Top end synths

Announced at the Frankfurt Music Messe 2017, Waldorf is introducing a new innovative synthesizer design. The company that introduced the first wavetable-based synthesizer, the PPG, is releasing it's new stylish looking Quantum flagship synthesizer.

Waldorf Quantum Some innovative new features include a 3 oscillator synth design, where each oscillator can be picked from a wavetable bank, analog waveform set, granular sample bank or resonator filter bank. It's an 8-voice design with dual analog filters, plenty modulators and digital effects inside. Due to be released later this year, this promises to be a real top-end synth, in the same league as John Bowen's Solaris synth.

Eurorack explosion

In the last couple of years analog synthesis is definitely back again. But we now witness another revival of old synth stuff which is modular synthesis in the form of standardised Eurorack modules. Not only the big names have released synths with Control Voltage and Gate I/O but a lot of small development organisations have jumped onto the Eurorack module development. Take a look at the excitement and buzz at the latest Machines in Music festival.

Survival of the fattest

Again, some exciting news which further underlines the trend of going back to the basics with analog synthesis: Announced at Moogfest 2016, Moog is about to reissue the Minimoog Model D. This is the grandfather of all synths, originally created in the '70s.

This time it is not a copy using modern electronics, but it's build using the same analog components as the original. Some extra features were added in like MIDI, and also a separate LFO (instead of having to sacrifice Oscillator 3 as LFO), and some extra modulation possibilities by utilizing multiple CV in and out jacks on the back of the instrument. It does not come cheap but hey, if you want the real thing then this is definitely it. It will be a limited edition, just like the Taurus pedals a couple of years ago. Although it's exciting to see this faithfull recreation, we are still waiting for a Moog poly synth to become available, the MegaMoog.

OB-8 + Prophet-6 = OB-6

The famous name for analog synthesis Oberheim (named after it's founder Tom Oberheim) enters another exiting phase. This time at the NAMM 2016 show Oberheim joined forces with another legend in analog synthesis Dave Smith, who started Sequential Circuits back in the '70s, famous for it's Prophet line of synthesizers. After Oberheim introduced the successful X-Voice, OB-X(a), OB-8 and Matrix line of synthesizers, Tom Oberheim went his own way with Marion Systems. Driven by the analog revival, he recently introduced the basic buidling block that started it all, the SEM, followed by the Two Voice Pro synth. With the help of his former competitor, now the OB-6 analog 6-voice synth is here!

Clearly, from the outside as well as from the inside, the OB-6 looks like a modification of the Sequential Prophet-6. The casing, the keyboard, the wheels look identical. The front panel uses the blue line printing and the typography/font of the OB-Xa synth back from the '80s. Important to note is that the oscillators, just like the Prophet-6, are all voltage-controlled analog (unlike former DSI synths).

Although the OB-6 doesn't have the extensive modulation matrix capabilities on board, it offers quite some modulation features, more than the original OB-Xa and OB-8 synths. Compare the OB-Xa modulation section with the new OB-6 modulation section below. The question remains if the new OB-6 inherits the same silky 2-pole filter sound present in any analog SEM-based synth.

OB-Modulation

Analog has come full circle

The pace at which new electronic musical instruments are being introduced is increasing year by year.  The development and production time for new synthesizers seems to be decreasing constantly leading not only to ever increasing number of software-based synthesizer plugins but also to a constant introduction of new hardware synthesizers in different variations and combinations. Although, should we say new?

At the NAMM 2015, the largest music production industry show, analog synthesis has come full circle again. In the 70s manufacturers like Moog, ARP, Sequential Circuits and Oberheim introduced their first analog mono and poly synthesizers. During the 80s new digital synthesizers were being introduced leading to an almost complete disappearance of mentioned manufacturers. Later on software synthesizers became the new thing. But now analog is completely back again! It's the vintage sound, the knob tweaking for instant sound creation and the looks (wooden sidepanels) that make them special. Old heroes never die!

So Moog decided to bring back it's Moog Modular synths, Korg introduced the all analog ARP Odyssey with the help of former ARP co-founder and lead designer David Friend, Dave Smith acquired the old Sequential name back from Yamaha to introduce the all analog Prophet 6 and Tom Oberheim is back into business with his Two Voice Pro synth. Analog is back again!

Moog Modular

ARP Odyssey

Prophet6

Oberheim TwoVoice 861

What to expect next: A Memorymoog, ARP Chroma, Prophet 12 VS, or Oberheim OB-4?

Modulation nostalgia

Almost all classical analog synthesizers (as well as many analog sound processing units) have been recreated in digital plugin form nowadays. However one important synth was clearly missing, but now it's here: the Oberheim Matrix 12 V! The Arturia company was well on it's way with the SEM V, but now they've done a Matrix 12 recreation. This synth has a classic VCO - VCF- VCA structure, but is famous for it's extensive modulation possibilities. This is a kind of a blending between a fixed architecture and a modular approach, enabling complex sound scaping. Besides this, I personally also liked the silky SEM filter sound as well as the really fat sound by stacking oscillators when played in unison mode.

The Matrix 12 was also one of the first synths used by Michael Brecker when playing the EWI. It can be heared on the Steps Ahead 'Magnetic' album. So obviously I had to check it out to see if the Matrix 12 V also would be able to generate these classic EWI sounds. Stay tuned for some first results!

arturai matrix 12

Wireless live mixing

Computing acceleration, DSP power and digital developments have a lot of impact on the music business. This is not only true for sound synthesis and digital emulation of the finest studio sound processors but also for live music applications. The days of multicore cabling from the stage to a central mixing position in between the audience is over. Now multi-channel digital audio can be passed over ethernet twisted pair cabling (Dante) or remote mixing control can take place completely wireless.

masterfader

One of the companies that are working on wireless live mixing is Mackie. With their latest digital mixer, the DL32R, it is possible to wirelessly control (with an iPad) the mixing from any position in the audience. Not only this, but with 32-channels input and 14-channels output, and the possibility to assign any input channel to any output channel, there are enough options to deliver personal monitoring to many band members. Individual band members can also control their own monitoring mix wirelessly (e.g. from their iPhone). Each channel can make use of build-in digital effects like EQ, compression, reverd and delay. Last but not least, the system also allows muti-track recording as well as playback. All these possibilities in one box represent a real step forward in live mixing situations as well as in (rehearsal) studio environments.

While mixing everything from an iPad can be fun, I bet Mackie will soon also introduce a physical mixing controller as an alternative for iPad mixing. This is how the new DL32R physical mixing controller could look like:

MC-DL32R-Top

New synth buzz: Paraphonic

Traditionally a distinction has always been made between monophonic and polyphonic synthesizers. Apart from a few exceptions, on any synth one could either play just one note (like the Minimoog) or more notes simultaneously (like the 5-voice Prophet 5). Monophonic synths could be offered for a lower price compared to their polyphonic big brothers, without compromising it's sonic capabilities. Now we see the rise of the paraphonic synth, this time not driven by reduction of hardware cost, but more driven by marketing and positioning. The paraphonic synth allows several voices to be played independently however they share one filter.

Dave Smith introduced the Pro 2 (derived from the Prophet 12, in it's name a successor of the SC Pro-One), a 4-voice paraphonic synth that allows you to play the four oscillators independently, each with their own envelope.

dsi pro2

Moog introduced the Sub 37, a 2-voice paraphonic synth that allows you to play oscillator 1 and oscillator 2 independently.

moog sub37

Korg is introducing a remake of the ARP Odyssey (a duophonic synth derived from the ARP 2600), a 2-voice paraphonic synth allowing you to play two oscillators independently.

arp odyssey

Thumbs up for Dave Smith!

Fortunately, I seldom have problems with my equipment. OK, now and then you'll have the occasional software challenge of getting things working correctly, but I haven't had any serious hardware failures that couldn't be fixed. Once I had one of my voice boards not working on the Rhodes Chroma. The reseller nearby happened to have another Chroma, so I was able to exchange a voice board.

DSI_VoiceBoard_Replace

I recently had a problem with the voice board of my DSI Prophet 08. Voices 3 and 4 were not working. I could tell by looking at the voice LED's not coming on when playing. A week ago I send a mail to DSI and got response the same day. DSI offered to switch voice boards, so after paying $100 they shipped the board to Europe, which I received 3 days later. I opened up the Prophet, exchanged the voice boards, put the top back on again, switched on the Prophet 08, calibrated the filters, and presto! Back on track again, perfect!. When sending back the old voice board $75 will be returned.

What a great service! Indeed a big thumbs up for the people at Dave Smith Instruments! Now I can enjoy one of the best analog synths again. Great!

Old heroes never die

The analog character of the keyboard sounds from the 80's is definitely back again. Most of the famous keyboards from that period now have a 'remake' version, often with new digital control, but still with an old analog heart. Robert Moog started out redoing the Minimoog with the Minimoog Voyager, Dave Smith introduced the Prophet 08, a modern version of the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, and Tom Oberheim introduced the SEM, the basic building block of the earlier Oberheim synths.  One of the latest additions in a row is the Rhodes Mark 7, a remake of the original Fender Rhodes. Read more...

rhodesred

 

Read more: Old heroes never die

Analog stuff

I started playing synthesizers back in 1981. After weeks of hard work during vacation time, I bought a brand new Yamaha CS10 synth. The Minimoog was already around and very popular, but of course I could not afford any Moog at that time. A little later I complemented the CS10 with a Yamaha SK10 organ/string ensemble.

yamahacs10sk10

The Yamaha CS10 was one of the entry synths of the CS family, starting with the CS5 up to the famous CS80. The CS10 had only one oscillator, one LFO, multi-mode VCF with ADSR envelope and a VCA with one ADSR envelope.

 

In those days the first real polyphonic synths like the Oberheim 4-voice, OB-X and Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 had just been introduced. Unable to afford them too, I opted for a poor-man's polyphonic synth, The Yamaha SK10. Core of this keyboard was the string-ensemble section, similar to the popular ARP/Solina Stringensemble. I used a phaser pedal to emulate Jean Michel Jarre like string sounds. It also had an organ (including leslie simulation) and brass section on board.

 

scproonerolandjuno

During the 80s a lot of interesting alternative synths came to market. One of the first entry polyphonic synths was the Roland Juno 6. So I sold my stringensemble to replace it with the Juno 6. It sounded great for strings too thanks to the build-in chorus, but it also featured polysynth-like ADSR envelopes on filter and amp. It had a nice arpeggiator, but no memory and no MIDI yet. Sequential Circuits came with a monophonic version of the Prophet 5 which was the SC Pro One. I decided to sell my CS10 and go for the much fatter sounding Pro One. A nice feature I used was to connect the CV output of the Pro One to trigger the filter input of the Juno. By programming a random note pattern with the onboard sequencer on the Pro One I could generate a nice Sample & Hold filter effect on the Juno. I had a lot of fun with both synths!

I often visited music stores to try out the real big analog synths and started to love the fat analog sounds. I was a big fan of the Oberheim OB-X series, up to the latest Matrix 12 and Xpander. The modulation matrix was a great invention, allowing to program real expressive and evolving sounds. At the same time the ARP company had a hard time keeping it's head above the water and sold it's latest flagship synth to Fender/CBS. They called it the Rhodes Chroma and a few years later, they sold out the latest batch of Chroma's for less than half of the original price, so I decided to go for it. One of my heroes Joe Zawinul played one too, so that was an extra trigger.

rhodeschroma

The Chroma was a real beast of a synth. One of the first with velocity responsive keys, voice layering, multi-timbral operation and keyboard splitting. All features that we nowadays take for granted! The MIDI interface had yet to be invented, but the Chroma had a parallel digital interface. We used a small computer at home, The Philips P2000, on which I programmed a sound editor for the Chroma utilising the digital interface.

The Chroma sounded very fat, but also was kind of hard to program, especially when only using it's small display, one slider interface.

There is an excellent website for Chroma aficionados that is maintained by Chris Ryan. You can find all kind of interesting information related to the Chroma. I don't own the Chroma anymore :-(

 

matrix6

During the late 80s all kinds of new digital synths entered the market, most notable the Yamaha DX7, Korg M1 and the Roland D-50, all equipped with the new MIDI interface. The Roland D-50 sounded very fresh making use of short samples utilized during the attack phase of the sound. I liked it a lot, especially using some quite convincing analog emulation sounds on expansion cards. I still own the D-50.

Later on I expanded my Roland D-50 sound with a number of rack synths: the Oberheim Matrix 1000, The Korg Wavestation and the Emu Proteus 2000. The one still standing out to me is the Korg Wavestation. This synth evolved from ideas like vector synthesis first utilized on the Sequential Circuits Prophet VS. You could program nice evolving sounds with the Wavestation including drum loops. Very inspiring to play!

kurzweil_stack

In the 90s I became a big fan of the Kurzweil K-series of synths based on the VAST architecture (Variable Architecture Synthesis Technology). To me, the VAST synth architecture is one of the most complete and flexible ways of programming synths. In a way, it is an object oriented approach to programming, starting with individual keys and velocity layers to build programs and layer programs in setups.

It was one of the first synths with traditional synthesis expanded with quality build-in ROM samples combined with a full sampler intstrument. Also it has a lot of programmable sliders and buttons that we see on most keyboard controllers nowadays.

I used the Kurzweil K2500XS for quite some time and still use it in the studio. Later on I also bought the more portable Kurzweil K2661 for on-the-road playing utilizing the same sounds that I programmed for the K2500.

Johanspeelt_dx100Sometimes I had a desire to move around on stage as well. I ran into a cheap second hand Yamaha DX100 which I sometimes used to drive my Oberheim Matrix 6 synth. The DX100 was very compact with nice pitch bend and modulation wheels on the left upper side, and it also had a breath controller input! Since the DX100 was not velocity responsive, I used the breath controller to drive filter and volume of the Matrix sounds.

 

Nowadays, the synth landscape looks quite different. Analog sound creation is still around, but more and more convincing analog recreations are available in plugins running on computers with or without additional DSP hardware boards. With Moore's Law still valid this process of synths running on computers will continue to evolve in the future. We will see more and more Macs on stage!

Live gear

keyrig

Recently, I use a Clavia Nord Stage EX for live performance. The 76 keys version is still quite portable to take on the road.

It has a great sound, nice piano's, a nice Hammond B3 sound with really good leslie simulation, and nice effects including distortion. A somewhat limited synth is also on board but still usefull. What I like most is that almost everything can be controlled with knobs and buttons as you play. I hardly use any programs, because I can quickly switch between Piano, Rhodes and Hammond sounds while playing. Also the effects can be tweaked with buttons so you can change them easily while you play.

 

I have always liked my Sequential Circuits Pro One synth, so when original Prophet 5 designer Dave Smith came out with the Prophet 08 I had to try one and eventually buy one. Great analog character with lots of knobs, I love it!

Studio gear

studio800x600In my studio I use Apple Logic as the center tool for all playing and recording. I use Mackie controllers to do all automated mixing. For monitoring I use Dynaudio Air 6 active nearfield monitors. My main keyboard is the Kurzweil K2500XS.

 

I run a number of instrument and effect plugins within Logic. My favourite instrument plugins are:
- Toontrack Superior Drummer
- Spectrasonics Trilogy Bass
- Synthogy Ivory Piano
- Spectrasonics Omnisphere Synth
- Korg Wavestation Synth
- Native Instruments B4 Organ

For effects I mainly use the Universal Audio software running on UAD-1 and UAD-2 cards. My favourites are:
- EMT plates
- Dreamverb
- Roland Dimension D
- Pultec EQ
- VCA VU
- Precision buss compressor

iPad for music applications

ac7proSince the introduction of the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch, a lot of music-related apps have become available. Despite it's limited screensize, as well as other hardware and processor speed limitations, some of these apps are quite impressive.

 

In Apple's appstore, the most important types of music applications are in the following area's:
1) Personal radio (e.g. Pandora radio, Last.fm)
2) Radio broadcasting (e.g. iHeart radio)
3) Musical instruments, drum computers, synths (e.g. Ocarina)
4) Music tools, scratching, recognition, lyrics, chord voicings, tuner (e.g. Shazam)
5) Artist (e.g. Lady Gaga)
6) Recording/Sequencing (e.g. FourTrack)
7) Controller (e.g. TouchOSC)

 

With the recent introduction of the iPad, some of the above music app categories might benefit a little extra from the enlarged screensize, in particular the controller section. Of course it is still early days to see how this all develops but due to its large touch sensitive interface there is definitely a future for tablet PCs in music!

 

Createdigitalmusic.com gives an excellent overview of music app developments on iPad. 

About me

I like music, especially making music. I listen to a lot of different stuff, but I like soul, jazz and fusion music most. I like to develop and experiment with tools to make music performance and improvisation on the spot more exciting. It is fun when unexpected musical things happen during a performance!

In recent years I developed the MIDI real-time Harmonizer, a tool for generating harmonized chords when playing a solo line. Inspired by the work of saxophonist Michael Brecker, I started to develop this tool to run on Mac and PC. Brecker played the Electronic Wind Instrument and used the Oberheim Xpander synth to generate random chords from an EWI solo line. Now you can accomplish the same thing with the MIDI real-time Harmonizer driving your own favourite (plugin) synths.

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