Where Are My Keys?

Having sold my trusty Roland just last year (on Ebay), I landed my spot as as keyboardist for PTV owning no keyboard. It has presented me with an interesting dilemma, because things have changed a lot since 1984 when I bought my last one.

Real pianos and organs were before my time. Back in the 80’s the decision was between “analog” and “digital” synthesizers. Analog generated their own sounds through circuitry, while digital ones played pre-recorded ‘samples.’ A purest, I opted for analog. Although its simulations of instruments, like pianos, were less accurate, its self-generated organ and string and synth sounds were warmer and more penetrating in a mix.

Today, well, everything is digital. Even the analog synthesizers are just digital models of analog synthesizers. They’ve got all the knobs and buttons, but they simply recreate the experience of an analog synth using digital samples. It’s a bizarre abstraction. But it goes even a step further.

The current option suggested by most of the students where I teach (NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, where they should know about such things) is for me to forget about buying a keyboard, and simply emulate a rack of digital sampler and analog synthesizers on my Powerbook using a program called Reason.

Talk about meta. So now, the idea is to use the computer to simulate a rack device that simulates a sythesizer that simulates another synthesizer that simulates an instrument.

The big decision seems to be whether to go out and buy what passes for a traditional keyboard – meaning a big thing with keys and buttons and built-in sounds. Or – the much less expensive option of buying a simple keyboard controller (just a little keyboard you plug into the laptop) and do everything on the Mac.

My friends in The Sea and Cake do just that. My friend from Family of God says it’ll sound awful, and – more importantly – people in the audience will respond negatively to seeing a laptop on stage, because they won’t know how much of the music is prerecorded.

Of course, some artists (like Terre Thaemlitz) make the show about this very problem. The last time I saw him onstage, he was lip-synching and hand-synching to a pre-recorded CD he brought along with him. Only at the end of the show, did he reveal the ‘hoax’ by lip-synching different songs than were playing.

I’ve got a student coming over today to show me how to use my laptop as a rack of synths. If it works, I get to save a whole lot of money, and a whole lot of travel headaches. My laptop is about a tenth the weight of a Yamaha keyboard.

But as I approach a new and intimidating learning curve, I’m reminded of how I felt learning DOS and Basic. And I’m left wondering exactly what I’ll be leaving behind.

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