Oscillators have feelings too y’know
What with all the recent excitement about the BBC’s guitar riffs poll, lovers of a slightly less mainstream instrument may have been feeling slightly left out. You see, their instrument can be as obscure, musical and plain filthy as any guitar riff, yet garners nowhere near the same hero worship as their six-stringed counterparts.
I’m talking, of course, about the synthesizer. Synths come in all shapes and sizes, and can conjure up all manner of demented noises. They can push the boundaries of taste and decency in the wrong hands, but put a skilled technician in front of a bank of oscillators and filters, and some truly wonderful noises will soon start to spill out.
The debate over whether the following list can be classed as riffs is moot; what’s important is that these synth riffs display the same attributes as a guitar riff but are produced in a very different way.
We should point out that this isn’t a definitive ‘best of’ list; instead we hope we can point synth fans in the direction of a few acts which are making interesting and novel use of the instrument.
1. Mr Oizo – Stunt
Video by: Fcommunications.
Quentin Dupieux, AKA Mr Oizo, shot to fame with his denim plugging unit shifter Flat Beat, an oddball little tune featuring one of the fattest proto-dubstep womp basslines you’ll ever hear. Dig a little deeper into his back catalogue however and you can find some truly marvellous examples of synth eccentricity. Stunt is one such choice, featuring a repetitive main riff which makes surgical use of an arpeggiator to keep it flowing.
2. Zombi – Shrunken Heads
Video by: Relapse Records
Zombi specialise in the kind of quasi-futuristic, synth-led timbres which soundtracked a hundred 80’s TV technology shows. Aside from having one of the greatest album covers we’ve ever seen, their Escape Velocity LP harks back to the golden age of synth technology through five tracks of glorious atavism. The tune we’ve chosen makes liberal use of delay to add space and emphasise the stereo field, while careful structuring means you hardly notice that the same three notes have been used throughout the entire track. Not bad for a band signed to a notorious heavy metal label whose normal fare is bands like Agenda of Swine, Toxic Holocaust and the gloriously monikered Bongzilla.
3. Hudson Mohawke – Gluetooth
Video by: Hudson Mohawke
You might not know the name Hudson Mohawke, but you’ve more than likely heard some of the records he’s produced. The unassuming 28 year old from Glasgow has worked with Kanye West, John Legend and Drake as a producer, but in his own right he’s also responsible for a skilled combination of turntablism, sampling and synth wizardry which meshes together music from a variety of seemingly disparate styles to create something entirely unique. Gluetooth, from his 2009 album Butter, is a great example of this, combining carefully sliced drums with an innocuous sounding melody before launching into a purely evil bass riff which elevates the track into something far seedier than it first appears.
4. Jon Hopkins – Open Eye Signal
Video by: Pitchfork
Another artist perhaps better known for his production work, which includes Coldplay and Brian Eno, is Jon Hopkins. 2013 saw the release of his album Immunity, which contained our chosen track Open Eye Signal. What’s interesting about this track is the way the entire song is built around a couple of short synth riffs, with variety and interest maintained through the liberal use of the filter settings of his synth, in this case a Korg MS20. What this does is teach budding synth players that sometimes a bit of sonic exploration and curiosity can overcome a lack of technical or theoretical knowledge. In other words, you never know where a bit of knob-twiddling will lead you…
5. Tangerine Dream – Invisible Limits
Video by: Welcome to the Show!
Stepping back in time slightly is a glorious piece of lo-fi synth excellence from Germany’s Tangerine Dream. Invisible Limits, from their 1976 album Stratosfear, is the kind of minimal, ambient music you can drift slowly to sleep to, which makes it perhaps not the best choice to listen to on a long drive. The group made use of emerging synth and sequencer technology to produce their music, including using early Moog gear which suffered at the hands of changes in temperature and humidity, affecting the tuning of the internal oscillators. It was later brought back to attention thanks to the recurring melodies and lush, spacey pads which feature heavily on DJ Shadow’s track Changeling, off his cult album Entroducing.