Synthesizers. Listen as we talk about how they work, how to program them and the features that make them unique.
Episode 018 - Make A Kick17/01/2017 Duration: 12min
We're adding a new kind of episode--learning to create sounds. We start off with something pretty simple--a kick/bass drum.
Episode 017 - Prophet 1225/10/2016 Duration: 34min
Prophet 12 Overview There aren’t a lot of 12-voice polyphonic synths on the market. Given you probably have 10 fingers, there are more than enough voices to go around. This synth features four digital oscillators plus one sub oscillator per voice. That makes 60 oscillators! Two filters (low-pass and high-pass), four envelopes and four LFOs shape the sound while feedback, stereo spread, delay, character, distortion really bring it to life. Here are some highlights from the instrument… The Patches There are 4 banks of 99 factory patches and another set of 4 banks of 99 user-customizable patches. With this many patches, the factory set runs the gamut of all types of sounds. Some are just silly, some are overdone, but many are quite usable and serve as a great reference to programming your own sounds. Quick Tip Many of the factory presets employ the “Stack” feature allowing you to layer 2 sounds together. So, when deconstructing a factory patch, check to see if “Stack” is turn
Episode 016 - Bass Station12/08/2016 Duration: 18min
Bass Station Overview The Novation Bass Station is a monophonic analog synthesizer with some nice bells and whistles. Don’t let the name limit your opinion on this machine. It works well as a mono lead synth, and it also can operate as part of a polyphonic setup by chaining multiple Bass Stations together. Sound Architecture The Bass Station features 2 oscillators (saw or pulse), a resonant low-pass filter (12 or 24db/octave), 2 ADSR envelopes and an LFO (random, triangle, saw). It can even mix in an external audio source. It can be setup to emulate the famous Roland TB-303 by selecting a single oscillator and using the 12db/octave setting in the filter.
Episode 015 - FM11/07/2016 Duration: 22min
Frequency Modulation Defined FM synthesis is the process of changing the frequency of one oscillator based on some other oscillator. Doing so creates “sidebands” which are extra frequencies above and below the original oscillator’s frequency. At a relatively slow rate, this produces a vibrato effect when the modulation is performed by a sine or triangle wave. When the modulating oscillator is a square wave, the effect is a trill (rapid alternation between two notes). Speeding up the modulation into the audible range is where we find extra frequency bands known as sidebands. Unless the two original oscillators are harmonically related, the sidebands seem to be random (although they are actually mathematically predictable.) With so much harmonically-unrelated content, the resulting tone can sound metallic—similar to ringing a large bell. You’re left to shape the harmonics with filtering or by adding more oscillators to reduce the apparent presence of the harmonics.
Episode 014 - MIDI10/06/2016 Duration: 29min
Overview MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) was developed to provide standardized communication between synthesizers. Today, it is much more than that and is found in computer, video games, effects processors and more. We’re primarily focusing on how to use it in music production—specifically with synths. History During the late 1970s and early 1980s as synthesizers became more powerful and polyphonic, controlling synths became more and more of a struggle. Traditional methods of using control voltage (CV) and gate signals was particularly problematic due to inconsistent CV requirements among the various manufacturers. Additionally, a single pair of CV/Gate connections could only send one control signal at a time. CV is inherently monophonic. Other control mechanisms had been developed, but these were strictly proprietary to each manufacturer. MIDI solved these problems. In 1983, Dave Smith and Ikutaru Kakehashi demonstrated MIDI control between a Sequential Prophet 600 and a Roland JP6 pr
Episode 013 - Soulsby Synthesizers03/05/2016 Duration: 18min
The Atmegatron In the podcast episode, Paul Soulsby describes his Atmegatron products. These are 8-bit digital synthesizers built on the Arduino platform. The Atmegatron hardware consists of a small, desktop module with a unique user interface and wood sides. The knob layout can be daunting at first, but you quickly get the hang of it. It’s A Chameleon The really amazing part of the Atmegatron is its hackability. Soulsby offers an accessory pack which allows you to load new software onto the Atmegatron which can completely change the behavior of the instrument. There are several different official software version available including a polyphonic string synth, a drum machine and an analog-sounding synth based on the ARP Odyssey. Each version can completely re-map the controls on the hardware. So, overlays are available to help you use each different instrument effectively. During the podcast, Paul demonstrated how quick and easy it is to upload different versions. The process only takes 20-30 seconds.
Episode 012 - Moog Mother-3208/04/2016 Duration: 21min
What it is The Moog Mother-32 is a semi-modular monophonic analog synthesizer in a eurorack form factor. It can be used as a standalone synth or in conjunction with a larger eurorack modular setup. Sound engine The Mother-32 offers a single voltage controlled oscillator (VCO) which produces pulse and saw waves. One wave shape can be selected at a time, although both are available at the patch points which allows both to be used simultaneously if desired. The sound of the VCO passes through a voltage controlled filter (VCF) which can operate in low-pass or high-pass mode. Familiar cutoff and resonance controls provide shaping controls. The VCF can be modulated by either the envelope generator or the LFO in either positive or negative direction. The simple envelope generator (EG) offers attack time and decay time with switchable sustain (either on or off). The onboard low-frequency oscillator (LFO) can take on either triangle or square shape. Its rate is controlled by a dedicated knob and also offers a patch po
Episode 011 - Roland RS-0902/03/2016 Duration: 19min
What It Is The Roland RS-09 is a vintage organ/string synthesizer. Combining organ and string sounds together makes it really handy—although you can choose to play only organ or only strings. And the inclusion of analog chorus really helps fatten up the sound. Vibrato (LFO) The vibrato section of the synth is really an LFO permanently set to control the pitch of the outputs from both the organ and string section of the synth. When only playing the organ section, the vibrato adds interest similar to a rotary speaker. (Although not nearly as exciting as the mighty Leslie speaker.) When playing the string section, vibrato re-creates the rapidly changing pitch a string player provides. Organ While you probably won’t buy the RS-09 for its organ sounds, the organ supports the string section by rounding out the overall sound when mixed together. If you’re used to the drawbars of a Hammond organ, the footage sliders will feel instantly comfortable. Organ I and Organ II buttons can be enabled individ
Episode 010 - Ring Modulation02/02/2016 Duration: 21min
Amplitude Modulation Defined Amplitude modulation is the process of changing the volume of one wave according to the pattern of another wave (Volume is used here as a simple way to understand amplitude. The two are not exactly the same in practice.) Changing the volume of a sound results in a tremolo effect when that change happens relatively slowly. When we speed up that change, we no longer perceive a simple change in volume. That periodic change itself becomes an audible pitch. In fact, when two simple sine waves are combined in this way, two audible pitches appear. These pitches are called “sidebands” and their frequencies turn out to be equal to the sum and difference of the two original waves. For example, a sine wave ad 150 Hz modulating another sine wave at 100 Hz produces a sideband at 250 Hz (150 + 100) and another sideband at 50 Hz (150 -100). That’s great, but what does it mean for synthesizing sounds? In the podcast we play a few samples so you can hear the effect. You’ll
Episode 009 - Oscillator Sync05/01/2016 Duration: 20min
Oscillator Sync Defined Oscillator sync simply synchronizes the period of one waveform with that of another. What does that mean? Basically, the synchronized waveform restarts its wave each time some other waveform completes a cycle. The naming may differ on some synthesizers, but typically there is a “master” oscillator (often OSC 1) which controls the cycles of the “slave” oscillator (often OSC 2). In order for oscillator sync to have any kind of audible effect, the slave oscillator must be tuned higher than the master. And, it must not be tuned to octave multiples of the master. Listen to the podcast for examples of what it sounds like. More Study Fred Welsh’s book, Synthesizer Cookbook: Synthesizer Programming, Sound Analysis, and Universal Patch Book, is an excellent reference on using oscillator sync to produce sounds that couldn’t otherwise be achieved. Looking for the ESQ-1 example patch we created near the end of the episode? Here it is: oscillator sync example for
Episode 008 - Casio CZ08/12/2015 Duration: 27min
Overview Casio CZ synthesizers introduced a new type of synthesis called, “Phase Distortion”. While analog purists won’t be impressed, these digital instruments offer a stepping stone from traditional subtractive synthesis to things like FM synthesis. Models differ in size and features, however all CZ synthesizers share the same sound engine. Each sound can be made up of one or two “lines”, each of which have: A DCO (digitally controlled oscillator) with one or two waveforms. A DCW (digitally controlled waveshaper—similar to a filter) A DCA (digitally controlled amplifier) Each of these three blocks has its own dedicated 8-step envelope for powerful control of all aspects of the sound. Beyond that, there’s ring modulation, noise modulation, detune and vibrato. If you’re looking for something a little different from the same-old subtractive synthesizers at a low price point, give the Casio CZ series a try. Resources Virtual CZ patch editor and hardware emu
Episode 007 - Korg Poly 80005/11/2015 Duration: 11min
Overview The Korg Poly 800 features two Digitally Controlled Oscillators (DCO) each with a dedicated Envelope Generator (EG). These can be mixed with its noise generator and passed through its 24db/octave low-pass filter. The noise and filter can be controlled by a third EG. The pitch of the DCOs and cutoff frequency of the filter can be modulated with a triangle-wave LFO in the “MG” section. Onboard chorus fattens up the sound nicely. That’s a lot of synth considering the prices in 2015. So what are the drawbacks? Frustrations Editing sounds on the Poly 800 is easy, but not as quick as synths with more controls. The entire set of parameters along with their range of values are printed on the top of the instrument. It is almost like having the manual with you at all times. However, to edit any of those parameters, the user must type in the parameter id, then use the up/down buttons to reach the desired value. Again, not difficult, but not quick either. Some of the modifications available add
Episode 006 - Korg microKORG06/10/2015 Duration: 24min
Overview The microKORG is a virtual-analog synthesizer and vocoder. It has 37mini keys, several control knobs, an on-board arpeggiator, a complete MIDI implementation, a PC/Mac patch editor. It may just be synth with the longest production record. The Korg website still shows it as a current product, and it looks like it had its 10th anniversary a few years ago. There have been several versions of the microKORG: the XL version, the red and black version, the gold version. I have the original version here, so that’s my reference in the episode. How does it perform? There seem to be a lot of opinions out there about this one. Some say there are better alternatives out there. That may or may not be the case for you. Here’s some of the good and bad… The Good Stuff Wide array of factory presets show off its ability Live performance knobs along the top give you access to tweak the filter cutoff, resonance, envelope attack and release, and tempo (for arpeggios.) Highly capable engine (see expla
Episode 005 - Ensoniq ESQ-115/09/2015 Duration: 30min
Overview The Ensoniq ESQ-1 is a hefty hybrid digital and analog synthesizer with 8 notes of polyphony. During the Yamaha DX-7 dominated 1980s, the ESQ-1 struggled to gain popularity. Today, however, it has seen a surge in popularity but still can be had for a few hundred dollars. Sound Design Each sound can be made up of: Three digital oscillators (choose from 32 waveforms) Three digitally controlled amplifiers (which mix the three oscillators) One low-pass analog filter with resonance per voice There are many modulation points along the way including pitch modulation of the oscillators, volume modulation of the DCAs, filter cutoff and resonance modulation. The modulation of these values can be controlled by: Three LFOs Four ADSR-style Envelopes (envelope 4 is hardwired to the final output DCA) External MIDI controller, Velocity, Keyboard range, Modulation wheel, and more. The ESQ-1 is also capable of producing sounds with Amplitude Modulation between Oscillators 1 and 2. This function is sometimes
Episode 004 - The Omnichord11/08/2015 Duration: 13min
Overview The Omnichord looks like some kind of weird musical Millennium Falcon. Is it a toy or a serious musical instrument? We’ll, I’m sure it has been used as both. Its toy-like appearance means it shows up often at yard sales, goodwill and thrift stores. But those who know find its lo-fi strumming to be serenely soothing. In the podcast episode, we learned how to strum by gliding a finger along the touch-sensitive ribbed strum panel. But first, engage the desired chord by pressing one or more of the chord buttons in the center area. For more details, consult the manual for your corresponding Omnichord. Here are a few: Manuals OM-84 Manual Q-Chord Manual Other References Omnichord Timeline Omnichord Heaven And, as promised in the podcast, here are examples of the Omnichord in use: Jenny Lewis You Are What You Love Depeche Mode Marceline and Ice King, I Remember You So pay attention and see if you can find it out in the wild.
Episode 003 - Roland Juno 6/6028/07/2015 Duration: 33min
Overview The Roland Juno 6 and Juno 60 are 6-voice analog polyphonic synthesizers. While limited in functionality by today’s standards, these classics present an extremely accessible interface to synthesis newcomers; and they sound fantastic. Both lack MIDI, the Juno 6 lacks patch storage. All this means you won’t be wasting your time with complicated configurations. Just start playing. Resources TAL-U-NO-LX Software emulation of the Juno 6/60 Juno 6 Owner’s Manual Juno 60 Owner’s Manual Juno 60 MIDI retrofit Another Juno 6/60 MIDI retrofit And one more MIDI retrofit Inspiration In the video below, Nick Rhodes uses a Roland Jupiter 8 (I know, not the same thing) in “Save A Prayer”. Notice the use of the bender. The Juno 6/60 have the same bender. Set the bender to control the DCO at about 33% and see if you can mimic the technique. (Skip to 4:30) Tip And, in case you missed it in the podcast, here’s the tip for integrating a Juno 6/60 into a MIDI setup. Use e
Episode 002 - Synthesizer Basics, part 221/07/2015 Duration: 16min
Filters You’ve seen the filter settings on your synth, maybe you’ve tried changing the settings and can hear the difference, but what is going on? What is a filter anyway? Well, the filter on a synthesizer is just like any other kind of filter. An air filter in your car, a water-purifying filter, a spam filter, they all do one thing: remove stuff. So what stuff does a synthesizer’s filter remove? Frequencies. In a previous episode of the podcast we looked at the oscillators that produce frequency-rich tones. But what happens when you have too many frequencies present in your sound? Well, that’s just noise. In fact, that’s the definition of white noise: all frequencies present at equal volumes. Our filter lets us remove frequencies until what’s left is something you can use in your music. The most common filter on synthesizers is the Low Pass Filter or LPF. Listen to the episode to hear how the LPF shapes your sound. (spoiler alert: it removes high frequency content and leav
Episode 001 - Synthesizer Basics, part 114/07/2015 Duration: 23min
Oscillators Synthesizers offer many different types of oscillators. But what are they? These are the building blocks of the sounds in your synthesizer. In the episode we talk about the different types of waveforms available in many synthesizers. For a more in-depth look, checkout Physics and Music: The Science of Musical Sound. Envelopes The envelope (sometimes called envelope generator or “EG”) describes how the volume of a sound behaves over time. Percussion instruments generally have a fast attack followed by a fast decay and almost no sustain. An organ tone might have an instant attack and infinite sustain. Envelopes on a synthesizer are often described using the acronym ADSR or Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release. In the episode you’ll hear the difference when modifying these settings. To learn more about oscillators and envelopes, check out this book at Amazon.com: The Synthesizer: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Programming, Playing, and Recording the Ultimate Electronic Music Ins