You never outgrow the things you love — more specifically, the unfinished questions from childhood and youth that live on, as recurring motifs throughout the rest of your life. My first “serious” synthesizer was an Alesis QS8. Over recent months, incrementally (and perhaps insidiously), I dreamt more about revisiting those sounds I’d grew up with. The QS series is quite underrated to this day — carrying knocks for lack of a resonant filter, among other limitations that would shape my creative growth. I was too naive to let any of that stop me, and I still vividly recall how my parents supported my first steps into further electronic music with this particular model.
So lately, come 2018, coupled with other fortuitous timing, I acquired a QSR, which is the rackmount version of the QS8. Same sounds, much more compact. Thanks to some helpful folks with legacy knowledge that’s otherwise been lost to the dunes, I’m back and running. In those 1997-98 salad days — 20 years ago! — I became attached to the presets, though clamped by my lack of experience and technological developments that would not arrive for years to come.
Here I am now.
As I plugged in the Alesis QSR and prayed, amidst other skittering thoughts… would it turn on?… what would I hear in all these years since?… the increasingly prominently question I kept asking myself as the mainline throughout, resounding like the sound of drums in Doctor Who’s Master’s head:
“What if I could play those sounds I grew up on, with everything I’ve learned since?”
There’s such beauty in essentiality.
For it was Clara Rockmore who made the Theremin — nothing more than a flavor of sine wave! — sing to its utmost potential. And it’s within those simplest of sounds that, if we can transform them across realtime to produce emotional changes of dynamic magnitude, then that, to me at least, is a transcendent measure of music. Imagine this unfolded across many layers, and the effect can be even more exponentially extended, then contrasted in the arrangement itself as we switch between “stripped down, raw” bits vs. a “litany of layers”.
I considered those early Alesis QS programs within banks, with names like “’74 Square” (such a tone for soloing wildly, as I did on the jazzy “bad acid square”) and “DSP Violin” (with its delay-flange, closest thing I could find at the time to the solo on Deep Forest’s “Marta’s Song”), with their percussive counterparts such as “UFO Drums” (whose LFO-swooshed hi-hats are utterly unique) and “Industro” (early NIN-esque abrasion).
At the time, I had to make heavy trade-offs, since although the Alesis branched beyond the General MIDI spec and allowed drums per se to live on any channel — not just #10! — I was still limited to 16 channels in all, with 64 voices of polyphony being split further amongst them. Also, the effects bus — while bathing single patches in their glorious flangy washes and other colorful treatments, it became glaringly clear how dependent how many of these patches were on said FX, as soon as I was forced to choose from a limited amount (as part of “4 independent stereo multieffect processing busses” as the literature put it) within a full mix.
This drove me towards further things. I wanted to be fully unshackled. I’d obtain more racks of hardware synths (whose ungainly physical bulk would send me in the opposite direction for my 2000s in-the-box phase). Those racks were before the Golden Age of VST, y’see, and I’d specifically seek out those with powerful DSP FX capabilities (like the Novation Nova, which allowed a whole complement for each of its parts with no sacrifice, even if the reverb have a characteristic metallic tinge!) Habits built upon each other over the years, until I’d finally come full cycle, in an era when Jean Michel-Jarre (trivia: my fave of his is still “Oyxgene 8”) revisits his chronologie. “Sky — no, alternate universes are the limit”-type freedom in Ableton Live, nudging against the paradox of “analysis paralysis” when we have 500 piano sounds to choose from. The impulse to place the first note and keep jamming, fighting, oh-ever-so-hard, against that conjoined demon, “writer’s block”.
While expressive controllers haven’t breached mainstream embrace as I’d hoped they would — and indeed I draw parallels between space-loving Vangelis’ championing of the never-mass-market-derived Yamaha CS-80 and the “Why aren’t we on Mars already?” with shades of respect to Elon Musk — I have some fantabulous tool-toys I enjoy very much. Such as the Expressive E Touché, which verily must be rubbed to be believed — I was a skeptic until I wiggled the wood and took my signature pitch-swooping to those next levels, compleat with bonus stages! And Palette Gear’s live-reconfigurable sliders/buttons/dials, which I’ve created a profile for, to map to my old QS8’s MIDI CC 12/13/91/93 sliders. To summarize, newer inventions that bring out the best in what I had before. The reincarnation of a long-lost family, the homecoming of aural comfort food, all sharing a meal at this same sonic table.
I’m also taking advantage of this opportunity to pick up sounds I didn’t hear the first go ‘round. The QSR has two slots, like a toaster, to put in expansion QCards containing more samples ’n’ sounds, and the World Ethnic QuadraCard is one whose cover art conjured up a lot of wistful speculation of what it might sound like. Now I know.
Scrolling through the preset banks shows me many old friends I haven’t seen in so long.
Anyway. And it’s so, so very awesome to be back.