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Inside the Synclavier (Part 4)

Article from Sound On Sound, September 1989

David Mellor concludes his exploration of the world's most expensive musical instrument with an interview with a musician who can actually afford one, Simon Franglen.

Synclavier owner Simon Franglen at work in his Padded Cell studio.

Simon Franglen is a composer of music for TV, films, stage plays and commercials, and also a record producer and keyboard player/programmer. He works mainly at home - in his Padded Cell studio - with his own Synclavier. Before there are any shouts of 'lucky devil', remember that you don't get to be a Synclavier owner unless you are pretty good at what you do. Obviously, megastars like Stevie Wonder and Sting can buy Synclaviers out of their small change, but for a jobbing composer a Synclavier is a major purchase. So why spend all that money?

"I was a programmer for a couple of years before being able to buy one myself, and I suppose you could say, if certain people were built to play certain instruments, then I was built to play the Synclavier. If people ask me what I play, I say I play Synclavier; I don't play keyboards, although I do happen to have other keyboards in my system."

To Simon Franglen, the Synclavier is a very natural instrument to play.

"I don't think when I use it. With any instrument - violin, guitar, piano etc - if you have to think how to use it, it loses its point, because you are not thinking about the music. It becomes a machine rather than a musical instrument."

Since the Synclavier represents a major investment, there has to be a justification for that investment. You do not just have one because you fancy the idea of being in the Synclavier club. There has to be a financial motive. For Simon, it made financial sense to buy his own system rather than continually renting other people's, and the benefits of having its facilities available 24 hours a day are obvious, of course. There are other attractions: "The variety of work you get by using the Synclavier is quite stunning. The wide range of facilities that you can offer an artist, producer or director means that no two jobs are the same. I'm in the fortunate position of tending to work with more established artists, to whom quality is more important than cost."

The Padded Cell studio is, in a word, compact. The studio is just wide enough to fit in the REIMS mixing console. Simon's keyboard arrangement is designed for maximum ease of use, with the Synclavier keyboard protruding from under the mixer - which is raised by eight inches to make this possible. In front of the Synclavier keyboard is the Macintosh II keyboard. In action, Simon continually swaps back and forth between faders, keyboard and computer keys, so the arrangement makes a lot of sense.

Simon's Synclavier system is not the world's largest, but certainly of adequate capability: 64 voices, 24 megabytes of RAM, plus a 180 megabyte hard disk. At the top of his shopping list at the moment is an optical disk unit (costing over £20,000). Simon currently stores his sample library on three optical disks, each of which can hold up to 2000 megabytes of data, but he has to hire the actual unit when necessary. The Synclavier's internal hard disk holds a library of 'greatest hits' samples for day to day use.

So how does a Synclavier owner rate his machine against other musical technology?

"What makes it the best machine in the world is the hundred and something little red buttons on the keyboard. Where on other 'workstations' you go: Control A - Option B - Command C - drop this in - set this up... all you do on the Synclavier is hit a button. It is as simple as that. You just hit a button and work.

"It is the most ergonomic package currently available, and even if you ignore the sheer size and quality, you are still left with the most versatile system I've ever seen. I know other manufacturers are addressing a mass market, but sleeker packaging doesn't necessarily make equipment any easier to use."

As you can tell, here speaks a dedicated Synclavier man. And for a final comment...

"The whole thing about working with the Synclavier is control. Getting the best out of the music. And this is the best way I know of doing that."


Because it has a music keyboard, most people think of the Synclavier as a musical instrument. This is a pretty logical conclusion, of course, but the music keyboard in general is only a means to an end. It was developed over a period of centuries into the standard form in which we know it today, and can be a highly sophisticated interface between the human hand (also the eyes and brain) and any form of machinery. Its virtues are these:
- Easy recognition, without labelling, of 76 (on the Synclavier) different keys.
- The arrangement of black and white keys fits the shape of the hand.
- The velocity at which a key is struck can be used as a controller.
- The pressure with which a key is held down can be used as a controller.

So the Synclavier is a versatile and user-friendly control system - but controlling what? Well, what about sound effects for films? An area of work which still relies heavily on some very old and labour intensive techniques.

Film and video post-production is a market that New England Digital are very keen to exploit. Sound effects can be as sophisticated and subtle as music, once you have developed an appreciation for them. Hopefully this will become apparent as you read on.


In any film or video, sound can be divided into four basic areas: atmospheres, effects, music and dialogue. In many films, all these elements are created separately from the picture.

For foreign distribution, for example, unless a film is subtitled, the dialogue has to be re-recorded in appropriate languages by local actors. This leads to the concept of a film having two separate sound tracks: the dialogue track and the M&E track - 'M&E' being an abbreviation for Music and Effects. The M&E track will stay with the film wherever it is shown, the dialogue track may or may not, as circumstances demand. This brings up an interesting point: if the dialogue track is to be replaced, then it must be completely free of sound effects or those effects will be lost when the dialogue is rerecorded.

The natural conclusion in many cases is that it is pointless trying to record sound effects together with the picture. 'Wild tracks' - unsynchronised recordings - of particular location sounds are taken. With these and other sound effects, a complete effects track can be built up in the comfort of a post-production studio.

The most fundamental sound effects are 'atmospheres' - background noises which are continuous throughout a scene. Atmospheres can be further subdivided into atmospheres consisting of sounds that change as a result of the action, traffic perhaps, and 'buzz' atmospheres - eg. air conditioning, or the whine of the jet engines of a plane in steady flight.

Added to the atmospheres are the effects: door slams, gunshots, crashes etc. These, of course, must synchronise precisely to the action. Traditionally this is done by recording the effect onto magnetic sound film and synchronising this mechanically to the picture film.

Another type of sound effect is known as 'Foley' or 'Footsteps' (American and British terminology respectively). Foley is the art of making human sounds to fit the picture, such as footsteps, breathing, the rustle of clothes etc. These are done on a Foley (or footsteps) stage by a Foley artist who steps in sync with the picture on various surfaces - wood, concrete etc - and breathes and rustles his clothing at the same time. If this sounds trivial, it's not. Foley is serious business and has to be done correctly. Footsteps and other human noises must sound right or the scene just will not work.


'Lay up' is the process of assembling and synchronising the correct atmospheres and effects to the picture before all the sounds are mixed together with the dialogue and music.

The Synclavier is ideally suited to the lay up process. Being the ultimate sampling instrument with as many as 96 megabytes of memory and 96 voices, all the sounds necessary for a scene can be held in (RAM) memory and triggered from the keyboard. SMPTE/EBU time-code ensures that everything stays in sync. At New England Digital's demonstration studio, film sound expert Max Hoskins took me through some of the stages of laying up an effects track...

The three most important items we needed for a demonstration lay up were the Synclavier (of course), a video playback system, and Max's vast library of sound effects. We started simply, without any picture, by building up a scene of a man walking to his car, starting it up and driving off. Simple in concept, and simple in execution - when you know how!

We started with the Foley effects - the human noises. In Max's effects library were such gems as 'Footsteps, male, concrete, left', somewhat abbreviated to fit the file name. I wasn't quite sure that I would be able to hear the difference between the sound of a left foot and that of a right foot, but take my word for it, the difference is important when you hear it.

Max loaded a Timbre on to the Synclavier keyboard consisting of a variety of left and right footsteps, shuffles and scrapes. He played these into the Digital Memory Recorder just as you or I would play a tune. Next came some clothing rustle, then breathing.

The trick seems to be to keep the effects at the right level. The rustle of clothes is generally a very quiet sound. When the recorded effect is played very quietly it is hardly noticeable, but it adds just the right amount of realism.

To set the scene, an atmosphere of rain was added with a couple of distant rumbles of thunder. The final effects were those that told the story: the key in the car door, the door opening, the engine ignition and drive away - with the obligatory screech of brakes.


Creating sound effects by themselves are fun, but doing it to picture is something else. NED use a scene from the film Aliens (the only sequel to be as good as the original!) as a demonstration piece. They have removed all the original sound and redone it with the Synclavier, apparently in a fraction of the time it took to create with traditional methods. I spent an hour having a go at this myself, putting effects (which were already to hand) to the picture. Different spaceship shots require slightly different types of atmosphere - low FM synthesized hums in this case.

In the film, there is a rather spectacular shot of a torch cutting through a metal door, which combines long shots with medium shots and close-ups. The Timbre we used had the hiss of the flame, and also sand thrown into a bucket to simulate the sparks coming off. I played this sound into the Memory Recorder using the modulation wheel to control the level for the various changes of angle.

More precise synchronisation techniques, such as were needed to create computer-style 'blips' to match a video screen in the picture, came next. With the Synclavier, you can either slow the visual action right down while you play in the effects, or enter the timecode values - which are 'burned into' the video picture and shown on the monitor - into the Macintosh II terminal.

One thing struck me while I was fitting in the atmospheres and effects: every now and then I reached a point where I could see that the scene wasn't quite right - the effects were at the wrong levels, or another effect was needed. The snag was that I didn't know what to do about it. It's like when you are building up a piece of music and you know it needs another musical line, but it takes a little time to come up with something suitable. I put this down to two things: 1) my lack of experience with sound effects in this application, and 2) the immense complexity and subtlety of post-production work.

There is a lot to be learned, and a lot of fun to be had, in this field of endeavour - especially on the Synclavier.


NED UK Ltd, (Contact Details).


The Synclavier's keyboard control panel has a total of 160 buttons, plus a data entry wheel. Some of the buttons have more than one function, others do not do anything as yet - but they are ready for new software developments. Since the panel looks complicated, a brief description of some of the available functions should prove useful.


Partial Timbre Select Used to select and modify Partial Timbres (the four layers of sounds that make up a complete Timbre). A single press selects a Partial for modification, a longer press soloes the Partial. Holding a button down allows another function to be selected simultaneously. For example, holding a Partial button and recalling another complete Timbre only loads in the Partial of that Timbre corresponding to the button held. Using these buttons, Partials may be copied, and expression inputs may be applied to any of the Partials.

Volume Envelope DELAY sets the length of time before the attack phase of the envelope starts. ATTACK sets the time for the volume to increase to maximum. INITIAL DECAY sets the time taken for the envelope to reach the sustain level. FINAL DECAY sets the decay time after a key is released. PEAK sets the maximum level reached. SUSTAIN sets the sustain level.

Harmonic Envelope Similar characteristics to the Volume Envelope, but used in FM synthesis.

Partial Tuning Changes the tuning of a selected Partial or Partials.

FM Ratio Used in FM synthesis, sets the modulator-to-carrier frequency ratio.

Harmonic Select Used in FM synthesis to select the harmonic number.

Harmonic Control Used to set levels of harmonics. Some of the buttons also have additional second level functions: Harmonic Control button 1 sets the total length of a Sound File, and can be used to initiate an automatic search for loop points; button 2 sets Sound File loop length; button 3 sets the window length for automatic searches.


Vibrato Wave Selects vibrato wave shape.
Rate Adjusts vibrato rate.
Depth Adjusts vibrato depth.
Mod Depth Adjusts FM vibrato depth.
Attack Decay Adjusts vibrato Attack time.
Invert Turns Vibrato Invert function on or off.
Quantise Turns Vibrato Quantise function on or off.
Bias Turns Vibrato Bias on or off.
Stereo Wave Selects a panning mode or waveform.
Rate Adjusts panning or tremolo rate.
Depth Adjusts panning or tremolo depth.
Pan Used to locate a Partial Timbre in the stereo image.
Partial Chorus Sets and tunes the chorus effect for selected Partial Timbres.
Portamento On/Off Turns the Portamento (slide) effect on or off.
Portamento Mode Selects linear or logarithmic Portamento mode.
Portamento Rate Adjusts the Portamento rate.
Velocity Patches keyboard velocity to selected Timbre or Partial Timbre parameters.
Pressure Similar to VELOCITY function.
Pedal 1 & 2 Similar to VELOCITY function.
Mod Wheel Similar to VELOCITY function. Ribbon Similar to VELOCITY function.
Keyboard CV Patches Keyboard Control Voltage to selected Timbre or Partial Timbre parameters.
Breath Controller Similar to VELOCITY function.
Info Used in conjunction with the Track Select buttons to find out what Timbre is on each track.
Sensitivity Adjusts keyboard velocity sensitivity.
Response Adjusts the response of the keyboard to velocity.
MIDI Sets MIDI routing status. Also selects expression inputs for the transmission and reception of MIDI messages. Also other MIDI functions.
Perform Not currently used.
Recorder Not currently used.
Overwrite Used to overwrite previous expression controller inputs.
Clear Turns off illuminated parameter buttons; removes real-time effects patching from selected Timbres and Partial Timbres; removes real-time effects patching from selected expression inputs.


Start A single press starts the sequence from the first click. A double press starts at the first note. Pressing twice on a soloed track starts playback at the first note of the soloed track.

Stop Stops a sequence; aborts an automatic search, bounce, SMT, chain, split or Sound File loading; turns off Transpose and Info functions; sends a MIDI All Notes Off message.

Record Starts recording on a soloed track without erasing existing notes. If none are soloed, recording starts on the first track with the same Timbre as the keyboard Timbre. If none are the same, it selects the first empty track.

Punch In Same as RECORD, but overwrites existing information.

Continue A single press starts playback from the previous stop point. Pressing CONTINUE while holding MARK sets a Mark point.

Rewind A single press rewinds the sequence at twice normal speed. Double and triple presses rewind the sequence at eight times and 32 times normal speed, respectively.

Fast Forward Similar to REWIND.
Erase Erases a sequence or soloed tracks.
Mark Used to set and locate a Mark point.

Start Loop Sets loop start and end (or length) points. Can also be used to set loop value display format, bars and beats, seconds or SMPTE.

End Loop When loop parameters have been set, places the loop in the current sequence. Independent loops can be placed in individual tracks.

Speed Sets playback speed.
Click Rate Sets click rate and bar length.
Transpose Transposes the whole sequence, or individual tracks.
SMPTE Mode In conjunction with EXT SYNC, turns SMPTE mode on or off.

Ext Sync Mode Selects external sync type: 50Hz pulse, beat sync, sync delay, step mode, SMPTE mode and format.

Chain Used to chain tracks together.
Insert Inserts blank bars into a track.
Delete Deletes bars from a track.
SMT Used to select a track Timbre and place it on the keyboard. Also used to change track Timbre.

SKT Used in conjunction with SMT to place a track Timbre on the keyboard. Can also copy a single Partial from a track Timbre into the keyboard Timbre.

Bounce Moves track Timbres and Partial Timbres.
Justify The Synclavier equivalent of 'Quantise'.
Sequence Name Not currently used.
Overall Tuning Changes the pitch of the keyboard or sequence.
Octave Ratio Adjusts keyboard temperament.
Pitch Class Assigns SCALE ADJUST function to the Harmonic Control button.
Key Only Not currently used.
Scale Reset Restores equal tempered tuning Sets pitch bend range.
Track Volume Adjusts volume of track or keyboard Timbre.
Track Pan Not currently used.

Track Routing Selects the output socket to which a track or keyboard Timbre will be sent.

Track Select Used to solo tracks. Also used to slide individual tracks forwards or backwards in time.


Timbre Library Selects disk drive for Timbre recall or storage.

Bank Assigns BANK SELECT function to the Timbre/Sequence storage buttons.

Entry Assigns ENTRY function to the Timbre/Sequence storage buttons.

Sequence Library Recalls, using the numbered buttons below, a sequence to the Digital Memory Recorder.

Split Allows two Timbres to be assigned to the Keyboard with any split point.

Protect Not currently used.

Write Stores a Timbre or sequence. Timbre/Sequence numbered buttons Used to select a Timbre or sequence for storage or recall. Can also be used to send MIDI Program Change messages.


Left Sets the lower keyboard limit of a Partial Timbre, and also the region over which it will fade.
Right Similar to LEFT, but for the upper limit.
Repeat Turns Repeat mode on or off.
Arpeggiate Turns Arpeggiate mode on or off.
Rate Sets Repeat or Arpeggiate rate.
Chorus Adds a chorus effect to a Partial Timbre by adding a voice and detuning it.
Polyphony Mode Sets the maximum number of voices a Timbre may use.
Timbre Name Used to name a Timbre.
Low Sets lower limit of the Dynamic Envelope.
High Sets upper limit of the Dynamic Envelope.
Channel Filter Select Cut/Boost Not currently used.
Decay Adjust Adjusts final decay on the lower notes of the keyboard.
FC Not currently used.
Harmonic Adjust Used in FM synthesis to adjust brilliance on the upper notes.

Series - "Inside The Synclavier"

This is the last part in this series. The first article in this series is:

All parts in this series:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 (Viewing)

Also featuring gear in this article

Previous Article in this issue

Tony Banks

Next article in this issue

Getting into Video

Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...


Sound On Sound - Sep 1989

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman


Inside The Synclavier

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 (Viewing)

Gear in this article:

Synthesizer > New England Digital > Synclavier

Gear Tags:

Digital Synth

Feature by David Mellor

Previous article in this issue:

> Tony Banks

Next article in this issue:

> Getting into Video

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