By Trent Rentsch
When last we visited the synthesizer development timeline, musicians had become a space age one man band, sitting at a keyboard that could provide literally an entire orchestra of music. The tools had advanced to the point that the savvy musician with a subtle touch could accurately recreate “real” instruments that could even fool those with “the ear.” At the same time, competition had made synthesizers more affordable, with more features than ever… much like their cousin, the computer. And with MIDI allowing synthesizers and computers to “talk” to each other, a revolution in music recording began. It seemed that every keyboardist, drummer, bass player, guitarist, singer, even Harmoni-Cat was creating compositions in their own home studio (read: basement and/or spare bedroom). A musical heaven, right? Sadly, a lot of the material produced sounded like hell.
There were several problems. First and foremost, while the synthesizers were capable, there were still limitations to producing a realistic duplication, and although those limitations could be overcome by a truly gifted musician with a great ear and a lot of knowledge, many budding one man bands were barely reading the instruction manual. There were several new skill sets to learn, and even accomplished keyboardists found it harder than they thought to “play the guitar” on the ivories. Then there was the issue of time. With all those keyboards, drum machines, synth “modules” (synthesizers, usually rack mounted, without a keyboard) and computers strung together with MIDI cables, sometimes there was a short lag time between the note being played and it actually making a sound.
It could be less than a second, but when playing a keyboard, it might as well be an eternity. Different techniques/tools began to appear to combat this latency, but even with the brain trust coming up with answers, it was still a frustrating, sometimes impossible problem to solve (and even today, it still can be).
While synthesizer companies fed the home recording revolution, and spare bedrooms became filled with keyboard stands and racks of gear, the computer was steadily revolutionizing the revolution. While computers had always been capable of rooty toot sounds worthy of a Pacman score, as speed and memory increased, so did the sophistication of sound creation. The early ‘90s saw companies like Turtle Beach and Digidesign creating sound cards and software that made recording, playing back, and even editing possible. By the mid-‘90s, software companies had gone beyond sound sampling to emulations of synthesizers. Software like Reality by Seer offered several types of synthesis in one package… in your computer, without outboard hardware. Soon, software companies were synthesizing Synthesizers, creating emulations of popular “real world” synthesizer keyboards like the original Moog (complete with on-screen patch cords) and Yamaha’s DX7. The advantage to these recreations was the ability to provide a familiar synthesizer and its controllers, while adding new features and virtually unlimited storage of sounds or “patches.” Other software companies, taking advantage of the ever-growing speed and processing power of computers, began to design synthesizers that offered “tweakability” unheard of in stand alone synthesizers, as well as unique on-screen ways to “play” the sound.
Today, the number of available software synthesizers is in the thousands, with new, more sophisticated ones appearing on the market every day. Many combine different types of synthesis; some even add sampling to the mix, giving the sound designer the ability to create unreal sounds from existing ones. Some are stand alone programs, others are “plug-ins” that are accessible within some multi-track recording programs like Cubase, Pro Tools, Sonar. Still others are integrated into music production software systems such as Reason and FL Studio. While they all have a wide and varied range of sound designing potential, one thing they all share in common is that, for the novice user, they seem pretty darned confusing, overwhelming even.
For the next few columns, we’ll attempt to un-muddy the waters a bit. I know that while many of you reading this magazine aren’t out to become the next lead keyboardist for the Moody Blues, we can all benefit from learning the basic tools for synthesis, perhaps even creating a custom ZIIIIIIIIP, SWANHGGA aaaaaaa, or SHOOOOeeeeeeeezb!! I’m going to stick to software synthesizers because they are more reasonably priced than their hardware siblings (in fact, many we’ll look at are free or shareware), and because many integrate so well into the audio software you may already be using. While I spend most of my days in PC-land, I’ll be doing my best to make the discussion Mac-friendly, as the basic functions of synthesis apply regardless of your CPU flavor.
A couple of things you’ll need to make a software synth sing. First is some sort of controller to let the synthesizer know it’s time to make a sound. This could be by a MIDI keyboard/controller, which, when a key is pressed, sends the “on” signal through the MIDI cable to the software. While some software synthesizers include a “virtual keyboard” on the computer screen, I find it less tedious to use a hardware MIDI keyboard.
Many programs also let you use your standard computer keyboard as an “on” switch, but that has always seemed clunky too… especially when I want to hear a sound in a higher or lower pitch. There are other MIDI controllers too, including rubber pads to simulate drum heads (great for working with drum machines), and some off the wall controllers that you “play” by waving your hands over them, a’la the Theremin we talked about a few months ago. For everyday sound design, a simple MIDI keyboard will do the trick, and you can pick up a cheap keyboard that has MIDI in and out ports for under 50 bucks at most music/electronics stores. I have a combination computer keyboard/MIDI keyboard that I bought from an on-line computer store that works perfectly for sound design, and plugs into a USB port in my computer, so I don’t have to worry about needing some sort of MIDI adaptor for my computer… many of the newer dedicated MIDI controllers are going the USB route as well.
Speaking of which, if the controller you end up with doesn’t use USB, your sound card may already have MIDI in and out ports; take a look before you spend your money needlessly. If not, you’ll need a MIDI adaptor to plug into; you can find one quite reasonably priced at either music or computer stores that connect to the gaming port on your computer. There are some pretty fancy controllers and MIDI routing devices out there, but as we’re going to work with basic sound design and not full orchestrated pieces, a basic MIDI keyboard will work just fine.
Next month, how to hook things up, what happens when you press that key, and how to make it go BBBBBBBLLLLLAAAAZUMMM!