I know a lot of the folks at Novation on a personal level well enough to say – they’re synth lovers, day job and after hours. What’s great about their latest video series is, some of that comes out.
Of course, yesterday we saw at least one user really hacking a Novation product, the Launchpad Pro, by modding the hardware using a firmware release from the company. And as one frustrated developer shouted at us in comments, that requires a bit of effort. (Not so much for you – you can download a file and use this easily – but modifying real-time firmware of hardware takes some practice!)
This isn’t quite that. These “hacks” have more to do with creatively abusing some features to push the hardware synths to the limit – Circuit, Circuit Mono Station, and Peak. The Circuit in particular has a user community that proved surprisingly advanced, squeezing everything they can out of this budget-priced hardware. But lately the more recent Mono Station and Peak are finding an equally devoted following.
Here’s the whole playlist, which covers sound design techniques (like oscillator sync – okay, that’s more a conventional technique than a ‘hack’), approaches to performance (patch change), working with clock and CV, and other features.
This raises a question, though – these are recent Novation products, so it’s pretty easy to get the manufacturer to do some hot tips.
But which instruments would you like to see covered – new or old – and in what way? What’s missing in tutorials? Let us know in comments. (I realize I just self-selected the answers to that with people who own these Novation synths, so I’ll keep asking this … but also curious what other stuff you Novation lovers own, too!)
Russia is today as always a nation packed with engineers – one distinctive upside of the long shadow cast by the Soviet Union. Russian electronic inventors’ creations increasingly flourish worldwide, so now is a great time to check in with some leaders of the growing Russian maker scene.
Synthposium this week demonstrated again that Moscow can be a hub for electronic instrumental technology. A crowded expo room featured alongside talks and a full festival lineup in this land of Theremin and ANS. How engineering savvy is Russia? Literally, one builder told me in a discussion (recording coming soon) that his dad gave him spare parts from the radio equipment factory as toys. (I have an image of a toddler with a pile of diodes and resistors, which I know is … wrong yet somehow not far off.)
Now, part of the point of Synthposium was again mixing and mashing the Russian scene with builders from Europe and beyond, not to mention the consumers of all this wonderful gadgetry. (The lion’s share of the output of most of these makers goes to markets in places like Europe and the USA, more than to Russian customers, as a rule.)
But it was also a chance to give deserved recognition to the growing scene inside Russia – a scene that’s proud about its closeness and supportive atmosphere. Synthposium organized awards for top makers again. I got to give some input, as well as awkwardly handing out a couple of the trophies. (They were 3D-printed logos, and I think I mostly managed to bumble my way through passing them out and muttering “here is your … uh … letter S … enjoy it….”)
Last year already saw Polivoks and the spectacular Blade Runner-esque Yamaha CS-80-inspired Deckard’s Dream walk away with honors. Now, the class of 2018.
Best synth: SOMA’s Lyra-8 / Pipe
Even in the middle of the analog renaissance, SOMA Laboratory is an outlier. SOMA’s Lyra-8 for instance is not only analog, but “organismic” – creator Vlad Kreimer taking a spiritual approach to its design and manufacture, born out in the futuristic soul that cries out from its circuits. (He describes three points to SOMA’s philosophy – “Instruments that invite you to listen to yourself, balance and interaction instead of linearity and control,” and “deep nature instead of imitation.”
Lyra began its life as a performance instrument just for Vlad, before he opened it up to interested customers. Lyra-8 is an eight-voice (hence the name) instrument with FM modulation and various new synthesis algorithms and extras applied to the original design, plus a doubled delay that gives it its unique alien sound. There’s no MIDI – this is truly an analog-centric design – but you can input external audio.
And specs don’t do it justice. Just listen:
The Lyra has gotten some attention, but just as interesting is the Pipe, a breath-controlled effects/synth instrument. If you’ve ever wondered what the love child of a didgeridoo and a talkbox born on a mining vessel on the outer rim would sound like, wonder no more:
Best Module – Keen Association
Four oscillators with controls for visually producing wave shapes. A tape player simulation. All in one module. Yeah, the visual look of the Buchla-inspired Graphic Waveform Generator Model 268e from Keen draws from classic Buchla tradition, but this Moscow-made module is a unique sound studio all its own.
Little surprise then that the Graphic Waveform Generator Model 268e got a nod in modules (though there are some other builders to talk about, too – stay tuned).
Here’s a nice tour of the module and a look at how it fits into a larger Buchla context:
There’s more Buchla goodness where that came from:
We’ve followed Playtronica for some time now. Their TouchMe approach to musical interaction we’ve seen before, but they continue refining design and manufacture of their full series of products and the workshops around it.
And people never get tired of getting to make music by touching pineapples, as their booth proved again.
You can play with their instrument right from in your browser (with MIDI even, if you have supported hardware and browser software):
It’s really tough to describe just how much Playtronica have done in the scene in Russia – an agency, an interactive design collective, a set of artists doing interesting work on their own, and a force for education that’s spreading electronics interest again to kids. If you want a look at how engaging younger generations might reboot in this century in the post-communist period, this is one clue.
Hey, even as a keyboardist myself, I’ll be the first to concede: it’s guitarists’ turn on modular now.
And that’s why VG-Line’s Gui2lar matters. It’s a modular system designed around the guitar. And it’s stupidly fun and practical all at once. Video here is in Russian, but is reasonably easy to follow even without the language:
Popularization – Fedor Vetkalov
If the likes of Andreas Schneider and Dieter Doepfer brought modular back and evangelized synthesis in Berlin, then look no further than Fedor Vetkalov when it comes to the east. Fedor not only is a cornerstone of the synth and modular scene in Russia from his Moscow shop, but has also worked the other way – introducing the best Russian builders to the world, whether it’s via artists touring through the Russian capital or online or at international events. There are few people who can be a better guide to the scene in Russia, and well, it’s also kind of hard to imagine the synth community without Fedor in it even outside of Russia, too.
It’s been a pleasure to be back here in Moscow and St. Petersburg as always – more to come. And for all the other complaints we might have about current politics, I think we’re pretty fortunate today – crossing these borders, both for our humans and machines, is easier than ever. That makes our extended synth and music family feel close even as we come together across nations and languages.
For that I’m especially grateful for the cooperation of the Synthposium organization and the Goethe-Institut and other partners that allow this exchange to happen (and to live up to that “cultural exchange” business describes on my latest visa sticker).
“The idea of this series is to show how to improve on the original ‘plasticky’ sounding F.M. presets that were/are so ubiquitous on the original F.M. synthesizers of the 1980s….”… Read More FM Synthesis Of Metallic Sounds
It’s full of gun sounds. But because of a combination of a unique sample architecture and engine and a whole lot of unique assets, the Weaponiser plug-in becomes a weapon of a different kind. It helps you make drum sounds.
Call me a devoted pacifist, call me a wimp – really, either way. Guns actually make me uncomfortable, at least in real life. Of course, we have an entirely separate industry of violent fantasy. And to a sound designer for games or soundtracks, Weaponiser’s benefits should be obvious and dazzling.
But I wanted to take a different angle, and imagine this plug-in as a sort of swords into plowshares project. And it’s not a stretch of the imagination. What better way to create impacts and transients than … well, fire off a whole bunch of artillery at stuff and record the result? With that in mind, I delved deep into Weaponiser. And as a sound instrument, it’s something special.
Like all advanced sound libraries these days, Weaponiser is both an enormous library of sounds, and a powerful bespoke sound engine in which those sounds reside. The Edinburgh-based developers undertook an enormous engineering effort here both to capture field recordings and to build their own engine.
It’s not even all about weapons here, despite the name. There are sound elements unrelated to weapons – there’s even an electronic drum kit. And the underlying architecture combines synthesis components and a multi-effects engine, so it’s not limited to playing back the weapon sounds.
What pulls Weaponiser together, then, is an approach to weapon sounds as a modularized set of components. The top set of tabs is divided into ONSET, BODY, THUMP, and TAIL – which turns out to be a compelling way to conceptualize hard-hitting percussion, generally. We often use vaguely gunshot-related metaphors when talking about percussive sounds, but here, literally, that opens up some possibilities. You “fire” a drum sound, or choose “burst” mode (think automatic and semi-automatic weapons) with an adjustable rate.
This sample-based section is then routed into a mixer with multi-effects capabilities.
In music production, we’ve grown accustomed to repetitive samples – a Roland TR clap or rimshot that sounds the same every single time. In foley or game sound design, of course, that’s generally a no-no; our ears quickly detect that something is amiss, since real-world sound never repeats that way. So the Krotos engine is replete with variability, multi-sampling, and synthesis. Applied to musical applications, those same characteristics produce a more organic, natural sound, even if the subject has become entirely artificial.
Let’s have a look at those components in turn.
Gun sounds. This is still, of course, the main attraction. Krotos have field recordings of a range of weapons:
For those of you who don’t know gun details, that amounts to pistol, rifle, automatic, semiautomatic, and submachine gun (SMG). These are divided up into samples by the onset/body/thump/tail architecture I’ve already described, plus there are lots of details based on shooting scenario. There are bursts and single fires, sniper shots from a distance, and the like. But maybe most interesting actually are all the sounds around guns – cocking and reloading vintage mechanical weapons, or the sound of bullets impacting bricks or concrete. (Bricks sound different than concrete, in fact.) There are bullets whizzing by.
And that’s just the real weapons. There’s an entire bank devoted to science fiction weapons, and these are entirely speculative. (Try shooting someone with a laser; it … doesn’t really work the way it does in the movies and TV.) Those presets get interesting, too, because they’re rooted in reality. There’s a Berretta fired interdimensionally, for example, and the laser shotguns, while they defy present physics and engineering, still have reloading variants.
In short, these Scottish sound designers spent a lot of time at the shooting range, and then a whole lot more time chained to their desk working with the sampler.
Things that aren’t gun sounds. I didn’t expect to find so many sounds in the non-gun variety, however. There are twenty dedicated kits, which tend in a sort of IDM / electro crossover, just building drum sounds on this engine. There are a couple of gems in there, too – enough so that I could imagine Krotos following up this package with a selection of drum production tools built on the Weaponiser engine but having nothing to do with bullets or artillery.
Until that happens, you can think of that as a teaser for what the engine can do if you spend time building your own presets. And to that end, you have some other tools:
Variations for each parameter randomize settings to avoid repetition.
Four engines, each polyphonic with their own sets of samples, combine. But the same things that allow you different triggering/burst modes for guns prove useful for percussion. And yes, there’s a “drunk” mode.
A deep multi-effects section with mixing and routing serves up still more options.
Four engines, synthesis. Onset, Body, Thump, and Tail each have associated synthesis engines. Onset and Body are specialized FM synthesizers. Thump is essentially a bass synth. Tail is a convolution reverb – but even that is a bit deeper than it may sound. Tail provides both audio playback and spatialization controls. It might use a recorded tail, or it might trigger an impulse response.
Also, the way samples are played here is polyphonic. Add more samples to a particular engine, and you will trigger different variants, not simply keep re-triggering the same sounds over and over again. That’s the norm for more advanced percussion samplers, but lately electronic drum engines have tended to dumb that down. And – there’s a built-in timeline with adjustable micro-timings, which is something I’ve never seen in a percussion synth/sampler.
The synth bits have their own parameters, as well, and FM and Amplitude Modulation modes. You can customize carriers and modulators. And you can dive into sample settings, including making radical changes to start and end points, envelope, and speed.
Effects and mixing. Those four polyphonic engines are mixed together in a four-part mix engine, with multi-effects that can be routed in various ways. Then you can apply EQ, Compression, Limiting, Saturation, Ring Modulation, Flanging, Transient Shaping, and Noise Gating.
Oh, you can also use this entire effects engine to process sounds from your DAW, making this a multi-effects engine as well as an instrument.
Is your head spinning yet?
About the sounds
Depending on which edition you grab, from the limited selection of the free 10-day demo up to the “fully loaded” edition, you’ll get as many as 2228 assets, with 1596 edited weapon recordings. There are also 692 “sweeteners” – a grab bag of still more sounds, from synths to a black leopard (the furry feilne, really), and the sound recordists messing around with their recording rig, keys, Earth, a bicycle belt… you get the idea. There are also various impulse responses for the convolution reverb engine, allowing you to place your sound in different rooms, stairwells, and synthetic reverbs.
The recording chain itself is worth a look. There are the expected mid/side and stereo recordings, classic Neumann and Sennheiser mics, and a whole lot of use by the Danish maker DPA – including mics positioned directly on the guns in some recordings. But they’ve also included recordings made with the Sennheiser Ambeo VR Mic for 360-degree, virtual reality sound.
They’ve shared some behind-the-scenes shots with CDM, and there’s a short video explaining the process.
In use, for music
Some of the presets are realistic enough that it did really make me uncomfortable at first working with these sounds in a music project – but that was sort of my aim. What I found compelling is, because of this synth engine, I was quickly able to transform those sounds into new, organic, even unrecognizable variations.
There are a number of strategies here that make this really interesting.
You can mess with samples. Adjusting speed and other parameters, as with any samples, of course gives you organic, complex new sounds.
There’s the synthesis engine. Working with the synth options either to reprocess the sounds or on their own allows you to treat Weaponiser basically as a drum synth.
The variations make this sound like acoustic percussion. With subtle or major variations, you can produce sound that’s less repetitive than electronic drums would be.
Mix and match. And, of course, you have presets to warp and combine, the ability to meld synthetic sounds and gun sounds, to sweeten conventional percussion with those additions (synths and guns and leopard sounds)… the mind reels.
Routing, of course is vital, too; here’s their look at that:
In fact, there’s so much, that I could almost go on a separate tangent just working with this musically. I may yet do that, but here is a teaser at what’s possible – starting with the obvious:
But I’m still getting lost in the potential here, reversing sounds, trying the drum kits, working with the synth and effects engines.
The plug-in can get heavy on CPU with all of that going on, obviously, but it’s also possible to render out layers or whole sounds, useful both in production and foley/sound design. Really, my main complaint is the tiny, complex UI, which can mean it takes some time to get the hang of working with everything. But as a sound tool, it’s pretty extraordinary. And you don’t need to have firing shotguns in all your productions – you can add some subtle sweetening, or additional layers and punch to percussion without anyone knowing they’re hearing the Krotos team messing with bike chains and bullets hitting bricks and an imaginary space laser.
Weaponiser runs on a Mac or PC, 64-bit only VST AU AAX. You’ll need about five and a half gigs of space free. Basic, which is already pretty vast, runs $399 / £259/ €337. Full loaded is over twice that size, and costs $599 / £379 / €494.
Even as modular synths make a comeback, the definitive work on the topic languishes out of print since its 1972 publication. But now, one synth maker is translating its ideas to video.
The folks at Make Noise, who have been one of the key makers behind Eurorack’s growth (and a leader in on the American side of the pond), have gone all the way back to 1972 to find a reference to the fundamentals behind modular synthesis.
“Where do I find a textbook on modular synthesis?” isn’t an easy question to answer. A lot of understanding modular comes from a weird combination of received knowledge, hearsay, various example patches (some of them also dating back to the 60s and 70s), and bits and pieces scattered around print and online.
But Allen Strange’s Electronic Music: Systems, techniques, and controls covers actual theory. It treats the notions of modular synthesis as a fundamental set of skills. It’s just now out of print, and a used copy could cost you $200-300 because of automated online pricing (whether anyone would actually pay that).
So it’s great to see Make Noise take this on – if nothing else, as a way to frame teaching their own modules.
And… uh, you might find a PDF of the original text. (I think most people read my own book in pirated form, especially in its Russian and Polish translations – seriously – so I’m looking at this myself as a writer and sometimes educator and pondering what the best way is to teach modular in 2018.)
I’m definitely watching and subscribing to this one, though – and this first video gives me an idea… excuse me, time to load up Pd, Reaktor, and VCV Rack again!
Allen Strange wrote the book on modular synthesizers in the 1970s. Electronic Music: Systems, Techniques, and Controls. Unfortunately since the expanded 1982 edition, it has never been reprinted, and in today’s landscape where more people have access to modular synths than ever before, very few have access to the knowledge contained within. This video series will explore patches both basic and advanced from Strange’s text. Even the simplest patches here yield kernels of knowledge that can be expanded upon in infinite ways. I have been heavily influenced by Strange since long before I became a modular synth educator. Please share this knowledge far and wide. The first video in the series covers one basic and one slightly less basic patch using envelopes.