Nostalgia: it’s not what it used to be.
Often the way we view the past, even the ones we personally lived through, is a figment of our imagination; a rose-tinted memory, short on facts and heavy on sentiment. This is a living nightmare in the world of politics but, fortunately, weighs less heavily in the world of entertainment.
So, our childhoods were really no more like The Red Hand Gang or The Goonies than they are like Stranger Things or Summer of ’84. But, it’s fun to pretend! What we now see as classic 80s retro was, more often than not, out of our reach and we were still making do with the leftovers of the late 70s.
And this is as true of the world of synths as it is everything else. Those magnificent monophonic (and occasionally poly or duophonic) Moogs, Rolands and Korgs were still deeply prevalent in the electronic, musical world of the early to mid 80s, before those pesky and ubiquitous digital DX7s and D10s came along.
The modern renaissance for those nomadic analogue vibes kicked off a few years ago with the appearance of the Synthwave genre and, in particular, its promotion via the deeply cool soundtrack to Drive, by Cliff Martinez. This was for many people their first experience of the likes of College, Kavinsky and Electric Youth, whose neon-swept, glo-fi, retronica was an instant hit of nostalgia for ladies and gentlemen of a certain age!
And although Synthwave has never become commercially successful as a genre, it has certainly had an impact on various music scenes, including the music for film, TV and video games. These industries have always had a penchant for dipping back into the 80s for inspiration (or just for wholesale ripping off in some cases!) and more recently this has meant that the accompanying soundtracks have had a need to be more and more authentic… well, authentic from a nostalgic perspective – they represent our fantasy of the 80s more than the reality!
To meet this need, software synth developers have been trying to perfect their emulations of classic analogue hardware for a while now. Even with more and more affordable analogue synths reaching the market (hello Behringer, you cheeky monkeys!), the convenience of a really good analogue sounding softsynth remains a Holy Grail.
I shan’t discover the relative merits of numerous analofue emulations here (that will be for another time), but u-he have certainly been at the forefront of this trend. Diva, with its oscillator and filter emulations of classic synths from Roland, Korg, Moog and Oberheim, remains their flagship release in this respect and was, therefore, the perfect synth for the original Phenom Vol 1 and Vol 2 that I created back in 2017 to tap into this retro love.
The sequel, or rather sequels, have been in the works for a little while now and are finally ready for release. In many ways, they are a compliment to the original release; a gentle evolution, rather than revolution. More of the same, but perhaps this time with a little extra modern twist to them. At their heart though, the sounds are very much about the lighter shades of nostalgia… the adventurous childhood dreams, as opposed to cops hunting serial killers – although you CAN always have both, right?
One slight deviation from the original volumes is an increase in the number of melodic sequences and basslines. This is something I had been trying to experiment for a little while with, trying to manipulate the voice map modulators to bypass the basic arpeggio settings. And I have to offer a tip of the hat to fellow synth programmer Aiyn Zhahev/Sami Rabia here, as a YouTube video of his confirmed that I wasn’t barking up the wrong tree with my ideas.
They’re a really fun part of these two new volumes. So much so that a part of me is certainly considering a future release that is just this type of bassline, sequence and, maybe even, drumloops? Might work.