Steinberg Synthworks D110 Multi-Editor
Looking for an editor to help you plumb the depths of your LA sounds? David Hughes uncovers a real gem of a program for the Atari ST that makes light work of editing Roland D10, D20, and D110 synths, and can even be used with the MT32.
A few months ago I sold my old Ford Escort and decided to buy something useful instead, a Roland D110 module to be specific. Since then, it has proved to be consistently more reliable and given considerably more pleasure than the aforementioned vehicle. Although the D110 appears, at first, to be just another anonymous little black box, it does have a truly fantastic potential as a synthesizer. With the possibility of eight different Timbres and a very useful set of percussion voices, it looks to be a genuine godsend. That is, until you attempt to programme your own sounds into it.
This is the sort of problem that I tend to group under the 'virtual cookie' heading, in that the synth module may be viewed as a very long cookie jar, so long in fact that you can't actually see the bottom of it, but you can hear something rattling around inside that might just be a cookie. The solution to the problem is to invent or discover a tool which will help you get to that elusive cookie or to whatever else might be at the bottom. You could try tipping the cookie jar upside down but then the fall might just break the cookie. So the idea is not to discover just any old tool, you have to find the right tool for the job.
Now, although Roland make their own hardware editor unit for the D110 and its close relatives, it is a bit on the expensive side for my purse. The natural choice if you already own a computer of some type is to start hunting around for a computer-based editing program. I started to look for such a package and - without giving too much away - I reckon that I've found a real pearl in the form of the Steinberg D110 Synthworks editor for the Atari ST.
The editor package comes in a very tidy, dove grey A5 box file which contains a large user manual, three software disks, and a 'key' or 'dongle'. The manual is of the ring-bound variety and is very good. It describes every aspect of the editor in great detail and is a tremendous asset. It's also written in a style which I found to be helpful and easy going without being stuffy and pompous.
There are three 3.5" disks supplied with the package. The first disk contains a library of Tone data, which can be loaded into the editor for subsequent tinkering. The second and third disks contain different versions of the editor program - one for use with a high resolution monochrome monitor, the other for a colour monitor.
The dongle is a small black box which slides neatly into the ST cartridge port, and this must be in place if the software is to run at all. The dongle is there to protect the software from unlawful copying.
To start the editor you simply plug in the dongle and then insert the relevant program disk for your particular display (mono or colour).
Once the program has loaded, the first thing to do is to tell the editor what type of synth you're using (D110, D10, etc). The next advisable thing to do is to read the manual and make sure that you understand the workings of your particular synth, be it a D20 or a humble MT32. I would not recommend simply 'playing' with anything which, at first, seems to be a fun thing to play with. I learned that lesson very quickly: the results were rather unforeseen and somewhat painful, in that I managed to transmit an almost empty bank of data to my D110, replacing its original memory contents with a single electric piano preset. Ouch!
The first thing that you notice about this program is that it does not use the normal GEM interface. It uses a hybrid version which Steinberg have developed as a replacement for the aforementioned system (see side panel). What's more, Steinberg are working on a whole new operating system called MROS, which will be compatible with a number of micros and is to be real-time and multitasking. At last, an alternative to CP/M 68K! Thank heaven!
Essentially, the editor is made up of three separate pages, though there are a plethora of other features available from the pull-down menus. First up is the Tone Edit page which is used, as you might have guessed, to edit the synth's Tone data. Second is a Configuration page, which helps you to arrange the Tone data into useful groups for multitimbral playing, and the third page controls the Library functions. The Library is not a run-of-the-mill patch store facility, either. It is a very sophisticated function indeed, and there is an enormous amount of Tone data provided with the package. This gives tremendous scope for all sorts of playful tinkering.
The program starts up in the Tone Edit page. The four Partials that constitute a Tone are represented by four small windows, with the current Structures depicted at the bottom of the screen. Each Partial window displays the parameters for the pitch, waveform and amplifier sections of the relevant Partial. If the Partial is in 'synth' mode, as opposed to PCM mode, then the filter parameters are also displayed.
In practice, everything operates in a more or less intuitive manner, with all of the basic functions presented exactly as you would expect. The screen layout is very clear and uncluttered with lots to play with. The envelope generators are represented by a series of 'mini graphs' (to use the Steinberg terminology), and a single mouse click on any of these panels opens up a small window which allows full access to the innermost delights of your machine.
The envelope generators are quick and easy to edit. You can modify the basic shape of an envelope either by dragging a given node on the basic envelope curve to the required destination or you can edit the numeric values themselves simply by holding down either of the two mouse buttons over the relevant value box. It's also possible to switch quickly between any of the alternate Partials without the need to return to the main screen. There is also a collection of preset envelope shapes which can be used as a handy starting point.
There was one feature which greatly impressed everyone in our office, and that was the ability to modify the frequency response and resonance of the filter from the TVF window in real time, simply by holding down the left mouse button and dragging the pointer around the screen. The filter profile is drawn and re-drawn with amazing speed. This was received with hoots and gasps from nearly everyone who saw it. What's more, you can vary these parameters on an individual basis or as a group using the Link function. Very impressive. The graphics are very fast and must be seen to be believed.
Returning to the main Tone Edit page, there was another feature that stood out as a really good idea. Steinberg have provided four 'Tone Buffers' so that Tone data can be temporarily saved during an edit session. If the result of any editing process is found to be unsatisfactory, it's very easy to retrace your steps and hence recall the original idea that inspired them. A nice feature.
Although it may seem more logical to proceed to the Configuration page at this stage, it makes more sense to discuss the Library function first, since this has a large bearing on the operation of the Configuration page. As I said earlier, this page cannot really be described as a simple Librarian feature since it - and the tools used to access its data - more closely fit the description of a 'database'.
The Library page itself consists of a collection of icons and three windows. These windows are active at all times, as opposed to the GEM concept of windows where only one window can be active at any one instant. The two left-hand windows display the contents of a bank of Tone data. There can be two banks, A and B, and each window can display either Patch, Timbre or Tone data for the particular bank selected.
Several of the options available with the Librarian are pretty much standard and don't need covering in any real detail unless you've been living on Mars for the last few years. They include the exchange of data between the editor and the synth, the loading and saving of data to disk, and the copying of data between banks. Nice touches include the ability to swap two sound memories inside the same bank or between banks without copying to an intermediate memory, and an 'insert and rotate' function which, as the name implies, inserts a sound memory into a specified memory location and then moves the remaining sounds one place on through the bank.
Since Roland MT32 sounds are not compatible with D10/D20/D110 sounds, Steinberg have provided a simple utility for converting sounds between the two formats. Unfortunately, I couldn't test this as I didn't have an MT32 to hand but I still thought it a worthwhile inclusion.
The real power of the Librarian feature is in the management of data. Most librarians will let you do most of the aforementioned tasks as standard. But I reckon the Steinberg approach will spawn a very large number of imitations very quickly, it's that good!
Suppose you are hunting for a particular sound amongst the 128 or so available on your instrument. This is not too difficult under normal circumstances, but if you've over 1000 different Tones to choose from you could have a problem. To combat this, Steinberg have introduced the concept of a 'semantic' selection process, whereby you can retrieve any number of Tones from the Library simply by specifying a general description. For example, let's say you are searching for the sound of something like a cookie jar being dropped from a great height. This sound could be described as being vaguely metallic with a short attack. By specifying the semantic links of 'metallic' and 'attack', the program will scan the Tone Library looking for sounds that match the description. Obviously, this is a pretty stupid example but it illustrates the power of this feature.
On now to the Configuration page. This has the general appearance of a mixing desk and again, its effectiveness depends on your particular Roland instrument. It is of most use to those of you, like me, with a D110, since all of the parameters represented on this page may be transmitted to the module as basic Patch data. This is not the case with the D10, D20 or MT32, since these synths do not reserve any memory for these parameters. Synthworks does attempt to overcome these omissions by allowing you to save Configuration data as system exclusive files which can be subsequently transmitted - using a desktop accessory provided with the package - to your synth. The advantage of this is that Configuration files can be sent to your synth from any GEM-based application: for example, a sequencer package which may or may not be Steinberg compatible. This is the sort of open-minded thinking which ought to be encouraged more in the computing world!
Configuration data is based on the sounds already resident in your synth, and consequently the editor boots up with the factory preset data already resident in Synthworks' bank A. The parameters available for each of the eight timbres cover key shift, fine tuning, bender range, MIDI channel, etc. D10/D20 and MT32 users must be content with simply selecting the stereo position of a sound, whereas D110 users can select both the stereo position and also on which of the six individual outputs a particular timbre will appear. Unfortunately, since life is all about swings and roundabouts, D110 users can't switch reverb on or off from this page like everyone else. Finally, the level of a particular Timbre may be varied from a simple on-screen fader and, again, the graphics are very smooth and cleverly programmed.
To finish off, there are a number of additional features available from pulldown menus. There are obvious inclusions such as MIDI parameter utilities, sound creation options, plus a couple of extras - such as the on-line help files. Apart from the normal MIDI parameters you can also merge data from the synth with key information from a master keyboard - very useful if you're using a D110 or MT32.
The sound creation utilities are pretty versatile, too. Randomising data within the confines of a 'mask' can also be found on a number of other packages but Synthworks allows you to re-define the programming mask, for that personal touch.
'Quadratic mixture' - as the name suggests - allows you to mix up to four Tones in real time using the mouse pointer as a kind of virtual joystick, following on from the Kawai/Prophet VS approach. The on-line help system is a good idea and I wish more programs would use this approach. You can usually find a hint or a fix for any particular problem that might be encountered.
As I hinted at the beginning, by the time I started to write this review I had already weighed up the pros and cons of this package and decided that I really like this piece of software. It caters for nearly every conceivable user and does so very well indeed. Although a number of the functions described above do appear in other Synthworks products, I felt they were worth discussing because of the way in which they integrate the package into one cohesive whole.
I enjoyed the wealth of detail in this package and I can't help feeling that I haven't really done it justice. The modified/rewritten version of GEM looks and feels great. The speed with which you can access the various features is also very impressive. Simple things, such as the Macintosh-like character font, also contribute to making this an enjoyable program to use.
Where there are shortcomings, it's important to note that they usually cannot be attributed to Synthworks and are often features of the instruments themselves. However, I do have the odd minor gripe. The most irritating concerns the copy protection dongle: notably, what happens if there is already something occupying the ST cartridge port - like another Steinberg dongle, for example? Steinberg do provide a solution in the form of a 'key switcher', but then that's an extra expense to consider. Secondly, was such a large Tone Library really a good idea? The program requires at least a 1040ST to run it but, even then, I had to remove a few of my desktop accessories to fit the whole program into the 1 Mb memory.
Nevertheless, putting these minor points into true perspective, I have to say that this program is firmly in the Top 10 of my list of best software titles.
£99 Inc VAT.
Evenlode Soundworks, (Contact Details).
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Review by David Hughes
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