Even though synths and electronic music gear are now officially back in vogue -for better or worse- after a few decades in the underground, surprisingly there’s not really a lot of well researched literature concerning this subject. I love books on synths and electronic musical instruments, and being a severe geek I’d say I own most of the good ones (like Trevor Pinch & Phil Trocco’s “Analog Days”, Mark Vail’s “Vintage Synthesizers” or the excellent “How to Wreck a Nice Beach” by Dave Tompkins), plus many of the “not so great” ones too.
Most of these focus on general history and facts about the instruments -aswell as their most famous users-, and their impact on music and popular culture; but these volumes are usually low on technical babble in order to appeal to a wider audience. Of course there’re also dozens of educational works on synthesis and the processes behind the creation of electronic music. But it’s rare to find printed work that’s a little more specific than that, which is understandable, given the relatively small size of the possible target market (Abernethy’s “The Prophet from Silicon Valley” and “The A-Z of Analog Synthesizers” by Peter Forrest, both of which I also own, are some of the few exceptions to this rule).
Given the potential economic risk of editing a physical book of this sort, many authors choose to release their works in digital format as e-books, but Mr. Kim Bjørn -the man behind “Push, Turn, Move”– tried to solve this problem by founding his own publishing house -Bjooks Media-, and launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise the necessary funds and minimize the chances of failure. Turns out it was a success! So much so, that after his first crowdfunding story he has just released a second tome -called “Patch & Tweak”-, this time centered on the subject of modular synthesis.
“Push, Turn, Move” is a book on “Interface Design in Electronic Music” as the cover says, from an analytical, aesthetic and even philosophical point of view. As such it’s not really about the sounds and music created with these tools, instead it has more to do with their physical appearance, their touch, their use of graphical elements -in the case of software too- and how it all relates to the user experience. For this very reason, the book’s pages share their very well written and researched paragraphs, with beautiful full-color pictures and sleek graphics, all glued into an exquisite and hefty hard cover case giving an overall luxurious feel. After all, if your writing a book on synth design you better make something dandy-looking!
While I don’t believe that it’s all about looks when it comes to music gear -or any other area for that matter-, it’s certainly true that a great interface can often make an -otherwise average- instrument shine, and by the same token, a great sounding, well spec’d music tool can be “killed” by a badly designed user interface.
Something relatively simple like an analog polysynth can be a joy to use -like the Dave Smith Instruments’ Prophet ’08 for example- or turn programming into a tedious chore -like DSI’s own Tetra, that shares pretty much the same internals- just because of design choices related to user control. Of course some these “questionable” choices have to do with necessary constraints -like interface dimensions or target price- since we’re talking about products that will have to compete in a fierce market, so it’s fair to say that it’s not always the designer’s fault when “shit happens”.
Some of the books pages focus on these possible constraints (like the sections on “Size”, “Menus & Navigation” or the one about the use of “Matrix” style grids for modulation and control), while others explore several design characteristics, and each of these sections is located inside its own chapter. For example “Size” would be found in the “Layout” chapter, while “Menus & Navigation” is inside “Control”, and “Matrix” appears in “Concept”. This all makes sense, and seems quite logical to me. But the book has so many of these tiny little sections that it sometimes makes it difficult to categorize them. For example, the pages on the use of “Gestural” control and “Multitouch” interfaces are in the “Concept” chapter, while some might think it would make more sense to put them inside the “Control” category. Also, the book can sometimes feel a bit repetitive with so many closely related sub-sections; maybe the whole reward system of crowdfunding campaigns is to blame here too, with funders having a say on the final output. But this is just nitpicking on my part, because something as complex as interface design is difficult to classify and explain, so its natural to find some overlap in these chapters and articles.
Apart from these themed sections, the book features an excellent collection of interviews with -mostly- synth designers and engineers from different generations, like the legendary Roger Linn (who designed many classic instruments like the Linndrum or the first Akai MPCs), the ever present Axel Hartmann (an independent industrial designer that has worked for Moog, Arturia, Waldorf, Alesis and many others), and revered youngsters like Tatsuya Takahashi (the man responsible for the renewed interest in analog at Korg HQ).
Not all the book is about hardware and physical instruments however, some of it has to do with software too, concerning companies like Waves or Propellerhead, but also others like Ableton and Native Instruments who try to bridge the hardware and software world with their hybrid approach, using dedicated controllers. Moreover, since user experience is an important subject in the book, there’s also a bunch of interviews with artists -like Suzanne Ciani, Larry Heard, Jordan Rudess, Richard Devine or Laura Escudé- representing the voice of the end user.
Even though it might seem too specific at first, this volume touches on so many different topics -all related to design- that it would be impossible to fit them all in a review like this. It’s one of those books that you could read from cover to cover a few times, and still find little details that you missed before. If you are a synth geek it’s definitely a must, and if you’re starting out it’s also a very good introduction to electronic musical instruments, providing some valuable knowledge that will prove very useful, specially if you have to make your first choices regarding studio gear and software purchases.
About the author: José -Pepe- Coca is a musician, producer and audio engineer from Zaragoza (Spain). He has a PhD in Art and teaches Sound Systems, Synthesis and Mastering courses at CPA Salduie and SEAS. He has also worked as a sound designer for companies such as Elektron, Befaco or HelloSamples.