Start of a new series in which readers are invited to submit 'extended letters' on an electronic music topic that's of interest to them.
A new series in which readers are invited to contribute short articles on subjects that particularly interest them. This month sees a personal look at the shortcomings of modern analogue synthesiser design. Martin S
Having been involved in analogue synthesis for a few years now, I get a feeling of pleasure tinged with pain whenever I look at the latest offerings from the major synth manufacturers.
I can’t deny there hasn’t been progress in many directions, of course. Programmability is now available at a price that would have been almost unthinkable little more than three years ago, while features such as arpeggiators, variable keyboard follow, and cross-modulation are no longer met with open-mouthed bewilderment by synthesists and music shop owners.
Not all the changes have been for the better, however.
It’s difficult to forget the look on a keyboard player’s face when the realisation suddenly dawns on him that his two grand’s worth of polysynth simply cannot do what his old monophonic museum piece could achieve with ease, especially if it’s going to be a couple of years of HP instalments before he’s going to be in any position to rectify the situation.
I think anybody who’s gone from a £300 antiquity to a modern polyphonic must be aware of how horribly jagged the VCO can sound when it’s modulated by a sawtooth LFO instead of the sine wave that used to be so commonplace. Most designers/manufacturers seem to have signed the death warrant on sine wave low frequency modulation, which means the end not only of smoothly undulating voices but also of a whole range of clever effects that can be obtained using noise in conjunction with the VCF and LFO. Some instruments do have a sine wave available on a performance control which improves matters a little, but it should be a standard feature, not an afterthought or a luxury.
A sawtooth waveform - fitted to just about anything with a keyboard attached to it these days, it seems - can also be very useful, of course. Demonstrate this to yourself by setting up a harpsichord-like patch on your synth (with lengthened decay and release), and use the LFO to modulate the cutoff frequency and you’ll see what I mean. You should get a mildly astonishing echo effect that’s more or less unobtainable by any other means, which is why I consider the sawtooth option just as desirable as any other...
Back in the gripes department, the chorus/ensemble/phaser device is a further source of contemporary synthetic discontent, at least as far as I’m concerned. Several older instruments (the old ARP Quadra springs to mind) had an impressive phaser resonance that served two purposes. First, the standard resonant phasing effect could produce a truly memorable depth of sound that was equally at home in a fast-moving bass-line or a sustained chord of silky strings; and second, the manual override (activated via a footpedal) produced an additional controlled resonant peak that was just about the best analogue way of creating a realistic heavenly choir effect outside of the Roland Vocoder Plus, itself no longer in production. OK, so plenty of today’s synths offer phasing or chorus sections, but more often than not it seems they’re installed to cover for what are otherwise pretty weak preset voices, and whatever happened to the resonance?
Then there’s the rather delicate question of the keyboards themselves: it’s my contention that they simply aren’t what they used to be, OK, so the manufacturers have given us five octaves (or in some cases, more), touch-sensitivity, and instant arpeggiators, and I’d concede that all these are noble developments. But the once-standard CV and Gate outputs for the lowest and highest notes played are rapidly vanishing into the sunset. These notes can be used to great effect in the context of, say, a set-up containing one polysynth and two cheaper monophonic synths, allowing - as an example - a heavy synth bass line, a delicate set of middle and treble strings and a punchy lead voice to be controlled from one keyboard.
MIDI is great for layering chords, but controlling a monophonic bass line while playing your MIDI polysynth with more than one finger requires a mass of gadgetry worse than the multiplicity of cables the new interface was supposed to replace.
Still, I remain a fan of the sprouting DIN sockets and wish them well.
What’s needed is a modern MIDI synth with ten voices, in which the keyboard is eight-note polyphonic with an additional voice sounding on the highest and lowest notes played, the same set of controls being used to program all three sounds (or four sounds if keyboard splitting is employed). The instrument should also include a sine wave on the LFO, resonance on the phaser, and CV, Trigger, and Gate In and Out for the highest and lowest voices. Ideally, a polyphonic string section should also be provided, with traditional AR envelope control.
The above description may sound absurd, but in fact it’s not all that far removed from existing older keyboards such as the Yamaha SK series, the Korg Trident and the ARP Quadra.
It’s up to us as musicians to first, recognise what we’re missing, and second, ensure that the synth manufacturers are aware of our needs, so that any current drawbacks can be eliminated for good.
Feature by Martin S
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