Surviving the Modular Hype #3 ~ Infinity

Retro synth ads are a goldmine for students of the history of gearlust. Carefully worded vintage ads praise the quality, playability, versatility, desirability and sexuality of music gear. Some ads even sell dreams of total control, like this Casio CZ-3000 brochure, which also has a weird take on the famous infinite possibilities cliché.  

Here's what the copywriter wrote about Casio's Phase Distortion (PD) technique: "Though the PD sound generator is actually capable of an unlimited number of waveforms, the CZ-3000 is programmed to produce only the eight directly usable in musical applications."

Unlimited possibilities: should you care?
Big words like UNLIMITED, INFINITE and TOTAL CONTROL are useful in politics, economics, cosmology etc, but what about music? Should musicians care about infinity? And what about claims that our limited human imagination is the only obstacle on the road to infinity?

To find out more, let's scrutinize the endless sonic possibilities cliché. For clarity, we'll distinguish between two interpretations:
  • can produce an unlimited number of sounds (weak)
  • can produce any sound imaginable (strong)  
The weak interpretation is in fact nothing to be proud of. Any designer of synths with high quality analog pots may claim this. Theoretically, analog knobs have an infinite resolution (see Zeno's Paradoxes) altho in practice, the number of sounds you can get turning one knob is limited by ear sensitivity and (lack of) training.

The strong interpretation is an impossible claim for any single piece of gear to make. A synth or a module is just one small part in the endless chain of gear necessary to produce 'any sound imaginable' (come on... imagine something a bit more wild and you'll agree).

Ok, so theoretically speaking, unlimited sonic possibilities are quite irrelevant. What about the practical side of infinity in sound design?

An unlimited number of sounds may be useful for musicians who have an unlimited amount of time to waste. But for those who want to get a certain job done the situation seems reversed. Would you have the stamina to dive into an infinitely large ocean of creative potential, and keep swimming for days, weeks, months, years, decennia, a lifetime, or even multiple reincarnations? Can you imagine at least one interesting, original, creative musical concept that crucially depends on the availability of an infinitely large sound reservoir?

Infinitely boring
The task of choosing a single sound from an infinitely large sonic universe is boring enough. But a lot of 'real' music is in fact a complex mix of many carefully sculptured and finely detailed sonic layers; each one having  its own role, like bass, high end, background, foreground etc. That's an unlimited number of musical sound combinations and strange loops to work with, so we can produce an even more unlimited number of mixes, remixes, radio-edits, dubbs, specials, versions, 12'' disco mixes and dj tools ...

Could it be that in this era of massive information overload, total control of infinite possibilities has become even more obsolete than it used to be? Still, in 2015, like Cats on Synths in Space, the infinity-meme is alive and well. Synth companies still write the same ads. Oscillators seem to benefit most from the smell of infinity:

"The abstraction of bounds modulation provides for more subtle, inharmonic possibilities and combination with traditional bounce modulation gives the end user a confident stab into the realm of infinite possibilities." - Peter Blasser's meditation on Ieaskul F. Mobenthey's Denum

"So utterly universal, this oscillator obsoletes entire classes of products. Allowing arbitrary waveforms to be loaded from SD cards in standard .wav format the tonal characteristics of this oscillator are endless." -
John Pillans' war declaration for Mungo Enterprises' w0

Check out these VCO's and you'll see that they are very different. One is analog and perhaps a bit murky, the other digital, capable of dog-territory modulation. Though both oscillators have exactly the same amount of infinite possibility, they're also occupying totally different 'zones' of the vague Platonic realm of all imaginable sounds. Enough proof that in sound design infinity is meaningless.

Thank you, i'll have both. Did you say Meal Ticket?