Once you've got your sequencer up and running you're gonna need some extra sound sources. Paul Wiffen guides us through the MIDI Expander jungle
So you've got your computer and MIDI interface, you've got your sequencing package, all you need now is something to make noises. But tread carefully or you may find yourself restricted to one sound at a time. Paul Wiffen offers some sound advice when shopping.
There are some basic concepts which you should have under your belt before you go shopping. These can all be summed up under the generic piece of synthesizer jargon "multi-timbrality". To get a grip on this, let's start with a history lesson. The first synthesizers were monophonic: they could only play one note at a time. Gradually, manufacturers started to put several individual synthesizer circuits in one box and made it so that they were triggered alternately from the keyboard, making them polyphonic, ie. they could play chords. However, at this stage, while they could play several notes at once, each note could only play the same synthesizer timbre as its fellows. Now of course, nobody thought there was anything untoward about this, as all conventional instruments are like this.
A piano, however many notes you play at the same time, always gives you just one timbre, the sound of a piano. The same is true of a flute, a guitar or pretty much any acoustic instrument. The most famous polysynths of yesteryear, the Prophet 5, the Oberheim OBX, the Roland Jupiter 4, the Yamaha DX7, were all like this, but nobody complained seeing as nobody new anything different. If anybody had thought it worthwhile coining a term for this, it would probably have been mono-timbral, but seeing as everything was like this, it didn't seem worth the effort.
Then some bright spark had an idea. What if you could play two different synthesizer timbres simultaneously from the same key, or even play a different sound with each hand? A new generation of synths was born, which could either trigger two synth voices from one key, or had a split point on the keyboard, with a different timbre being triggered depending on which side of the split you played. At the time, these were known as split/layer keyboards (or split/double) - nowadays they are sometimes referred to as bi-timbric - and tended to evolve from established machines, the Prophet 10, the Oberheim OBXa, the Roland Jupiter 8 or the Yamaha DX-5 or DX-7II. However all these machines were often nearly twice as expensive as their predecessors.
Then someone at Sequential Circuits had an even better idea. What if a synth could play lots of different timbres at the same time? But you'd have trouble controlling more than a couple of timbres at the same time, wouldn't you? Not if you had a sequencer you wouldn't! The result was the Sixtrak, a six voice multi-timbral synth with a built-in sequencer, which sold at the time for the ridiculously low price of £799. You could record six tracks one after the other (hence its name), each one using a completely different synth timbre.
Sequential Circuits have now been swallowed up by Japanese giants Yamaha, and the analogue sounds that the Sixtrak and its descendants, the preset Max and the velocity-sensitive Multitrak all featured are distinctly unfashionable nowadays. However the series was the fore-runner of all the expanders we have today in that the multi-timbrality in conjunction with a sequencer was its strong point. (Sequential Circuits also pioneered the use of computers for sequencing, patch storage and editing with their Sequencer 64 MIDI interface/sequencer for the Commodore 64, but that's a story we had best leave for another day.)
Everyone left multi-timbral synths alone for a while (probably because cheap sequencing on computers hadn't caught on yet) and it was a couple of years before another manufacturer brought out a multi-timbral synth. When it did come, it was from Casio, those champions of the impoverished common man, although it was probably its fashionable digital synthesis and cheap price that attracted people to it at first.
The CZ-1000 (full keyboard at £450) and the CZ-101 (reduced width keys at £299) allowed four different sounds to be sequenced on 4 different MIDI channels thanks to MIDI Mode 4 (each voice on a different MIDI channel, also known somewhat confusingly as Mono Mode). Some famous names soon cottoned on to this fact, the most extreme example being Vince Clarke (then of Yazoo, formerly of Depeche Mode, now of Erasure) replacing his Fairlight with half a dozen of them driven by the UMI sequencer running on the BBC Model B (which was the "in" combination at the time).
The only problem with these early multi-timbral machines was that each part was monophonic (as originally laid down in the MIDI spec for Mode 4, hence the name Mono Mode). Eventually manufacturers grew tired of this artificial limitation and made it so that machines could respond to each MIDI channel polyphonically. This coupled with the arrival of cheap sample-based sounds has led to an explosion in the popularity of multi-timbral modules. The reason for this is undoubtedly the growth in the use of sequencers (principally software packages on home computers).
Despite what the salesman will tell you, the number of tracks your sequencer has (provided it is more than two) is rarely a limitation. What is far more likely to limit you is the extent of multi-timbrality on your MIDI synth. A DX-7 although it is 16-note polyphonic can only be used to record one track unless you can stand to have all your basslines, chords, leadlines etc all with the same patch. On the other hand, an eight-voice multi-timbral module will allow you to do up to eight tracks with different patches (even more if it has dynamic allocation). It is for this reason that multi-timbral synths have become so popular in the last 12 months.
The Roland MT-32 led the way early last year, a module (keyboardless synth) which could produce multiple drum sounds realistically as well as eight other sounds and all for £449. Although this unit is now being phased out, there are some very good second-hand prices on them and the rack-mounting D110 has taken up where the MT-32 left off with multiple outputs (6 plus stereo), better signal-to-noise ratio and programmability.
If you don't already possess a MIDI keyboard then you could go for the keyboard version, the D10, but here you will lose your separate outputs (no great loss if you can't afford a mixer to use with them). Most recently, Roland have forged ahead with the U-110 Sample Player which gives you the high quality sampled sounds of their S50/S550/S330 samplers (all costing well over a grand) for just £599 but without the fuss of disk loading (extra sounds to the 99 onboard come on instantly accessible ROM cards, the size of a credit card).
Authentic piano, strings and other acoustic timbres are its forte, as well as a whole host of drums, percussion, basses, etc: a veritable complete band-in-a-box! Most importantly, the U-110 has 31-note polyphony so you can record a lot of tracks on your sequencer without running out of voices and six separate outs for those of you who want to mix and effect parts individually.
Lest you get the impression that Roland are the only people making multi-timbral modules, here are some other options to consider. E-mu (the pioneers of sampling) are bringing out a similarly-priced unit to the U-110, which has 32-note polyphony, and has all its sounds developed on the £10,000 Emulator III. Some are stereo and the six separate outputs can be configured as three stereo pairs.
Yamaha also have a sample module, the EMT-10 which although it is only bi-timbric (piano, strings, brass, choir, guitar, or harpsichord and a bass sound simultaneously) is so cheap at just over £200, that you can afford to buy several (as I have done). Even if you don't go in for that sort of duplication it's worth getting one as you have to spend about 10 times the money to improve on its acoustic piano sound for sequencing.
Kawai's K-1 uses samples as the basis for an eight note polyphonic multi-timbral keyboard at £595, although you can save yourself a couple of hundred on that price if you don't need the keyboard by buying the K-1r rack mount version. The preset domestic keyboard version of this range, the WK-50, features built in rhythms and basslines and can divide its 12 voices across seven MIDI channels. It also has built-in speakers for those who don't have their own amplification, and is a real bargain at £299. The WK-40 has a few less sounds for £249, but loses nothing in the polyphony or multi-timbral stakes.
As far as sounds other then samples are concerned, Yamaha have had a great deal of success with the FB-01 and the rack-mounted TX-81Z; multi-timbral modules producing four operator FM sounds for just £199 and £399 respectively, although to get sounds of the same complexity as the original DX-7 you would need to use their TX-802 rack which is a trifle more expensive at just under £1200. If you need a keyboard, try the new YS-100, an 8-voice multi-timbral synth with built-in reverb, or the DX-11, the keyboard version of the TX-81Z, both around £600.
In the analog synth field (which the emergence of Acid House is bringing back into fashion), I am pleased to say that Britain leads the field with the Cheetah MS-6, for which yours truly did some of the patches. It is a 6-voice programmable rack-mount with 480 patches on-board, a big sound and the only multi-timbral analog synth for under 4 grand that I know of (it costs £299). Cheetah also have a digital synth on the way for the same sort of price, and later in the year there is the Micro-Wave coming from Steinberg, a rack mount version of the ground-breaking PPG synths of some years back which are still in great demand.
I trust this gives you some idea of what to look for when you're out shopping. Look out for future articles on setting up and getting the best out of multi-timbral modules.