Let's take a look at alternative input devices for synthesizers, rather than the standard keyboard. Although these unique devices are not always able to control every aspect of a synth, they provide unusual methods of modifying particular aspects of a sound, and make a great addition to any synthesizer setup.
First on the list is the classic ‘foot pedal’ – a staple of practically all electronic musical instruments for decades. They can be used to modulate a part of the synthesizer, or to change patches – making them especially useful in a live situation. Suitable MIDI pedals are relatively cheap, but make sure to shop around for a solid, reliable one – it will get an awful lot of bashing from your foot.
‘After touch’ is a capability of many modern MIDI keyboards and synthesizers, and is based on the concept of the player pressing harder on the key(s) to create a modulation effect. ‘Polyphonic after touch’ is a more advanced version...
Following on from the previous article, here are the other major modular synthesizer companies worth considering:
Modcan – modcan.com: Beautifully designed and extremely expensive, the Modcan modular system is a delightful selection of ever-so-slightly eccentric modules which generally sound excellent. The product range is divided into the older ‘A’ range and the newer, prettier ‘B’ range depending on your taste. Despite the nice looks, superb sounds and top-notch build quality, the Modcan modular system is not cheap, and with the relatively newly released analogue sequencer setting you back over one-and-a-half grand, the Modcan is only for those prepared to pay for extremely high quality gear.
MOTM – synthtech.com: ‘Mother Of All Modulars’ are an established current producer of modular gear, providing modules pre-built (expensive) or as DIY packages (not quite so expensive). Complete systems are not sold as a whole, encouraging users to build and customize their own systems. The equipment itself is of good quality and sounds excellent, but the...
In the first of a two-part series, we will be taking a look at the currently available modular synthesizer brands, and what each has to offer. Please note that I haven’t included ‘every’ current producer of modular gear out there, just the ones who have a reasonably good reputation and selection of modules.
Analogue Solutions – analoguesolutions.com: Known perhaps more for their interesting range of discrete synthesizer gear, including the ‘Red Square’ and ‘Vostok’ semi-modular synths, Analogue Solutions also produce their own range of modular gear called the ‘Concussor’ series. Standard subtractive modules are available, as well as sequencing and utility modules, but more interestingly there are many percussion modules available, emulating the sounds of the drum machines of yesteryear. When was the last time you saw a dedicated Roland TR-808 cowbell module? If this is your thing, Analogue Solutions should definitely interest you.
Analogue Systems – analoguesystems.co.uk: Furnished in delightful wood cases with a variety of excellent modules, ‘AS’s...
Modular synthesizers are one of the oldest types of synthesizers around, as well as being one of the most expensive and interesting. The philosophy of a modular synth is that it is made up of modules which are interchangeable, allowing new modules to be added with ease, as well as the customization of existing modules. Because of the constant expansion of most users modular synthesizers, many systems end up looking like a telephone exchange – this is often referred to as GAS (gear acquisition syndrome).
The basic modules within most modular synths are as follows:
VCO (Voltage Controlled Oscillator) – an analogue oscillator which outputs a set frequency by default, and has separate outputs for each waveform.
VCF (Voltage Controlled Filter) – an analogue filter which includes different filter types such as low pass and high pass, as well as dedicated outputs for each mode.
VCA (Voltage Controlled Amplifier) – an analogue amplifier module which usually includes the ability to combine multiple inputs as...
While guitarists get all the fun with their ever-increasing number of effects pedals, there’s a worryingly small selection of ‘proper’ hardware effects for us neglected keyboard players. The two requirements I personally need for an effect to be suitable is that it must be rack mountable, and have stereo outputs and inputs. The 2nd of those requirements makes many effect pedals useless. However, there is still a wide variety of suitable hardware for synthesizer players out there.
For those who enjoy the analog and vintage sound, look no further than the Boss Microrack range. They are half the size of a normal 19” rack unit, and come in lots of different flavours, including the highly regarded RBF-10 flanger and the RPH-10 phaser unit. Modules generally run for no more than £50/$100, so while they are getting on a bit and can break down, they’re so cheap you can afford to buy a new one should something go wrong. Boss also produced...
Here's a list of the main categories most (if not all) music synthesizers fall into. When putting together a studio or live rig, it is often useful to have a selection of various keyboards to produce a wide variety of different sounds - so this list may give you a few ideas of what to consider purchasing.
Analog - Monophonic: These things have been around since the beginnings of synthesis technology – after all, they are the simplest to create bearing in mind that they need only to have the facilities to produce 1 voice, and that they use less complex (but many would argue better sounding) analogue components. Examples: MiniMoog and ARP Odyssey.
Analog – Polyphonic: A polyphonic version of the above, meaning that they are able to play more than one note without compromising the other voices. In the early days these were gargantuan beasts with a sound to match, but the Prophet 5 revolutionised analogue polyphonic synthesizers due to...
While at college, I found a lot of interesting information about digital synthesis, so that’s where my inspiration for this article comes from. So far we’ve looked at ‘standard’ analogue approaches to sound synthesis, as well as a bit of FM synthesis because everybody likes a bit of DX7 ‘E-Piano’ now and then, and now we are going to continue that theme by focusing a little on different kinds of digital synthesis.
Overview Of Digital Synthesis
Digital synthesis is based somewhat (perhaps a little too much) on the concept of trying to emulate analogue/acoustic sounds, using different methods and techniques depending on the accuracy of the audible reproduction. Because these new methods of synthesis are computer-based, there are always limitations to what can be practically performed.
The four important methods used in digital sound synthesis are as follows:
‘Loose modeling’ consists of little or no real attempt to model sound. It is used to perform AM, FM, Walsh, and Wavetable synthesis.
Vocoders are an instantly recognizable synthesizer sound, having been used in popular music since the 1960s. They allow you to ‘talk like a robot’, which while fun, is often not musically useful. However, used properly within a song they can work well, and add a (now rather retro) techno-effect to a piece of music. So how does it all work?
A vocoder needs two inputs to function properly. A ‘carrier’ wave, and a ‘modulator’ input. The carrier is the sound you want to vocode through, and the modulator is your voice. The modulator takes your voice, finds the fundamental frequencies (important bits) of it, and converts them into levels of amplitude on a series of band pass filters (this is why some vocoders have different numbers of bands) – in general, the more bands available the more understandable your speech will be. These band pass filter signals are then passed onto the carrier wave where your final sound is created.
‘Frequency Modulation’ (yes, the same as that thing you listen to on the radio) synthesis was made popular by Yamaha in the early 1980s with their line of DX synthesizers, which were instrumental in both the downfall of classic analogue synths, and giving keyboard players worldwide a polyphonic-palette of groundbreaking new sounds to use. Dedicated FM synthesizers are digital in nature due to the instability of analogue VCOs, and the nature of FM synthesis techniques makes it very easy to create un-pitched and metallic tones, rather than standard subtractive sounds.
FM synthesis is based on two key things – a ‘modulator’ oscillator, and a ‘carrier’ oscillator. These oscillators usually both use a sine waveform, and from this the modulator oscillator works just like an LFO – because it modulates the frequency/pitch of the carrier oscillator. You can try this yourself on a normal subtractive synthesizer, by setting up a sine wave oscillator and an LFO, and using the LFO to modulate...
Roland Juno-106 (1984): Finally, a synth that was marketed towards poor people, the Juno-106 put hybrid DCO-based synth technology into many musicians’ hands for the first time. Although limited with a single oscillator and filter, its distinctive chorus effect and 80s pop sounds helped define it as a winning machine.
Roland D-50 (1987): Roland’s new LA synthesis architecture never took off, but it found a comfortable home in the still-popular D-50, which used an early 8-bit form of PCM sampling to achieve unique sounds never heard before. Along with plenty of polyphony, this 1987 hit found its way onto many records in the late 1980s and 90s, and is still used to this day.
Korg M1 (1988): Apparently the most well-sold synth of all time, the M1 became a popular semi-workstation synth, combining an affordable price, sleek looks and excellent realistic sounds (remember the piano sound?). The A1 synthesis method allowed for excellent traditional subtractive synthesizer sounds though too, and combined with...