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Sampling Synths

Article from Electronic Soundmaker & Computer Music, October 1983

We get the artists' views

A unique insight into computer-based music instruments by the artists who use them. Kate Bush kicks off with the Fairlight CMI

Kate, at home with the Fairlight

Kate Bush

The entrepreneurial talents of the widely admired Miss Kate Bush have been little in evidence over the past few months. This self-inflicted absence from the public eye has been engineered to allow time to start work on a new album; though it's early days yet to talk about release dates.

A decidedly untimely moment, you might think, to arrange an interview — but then this is an area of great personal interest to Kate, and it was only fitting that we should seek her comments on one of the more esoteric of today's electronic music instruments — the Fairlight CMI.

For somebody who, since the age of 11, has received their musical induction on the piano, the CMI may seem an unusual choice for enhancing compositional creativity. However, Kate talks about the machine with enthusiasm and excitement, rather than foreboding — though the initial outlay was not taken lightly: "When I was first going to buy the Fairlight I was really worried because it cost so much money (about £18,000), but I haven't regretted it at all. I'm really pleased with it: it's been a great inspiration to me."

To give some examples of the uses to which the Fairlight can be applied, Kate talked about her recent single, en francais — Ne T'Enfuis Pas. A large part of which was conceived and developed on the Fairlight: "We got a flute sound which we sampled into it — my brother had actually played the note and sampled it into the instrument." They were dealing here with a single note sample; though the CMI can sample several during a period of two seconds, before the quality deteriorates. "In this particular case I was quite into the idea of it sounding out of its normal pitch. Then we used an AMS chorus on it to get the effect we wanted and I worked out the chords — it was a lot of fun to play with."

"Then there were a couple of sounds we wanted in there — one was a laugh." Kate began sampling and ended up using one of her own as well as a friends. "I used it an octave down in pitch so it sounded a bit strange."

"You can actually create sounds by drawing your own waves, but they do sound very synthetic"

The Fairlight isn't just capable of instantly replaying a given sampled envelope (waveshape) at a different frequency, it can be used to modify the shape. Kate, however, finds it infinitely preferable to retain the natural envelope. "Quite often there's very little that needs doing to it. Occasionally I quite like reversing it — quite an interesting example of that was when I was working on The Dreaming. I wanted a didgeridoo and as the Fairlight is an Australian instrument it happened to have a didgeridoo as one of its preset samples." This was used as the basis of a loop, which illustrates another aspect of the CMI, it can construct a sound that lasts longer than its maximum sampling period, by looping sections of the original envelope together. "There's a page (commands for modifying or setting up sounds are presented as pages on a display screen) where you can loop your sound up and you can vary the length of the loop according to what you want. Other pages have different functions. For instance, page two is the voice page, so that's where you actually call up the sound. You can actually create sounds by drawing your own waves, but the problem is that they do tend to sound very, very synthetic and I haven't found any use for them... it's very hard to draw something that sounds natural — it's a very complicated thing."

We then rounded on the visual dimension of the CMI. "That's something that's very useful — you can actually see a sound. Incredibly ugly sounds can look really beautiful — it's really like another dimension: visual interpretation of the world rather than audio." And again Kate enthused about the 'human element' of the Fairlight. "I'm very into natural sounds — particularly taking them out of their range... and maybe sometimes putting them backwards — I s'pose I like distortion of natural things, I like to still feel there's something natural in it."

The main employment for the Fairlight, certainly as far as Kate Bush is concerned, is as a tool for filling 'gaps' in the music: "When you've already got the song and there's a gap in there and you know that there's some kind of instrument that will fit it, you know that it's gonna come out of the Fairlight and you just can't find it — it's incredibly frustrating." Most of Kate's songs are demo'd before the Fairlight is put to use, and in the case of 'Sat In Your Lap' and 'Get Out Of My House' the demos were responsible for deciding the mood of the finished song. "For demos I'd use the Yamaha CS80 because what happens on it seems quite nice (the synth has independent touch sensitivity on each note) and it was just a matter of setting the same sounds on the Fairlight. The bell sound on 'Sat In Your Lap' was originally done on the CS80 and we thought at the time that it was a good sound, but when we did it on the Fairlight it was much better."

Kate finds that it is possible to come up with a new song using the Fairlight, but this very much depends on her mood. "I don't think I could ever write with a group of musicians sitting around — I always have to write alone. I've got an eight-track system at home, and I'll put a rhythm from the Linn Drum down and then put one or two pieces of Fairlight on it. Then I put on a lead vocal and some backing vocals. Sometimes I just can't find a sound to inspire me; I find it's very exciting to use natural sounds rather than using a synthesizer though, and getting the Fairlight has been revolutionary for me and my work."

Francis Monkman

Francis Monkman and the Synclavier

Francis Monkman, keyboard player for Curved Air and Sky, and a respected session musician and composer, was one of the first British musicians to own the New England Digital Synclavier 2. Currently in the process of designing his own powerful digital synth, he's selling his Synclavier to commercial composer Dave Lawson, ex-of Greenslade, who already has one! Other recent purchasers from UK distributors Turnkey include the Human League, Martin Rushent, Marty Wilde and the University of Oxford Phonetics Department, where speech synthesis programmes are being studied. What aspects of this remarkable machine make it suitable for such diverse uses?

"The designs of the Synclavier and the Fairlight represent a crossroad in digital synthesis. The Fairlight was basically designed as a sampling machine; when I went to see the designers while on tour with Sky in Australia they played me some fantastic sampled sounds taken from wine glasses and so on. Then when I asked them if it could sound like a synthesizer they said they hadn't really thought about that, which is a shame because I happen to like the sound of synthesizers."

To be fair (!) to the Fairlight, it can produce 'swept filter' sounds, but only after some imaginative programming. Francis was attracted to the Synclavier by the fact that it had all the performance features of analogue synths linked to all the control possibilities of digital technology. "The digital sampling scene has gone towards non-creativity, because a sampled sound however much you manipulate it is still a sound which already existed before you used it. A good deal more imagination needs to be seen both in the design and performance stages; a lot of equipment at the moment seems to lack obvious playing features. For instance, on my way into the Fairlight factory I saw through a window one of the technicians hunched over the screen tapping at the keys — you couldn't do that on stage, but with decent flightcasing you can take the Synclavier on stage and use it like an ordinary analogue synth!" A couple of brave souls such as Klaus Schulze and Jean-Michel Jarre have used the Fairlight live, but the Synclavier tends to turn up in all sorts of music, including the jazz styles of Oscar Peterson and Lyle Mays.

"You con take the Synclavier on stage and use it like an ordinary analogue synth..."

Add A Sample

"The story took a curious turn though. The designers of the Synclavier, Sidney Alonzo and John Appleton, weren't at first impressed with reports of the Fairlight, because they knew the Able computer in the Synclavier was mini sized and the Fairlight was based on microcomputer technology. But when they saw the operating software they were knocked out, because it's so quick and easy to use. The Synclavier's XPL language was designed at a university and wasn't too 'user-friendly'; also the Synclavier hadn't allowed sampling, which they set out to add."

The sampling system added to the Synclavier relies on expensive Winchester disk drives, with information dumped directly to disk. The advantage is that enormous 40-minute samples can be taken; the disadvantage is that playback is strictly monophonic, and more closely resembles digital recording than sampling.

"The Synclavier has a lot going for it though. It is the first true digital keyboard instrument, with all the performance options that implies. The sound quality is amazing given the limits of 8-bit resolution and a mono (as opposed to stereo) output; if you want stereo you have to buy two Synclaviers! I took one on the road with Sky, and it behaved itself, surprisingly. If I'd known then some of the changes I discovered later I wouldn't have been so pleased with the sound. For instance, there were two little capacitors connected across the audio outputs to limit frequency response, and it sounded much better after I'd taken them off! "

Wave Goodbye

"Analogue synths are limited because the only way to create a sound is to have a predefined waveshape and filter it. There's no way to get beyond the basic waveshapes and quite often you've only got a Low Pass filter, which leaves all the low frequencies in. When you multitrack, the final sound can be terribly muddy, but digitally produced waveshapes seem to have a totally different physiological effect. They really make you sit up and listen, and in fact some people find them quite abrasive. On my solo album 'Dweller at the Threshold' there are some fantastic Synclavier sounds which sweep from high to low harmonics and really explode inside your head. In recording that album I found that digital sounds make their own perspectives; five sounds together might sound muddy but a sixth one would focus them all and bring them together.

"Digitally produced waveshapes seem to have a totally different physiological effect..."

I spent a lot of time examining the different possible modulations on the Synclavier. One weakness is in the area of white noise generation, which can only be done by switching on a large number of harmonics at the same time. NED also made the mistake of continuing to see envelope shaping in conventional analogue terms. There must be a more complete way to create an envelope simply be specifying the position in time of each harmonic."

Francis' ideas on synthesis may see more popular success when the Yamaha DX keyboards become established. They work on the FM (Frequency Modulation) system as does the Synclavier, which partly explains the great precision with which sounds can be defined on the latter machine. His as-yet unnamed design is intended to exploit the system to the full, and to replace sampling with a process of 'resynthesis' which allows the synth to look at an incoming sound and duplicate it with its own sound generators. That's some way ahead yet, although Francis and engineer George Chkiantz hope to have a working voice board before long." It's only when we get more than one board going that we'll have a real ideal of what the system can sound like. That's what digital synthesis is all about, and what sets instruments like the Synclavier apart from conventional analogue synths, it's all in the interplay of harmonics!"

Dave Stewart

Dave Stewart live on Emulator, 3 Prophets and 2 Minimoogs!

Dave Stewart has only recently become interested in the delights of sampled sound after specialising for many years in the Hammond organ and later the Prophet 5 (Rev. 2, and much modified as he's at pains to point out!) His work with National Health, Egg and scores of other bands established him as one of the most sought-after keyboard players on the UK music scene, but it wasn't until he began to collaborate with singer Barbara Gaskin that chart success came to him. Singles such as 'What Becomes of the Broken Hearts', 'It's My Party' and latterly the heady strains of 'Busy Doing Nothing' helped to define a high-tech but entertaining sound full of Prophets and Simmons pads. To add a little variety to these he now uses the Emulator from E-mu systems, exclusively imported into the UK by Syco Systems.

"I used Mellotrons a bit but found them a little noisy and they tended to go out of tune. A few years ago I heard about the Fairlight and its sampling and looping facilities, which seemed quite interesting. Shortly after that Syco sent me a brochure on the Emulator, which did a lot of the same things but looked much simpler. I actually saw one in the States and bought it there, and I've been very pleased with it ever since, it's only ever shown a couple of faults, one to do with LEDs coming on spontaneously. Usually I can get it serviced by Pete Woods, who does a lot of work for Ultravox."

The Emulator holds a pair of samples on a floppy disc, available blank or pre-recorded from E-mu. Each disc also holds a real-time sequence; Dave now has about 200 discs which contain sounds, and melodies for the live performance of hits like 'Busy Doing Nothing'. Blank discs are £3 or £4 and pre-recorded ones about £7; filling a blank disc is fairly straightforward. "When you want to take a sample you just connect up a mike or tape input to the back of the Emulator and press the Sample button. The machine then checks the ambient sound level-tape hiss or room reverb — and ignores anything up to that level. When a sound comes along it takes a sample up to two seconds long at the second C on the keyboard (which has four octaves). You then have to Swap that to the top half of the keyboard, which doesn't alter the pitch, and take another sample to fill up the lower half again. That means you always have to remember to sample a higher sound first, if you're doing a Hammond organ for instance, to make sure the pitches are right over the whole keyboard."

Half And Half

A lot of the performance characteristics of the Emulator derive from the fact that samples aren't all that convincing if transposed more than about an octave up or down. This is why two samples have to be taken to cover the whole four octaves, but gives the advantageous possibility of playing two different sounds at once. Dave explained some of the disadvantages too.

"You've got to be very careful at the transposition point where the high sample meets the low sample. Usually they don't match too well, particularly on a sound like an acoustic piano, and so I don't often try to make them match. You get the same problems with the harmonics sounding odd as you would with slowed-down tape, so I don't approach it as a keyboard you have to put a homogeneous sound over any more. One alternative is to use the Multisample disc which allows you to use 12 different sampling points. When the Emulator is switched on you need to insert a Systems disc which programmes in all the software, taking about half a minute. The Multisample disc is an alternative which costs about £60, but it shares out the available sampling time so it's best suited to short percussion sounds — I've got a disc with bass, two toms, snare, open and closed hi-hat and crash cymbal on it."

Inserting a new disc and loading its two sounds and a sequence takes about 15 seconds, which is a little slow for stage work. Dave might use a dozen Emulator sounds in a set, but he'd use 40 Prophet sounds in the same time! In the studio though, the machine comes into its own. The two numbered rows of control buttons to the left of the keyboard code in various special functions — B3 for instance will reverse the sounds, particularly effective for backwards pianos which would take much longer to do on tape. A4 allows sounds to continue after the keys are released, and other combinations of control buttons and sliders cause sounds to sustain if any keys are held down.

"The Emulator does a lot of the things a Fairlight does, but it's much simpler..."

Sample Sequencing

Dave hadn't used sequencers much before coming across the Emulator. "It's a real-time polyphonic sequencer which probably corrects to a very fast clock pulse — certainly faster than the Linn's because I can hear it happening on that. The capacity is more than a few hundred notes, and you can record two different sequences. When you record a third it pushes the first into an 'Extra Bin' so you can get it back again if you like. The Truncate slider for sharing out sequence lengths in Multisample mode acts as the sequencer speed control, and you can make the sequencer go back into Record at the end, stop it, or loop it. You can cut down a sequence but not edit it as such, and it's always saved to the disc along with the sounds, which is handy for looking back to old ideas and reworking them."

Barbara Gaskin uses the Emulator on her vocal sounds, but usually only for effects. "On voices the Emulator starts to sound a little too much like a keyboard purely because of the way you play it. I've done a sort of Wah sound which is quite useful, but the high voices on 'Busy Doing Nothing' mainly come from a children's choir. We did one complicated Multisample of voices which took about an hour, but the main point about the Emulator is that it makes lovely textures."

Dave and Barbara's enthusiasm for the Emulator is infectious, and although they're aware of its limitations Dave is anxious to put them into perspective. "The sampling is up to about 10K but you get distortion on some sounds such as low Moog effects. It's mainly quantisation noise which you can remove at the expense of some of the high frequencies. Another problem is that the bend wheel affects both halves of the keyboard while the vibrato modulation is assignable, although you can have a sequence playing on the bottom and that wouldn't be affected. The other problem is with the belief that instruments like the Emulator can put musicians out of work, but I wouldn't for instance use the machine to replace a piano. I wouldn't use it to replace a lead violin sound either, because it hasn't got the dynamics, expression or touch sensitivity of a real violin. But it's a beautiful machine, very reliable, and much more versatile than it at first appears."

If you want to hear more of the Emulator, look out for Dave and Barbara's planned live shows in October. Alternatively contact the UK distributors Syco Systems at (Contact Details), for a copy of the excellent E-mu Demo disc.

David Vorhaus

Fret no longer if you've been wondering who turns out all that wonderful synthesizer music you hear on the television. Whether it's for Alka Seltzer or Andrex, St Ivel or Pifco, all the sounds are provided by David Vorhaus, and with only two main instruments — the Fairlight and the PPG Wave 2.2. The man who has the commercial synth music market sewn up works in a small studio in Camden called Kaleidophon, the name of which may ring a bell with fans of Wavemaker, Tim Blake, Clearlight and half-a-dozen other synth related bands; in addition to being a studio and production company Kaleidophon has given its name to a highly unusual instrument using conductive strings interfaced to four synthesizer voices which Dave is trying to market.

White Noise

One of Dave's first commercial projects was White Noise; An Electric Storm in Hell, recorded with Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. High sales figures of this pioneering electronic/psychedelic piece over a long period helped to finance Kaleidophon studio, which was equipped among other things with the very first VCS3 synth, hand-wired on Vero board by David Cockerell. Dave also developed several of his own instruments, including the infamous MANIAC. This is a multi-channel analogue sequencer interfaced to VCS3's and Oberheim expander modules which includes digital control functions. A Time Warp Navigator makes sure that every pattern ends in time with the others no matter how much the original tune is altered, the Sequential Intercourse function uses one pattern to control another, and a built-in drum machine provides perfectly synchronised percussion patterns. Like most of the studio the MANIAC is being constantly updated so it's in no danger of becoming obsolete, despite the power of the Fairlight and PPG sequencers.

To increase the sound potential of Kaleidophon and speed up the creative process Dave needed a programmable polysynth. Having been commissioned to record a synthetic version of the Superman theme for the Japanese market he went to Rod Argent's Keyboards in London to see the then-new Prophet 5. Thrusting three and a half thousand pounds worth of used twenties into their hands he made off with the UK's first Prophet under his arm, with cries of "It's only on demo!" apparently falling on deaf ears — or so it is told.

Fairlight Power

White Noise 2, a 'Concerto for Synthesizer', was selling well on Virgin and Kaleidophon gained a lot of work as the fifth 16-track in London — using a home-made 1" machine! Dave was disappointed with the marketing of White Noise 2 however, and became more interested in commercial music. Over a period of five years he recorded pieces for White Noise 3, 'Re-entry', on Pulse Records. Just at the end of this time he added to his catalogue of synthesizer firsts with the only Fairlight outside Australia, and proceeded to turn out several demo pieces and a trade-only album of library music for KPM recorded entirely on the Fairlight and titled 'Sleight of Mind'. "I was spending six months out of every year designing new equipment, and when I met Peter Vogel at the ARS Electronica show in Linz I felt I'd finally met the designer I needed to let me get on with the music. It was easy to improve your VCS3 in the early days, but it's impossible for the average musician to try to improve on the Fairlight!

"I found the only way to get the best out of the Fairlight was to force yourself to use nothing else, whether it's for voices or sequences or orchestral textures or whatever. I made a lot of new samples which Peter put on the preset disks, and now I keep hearing my sounds on other people's hit singles! Sample chords is generally rather difficult because of the limitation on the sampling time, so my usual technique is to make a sample, then synthesize a sound on Page 5 of the Fairlight system, merge the two, and loop the synthetic part of the sound, which ought to work perfectly. It did take me a year to learn the techniques though! "

"The Fairlight's speeded up some tasks enormously..."

Dave's enthusiasm for the Fairlight partly arises from the fact that the system is not perfect. "You come across so many problems and their solutions, which is a good thing, and sometimes you come up with magic solutions. On the St Ivel Gold ad, for instance, I came up with a great drum sound by combining the Fairlight's floor tom with the naturally reverberant sound of a ball being hit in a squash court. I really only needed to get the Wave 2.2 for one sound, a long decaying filter sweep effect which the Fairlight doesn't easily produce. The PPG syncs off a different pulse to the Fairlight though, so I use the MANIAC to do all the necessary arithmetic. It can even multiply a pulse train by 2/3; I usually use a VCS3 oscillator to give a master clock. The PPG is much faster than the Fairlight and much more versatile than a Prophet, but you can't get a very hard sync between the oscillators, the third envelope doesn't do much and so on. But before I got it I had to use an Oberheim expander module to filter Fairlight sounds, so it's an improvement on that system."

Future Shock

Dave's work is now diversifying into collaborations with musicians such as Brian Gascoign, guitarist David Bradnam, and Jude Allen. Some of his work with Jude Allen can be heard on the TV programmes Broadside and Individual Voices; as Dave remarks, "you tend to get myopic working alone, and when you're struggling to refine a sound, somebody else alternating as producer is more likely to spot that it's the wrong sound altogether. The ultimate question as far as I'm concerned is this; why does it take as long to do an album using a Fairlight computer and a PPG Wave 2.2 as it did to do White Noise 1 with a razor blade and sticky tape?"

PPG Wave 2.2

The PPG Wave has produced a revolution in synthesizer music and in the way we perceive electronic sound. From humble beginnings PPG has risen to a position where they could justifiably claim to be represented in most of the major studios of the world, and yet they remain a small and slightly inaccessible company with unusual ideas which often go against the grain of modern synth development.

Founded by Wolfgang Palm, an ex-engineer for Tangerine Dream who built many items of customised equipment, PPG's first products were modular synthesizers for Klaus Schulze and several American musicians. Palm then aimed to develop a programmable monophonic synth using the new digital technology, but this was a commercial failure, possibly too far ahead of its time. Palm turned to larger computer systems and marketed the 360/380 Wave Computer, an innovative design capable of controlling eight or more channels of sound and light. Until recently Thomas Dolby used a Wave Computer to control both his backing tapes and slide show. Obviously this was a limited-market instrument although it produced some interest in the company, and enabled Palm to go ahead with his latest plan, for a programmable polyphonic synth suitable for live performance. The result was the Wave 1, until recently visible with Tangerine Dream both live and in the studio, and this was rapidly followed by the Wave 2. At this stage Palm was joined in the company by synthesist Wolfgang Duren, who cut a virtual PPG demo album, 'Eyeless Dreams' (available through Lotus).

Crest Of A Wave

What made the Wave 2 special? Mainly the fact that the basic waveshapes from which sounds are produced were created digitally, with a vast choice of shapes available. Hidden somewhere in there were the standard sine, square and sawtooth waveshapes which enabled the Wave to produce conventional synth sounds like the Jupiter 8, but in addition there were hundreds of waves never seen or heard before. The same could be said of the Fairlight, but there, special techniques were needed to form them into musical notes. The advantage of the Wave was that all this sound potential was fed to perfectly conventional analog filters and envelope shapers with sensible knobs to twiddle, giving a unique combination of power and accessibility.

At first these unique sounds were only available to German musicians, such as Robert Schroder and Klaus Schulze. Gradually word spread, and Syco Systems were appointed as UK dealers. A few forward-looking musicians took a look and became convinced that the Wave offered digital flexibility with stage practicality — like the Prophet 600, the Wave quickly calls up preset sounds on a calculator keypad, and can dump programmes to tape. The Wave had a few problems which became clear at this stage, and it was rapidly updated to the Wave 2.2. The 2.2 has two oscillators per note, 24dB/octave filters, computer interface, touch sensitivity and many other advanced features including an 8-layer sequencer.

Wave Hello

The 2.2 has become very popular with bands from Madness to Michael Jackson (the opening of 'Beat It' uses a classic Wave sound) even if, as in some cases seems to be true, it's only initially bought for tax purposes! PPG then followed up on the expansibility of the 2.2 by introducing the Waveterm, a computer add-on offering complex composing, synchronisation and sound sampling facilities. The Waveterm can be added with a total expenditure considerably less than that for a Fairlight, and in some ways is more versatile and straightforward. It's available on hire from Keyboard Hire and a couple of other forward-looking companies, and has now been joined by an eight-voice expander module and a touch-sensitive weighted Processor Keyboard.

It would be unrealistic to pretend that the Wave doesn't have some problems, the notoriously incomprehensible handbook being one of them. The company themselves are difficult to contact, and most new owners find that they need additional information on composing with the sequencer without losing odd notes, and on syncing up the finished sequence as the system uses a non-standard number of pulses per note. The PPG isn't yet fitted with MIDI but this is a likely development and it should be interesting to see what the company comes up with next. The Wave 2.2 was both better and cheaper than the Wave 2, which annoyed some owners - as it isn't possible to update from one to the other.

All problems aside, the PPG has a highly distinctive sound of its own as it sweeps through its wavetables, but can also produce all the standard synth effects with split keyboard, layering and stereo facilities. Some of its effects are quite frighteningly powerful, and it's probably the only synth about of which it's possible to say "there's nothing quite like it!"

With thanks to Tom McLaughlin for his Wave.

Peter-John Vettese

Peter Vettese is rapidly making a name for himself as one of the country's most in-demand musicians, and not just through his involvement with classic rock band Jethro Tull. His background is in jazz and the classics and he's working on a solo album which should help to re-introduce expression and sensitivity into synth music. Recently he's been demonstrating and using the CBS/Rhodes Chroma, a powerful computer-linked instrument developed during the last days of the much-lamented ARP synth company.

"I first became involved with the Chroma when I saw Vic Emerson demonstrate it last summer. I was completely mesmerised by the control that was available, it was a latter-day Yamaha CS80 with the advantages that it had user programmability and it stayed in tune. I just loved it at first sight; I couldn't get one in time to do the American tour with Jethro Tull but I got one as soon as I returned in November. At that time John Hill of CBS/Fender asked me to demonstrate it with a band called SFX, which proved that it works in a band context as well as in the studio." Peter's previous experience with computers had been limited to say the least. "I've learned all that through doing it wrong on the Chroma linked to an Apple computer. Since coming to micros I've become very interested in computer music and I've got an MC-202 MicroComposer which works very sensibly. I'm not convinced that the QWERTY keyboard will ever be the way to enter any kind of creative music, thoughts or ideas. Computers are the way to go. But it has to be with some kind of dedicated music controller."

Electronic Expression

Peter emphasises the importance of keeping expression in electronic music and avoiding a robot-like approach. "With the Chroma the information entry with the software I have is real-time, so you play it and the machine records all the dynamics you care to produce during the course of performance. I don't like to say that I came to the Chroma via piano playing or via organ playing, but just that I want to play a synth as it should be played. You can express yourself via the keyboard, the footswitches, the levers, or any other kind of performance device (including an add-on computer) that you'd care to use. There are a couple of flaws in the system, but as it's all software-based these could theoretically be updated. The Glissando and Portamento rates are too slow, but that could be changed, and I'd like to alter the note priority on the solo all-channels monophonic keyboard mode. In terms of performance they never affect me though."

Unlike most conventional analogue synths, computer-based systems such as the Chroma aren't mastered in a measurable amount of time. "I'm still getting in to the Chroma, and that's the delightful thing about it, because you will never be able to appreciate fully everything you could do with it. I've a long way to go before I fully understand what I want to hear from it." The Chroma is a powerful instrument in its own right, offering fifty layered polyphonic sounds with an unprecedented amount of touch-sensitive control from the weighted wooden keyboard together with arpeggiator functions. Interfacing it with an Apple or other computer via the Triad interface built in (a system rather faster than MIDI since it transmits in parallel instead of series form) gives almost unlimited sequencing power. "I don't have my own Apple but from only having used the computer half-a-dozen times I'm fairly familiar with the system, which must indicate that it's straight forward to use. The Factory Set 4 presets have some very good percussion sounds included, so the Chroma/Apple combination can become a powerful rhythm computer too."

A New Star

In the near future some of the power of the Chroma will become available to a much wider market in the form of the Chroma Polaris, a six-note polyphonic touch-sensitive synth selling for about £1,400. "As well as membrane touch pads the Polaris has lots of sliders for access to the analogue filters and envelope shapers, so there's something to appeal to the gratuitous knob-twiddlers that perhaps the Chroma didn't have. People have been confused about the architecture of the Chroma, although when you look at it it's incredibly simple. You can choose the filter path, decide if your oscillators are in series of parallel, overdrive the filters and so on, which is an alternative to the additive synthesis system of the pure digital machines such as the Fairlight."

The Chroma's colourful sounds are a result of its digital/analogue hybrid design, with analogue oscillators matched to the versatility of digital control. Musicians such as Peter-John Vettese are convinced that this is where the future of a truly expressive synthesizer music lies, and the evidence is in the albums on which he's now working, both for himself and for Jethro Tull. They should be something to look out for.

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Publisher: Electronic Soundmaker & Computer Music - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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Electronic Soundmaker - Oct 1983

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman


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