Thursday, August 26, 2010

It Just Runs Programs

In trawling the web for comments good and bad about some hard synths out there, I have often come upon the argument that soft synths sound at least as good if not better, and are more powerful, than hard synths and far chapter, so why buy a hard synth?

There are a few reasons. The most significant reason is that the knobs on a hard synth create a musical space that lends itself to real time experimentation. The common response that is, that's true but there are controllers out there now that will give the musician knobs and sliders to control soft synths. Some, even have pre-made mappings to many of the popular synths or some soft synths have MIDI learn to make it easy to map knobs on the controller to the virtual knobs on the soft synth. DAWs also have tools.

All of this is true but its not the whole picture. First, the controller has no visual markings to label the knobs and sliders. Of course, one could create a series of templates but that is a lot of bother. There are also some attempts to improve on the basic paradigm of a controller such as Native Instruments Kore 2 but the fact remains that if you look at the hardware controller, there is no visual cue to what you are controlling so the direct interaction with the synth is lost.

One solution would be do have a very high res set of LEDs that provided soft templates. I am not sure why Native Instruments or someone else has not come up with this. Another problem is that the position of the knobs are still fixed. I have three hard synths. A Moog Voyager, a Korg M3 and a Waldorf Blofeld. Each of these synths have a very unique and very different set of knobs and sliders. The reason is simple. Each of these synths has a very unique character or personality if you will. That is reflected in the design of the keyboard or controller and reflected in the sound. The two are integrated together.

Now soft synths could have their own dedicated controllers and in a few instances they have but they have not gone over well because in the mind of the consumer, they are adding unnecessary cost. I don't really agree with this but the second problem is that if you have a lot of soft synths you would need a massive USB hub which would strain most computers.

So that's the first reason that soft synths fall short of hard synths.

Also realize that is possible to stack at least three keyboards. This is not the same as snazzy MDI controllers with keyboard splits. One has a full range on each synth whatever that range might be.

Now onto the financial argument that they are so much cheaper. OK, but what about those upgrades. Isn't that part of the game. I've played it. The company comes out with an upgrade and well, even if it's not all that significant, well, one just has to have it.

Now in some cases hard synths companies want money for upgrades but they don't come out as much and in some cases, like the Korg M3 for example, they are free which includes new samples. Add say three upgrades to a soft synth and that cheap synth has nearly doubled in price!

The final advantage I wanted to point out is often overlooked but important. Go look at the back of any hard synth and there are usually a whole wide range of in and outs. Often, sound can be routed differently to different sets of outs. Ins can also be used in different ways. On the Korg M3, the entire synth is an effects processor and through the audio ins it can process external audio and also resample it. Most soft synths have a meager set of effects. The Korg M3s effects are vast and powerful and directly tied to the hardware, yes, all those knobs and sliders. It even is more powerful than that but I will not get into that.

So if you find an extensive set of soft effects and add on a few upgrades for the synth and effects and your getting up price prize a lot closer to hardware.

The bottom line is that the ability to route audio to other hardware is something that soft synths and DAWS do not do all that well. Yes, I know about Reason and some other products as well but these attempts are not nearly as good as the ability to use a patch bay or even a more sophisticated matrix audio router like the "switchblade". One aspect of any hardware based system is that it is in a sense a modular itself. Combine it with a modular or with effects pedals and the possibilities expand far beyond the meager possibilities on soft synths.

The most significant part of it is there is something kind of magical about hardware. It lends itself to experimentation and for the reasons mentioned it can be rivaled by generic controllers. What is it worth? That's something each musician or composer has to decide. For me, its worth it. I see value in soft synths and frankly, some of my soft synths do things my hardware can't but I see it as supplementing not replacing my hardware.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On Happy Accidents

Rather than posting a whole slew of tweets on Twitter, I thought it best to blog. I have been thinking lately about happy accidents in the history of music synthesis. What I mean by this is that often, what works musically is often more the result of imperfections than perfections. Perhaps, this might even apply to governing nations, but I digress.

To explain what I mean by this, consider the Moog Ladder Filter. In order to get the cutoff desired, a lattice of filters was necessary to design the Moog Ladder Filter. This results in distortion. Moog did not mind this but realized that the distortion, while from a purist point was undesirable, but from a musical perspective, it was desirable. So much so that this filter became a kind of musical legend.

Another example is that of oscillators for analog synths. The reason for all three waveforms that are usually used (square, sawtooth, triangular) is because these waveform are easy to approximate using the discharge of a capacitor. The corollary to this happy accident is that these waveforms have particular harmonic properties that make them useful.. For example, the square and triangular waveforms have no odd harmonics which make them effective for mimicking woodwind instruments, especially the square, because of the harmonic and physical characteristics of those instruments. Sawtooths provide a very broad spectrum waveform that can then be filtered to create very musical effects combined with envelopes.

Another example spurred on a whole musical industry from blues to rock, to hard rock to heavy metal. Back in the early days, amplifiers used tubes (and some still do) because there were no transistors. When tubes got hot, they distorted (well, even before that but the heat enhanced the effect). But they did so in such a way to enhance harmonics in a musical way. Amps today use several stages of amplification which creates another type of sound. The why however is not so important as the fact that it is musical. There is also what is called sag in amps which has to do with the power supply but it creates a drop in power that is part of the signature sound of some amps.

Pickups on guitars are another example. The more windings one has on a guitar makes the signal not only a lot stronger but also more distorted combined with an amp. Again, for some types of music this is desirable.

Natural instrument are perhaps the best example. Instruments are expressive (much more so than electronics without a lot of help) because when a note is first played, the physical system which creates the oscillations is not in equilibrium. This creates noise which, in a brief time, changes to a stable waveform. What we actually find expressive and interesting about an instrument is not the static waveform (which is actually kind of boring) but the first part of the note we call the transient. This is what we identify often with musical virtuosity.

From a purists perspective, the stable physical system which creates a stable sustained waveform is what is attractive perhaps on an intellectual basis but its the imperfection of the transient that creates the magic.

So there you have it. That is my walk though the happy accidents of music.

The flip side of course is that those things that might seem theoretically relevant, may not be musical. My example of that is additive synthesis. I will not go into it here but I am in rebellion against what I would call the Fourier illusion. My basis for this is actually because I have a mathematical background and believe that he whole concept of harmonics is defunct to some extent. It can be a useful tool but in some sense, its only a model of reality, not the true reality. Granular synthesis is coming closer to the true reality but much like the physics of a particle being a wave and a particle, the same applies to these models of sound.

Not to inject a lot of politics into my musical blog, I try to keep this separate, but consider a society. People come in all shapes and sizes with all sorts of problems. If we embrace that which is imperfect, then things work. Yes, we know there is greed but if its directed towards making a good product that can help people than that is a good thing. Yes we know that some people are not healthy but perhaps helping those people actually makes us better people. I know there are those in our government, some at the very highest level, who believe that government can create an earthly utopia without injustice, hunger and suffering so they try to force people into a mold of what they believe Perhaps, in some odd way, its those things that we struggle with, those imperfections, that may just be the happy accidents that help to bind us together.

Just a musical musing for a somewhat tranquil Sunday morning for me.

Hope all enjoyed.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Music and Government

I rarely like to combine my political views with musical views but in these case, I have to say a few words. I just read this great article on the wonderful work in early synthesizers by Ken Freeman who very much furthered the development of early string synthesizers and is no doubt part of the inspiration for the modern string ensembles that appear on more modern synths today. String synthesizers also have been a huge part of pop music history.

So what does all this have to do with politics. Simple really. I find myself wondering how a modern day Ken Freeman would fair in the bureaucrat business killing environment of today. Many new and often struggling companies today find themselves hit by government regulations that at time border of the absurd and taxes that will soon be going up in the US. Many people also don't realize that for many small companies, their corporate profits are part of their personal income and it's this money that they often put back into their business. With the Bush tax cuts being eliminated in all likelihood, the ability of many young companies to find capital to make great products like synthesizers, will soon find themselves dying under the tax burden. A course in macroeconomics will tell you that that means a contraction of the economy and depression.

I am a practical man as well as a musician and composer outside my day job. I worked in the financial/insurance world for 12 years before my current day job and I know finance. I value innovation and I love stories like the one I read in Sound on Sound. It disturbs me that those who should be encouraged and helped by the government are being crushed and vilified. Making wonderfull tools for musicians might come from capitalism and I know that many hate capitalism but why? For those who do I ask this. Why don't you turn all your lights off, shut off your refrigerator and get an ice box, turn the AC off and freeze during the winter because pot belly stoves produce pollution and that would result in global warming. Then ride a bicycle to work.

Sorry to be so sarcastic here but I am being serious. If people really believe that capitalism is bad then live by that. bicycle or walk to Montana and start a ranch and live by candlelight at night. I don't know what you can do for heat because you should not burn wood to be politically incorrect. And no "View" for you MSNBC because you can't use electricity unless of course you can't to produce it from a bike driven generator which would also have to power the I-pads.

Just a thought, but I guess integrity does not apply if you are a political visionary.

Let's hope that the fledgling young instrument makers can survive this administration and that the evil products of capitalism can still find their way to the shelves of music shops.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Tyranny of the Computer

For a long while now, I have been revolting against the computer plug in revolution. At the same time, I have been looking for all sorts of alternative controllers. I saw no connection between these two until now. It dawned on me today that the reason that I feel this way is that a soft synth is something disembodied. What I mean by this is that the instrument part of the synth (the controller) is removed sound generating part of the synth. This has led up until recently in a stagnation of controllers that since the time of early synths has remained stuck in the mire of pitch bend and mod wheel and spongy MIDI controllers that are little more than toys.

Now don't get me wrong. I like to program synths (soft synths to) and I can take delight in the strange new sounds that sometimes come from my monitor speakers but often, those patches, are not very useful musically. Sure, they sound really interesting but using them in a composition is a different story.

Some have claimed that hard synths are on their way out. I beg to differ. Here is why. On a hard synth, at least a good one, there is an integration of the controller/s and the synth. A classic example in the Korg M3 which is vastly underated. The M3 has expansive controller capabilities not just because of the built in joystick, ribbon and XY controlers, sliders and buttons but it's ability to mix controller signals and to assign a controller to a vast (and I mean vast) array of parameters including effects. It also has a real keyboard especially the 88 key version which is the one I reccomend. It feels closer to a piano than any MIDI controller you can find.

The key here is integration. The M3 is not a disembodied synth but a synth in which the instrument part is integrated with the sound.

Now I also have a Minimoog Voyager. I recently listened to an interview with Bog Moog that I really love in which he speaks of the synthesizer as instrument. The Voyager's knobs are part of that instrument. On soft synths, these are either relegated to a mouse or one of the lustiest generic controllers like those for Live. I like thse but they are not instrument specific, they are not integerated. Native Instruments has also tried to create a parameter sets that makes up a pseudo instrument in products like their Kore and also products like Massive that integrate this into the synth.

This is not the same as a Voyager. Once you play the Voyager for a while, you get to know it. It integrates with you and as I said, every knob becomes part of the instrument.

Now lately, I have bought into the tyranny of the computer and bought a Macbook pro as the one computer to rule them all (the synths). Problem is I have driver problems. Frankly I am a musician and composer and I don't want to have to be a computer tech to get sound to come out of my computer. Menu screens on my hard synths I can deal with but some invisible driver and a generic message that something is not working, that aggravates me and takes me away from the music which is what it's all about right?

That brings me to recording. I remember back when I first started to play guitar I bought a 4 track cassette multitrack. I still have it of course no one would really want to use it today but I loved this thing. Why? Because when I recorded I knew what was going on. Everything was tactile and in front of me. Even the sound of the tape drive motor going on made it like an instrument, something directly related to the music I wanted to record.

Now I know that programs like Live are very sophisticated recording studios and don't get me wrong, I live Live. I have Live 7 on an old dying computer that I am trying to replace with a Macbook Pro and liberate my softsynths (not as easy as it sounds). I also know that multitrackers are meant to be portable and not really for the studio. Really? Are not studios just larger versions of these? How many studios just use Live? I suspect because there is something tactile and direct about a mixing board and don't tell me that the Live controllers are mixing boards because they are not.

So I have thought about a Korg 3200. This is definitely a mixer. Sliders, knobs and buttons that make recording very tactile. OK, a major drawback, a terrible small screen but everything else looks great on it. It also has a lot of automation options which is important to me and has MMC control and scene changes More on why this is important to me latter but believe me, I have plans on how I can integrate all my equipment. The nice thing is that it can easily be moved and I need to do that a lot. What it does is integrate recording in one place including burning a CD. Let's say I have recorded tracks and I just want to tweak the mix a bit but I am going to be away. I can just put the thing in the car and I don't have to connect an interface to set it up. Just headphones and a place to plug it in will do.

I am seriously considering buying one. When I do get my drivers working on my Macbook, I am going to use it but only as an instrument using Live, but not to record. That advantage is that I am not dependent on a single computer to do everything and generic musical instruments. I want my hardware and software tightly integrated and not subject to failure.

So that is where I am going right now musically and with recording. Hope to post more on this soon. In about a month I should be able to have the money for a K3200 and while I have not bought one yet, I suspect that I will. If in the meantime my Macbook is working, the plan is still the same.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I Have the Need, the Need for Hardware

Recently, I have taken a great deal of satisfaction in sitting down in front of a piano. There is something very musical about it. There are no electronics, just me and this wonderful invention. OK, don't get me wrong. Believe me, I am not going acoustic but I do like hardware.

My Korg M3 for example. I turn it on right away the M3 logo comes up and in a few minutes, the main menu screen. The press of a few buttons and I can be playing a piano or have a whole symphony at my fingertips. Not once did my M3 ever say things like Firewire extensions not available.

My Moog Voyager takes even less time to boot up and with a few twists of some knobs I can have mellow analog sounds or harsher FM and synced sounds coming from my speakers enough to wake the neighbors and the dead. But no messages about drivers and rather than raising my blood pressure, I find delight in playing music.

Funny thing is that I used to program computers. It was part of my job and when I first started to get involved in synths I like the idea of synths that I could program. But as I got older, I found that complex programs were often noisy, confused, not all that musical. Simpler, more suble variations like those I could get with my Voyager seemed to appeal more to me. Or having the ability to layer sounds on my Voyager.

So when I was anxious to get my Macbook working and I get this annoying driver message that I suspect has to do with Firewire 400 and 800, I really am irritated. I frankly don't care about why something works or whether its Firewire or USB or 400 or 800. I just want to make music and record it so I can share it! All of this computer stuff is taking me away from music because I have to find new drivers and re-install software and talk to tech reps that I get a busy signal for.

A while back, I thought about getting a digital multitrack and someone said to me, why do that? Software DAWs are much more powerful. Don't get me wrong, I have Live and you know what, eventually I will get me software and hardware to make nice to one another and I will upgrade my Live and my Komplete and all will be well but the idea of having a piece of hardware that can burn a CD for me and create read made MP3 files right from a single piece of hardware, no interface needed. Well, that has appeal as well. So who knows, a multitrack might still be in my future while I try to get my software to behave. In the meantime, I can create music.