Edited by Ernie Rideout | Keyboard Presents: Synth Gods (Backbeat Books)

Authors such as the prolific Jim Aikin are synthesizer experts in their own right and efficiently drill down to core content readers want.





Synth Gods is a twenty-article anthology compiled by the former editor-in-chief of Keyboard Magazine, Ernie Rideout. Originally published in the magazine between 1976 and 2008, these articles focus on methods, tools, and perhaps more importantly, philosophies of visionary synthesizer players and designers.

Several vignettes were culled from articles of different time periods and skillfully woven into a running narrative. The materials (which were originally condensed for a magazine audience) have been worked through by several editors, and now each paragraph is chock-full of details, anecdotes, and insights. Authors such as the prolific Jim Aikin are synthesizer experts in their own right and efficiently drill down to core content readers want.

Synth Gods illuminates what goes into producing expressive music and sounds with synthesizers. For example, though Wendy Carlos was technically capable of playing Bach in real time, her synthesizers were not. In her article she explains how her early Moogs could not deliver the subtle nuance she required, so some parts of Switched on Bach were recorded a single note at a time, each note receiving a slight variation in timbre—a monumental and mind-numbing process. In another piece Joesph Zawinul discusses extensive preparation for taking fragile instruments and fleeting timbres on the road.

When asked exactly how to create one of his trademarks sounds, Jan Hammer explains that it’s not about a specific waveform or setting; it’s about the performance. How a performer shapes each note and phrase leads to expression. Through Synth Gods we learn that Hammer’s view is not unique. Counter-intuitively, Brian Eno lets his synths age by not fixing every “malfunction,” permitting the synth to develop character flaws—an example of Eno’s wisdom?

Several articles contain extensive lists of synthesizers, effects, and processes. When originally published these listings may have seemed blatantly commercial, but now audio producers can be grateful for these details that help determine the synth and effects that went into a “never before heard” sound. 

As a biography, the Moog article would be woefully incomplete, but as a chapter in a long career, provides context for the man at the nexus of the synthesizer revolution. In a book some 200 pages in length with a focus on players, not all hall-of-fame-level contributors could be included—Don Buchla or Tom Oberheim for instance. As editor, Rideout could also have included some female synth pioneers, Suzanne Ciani a possible choice.

Selected discography and resource links are provided throughout, likely sending active readers flying to their music collections or iTunes to explore new sounds for themselves. A photograph begins each chapter, often showing performers surrounded by their instruments. Moogs, patch cables, and cool technology abound. We see Bob Moog hawking synthesizers for the Norlin conglomerate and Brian Eno with a minimalist setup.

The graphic designers of Synth Gods get a lot of mileage with black and white printing and provide comfortable typography. A few odd page breaks leading to orphaning could have been avoided, but thankfully there’s nearly enough margin for one’s thumbs. Graphic illusion helps create optical depth around the pull quotes. Perfect binding appears well done; the book should hold up well and is a good size for reading on the go. All in all, a solid value for $15.

Synth Gods is excellent foundational reading for those interested in the pioneers of electronically produced music. Hopefully there’s another edition in the works. | Mark Casey

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