I attended the recent MusikMesse trade show as a demonstrator for the Continuum Fingerboard. Lippold Haken (inventor of the Continuum) and I were part of the wonderful Alex4 booth (see our video), a booth lead by the amazing Mr. Andreas Schneider.
Fortunately for me my stay at the show is not all work, and as per usual during this four day event I got a few chances to makes the rounds through the other halls and booths, searching through the nooks and crannies, looking for the unique and idiosyncratic. During one of these rounds, I had the chance to spend some quality time with the Schmidt eight voice polyphonic synthesizer. I had seen this instrument online before (it has been mentioned at the SonicState site under the amusing title Schmidt Happens, hence my homage to that spirit in my own title), but this was my first chance to play one in person.
I was immediately impressed by the build quality. Very refined and solid, with an excellent feeling key bed. For some reason the front panel was locked out, so I couldn't tweak any patches, but soon it became apparent to me this was a good thing, as I focussed on perusing the selection of existing patches within the unit. A beautiful, rich assortment of sound designs, some incredibly thick pad textures (eight voice polyphony, perhaps the richest pads I have ever heard), interesting Moog-like leads (a given) and some rather more esoteric new synthesizer timbres thanks I guess to it's robust filter selections and oscillator waveform modulation possibilities.
I don't know how much it costs, who owns one (outside of Hans Zimmer), and how economical or realistic it is for this synthesizer to be produced. In the very short time I explored the instrument I do know that the Schmidt is an example of a synthesizer that I could dedicate time to, serious musically laden exploration time, and for me that dedication of time is the most valuable asset that I could invest.
There is a disturbing downward spiral in prices for electronic musical instruments. As a consumer, I don't see this as a good thing. Rather, it's insidiously destructive.
Everyone has heard of someone (perhaps even you dear reader) moaning about a $19.95 app, if only it was $4.95. This downward price spiral is beyond ludicrous.
Where is the economic incentive for an instrument builder, software or hardware, to invest that extra time required to build something special, to up the ante, to boldly go, etc.? For instance the sober second thought that is a new generational look at the MiniMoog as embodied in the Schmidt. As I mentioned, the Schmidt key bed feels beautiful, so every second that I played it my fingertips responded that much more positively; my eyes were drawn to the finely done cabinetry, cabinetry that does nothing for the tone but it's aesthetic appearance placed my brain in a more positive space; an almost amusing ability to change the colour of all the LEDS and backlit LCD globally (I'm feeling red today, I'm in my blue period, etc.).
These things may seem superfluous at first glance, yet really do add up synergistically, and also show an attention to detail on the designer's part, which you can be assured is echoed in a myriad of other less obvious ways within the instrument.
Could I afford the cash outlay to buy a Schmidt? I seriously doubt it, besides even if I could my palette is already pretty full, as day by day I get older and the most valuable asset I have is time.
Within certain realities it doesn't matter whether something costs $4.95, $19.95, or $1999.95. What matters is will time be well spent. Is there a benefit from learning this new instrument that will be rewarded with many years of deep and profound musical exploration? If so, this spreads the real cost out over time so that the $1999.95 instrument ends up being cheaper than the $4.95 one.
Musical instrument designers should take more time with their designs, and charge more money. This will result in new instruments that are more worthwhile for all parties involved. We can all benefit in avoiding cheap distractions.
Edmund Eagan is a music composer, sound designer, audio producer, and instrument builder from Ottawa, Canada. His audio work can be heard on numerous TV and radio productions nationally. He is a dedicated electronic instrument enthusiast, surrounding himself with a myriad of eclectic instruments, including a large analog modular Serge system. He has been extensively involved in the design evolution of the Continuum Fingerboard, manufactured by Haken Audio, and is the principal designer of the synthesis engine inside the Continuum, the EaganMatrix.