Here’s how Elektron’s new Digitone makes FM synthesis easier

Elektron have applied their cute-and-friendly formula from the Digitakt drum machine to a new synth called Digitone – and it’s FM.

Now, the phrase Elektron uses is “accessible” – the press release writes “powerful yet user-friendly take on FM synthesis.” But this isn’t just marketing speak; it seems they really have made an effort to make frequency modulation more playable.

Good electronic music instruments give users lots of stuff to touch, and the feeling that the full range of each knob, for instance, sounds good or at least plausible. That’s where the wonders of FM sort of break down when they hit making hardware. Frequency Modulation synthesis is based on a simple principle: modulating a waveform with another waveform in the same audio range. And the whole joy of this is suddenly breaking open surprising tones – covering ranges edgy, metallic, unstable, futuristic.

Or – with a tiny change in parameter – something totally unrelated. Or awful. Or silent. So, to avoid unpleasant surprises, hardware builders have tended to hide away that complexity. So, the mighty Yamaha DX7 has basically no controls – and as it popularized FM, also gave people the (mistaken) impression that it always had to sound like Yamaha’s presets.

Plus, while those sounds are great, sometimes they need softening. (Think of the difference between hearing a reed instrument, and hearing just the reed.)

For fans of FM synthesis, just as exciting as the Elektron news this week is the extensive interview with John Chowning (who’s a natural teacher, always a pleasure to listen to):

Elektronauts Talk: John Chowning

Don’t miss his bit about how he explains FM synthesis to a child – it’s really elegant. And Dr. Chowning picks up on the two things Elektron has done:

1. Set some limits so you get hands-on control over sound without getting lost – exploring space, but not throwing yourself out an airlock.

2. Putting the FM synthesis engine inside a more conventional subtractive synthesis architecture. (Basically – adding filters!)

As John describes those:

I noticed, in your instrument, that you put some boundaries on the possibilities so that one doesn’t end up in a daze without understanding how you got there, or end up in silence.

And regarding the architecture:

[Digitone] lets the user intuitively explore this re-formable, shapeable ball of stuff, then put that through the normal processes of synthesis.

So the thing to watch with the Digitone will be how well its presets and sound design work in practice. You’ve got a four-operator FM synth. That’s the architecture used by Robert Henke for Ableton’s Operator, precisely because it’s more manageable (and covers most of the sounds you want to create); adding operators adds a lot of complexity.

Then each voice (there’s 8-voice polyphony) adds filters: one multimode, one “base-width.” (Think they mean bandpass? I’ll ask.) And each voice comes with two assignable LFOs and overdrive to make things dirtier.

They’ve also added quite a lot in the effects section – sends for chorus, reverb, and delay, plus a master overdrive.

This being an Elektron box, integration of instrument and sequencer are key. And like the Digitakt, even this smaller box can be used to drive external gear. There are four synth tracks and four MIDI tracks, both, so the Digitakt is a bit like a mini Octatrack – it can be a hub for a live performance or synth rig.

With trig conditions (interactive events that can occur on each step) and track lengths and micro timings, you can make some fairly complex patterns. And whereas the DX7 and its ilk let you punch in a preset and then play it as-is forever until everyone got annoyed of the sound, Elektron bring parameter locks to make per-step transformations of your creations. So imagine all that sonic possibility of FM synthesis, changing as the sequence runs. We saw a peek of how much fun that is with KORG’s humble volca fm – now you get it on a deeper FM synth.

Worth investigating in a review – how much work is it to modify or program your own presets, how it works having parameters change with different presets, and how playable the whole thing is. But even though FM synthesis is a creation of the 1960s, having a playable, sequenced FM synth definitely stands out from the crowd of noisemakers at the moment. The new Elektron is available now, though currently listed as sold out. (Someone obviously likes the idea.)

$759 USD/779 EUR/£699 GBP.


Synth voice features:
8 voice polyphony (multitimbral)
Multiple FM algorithms
1 × multimode filter per voice
1 × base-width filter per voice
1 × overdrive per voice
2 × assignable LFO per voice

4 synth tracks
4 MIDI tracks
1 arpeggiator per track
Polyphonic sequencing
Individual track lengths
Parameter locks
Micro timing
Trig conditions
Sound per step change

Send & master effects
Panoramic Chorus send effect
Saturator Delay send effect
Supervoid Reverb send effect
Overdrive master effect

128 × 64 pixel OLED screen
2 × 1/4” impedance balanced audio out jacks
2 × 1/4” audio in jacks
1 × 1/4” stereo headphone jack
48 kHz, 24-bit D/A and A/D converters
Hi-Speed USB 2.0 port
MIDI In/Out/Thru with DIN Sync out

Physical specification
Sturdy steel casing
Dimensions: W 215 × D 176 × H 63 mm (8.5” × 6.9” × 2.5”) (including knobs and feet)
Weight: approximately 1.49 kg (3.3 lbs)
100 × 100 mm VESA mounting holes. Use M4 screws with a max length of 7 mm.

And of course, yes, Overbridge (Elektron’s tech for helping integrate their external hardware with your software rig).

The post Here’s how Elektron’s new Digitone makes FM synthesis easier appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Jean-Claude Risset, who reimagined digital synthesis, has died

We’re in a strange time, as we big farewell to a great generation of pioneers of electronic music. French composer Jean-Claude Risset’s work can still tickle our perception and challenge what’s possible. He helped expand the frontiers of what digital synthesis can do for our ears, and brought the technology to the European continent. And this week, he left us at the age of 78.

The sound for which Risset is best known is perhaps the most emblematic of his contributions. Creating a sonic illusion much like M.C. Escher’s optical ones, the Shepherd-Risset glissando / Risset scale, in its present form invented by the French composer, seems to ascend forever.

I’ve noted a resurgent interest in Risset’s sonic illusion. It’s a sign the composer’s legacy will go from academic curiosity to far-reaching phenomenon, as the practice of electronic sound making becomes more global. There are new composers like Germany’s Marcus Schmickler embracing the technique. When Schmickler performed his dizzying audiovisual onslaught in Berlin earlier this year, it won over new fans and impressed even FM pioneer John Chowning. Chowning, who even studied with Risset, took it as an indication new waves of sonic inventors could reinvent and expand on the past techniques, keeping them fresh as ever.

Those ever-ascending Risset barber-shop techniques are now in iZotope’s filter plug-in, and passed around in YouTube tutorials and copy-pasted SuperCollider code. They’re spreading, transmitted the way folk melodies once were. Oh, yeah – there are rhythms, too.

Rhythms probably sound craziest:

We imagine, in some antiquated 19th Century Wagnerian/Hegelian/heroic mode, that what makes people influential is their contributions as individuals.

But as I find myself frequently saying in these histories, it’s the ways in which people come together that have mattered in musical invention and transmission. So, when Risset met Max Mathews’ team at Bell Labs, he was able to bring wild new sonic possibilities to Mathews’ young computer synthesis language. Max himself often downplayed his skills as a composer, and while Max’s structure for the original MUSIC language was ingenious, a lot of his early demos sound crude and dated. Max understood and was articulate about the theoretically unlimited possibilities of synthesis. Risset was the sort of composer who could dazzle with those capabilities and produce something futuristic and new.

He was at the beginning of IRCAM in Paris with Pierre Boulez, the beginning of CCRMA at Stanford with John Chowning, there for the renaissance at Dartmouth with Jon Appleton (where the Synclavier got its start).

And he brought digital synthesis to Europe as he set up the first-ever system at Orsay, 1970-1.

In other words, even if you managed never to hear Risset’s music, you’ve come in contact with his students, or the students of his students, with the infectious ideas and technologies he explored.

His 1968 Computer Suite From Little Boy was produced the year before humans arrived on the moon – but it sounds today like something that we’d listen to peering out a bay window on our way to Mars. The man who brought digital synthesis to Europe made sounds that now could be played in club nights at dozens of festivals on the continent for enthralled twenty-something fans. In a world that has lately seemed regressive, that’s encouraging.

And in a world that threatens to be “post-truth,” Risset was a composer who was ceaseless in arguing that understanding perception was necessary to making and processing art. And, oh yeah – you’ll have a good time.

For instance:

“One can generate auditory illusions, “errors of the senses, but truths of perception” … These examples support the view-point that hearing performs auditory scene analysis to provide useful information about the environment: the elaborate mechanisms involved in analyzing the auditory signals are gratuitously involved for our enjoyment when we listen to music.”

Simulacra and Illusions: Understanding Perception is Important for Computer Music [Seminar: The Science and Technology of Music]

Watch that lecture (in English):

He also had a knack for interweaving his traditional training in piano and composition with electronics, with unusually bold effect and sensitive technique. Duo pour un pianiste at MIT in 1989 pits pianist and computer accompaniment in a duet on the same piano, at the same time.

Here he is doing wondrous things with Disklavier:

There’s a French-language obituary by Olivier Lamm; I’m sure more will follow:

There’s actually a lot of Risset’s music you can hear online – check out this nice page from Apple, for instance, including both GRM gems and the wonderful violin innovator Mari Kimura.

Irrespective of decade, Risset’s works delight the ear and take the mind drifting into deep space.

1979’s Songes is eerily beautiful:

Sud from 1985 traverses endless sonic spectacles:

1998’s Elementa: Aqua mixes natural sounds and synthetic for added dimension; the form itself of the piece feels effortless and organic:

For a live performance, Nicolas Vallette (flute) and Alain Bonardi (digital sound) perform a beautiful rendition of his Passages.

And in one of my favorite meetings of minds ever, computer visual pioneer Lillian F. Schwartz added her visuals to his sound for the 1973 Mutations, a work that’d feel perfectly comfortable in the midst of an AV festival today.

To me, our cenral challenge as these artists leave us is figuring out how the next generations will bend sounds and share ideas and influence. And there, I’m optimistic – especially if I go back and listen to Risset’s music.

My condolences to friends, family, and students. If you want to remember your work or life with him, do get in touch. There’s obviously more to say.

The post Jean-Claude Risset, who reimagined digital synthesis, has died appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Listen to John Chowning tell how he invented FM synthesis

To this day, it’s a synthesis method capable of producing wonderfully otherworldly sounds. And now as its applications on cell phones and cheap PC audio fade into distant memory, FM synthesis is left as one of the great achievements of musical invention, full stop – let alone being a key milestone of 20th century technology. So perhaps it’s time to revisit its significance.

Who better to do that with than the person who first discovered the technique?

At an event hosted by CTM Festival and HKW Berlin, with CDM as media partner, we got to do just that, inviting John Chowning to recount FM’s evolution. I have to say, it was one of those uniquely inspiring moments, where you get to feel you understand how the sounds you make connect to musical history.

Part of that feeling came from the fact that artist Holly Herndon, who herself has studied with John at Stanford, hosted the interview – one sound experimenter and composer to another, student and teacher.

Photo: Udo Siegfriedt / CTM Festival.

Photo: Udo Siegfriedt / CTM Festival.

Photo: Udo Siegfriedt / CTM Festival.

Photo: Udo Siegfriedt / CTM Festival.

It’s worth giving the whole interview a listen. Some of this has been recounted before, but it finds some unique clarity here.

The scene starts with a comparison of Paris’ avant garde music scene to Berlin’s today (something I got to talk to John about a bit over dinner), tracing his path from there to the fertile ground for technological invention that was Bell Labs. (If something cool and futuristic was invented in the 20th Century, there’s a good chance Bell was where it happened.)

At Bell Labs, John talks about finding the “open door” of the computer – the unlimited possibility for that machine to produce sound as envisioned by Max Mathews, coupled with the expertise to harness that power.

But it took a musician’s curiosity and brute-force trial and error to find what would become a seminal means of synthesizing sound. And at first, John thought it might be a mistake. (From about thirteen minutes in, you get the story, complete with sound examples.)

It’s what John himself describes as a “happy accident.” Perhaps that’s the best kind of musical discovery.

John recalls:

“Was it distortion? …. I thought, well, maybe this is an artifact of the system. But I did more experiments and realized that I was hearing … a complex wave using two oscillators that I imagine probably had eight or ten harmonics.”

“I didn’t yet understand the applications of the mathematics of FM to what I had done. So with a set of examples I went to an engineering friend and asked if this was some sort of unique, surprising but interesting result. I pointed out that it transposed; it seemed to behave in a proper way.”

“We looked up the mathematics for the equation for frequency modulation radio broadcasting, and it all fell out and was perfectly explained. So that was the beginning.”

Here’s the 1971 piece Holly mentions, Sabelithe. I’m finding a lot of these early computer pieces are starting to sound weirdly contemporary today. I think our ears are ready to revisit them in a new cultural context, with new works likely to go different directions – especially as we routinely now hear these sounds in festivals and clubs, whereas they were once restricted to sit-down affairs in academic concert halls. (Believe me, I know – the latter is where I started, so I’ve watched this shift first-hand.)

There’s also a great video from Berklee that features John talking about his work:

And if you need still more history, here’s an historic meet-up between John Chowning, Max Mathews, and Curtis Roads:

The post Listen to John Chowning tell how he invented FM synthesis appeared first on cdm createdigitalmusic.

Music and math unite, from Chowning to Rhythmicon

You have to love German. In English, I can string together whole paragraphs that try and fail to capture the potential of electronic sound. In German, we get to call an event Technosphärenklänge – a word whose utterance is a timbral adventure in itself. And in an event with that name promising to be a landmark for the electronic music sphere, CTM Festival is bringing together pioneering machines and pioneering humans. It’s a convergence of the worlds of mathematics and music that has never happened in this combination on one stage before – and we’ll take you there.

For one, there’s John Chowning. Chowning’s name will always appear first in sentences involving “the inventor of FM (frequency modulation) synthesis.” But while the impact of that can’t be overstated, he’s also a pioneer in finding mathematical beauty in composition and in equally significant contributions to sound spatialization. Moreover, like his late colleague Max Mathews, John’s teaching reaches beyond even his own discoveries – so much about electronic music achievement can be connected to his students and his students’ students.

So it’s fitting that Holly Herndon will do an interview with John, as she has studied with him.

FM synthesis you know, but in celebration of John’s work, let’s share still more. There’s his gorgeous milestone 1977 composition Stria, which holds up today as computer music, and is built in mystical mathematic beauty around the Golden Mean.

Here, via AES, he talks about his role in the origins of FM.

Here’s John in action in some wonderful historical moments:

Chowning at Stanford's CCRMA - the program he founded - with Thierry Lancino and Chris Chafe. Photo credit: CCRMA.

Chowning at Stanford’s CCRMA – the program he founded – with Thierry Lancino and Chris Chafe. Photo credit: CCRMA.

John Chowning (standing, plaid shirt) at CCRMA with Pierre Boulez (at computer), Max Mathews (glasses, far right) and others. Photo credit: José Mercado.

John Chowning (standing, plaid shirt) at CCRMA with Pierre Boulez (at computer), Max Mathews (glasses, far right) and others. Photo credit: José Mercado.

Pairing John with Holly is already a meeting of minds that should be fun to witness, but we also get a world-premiere musical collaboration that unites Chowning’s musical imagination with Mark Fell.

Mark Fell. Photo courtesy the artist / CTM Festival.

Mark Fell. Photo courtesy the artist / CTM Festival.

If Chowning represents the mathematics of music in digital form, a creation of none other than Leon Theremin makes it physical-mechanical. The Rhythmicon could be seen as the prototypical drum machine. The 1932 invention, in a 60s-built rendition made by Theremin himself, will debut in Berlin via Moscow-based researcher Andrey Smirnov.

Watch it in action:

Theremin's Rhythmicon - progenitor of drum machines ever since. Photo: Andrey Smirnov, courtesy CTM Festival.

Theremin’s Rhythmicon – progenitor of drum machines ever since. Photo: Andrey Smirnov, courtesy CTM Festival.

Andrey Smirnov gives a lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy Synth Lab in Moscow in 2013.  Photo: Denis Klero/Red Bull Content Pool.

Andrey Smirnov gives a lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy Synth Lab in Moscow in 2013. Photo: Denis Klero/Red Bull Content Pool.

Marcus Schmickler will join CDM's Peter Kirn in conversation. Photo by Marc Comes, courtesy CTM Festival.

Marcus Schmickler will join CDM’s Peter Kirn in conversation. Photo by Marc Comes, courtesy CTM Festival.

We hope to share content from the whole program. I’ll also be talking personally to German composer Marcus Schmickler. His numbers tickle the brain directly. Building on the work of Jean-Claude Risset, his Fortuna Ribbons project plays with sonic perception. If the Shepard Tone is the sonic barber pole of sound, sine waves superimposed in a fashion that seems to make them constantly ascend or descend, the Shepard–Risset glissando is an M.C. Escher staircase – continuous sonic aural illusion.

The best way to appreciate Schmickler’s work may be simply to watch how people respond when they hear it (keep watching, as the reactions start to get more interesting):

You can also try putting on this record at your next party:

More on his work:

Let us know if you’ve got a question you’d like me to ask him, especially if you’re a Schmickler fan.

Stay tuned to CDM for more with the artists and the results of the talks.

But if you are in Berlin this month, you can come visit us in person. Marcus Schmickler joins Carsten Goertz, Mark Fell and John Chowning perform, Andrey Smirnov performs, and gamut inc (whom we joined at CTM Festival in February) are back. Then Holly and I take on the talks the following day.

Technosphärenklänge #2: Konzerte [HKW]

Technosphärenklänge #2 – Concerts [CTM]

Technosphärenklänge #2: Talks und Vorträge [HKW]

Technosphärenklänge #2 – Lectures [CTM]

And the series:

The Technosphärenklänge (Sounds of the Technosphere) concert series aims to explore current practices in sound and music as an element and expression of the technosphere – the quasi autonomous entity that is the sum of operational and technical processes and infrastructures around the globe, and whose conflicted interaction with natural planetary processes characterises the Earth’s current geological time, dubbed the Anthropocene. Developed in close collaboration between HKW and CTM Festival, the series is scheduled to take place at irregular intervals until 2018.

The post Music and math unite, from Chowning to Rhythmicon appeared first on cdm createdigitalmusic.

Dave Smith & John Chowning Introduce FM Synthesis On The Prophet 12

Dave Smith Instruments has released a new operating system for the Prophet 12 that adds a number of user-requested features, including: Linear frequency modulation for classic FM synthesis Support for up to 16 alternate tunings (a set of 16 popular tunings … Continue reading

Prophet 12 OS Update To Bring Linear FM Synthesis

Dave Smith Instruments shared this image, capturing Dave Smith talking with John Chowning, creator of the FM synthesis algorithm. FM synthesis revolutionized keyboards in the 80s, as a result of Yamaha’s implementation in its DX line of synths. DSI also … Continue reading

Read the article Bob Moog wrote when he met Leon Theremin


It’s hard to imagine what the evolution of the synthesizer would have been without Leon Theremin.

For one, it was Theremin’s invention that first captivated Robert Moog. Theremin kits were Dr. Moog’s first product and many would say, his first electronic instrumental love. That impact was significant, too, on a whole generation – actually, even my own father made building a kit Theremin one of his early experiences with electronics.

The fall of the Soviet Union still has ripples felt in the electronic music world today. And surely there’s no more poignant moment in the intertwining of post-Cold War history with musical invention as Leon Theremin’s 1991 visit to the USA – at 95 years of age.

Robert Moog wrote up that experience for Keyboard Magazine (USA), along with writer Olivia Mattis. Much of the history will be familiar, but it’s moving to read about the event.

The gathering with Lev Sergeyevich Termen may have been the single greatest convergence of the 20th century’s electronic inventors ever – John Chowning (CCRMA, FM synthesis), Don Buchla, Roger Linn, Bob Moog, Tom Oberheim, Max Mathews, and Dave Smith were all there. (It’s also remarkable to think how much Chowning, Linn, Oberheim, and Smith continue to contribute as teachers and inventors today, not to mention the ongoing contributions of Moog, Buchla, and Theremin instruments.)

And of course, because of history (hello, KGB), these inventors had never really had the opportunity to meet face to face. They had “met” through their instruments. Moog and Mattis also write eloquently of ghostly guests:

For the audience, the thread of continuity and tradition linking Theremins early instruments with the world of synthesizers and MIDI is clear and strong. If you looked hard, you could almost see the spirits of Maurice Martenot, Friedrich Trautwein (inventor of the Trautonium), and Laurens Hammond joining the audience in frenzied applause.

The Thereminists were notable, too – not only daughter Natasha Termen, but Clara Rockmore, reunited with Mr. Termen. Max played with Natasha, via his “Radio Drum” – a full decade before those sorts of gestural interfaces would enter popular consciousness (via Minority Report, the Wii, Kinect, and so on).

And we get Termen, the ‘cello player turned inventor turned KGB asset, in his own words. On the reason for the instrument:

The idea first came to me right after our Revolution, at the beginning of the Bolshevik state. I wanted to invent some kind of an instrument that would not operate mechanically, as does the piano, or the cello and the violin, whose bow movements can be compared to those of a saw. I conceived of an instrument that would create sound without using any mechanical energy, like the conductor of an orchestra.

I became interested in bringing about progress in music, so that there would be more musical resources, I was not satisfied with the mechanical instruments in existence, of which there were many. They were all built using elementary principles and were not physically well done, I was interested in making a different kind of instrument. And I wanted, of course, to make an apparatus that would be controlled in space, exploiting electrical fields, and that would use little energy. Therefore I used electronic technology to create a musical instrument that would provide greater resources.

And there’s more. There’s a Theremin lesson for Lenin, with whom Termen claimed kindred interests because the Soviet leader was “interested in how the whole world is created.” And there was Albert Einstein – yes, that Albert Einstein – taking up residence in the Termen studio in order to explore visual music and synesthesia:

Einstein was interested in the connection between music and geometrical figures: not only color, but mostly triangles, hexagons, heptagons, different kinds of geometrical figures. He wanted to combine these into drawings. He asked whether he could have a laboratory in a small room in my house, where he could draw.

There are electric cellos made for Stokowski and Varese, and the tale of imprisonment (along with Tupolev) and nightmare suspicion under Stalin, the removal of electronic instruments from the Conservatory in the late 60s because electricity is only “for electrocution.” Well worth reading the piece in its entirety:


But no reason to feel overly nostalgic or lost in the shadow of history. I think what Termen says about music from space and electrical fields is just as evocative today as it was a century ago – to say nothing of an Einsteinian flatland of geometric music. In a reversal of the Yogi Berra quote “the future ain’t what it used to be,” maybe it’s even more.



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