical sound, seamlessly incorporating it with the orchestra, adding previously undiscovered depths.
The instrument itself is comprises of 3 VCOS, a 24 dB/oct low-pass filter, ring modulation, spring reverb, noise generation and a choice of linear of exponential VCAs. But what really made the instrument stand out is the ability to patch anything into anything else. For those who missed the Moog Modular first time around, or the EMS Synthi A, this was a realistic modular option.
ARP 2500s and 2600s aren’t impossible to get hold of on second hand sites and specialist shops. Certainly part of the fun with any modular or semi-modular is patching it but Arturia have released the 2600V, a much more stable and reliable emulation that sounds fantastic to my ears.
06. Roland Fantom G
No list would be complete with this, right?
The Fantom G, that’s where.
Like the Korg Triton, the Fantom G was another workstation, this time released by Roland in 2009. The Fantom ‘G’ was a fourth generation in the series of workstation by Roland, and offered much of the same functionality as the Triton, albeit more modern. Anyway, back to this sound…
Colloquially known as The Lex Lugar riser, next to booming 808 kicks and frenetic snappy hi-hats, there aren’t many sounds more synonymous with trap than this.
It’s extremely unlikely this sound is reproduced each time it’s used, more likely it that is came from a trap sample pack that was doing the p2p rounds that I can’t remember the name of.
The riser is actually a stock preset on the Fantom G, but is relatively easy to recreate in certain software synths. Here’s a quick tutorial in Reason:
For any Native Instruments Kontakt users, ProducerGrind have released this free library of sounds from the Fantom. Find out more about it and download here.
07. Yamaha DX100
There are arguments about the genesis of Hip Hop and what constitutes Hip Hop and what’s electro funk. The DX100 was an FM synthesiser and younger sibling of the famed-DX7. It is plastered all over Zapp & Roger and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis records, and for this reason deserves a honourable mention in this list.
Zapp & Roger was Roger and Terry “Zapp” Troutman’s brainchild. One of their biggest hits was More Bounce to the Ounce, released in 1980. The song contains Zapp & Rogers now famed talkbox and is riddled with classic sounding synths inseparable from the era.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are perhaps more closely linked to the Minneapolis sound and latterly New Jack Swing, which is in its own right a cousin of Hip Hop.
They are perhaps most famed for their production work on the likes of Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men, New Order, Usher, the S.O.S Band, Mary J. Blige, Earth, Wind & Fire, Blu Cantrell, Mariah Carey, Chaka Khan, Cheryl Lynn and (weirdly) Big Daddy Kane:
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were also founding members of Prince’s band The Time, along with Morris Day. They have been sampled by the likes of Timberland, 2Pac, Salt-N-Pepa, Public Enemy and DJ Assault. Of course most of The Times works were released before 1985, so it’s unlikely any of these used a DX100, it having not been invented, but it goes someway to demonstrating the ripples left by these two.
As mentioned above, they also worked extensively on the S.O.S band (sampled by MF DOOM and 2Pac), The Human League (sampled by Rick Ross and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony) and of course Janet Jackson (sampled by Big Pun, Xzibit, DJ Battery Brain and Lil Jon).
So why was the DX100 so popular with this sound? Unlike the DX7 the 100 was markedly more portable and less complicated to program. Although pretty much the entire range of FM synths by Yamaha are all a bit of a headache, compared to the DX7 it only had four operators instead of six.
Also, because it was digital, polyphony (8 voices) and patch saving was possible, as well as aftertouch and velocity sensitivity – all unimaginable with most analogue synthesisers. Frequency modulation synthesis was also a new sound: it allowed previously impossible sounds to be conjured up.
Subtractive synthesisers certainly were still in rotation on many of these records, by FM brought the possibility of shimmery pads, complex polyphonic stabs, bell-like leads and tough, snappy bass lines, all of which are key to the sound of eighties electro funk.
There might well be some DX100 emulation out there but by far the best FM synthesiser I am aware of is Native Instrument’s FM8, and with a bit of creative Googling you can get the SysEx patches for the DX100 easily enough. To read more about FM synthesis, follow this link.
08. Fairlight CMI
It was a toss up between the Synclavier and Fairlight and in the end the Fairlight just edged it. The Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, to give it it’s full name, is one of the most influential but unobtainable behemoth of synth history.
Combining a workstation like approach to sampling, a 16-voice polyphonic, multi-timbral additive and frequency modulation synthesis algorithm, sequencing and even a touch screen computer. You can see Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones jamming on Herbie’s Fairlight in the below video:
The Fairlight is not something that you could realistically buy, produced between 1979 – 1992 it would have cost more than a mortgage and programming one would have been a nightmare, but they existed in studios and ended up on plenty of records from the era.
However it’s Malcolm McLaren that I want to talk about. McLaren was a punk polymath, dipping his toes in fashion, promoting and managing of bands, visual art and of course production.
He’s probably most notably known for managing the Sex Pistols, his work with Art of Noise and The New York Dolls, and having a huge hand in the development of both Punk and Hip Hop in the UK. There are claims he brought Hip Hop to the UK but that’s a subject to be debated by far more learned people than me.
His own music took a huge influence form Hip Hop, and is like a quirky collage or pop-art homage to it. There is a clear passion for sampling, scratching and new synth sounds. One of his better know song is Buffalo Gals, not only sampling and interpolating a plethora of sources but drenched in Fairlight and Linn Drum:
The Fairlight was key in the development of sampling, but unlike the Akai and E-Mu counterparts, the CMI allowed for an incredible level of sound design. Virtually any sound could be approximated by analysing the timbral shifts over time and re-synthesising them a complex set of envelope and harmonics generators.
This definition is lazy but that’s because this is such a hard process to describe it would need it own article.
It was plastered all over McLaren’s productions as well as other producer from the era, not least Trevor Horn, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson, Jan Hammer, Thomas Dolby, Devo, Prince, Madonna, Soul II Soul, Scritti Politti, Jean-Michel Jarre, the Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, Steve Winwood, Hall & Oates, Kate Bush, Michael Jackson, Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney, David Gilmour, Teddy Riley, Duran Duran, and Paul Hardcastle. McLaren had this to say about the synth:
It was one of those things where I didn’t know where to start with them. I said: “The thing you do, scratching the records, is really amazing. I’ve got this thing here called the Fairlight and it does the same thing with digital audio. Let me show you, the possibilities are endless.”
I daren’t Google the price of a working Fairlight but I’d guess it’s probably close to the GDP of some small island countries.
- Enter through your right ventricle clog up your bloodstream
- Heart terminal like Grand Central Station
- Program fat basslines on Novation
- Getting drunk like I’m fucking ducking five-year probation
Thanks to Hip Hip anorak Mfon from Find your Trim for helping me source some of the lesser-known tracks in this article. Find Your Time is a directory of Afro-Caribbean Barbershops in the London and the rest of the UK.