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Digidesign SoftSynth Version 2.0

The program that can turn your sampler into a synthesiser has added an FM synthesis string to its bow, yet doesn't promise to be a DX replacement. Mac addict Chris Meyer takes a look.


THERE ARE STILL musicians who prefer to roll up their sleeves and wrestle with synthesising new sounds, as opposed to buying a set of 5000, picking a dozen or so to use, and tweaking the filter cutoff to "customise" them.

Only problem is, comprehensive user interfaces that allow a user to tweak (or at least see) all of the parameters at once are becoming rarer as manufacturers seek to cut costs above all else. Synthesisers of the subtractive analogue genre (draw a straight line from Minimoog to Prophet 5, and keep going) that meet the criteria are still obtainable, but what about machines that employ "newer" techniques such as FM, Phase Distortion, Vector, and additive synthesis?

Well these days, a personal computer's display and a disk of software are starting to replace the traditional rows of knobs. Editing packages for Yamaha FM and Casio PD synths have sprung up as one way of addressing the primal urge to synthesise. But Digidesign's Softsynth represents another approach - raw synthesis packages that create sample files for playback.

SoftSynth has already been reviewed in E&MM September '86. Briefly, it's a program that runs on the Apple Macintosh, and uses additive synthesis to combine up to 32 oscillators, or "partials", to create a sound. Each partial has its own multiple-point pitch and amplitude envelope, and these in turn are combined to form a digital sample (saved in Sound Designer format) that can be downloaded into any one of a number of samplers.

Whereas additive synthesis is traditionally limited to sine waves for the partials, SoftSynth allows sine, triangle, square, noise, and filtered noise waveforms. It also has a "SmartSynth" function that allows the program to create sounds on its own, with the user setting general parameters.

SoftSynth Version 2.0 offers three enhancements: it supports more samplers, the time to "synthesise" a sound has been lessened, and most important, it allows FM patching.

FM patching means you can route the output of any one partial to the frequency input of any other partial (including itself), with the one limitation that each partial can have only one modulation input - not too big a restriction, particularly with 32 partials hanging around and simple cut-and-paste copy utilities available.

Along with which partial it modulates, you can also decide whether the modulating partial itself appears in the output mix. The modulation amount is controlled by the output mix of the partial. You can spot the modulators in the output mixer screen by the boxes drawn around them. And you're given "view" options on whether you wish to see or hide the modulators or carriers.

I started my experimenting with "ClarinetMJ" - one of the stock sounds that comes with SoftSynth. Using some of the existing partials (the second, third, and then fifth) to modulate the fundamental ("first") partial, I started employing unused partials (32 are a lot) to do my dirty work on the fundamental, with a slight amount of a sine partial modulator at a frequency ratio of 2.005:1 giving a nice cross between a brass instrument and the original clarinet.

This augmenting of an existing sound proved to be a good way to get the hang of the effect of the different frequency ratios and modulation depths between the modulator and carrier partials in the context of a "normal" sound (the fifth in particular gave an interesting metallic sound). You can, of course, go on creating new sounds from this point.

Cons? Not many. Some will see and be bothered by what SoftSynth really is - an additive package at heart, with FM tacked on. I wished I could set different output level and modulation amounts - instead, I had to fake this by modulating a "dead" partial so that I could have independent control. Individual partial previews (using the Mac's speaker) do not take modulation into account; therefore, they are not accurate indications of what a partial is contributing to the final mix.

Pros? Considering the price of the update - a mere $25 to current SoftSynth owners, and free to future purchasers of the product - I can't see how anyone has the right to complain about what you get for the money. The DX7's six operators look scant against the 32 possible with this package, not even taking into account the wider selection of waveforms and much more comprehensive envelopes.

Additive synthesis is a nice way to add to and "fill out" FM sounds, and I found myself more at ease fiddling with a few partials on the Mac to teach myself FM than having to deal with it in the context of a full-blown patch on a DX, even though this method is arguably slower.

Add to that the 10-20% increase in execution speed, plus the addition of supporting the Emax, Roland S10, and Akai X7000 and S700 samplers (in addition to the already-supported Prophet 2000/2002, Mirage, Emulator II, Korg DSS1, and Akai S612/S900), and you have a nice little addition to an existing package.

I should give a caveat to potential first-time purchasers of SoftSynth or any package like it: it's inevitable that samples of sounds, regardless of their origin, do not allow as much expressive control on playback as synthesising sounds in real time - though if your sampler has sweepable filters, adding analogue processing to FM sounds is a new possibility.

With that simple qualification, I have to give SoftSynth the thumbs-up.

Price Softsynth 2.0, £299 including VAT; update only, $25 direct from Digidesign

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Previous Article in this issue

DX-MAX Expansion Board

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The Barry Box


Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

 

Music Technology - Mar 1987

Review by Chris Meyer

Previous article in this issue:

> DX-MAX Expansion Board

Next article in this issue:

> The Barry Box


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