Friday, June 19, 2009


Flying Through The Forest. Seven tracks in Ableton Live, all made using Synplant. I saw it on Matrixsynth maybe a couple of weeks ago and was intrigued. I downloaded the demo, and then purchased it more or less right away. Basically, there’s no knobs or buttons. To design your sounds you instead “grow” them. It’s a little bit hard to describe, but once you try it it just makes sense. There’s a seed in the center, and 12 branches, one for each note. What you do is grab hold of a branch and drag the tip in towards the seed in the center or out towards the edge of the circular window, thereby changing the sound. Remember, though, that there are the 12 branches, so you’re only really changing the sound of the note you’re working on. You can make all 12 notes completely different, just a little bit different, or, by cloning the branch, all the same. You can even automate a note/sound rotation, which ends up making each note play a different sound each time you play it. You can go crazy if you want to, or you can use it as a subtle effect to make your sounds move and change over time.

It’s very easy to get completely chaotic “sound effects” but you’re also able to get all sorts of “normal” synth patches, too. Also, it’s fast and very easy. I usually start with a random seed, drag the branches around until I have a bunch of sounds that interest me and then save the “plant” as a template of sorts. I can then go back and clone a branch and refine it until I have something I like. If you sit down and play with it for an hour or so, you can get a whole family of new patches. It feels completely organic somehow, more like making scrambled eggs than working with a synthesizer control panel. It’s also totally intuitive once you get used to the idea, not in the way that you would “know” what turning a knob on a synth would do, but more like the way you, well, scramble eggs. You don’t have to think about it, you can just do it.

And that’s what I did this morning. Actually, I started last night, with a completely different synthesizer. I just got the Waldorf Edition, mostly so I could finally have my PPG Wave. It’s amazing, great fun, and sounds, well, incredible. So I made a burbling texture, threw in some (G-Force) Mellotron and some (Arturia) Minimoog, and sprinkled over the top I put in some extra burbles from Synplant and recorded a tune. However, this morning I went back to my Synplant sound and worked on it for a little while. I ended up with a whole folder full of good sounds, taking special care to make “useful” types of patches. I then fired up Live and went to work. It all just sort of easily flowed together. I then decided I needed a new sound, not quite a lead synth sound, but more like something to add one more bit of texture. I went back to Synplant and was able to quickly make a new patch which fit in quite well.

It’s all so, well, organic. The sounds are simply grown, and they’re lively and in motion and never static. It’s like the thing’s alive. However, don’t be under the impression that you have no control over the sounds you make. If you need to, there’s a “DNA” button you can click to get to all the parameters. In fact, you don’t have to grow your sounds at all if you don’t want to, you can tweak sliders to your heart’s content. I generally use both techniques, however. I grow my sound, then often go in and manually mess with the synth engine, usually just refining but occasionally radically altering the sound. I’ve only had it a week or so but already I’m getting familiar with the controls, but even if you’re brand new to the synth there’s a totally helpful Help button. When you click it you get a good explanation of what the control does. There’s also a good manual that comes with the program as well, so it’s relatively easy to learn the ins and outs. I ended up buying it long before the three week evaluation period was up.

Synplant. It’s totally worth a try.

Synplant tune (seven tracks of nothing but Synplant)
<a href="">Floating Through The Forest by Seth Elgart</a>

Waldorf PPG Wave 2.V tune (with Synplant track)
<a href="">The Dawn Star by Seth Elgart</a>

Monday, June 8, 2009

Piano vs. Synthesizer

I just read an interesting article on the cost of pianos and why you should maybe get a synthesizer instead (thanks @tarabusch for retweeting @podcasting_news). Most of the reactions are in the “good idea” category, but some have been in the “I’m never coming back to this site again” category. One in particular caught my eye, saying simply “They most definitely do not sound better than a real piano.”

Here’s my reply.

I think we have to define what we mean by a “real” piano, rather than simply throw out knee-jerk reactions. I’m a musician. I have probably 20 synthesizers, a couple of guitars, and three pianos (although the “three” might need an asterisk).

One piano is a baby grand in the family summer home (built by my parents in the 1960s), another piano is a spinet in my apartment, and the third is a Yamaha digital piano. Which sounds best? The Yamaha, by about a thousand miles. The spinet is old and almost at this point unmaintainable, and in fact I’m thinking of simply putting it on a couple of dollies and rolling it out to the dumpster as I can’t get anyone to take it from me, not even for free, and frankly I don’t blame them. It needs work, and hasn’t been in tune in decades. The baby grand is in slightly better shape, but as it’s 200 miles away from where I live and I might only see it every other year or so it’s just not worth putting the money and time into it to maintain it properly. In comparison, the Yamaha digital is small, fits in my living room, sounds great, and never goes out of tune or needs any sort of maintenance other than dusting.

As to “real” pianos sounding better, sure, a US$35,000 Steinway concert grand is going to be unbeatable. However, I don’t think I’ll be able to fit it into my apartment somehow let alone ever being able to afford one. I’ve had the immense privilege of being able to play them a few times in my life, and yes, they’re incredible, but that’s not the point here.

The point is that my Yamaha is in tune and can be played. It sounds good, too. Is it as good as a Steinway? No, but on the other hand the Yamaha is in my living room and the Steinway isn’t. It even has a hammer action, so in a blind taste test I’m not sure I’d be able to tell the difference.

But, my Yamaha is not a synthesizer (although that could be argued both ways). It’s more or less a piano. Some of my “real” synths have semi-weighted keyboards, though. The action of a semi-weighted keyboard is much lighter and faster than a piano. In fact, I prefer these to unweighted synth keyboards as I feel they have a better “feel” than a “regular” synth keyboard. (Sorry for all these double quotes. I’ll try to control myself from here on out.) While my Yamaha fits nicely into my living room, it simply won’t fit into a car. For playing out I need something much more portable. For that I use a rather old 1980s device from Roland called the P-330. Plug a MIDI keyboard into the P-330 and you’re ready to rock and roll. Nowadays, though, there are much better choices (although I still use the P-330 now and then).

But wait, I just got distracted. The P-330 isn’t a synth either. I’m more of an analog guy myself, but pretty much any modern digital synthesizer nowadays will have have a dozen or so onboard piano sounds. Even though I play the piano, I’m not a pianist, but it would be interesting to have someone who was play a short piece with both an acoustic piano and, say, a Korg Oasys and then play them back for a group of listeners without telling them which was which. Done well, I think the success rate for identifying the correct instrument would be around 50%, no better than a random guess. I admit that the Oasys is itself somewhat large and maybe a bit, uh, expensive, but I’m pretty sure the results would be the same with a more affordable synthesizer as well.

So here’s the bottom line. Is a synthesizer a piano? Nope. There’s no room acoustics, you need good speakers, and when designing one you need to pay attention to things like the sympathetic vibration of strings when pedaling. However, with a good synthesizer that’s well recorded, it’ll sound just as good for most purposes. Solo recital in Carnegie Hall? Well, no, I’d use a concert grand (as if!). Rock and roll fightin’ against two guitar players? Definitely. Your 10-year-old in your living room? Absolutely, and you’ll be thanking me later when they can practice with headphones on so you don’t have to listen to them.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The New Oberheim SEM

Tom Oberheim has announced a new version of the Oberheim Synthesizer Expander Module (SEM). The basics are that it’s going to be almost exactly like the original SEM from the ’70s but with an included MIDI/CV interface. There’ll be a few differences, mostly because a few of the original’s odd switches and knobs are no longer being made. Also, most of the circuitry will be surface mount which will keep the cost down compared to through-hole. The new SEM should be available in six months or so and be under US$1000.

When I was just starting to get into synthesizers in the mid- to late-’70s, one of my favorite albums was Larry Fast’s first Synergy album. When listening to it, I had teenage visions of a giant Moog modular synth. However, when I re-read the liner notes a year or so ago I was surprised to rediscover he basically used only a Minimoog and an Oberheim SEM, and reading that reminded me of my teenage synth gear lust. I eventually got a Minimoog when I was 19 or 20, but I was never able to get an SEM, so to hear that Tom Oberheim is preparing to release a modern-yet-the-same SEM has made me pretty darn happy.

I wish I had some original information about this, but the announcement happened in a small show-and-tell session up in Boston. Fortunately, there’s a decent chunk of his presentation available on video on the Stretta blog, including an awesome sounding snippet of Tom playing a working SEM. There’s a good summary of all the news over on the Matrixsynth blog, of course, including links to Flickr sets and a pile of comments.

I wish there was more to say about the new SEM, but that’s pretty much all the info we have so far. I hope to get on a waiting list for one of these, but at the moment there isn’t one. In fact, Oberheim doesn’t even have a working website ready yet. Hopefully as the year goes on we’ll get more information, but I have to say that with only the little bit we know so far I’m incredibly excited about this.