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analog synths

Minimal Bedroom Studio

As a consequence of scaling down my home studio, I sold two audio interfaces, Apogee Duet for iPad & Mac and Propellerhead Balance, to acquire an Apogee Quartet instead. (Yes I was checking out the newer Element 46 and even if the Element series audio quality and mic pre technology are a step above, the Quartet’s specifications are good enough for me, and more importantly I wanted/needed 8 outputs and a convenient front panel control.)

I decided for a 4-channel audio interface because I didn’t need 20+ hardware synths and drum machines up and running all the time. All that stuff took up too much space and I didn’t really use them. They were connected to a mixer – functioning more or less as a patchbay – and now that mixer is redundant. Remember, limitations drive creativity and all.

With the current setup, I’m able to insert outboard gear, not only to use Minitaur and Mopho as analog instruments, but also as signal processors/external filters. That is, with a little bit of routing in Ableton Live, I can send hardware and softsynths to the Moog ladder and Curtis low-pass filters.

Right now I got three analog monosynths (Minitaur, Mopho and SH-101) connected, and Analog Keys operating as an analog polysynth, master keyboard, sequencer and MIDI to CV converter. I can record all synths mentioned on separate tracks at once.

The plan is to switch gear depending on the project. It’s a clean, minimal setup which seems to suit me.

Recently, most time has been spent tweaking the setup, experiment with the gear, and programming and sound designing on the synths. I haven’t made any real compositions for a while though.

Next up could be a cassette tape recorder (to be able to make some lo-fi tape compression/saturation). And I think I’ll get the Strymon Deco pedal and put it in an effect signal chain.

Downscale for Creativity

At one point I had all gear connected, like this. That’s over 20 hardware synths and drum machines, integrated in a working and sort of intuitive ecosystem. The idea was to be ready and not having to unpack and reconnect shit, which could be time-consuming and kill inspiration in the meanwhile.

But, I tried this setup for a month, and for me it didn’t work that well. Every time I saw the pile of stuff I suffered a little from some kind of performance anxiety, I froze. It was like all this premium gear was looking at me and saying, “we’re just perfect and you got all possibilities in the world man, why can’t you produce better music? You’re not worthy.”

In spite of its purpose, the setup with all gear mounted and routed had become counterproductive. Truth is, I always worked best with constraints, regarding concept or gear, and to some extent, even budget. For me limitations do drive creativity.

Therefore I disassemble the gigantic keyboard stand and everything on it. (Also, I live in a relative small flat and a home studio like this takes more space that I can afford.) I haven’t yet worked out a storage system for all gear, but I think I put (hide) them in some drawers.

The new idea is to only have a master keyboard/MIDI controller, an audio interface, a mixer, a pair of studio monitors connected to a DAW, and then temporarily plug in the hardware I want to use for a certain project. Right now I’m working on three tracks and there are only four synths on my desk: Elektron Analog Keys, Moog Minitaur, Roland SH-101 and Casio CZ-101.

https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/292135058/stream?client_id=3cQaPshpEeLqMsNFAUw1Q?plead=please-dont-download-this-or-our-lawyers-wont-let-us-host-audio

“Hope my haters keep a special place in their heart for me”

Hardware versus Software

Firstly, most listeners wouldn’t care if a piece of music was achieved using real analog gear or virtual analog emulations. And the quality and tone of different sound sources could be so similar that no-one could tell which one is which, at least not in the context of a finished track.

However, which synth is being used does matter for the musician, due to the sound is only one of many equally important factors for the operator.

Different instruments affect creatively and playability. And different purpose-built interfaces inspire different musical ideas and sound designs. For me, it’s just more fun with knobs and switches on a hardware synth. (Also there’s the resale value. Many hardware synths hold their value well, and vintage synths increase over time.)

Options to the Original

A real Roland Jupiter-8 possesses an unmatched tactility, but its sounds could be copied.

For example, Arturia has programmed a recreation of the synth, the Jup-8 V, and while it may sound quite like the original, softsynths by their nature have no physical controls (tweaking sounds and sweeping filters are being done with a mouse, keyborad or with a generic MIDI controller).

One could of course sample the original Jupiter-8, but samples are merely captured snapshots (even when using a round-robin algorithm) and samples may not convey all the nuances of playing the original instrument.

Roland’s own JP-08, a digital hardware synth with lots of controls and a dedicated set of processors that’s using Analog Circuit Behaviour technology to reproduce Jupiter-8’s sounds could be a third option in this case. Now this small device don’t deliver all the actual characteristics of the original hardware, but it has its own right and does step outside the in-the-box-environment.

Analog Hardware

Nowadays, many home and even professional studios are run with a digital setup, combining software and MIDI controllers. And as electronic instruments, there some are benefits of softsynths, like instant recall of settings when loading a project, and not occupying any physical space.

For a long time I used mainly used softsynths and a small MIDI controller, the Oxygen 8, and I was good with that. But I like unruly analog sounds, and analog synths with analog circuitry need to be hardware. While, in terms of digital synths, most things they do are technically feasible with comparable software.

Worth mentioning is that Arturia, that made a name for itself by making faithful software emulations of hardware vintage synths, has manufactured a few solid analog monosynths too since 2012.

What I don’t get is when a software company like Softube release a virtual modular plugin based on Doepfer’s Eurorack standard. The most obvious reason for these modular synths is tactility. The concept (already being done with Reaktor by Native Instruments) and sound of a modular system could of course be imitated, but the physical aspects just don’t translate. One of the main point here is manually signal routing on a physical, expandable and flexible modular grid.

Anyway, I think the sound of analog hardware per se can be comparable, if not equivalent, to software, but sound is not all when making music.

https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/266445111/stream?client_id=3cQaPshpEeLqMsNFAUw1Q?plead=please-dont-download-this-or-our-lawyers-wont-let-us-host-audio

Here’s something.

One Year Today

On this day one year ago I started a group on Facebook called Synth Farm. It’s a place where members post demos of gear (both new and vintage electronic musical instruments) so that other can listen to user-made sound examples, and don’t need to look to the polished promos of marketing campaigns. Maybe some of you guys are interested?

https://www.facebook.com/groups/synthfarm/

Small Sawtooths and Low-Pass Filters

I got a few small analog synths that I put next to each other for comparison. The test pattern is defined as follows:

  1. The raw sawtooth waveform of the synth, 100% open frequency cutoff and resonance at null.
  2. Manual filter cutoff sweep, resonance at 0%.
  3. Manual filter cutoff sweep, resonance at 50%.
  4. Manual filter cutoff sweep, resonance at 100%.

The input levels are adjusted to roughly peak at -6 dB on each audio clip (maybe that was a bad decision). All synths were connected to a Mackie 1202VLZ4 mixer before being recorded using high-grade Cirrus Logic converters. No normalizing was added in post.

First is the Korg volca keys. When resonance is added, the volume is intensely boosted. The filter section uses the circuitry of the Korg miniKORG700S (which used dual 12 dB per octave low-pass and high-pass filters that were combined). Given the 128 steps that can be controlled via MIDI, the filter sounds very steppy on high resonance (peak).

Next is the Korg volca bass with the second and third VCOs muted. I’d say it has a little buzzier tone than the volca keys. Its filter is also much smoother, especially on high resonance. It’s a fine-tuned analog filter with a bright and crisp sound, with the resonance going from a clean peak to an increasingly distorted sound. As for the volca keys, the volume jumps with resonance.

The toyish Gakken SX-150 Mark II has a quite nice thick tone, with low resonance that is. Slightly less bottom end content than the volca modules perhaps. Unfortunately the pitch slides some due to me messing up operating the stylus pen. Raising the resonance seems to lower the overall volume. With filter cutoff set to fully open and resonance at 100%, the filter is making a loud noise (hiss). I think the synth has a voltage-controlled filter, Sallen-Key low-pass type, 12 dB per octave.

As a bonus the Yamaha CS01 from 1982 is included. The oscillator (labeled VCO, but is in fact a digital tone generator) lacks of woof and weight compared to the others. The first audio clip is the sawtooth 100% open frequency cutoff and resonance set to low (this model is equipped only with two resonance settings). The high setting follows after. The filter is a 12 dB resonant voltage-controlled filter.

Not sure what conclusion could be drawn from this, if any. However, there are some discussions about which of the volca modules are the best sounding et cetera, and maybe this could help deciding. Although this is just a comparison of their isolated sound engines and filters. Interface, voicing options and such have not been regarded.

P.S. You might be interested in a low-pass filter test I made, running a SH-101 trough the filters of a MiniBrute, a Minitaur and an Analog Four, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7cXnhou134.

Analog Sound Designed

Here’s a breakdown of a song that you maybe can learn something from. It’s not that profound, but should give you some hints of the sound design.

But first, listen to https://soundcloud.com/johaneckerstrom/read-me, so you can follow the article.

The song itself is fairly minimal and only consists of a few channel tracks, and therefore easy to analyze.

Drums

For the drums I used an old Roland TR-606 drum machine sequenced to the tempo of 110 BPM. I also added Boss DR-110’s hand clap and a slightly downpitched snare drum for the drum roll.

I put rhythm first in most of my songs, even if this particular pattern isn’t that complex.

Bass

The pounding bass is created on the Korg volca bass.

There are two VCOs grouped, an octave apart, playing the main ostinato, and the third VCO is introduced later in the song as a live pitch. In this case the effect of the VCOs sharing a common envelope and stuff renders a nice effect, where the gate length sounds chopped while the rhythm is intact.

The filter cutoff is slowly modulated by the LFO to make some movement in the sound.

During the crescendo, the filter is manually opened up to two-thirds – and what a liquid filter it is.

A quite high resonance is applied to make the bass scream a bit.

The bass channel is side-chained (triggered by the kick drum) and duplicated to a parallel channel, with bass rolled off (using a high pass filter) and fed through a phaser effect to enhance the stereo image and add further movement.

Motif

The motif is a minimal, almost atonal, figure made on the Korg volca keys. The synth is best used for plucky shit, and set to poly ring voicing (square waves through a ring modulator). The noisy internal delay is bypassed, in favor of an external digital reverb with a plate algorithm.

Arpeggio

This is sequenced internally on the Roland SH-101. Mixed waveforms are used and noise modulation of the VCF for that gritty sound. Cutoff sweeps are manually made and pretty randomly so. Also with high resonance level to add an acid touch. There’s not much use of the sub oscillator here, because the arpeggiator shouldn’t collide with the bassline.

Accent

Only two notes where played twice on the Yamaha CS01, and they are almost unmotivated. Nevertheless, they sound good – yeah, it’s that notorious PWM sound.

Coda

This is the small but big Moog Music Minitaur producing a 8-bit colored sound. The synth is run by a software monophonic arpeggiator which makes these octave jumps when programmed with more notes that it can handle.

A Modern Day Home Studio

I had the same setup, more or less, for years. This year though, has been some kind of paradigm shift for my little home studio. I’ve bought, tried and sold stuff. I’ve also changed room in the flat.

For a long time, I mostly used software, but now I’m leaning towards hardware. The two main reasons for that are: I got space (even if it’s not much) and I find it inspirational to work with new and tactile gear.

Also, I had an ambition of switching from Reason to Live, but since I’ve acquired so much gear, I haven’t had time to dig into Live properly.

Some changes

I upgraded my studio monitors from the Yamaha HS 10W (with subwoofer HS 50M) to the Genelec 8030A. I got rid of a good MIDI controller, the M-Audio Axiom Pro 61, with semi-weighted keys and all, to make room for a full-size, real synth, in this case, the Roland Alpha Juno-2.

Since March I’ve picked up and sold a microKORG and a volca sample. They had a few qualities, but didn’t quite fit my rig – neither sonically nor workflow-wise. I also got a BCR2000 MIDI controller this summer, for the microKORG and the Alpha Juno-2, but sold it because I didn’t needed it and it was too big and clumsy for my limited desk.

I understand this whole post isn’t that interesting. It’s merely some navel-gazing shit, totally nerdy. And to top this, here’s my hardware inventory of the home studio as of today.

Synths and drum machines:

  • Arturia MiniBrute
  • Boss Doctor Rhythm DR-110 Graphic
  • Gakken SX-150 Mark II
  • Korg volca bass
  • Korg volca keys
  • Moog Music Minitaur
  • Roland Alpha Juno-2
  • Roland Juno-106
  • Roland SH-101
  • Roland TR-606 Drumatix
  • Yamaha CS 01

Other stuff:

  • Fender Squier Bullet Strat with Tremolo HSS (Electric Guitar)
  • Genelec 8030A (Studio Monitors)
  • Mackie 1202VLZ4 (Analog Mixer)
  • Midiman Oxygen 8 (MIDI Controller)
  • Sennheiser HD 25-1 II (Headphones)
  • Shure BETA 58A (Microphone)

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