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“Nostalgia”: Old Sounds For New Music

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In 1979, Peter Gabriel paid $36,000 for his Fairlight, the first commercially available digital sampling keyboard, which he used to great effect all over his Security album. Today, you can have its sounds, and those of about eighty other vintage keyboards, for–if you’ll pardon the pun–a couple of C-notes.

Let me explain.

England’s Zero-G company, which sells a variety of software synthesizers (including the unique Vocaloid), has created a software collection of over 80 vintage hardware keyboards and synthesizers and over 40 vintage drum machines, under the name Nostalgia. And it’s an apt title: as you flip through and sample the presets, you’ll find yourself flashing back to so many great sounds of the 1980s: beyond the Peter Gabriel sounds, as we implied in the introduction, large quantities of the samples that Jan Hammer deployed on his Miami Vice score are here–from his sampled pan flutes, right down to that weird “B.B. in a tunafish can” sound (to borrow a Dave Barry phrase) he used on the rideout of the extended version of the Miami Vice theme song. (They were both standard Fairlight presets.) Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love sounds are here. (Minus her stunning vocals, of course.) Keith Emerson’s. Herbie Hancock. And set the Wayback Machine to 1967, Mr. Wizard! Lots of Mellotron patches: the sampled flutes from “Strawberry Fields Forever”. The sampled strings from, well, from every major English progressive rock group: The Moody Blues, Yes, King Crimson, and Led Zeppelin, included. All in all, there are 1,3000 patches, and 1.3 gigabytes of sound here.

No Stacks Of Keyboards Required

One huge benefit of Nostalgia is that you don’t need to stack a hundred keyboards in your den or basement, or, needless to say, spend huge wads of cash acquiring and maintaining them. All the program requires is a reasonably powerful computer (Zero-G recommends Windows XP, Pentium III/ Athlon 700 MHz, 512 MB. For Mac users, OS 10.2.6 or higher, G4 733, 512 MB, both platforms require a DVD-ROM drive), a set of decent speakers, and an interface (MIDI/USB keyboard or guitar) to play these bad boys.

So what do they sound like? They’re very nicely detailed. Several patches, such as some of the Fender Rhodes patches, have subtly nifty stereo panning going on as they play. (There are demos of Nostalgia in action on Zero-G’s Website.)

Patches That Sounded Cheesy Back Then, Sound The Same Today

And, for better or worse, they recreate the faults of the original patches they’re based on as well. Not every patch sounds great, but you can’t fault Nostalgia for being honest: the patches that were cool sounding back then, are still cool sounding today. And the patches that were cheesy back then, are, well, still cheesy today.

And speaking of cheesy, beyond the thousands of samples of the expensive synths from the days of yore, there’s a whole category in Nostalgia called “Cheap and Cheesy”, filled with, you guessed it, the low cost funky synths that many of us started out on. And, just for fun, a complete Speak & Spell vocabulary to work into a song, ala Kraftwerk. Or to call in sick to work, ala, Homer Simpson in a memorable Simpsons episode.

The Kompakt interface (developed by Germany’s Native Instruments) that the Nostalgia patches load into is DXi-compliant, so it can be loaded and played as a MIDI track in any DXi-compatible recording program. Or played via a DXi-compliant synth program that has a built-in arpeggiator patch, such as Cakewalk’s Project-5. (Jan Hammer would have killed for this drag-and-drop level of flexibility when he was scoring Vice.)

Earlier this week, Glenn Reynolds wrote:

We’ve become so accustomed to rapid technological progress that we may notice the signposts in passing, but we tend to miss just how quickly they’re zipping by.

Part of that is because we keep redefining progress. The Web, WiFi, and Google would have seemed incomprehensibly revolutionary not much more than a decade ago. Now we take them all for granted. They’re just part of the furniture.

And in the past, the furniture of a well-equipped home studio included banks and banks of synthesizers and drum machines. Now they’re inside your computer, along with the recording deck.

Hey, nothing wrong in having a little Nostalgia for the past, while we’re making music for the future.

About Ed Driscoll