AF’s Weblog

September 20, 2012

Understanding the Basics of Sound Synthesis

Filed under: Synthesizers — Tags: , , , , — audiofanzine @ 6:55 am

To read the full detailed article see:  Basics of Sound Synthesis

Many of those who use synthesizers in the modern technological world are not well versed in the basics of different kinds of synthesis. With the ease of computer-based synthesis, any synthesis program can be opened and fiddled around with by ear until something “cool” comes out.

To break the mold in the use of synthesizers in the modern music world, you have to be educated or lucky. This is exactly why it is more important now than ever before to understand the fundamentals of different synthesis methods.

Subtractive Synthesis
This is the most common method that gave birth to the concept of sound-synthesis.

Subtractive Synthesis is a very simple signal chain of an oscillator (sound source) running through a filter (EQ curve) which is then sent to an amplifier for gain staging and ADSR control. This method is very easy to achieve in both analog and digital realms and can be used to create numerous (possibly infinite) instruments, effects, and sounds.

The main principle behind Subtractive Synthesis is that any harmonic character can be constructed by an oscillator, or the combination of multiple oscillators. Then, by running these oscillators through various filters, and controlling the envelope response, the harmonics present within the oscillators tones can be whittled into harmonic structures that mirror those of actual instruments.

The analog subtractive synthesizer was initially designed for this purpose–as an alternative to hiring musicians to play on recordings, however, it quickly morphed into its own instrument, creating various sounds never before made by any acoustic instrument.

Additive Synthesis (and Resynthesis)
Additive Synthesis is trying to achieve the same result as Subtractive Synthesis, but approaches the method from a constructive philosophy, rather than carving. Rather than presenting a wall of harmonics and carving out the harmonic structure desired (Subtractive Synthesis), in additive synthesis multiple sine waves of varying levels and frequencies are combined together to build the harmonic structure desired. Simply put, instead of starting with everything you need and throwing away what you don’t need, you start with nothing and build harmonic structures from scratch.

The very connected process of Resynthesis is highly connected to Additive Synthesis. In essence, Resynthesis involves analyzing the harmonic structure of a sampled sound, and trying to recreate that structure. Additive Synthesis is essentially Resynthesis, excluding the fact that Resynthesis is the recreation of a specific existing sound, not a general instrument tone. Given this link, additive synthesis is quite often used in Resynthesis processes.

Component (Physical) Modeling Synthesis
Physical Modeling Synthesis is mathematical, and uses set algorithms to define the harmonic and acoustic characteristics of the sound being generated. This method is mostly used for creating real-sounding instruments, as it is programmed to make characteristic distinctions between various aspects of the instrument being created. For instance, the materials that make up the instrument, the size, the stiffness of a membrane, the volume of a reverberant object (in order to reproduce its resonant frequency), and many other fine details are factored into the algorithm that generates each sound’s different qualities using various forms of synthesis (dependent upon manufacturer).

Wavetable Synthesis
Wavetable Synthesis employs the use of a table with various switchable frequencies played in certain orders (wavetables). As a key is pressed, the sound moves in order through the wavetable, not spontaneously changing the waveform, but smoothly changing its shape into the various waves in the table.

This method produces sounds that can evolve really quickly and smoothly. The method was intended to create digital sounding noises, so it is not used for instrument replication very often, but is an effective way to create pads or harsh-sounding tones like bells or digital sounds.

Vector Synthesis
Vector Synthesis is almost exactly the same as Wavetable Synthesis, only it employs a two-dimensional grid, through which wavetables can be made even smoother and works with sequences as well as wavetables.

LA (Linear Arithmetic) Synthesis
LA Synthesis was created by Roland as an attempt to utilize Wavetable Synthesis to create real-sounding instrument patches. They achieved this by cutting the waves on the wavetables in half and combining the complicated attack (first half) wave patterns with simple release (second half) wave patterns, thus emulating more of an acoustic environment.

Phase Distortion Synthesis
Phase distortion synthesizers are subtractive synthesizers with one difference – they employ the waveform flexibility of wavetable synthesis in the oscillator. So, instead of having set waves to choose from at the oscillator, you are given full control over the shape of the waveform between all set shapes – in other words, variable waveform control.

Let’s take a look at some other methods…

Conclusion

In the modern computer-era, all of these forms of synthesis are present in countless programs. Many of these synthesis methods are combined or layered within single programs to accommodate the creation of unique synthesizers. In understanding these methods, experimenting, and combining them, you become the creative force behind sound-synthesis!

To read the full detailed article see:  Basics of Sound Synthesis

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July 4, 2012

iZotope Iris Review

To read the full detailed review with sound samples see:  iZotope Iris Review

iZotope is famous for its effects, audio processing and restoration tools. Now, the manufacturer enters the world of virtual instruments with the launch of Iris, its first synth. Knowing iZotope, we expect nothing but a very original approach. Are we wrong?

Test system

MacPro Xeon 3.2 GHz
OS 10.6.8
Logic Pro 9.1.7
iZotope iris 1.00.74

Introducing iZotope Iris

iZotope iris

The instrument is available on iZotope’s website, alone or as a bundle including the synth plus two sound libraries: Wood and Glass. The latter include 260 and 150 samples, respectively, plus almost 100 programs each. You can also buy them separately for $29 or $49, while the instrument alone costs $249. Iris is sold with a 4GB sample library and countless programs.

You get a standalone version and several plug-ins (AU, VST, VST 3 and RTAS) for Mac (Intel only) and Windows with 64-bit support. The instrument also includes the latest Radius version, the time compression/expansion and pitch shifting software called Radius RT.

The installation of the synth and libraries, as well as the registration, went smooth and easy. Registration can be done on a hard drive or with an iLok (it’s a good thing to have the choice) using the serial number provided during purchase.

Now let’s take a closer look and a listen…

Conclusion

Some of my friends who make sound synthesis directly in iZotope RX2 will love Iris. This synth definitely has an original approach when it comes to re-synthesis, even if there are some brilliant and famous competitors like Alchemy. The selection of audio content with tools that recall graphic design software is quite a unique experience. It almost makes you feel like a beginner because you can’t anticipate the result of your selection (and every experienced user knows how a sawtooth will sound when processed with a 4th order filter and 50% resonance). In this respect, Iris is a new, exciting sound weapon.

Iris is no all-round synth that provides bass, pads, leads, etc. like a good subtractive synth. On the contrary, if you want to create weird sounds combining authentic and synthetic sounds on a very original way, or if you like to experiment with every possible audio material to create something new every time, Iris will be a dream come true! All the more considering that the algorithms are almost perfect and its design and ease-of-use are pure joy, making this instrument accessible for almost anyone interested in sound synthesis.

So, is it a success for iZotope once again? Yes, definitely…

2012 Innovation Award
Advantages:
  • Concept
  • Three samples players plus Sub
  • Amazing Radius RT
  • Graphical selection tool
  • Surprising but perfect design
  • Ease of use
  • Very simple and comprehensive MIDI Learn
  • Effects
  • Comprehensive sample bank included
  • Many presets
  • iLok or Challenge/Response authorization
  • Leads to a new creative approach
Drawbacks:
  • Could have more complex envelopes
  • A filter is missing in the FX section
  • Sometimes, lack of fatness in the lower frequencies
  • Pay attention to CPU load

To read the full detailed review with sound samples see:  iZotope Iris Review

May 3, 2012

How to Choose A Hardware Keyboard

Filed under: Electronic Instrument, Hardware, keyboards, Synthesizers — Tags: , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 6:40 am

To read the full detailed article see:  How to Choose a Hardware Keyboard

By now, everyone was going to be loading soft synths into their laptops, and taking them to the gig instead of keyboards. Oh, and we were also supposed to travel around with personal jet packs and of course, flying cars.

Well, the future doesn’t always turn out as expected, does it? Hardware keyboards are actually having somewhat of a renaissance. Keyboards are a mature field, and there are a huge number of options that offer significant value, whether you’re looking for an inexpensive arranger keyboard like the Casio WK-7500, a full-blown workstation like Yamaha’s Motif XF series, something special-purpose like M-Audio’s Venom, or even a top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art keyboard like the Korg Kronos or Roland Jupiter-80. Or, maybe you want a separate tone module and keyboard controller . . .

Casio WK-7500 (left) and Korg Kronos (right).

But all these options can be overwhelming—how do you choose the model  that’s right for your needs?  That’s what this article is all about, so  let’s get started.

let’s get to the heart of matter…

And Now, Our Main Feature(s)

A keyboard’s spec sheet contains a huge number of terms. Here are explanations of some of the most important ones.

On-board sequencer
A sequencer records your keypresses and controller motions, thus allowing you to record and play back compositions. For songwriting, this is great, and often gets ideas down faster than a conventional recording setup. The two most important characteristics are number of tracks (typically 8 to 32), and the number of events the sequencer can store. Note that an “event” can be a single note, so a figure like 10,000 events might seem like a lot. But moving a modulation wheel or lever from minimum to maximum might generate a hundred or more events. The more events a sequencer can store, the better.

Polyphony
This defines the number of voices that can sound simultaneously (the reason we don’t say “notes” is because technically, a voice may play back more than one note at a time, e.g., a parallel fifth). 64, 128, 256, and even more voices are common. This might seem strange—after all, you have only ten fingers. But with a piano sound, notes sustain in the background, which uses up voices. Also, if driven by a multitrack sequencer, more polyphony allows fuller arrangements by allowing more notes for each track.

Multi-timbral operation
This expresses the number of different sounds that a keyboard can generate simultaneously, and is an important spec for keyboards with on-board sequencers, or that you plan to drive with an external MIDI sequencer (e.g., a computer-based program). Most multi-timbral keyboards can do 16 different sounds simultaneously—one for each of the standard 16 MIDI channels.

Polyphony and multi-timbral operation are complementary: to play back lots of simultaneous sounds, you need lots of voices available for them.

Sample ROM
Sample-based synths store their samples in non-volatile ROM chips. Generally, more ROM capacity means either more sounds to choose from, or better quality versions of a lesser number of sounds. Back in the day, four-megabyte sound ROMs used to be considered big—compare that to the Motif XF, which has over 700MB of sounds.

Sample import
Several sample formats have evolved: the WAV file format for Windows, AIFF for the Mac, and sample formats specific to particular manufacturers (Akai’s format, while ancient, remains viable). The more formats a sampler (or synth with sample expansion) can recognize, the better but these days, most manufacturers are standardizing on WAV format files.

Real-time controls
Almost all synths have a pitch bend wheel and modulation wheel or lever (the latter might add vibrato, change tone, or other functions, depending on how the sound is programmed). To this basic roster others might add ribbon controllers (slide your finger along a ribbon strip to change a parameter value), data sliders, footpedal options, a joystick, etc. But many synthesizers take this concept one step further by including assignable faders, switches, and knobs that can (with suitable templates) control parameters in popular DAWs. Probably the best example is the integration between Yamaha synthesizers and Steinberg’s Cubase, as Steinberg is a division of Yamaha and there seems to be a lot of communication going on between the two divisions.

Storage
Options for storing sounds and sequences vary. Many synths now include USB ports so storage can be done to thumb drives, or even hard drives that connect to USB. Yamaha’s Motif XF series has the option to add up to 2GB of onboard, flash memory for storing your own sample sets in non-volatile memory.

Hard disk or RAM recording
If the keyboard has a hard drive, and can sample, sometimes you can record tracks of vocals, guitars, etc., just like a computer-based hard disk recording system. This is also possible with some synths that are RAM-based. Now we’re talking serious production – a keyboard like this blurs the line between musical instrument and recording studio.

Onboard effects
Most keyboards include at least rudimentary effects like delay and reverb, but some go much further, including multiple effects that can be used as insert, send, and master effects—just like a mixer.

How effects interact with the program or sequencer varies. Usually, you can store a particular effect or set of effects with a particular program. But suppose you have a sequence with multiple instruments, or a multi-timbral setup. Insert effects process individual tracks. Some keyboards also have master effects, which alter any audio, from any source, that appears at the output. Tone controls are good candidates for a master effect so you can, for example, brighten up the high end a bit or make the bass rumble. Send effects (also called Aux effects) can add a particular effect to multiple channels of your choice, so they’re somewhere between insert and master effects in terms of how they process the sound.

Interactive algorithms
The most sophisticated implementation of this concept is called KARMA, and is available for Korg and now, Yamaha keyboards. It’s hard to explain, but basically, the keyboard analyzes your playing and adds enhancements where appropriate. For example, a bass line might acquire pitch bend and portamento in selected places, or acoustic guitar parts may have “strums” added in for a more realistic sound. Other keyboards, like the Jupiter-80, perform their own type of enhancements (Roland calls the technology “SuperNatural”) that are also intended to enhance expressiveness. This type of “artificial intelligence” makes a difference in how inspiring an instrument can be, as it becomes more of a partner in the music-making process.

Roland’s SuperNatural technology incorporated in their Jupiter-80 adds exceptional expressiveness.

Sample slicing
This feature is found mostly in groove boxes, but is also incorporated in some keyboards, such as the Motif. The goal is to allow digital audio to follow tempo if the sequencer tempo changes. This works by slicing samples into smaller pieces, typically at prominent attacks or percussive transients. The sequencer triggers these pieces individually, so if the tempo slows down, the triggers occur further apart and the slices play back further apart to follow the beat. Conversely, with faster tempos, the slices trigger closer together.

Arpeggiator
An arpeggiator triggers notes sequentially in a pattern (sometimes arpeggiators are polyphonic, and can trigger several parallel patterns). For example, suppose you’re holding down a C major chord with the notes C4-E4-G4-C5. In “up” mode, these might play as C4-E4-G4-C5-C4-E4-G4-C5 etc. In down mode, it would do the reverse, playing C5-G4-E4-C4-C5-G4-E4-C4 etc. Other modes might be up/down, random, or extended, where the notes you hold down repeat over several octaves.

Arpeggiators are used a lot in dance and “new age” music, and to add flourishes in just about any type of music.

Expandability
Given the dizzying rate of technological progress, expandability is key to preserving your investment. Here are some of the possibilities.

Expansion card slots. Sample-based synths have a fixed complement of sounds. Adding cards expands this palette. Cards are typically genre- or instrument-specific (e.g., dance music, ethnic instruments, hip-hop, pianos, etc.).

USB or FireWire port. With all recent Mac and Windows machines sporting USB ports, they’re used for everything from file transfers between keyboard and computer to providing all the functions of a stand-alone MIDI interface so a program running on the computer, such as a sequencer, can communicate directly with the keyboard. Sometimes these even provide audio interface functions, especially if the keyboard has an external input.

Expandable sample memory. More sample memory lets you store larger numbers of longer samples before you run out of room. Expansion usually consists of inserting common, relatively inexpensive memory chips used in desktop computers.

Audio input. This can be used for recording your own samples, or tracks into a sequencer, and can also provide signals that the synthesizer can process.

The Editor for Korg’s M3 makes it easy to create sounds, or use it as a plug-in within your DAW. Click to enlarge.

Companion software. To simplify creating your own sounds, some keyboards come with Editor software. This puts parameters on-screen and lets you edit them, which is often a faster and more direct approach than going through menu screens on the keyboard itself. What’s more, some software lets you treat the keyboard as a VST or AU plug-in within your DAW.

To read the full detailed article see:  How to Choose a Hardware Keyboard

April 25, 2012

Korg Monotribe Review

Filed under: Synthesizers — Tags: , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 8:13 am

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see: Korg Monotribe Review

Presented during the Musikmesse 2011, the Monotribe is the big brother of the Monotron. This standalone sound module includes one synth voice and three analog drum sounds and was conceived to change patterns while playing live. To write this review I decided to take it with me on my skiing vacations…

Korg Monotribe

You know, February is time for holidays in the mountains among friends. Usually when night falls, Paulo grabs his guitar and steals the hearts of the girls present… I mean women — time flies! Like every year, Paulo plays while the fire crackles inside the chalet covered with snow. But I have decided Paulo will have a serious competitor this year! While the mountains disappear behind the thick clouds, a wonderful Bang Bang Chack Bang Wiiiiizzzz will pierce the silence. This year our dear Paulo lost the competition (Sylvia won’t be waiting for him) — a small analog box took his throne. “But, what the heck is that box with a black ribbon keyboard and trashy loops?” .” Explanation…

Unpacking

Korg Monotribe

The Monotribe is a small drum machine that includes four different instrumental parts (one mono synth and three drum sounds) and a 16-step sequencer. Battery operation and the small integrated speaker ensure autonomy. That’s why I didn’t hesitate to take it with me to the mountains in spite of the very low temperatures. By the way, the announced battery life is 14 hours — enough to compete with Paulo the whole week. As for design, the Monotribe is a small black box (8.2″ x 5.7″ x 2.8″) made out of plastic and weights 1.6 lbs (without batteries). The product seems to be sturdy and well manufactured. The front panel provides quite a lot of action: five rotary controls, six slim trim pots, six three-way selectors, 17 push buttons, 15 LEDs, and a ribbon/keyboard controller.

Korg Monotribe

On the rear panel are all connections, which aren’t many! Besides the on/off switch and the power in for external 9V DC power supply (ref. KA-350, unfortunately not supplied!), you get only four minijacks and one 1/4″ jack: step sync input (impulse-type sync with adjustable polarity, for example the rim shot of a drum machine), sync out (delivers +/- 5V during 15ms for every step), phones out, audio in, and mono audio out (1/4″ jack). No CV/Gate or MIDI connections! This means you can program and sync the Monotribe but you can’t control it remotely… at least in the original version since some DIY fans have managed to create upgrade kits. The bottom side gives you access to the integrated speaker and the battery compartment for six standard AA batteries (this time, Korg does provide the batteries).

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

In the end, this small box can serve more purposes other that annoying Paulo when he’s sitting next to the fire. This mobile solution is made for people who prefer intuitive and spontaneous creativity rather than complex menus and multiple memories. It’s a pity that the hidden features accessible via button combinations are not printed on the device. The ribbon keyboard is really hard to use to use if you are looking for precise triggering. With the Monotribe, Korg reinforces the idea that live electro musicians can be unexperienced keyboard players or programmers. If you want to trigger real analog, MS-20-like loops in real time without spending a fortune or learning by heart the product manual, the Monotribe is probably your instrument of choice.

Advantages: 
  • Dirty, intuitive analog sound
  • Resonant low-pass filter inherited from the MS-20
  • Fast and versatile LFO
  • Clever features (gate, flux, …)
  • Independent number of steps for each part
  • Easy to use and fun
  • Good manufacturing quality
  • Mobile device with battery operation and integrated speaker
  • Hardware modifications possible
  • Very affordable price
Drawbacks:
  • Only for live applications
  • Ribbon doesn’t allow precise triggering
  • Only two user sequences possible
  • Playback only in one direction
  • Drum sounds not editable
  • Button combinations not printed on the unit
  • No CV/gate nor MIDI
  • Optional external KA-350 PSU

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see: Korg Monotribe Review

March 29, 2012

Arturia Oberheim SEM V Review

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Arturia Oberheim SEM V Review

Arturia has been launching a myriad of products since early 2012. Among the new products you’ll find an Oberheim SEM emulation with new custom features. Let’s have a look at the beast…

Something is for sure: Arturia’s team never stops working! They are constantly updating their existing products and have launched Analog Experience, Oberheim SEM V and MiniBrute in a very short time. The Oberheim is the latest addition to the series of legendary synth emulation plug-ins that started in 2003 with the Moog Modular V, followed by the Minimoog, CS-80, Prophet 5 and Jupiter-8 simulations. Arturia even attempted to create a virtual version of another legend of Tom Oberheim’s company, but they didn’t succeed…

It’s probably not necessary to present Oberheim, a mythical company that has had its successes and troubles after being bought by Gibson and Viscount. The SEM (Synthesizer Expander Module) was the first synth officially presented by its inventor in 1974. It was brought to life again in 2009 with a Patch Panel providing all 33 internal connections as mini-jacks and a Midi to CV Converter. These new features certainly gave customization ideas to Arturia: their virtual version also has many new features.

Introducing Arturia Oberheim SEM V

Arturia Oberheim SEM V

Arturia Oberheim SEM V

Test System:

  • MacPro Xeon 3.2 GHz
  • OS 10.6.8
  • Logic Pro 9.1.6
  • Arturia Oberheim SEM V 1.0, later 1.1

Out of curiosity, and because I always read that all Arturia synths sound similar, I compared the Minioog V and SEM waveforms (in this order) as well as a filter setting at 3,406Hz with maximum resonance (the release parameter settings are different but they have no effect on the sound in our example). Look at the screenshots and listen to the sound: No similarity…

Conclusion

Let’s be clear: I have no ’74 SEM in my studio. So a one-to-one comparison is impossible. I have only my memories of when I played the instrument and the many records where it is used… Therefor, it would make no sense to say this plug-in is an exact and faithful copy of the original. However, the virtual synth does share many things with the original synth: the features, the spirit, the typical Oberheim sound (soft filter clearly different from Roland and Moog filters). In short, don’t hesitate to add this tool to your synth library if you’re looking for SEM sound.

However, we also found a few problems: the envelopes/effects extend to the next preset, audible steps in some modulations. But considering the huge possibilities, the sound and the wonderful modulation section, we can only praise the quality of this synth. The ease-of-use, that doesn’t limit the sound possibilities, makes it the ideal tool to start in the world of sound synthesis.

Advantages: 
  • Same sound DNA as the original hardware synth
  • Design
  • Ease of use
  • Faithful to the original concept but more comprehensive
  • Modulation section
  • Amazing 8-Voice Programmer
  • Almost fully synced
  • Good product manual
  • Excellent Midi Learn function
Drawbacks:
  • Some bugs
  • Envelopes/effects extend to the next preset
  • Some audible modulation steps
  • Maybe the price, compared to similar products (DIVA for example)

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Arturia Oberheim SEM V Review

September 21, 2011

Korg Kronos Review

Filed under: Synthesizers — Tags: , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 2:00 pm

Presented at the NAMM 2011 and already available since this summer, the Kronos represents a new step in the workstation market — a cruel world where every product becomes immediately obsolete as soon as the successor is launched. The Kronos is very innovative and comprehensive, but will it be able to break this fatal rule?

A Snap Shot: A Mini-Review

Korg KronosKorg Kronos

 

Korg KronosKorg Kronos

Sample Reader HD-1

Korg Kronos

Named HD-1, the first sound-synthesis engine is dedicated to playing back PCM samples. The HD-1 is a polyphonic instrument with up to 140 voices. The Kronos uses three different PCM-memory types: ROM (permanent memory), EXs (library of pre-loadabable samples; not to be confused with the Exi, which are the additional synthesis engines), and RAM (for user sampling). The ROM memory includes 314 MB of samples. The EXs expansions dedicated to the HD-1 engine (that is to say without the EXs6 and EXs7 expansions that are dedicated to the SGX-1 engine) use 2.6 GB of memory in total: 274 MB for the EXs1 (ROM Expansion), 361 MB for the EXs2 (Concert Grand Piano), 714 MB for the EXs3 (Brass & Woodwinds), 157 MB for the EXs4 (Vintage Keyboards), 458 MB for the EXs5 (Rom Expansion 2), 170 MB for the EXs8 (Rock Ambience Drums), and 472 MB for the EXs9 (Jazz Ambience Drums). The Kronos distinguishes itself from competitors by its low data compression without quality loss for EXs loading. This 10% reduction cannot be compared with the 1:2 or 1:3 ratios usually used by similar products. Note that the SGX-1 streaming engines do not use RAM sampling. The PCM banks provided were taken from the Oasys and its expansions, which are clearly superior to the M3 in terms of versatility and quality. The stereo strings sound good and are sorted in several stereo sections, while the vector joystick allows you to mix them gradually within certain given combinations. Voices are well conceived and sound good. They are sorted in different versions (classic, pop, jazz, with different vowels or articulations). You’ll also find fairly good guitars and basses extending the possibilities offered by the STR-1 engine. The quality of brass ensembles is a bit lower in the preloaded bank because of a slight lack of brilliance and expressiveness. You’ll find more dedicated additional banks that are more advanced and better conceived. The quality of solo instruments (clarinet, flutes, sax, trumpet, trombone…) is pretty good. Once again, it is superior to the M3 (more memory) although we noticed an obvious relationship and a common sound color. The sound of acoustic drums and percussions is very accurate and expressive: punch, nice timbres, multi-layer control via velocity, high-quality sample recording, sound versatility… equally useful for pop, rock, jazz, latin, and world music. In short, it’s perfect! Electronic drums are on the same level and are greatly enhanced by the fantastic multi-effects.

Let’s take a look at other features…

Conclusion

To sum it up, these are the pluses and minuses as I see it:

Advantages:

  • Sound quality and versatility
  • Incredible overall performance
  • Simultaneous multiple synthesis
  • Dynamic voice management
  • Well thought-out design
  • Inaudible transition between programs
  • Size of the internal memory
  • Samples streaming (SGX-1 piano banks)
  • Modulation possibility at every stage
  • Very powerful effects
  • USB audio/MIDI interface
  • Performance/money ratio
  • Possibility to patch some engines with others
  • Direct-to-disc 16-track audio sequencer
  • Karma mode, if you can manage it…

Drawbacks:

  • … because it turns too complex to be easy to use
  • Boot time should be shorter
  • No real hardware pads
  • The RAM of the sequencer and the limitation to 16 MIDI tracks
  • Some checkboxes are too small on the display
  • No streaming for user samples (yet)
  • No wind instruments (brass, woods) modeling (yet)

To read the full article with sound samples see: Korg Kronos Review

July 8, 2011

Moog Music Slim Phatty Review

Five years after having introduced the Little Phatty, Moog decided to launch the compact synth in module version. Did the Slim Phatty succeed in making the famous Moog sound available to anyone?

The Little Phatty is the last project of the late Bob Moog who passed away in August 2005. A few months before passing way, he recruited Cyril Lance who finished the work of his master. The first Little Phatty saw the daylight for the first time at the Frankfurt Musikmesse in March 2006. The unit is a mix between a Prodigy and a Source, two synths based on the Minimoog D and developed in the early 80’s. In fact, the Little Phatty resembles the Prodigy in its looks and the use of two VCOs, but it takes advantage of the memories and programming method of the Source. In late 2010, Moog Music announced an affordable Little Phatty module. Don’t be fooled — affordable Moog means under $1000. Is the Slim Phatty the small synth everyone was waiting for?

Lightweight

Moog Music Slim Phatty

The Slim Phatty is Moog’s “feather-light” analog synth, considering that it weights less than 6.6 lb. and is 20″ width. Its fully metallic construction is very solid and even if the metal sheets are slim, they don’t bend easily. Like all Moog products, the housing was not screen printed but coated with Lexan instead. The front panel features not less than 34 switches with LEDs (some of them are two-colored, red/orange, depending on the status of the device), four big controls surrounded by 15 red diodes (which show the value of the parameters assigned), two standard controls (a bit too responsive) for tuning and volume setting, one push-encoder for value setting, program selection and browsing), and 18 LEDs. The controls and encoders are a bit loose, so they don’t feel as solid as the ones on the Voyager. A 2×16 light blue LCD display shows additional parameters while editing or playing.

The connections on the rear panel are a bit recessed, which allows you to mount the unit on a standard 19″ rack without any cable problems. The unit requires 3U in a 19″ rack. As it is always the case with Moog, the device is equipped with high-quality connections firmly screwed to the housing. You get one USB connector, one phones out, one mono audio out, one audio input, four CV/Gate ins, MIDI in/out/thru, a power switch, and a power connector (universal internal power supply… thank you!). The type-B USB connector only transfers MIDI signals. The CV/Gate inputs allow you to control the Slim Phatty with an external analog controller (foot controller, modular synth, sequencer, Theremin, etc.): they are connected to the pitch (CV), filter (CV), volume (CV) and keyboard (Gate). It’s a pity that Moog didn’t provide optional CV/Gate outs like on the Little Phatty: they would make the Slim Phatty the perfect USB–Midi–CV/Gate converter. It’s also a pity that Moog placed the phones out on the rear panel while it was conveniently placed on the front panel of the Little Phatty…

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

The Slim Phatty is the most affordable Moog synth ever. Described and marketed as the antithesis of the luxurious Voyager XL, it still provides the typical Moog sound without making you go bankrupt. It is well thought-out, very simple to use and easy to transport. However, there are sacrifices to be made: it has no directly accessible noise generator nor a comprehensive set of modulations. Nevertheless, for studio or live musicians who want to add the typical Moog sound to their setup without mortgaging their house or having to stack modules in order to build an analog polyphonic Moog, the Slim Phatty is a very nice solution that combines a real analog sound with an affordable price.

Advantages:

  • Typical fat and punchy Moog sound
  • Oscillators with continuous waveforms
  • 1 to 4-pole filter with overdrive
  • Very fast envelopes
  • Integrated arpeggiator
  • Microtonal scales
  • MIDI CCs can be sent and received
  • Responsiveness of the controls
  • Well thought-out design
  • Compact size
  • Affordable price

Drawbacks:

  • Very limited modulations
  • Noise generator only for modulations
  • No ring modulation
  • No additional effects

To read the full detailed article see:  Moog Music Slim Phatty Review

January 15, 2011

Winter NAMM 2011 Day 2 Highlights

And here are some video demo highlights from Day 2:

To see all news and videos visit: Winter NAMM 2011

December 6, 2010

Korg PS60 Review

Filed under: keyboards, Synthesizers — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 1:44 pm

While the market of low-budget synthesizers has never been so flourishing, Korg launches a performance synth conceived for live applications that require spontaneity and real-time options. Let’s step into the details…

3 pm on a gray autumn Saturday. Thick smoke fills the dark rehearsal studio when a hoarse voice raises from behind the drum kit…

“Hey, let me know when you are done turning knobs and playing with your touchscreen so you can finally give us some Rhodes and finish your synth solo!”

– I’m almost done, I just have to insert a program into the 2nd channel, edit a keyboard split and adjust the FX sends because I need an overdrive for the piano and a subtle delay for the solo part…

– What? A short delay? You’ve been setting your gadget there for hours. We’ve played only five songs and we still have 25 to go! We must pack our gear in two hours, drive 60 miles, mount again, make the soundcheck and start the show at 9 pm tonight…

– OK, I’m ready. Three, four, dzoiiiiiiing!!!

– What’s that chord you’re playing? Don’t you know “All by myself” is in A sharp?

– Darn, I forgot to transpose! I hate A sharp: too many black keys! Wait a minute guys, I just have to push the edit button, browse the transposition page… hm, wait, where is it? On the MkII, it was the 8th on the third-level to the right, but with the MkIII, it’s…

– I’m gonna kill you! I can’t stand your black and white keys, your cables hanging around, your twisted keyboard stands that keep on ripping my car’s leatherette seat covers…

 

Many keyboard players have experienced this when they still don’t master their brand new workstations yet, in spite of several weeks dedicated to getting to know their instrument. Complexity overcomes spontaneity! But what options do we have left, except for stacking several synths to have everything at our fingertips and edit splits and layers faster than Keith Emerson can play a fill over a five-octave keyboard or Jim Morrison can drink five bourbons… The Korg PS60 aims to be the answer: compact, quick, affordable, fully packed with ready-to-use sounds, and very editable. Let’s see if it holds true!

Double Six

Korg PS60

The PS60 is a very compact five-octave keyboard with the Korg-typical pitchbend/modulation joystick placed above the keys. Not very long nor heavy at all, due to the fact that it’s made out of plastic with a very nice and glossy finish. On the other hand, you’ll have to protect the device to take it on the road because it’s no tank… On the front panel there are many controls spread over a quite unusual layout. From left to right, you’ll find the joystick with a Hold key that allows you to hold the value corresponding to its position on the modulation axis, i.e. you can lock the return spring that brings the joystick back to the center position. You’ll also find a volume control and a key dedicated to Leslie simulations for organ sounds. But it has a fixed assignation… There’s also a row of keys for octave and half-tone transposition. Well done! Just above that, you’ll find a control section to store/recall performances pushing only one or two buttons. In the middle, a small 2×16 character, gray-blue LCD is placed above the selection keys for mode and performance selection.

But the most original section is clearly the control field’s right section. It allows you to select, turn on/off and mix on the fly two sets of six separate sound layers. In order to do that you get six rotary controls, 12 program-change keys, six channel on/off keys, a quick-edit selector for four parameters (volume, octave and two FX sends), and a split control section. You can quickly stack six program layers. When you activate the split key, you get two sets of six layers on both sides of the split point. The six parts are sorted by category: acoustic piano, electric piano, organ, strings, brass, and synth. Further on to the right, you’ll find nine controls and two keys that allow you to edit directly the two master effects and the global EQ to adapt the sound to the music. Once you are satisfied with the results you can save everything in no time. There’s no need to say that the handling is very easy and practical. But as you will see later on, the PS60 is not only a spontaneous stage keyboard but also a really comprehensive synth.

Korg PS60

Now, let’s take a quick look at the rather spartan rear panel: external PSU connector (normal for a low-budget product), on/off switch, stereo analog out, MIDI in/out, and a pair of multifunction foot controllers. Nothing revolutionary for today’s standards… The minijack 1/8″ headphones out is on the front panel. Nice! Let’s close this short overview by noting that the five-octave keyboard is velocity sensitive but it doesn’t support aftertouch, and it sports half-weighted keys with better quality than its competitors in the same price range.

Sound Set

Korg PS60

The PS60 uses a sound synthesis based on samples taken from the M3/M50 series in a compressed PCM ROM equivalent to 49 MB at 16 bits/48 kHz. You get 120 voices of polyphony and 12 simultaneous channels of multitimbrality. The unit always works in performance mode, which means that it always uses an arrangement of one or two sets with six sound layers. Each layer includes one of the 512 internal programs, including 440 factory-loaded ones. Each program includes a small demo to be chosen from 383 audition riffs which cannot be programmed. The sound samples provided with this review use these riffs to allow you to get a quick overview of the pop/rock oriented sound possibilities.

You’ll find some multisample acoustic pianos in different stereo variations (with or without sustain pedal and different tempered tunings) and a piano from the M1: typical sounds of older Korg workstation generations that cannot come close to the level of multisamples used by modern workstations. The multisample electric pianos sound much better, especially two Fender and one Wurlitzer sampled with three velocity steps. The Clavinet sounds are ok, especially thanks to the FX section. You get eight electric organs, which cover most music styles from smoky jazz to spellbinding gospel and distorted rock.

Korg PS60

You’ll also find two strings sections from previous Korg workstations: a very wide stereo ensemble and a small, slightly aggressive section. Choirs are well represented with four pop and classic multisamples provided in three variations. Brass sounds do not have an homogeneous quality. On the one hand you have the very nice, stereo pop section, the trumpet, trombone, French horn, flute, and clarinet sounds, but you also have three miserable saxophones. Even though the guitar & bass category doesn’t belong to the six instrument families on the front panel, you’ll find acoustic/electric bass and guitar sounds all the same. Bass guitars sound pretty good but guitars are disappointing: dead attacks, short held notes, audible loop points. However, the excellent amp simulation effects save the day… You also get about 50 different waveforms in different variations (sawtooth, sinus, impulse and DWGS & VS waves) — tradition is not a meaningless word at Korg. On the other hand, you won’t find any drum kits; it’s a pity since they are sometimes very convenient…

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

The PS60 offers an interesting concept at a very affordable price. You get a rather good pop/rock sound selection that, honestly speaking, cannot compete with big workstations or high-class stage keyboards. The same applies to the sound synthesis parameter set that requires an external piece of software (which is provided, luckily). One thing that sets the PS60 apart from all those high-end, sophisticated products is that it is clearly superior when it comes to quickly stacking, splitting, mixing and editing different sound layers during live performances. This will appeal to nomad musicians who want to avoid damaging their budget and their back!

Advantages:

  • Short learning curve
  • Well though-out direct-access controls
  • Good sound quality
  • A real synth with multimode filters and modulation matrix
  • FX section with one insert per voice (except for strings)
  • Editor/library manager included
  • Quality standard dynamic keyboard
  • Very easily readable LCD
  • Compact size and light weight
  • Rewritable OS
  • Reasonable price

Drawbacks:

  • Limited direct access to some sound synthesis parameters
  • Rather annoying menu browsing
  • Only 20 performance memories
  • No sequencer nor arpeggiator
  • Keyboard without aftertouch
  • No drum sounds nor kits
  • Construction a bit fragile

To read the full detailed article see:  Korg PS60 Review

September 24, 2010

Roland SH-01 Gaia Review

The SH-01 is Roland’s answer to the analog modeling synths market where low budget and ergonomics are not compatible. Let’s see what tradeoffs were made to combine ease of use and a competitive price.

Since the SH-1000 was launched in 1973, the SH series is without a doubt the most comprehensive among the whole product range of the Japanese manufacturer. Modern SH models are very different from their ancestors: they are programmable, digital, polyphonic, incorporate Midi, etc. Their name has more to do with a marketing concept than a sound concept. However, they focus mainly on direct-access controls and are meant to be immediate and easy-to-use instruments. Since the Nord Lead from 1995, the glorious times of modeling synths are way behind us. Japanese heavyweights have partially withdrawn into themselves while Americans don’t move forward anymore and Europeans try to amortize their R&D costs. The market became bipolar: at the top, the quiet kingdom of the Nord Lead, Virus, Origin, Accelerator, and Solaris that changes very slowly; at the bottom, the merciless world of cost killers like the Korg Micro & R3, Blofeld, SH-201, Miniak, etc. These instruments are often affordable but don’t provide the best ergonomics and manufacturing quality. With the SH-01 “Gaia,” Roland wants to enhance the ergonomics absent in budget products. Compromises had to be made. Were they wise decisions?

Easy Handling

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The SH-01 is a compact synth with a standard, velocity-sensitive, 37-note keyboard (three octaves). It is easy to transport and it runs on a power supply or batteries (the manufacturer says battery life is 4-5 hours). This summer, we took it along with a notebook to the sunny French beaches to test it while getting tanned. The black and white plastic housing isn’t as cheap as it seems. It seems to have some sort of reinforcement and it endured rough handling pretty well. The instrument is an invitation to tweaking. Its front panel is packed with clear, ergonomic and logically implemented control elements. Handling is easy with any synthesis form because you can understand the signal and modulation paths right away: D-Beam controller, LFO, oscillator, filter, amp, effects, etc. The 18 envelope sliders and 11 rotary controls recall the design of the prestigious Jupiter-8 or JP-8000. The rotary controls are not screwed down but they are well secured anyway. On the contrary, the sliders with plastic heads are fragile. It is very disappointing that in today’s modern digital era, controls only seem to to “jump,” because this limits their use in live performances.

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

A “Bank” key plus eight dedicated keys allow you to select the 2 x 64 ROM and RAM programs (RAM is for user presets). Editing arpeggios and sequences is harder because controls are reduced to their simplest expression. Many commands use key combinations using the shift button, and many functions are not written on the front panel, which is a serious design flaw in our eyes… To use the SH-01 in real time, you get an optical D-Bean controller you can assign to many synthesis parameters, a pitch+modulation joystick (typical of the manufacturer) and an assignable port for a foot controller. The unit offers some valuable direct performance controls: tap tempo, octave transpose and V-link for image/slide-show control with compatible devices. A “Manual” control allows reckless sound designers to start programming from the position of the physical control itself, or they can start by reseting all parameters all at once.

USB Gets the Place of Honor

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The rear panel makes a very good impression (except for the usual external power supply): stereo audio output and phones output on 1/4″ jacks, versatile assignable 1/4″ TRS input for a foot controller, Midi in/out, and a dual USB port. The USB ports allow you to connect the SH-01 to computers and storage devices, which is rather unusual for a device in this price range. Even better: the “Host” USB port allows bidirectional Midi and audio data transfer with a computer (drivers are provided on the CD-ROM) for direct audio recording into a host application without quality loss. It also allows you to route the audio mix of the host application to the SH-01 analog outputs. We chose this solution for the sound samples in this review… The device can also send the computer the audio signal feeding the stereo minijack on the front panel. This signal can be processed within the SH-01. You can mute it, attenuate it and cut frequencies according to three modes: high/mid frequencies (to suppress vocals and solo parts of a song, for example), low frequencies and full range. On the contrary, it is not possible to route the input signal to the internal filters and effects. (We are still wondering why the device has this frustrating limitation.)

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The other “Media” USB port is conceived for connecting external storage units, (like a USB key) to save and exchange user data (programs, patterns). But there is a fly in the ointment: on the one hand, the USB key can only hold 64 programs + 8 patterns (i.e. some kilobytes) regardless of the memory size of the key. What a waste! On the other hand, a “hot connection” is not possible, which means that you have to power off the device before disconnecting/connecting. No comments… Finally, we have to mention that the SH-01 cannot be USB powered, in spite of its minimum power requirements (9 V – 600 mA), which could be perfectly supplied through the USB port.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Mixed Impressions

In the end, the SH-01 left us with mixed impressions. This affordable standalone instrument is easy to use, includes a real dynamic keyboard and is more sturdy than it seems. With its numerous controls and not very versatile signal path, it was clearly conceived for beginners. However we don’t quite understand why so much DSP power is wasted with three fully independent signals instead of letting them interact. The same applies to the very generous polyphony in detriment of multimbrality for the VA section, and to the three multimode filters and five effect DSPs which can’t be assigned to the external signal source. USB provides you deluxe bidirectional audio transfer but a lousy management of mass storage units. The sound is less controlled than on the 1997 JP-8000. It shows an overall lack of consistency and punch, and tends to become aggressive as soon as high frequencies are not cut. Its very attractive price makes the SH-01 a great instrument to discover subtractive sound synthesis without risks.

Advantages:

  • Attractive price
  • Battery operation
  • Compact size
  • Easy handling
  • Audio & Midi over USB
  • Full-size dynamic keys
  • Generous polyphony
  • Effects section

Drawbacks:

  • Sound is not very consistent and it tends to be aggressive
  • VA section is monotimbral
  • Mono in sync mode
  • Very limited modulation possibilities
  • Very basic arpeggiator/sequencer
  • No external audio signal processing
  • Silkscreen does not mention shift functions
  • USB storage unit management
  • OS could be greatly improved
  • Rather toyish PCM

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Roland Gaia Review

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