Synths Reborn

I have to admit something.  Every time I see a new software synthesizer released these days, a small part of me runs weeping to the corner and cries for days.  Tears and tears of frustration, I literally own stock in Kleenex thanks to software synths.

Ok, maybe it’s not that bad, but it seems like over and over again I see synths released that seem to miss the opportunity to really take advantage of the computer and it’s input devices to to something new and unique.  Some examples:

– Emulating vintage analog synths.  Ok, I get it, some of these are incredibly rare or out of reach financially of most musicians.  But do we really need another Minimoog clone?  It’s time to move on create this generation’s own legacy of synthesis, instead of always putting the tools of the past on a pedestal as the ‘ideal’ synth.

– A GUI that’s just too darn small and cluttered.  Face it, the days of everyone using a 1024×768 resolution display are gone.  With most people today using LCD monitors or high resolution laptops, you end up with a synth panel that requires reading glasses just to operate it (and yes, my eye sight is fine, thanks to recent Lasik surgery).  If you must cater to the lowest common denominator by using a lower resolution for your GUI, at least give us the option to choose a higher res version if we want.

Similarly, cramming as many controls into the GUI in order to prevent the use of multiple pages or scrolling is admirable, but not if it makes them a pain to use.  You have to hunt around to find what you need, or be super careful when selecting the right control so that you don’t inadvertently adjust the wrong parameter.  Spread them out!

– Knobs.  Seriously, I think the idea of using a virtual knob on a software synth panel is one of the most unwieldy forms of control there is. Even with things like linear control mode, it’s just not a motion or visual element that works well with a mouse.  The only benefit I can see, is that it allows more controls to fit into a space, and then we’re back to my point above.

– This isn’t Star Trek.  I get that a lot of computer musicians and programmers are sci-fi fans, but this trend to make things look futuristic merely for the sake of it can get out of hand.  Logic’s synths are a prime example, fancy looking to the point of being distracting.  Simple and to the point can often be a lot better, there’s some benefit to a clean design over a cluttered one.

– On the flip side, some synths are so simple that they are just boring and uninspiring to look at every day.  I get that a synth’s sound should be the important part, but as an artist, I take inspiration when writing music from all the elements of my surroundings.  Live’s instruments fall into this category for me.  Boring, same-looking controls crammed into a tiny little display. I understand that’s just the way Ableton likes to style things, but it ends up giving their synths no real identity for me.  The synths look like the effects, which look like the rest of the app, and in the end you just have this bland mess of samey looking sameness. Boring, no matter how they sound (and they sound pretty good btw).

– Oh look,  yet another 2 or 3 OSC subtractive synth!  Wow, talk about going out on a limb!  The same 4 filter types, the same 2-3 envelopes and LFO’s, and the same effects included.  I understand it’s the synthesis method that most people are familiar with, but honestly, it’s been done to death by now.  If you know what you’re doing, you make almost all of these sound exactly the same, so what’s the point?

Ok, so those are a few of the things I really don’t like about some of the virtual synths out there.  Rant-fest over.  To be fair, there are some developers who’ve really started to rethink how we interact with a music making tool on the computer.  Some of them are quite clever too:

– Synplant.  Pretty obvious one here, but I think Magnus really hit this one out of the park.  You might not like it’s sound all the time, but I applaud someone finally releasing something truly different.  Not only does it have a really wild new way of controlling the synthesis behind the scenes, but it forces you to actually LISTEN to what you are doing when creating patches since there’s none of the usual controls immediately visible.  Gasp, the horror!  🙂

– Native Instruments Kore.  Not so much the plug in or the hardware, but the fact that they were one of the first to start tagging their preset libraries with descriptive attributes.  I never thought categorizing sounds by their type (i.e. bassline, lead, pad, etc) was the best way to do it.  Often time a lead can be a killer bassline if you just play it a couple octaves down, or a bassline can make a killer drone just by turning up the amp env attack.  By categorizing things in a more descriptive way regardless of the type of sound it is, NI came up with a really good way of approaching things from the way an artist might think.

– Omnisphere 1.5.  The new orb method of controlling and playing the synth from a touchpad is a brilliant idea.  The actual orb idea isn’t totally new, as the Lemur had a similar object for years now.  But the real star of the show is the fact that you can ‘roll the dice’ and Omnisphere will intelligently remap the controls that are assigned to the orb for you.  This is huge in my opinion, and overcomes the major hurdle that most synths suffer when used with MIDI controllers.  Namely that you have to manually assign anything that you want to control, and this just slows down the process of music creation too much for me to be really viable in the heat of the moment.

Sure, some companies like Novation have tried to create auto-mapping schemes to handle this for you too, but in my experience the results are often very hit or miss.  Too often it’s dependent on how the parameters in the synth are ordered, and many times the first 8 controls you’re presented with aren’t things really suited to real time tweaking.  With Omni 1.5, you know that the parameters assigned to the orb will actually do something you’d want to control in an expressive way.

Just a few positive examples that have stood out to me in my use, I’m sure there’s others out there.

However, I’d love to see more developers take things one step further.  Instead of presenting people with the same synth controls they’ve seen for years, come up with not only new control schemes, but new ways of presenting them as well.  Use more descriptive terms for a control, and use interactive GUI control elements to change more than one thing at a time.  Parameter names like color shift, warmth, distance, time constants, modernize, etc are all things that are vague enough to give programmers plenty of flexibility in what they control behind the scenes, and yet descriptive enough that musicians will know right off the bat how they might affect the sound.

Stop using the same old knob, fader, x-y control schemes we’ve seen time and time again.  What if visually stacking a pile of pebbles made a sound more complex, and the color of the stones affected how bright or dark the sound is?  Or a picture or the night sky, where the number of stars controls how many layers are used in the sound, and the number and direction of comets controls how the sound evolves over time.  You can even save your favorite sounds as constellations.

Maybe these are dumb ideas off the top of my head I admit, but I think there’s a lot more ways out there to create new sounds in a way that engages the artist, without forcing them to try and turn a tiny little knob with mouse.  When you think about how these might be projected on a screen during a live performance, it really opens up a whole new era of how electronic musicians not only interact with their sounds, but how it’s presented to other people as well.

Here’s to hoping the near future brings about a revolution in software synthesis.

11 Replies to “Synths Reborn”

  1. Sad to say, a lot of original thinking falls on stony ground with the end users. As somebody who has experimented with alternate GUI styles, whilst offering more conventional options, I can confirm that the vast majority of users preferred the more conventional style. However the ‘weirdness’ of some designs does help to create interest in the first instance. Most users, it would seem, prefer the more conventional paradigms once the novelty has worn off.

  2. Can I wind you up about the generic subtractive hardware synths that come out Tarekith? Like the venom? lol

    You’ve gotta mix the weird with the intuitive, that’s why Synplant rocks, it’s out there but people could play with it without realising that they’re playing with a synth, it opens up something new to people in a way that isn’t as daunting as something like Absynth or Rapture with 40+ envelopes and 6 sound generators 🙂

  3. I feel what you’re saying and I remember when Orca debuted. A totally different interface that was fun to use. However it was a very limited synth with all due respect.
    Lovin’ your blogs by the way. Z.

  4. Yeah, the Orca looked like it was going to be a really cool synth, but it just didn’t gel with me sound wise for some reason.

    Epinema – I hear you on the hardware synths front too, a lot of manufacturers are getting really good at packaging the same guts into new cases and trying to make a big deal out of it.

    Oh well, I guess it’s all economics at the end of the day. They want to do what they know will sell, instead of maybe taking a chance on something truly ground breaking.

  5. “Oh look, yet another 2 or 3 OSC subtractive synth! […] what’s the point?”

    There could be some small differences under the hood that can be appreciated by some users. Yes, those differences could be irrelevant, by the way I think it’s a good thing if people can choose the basic subtractive synth they like the best. It’s the same thing that happens with cars, apples, women (“Oh look! Another blonde hair, 2 tits women… what’s the point??” LOL 🙂 Well you know… you HAVE to find a reason).

    Also it’s true that new synthesis types are cool… but do not fill the needs of a lot of people. So, in the end, the story it’s always the same: it’s only a matter of personal taste. I know some musicians which use only “boring 2/3 osc synths” and produce great albums, way better than some kids with their HD full of multi gb “komplete” stuff.

    If you know what you want (in terms of music and sound) you can achieve your goal with just every instrument. The best albums out there are still produced using very simple stuff recorded in mono. Do we really need dolby surround compatible VSTs, multi GB libraries, and 64bit stuff? No!

  6. I found uTonic really cool but that came out ages ago. Twin is nice but can become cluttered as F.

    The fact they release the same products both hard and soft versions doesn’t bother me, it’s that they spend all their time and money on the advertising, pitching it as mindblowingly brilliant and different from anything else that has ever been. How many releases of the microkorg do we currently have too? lol I don’t even want the first one!

  7. lol totally. This is why i never really used Logic. Total star trek interface with tiny controls.

    and also this is why i try to only use the ableton synths. mmmm

  8. I’ve gotten bored of alot of my soft synths, and I tend to use the effects more than I do the synths lately. But what I really hate is a synth that makes my iMac running Ableton just move at a snails pace or worse, crash it all together! If I’m just running a demo of it, and it won’t play nicely with another synth, then what’s the point? I can go out any buy any synth at GC, Trading Musician, American Music, Best Buy, and synth A will work with synth Z. But try to mix a few soft synths together, and it’s like they all fight to determine which one’s going to be the alpha/Omega on your CPU chip. I want the programmers to build the code so it gets along with the other synths/effects I might want to use with it. Not try to bring the whole thing down to a halt. Otherwise, I might as well just switch to Reason/Record.

    As far as the Graphics are concerned, I like them to be pretty, but simple. But that’s why I never really wanted to go with Logic is for the same reasons Tarekith went into. Having to squint just to read how your square wave is running a 9.45 on the richter scale in the GUI. Granted, we’ve come along way since the days of a crappy LCD screen of the 80’s, but then maybe we haven’t. (My Novation X-Station is a prime example, and oh how cute! Again on the UltraNova) I don’t mind knobs, but I do agree, they don’t need to do every function of the synth do they? I’ll probably only need 1/2 of the ones they give you out of 20….

    As far as the re-releases of classic synths, that’s great if they can/do sound like the original, but for the love of god, offer something the hardware can’t! Another thing that gets me is the price they want for some of this shitty software. You’re making me want to go use my hard earned money on eBay for used gear, since if I buy a $500 softsynth, it’d better be worth every penny! Keep it under $100, and then most musicians can come up with that. Going over $200, it gets a little silly. I could just as easily go out and buy a soft synth from the competition, or better yet, look for some free shit.

    Well rant over, but I agree with most of what’s been said….And isn’t it funny how we all can feel the pain on this issue?

  9. I’ve been really surprised at the number of replies I’ve gotten on this post, both here and on the various forums I post on. Seems I’m not the only one who feels this way, though there have been some detractors with some valid points as well.

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