Steinberg SY77 Synthworks
Atari ST Software
When Yamaha launched their latest flagship synth, the SY77, they knew it was only a matter of time before it received software support. Ian Waugh goes editing with Steinberg.
With Yamaha's flagship SY77 finding increasing favour with musicians, the demand for editing software is being met by more programs - such as this from Steinberg.
Following MTs recent excursion into the delights of SY77 editing with Geerdes Softworkstation (see MT, January '91), we'll take a look at the Steinberg approach. The SY77 Editor is one of Steinberg's range of Synthworks editors. It's M.ROS compatible and you can't help but notice the Mac-like front end now appearing on Steinberg programs. Personally, I like it. Steinberg also seem to be putting effort into the user interface which is becoming more graphically-oriented. During this review, a disk update appeared (v1.1) to enable the program to support the TG77. The review, however, was conducted with an SY77.
The program needs at least 1Meg of RAM and hires monitor, and uses a dongle for protection (personal hate). We got off to a bit of a bad start because, on first running, the program helpfully asked if I wanted to save the contents of the synth's memory. Before doing so it insisted on sending a pan flute definition to D6. This is a default voice which appears on the screen after loading. Ignoring it seemed to do no ill, but I thought I'd better try again - at which point I discovered that I couldn't quit from the program cleanly - it either locked up or bombed out. How can a company release an update with such an obvious flaw? Further experiments revealed that the quit problem only occurred when running from hard disk.
Having saved my first bank, the program didn't ask on subsequent runs, presumably assuming I wouldn't even think of editing my SY77 again unless it was hooked into Synthworks.
At first glance, the screens look like hieroglyphics. On closer inspection, however, there is a logic to their layout and appearance - all the bits which make up a voice have their own icons. There are four voice buffers which you can use to work on four voices (almost simultaneously) or as back-up stores in order to compare edited voices with originals.
BEFORE RUNNING THROUGH a typical layout, a word about envelopes. Envelopes can be shown in two ways - Classical and True. The Classical representation shows the segment length proportional to the parameter value. True shows the envelope as it really is, and should give you a better idea of what's happening. However, it can appear more crowded than the Classical representation and is a little more difficult to edit.
In True mode, the scale factor represents actual time and is especially useful for long envelopes. I never had trouble with Classical representations before, although True does offer a new way of looking at envelopes.
THERE ARE 11 voice modes in the SY77 - 1 AFM mono, 2 AWM Poly and so on. These are selected from a menu on the voice page and the screen adjusts accordingly. Each of the elements can be toggled on and off and again; the screen reflects this.
Running from left to right across the screen are the main voice building blocks - pitch, wave, filter, volume, pan position, routing, effects and output. The pitch controls are a couple of dials - coarse and fine. To alter these you click and hold on one of the dials and slide the mouse around. As you do so, an indicator moves around the dial and the current value is shown below it. Neat.
Beneath the pitch control are keyboard and envelope icons. Click on the keyboard to select the current micro tuning table. Click on the envelope icon to get to the Pitch Envelope editor. Next is the Wave box. If this is AFM, clicking on it takes you to the AFM page. If it's AWM it takes you to the Wave page which shows a list of available PCM waveforms.
The filter icon follows, containing a low-pass or band-pass filter, depending on the selected configuration. This takes you to the Filter page. Each element has two filters and editing is done in three basic modes.
Selecting 12dB lets you edit the two filters independently. When you edit one the other is shown as a dotted line. Click on 24dB and both filters become low-pass filters and effectively act as one. In Band mode, one filter is low pass and the other is high pass, together producing a band-pass filter. The modulation depth of the filter LFO, however, is set in the LFO/Modulation sub-page of the Algorithm page (coming up).
The method of selecting the cutoff scaling point is superb. You can drag four nodes (above a keyboard) around the screen or use two "slope" icons which pivot the envelope down to the left or the right. When editing starts to become fun, the program must be doing something right.
After the filter comes the amplifier. If the element is AWM, the icon contains a representation of the current envelope. On the AWM page you toggle between amplitude and pitch envelopes. You can adjust amplitude and velocity sensitivity and determine how the volume varies across the keyboard.
THE AFM EDITOR is the most complex part of RCM (the SY77's form of synthesis) and is split into seven sub-pages. This isn't the place to wax lyrical about the delights of AFM synthesis, mainly because I can find little there to delight in - other than the sounds it can produce. It has even more parameters than traditional FM - 45 algorithms for starters - and I'd venture that serious AFM sound creation is for the dedicated programmer rather than the musician.
However, a good editor shows voice architecture more clearly than any synth's LCD can ever do, and it lets you tweak and twiddle the parameters quite nonchalantly. So while editing may not be the ultimate joy the Yamaha R&D team doubtless think it is, Synthworks at least makes it a more inviting alternative than an evening with Des O'Connor.
The seven pages show different parameters for the operators within the algorithms. They are: Algorithm & Levels, Frequency, Pitch Envelope, Waveform, Amplitude Envelope, Key Scaling and LFO/modulation. There are macro commands on some of the pages which affect all operators simultaneously. These control aspects of the sound such as volume, timbre and envelope phases.
On the Algorithm & Levels sub-page you can set feedback loops and external noise and AWM sources using a "jack plug' to connect leads from one operator to another. Use scissors to snip unwanted leads. This is brilliant.
"SY77 Synthworks is M.ROS compatible and you can't help but notice the Mac-like front end now appearing on Steinberg programs - I like it."
One feature programmers will love is the ability to create new algorithms. You can do this via MIDI but not on the SY77 itself apparently. Using the same jack and scissors principle you can connect the ins and outs of the operators to each other (although an operator can only modulate another operator with a lower number).
The Wave sub-page lets you assign a waveform to the operators. There's a sync switch and a phase parameter so you can specify the point at which the wave will start on each note. In the Amplitude Envelope sub-page, each operator displays a miniature of its envelope. Clicking on one puts it in the larger envelope window for precision editing. A back button shows the envelope of one operator in the background so you can match or "detune" it to another.
The Keyboard Scaling sub-page has macro commands for high, medium and low keyboard points. The LFO/modulation sub-page handles the pitch and amplitude LFO sensitivity settings.
Back on the main Voice page and past the amplitude icon is a bar graph used to set the element's output level. This is followed by the Pan icon. Fixed pan positions (the first 13 presets) are indicated by an arrow sited at a corresponding position in the pan box. The other pan options use a sine wave to symbolise movement from one side to the other, although you have to access the Pan Job window in order to see exactly what these represent.
To the right of the pan settings are the routes to the effects. This looks like a cat's cradle, but it does show you exactly what each element is connected to. Clicking automatically cycles through the permitted connection routes.
Moving right again we have the effects. Click on the mode number to select one of the four effects modes. Click on the Group 1 and Group 2 buttons to switch the direct signals (stereo mix) on and off. Individual effects can easily be selected and altered and the sum total of your work can be output to two or four output sockets.
Drum voices are handled in a different way. The program displays part of a keyboard with the current drum assignment (wave, tuning and so on) next to the keys. Very easy to edit.
THE QUICK EDITOR window is indispensable. It contains eight sliders - attack, decay, sustain, release, filter, resonance, AFM modulation and velocity. Even if you know nothing about editing you can tweak these, although, of course, the results are far more limited than using the full editor.
Voice editing is only one aspect of a comprehensive editor. You'll also want to create performance setups, or Multis as they are called on the SY77. The main Multi page lists the 16 instruments (voices in Yamaha speak) which occupy the 16 Multi slots. These can be shown by name or bank number. Clicking on the name produces a list of the voices in the machine and you can easily populate a Multi with sounds of your choice.
Transpose, fine tuning, volume and pan can be shown in graphic form (as dials) or numerically (no room for both) and are altered by sliding the mouse. Dials look fine but numerals are more accurate.
Routing shows how the Multis connect to the effects. Normally only the routing for the currently selected instrument is shown but you can display all routes at once. This is a cat's cradle - you've no chance of deciphering it.
If you're into alternative tunings, you'll like the Micro Tuning editor. It has several powerful Macros - such as incrementing the pitch by a given number of cents, stretch tuning and random key pitch (to add warmth). If you have more than 1Meg of RAM and Cubase and run the system under M.ROS, you can create a Multi while music is playing. If you don't, you can use the program's simple one-track sequencer for testing sounds with music lines.
ONE OF THE major functions of an editor is the ability to organise the voices into useful groups. So let's look at the Library. It has three columns. On the left is the Bank window. You can toggle the display between Voices, Multis, Pan Jobs and Tuning Tables. The list can show 16 voices at once. You can scroll through them or click on the magnifying glass to show all 64.
The middle column - the Library window - is the heart of the system and, again, arranged in list form but it can hold Voices, Multis, Pan Jobs, Tuning Tables, Banks, Setups, Sequences and PCM cards. It introduces concepts such as a directory to allow the searching of items by name, date and comment, and Neuronic capability, which is the way in which items are linked together. Then there are parent and child relationships which exist between Banks and Multis, Multis and Voices, and Voices and Pan Jobs, for example. This section of the program also introduces mouse and computer keyboard operations for renaming, display and selection procedures - surely, if you have a mouse you should be able to use it for everything bar entering names.
"The program has some brilliant extras which make it pleasurable to work with - although there were times when I felt I wasn't 100% in control."
Another minor niggle: most items which can be named - Voices, Multis and so on have an Auto Name button. Each click produces a random name but there's no cancel option so after randomising you can't go back to the original name.
As storage of all these library items consumes memory, the program uses a system it calls ARM (Automated Rotating Memory) which involves swapping data between a library file on disk and the computer's memory. The program uses a Steinberg algorithm to compress MIDI data by up to 50%.
The column on the right of the screen is the Attribute window which holds lists of words used to describe library items. There are eight categories (a total of 247 attributes) and while this can't be increased - thank God, do they think we're masochists? - they can be renamed. You assign an attribute to an item by dragging it. Once you've done that (it could take a while if you've several banks of voices, associated Multis and so on), extraction is by a series of search options. You can assign a sequence to a Voice or Multi, too, useful for illustrating particular features of a sound.
THERE ARE TWO voice generation functions. The Quadratic Mixture window uses the voices in the four buffers, sited at the corners of a square. The position of a cross within the square determines how much of each voice is used to create the new one.
Mosaic Creation picks a random selection of Voices from the Library and assembles parts of them to produce a new voice - your own Dr Frankenstein. Make 16 repeats the process 16 times and fills the bank with the results.
While the sounds aren't completely random (with so many parameters, the opportunities for producing garbage are legion) you do tend to get out what you put in. But it's certainly more fun than masking dozens - hundreds - of parameters and yes, lots of the voices are very useable even if they aren't all strikingly original. Exploring this could be a full-time job.
A BANK CAN be saved in two formats. Self-Send saves it as a normal Atari file and clicking on it from the desk top will send it to the SY77. Using Yamaha's All Synth format will write a file to an SY77-formatted disk which can be read directly by the SY77. Excellent utilities. A Voice or Multi can be saved in MIDI File format for loading directly into a sequencer or as a self-send file. This option can also save the pan and tuning parameters so everything is stored together.
The program can load SysEx voice data. It can also load DX7/TX7 and DX7II voices and convert them to SY77 format. It will also attempt to learn the format of other types of file - clever stuff, eh? It even read a commercial TX81Z voice disk although it didn't go over quite perfectly.
However, the program can load data direct from DX and TX synths. The manual suggests a 95% success rate for DX voices and a lower rate for TX voices. Many TX voices did lose something in the translation but you wouldn't want to transfer all your voices: time to clear out the dross.
THE MANUAL IS extremely well produced, containing helpful diagrams and only the odd bit of Deutschlish. There are, however, none of the worked examples which can be so helpful. Perhaps Steinberg reason that the prospective purchaser will have a nodding acquaintance with the operation of their synth. I wouldn't be quite so confident; well-arranged tutorials never go amiss.
And you do need a good working knowledge of the SY/TG77's architecture to make sense of the screen layout. Many boxes and icons are not described in the manual at all, and although you may be able to work out what most of them are, this really isn't good. And it's yet another manual without an index.
While it's by no means the worst manual I've seen, I'm afraid I'm running out of excuses to pardon such productions. Anyone buying a piece of software at this price is entitled to explicit documentation. Steinberg of all companies really should know better.
APART FROM THE quit bug and the manual, SY77 Synthworks certainly proved enjoyable - even fun - to use. It has some brilliant little extras which make the program pleasurable to work with - although there were times when I felt I wasn't 100% in control (I have these moments of insecurity). This must be blamed partly on the complexity of the program and partly on the lack of information in the manual.
At times the program, its icons and all its interconnectivity try to be too clever for their own good. Or perhaps after looking at so many music programs, this one gave me a case of future shock. Some of the concepts, excellent though they may be, will require a little time to take onboard. Don't forget to budget for the £11.50 User Registration Fee (I don't know why they don't put this on the price) - you may need it.
All in all, an essential piece of kit for anyone serious about getting the most out of their SY77.
Price £165 including VAT
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Review by Ian Waugh