Real Time Performance System
Paul Wiffen heads off into dreamland to sample the delights of New England Digital's latest improvement package for what's arguably the world's most prestigious computer music system. Not surprisingly, he gives it the thumbs up.
As from the beginning of 1985, the world's most expensive - but arguably most prestigious - computer music system has a keyboard unit that does its internal technology justice, and there's more hardware innovation to come.
For several years now, it's seemed as if the Synclavier's playability has been lowest on the list of New England Digital's priorities. We've seen increases in the machine's voicing capability, in the number of harmonics which can be used to synthesise a sound, in sampling fidelity and power of available analysis, and in the capabilities of the built-in digital sequencer. But throughout all these upgrades and add-ons, the basic keyboard unit has remained unchanged. This has led to two distinct problems, each of which, unfortunately, has been getting more and more obvious with each software or hardware release.
The first is that the Synclavier has been falling further and further behind the competition when it comes to satisfying the needs of the professional keyboard player, because while much has been done to endear the instrument to engineers, synthesists and record producers, the poor guy whose job it is to sit down and play the thing has been struggling with an unresponsive, short-scale keyboard that has no performance features worth talking about.
In addition to this, the Synclavier's front panel, which was designed to cope with the programming of the original synthesiser, has become increasingly overworked as it attempts to give access to the increasing amount of software control each successive update has made possible. In an effort to deal with this, a pernicious 'second page' (referred to as the 'blinking mode', because controls whose LEDs are blinking take on entirely different functions from those with which they are labelled) has begun to creep into the proceedings. And as is the case with the rest of the hi-tech music world, the more functions the designers tried to cram in, the more confusing things became for the harassed operator.
But now, NED have solved both these problems in a single stroke. By replacing the original teak keyboard unit with a much larger ivory one (a procedure not entirely unlike trading in an upright piano for a grand), they've made the job of both player and programmer a great deal easier. And besides the new longer, touch-responsive keyboard and the introduction of performance controls (it's now quite easy to be spoilt for choice), there's a much larger programming display to provide more detail about the parameter being altered, and a much more comprehensive panel that allocates one separate button to each function. So although the blinking mode has not entirely disappeared, its use is now restricted to related functions such as the selection of upper rather than lower harmonics.
It seems that waiting until now to release this particular hardware update could actually prove a blessing in disguise for NED, because it's enabled them to scan the keyboard market of the moment, find out what's popular in their rivals' products and 'synthesise' all these popular elements to form one master control unit.
This process begins, most importantly, with the keyboard. After negotiations last year with the analogue purists at Sequential Circuits, NED were able to sample (no pun intended) the fruits of the long and costly labours that went into the Prophet T8 keyboard, with its light-beam velocity-sensing and pressure-sensing independent for each key. By way of a bonus, the keyboard also increases the playing range to six and a quarter octaves (A-to-C). Described by this reviewer as the Rolls-Royce of controlling keyboards (see review E&MM Dec 83), Sequential's product still stands as the most playable of current synth ivory sets, despite the fact that the sound creation facilities of the T8 have been surpassed by the advent of digital techniques.
So much, then, for the framework on which the Synclavier's new performance system rests. But it so happens that the frame has been gilded by the addition of a more flexible array of performance controllers, as we'll see.
First off, the previous, rather clumsy system of using the panel-mounted rotary control to introduce pitch-bend and vibrato has been replaced by the more conventional (and eminently more usable) method of moving two wheels located at the left-hand end of the keyboard. The left-hand one (most likely to be used as the bend wheel) is centre-sprung or, to be more accurate, slightly off-centre-sprung, as it's moderately forward of centre in the 'no effect' position. Despite this fact, the wheel has the same amount of effect in the maximum positive and negative positions, and is reasonably standard in its feel. The right-hand wheel is not sprung, and so conforms to the norm of controls used to introduce LFO effects. Of course, there's nothing in the slightest bit revolutionary about having two wheels at the left-hand end of a keyboard, but what's pleasantly different about the way the Synclavier does things is that routings to the two wheels are totally flexible. This means you can introduce vibrato with a centre-sprung wheel and perform pitch-bend with an unsprung wheel, if the mood grabs you. Indeed, such niceties can even be programmed with each patch, to cope with the modulation requirements of different sounds as well as different players.
NED have availed themselves of a number of other popular performance controllers, past and present. Many keyboard players must have mourned the demise of the ribbon controller, last fitted - as far as I'm aware - to the Yamaha CS80 and a few Moog designs. Well fear not, ribbon fans: NED have resurrected it as part of their desire to be all things to all men.
And not content to provide for the synthesist of yesteryear, the Synclavier's update committee have also endowed the new system with the ability to interface with one of the most popular of recently-developed performance devices, the Yamaha BC1 Breath Controller. As Dave Bristow has demonstrated so brilliantly in his performances with the CS01 and DX7, the possibilities of expression this little device offers (to those who take the time to learn how to use it, of course) are simply enormous. NED can't actually supply the BC1 themselves, but the price of one (around £25) dwindles into insignificance when compared to the cost of a Synclavier system.
Sockets on the back panel include two inputs for footpedals, of which a couple of the good, solid Morley variety are supplied as standard if you buy the 32-voice version. And these too can be routed to the keyboard, wheel, ribbon and breath controllers, so there's certainly no shortage of performance possibilities.
The real beauty of the Synclavier system is that all these controllers can be routed to a whole host of different parameters. On the Real-Time Effects Panel (bottom far left of the main panel) lies a button for each controller, and when you press one of these buttons, all the LEDs assigned to controllable parameters flash so that routings can easily be selected by pushing a flashing button. In all, eight controllers (see relevant panel photo) can be assigned to one or more of 24 parameters, and these range from Portamento rate, Chorus and FM amounts to all six elements of both the volume and harmonic envelopes (the envelopes on the Synclavier aren't just standard ADSRs - they also allow delays and peak levels to be programmed).
"As for the routing of control functions, the Synclavier is one of the few keyboards that leaves the choice to the performer rather than deciding that certain possibilities are redundant."
There isn't really enough room to go into all the routing possibilities here (even on a one controller to one destination basis, I make it that there are 192 alternatives - but that's before you get into multiple combinations), so I'll just mention a few. You could, for example, use keyboard pressure to bend the tuning, breath control to increase the peak of the harmonic envelope, a pedal to increase the vibrato rate, the ribbon controller to change pitch and so on. It must be the most complex system of expressive control available, but it's also, of course, extremely versatile.
Moving on, we find that the system's built-in Memory Recorder has now been expanded to a width of 32 tracks, and such things as SMPTE and external sync now have their own buttons to call up functions. Basically, the Memory Recorder acts as if it were a multitrack tape machine that's also capable of justifying to whatever resolution is required and transposing without speed changes.
But perhaps the greatest programming aid the new keyboard unit adds is a large display to replace the four-digit, seven-segment readout of the earlier model. On the new version, you get a considerably more comprehensive information service on the parameter, its value and related routings, no matter which button you press. It certainly makes the business of setting up sounds a lot easier.
This is where things start getting really clever. At the time of writing, the Synclavier can only replay sound samples monophonically (albeit at a 50kHz sampling rate with 16-bit analysis), but in a couple of months' time, an upgrade will be made available to allow things to go up to 60kHz, polyphonically. Putting all this into practice can't have been an easy task, and in the event, NED have made use of multiplexing software, so that different samples can be read back at different rates (ie. pitches) at the same time. As things stand, all real-time effects can be applied to all sound samples at the moment, but it doesn't take a Degree in the musical applications of microprocessors to realise that the range of additional possibilities afforded by polyphony and the increased-capacity Memory Recorder will be immense.
As for what's to come after polyphonic sampling, there is guarded talk of longer sample times (longer, that is, than the 300 seconds currently available from the Winchester disks) for each track of the recorder, so that the system can begin to perform the role of a tapeless recording studio. However, it would appear that new hardware has still to be researched and developed by NED, because their specifications can no longer be matched by standard computer industry hardware, so it may be several years before the company is in a position to realise this particular goal.
There's still some cause for complaint, however. As things stand, monophonic multi-timbral samples (bass lines, trumpets, flutes and so on) can be transferred to tape line by line using SMPTE to synchronise everything, but it's still very limiting not to be able to play samples such as piano polyphonically. The day is now very near when this restriction will be ended, but personally I doubt if there will be much change from £100,000 by the time you have your recorder playing back lots of samples simultaneously in real time.
The state of the current user manual is also disappointing for such an expensive system. Continuous updates have led to multiple supplements that aren't properly cross-referenced, and anyone who hasn't grown with the system might well find themselves not only with a hernia (from having to carry all the relevant documentation) but also severe brain-ache (from having to read it). Mind you, NED are at least promising an overhaul of the manual when the polyphonic sampling arrives, because once the system has been stabilised (the polysampling will be the last upgrade for a while), a comprehensive manual for the Synclavier as it is now (as opposed to the Synclavier as it was plus what it has become in serialised episodes) can be prepared without too much trouble.
The only hardware update I'd still like to see is the addition of some internal filtering. I know that remote control of modular analogue filters is possible via CV and audio patching, but this seems an extraordinarily clumsy way of doing things in 1985. All the digital control is there, and there's no doubt the system is powerful enough - I should think it could control a few dozen filters without even so much as noticing it.
All in all, the new keyboard brings the performance aspect of the Synclavier up to the comprehensive level its price dictates it should occupy. The keyboard player now has a state-of-the-art keyboard to match the state-of-the-art electronics inside, and I suspect this is why such well-known performers as Oscar Peterson are now getting into the system, in addition to the star producers such as Messrs Horn, Millar and so on.
As far as the routing of control functions is concerned, the Synclavier is one of the few keyboards that leaves the choice to the performer rather than deciding that certain possibilities are redundant in the normal course of events. I'd like to think other manufacturers will take note of NED's attitude in this area, but...
For clarification's sake, I should point out that the new keyboard is now being supplied as standard with all Synclavier systems. These start with an eight-voice synthesiser set-up for about £20,000, and lead up to a 32-voice system with sampling for around £60,000. Owners of earlier systems can expect a bill for about $11,000 if they decide to upgrade to the new keyboard and an extra half-megabyte of memory to go with it. Complain to your local Prime Minister about how much (or how little) this represents in Pounds Sterling at the time this issue of E&MM appears on the bookshelves.
For further information on the Synclavier system in the UK, contact Turnkey at (Contact Details).
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Review by Paul Wiffen
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