Software for Yamaha DX/TX and Atari ST
Why spend hours slaving over a hot DX7 trying to find new sounds, when there's an Atari ST program that does all the hard work for you? Simon Trask puts his feet up and takes a look.
Computers can't do all our synth programming for us, but ProCreator can make life more interesting by creating random patches. Is this the end of the FM programmer's blues?
WHAT DO YOU DO when you program a synth patch? You might think you're engaged in a creative, artistic, and highly skilled craft which indeed you are. But these days, what you're really doing to get to that stage is punching in a load of numbers. Dull, repetitive, non-creative and non-artistic numbers.
It's a pretty laborious process as far as many musicians are concerned, so as always with laborious processes (though not some I could think of), you get a machine to do it for you.
That is the reasoning behind Steinberg Research's latest software package, the aptly named ProCreator, which has been written for the Yamaha DX7, TX7, TX216 and TX816 synths, and the Atari ST series of computers. ProCreator can generate lots of patches, both randomly and as variations on an existing patch. But what really matters is whether or not it can come up with any good patches. After all, how can a piece of software know what sounds good and what doesn't?
Really, there are no simple responses to a program like ProCreator. Given that it can produce good results and is therefore worth taking seriously, what are its implications for synth programming? Whether you're a seasoned DX programmer or a nervous novice, it's time to pause for thought...
THE FIRST THING to bear in mind is that ProCreator is not a DX7 Visual Editor. It does not take a DX's entire internal programming pages and put it up on-screen in the form of big, friendly computer graphics for you to play around with.
The next thing is that, aside from generating synth patches, ProCreator also allows you to store them to disk. In fact, the librarian facilities by themselves make the software worth its asking price.
The main screen display lists two banks of 32 sounds each. One of these banks may be active at any one time; patches can be transferred either singly or in bulk between this bank and your DX/TX, or the Atari's disk drive.
Having two banks on screen is invaluable when it comes to organising the mass of patches you invariably build up. Using two simple commands; Copy and Swap, patches can be moved between the two banks with the greatest of ease, by pointing the Atari's mouse controller at the relevant patch name, clicking on the mouse, and 'dragging' the patch name from one position to another. In this way, you can compile new banks from existing sounds contained in various other banks; or devise a new order for a bank of sounds which is either held within the synth's internal memory or stored on disk; or build up a bank of patches selected from those generated by ProCreator.
Each 3.5" disk can store countless banks of sounds (well, I lost count anyway), which makes disk storage considerably cheaper than cartridge. Loading a bank from disk and transferring it to your synth takes a reasonable eight seconds, so now you can use disks at home and in the studio while saving your cartridges for gigs. It's a whole new world.
Another whole new world is, of course, ProCreator's ability to give birth to new sounds. As mentioned earlier, there are two ways in which ProCreator can go about this: either randomly or by varying an existing patch. In both cases, you can decide whether you want to alter voice parameters only, function parameters only, or voice and parameter functions together. (Remember that the DX7 will receive only a single set of function parameters at a time.)
The random method takes whichever patch is currently selected within ProCreator and randomises its parameter values, giving you up to 32 new patches at a time (you decide how many you want).
You can choose which patch parameters you want randomised and which not. So, for instance, you could decide not to randomise the algorithm, the LFO speed, and the frequency coarse values. Parameters which you decide not to randomise will be left unchanged, which means you can take any sound and be selective about what aspects of it you want altered. At the opposite extremes, you can randomise none of the parameters (which is rather pointless), or randomise all of them (in which case you're effectively starting from scratch, and will have absolutely no realistic idea what you're going to get).
It's a flexible system, but two further features would have made it more flexible still: first, the ability to decide which operator should have their parameters randomised (at present, any choice applies to all operators); and second, the ability to choose a value range for each parameter. These would give you more control - if you wanted it - in defining how a sound is going to change.
THE OTHER METHOD of generating new patches is known as Mix, so called because you can take any number of patches up to 32, an ProCreator will attempt to combine them in a meaningful way.
Being of a slightly perverse disposition (you have to be to work in this business), I began by mixing 32 patches together at the same
time, and the results weren't very impressive. Maybe I just had the wrong combination of sounds to start with. Realistically, 2-5 patches seem to fit the bill.
What ProCreator won't do, just in case you were wondering, is take a piano and a strings patch, say, and come up with a result which gives you both sounds in one patch. What it does instead is mix together certain characteristics from both patches. You can also pick just one patch, in which case the software will give you up to 32 variations on that patch.
Quite what Steinberg are doing to achieve their results here isn't clear, and the manual gives nothing away. But the sounds that appear at the other end have the uncanny knack of striking a successful balance between similarity and variation, so that the patch you start off with does have a noticeable influence over the end result.
Possible improvements? Well, being able to choose from several degrees of change might be useful. That way, the slightest degree could provide you with minor changes which left your original hardly altered, while the greatest could provide you with altogether more adventurous variations.
None of this would be possible without the host computer, since it's the Atari's computing power which is doing all the digital arithmetic necessary to carry out all the patch generation. And seeing as all these wondrous new sounds are being created within the computer's memory, you're going to need some way of getting them back into your synthesiser.
With ProCreator, you can send patches individually or in bulk to your DX/TX. The method of transmitting single patches is particularly neat: you select a patch from the relevant list on screen, and then "drag" it to an edit buffer box in the centre of the screen display, at which point it is automatically transmitted to the DX/TX's edit buffer. Talk about fast.
But in practice, I tended to keep my original in patch 1 and use positions 2-32 for new patches, transferring all 32 patches (ie. a bank) to the synth's internal memory, where I could flick through them and compare them to the original.
Although ProCreator isn't an editing program, Steinberg have nonetheless included what they call an ADSR Editor - and a very sensible inclusion it is, too. It presents a simplified form of the DX/TX's envelope structure, which you can modify by taking the carriers as a group and the modulators as a group -meaning that you can alter the amplitude and the timbre envelopes of a patch separately. These alterations can then be sent to your synth for immediate playback.
By now, TX owners will probably be wondering how they are supposed to play their sounds without disconnecting computer and instrument. The answer lies in a Play Module window which gives you a four-octave keyboard display. Notes are played on the keyboard by clicking the mouse on them, at which point the relevant note message is sent out over MIDI. You can even alter the attack velocity value, so you can hear how a sound alters with varying velocity.
YET IT'S WITH the DX7 that ProCreator is ultimately most successful, because you can move so easily between editing on the DX7 and conjuring up new sounds with Steinberg's software. Why should you want to do this? Because while the software will generate plenty of sounds, many of them will benefit from a spot of tweaking - perhaps something as simple as cancelling a sub-algorithm.
There's no substitute for being able to hear what's "wrong" in a sound and knowing how to cure it. Part of the skill of programming is, after all, knowing how to tailor a sound, and that's not really the sort of job a piece of software can do - though no doubt some clever-dick programmer will prove me wrong one of these days.
Alternatively, you could keep generating new sounds, each time taking as your source the patch that's nearest to what you want. ProCreator is fast enough to make this approach feasible, but it's still a long-winded method, and there's no guarantee you'll get what you hear in your head.
That's not intended as a criticism of ProCreator. The important thing is that this software has the ability to surprise, coming up with fascinating sounds which you might never have programmed in the ordinary scheme of things, either because you hadn't conceived them in your head, or because your programming ability wasn't up to it, or because you were simply stuck in a programming rut.
The program's strength lies in its ability to provide a broad and colourful palette of sounds, which can act as a solid base for further programming. Maybe that's why, in the final analysis, it's still the seasoned FM programmer who will be able to make the best use of ProCreator. In fact, ProCreator could well become an essential tool of the trade for any serious FM programmer.
But having said that, anyone with this kind of synthesiser should find ProCreator a valuable (and amusing, and educational, and inspiring) program to have around. Try it. It may change your whole attitude to programming.
Price £135 including VAT
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Review by Simon Trask
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