Rob Beattie harnesses the power of the ever popular LA expander range with this Editor/Librarian package from Steinberg
Rob Beattie creates with Steinberg's Editor package for some of Roland's most popular synths
Synthworks is a £99.00 editor/librarian that works with a range of Roland gear - D-10/D-110/D-20 and MT-32- and allows you to load, manipulate, create and store sounds in a way that is both organized and imaginative.
Until you get the hang of it, Synthworks also gets my nomination as the most dangerous program in the world. I managed to replace all of my performance data in the D-10 with a swooshy D-50 sweep and a single acoustic piano sound all because of a careless 'send'. A sympathetic ear at Roland offered a reasonable workaround (switch off, then switch back on again holding down the Tune/Function and Write keys, which got back all my multi-timbral sounds in the right place, but not the performance stuff. For that, I'll have to find a friendly soul with another D-10 to go MIDI smooching with.
After the fear, a few facts. Because the program comes with a wealth of tone data, you'll need at least a 1040 ST to run it, though it's not fussy about whether you've got a mono or a colour display - it'll run on either and Steinberg thoughtfully provides disks for both. The screen however, is packed with information and I'm not sure how successful it would be on a colour display.
It comes with the ubiquitous (or should that be iniquitous?) Steinberg dongle whereby the company ensures you don't rip off its software. There's something to be said for this approach - it's certainly miles better than having to send off for additional 'security' disks - but it's far from being the perfect solution. In the business computer world, copy protection of any kind has all but disappeared - a few specialist suppliers are still holding out - and I trust the music world will swiftly go the same way. It also comes with a manual (see the manual box at the end of this article). If you check out the screen shots that accompany this article you'll see that Synthworks comes in three basic parts. First is the Tone Edit page which allows you to combine partials to form individual tones. Then there's the Configuration page which helps you set up parameters for multi-timbral performances. Last is the Librarian page which is a sophisticated database of stored sounds. Before we look at each of these in more detail, it's worth noting one other thing. This interface ain't GEM. Steinberg has written its own front end for Synthworks that takes a little while to learn, but is admirably fast once you've got used to it (with or without a Blitter which it supports). The typeface is at once interesting and familiar (is that the sound of Apple lawyers sharpening their teeth and pencils?) and the windows are faster, though less flexible than the GEM originals. Overall though, the performance is much snappier.
Synthworks moves from screen to screen using dissolves whereby one screen sort of 'snowstorms' into the next. It's a fast and pleasing effect. However, you do miss GEM's movable windows when, for example, you want to read a help message and look at the part of the screen it's referring to at the same time. But since 'help' is basically lifted from the manual, I'm dubious about its usefulness anyway. There's good attention to detail (you can scroll through a library window in three ways), excellent graphics (from the Configuration page with its pan knobs and volume sliders to the lady's head which winks at you when you've reached the end of an option window) and throughout, this has the feel of a quality product.
Now let's look at each of the 'modules' in more detail beginning with the Tone Edit page. This is where the sound creation takes place. If you check out the screen shot, you'll see that it's divided into four distinct sections - these are the partials which go to make up an individual tone. Partials come in two distinct flavours: PCMs which produce a sampled sound, and SYNTHs, which are made up of synthetic waves linked to a filter. Editing the envelope generators in the lower half of the screen is a snap - you simply click on the one you want and it pops up in a bigger window. Then you can alter the shape of the envelope directly, by hooking the cursor onto the graph and dragging it with the mouse, indirectly, by altering the numerical values (the graph re-shapes itself as you do it) or by clicking on one of the eight presets in the top right hand corner. When you've done, click on 'Exit' and you're back on the main screen.
The wealth of editing tools provided by Synthworks makes it easy to get carried away when you're creating. As always, the maxim is to take things slowly and not run at it like a drunken prop forward. At the foot of the screen you'll see four buttons labelled A, B, C, and D - these are Synthwork's buffers which hold a copy of your work for safe keeping. Thus, if you've found a great sound that you think you can make even greater, you just copy it into a buffer, and carry on tweaking. When you've managed to completely ruin it, just click on the buffer and the original setting is restored. It's an extremely thoughtful safety device.
It looks like a mixing desk, and basically, that's what it is. You use it to assign different sounds to different multi-timbral parts on the synth. Thus you can have a fretless playing under an acoustic piano with a Steampad and strings on top, and the drums churning away as the ninth part. So far, it's no different to what you can do ordinarily on a D-10. However, Synthworks allows much easier and better fine tuning of the individual parts. You can, for example, control panning and volume much more easily, as well as assigning reverb to individual parts. While it's possible to do this on a D-10 in performance mode (i.e. one sound at a time) you can't in multi-timbral mode.
The bad news for D-10, D-20 and MT-32 owners is that you can't store the configuration (as Steinberg calls this set up of parts, effects, tuning and volume) in the synth because there's no memory available for it. Instead, you can save the configuration as a file on disk and load it when you want to use that set up. When you do, all the information is dumped straight down a MIDI cable to the synth and you can use it in conjunction with a sequencer as per normal. Users of Pro 24 have the added advantage of being able to read in the system exclusive patterns that Synthworks creates and do it that way. This page also contains a useful and easy to use drum editor which again lets you fine tune your synth's drum kit for the right pan, volume and reverb.
For the musician who's in the business of looking after hundreds of standard or custom sounds, this is the outstanding part of the program - it holds up to a staggering 1,000 tones in main memory. Using the kind of facilities normally associated with a business database management system, the Librarian allows you to search and sort your sounds by different and sophisticated criteria. For example, you could search for a specific named sound, or for all sounds in the library which included the characters ass - which would bring up all the bass and brass sounds. You can search by partials, or use one of the ten preset selection keys to speed things up. Not that they really need speeding up, because Synthworks' tone database sits entirely in memory, and is ridiculously fast.
The semantic links used by the program are also worth a mention. Each tone can have a number of 'descriptors' attached to it - thus the famous (and completely useless) Commando sound could be described by the words EFFECT as in sound effect, and ARNOLD as in you-know-who! Each tone in the library comes with its own semantic links, but you can change them or add your own if you want, and obviously, as you add your own sounds, you'll want to add your own descriptions.
The two windows on the left of the screen are set to mimic the memory banks in the synth and can display either tones, timbres or patches. They can be assigned as A or B, and in this way you can display your patches in bank A and see your timbres in bank B. Menu options here allow you to send and receive banks of sounds to the synth, swap banks, alphabetisize, add comments to your sounds, print out, and so on. There are also a number of extra goodies like the facility to generate new sounds from old sounds.
Here's an analogy. Imagine someone sat you down in a car and explained how the engine worked, and that it had lights and a stereo, and you could change the channels on the radio or alter the position of the seats and safety belt, or check the oil with this stick, and make out in the back seat, and so on. But what they didn't tell you was that if you stick a key in the ignition, and switch on, you can drive it around. You'd feel like giving them a punch up the hooter.
That's how I feel about this manual because it misses out the most important part - decent, short, worked examples that explain each of the main functions of the program and let you move at your own pace. In this way, you could extrapolate how to fit Synthworks into your own way of working. Instead, you're forced to guess, and stumble through a process which - maddeningly - is claimed to be intuitive. It isn't! - human beings don't think this way.
Steinberg's attempted explanation as to how tones, timbres and patches relate to each other is so hamfisted that it leaves you more confused than when you started. You don't necessarily need a paint-by-numbers approach to documentation, just to be given a fair chance. How about an index, for a start? If Hybrid Arts can get it right with a little 70 quid job (EZ-TrackPlus) and provide a manual that's easy to use, has a decent index and good use of examples, why not the mighty Steinberg?
The hit rate on this stuff is about what you'd expect - lots of good ideas for the soundtrack of Aliens III, but not that basso profundo string section you've been dreaming of. There's a very simple sequencer, a peculiar virtual keyboard which floats up and down the screen (useful only if your own keyboard is out of reach or you're working with an expander) and a good disk utility for formatting floppies, checking file extensions, reading ASCII files and so on.
This is a hell of a piece of programming for £99.00. The re-written interface works brilliantly, it's fast, has a wealth of editing functions and a truly outstanding library. On the downside, it has a steep learning curve - somebody please write a tutorial for the manual - as it is potentially the most dangerous program you'll ever buy.
The synth you're using is an important factor here - D-110 users can't alter reverb settings on the configuration page, but they can assign individual audio outputs, and that's just one example out of many. Still, after considerable heart searching, a fair amount of heartache, and given my serious reservations about the manual, Synthworks gets a big thumbs up - but for the experienced or the committed user only!
Product: Synthworks D-10/D-110/D-20/MT-32
Format: Atari ST (at least a 1040 ST)
Supplier: Evenlode Soundworks, (Contact Details)
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Review by Rob Beattie