In Memory of... The SynthAxe

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 16 August 2014 |

The green one reminded me of a lawnmower for some reason… But let us not any further cheapen this reflection on what is, even with the benefit of hindsight, another musical marvel from the mid 1980s…

If you were a guitar enthusiast in the distant depths of spring 1984 and you happened to stumble upon and buy the very first issue of Guitarist magazine, you’ll doubtless recall an introduction to the weird and wonderful SynthAxe – a remarkable means by which guitarists could interface with MIDI-fitted synthesizers and/or modules. In fact, the SynthAxe featured again in Guitarist a while later (in the November 1985 issue), by which time the product was fully up and running and in the commercial domain.



IS IT A BIRD? IS IT A PLANE?…

Technically of course, the SynthAxe’s very presence in a guitar mag was dubious, since it wasn’t really a guitar. Rather, it was a very highly sophisticated MIDI controller which had features both familiar and unfamiliar to guitarists. But realistically, if the SynthAxe wasn’t going to be targeted at an audience of guitarists, then it wasn’t going to be marketed at all. It may not have been a guitar, but it was highly unlikely, especially given its asking price, which started at around £8,000 (Neville Marten cited "around £9,000" for the full system on launch), that any keyboard player would consider it. It was a lot more than just synth access for someone who’d chosen to learn the guitar rather than keyboards. But if you could play a keyboard, eight thousand quid was a phenomenal amount of outlay just for a different controller system – especially if you also needed to learn the guitar. So no, the SynthAxe was designed for people who’d invested their time and creative resources in becoming a guitarist, and wanted an instant way of transporting their well-honed skills into the exciting world of mid ‘80s synthesis.

Rather than me trying to document the extensive features of the SynthAxe, I’m going to point you in the direction of Neville Marten’s full mid ‘80s demo of the product. Interestingly, Neville had previously been Features Editor at Guitarist magazine, but left the publication’s staff to work in this role as a demonstrator for Synthaxe, subequently returning to Guitarist as Editor. Notice how the personality of the synths is changed by the expressive features on the SynthAxe controller, and even though the sounds are obviously synthy, the playing traits, depending on how the controller is used, can completely project the personality of a guitar...



IN THE MARKET

The SynthAxe was actually a pretty high profile device if you read the musicians’ mags and papers in the ‘80s. Most UK musicians knew about it and instantly recognised it in pictures – even drummers. And it should be stressed that it was still being advertised by its manufacturers in the ‘90s. The image in this post – a recomposed manufacturer’s ad, comes from 1990, by which time London's Soho Soundhouse were selling the Synthaxe for under £3,000. It’s hard, accordingly, to believe the reports that fewer than a hundred SynthAxes were ever sold. Even though the controller was very expensive, the years of availability, advertising and high profile status it enjoyed would, in retrospect, make fewer than a hundred units an incredibly low uptake.

But with that said, guitarists were not like keyboard players. They were used to a much cheaper range of equipment and could kit themselves out with pretty much the best of the best for two grand – the entire setup. The original eight grand plus was an almighty step up from that. And of course all that bought you was the controller, which on its own was useless. As you watch the product demo you get this nagging sense of the budget steadily increasing as it goes along. It’s like: “So, okay, how many synths is that he’s using?… How much would all that cost?… How much do the optional extras cost?…” You’d effectively have been into the realm of kitting yourself out as a keyboardist first, and THEN buying the SynthAxe to control it all. Once you start to consider it like that, it becomes a lot harder to imagine serious potential buyers getting right to the end of the budgeting process and still considering the SynthAxe to be a realistic solution. You were looking only at very dedicated and very serious professional guitarists, with exceptional commitment to pushing the boundaries. The celebrity userbase bears that out.

There's also a really interesting anecdote written by Neville Marten in the May '96 issue of Guitarist magazine, in which Synthaxe proprietor Bill Aitken was asked by chart-stormers Culture Club for a loan of the instrument to use on the massively influential Top of the Pops TV show. This would surely have been one of the most important instances of free publicity the Synthaxe could get. But according to Marten, Bill Aitken declined on the basis that Culture Club didn't actually USE the Synthaxe, and Aitken didn't want the instrument perhaps considered a prop rather than a serious tool. Marten cited the success of the Roland product Culture Club used instead, concluding: "... in circumstances like that the company did its own product no favours".

ICON OR MISTAKE

It’s easy, here in 2014, to suggest that there was a level of naïvety about the SynthAxe project. But in the early to mid ‘80s when the concept was under development there were many fairly recent precedents for ‘mortgage’-pricetag equipment actually finding a good niche and selling unexpectedly well. That era, however, was drawing to a close when the SynthAxe was introduced. Even keyboard players – formerly the financial whipping-stock of the music world – were starting to expect their gear to be much more reasonably priced. There was also a huge recession in England, where the SynthAxe was being manufactured, and the pace of technological progress was making all prices of electronic gear highly erratic. It wasn’t a confident time.

In fact, if you listen to Lee Ritenour’s section in the YouTube vid, you notice that when talking of future adoption he starts to use more generic language. “Something like this”, rather than categorically “The SynthAxe”. That, for me, is telling.

But the SynthAxe was an icon, and not a mistake. It was part of what made the 1980s the last real decade of daring design in musical equipment. From the 1990s, manufacturers began plundering the past rather than obsessing over innovation, and whilst there obviously has been big progress in technological development through the ‘90s and this century, it’s generally been much more measured and commercially sympathetic. The SynthAxe was a true original, and it should be a lot more widely celebrated than it has been.

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