The Original Syn
The updated Synclavier with new software. We take it for a test run.
The re-synthesis package is just one of the great modifications recently made to the Synclavier. Tony Mills hopes the new technology will filter down to the lower strata of the music market.
Although there's a little competition coming along now, the top of the range in sophisticated music systems has for many years been dominated by two quite different machines — the Fairlight and the Synclavier. Either of these instruments will set you back a pretty penny, although it must be said that as a tax loss the Synclavier has no rival — the system can expand in ways which the Fairlight can't even conceive of and which would give any rock star's accountant a field day.
Odd, then, to think of the Synclavier as being out of date or in need of a major update, but that's what it's just been given, reverting in the process from the brand name Synclavier II to plain Synclavier. The new system, which we saw at the UK distributor Turnkey under the experienced hands of Dave Whittacker, has an improved keyboard, vastly expanded recording capacity, and even more ways to synthesise and modify sounds.
Just how does the Synclavier work? It's important to realise that, unlike the Fairlight, it isn't basically a sampling machine — that option was added after the manufacturers, New England Digital, got a look at an early Fairlight and were shocked to see a few ideas in action which they hadn't come up with themselves. No, the Synclavier is basically an FM synthesiser, just like the Yamaha DX7, and the FM routines developed by John Chowning which have been sold to Yamaha had to be obtained under license by NED before they could market the machine.
The Synclavier's FM capability is enormous. It can assign up to four Partial Timbres, or channels of sound, to one key, each one having 36 possible harmonics, a six-stage harmonic envelope, a vibrato generator, a portamento rate control, a keyboard decay control, individual chorus and optional stereo placement. The 32 voice Synclavier has 32 Partials, and using the chorus you could create a sound with sixteen voices, or 384 harmonics, on a single key. These facilities allow it to generate some very powerful and life-like sounds such as cellos, brass and percussion, and many indescribable FM effects.
The Synclavier can be fitted with a variable number of synthesiser voices in the mounting unit above its computer section — anything from 8 to 128 can be accommodated. The voices are controlled by a keyboard, of which more later, and data regarding sequences and compositions can be stored on floppy discs or on a Winchester hard disc. NED realised that they could provide a sort of sampling — more like monophonic digital recording under keyboard control — by sending analysed acoustic data directly to disc, and so up till now the Synclavier has had only monophonic sampling, albeit with astonishingly high sound quality.
NED's engineers set out to develop polyphonic sampling, but in the meantime threw off a couple of other ideas such as a versatile guitar interface. Using a Roland guitar synthesiser controller, the player can address any of the Synclavier's facilities (including playback of sampled sounds) and even build up complex polyphonic sequences. For examples, checkout John McLaughlin's recent Mahavishnu Orchestra album, which uses some very subtle sounds and some devastatingly fast playing, or some of Pat Metheny's work.
At last the updated Synclavier's arrived, and the first obvious change was in the keyboard. The old plastic keyboard has been replaced by a Prophet T8 keyboard obtained from Sequential Circuits, complete with velocity and after-touch sensitivity and wooden weighted keys. The keyboard range has been extended to 71 notes (although of course sounds from well below to well above the range of human hearing can be played from it) and the digital recorder has been expanded from 16 to 32 tracks. A much-needed LED display now shows systems status, gives a name to each sound played and indicates whether it's a synthesised, sampled or re-synthesised sound (of which more later). The cost of updating from the old system is around $11,000, and a basic system bought now (16-voice keyboard, floppy disc drive and computer system without terminal) will cost around $30,000 (keep an eye on the exchange rate for UK prices!).
The latest software, Release J, implements the 32-track recorder and also allows control of sound parameters from the keyboard, breath controllers, pedals and footswitches, together with a pitch ribbon above the keyboard. It also allows simultaneous performance of synthesised and sampled sounds, which can emerge from different outputs for treatment, and supports the Re-Synthesis package.
We referred to Re-Synthesis briefly in our Tangerine Dream interview in the January issue. Sound sampling will always be limited since it's like taking a photo of a sound — however much you bend or distort it, it's basically the same photo. Re-Synthesis may be the way forward — it's designed to let the Synclavier make the best possible imitation of an acoustic sound with its internal FM oscillators, and allows the user massive editing capabilities since every single parameter of that sound remains accessible.
So, for instance, a sampled flute sound could be shortened or dropped in pitch, but a resynthesised flute sound could be lengthened as well, changed very slightly in tone using FM techniques, or combined with other FM sounds and effects over the course of its decay. The Re-synthesis process can be a little tedious — it involves choosing up to 64 significant points from a waveform analysis of the sound and letting the Synclavier's computer base its analysis on these vital micro-changes in timbre or volume - but just how good are its imitations?
Dave Whittacker points out that Resynthesis is best suited to pitched instrumental sounds, and not to complex sound effects which make the analysis process overlong. However, the Synclavier we looked at did have a spectacular sound called "MARY" loaded which called the girl's name, then shot off through a series of FM effects as it dropped in pitch and vanished into the distance. Also on show were "ONE" — a slightly modified human voice again — a very convincing and metallic trumpet sound, and many others.
The re-synthesised sounds are treated just like FM sounds after completion, and so can now be combined polyphonically with a monophonic sampled sound. This "Enhancement" mode is much appreciated by Martin Rushent, Daniel Miller and many other users who can now slightly hot up their samples, for instance by adding a little more FM twang to a bass guitar sound. Even the reggae band Aswad have been experimenting with the Synclavier, and had left a half-finished but very convincing piece recorded on one floppy disc, complete with twangy bass, rhythm guitar and drums.
What's next for the Synclavier? Well, despite the power of Re-Synthesis and the enormous fidelity (around 50K) of the monophonic sampling, the manufacturers are determined to introduce a polyphonic sampling option. This is going to involve hardware as well as software changes, one of these being a conversion to individual outputs for the multitrack recorder. At first the Synclavier only had a single mono output, with the stereo option coming much later. This allowed sounds to be positioned at any of 100 points in the stereo field, and to be panned progressively under the control of an LFO or alternatively as each new note was played. Of course this gives the possibility of composing an entire piece on the Synclavier and mixing down directly to two-track tape, but NED recognise that few users will want to use only Synclavier sounds. For this reason they've incorporated SMPTE locking to tape so that sounds can be dropped in individually onto a multitrack machine, with vocals and other instruments on their own tracks as usual.
Incidentally, for computer buffs, the Synclavier can be programmed from the keyboard or using either of two composing languages, SCRIPT and MAX. SCRIPT uses simplified musical notation to indicate pitch, duration and so on, while MAX is an open-ended computer language one level up from the machine's Scientific XPL high-level programming language. Other options include music printout, with a high-quality printer or a forthcoming laserprinter capable of manuscript quality pieces. Synclavier can communicate by MODEM with other Synclaviers anywhere in the world, so a composer working in New York could send a finished piece down the telephone lines to a studio in Los Angeles. The polyphonic sequencer can allow you to play Music Minus One — to choose which of many tracks you play live on the keyboard while the machine plays all the others — and the Re-Synthesis package has many advantages over conventional sampling. For instance, vibrato rates do not change according to where you play on the keyboard (unless you want them to, of course); repetitive elements of samples do not change speed according to which pitch you play, nor do samples become shorter as you play higher up the keyboard (again, not unless you want them to). "Muchkinization" effects (which turn human voice samples into chipmunk voices when played higher up the keyboard) are minimised with Re-Synthesis.
Altogether the Synclavier system is becoming phenomenally powerful, and it's difficult to imagine what improvements could now be made. No doubt there will be some over the years to come, and with any luck some of the techniques developed will filter down to the more affordable end of the market. Most of us will never have a chance to use a Synclavier — but what price a Synclavier-style Re-Synthesis package for the Yamaha DX7.
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Review by Tony Mills