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Advanced Music Synthesis

So it's a good programme?

Dave Bristow and Gary Luenberger at the Yamaha test studio, Japan.

Whilst it is essential to understand the mechanics and logic of the instrument you play, the end product, making music, should be the prime consideration. There is only one way of monitoring progress to this goal, and that is by ear - so for the short time it takes to read this article, unplug the mental oscilloscopes and warm up the ears and fingers!

There is more to synthesis than good programming; the sound has to be delivered and it is this area which is often neglected by both players and manufacturers. It is easy to become infatuated with the novelty and wide variety of sounds available from synthesisers without developing their musical potential and it seems to me that manufacturers are taking too long to design and produce good keyboard-actions for otherwise good synthesisers, by which this potential can be realised.

During the course of my consultancy and demonstration work for Yamaha, I find myself at many European Trade Fairs where all makes of synths are on show and technology rules supreme! TV displays, computer interfaces and illuminated panel indicators are surrounded by rows of faders and buttons, yet, midst all this sophistication, there will probably be a 4 (or maybe 5) octave keyboard, F to F, badly sprung, the action of which is similar to any department store chord organ!

Design began to improve with the Yamaha CS80, and the GS1 action is even better but these are the exception rather than the rule. However, despite the manufacturers' slowness to meet our needs in this area, there are still techniques which keyboard players need to develop in order to utilise fully synthesisers currently on the market, and to enable them to deliver carefully programmed sounds with maximum effect. These are: control of the various means of expression and the use of differently tuned oscillators requiring some harmonic investigation. These skills are as much part and parcel of the modern synthesists' technique, as programming and should not be overlooked, so I should like to consider them in more detail.

Playing Technique

Most monophonic or duophonic synthesisers seem to function in such a way that any release time set on the envelope generator controlling the VCA or VCF has to be allowed to complete before the successive note will operate according to the programmed attack time. As most of many workable solo synthesiser sounds in the woodwind, reed, brass and string area require a very small release time (this is just as important to the musical nature of the sound as the gentle attack time), a playing technique needs to be developed in which each key is released before the next is depressed, even in legato playing. This way, each note will have the full benefit of the envelope programming and the front of the notes will not 'clip'. Pianists do not normally play legato in this manner and it takes some practice to develop this technique, but the rewards in the form of more authentic imitative and musical sounds are well worth the effort. Even grace notes should be played in this way - set up a brass sound on a monophonic synth. and compare normal legato playing with "every note released" legato. The difference will be very noticeable, the careful playing giving more credibility to the programme. Tapping the fingers on a table, ensuring that each one is lifted before the next one taps, will help develop this 'push and release' finger-style approach to the synthesiser keyboard and significantly broaden its musical potential.

Some polyphonic synthesisers (the ones I use are the CS80 and the new GS1) have independent pressure sensors on each key to control volume, timbre, LFO modulation etc. In order to maximise the potential of this refinement, it is necessary to develop a controlled "after pressure" in all fingers of both hands, which for most keyboard players is a novel requirement. The skill is very easily developed by resting the fingers and thumb on a firm surface (as if on the keys of a piano) and pressing each one down firmly in turn, without ever lifting them from the surface. Although this facility is only available on a few synths, the effect is very good, allowing inside or top single lines to be brought out in a chordal movement.

Generally, introducing LFO modulation or VCO, VCF and VCO control is done via mod-wheels, pitch wheels, levers and ribbons, and foot-pedals. Competent use of these controls requires practice and thought. The 'click' of self-centring pitch wheels is not always too apparent and the fingers need to be sensitive to the position of the wheels. It is important to know the pitch span (i.e. 1 tone, 3rd interval, octave) of any pitch device, and whether it has a linear or logarithmic effect in order that musical bends can be consistent and thus make a pitch bend of a given interval instantly. The use of LFO modulation is also very important. For instance, the introduction of LFO modulation on a flute sound should have more effect on the timbre (VCF) and amplitude (VCA) than on the pitch (VCO), whereas, with a violin sound, modulation should mainly effect the pitch (VCO). Choosing the correct speed, depth and area of influence (VCO, VCF or VCA) enables LFO modulation to be carefully incorporated into programmes or introduced during playing via wheels, levers, or pedals, or pressure on the keys and will bring an instrumental performance to life, broadening its musical value.

Another area that should be explored, and is unique to synthesists, is the possibility of obtaining 2 or more notes from one key, where more than one VCO per note is provided with the instrument. This effect is of course more interesting where duophonic or polyphonic instruments are concerned and it can be rewarding to investigate the harmonic possibilities through combining specific pitches. The best interval to begin with is the fifth, this being the first different harmonic in the series. For instance, playing a major third interval with the two oscillators for each note tuned apart, will sound a major 7th chord - a minor 3rd interval will be a minor 7th.

The only note which brings in an out-of-scale 5th is B. Two note combinations of any other notes will sound interesting and give useful harmonies directly related to the root key. Playing more than two notes requires more investigation of course, but if your instrument has this facility then it should not be ignored. The relative volumes of the two oscillators is also an important factor - if one is significantly lower than the other, then there is an effect of "ghost" harmonies, not unlike the effect of harmonics on a Hammond seeming to change the mood of any given chord. This is another musical area waiting to be explored, but don't expect the instrument to produce it alone - choose the right notes, and be aware of the extra combination of notes you are producing by detuning the oscillators.

I hope that the tone of this article expresses my belief that the synthesist is more important than the synthesiser and that the correct interpretation of a sound and good playing of the keyboard is every bit as important as the logical construction of the programme. Generally, programming is considered to be part of the synthesist's job as a musician but this need not necessarily be so. Over the last eighteen months, I have been involved with the development and presentation of Yamaha's latest polyphonic synthesiser, the GS1, and in the case of this instrument, programming and playing have become completely separated. The instrument has presets (although these can be interchanged from a voice-card library system), all the programming being done at the factory. In order to present the instrument with my band at the Frankfurt Trade Fair last February, I spent some days programming suitable voices at the factory, but after this, during the shows, no alteration to the voices was possible. The result was an enforced freedom from knob twiddling and button pushing that I found totally relaxing, and this coupled with an 88-note keyboard and an action like a grand piano, enabled me to concentrate 100% on the delivery of the music - and that's what it is all about.

Programming the GS1 was, I must admit, quite an experience but one I would rather relate on another occasion, leaving you to think about your skills as a synthesiser player and performer rather than a synthesiser programmer. And I would like to ask the manufacturers generally this question: Do your synthesisers as musical instruments, have the qualities that these skills will ultimately demand?

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Electronics & Music Maker - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Electronics & Music Maker - Jul 1981

Feature by Dave Bristow

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