Friday, January 30, 2009
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
It is sample-based, in that the VSM don’t emulate these instruments from scratch, but starts with recordings, which you can then retune, pan and modify with filters (lowpass, highpass and bandpass) and LFO.
The list of instruments is quite rich, featuring not only classic string machines like the Eminent 310 or the Roland RS-202, but also regular synthesizers capable of high quality string sounds (for instance, the Oberheim Xpander). Each instrument has its own flavor… the ARP Quartet and Xpander will sound quite smooth and lush, whereas the Freeman and Logan have a grittier, more lo-fi quality.
Given that you can layer up two instruments, and modify each one independently, the VSM allows for a great deal of audio manipulation, and is a lot more versatile than you would probably expect from a string machine plugin. The VSM isn’t just a sample database, but a self-contained instrument. You aren’t limited to a clinical - but perhaps sterile after some point – rendition of the original machines. You can create a whole new batch of hybrid string machines, and playing around with the filters, the split mode, the envelopes, you may easily go from low underwater drones and lush spacey Pink Floyd-ish strings to sharp 1985 stabs and funky phased licks.
No string machine would be complete without effects. You’ve got your classic ensemble effect, that is, a 2-to-8 voices chorus, and the obligatory 6 and 12 stage phaser. The ensemble effect can be detuned, and the phaser, sync’d to the LFO. These two I found to be excellent.. The ensemble gives depth and warmth to the strings, while the phaser has a very pleasant vintage quality.
The next question of course is : how relevant is the commercial VSM in regard of the freeware alternatives, such as Cheeze Machine ? The answer here depends on what your needs are. While the freewares and sharewares I had the opportunity to test sounded quite good, if you plan to use that kind of sound extensively, then you’re better off with the VSM. It will provide you with better quality sounds and a more powerful engine. Given the originality of the product, and the aforementioned craziness of some of the prices asked for these machines these days (I just saw today a 1500€ Yamaha SK20, a price that made me think the owner suffered some kind of neurological disorder), the VSM is reasonably priced to my opinion (by the way, yes, I've bought it).
To conclude, what about the cons? Well, frankly I found none. There’s no such thing as perfection, but I can’t really think of any issue with the VSM. Maybe there could be more samples? Well, there can always be more (and surely will, with further expansions), but what you get is enough already to program interesting sounds. The interface is well conceived, logically laid and clear. The VSM is elegant and tasteful, in an old school sort of way. It doesn’t follow the current trend of overcrowding soft synths with options. It is simple enough to be straightforward and fun to use, with enough functions to be a rich, versatile tool.
List of instruments :
Freeman String Symphonizer
Logan String Melody
Moog Opus 3
Saturday, January 24, 2009
I tried to capture the feeling of living in Gozeria
Korg Wavestation and Roland D550 (the rack version of the oh-so-famous D50)
(On both synths I've switched the internal effects off, which is probably the first thing you should do if you want to program one, then add the nice hardware or software reverb of your choice!)
Monday, January 19, 2009
Engineer David Cockerell, first hired by EMS to work on early computer systems for music, designed in 1971 a very peculiar (and pricey according to long time user David Gilmour) guitar effect called the Synthi Hi-Fli, featuring advanced phase shifting and vibrato functions, along with that special EMS retro-futuristic look.
While it is mainly a guitar effect, nothing prevents you from plugging another audio source, which is precisely what French synthesist JM Jarre did, using the first 1974 version of the pedal (seen above, photo from P.A.S.) on his Eminent 310U to create the astounding atmospheric pads of Oxygène (1976) and Equinoxe (1978).
My own Small Stone is the third version from 1980.
The following examples are done with the Prophet 08 only, processed by the Small Stone.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
A word about the Prophet 08 sequencer, first...
To access the sequencer mode, press Edit sequencer, then assign the sequencer to a destination, using the Mod Dest knob. For basic melody programming, what you want to do is assign to OscAllFreq. By now, the 16 knobs that were controlling filter and envelope are reassigned to step programming. Turn each knob up to the note you want to program, and so on… If you want a step to be silent, turn the knob to the right until “Rest” shows on screen. If you want to use less than 16 steps, turn to “Reset” on the knob just after the number of steps you need (9th knob if you want an 8 step sequence).
Now, one important note : always remember that the Prophet 08 has two different layers, meaning two different sounds that you can stack up or play in split mode. Layer A and layer B are independent… when you press the Edit Layer B button, all knobs are reassigned to the B patch parameters. Whatever settings you use for layer B have no effect on layer A.
The same is true with the sequencer. You may program a melody on the layer A sequencer, and program a different melody on the layer B, or program a bass line on the A and a drum beat on the B… You can also program a sequence on one layer and no sequence on the other (for example, to produce a pad with a background melody).
Note also that the BPM and Clock Divide values for A and B are independent as well. If you change the tempo for the sequence in layer A, you have to change it as well in layer B, unless you’re after a polyrhythmic effect.
One last word : the sequence is part of the overall patch. You can’t program a sequence on a patch, then play it with a different patch, and to my knowledge, you can’t copy a sequence from a patch to another. The Prophet 08 is not a workstation! The gated sequencer wasn’t conceived to build complete songs, but to program grooves, complex and evolving pads, etc...
There’s a lot more that could be said, because the sequencer benefits from the extended modulation possibilities of the Prophet 08, but that’s the basic idea.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
A purist is someone who’s preoccupied by the sonic difference between a Curtis chip and a SSM chip.
Things like that matter. They may not matter to you, and I mean you the casual and oh so ignorant listener, but they matter.
A purist is someone who thinks the recording of a Mellotron tape is different from the recording of the accurate sample of a Mellotron tape
A purist is someone who thinks synthesizers are used to make music for other purists, you know, the ones who believe they can tell if the song’s keyboard solo was played on a Curtis or a SSM-based synthesizer.
A purist is someone who thinks a Roland TB-303 is worth 1590€ (yes, I’ve seen that)
If you don’t know what a TB-303 is, let’s just say it is the worst bass synthesizer ever conceived. Yeah. I said it, punk.
A purist is someone who thinks digitally-controlled oscillators are for pussies
A purist is someone who thinks presets are for pussies
A purist is someone who thinks MIDI is for pussies
(The last three categories of purists are all pussies anyway, if they’ve gone past the Ondes Martenot technology… now, that was real music gear, man…)
A purist is someone who believes the first version of any synth is the best-sounding version ever. Of course, nothing beats the prototype.
A purist is someone who believes the Minimoog is the best synthesizer ever built.
A purist is someone who believes the Prophet 5 is the best synthesizer ever built.
A purist is someone who believes the Yamaha CS80 is the best synthesizer ever built.
A purist is someone who entertains the idea that one particular vintage instrument is the best synthesizer ever built.
I could go on and on.
I'm not a big fan of purists.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Monday, January 12, 2009
First point to address is : what do you need to make music? It’s always been my belief that you don’t need expensive instruments or gear to make music. A 3000€ guitar has never ever turned a mediocre musician into a good one, and the same is true with synthesizers. There are on this planet a number of people able to produce insanely bad music with outstanding electronic instruments. I can prove it. I’ve seen the Youtube videos. You have too.
That said, what a pricier, more sophisticated synth might grant you is more versatility and higher quality sounds. When you want to add Moog sounds to your music, and can afford to go hardware, the best choice is a Moog synthesizer… which comes at a price. But it remains that every synth, no matter how primitive, can be put to intelligent use and good music.
The second point is : how much is too much? What’s the limit between reasonable acquisition of valuable gear and compulsive buying of new junk?
Am I addicted? I don’t think so. I realise that from now on, every synth I’m buying, I don’t really need. But here’s the third point : it’s fun to buy new toys. For months now I’ve been looking for a Roland D50, or better, the D550 rack version. Why? Because that’s one instrument that made me drool when I was a teen. It was the kind of big, fancy, pro, oh-so-expensive synthesizer I was hearing on all these late 80’s records I loved, one I couldn’t dream of owning. Now with a little bit of luck you can find a D50 for 250€, which is ridiculous considering the power of the machine, and the original price tag. Do I need one? Hell, no. Would I just love to play these classic 80’s sounds of my childhood? Hell, yes.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
The patterns are up, down and order, that is, notes being arpeggiated in the same order they are played. Sadly, no random mode... but I believe that could come in a future update.
They are quite simple sounding, using merely a single oscillator, because as I've started, I realised that the Little Phatty was badly out of tune, and the calibration routine takes quite some time, so...
Saturday, January 10, 2009
So, let's start a patch series!
I love patches and it's surprinsingly hard to find some on the web.
Here's four simple Prophet 08 sounds I made : Prophet08.zip
To load them into your synth, use anything that transmit sysex - on Windows, I'd suggest Midi-Ox
The B-xxx at the beginning of the sysex indicates where the sound is going to be put, so back up your own sounds first, because the corresponding patches will be replaced!
Saturday, January 3, 2009
The SY35 is a budget synth, with enough power to provide for very interesting sound design. It wasn’t very expensive at the time, and it’s laughably cheap these days. The construction is good. It may come in a plastic case but I’ve never encountered a single bug, all the buttons still function properly and the 61 keys keyboard works quite good after being used as master keyboard for all these years.
Of course, there’s the interface issue… the SY35 is the reason why I’m tolerant of the shortcomings, interface-wise, of most synths. Some may have a lousy interface, but the SY35 is the less practical instrument to program I’ve ever played.
The SY35 is sixteen voices polyphonic and multimbral (eight parts). There are 128 sounds. 64 are factory presets that you can’t erase, mostly acoustic (most notably, some good electric pianos, excellent vintage strings and a lovely choir patch). The other 64 are user presets, for storing your own creations.
Sounds are built around no less than four oscillators, two FM and two AWM (that is, basically acoustic samples). Each FM oscillator has its dedicated tone control, which is Yamaha's way to allow for low-pass-filter-ish effect on the timbre. Real filters are implemented on the SY55 and upwards. Add four LFOs and sixteen (decent but not great) effects, and that’s pretty much it.
How does it sound? Be warned, this is a truly, unashamedly digital instrument. It can sound cold, industrial and harsh, and given good programming it can also sound mellow, rich and lush. The SY35 excels at dense, complex sound design, and is a good addition to any experimental setup.