EDITOR’S PICK
NOVEMBER 19, 2010 9:10AM

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My dreams often come true. Not those little passing fancies, but the ones I dream with passion and duration. But there’s no guarantee as to when. Dreams can come true, but they’re often late. I imagine that’s because the dream fulfillment department is swamped with back orders. The angels working there – big, burly sweating angels –curse as they roll out another dream, “Villa in the South of France – didn’t we do one of those freakin’ things just last week?”

 

In the long ago years that I scrabbled my way up in the music business, living in crummy apartments in dangerous neighborhoods of New York and Boston, I was haunted by a persistent dream: a place of my own, in the country.  The house was vague. What always shone clear as a picture post card was the little stream running through my property, sparkling in the sun, murmuring- This is Home.

 

Twenty years later that dream came true.  I bought a house with not one, but two streams on the property. Yet in the intervening 20 years my dreams had moved on.  I’d been living in my dream house for a while before I even remembered that old dream. It made me a little sad – that I’d yearned so for those brooks, but now cared so little that I only went out to look at them once a year to see that they hadn’t run dry.

 

                                                ---------------

My band graduated from Wesleyan in 1972.  Along with 10 thousand other bands we set out to become the next Beatles. We’d majored in music at a college whose music department was the first in the country to introduce world music. Our ears were filled with the pounding of drums from Ghana, the exotic tinklings of the Javanese Gamelon and the drone of tambouras. We’d heard Ornette Coleman, and Keith Jarrett, even Miles Davis perform.  Before college the Beatles had opened our ears to everything from sitars to orchestras.

 

All of this spoiled us for three-chord rock. And we chaffed at being restricted to the sonic palette of bass, drums, Fender Rhodes piano and guitar. One night in the van on the long drive home from a gig, semi-delirious with the hour and post-job libations, I flashed on a fantastic solution to our problem.

 

 “I’ve got it – plug-in musicians.”

“Huh?”

“Robots who play sax, or fiddle, or whatever.  Sitar.”

“Tuba. Clarinet.”

“No, I’m serious.”

“How would they work?”

“We plug them in at the gig, just like the amps and PA. At the end of the night we fold them up and throw them in back with the rest of the gear.” I saw them clearly -thin, almost two-dimensional robots. Easily foldable.  “Back home we’ll stand them up in the closet, out of the way.”

“They don’t have to be fed.”

“Or paid.”

My dream was a joke. That’s because its means of fulfillment hadn’t been invented yet.

 

By 1983 I was starting to make money composing. That was lucky, because I heard that Yamaha had just introduced the DX-7, the first affordable synth – around $2000. I raced downtown to buy one of the first. It created a remarkable simulation of real instruments; sax, fiddle, harpsichord, even tympani. I was having way too much fun to give a thought to my dream in the van. But I sensed something breathing down my neck. Those angels. They’d finally delivered my plug-in musicians.

 

Granted, it was little different than what I’d had in mind. I actually had to play the parts for my virtual band members. But using multi-track recording I got the result I’d desired – pieces of music arranged using an unlimited palette of sounds.

 

The confluence of my keen desire for sounds and Yamaha’s hype cast a spell on my hearing, dressing up those sounds to make them prettier than they actually were. After some months the spell wore off.  Those violins suddenly sounded so cold and glassy that they made me shiver.  I wasn’t alone. Other musicians muttered about the DX-7. One said, “The Oberheim Xpander’s warmer.”  I bought one. The strings warmed me right up, put a smile on my face again.  It didn’t take long for that spell to wear off – pleasant as those strings were, no one would mistake them for the real thing. 

 

I bought another synth, then another, looking for the sound. I was becoming an addict. Fortunately my royalties were good, so I didn’t have to steal to satisfy my habit.  Every few months I’d get a new fix – a new synthizer. By now the manufacturers were promising the very universe with these things. Like a sucker I kept believing them. Their spells kept wearing off.

 

I got  a digital sampler.  Press a key and it played back a recording of a real instrument. I could sound the tambouras and African drums from long ago at Wesleyan, sparkling glockenspiels, and fiddles so real I could almost smell the resin and feel the bite of the bow. Now I  remembered that long ago night in the van.  I had my plug-in musicians – a whole orchestra of them in a little box.

 

The sampler’s spell lasted a long time. It too wore off when I realized that while I had the sounds of great musicians, I could never hope to reproduce all of the subtle articulations, crescendos, bowings, breathes they’d spent a lifetime perfecting. Still blessed with royalty income, I did what I’d done before the synth craze – hired real musicians, the best players down in New York. The old dream of plug-in musicians had finally lost its allure.

 

Around this time my computer became so powerful that my once grand studio was shrinking as its components became replicated in virtual form in the computer.  My mixing console and effect processors now lived in software. And so did those synths, in the form of “virtual instruments,” or “Soft Synths.” Most commonly though, they’re called….“plug-ins.”

 

I avoid that computer, only occasionally throwing it a guilty glance, much as I do those streams out back.  I know my virtual orchestra is standing there in its virtual closet, silent, uncomplaining, patiently waiting for me to raise my baton again.

 

It was great fun while it lasted, my dream of plug-in musicians. But even the sweetest dreams can’t last forever.

 

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Comments

I am in no way a musician, but I remember when they started coming out with those synthizer's and I saw where Stevie Wonder had gotten one and was showing off all the cool sounds. It was neat, but after he started playing them he didn't sound as great to me as he did before. Maybe it was just my tin ear, but his sound seemed to change.
Yeah, listening to 80s music now it seems I wasn't alone in being under the spell of synths.
I would have missed this had I not seen it on Rota B's page..:(
three-chord rock.
synthesizers
Nothing but musical memories..:)
rated with hugs
I remember my college, Sarah Lawrence, got one right around that time..it was big...a friend showed me how it worked...he went on to work with Phil Glass and I never understood it . I kept that memory of confusion and bought my own Yamaha in 93 to master it...it was my dream to be able to make the music in my head real...I thought this would be the answer.
The cyborg serenade is a wistful dissonant dance.
Get them out of the closet and give them to some gifted kids and make some NEW music love. Great post thanks. My French horn sits in the closet at the cottage.:)
I guess the closest we ever came to a real band of computers was Kraftwerk. To this day, I'm not sure if those guys are really human. (But I sure did love them back in the day!)
I actually have 3 hours of college credit on the Moog from 1973. Still prefer my steel bodied Nationals and a chunk of glass when I feel like being ethereal.
What a great piece this was LM. You know, today, they probably just have an app for that.
Plug-ins. Aren't they those Glade scent things? :) 
Plug-ins ... but can they improvise? 

I'll go for flesh and blood with the all the potential for human error. A Hammond organ, now there's a sound!
This was so interesting. You've witnessed and been a player (sort-of pun intended) in so much music history! My sister had a synthesizer of sorts growing up, a big "piano" that could sound like all sorts of different instruments. You're right about the strings - beautiful at first, but in the end they did sound cold. Thanks for such an interesting read, and I'm glad you got the house of your dreams, and learned something about other dreams you've had. R.
his website is very good, you can go and see it===clshoe.us===
And I always thought the music died when Simon and Garfunkle broke up! Oh the memories your piece reactivated, including my dream of a place in the country. The angels never quite delivered on that one, though I did live in a suburb once.
I've been synthesizing music since the mid 80's. The sweet bots don't sass, never show up late or drunk, and they don't hit on my girlfriend every time I leave the room.
Try looping your instruments back through a tube pre-amp, to warm them up and provide your own flourishes on another of your infinite tracks.
Whether computer or analog, you are the musician, the heart and brain are yours...the interface of wood or metal or silicon that you play upon is irrelevant.
The Denver Symphony purchased one in 1966. It had looped tape of a instruments playing each note and possible combinations. It was a Moog Synthesizer. At its debut many people stood up and walked out. In 1989 the DSA got up and walked out. People will do almost anything for a symphony except go and see it.
The irony of it. Pick up that baton, sir. Dreams never die.

I bought a DX-7 at a garage sale for $100. My kids have had a blast jamming on it in the basement.
I'm new to OS and just found your post. Excellent job. I took a mini course on an early Moog in the early 70s. It was monophonic and my teacher really stressed letting the synth be a synth. Not trumpets or violins. But I wanted the Switched on Bach sound of the day. Now I'm happy with my little garageband studio to add things to my folk stuff but things have come a long way. Thanks for the post.
I love music from all the generations, but there's nothing like music made with banged-up instruments down on their luck. Wonderful post. Very talented. Rated with great appreciation for what you shared!

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