A few months back, I received two separate PR pitch emails at nearly the exact same time. One was an invitation to a speaking event in Texas hosted by a "free speech" conservative publishing company, featuring Kyle Rittenhouse as a keynote speaker. The other was also from a publishing company, but it was for a new coffee table book about synthesizers.
You can probably guess which gig I attended.
Fortunately, Synth Gems 1 is more than just a fortuitous email. Written by Mike Metlay, it's one of those thoughtful coffee table books with just enough information in it, presented clearly and simply enough, that you can actually learn a few things while you flip through all the pretty pictures at your friend's house. And it is certainly chock full of stunning pictures. Who knew that even keytars could lend themselves to glamor shots?!
Synth Gems 1 is a surprisingly comprehensive tome, with over 300 pages and more than 300 pictures of some 60+ analog synthesizers. It covers the earliest days of synthesis and audio emulation, from the first Moog and Korg units, up to the first Alessis models in the early 2000s, when things started getting digital. Along the way, Metlay does a fantastic job of providing just enough context that even a non-musician can track the progress of audio development over those three decades. Hell, even the way he explains "attack" "sustain" "release" and "decay" provided more clarity for me than my 20+ years of playing guitar in bands.
I'm a guitar player primarily, but there's something about synthesizers I've always loved. I think it's that they're simultaneously simple, and unlimited. Acoustic engineering is interesting on its own, but synthesizers twist that around in a different way. All you need is one simple audio input, and you can manipulate the tone, pitch, and experience with nearly endless variation. I think, for me, this is where I've always struggled — there's almost too much to do! I sometimes regret selling my MicroKorg all those years ago, but I needed the money at the time, and I felt like I never did anything practical with it, at least not songwriting-wise. Instead, I'd lose hours just making ambients noises and beats. But that's why it was so cool! And the accessible way that Metlay explains the evolution of this technology throughout the pages of Synth Gems 1 makes me want to start exploring the technology all over again. More remarkably, it makes me feel like I could — like this foundational understanding could give me some more deliberate direction to work on, and hone my synth skills in more intentional ways. (I do have some digital synth modellers on my computer, and also got a new Stylophone for Christmas, so maybe…)
If you, like me, are a nerd for this kind of retrofuturistic audio-gasm, your coffee table could do worse than Synth Gems 1.
Synth Gems 1 [Mike Metlay / Bjooks]