spaced out on synths

Any of my friends who have spent much time in either my dwelling or my car, have probably noticed that a lot of the music I like is low on singing and drums, and high in synthesizers, particularly those fuzzy old analogue synths.

My enthusiasm for synth sounds goes right back to two events in my childhood. The first was when my big sister bought the LP of Jean-Michel Jarre's groundbreaking Oxygène. I used to love listening to it with the lights off, living in my imagination. The second was when Carl Sagan's TV series Cosmos aired - I was already a big fan of Sagan, and anything to do with space, but the wonderful music worked so well to underline Sagan's theme of connecting humanity with its place in the universe that I bought the soundtrack album. I noticed that the theme music, and some of the indcidental music, were by a composer named Vangelis - who promptly won an Oscar for Chariots of Fire, which had the effect of getting many of his other works into the stock of UK record shops.

synth composers of note

  • Vangelis my favourite composer. My favourite album in the world ever is Soil Festivities though I think El Greco is probably his most accomplished composition. (Not to be confused with the soundtrack he later composed for a film of the same name!) I think his best period was 1975-1990. A good album to start with (ignore Chariots) would be Direct.
  • Jean-Michel Jarre produced many more albums after Oxygène that are worth listening to, but has never bettered it. He was an early adopter of digital synths, but I still love the more organic sound of analogue best.
  • Synergy (Larry Fast) Larry Fast released a series of pure electronic (no conventional instruments at all) albums as Synergy, until his record label went bust, and none of them were available for many years. The most avant-garde (and possibly best) album is Cords.
  • Kitarō I had a tape of Oasis as a student, and while I still haven't explored all of Kitarō's catalogue, he is recognised as a pioneer of Japanese electonica, but combines emotion with synths sympathetically.
  • Air (French band) as they said themselves, “there's oxygène in air”. Their first album, Moon Safari is full of analogue synths and 70s feels while not being a rip-off of JMJ by any means. Later albums have some good non-vocal tracks but were rather spoiled by them attempting to sing themselves instead of getting in talented vocalists as they did early on.
  • Tangerine Dream pioneered synths and especially sequencers in the 70s. I like their late 70s period best. Start with a compilation album such as Dream Sequence.
  • Ashra more mellow, this was chill-out before the term was even coined (it used to be called “New Age”). Heavy on the sequencers, melodies genty changing.
  • Frédérick Rousseau worked as a sound engineer with both Vangelis and Jarre, but has also made some good synth albums of his own; I particularly like Edge of Silence.

Synth stuff I did not like so much: Switched-on Bach, a famous album in the 70s, playing Bach on Moog synthesizers. I'm just not a big fan of Bach, and could never see why so many computer geeks (including Douglas Adams) were. In the same vein, Isao Tomita, or such of his music that I heard, was lots of notes and bleepy-bleepy noises but not much emotion. I didn't like Tangerine Dream for a long time either - I heard one of their most experimental, formless early albums, found it boring and didn't pursue them until streaming music came along and made much wider exploraion possible.

I like the romantic composers (Sibelius, most of all, and also the likes of Grieg and Stravinsky) and the way they paint emotional pictures with washes of sound. Most of the synth artists I like, and especially Vangelis, do the same thing. There's something about Vangelis' music which somehow speaks to me, emotionally, more than any other composer I've ever heard.

There's lots of footage around of him improvising; here's one example that I think is nice.