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19 August 2013

ROB PAPEN THE 4 ELEMENT SYNTH Review Feature | £25.95

It's common enough to find that, although one knows a fair bit about a subject, trying to explain it to someone else causes the brain to seize. What appears so clearly mapped out in one's own understanding doesn't bear structured exposition, hence a lot of "y'know?" and "sort of", even though the audience doesn't know anything of the sort.

The internet is particularly good at imparting fractured information - so much knowledge; so little understanding, as the phrase goes, y'know? Hence, when there are oceans of info on all manner of synthesis types surging across the world's servers, you really need something to channel it into a readily navigable, easy-to-swallow form that won't make you seasick.

That's why the Synth King himself, Dutch software developer Rob Papen, has produced a piece of hardware called a book. Well, the covers are hard, at least, and tacked inside them are four DVDs with explanatory audio and video by which to ensure understanding is beaten into your brain as painlessly as possible.

The 4 Element Synth, at more than 200 pages and 10+ hours of video, is a weighty and well-crafted tome that, it transpires, took Rob more than eight years to author, possibly because there were few other titles about to serve as example.

"The way I explain subtractive synthesis with my own method, is essentially how I learned it myself," he explained during a blog-hosted interview with Eurodistributor Time+Space.

"At the time I starting using synthesizers, most had no presets memory and getting lessons or a training was not available, or very rare, so you had to learn yourself how things worked: Reading the manual and trial and error."

In making sense of it all, Rob broke the principles of subtractive synthesis into four elements, as hinted at in the book's title. So we've the oscillator, filter, amplifier and modulator, in that order. Each is explained in detail, as is how they work together to go 'wub-wub-wub', or whatever. So now, by the miracle of interweb publishing technology, let's taste some printed pages...


Both hardware and software synthesizers feature on the DVDs, as do the Dutch-accented strains of Rob's commentary, along with those of the American-accented Laura Escudé. Explanations are clear and well-illustrated on screen and on the page - the book and video are designed to work in conjunction with each other and provide, in fact, a powerful means of tuition. Let's check out some of that video...



Your own understanding of synth lore will dictate whether the pace is too slow or too fast, but it's worth noting that there are plenty of instances in which a surprising gobbet of information crops up - in a 'I never thought of it like that' sort of a way, y'know? As such, your own stored fragments of fractured tech fuse readily into a solid seat of knowledge with plush cushions of understanding, the only wobbly leg of which is language.

No, it's not packed with expletives, as one might expect to hear from someone attempting to decipher a synth manual translated into English from Japanese.

I'll let Rob explain: "First idea was to do it in Dutch, but I am not very talented in writing and are more a math guy. Apart from that, I found out that, even with errors, writing it in English was much easier for me. On the DVD you will hear some ‘errors’ in build up of sentences or the way I pronounce some words, but most understand fully what I mean. So English became the language of this project."

To these ears, the spoken elements fare reasonably well, but it's apparent from the text that we've a technical writer attempting an informal style in a foreign language. This gives rise to some odd turns of phrase and peculiar sentences which might trip up a native English speaker not already moderately familiar with the subject matter.

However, this is not some casual bit of light reading for the family holiday. It's concise reinforcement of understanding for those determined to squeeze maximum jollies from subtractive synthesis. Such determination will carry you through glitches in copy towards a comprehensive understanding of technology fundamental to modern music production.

And so to conclude. While a glossary at the end would work better than the present series of philosophical observations, The 4 Element Synth nevertheless runs over with juicy gen, fortified with video, and has been distilled and laid down for eight years by one of the most spirited synthesists of the modern day. Rob's hardware is heady stuff, well produced, solidly bound and shipped with fact-packed optical media. For sure, it is tasty.

The 4 Element Synth - The Secrets Of Subtractive Synthesis £25.95 from Time+Space
www.robpapen.com
ISBN 978-90-819643-0-2