Thursday, October 31, 2013
Performance Controller Keyboard
Reviews : Keyboard
Kurzweil's new master keyboard combines the features of a MIDI controller with the sounds and feel of a 88-note digital piano. TIM JAMES tickles the ivories...
I had a deprived childhood. While my contemporaries were out skateboarding or setting fire to cars, I spent hours locked away in a music room with a piano, several volumes of Little Tunes for Tiny Fingers, and an angry teacher who rapped me across the knuckles with a ruler whenever I made a mistake.
Of course, 10 years of piano lessons later, I now have an advantage over many of my fellow musicians -- I can play. For a trained pianist, however, sitting down in front of your average synth is a bit of a shock. Five-octaves' worth of springy plastic switches is hardly a substitute for the luxurious feel of solid wood, hammer action, and weighted keys. So I was excited when I discovered that Kurzweil, purveyors of such remarkable products as the K250, K2000 and the recent (but pricey) MicroPiano, were putting the finishing touches to a new controller aimed specifically at pianists-turned-hi-tech. Not only did this new keyboard promise Kurzweil's classy feel and presentation, it would also boast built-in sounds. Too good to be true? Let's find out!
ENTER THE PC88
Straight out of the box the PC88 is a impressive beast. Although its width and depth are about the same as any average synth, its additional length (nearly six feet from end to end) makes it an imposing machine, though Kurzweil still reckon that it's lightweight. After carrying it out of the van and up the stairs to my studio, I beg to differ!
Reaching round to the back of the PC88 to plug it in reveals its first (and, as I subsequently discovered, only) negative point -- an external power adapter. 'Wall warts' are a well-known reviewer pet hate, but add to this the fact that the power adapter supplied with the review machine didn't work, and you can imagine my frustration. Having finally got the PC88 up and running, I surveyed its design and construction...
The expansive top panel is well designed and far from crowded. Data entry is via a keypad and/or alpha wheel, and real-time control is available in the form of four definable sliders and three buttons. Two wheels (normally pitch-bend and modulation) are positioned to the left of the keyboard, though the sheer length of the keyboard means that this is quite a reach. Additional control is available through two footswitches (one is supplied), and up to four continuous controller pedals.
The PC88's wheels and sliders are taken straight from the K2000. Sadly, the LCD is not. That said, I found no problem with the two-line display, and it's certainly easier to read under stage lights!
Using the PC88 is a cinch. Although the review model (a beta-test prototype) came with a photocopy of the manual (still in draft form), I needed to refer to it half a dozen times at most. If you do need to use the manual, you'll find it helpful and friendly. There's even a section entitled 'For people who never read manuals' which, of course, I didn't read!
There are two main modes of operation: Internal Voices and MIDI Setups. The latter is for layering internal or external sounds and setting up zones and keyboard splits. The former allows instant gratification -- plug in, switch on and play...
The PC88 offers 16 sound 'groups', with four variations in each, making 64 sounds in all. The first eight of these are acoustic pianos, ranging from Classical Piano through to brighter instruments suitable for stage use. Coming from Kurzweil, you'd expect the piano sounds to be good, and they are -- in fact I'd say that these are the finest piano sounds I have heard on any instrument. In common with the Micro Piano, you can choose between 'beat tuned', for solo work (see box on beat tuning), or 'ensemble' tuning, which works better in a mix. This is a subtle but sophisticated feature which is very welcome, and demonstrates the attention to detail which puts the PC88 ahead of the competition. I was hard pressed to find the subtle timbral changes which commonly occur at the borders of sample ranges. On a real piano, the timbre changes at various stages along the keyboard anyway (lower notes have just one string, whereas the highest notes have three) and some of the sample ranges on the PC88 have been chosen to correspond with these natural changes. In all then, a piano sound of the highest calibre.
A range of electric pianos is provided: delicate, soft Rhodes, though DX7-type FM, to the electric grand pianos we used to hear in the '70s. Bearing in mind that all of these electric instruments were originally designed to emulate the acoustic piano, it seems ironic that we should be offered so many types of piano sounds nowadays. Still, with sounds of this quality, I'm not complaining.
Though the PC88 is a piano-centred instrument, the additional sounds provided are also superb in quality and range. Emu's Proformance modules offer vibes and bass, Roland's pianos and modules tend towards classical sounds such as organs and harpsichord, but the PC88 provides all of these, as well as strings, classical guitar, and acoustic and electric bass.
The organs are top class, ranging from full-bodied, gut-wrenching distorted Leslie, through to delicate jazz organs and even a classical pipe organ. I recognised the acoustic guitar and bass sounds from the K2000. A few loops and buzzes are detectable in the bass sounds, and, like their K2000 equivalents, they give out halfway up the keyboard (though they are bass sounds, after all). However, all are quite usable, and a number are layered with a ride cymbal for those annoying 'Hamlet advert' type jazz trios!
The strings, again, are ex-K2000. They have an impressive richness and depth, and respond well to the touch of the keyboard. My favourite, 'Stereo Strings' (actually in the 'Synth Pad' group), is particularly haunting.
I was amazed when I first heard the PC88's in-built demo. Instead of the expected Chopin Prelude or Beethoven Sonata, I was treated to a Keith Emerson-style display of keyboard fireworks, focusing on a great many of the additional sounds -- not just the pianos.
Polyphony for the internal sounds is 32 notes, which is adequate, if not over-generous. You're not likely to experience note-stealing unless you layer lots of sounds. The internal sounds can also be treated by the internal effects processor. This is fairly basic and offers Reverb ('Bright' or 'Dull' -- sorry, 'Warm'), Chorus, and Delay. Although not very flexible, the effects are of reasonable quality and work well with the internal sounds. You probably wouldn't use them if you had access to a decent multi-effects unit, but they're there if you need them.
MORE THAN A FEELING...
The keyboard action is superb. I'm told (off the record) that it's the same as Peavey's DPM C8 keyboard (reviewed enthusiastically in May 94's SOS) and at this summer's British Music Fair I was able to compare one against the other. They felt identical, and were both infinitely superior to any other keyboard I could find at the show. A few days later, I did come across a £60,000 Bosendorfer Grand Piano which may have had the edge, but not by much...
There are 128 'Setups' available, arranged in groups of 16. Each Setup can have up to four zones, which can transmit on separate MIDI channels, or access the internal sounds. Unfortunately, there is only one MIDI Out socket -- I found this a bit limiting and would have like a couple more. MIDI Data from a sequencer or external controller can be merged with the keyboard, but, again, as there is only one MIDI In, it would have to be one or the other.
Each zone can have a separate program, key range, velocity curve and transpose characteristic. The really clever stuff happens when the enormous list of controller functions is brought into play. The four sliders and buttons can be assigned to any MIDI Controller message, as can the footswitches and pedals. Each controller can be assigned to more than one zone, so that, for example, a slider could be used to 'crossfade' from one zone to another. One of the zones is always current -- its info is displayed on the LCD and the parameters can be altered. A slight quirk with the zone buttons caught me out a few times. In order to mute a zone, it is necessary to push its button twice -- once to make it the current zone, and again to mute it. But if it already is the current zone, pressing twice turns the zone off and back on again. Not exactly intuitive!
Kurzweil have always been good at making piano-based instruments. When I first discovered the company back in the early 1980s, their K250 was often spoken of in the same way as the Fairlight CMI and the Synclavier series, and Kurzweil products still carry a high level of respect, particularly in the UK, where (because of higher prices) they have always been more exclusive than in the US.
And although there can't be many keyboard players who are unaware of the K2000 flagship synth, many people are surprised to discover that the company also make a range of electronic pianos (the Mk5 and Mk10) which sell steadily alongside Clavinovas and traditional acoustic pianos in home keyboard shops up and down the country. Add to this the fact that Kurzweil are now owned by Young Chang, one of the world's biggest makers of acoustic pianos, and you begin to realise the kind of skill and expertise that must have gone into the PC88.
This is a mighty fine instrument, and it rewards the effort made learning to play it. If you make your music by wiggling a mouse around, then this is probably not the instrument for you. But if you have any keyboard technique at all, then the PC88 will enhance and nurture it. During the two and a half weeks I had this keyboard, I found myself playing things I would never have imagined before, and even my old synth modules seemed to come alive with the extra feel and response offered by the PC88.
You've probably gathered by now that I like the PC88; I do, for two reasons. One -- it's a great instrument; but two -- I can really play it. So all those years of suffering were not wasted. With this machine I'm dangerous -- watch out, world!
Published in SOS January 1995
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Analogue Monosynth (Retro)
Reviews : Keyboard
CHRIS CARTER sings the praises of a vintage synth which cost just £199 on its launch in 1978, but which hides a multitude of surprises under its unlikely yellow and black hood...
The Wasp has to be one of the most unusual looking synths ever made, with its shiny black ABS plastic casing, bright yellow knobs and legends, and the infamous flat yellow and black keyboard. It looks so cheap and cheerful that you would almost think it was disposable!
Containing a single PCB with a hybrid digital VCO and analogue VCF design by Chris Huggett, the Wasp was released in 1978 for an amazing £199 by UK company EDP and was distributed by Rod Argent's Keyboards. Advertised as being "One of the biggest advances in synthesizer design -- an ultra low-cost, high-performance instrument unmatched by synthesizers several times the price", it quickly gained cult status. While some pro musicians regarded it as no more than a toy, many more saw it as a Godsend -- who cares what it looked like, it sounded bloody great! Admittedly, the Wasp can sound exceedingly waspish when played through the awful internal speaker, but if you put it through a few effects and an amplifier, it's transformed into an awesome-sounding beast that can really move speaker cones. The Wasp is also capable of producing some classic acid, techno and bass sounds and is often overlooked in favour of the Roland Bassline, long the darling of the dance track -- but it deserves some exposure now, as sonically it outshines the Bassline in many ways.
The heart of any analogue synth has to be the coupling of decent VCOs and a VCF; the Wasp's system is very impressive, with a full bottom end and a glass-shattering top end that really don't equate with its looks. The VCF sounds very distinctive and is superb when filtering a sawtooth wave, especially if modulated by the LFO random output and Envelope Generator. In a blindfold test, you'd be hard pressed to pick out the sound of the Wasp as coming from anything other than a decent Korg, Roland or -- dare I say it -- Moog from the same period.
Along with the Roland SH101, the Wasp must also be one of a very few 'genuine' synths that runs off batteries. I can remember buskers around Covent Garden in the early '80s with a Wasp, a Boss Dr Rhythm, a couple of effects pedals and a hat full of money, doing a roaring trade.
It must be said that the Wasp doesn't have one of the best track records for reliability, and finding one that still works these days is becoming increasingly difficult. I've known a few bands over the years who have gigged with Wasps, which has got to be one of the quickest ways of trashing one, as most clubs have very high humidity, and this plays havoc with the Wasp's keyboard sensitivity. The first sign of trouble is that no matter how much you adjust the keyboard sensitivity and fiddle with the controls, the thing refuses to stop droning -- 'The Droning Wasp' syndrome. Then there's the prospect of the classic 'Flying Wasp' syndrome, which occurs when you dash across the stage doing your Pete Townsend impersonation and trip over the Wasp's lead. The weight of most synths these days would mean either that the lead would come out of the socket or that you would trip arse over elbow, but since the Wasp weighs about as much as a bag of sugar, it simply takes off (probably still droning) and follows you across the stage, smashing effortlessly to the floor or hitting a slumbering roadie -- a dead Wasp either way. The best way to prevent this happening is to lash it to something heavy with lots of gaffa tape.
The Wasp's plastic casing is unsurprisingly fragile and you can make the screws holding it together fall out just by looking at them. This includes the underside battery compartment, which is held in place by six (yes six!) tiny self-tappers. Try unscrewing them on a dark stage in the middle of a gig...
ANATOMY OF A WASP
Although the Wasp's front panel is divided into six basic sections, a detailed explanation uncovers many unique features in a synth of this type and price:
• KEYBOARD SECTION
This contains a Bend control for the VCOs which can bend a note by one semitone in either direction. As there's very little physical depth to the Wasp, a proper pitch-bend wheel couldn't have been included -- and would probably have added too much to the cost. To get around this problem, an ordinary pot is used, with a 90 degree dead band. For it to have any effect on the VCOs, you have to turn it almost fully clockwise or anti-clockwise -- so, while playing, you don't have to worry too much about making sure the knob always returns to dead centre for everything to remain in tune.
Next in this section is a Glide (portamento) control with an adjustable three-second, two-octave sweep. One quirk is that when you apply Glide to the VCOs they don't track the keyboard as accurately; a side-effect of this is that when you jump from one end of the keyboard to the other, one VCO always lags slightly behind until they reach the correct note. This is quite a good effect and could normally only be created on a regular synth by using a MIDI delay or DDL. Last in this section is a recessed pot for overall tuning (by screwdriver) of both VCOs, by one tone up or down.
• OSCILLATOR SECTION
VCO 1 has a five-position 'FT' (range) control that can be switched from 32 to 2 (spanning five octaves). There is a Width control for changing the shape of the square wave output, and a three-position Wave Shape selector, with Off, Sawtooth or Square wave available. VCO 2 is slightly different, in that the Width control is replaced by a Pitch control (variable over one octave) that can be used in combination with VCO 1 for tuning two-note chords and intervals. The VCOs are pretty stable as far as tuning goes, and are usually only let down by noisy or worn-out pots, which can make tuning the Wasp a problem if it's old or well used.
• CONTROL OSCILLATOR (LFO)
This section has a Freq control (rate), with a range of about 1Hz (not really slow enough) to about 100Hz. Next is a Pitch Mod control for adjusting the depth of VCO modulation, and then a six-position Wave Shape selector switch, with sine, ramp, sawtooth, square, noise and random waves available. The Glide control can additionally modify any of these waveforms. Finally, there's a Noise Signal knob; this is just a volume control for the white noise output and feeds the VCF audio input.
• FILTER SECTION
This consists of a very musical sounding 12dB-per-octave VCF that has a range of about 3Hz to 16Hz. A Freq control adjusts the filter cut-off, and a Q control adjusts the resonance. Unfortunately, a built-in overload limiter prevents the VCF from going into oscillation (shame!). A very useful mode selector is next, for choosing low-pass, band-pass and high-pass filter types (hurrah!).
Lastly, there are two modulation controls: one for varying LFO modulation depth into the VCF, and the other to adjust the output from the Control Envelope Generator into the VCF. These are unusual in that if they are set to the mid position they have no effect. However, rotating them clockwise will increase the amount of modulation, while rotating them anti-clockwise will give a similar effect but with inverted modulation. This is a very versatile arrangement and works particularly well with the Envelope Generator. If no modulation is applied to the VCF, it will track the keyboard.
The VCA Envelope Generator has a linear Attack control, with a rate variable from 3mS to 2 seconds, and an exponential Decay control, with a rate variable from 3ms to 15 seconds and a switchable Sustain level control. The fastest Attack/Decay settings are very short -- just a click -- and great for Kraftwerk impersonations. If you turn the sustain knob anti-clockwise (past the click position) it turns on an envelope repeat function (LFO 2). The speed for this repeat is then adjustable by a combination of both the Attack and Decay knobs, but only as long as a note is held down on the keyboard. The downside with this is that you do lose some fine adjustment of the Attack/Decay times. The speed of the effect is at its fastest when the Attack and Decay controls are turned fully anti-clockwise (not clockwise, as you would normally expect -- strange!).
The Control Envelope (which modulates the VCF) has linear Attack/Decay controls, with rates variable from 15mS to 6S, and a switchable Delay level control that can apply a maximum 1. 5S delay to the control envelope.
Like the VCA EG, the Delay knob on the Control Envelope Generator can switch on a repeat function (LFO 3), with its speed adjustable by the Attack/Decay knobs. The combination of these two additional LFOs means that some very complex modulated patches can be set up. Great for complex percussive loops and helicopter (!) effects.
• OUTPUT SECTION
This has just one dual-purpose control that adjust the volume and acts as an on/off switch.
The flat, two-octave keyboard works by sensing skin capacitance, so playing with gloves on is out of the question. It was originally advertised as being "Touch Sensitive" but actually the only touch sensitivity is that you need to touch the keys to play it. The keyboard is surprisingly easy to play and is great for fast arpeggios, trills and fancy riffs, as all you need to do is rub your fingers over the surface as fast as you like. The keyboard always gives priority to the highest note played, and if you hold your finger on a low note while your other hand is trilling about at the top end, you can create an impression of a duophonic Wasp.
The main drawback with the keyboard (apart from the fact that it's not touch sensitive) is that the envelope generators won't re-trigger unless you release your fingers and touch the keys again -- but after using the Wasp for more than 12 years I have learned to live with this foible.
You may be interested to know that the design of the Wasp keyboard has a very similar look to the EMS Synthi AKS keyboard, which is also flat. The AKS keyboard is blue and black, and together they make a lovely pair!
• REAR PANEL
On the rear panel are two 7-pin DIN sockets that a lot of people mistake for MIDI sockets -- they are not! These sockets transmit and receive 5-volt CMOS logic signals for linking Wasps together, or for connecting with other EDP products. Most MIDI-to-CV converters have the option of adding (or include) a Wasp 7-pin compatible output.
The Headphone and Line Out jacks are switched and the internal speaker is turned off if either is used. The Line Out produces a -10dBm/600ohm signal, and is adequate for most amps and mixing desks. The Wasp's noise level is said to be -65dBm in its 'quiet state'. I've always found the output to be pretty clean and loud, with very little background noise. The same can't be said of the internal speaker, which tends to hum loudly unless a very stable external PSU (or six 'C'-type batteries), is used. Speaking of batteries, it's best to avoid them, as they tend to get devoured fairly quickly.
As you can see, the Wasp's 24 knobs can go a long way. It has some very useful features and even a couple of fairly unique innovations (at the time), and while it may not really be a classic as such, it certainly has cult status.
The first time I heard the Wasp was in 1978 while I was with Throbbing Gristle and Industrial Records, and happened to hear some demos by Robert Rental and Thomas Leer (who later signed to ZTT). They were writing very individualistic 'electronic' songs using just voices, guitars and two Wasps. The Wasps supplied all the keyboard and percussion parts, and we were amazed at the sound they were producing with these, especially as they were using no drum machines (I think they may have used a Spider sequencer -- see box on other EDP products). We signed them to our label and released their first album, The Bridge (now re-released on MUTE/Bridge1CD). I was so impressed by what they had achieved that I went out and bought a Wasp of my own.
OTHER EDP PRODUCTS AND CURIOS
EDP also produced a number of other products to supplement the Wasp:
• First was the Deluxe Wasp; on this instrument, Oscillator 1 gains an external input that allows you to plug in an external instrument and feed it through the VCF, and a volume control for each VCO -- which is more flexible than simply turning the VCOs on or off. EDP also gave the Deluxe nice wooden end cheeks and a real keyboard, a move that was obviously meant to appeal to people who wanted a MiniMoog but couldn't afford one.
• Then there was the Spider digital sequencer, with a 252-note capacity in step time and 84 notes in real time. This also had useful CV and gate outputs and the ability to sync to tape.
• The Spider was was followed by the Caterpillar 3-octave keyboard, powered by a single PPS battery. It was an 8-voice keyboard to which up to eight Wasps could be connected and played polyphonically.
• EDP also produced another synth called the Gnat, which was basically a smaller, even cheaper, single-VCO version of the Wasp.
• Another rarity is the repackaged, MIDI-equipped, rackmount (but keyboardless) Wasp produced a few years ago by the now-defunct Groove Electronics. I don't think Groove got around to making that many, but it does sound like a good idea and worth checking out if you want a Wasp for playing live.
Most of these units are pretty rare and well worth checking out if you come across any of them at a car boot sale. In a press release for the Wasp's launch, EDP mentioned more products to come. These are listed as: Millipedes, Eagles, Cockroaches, Beetles, Grubs, Moths and a Playing Mantis. God knows if these ever got off the drawing board and what they would have been if they had!
Signs to beware of when buying a second-hand Wasp -- if you can find one:
• A heavily scratched or worn away keyboard instantly betrays a Wasp that's had plenty of use.
• Test all the pots and knobs, including the two presets, for crackles and weird effects, as dodgy pots can make the Wasp very unstable and unpredictable.
• If the speaker distorts, the output circuits may be damaged, but if it sounds OK using the line out, then the speaker might just need replacing.
• Look for cracks in the casing and missing screws, and give it a gentle shake for signs of anything loose or floating around inside.
• Weigh any problems against the asking price and bear in mind that there probably aren't that many workshops around these days that could fix one.
Published in SOS February 1995
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Virtual Acoustic Synthesizer
Reviews : Keyboard
Yamaha's Virtual Acoustics technology has begun the march toward affordability with the release of the VL7, at little more than half the cost of the flagship VL1. Is this a DX7 for the '90s? DAVID CROMBIE finds out.
By now most of you will be aware of Yamaha's Virtual Acoustic Synthesizers. Regular readers will have digested Martin Russ' excellent piece on the VL1 in the July '94 issue of SOS, and you will also have encountered regular News pieces on this revolutionary technology. Now Yamaha are starting to make Virtual Acoustics synthesis more easily affordable, with the introduction of the VL7, and are no doubt hoping to recreate the stampede of sales that the DX7 generated some 12 years ago.
The VL7 is a monophonic synthesizer with a four-octave keyboard, using a host of presets, mostly woodwind, brass and string, as the basic source for sounds -- oh yes, and to get the best out of it, you need to use a breath controller. Does that make you want to rush out and get £2199 out of your Abbey account? If you were actually trying to make an instrument sound unattractive, you could do worse than to assemble just such a collection of phrases. But things aren't always as they appear and to my mind, the VL7, along with the VL1, exhibits the most important development in synthesis since FM itself.
And that development in synthesis is known as VA -- or, more accurately, S/VA (Self-oscillating Virtual Acoustic), Synthesis. It's a system that uses digital signal processing to mathematically simulate actual acoustic instruments. No oscillators, samples, and so on -- just a digital signal processor and digital to analogue convertors... well, you do get a bit more than that for your two grand!
DESIGN & PURPOSE
The VL7 is attractively designed, and with the exception of the walnut control panel, which has been replaced by a matt-black one, it looks identical to the 2-voice VL1 (which costs £3999). The control panel is cleanly laid out with a minimalist feel to it. Memory locations are selected using buttons 1-16 and Bank buttons A-D, found on the right hand side of the panel. An alpha dial, Increment/Decrement, Enter/Exit and four cursor buttons are located to the right of the display, beneath which are eight soft keys. Mode and Write buttons are located to the left of the display above the volume and two continuous slider controls. The performance control panel has three wheels and octave Up/Down momentary switches which are designed to extend the range of the slightly limiting 4-octave keyboard.
The only really negative aspect of the physical design of the VL7 is the positioning of the disk drive -- rear left, and hidden by the stylised gold ABS panel extrusion, which is rather awkward. It would have been better along the front, next to the headphone out and breath controller sockets.
Graphically, a model of how the VL7 works looks something like the diagram to the left. When you play an acoustic instrument, you are using many different control elements -- more than can be transmitted from the simple playing of a note on a keyboard. Consider the clarinet: you can produce an adequate clarinet sound using a simple monosynth set to a square wave, a little low-pass filtering and judicious use of the modulation wheel. Play a few fast notes monophonically, and... well it's not too bad. But when you actually get out an old jazz record and really listen to a good player soloing on clarinet, you discover how lame your square wave patch actually sounds.
Why? Because you can't modify the sound in the way a clarinet player can. But with the VL7 you have that potential, because all the playing characteristics with which the clarinetist feeds his instrument form part of the VL7's model, and the various controllers can thus be used to specify every nuance of the sound.
Here are the physical controllers that can be used to shape the VL7's physical model:
• Breath Controller: (see box).
• Breath Attack: a control signal proportional to the rate of change in breath pressure, not the amount.
• Pitch Wheel: rubber coated with centre-detent.
• Modulation Wheel 1: rubber coated, zero to maximum.
• Modulation Wheel 2: rubber coated with centre-detent.
• Foot Controller 1
• Foot Controller 2
• Foot Switches 1 and 2: usually for sustain/portamento on/off control.
• Keyboard Aftertouch
• Keyboard Velocity
• MIDI: external MIDI devices can be assigned to VL7 control parameters.
The controllers can then be assigned to control any of a selection of parameters, which equate to the various elements of an acoustic instrument. Parameters include Pressure (the breath pressure applied to reed/mouthpiece (wind); or speed of bow (stringed); affects volume and timbre); Embouchure (the tightness of the lips on the reed/mouthpiece (wind); or pressure of bow on strings (stringed); affects pitch and timbre); Vibrato (pitch modulation);Tonguing (simulates effect of changing the 'slit' in the reed (wind) using the tongue); and Scream (triggers a 'chaotic oscillation' rather like an overblown effect). For a full list of parameters and what they do, see Martin Russ's review of the VL1 in the July '94 issue of SOS.
As you can see, the control parameters are biased towards producing wind and string effects (like the VL1). Each of the parameters also has a range of control elements associated with it. For the Tonguing parameter, for example, you can select the controller, the depth, and the curve (which determines the way in which the control signal corresponds to the controller input).
The Modifiers act after the physical model, and consist of five 'modules' that allow you to shape the overall sound. You can't change the fundamental instrument model but you can re-shape it.
• Harmonic Enhancer: consists of modulator and carrier and can be used to radically realign the harmonic content of a sound.
• Dynamic Filter: offers multi-band filtering (low-, high- and band-pass).
• Frequency Equaliser consists of two sections run in series: the first is an auxiliary equaliser with programmable low- and band-pass filter with key scaling; the second is a 5-band parametric.
• Impulse Expander: works in conjunction with the Resonator to simulate the effect of an acoustic instrument's resonant cavity or sound box/board. The former consists of a frequency-dependent delay line which works best on sounds which have some form of frequency modulation. The Resonator consists of five parallel delay lines which provide extra depth to the sound.
The final link in the chain is the obligatory, but in this case pretty damn good, Effects section. It features a Modulation Block providing Flanger, Pitch Change and Distortion effects; a Feedback/Delay Block for delays and echo effects; and finally a Reverb Effect Block, which offers eight preset reverb algorithms, each with four different 'Feels'.
The process of actually editing and programming the VL7 is straightforward. It helps having such an uncluttered control panel, as this gives you the impression that it's a simple instrument to program. Everything is menu driven and changes are made with reference to the large backlit display and the related soft keys.
The VL7 comes supplied with a floppy disk containing four files:
• VL7 NOBREATH:ALL
• VL7 FULLCNT1:ALL
• VL7 FULLCNT2:ALL
• VL7 EXAMPLE:ALL
Three of these files contain 64 sounds each. Sets FULLCNT1 and 2 utilise the breath controller. If you're using sounds from these sets and no pressure is applied to the controller, no sound will be heard. For this reason, the set NOBREATH:ALL is included, which re-aligns the controller routings so that the sounds can be played without using the breath controller. The VL7 will play all voices programmed for the VL1, and in addition Yamaha have additional voice data disks (Plucked; Syncoustic; and Freaky Lead), as well as some other sound banks available free of charge from main dealers.
At this stage there's little point in saying which sounds are good and which aren't because it's all down to playing style, and how good you are at using the controllers. But consider the worst sound you've ever had to synthesize; in my opinion, when it comes to awkward buggers, the saxophone is surely the most difficult instrument to simulate. So let's see how the VL7 takes on this challenge.
There are at least eight different imitative saxes supplied with the VL7 (Tenor Sax*; Alto Sax 1*; Alto Sax 2; Breath Sax*; Soprano 1*; Soprano 2; BellMiked*; Loose Bari*; plus an impressionistic sax called Altish). Those starred are available pre-programmed for use both with and without the breath controller
Immediately you compare the two Tenor Saxes, one programmed with the Breath Controller and one without, you realise the power of this controller. One sings, it is a tenor -- simply hold a low note, gently blow and add a bit of modulation from the wheel, and you have that deep, rich, unmistakable sound that nothing save the real instrument can touch. The other? Well, it's OK -- as good as any you'll hear from another synth or sampler -- but it sounds a bit flat and lifeless by comparison.
And this is the case with virtually all of the imitative sounds. The breath controller brings the sound alive and turns an inanimate artifact into a living instrument. I really am knocked out by the realism of it all.
As Martin Russ stated in his VL1 review, you can modify instruments to produce hybrids. Yamaha have included several such sounds -- for example, 'Breath Bow' is a string sound that is blown with a reed-like mouthpiece -- and that's exactly what it sounds like. 'BowBamBoo' is a bowed bamboo flute. The question is: is this a useful sound? To be honest, I don't think that these two are, and that's the case for quite a few of the other instrument hybrids. Some, however, such as 'Mouthkeys' (a cute reed instrument that sounds as though it could be fitted with a keyboard and is a great, clear solo-ing voice), are very usable.
To illustrate the kind of instrument sounds supplied, I've listed the full set of voices supplied in the VL7:FULLCNT1 bank in a box ('VL7 Example Voices').
Do you want or need a VL7? This synth is obviously a lead-line instrument, with a bias towards producing solo wind and string sounds. Not everyone is in the market for such an instrument. But once you accept what the VL7 is for, you have to admit that it does the job without equal (save for the VL1).
What about the fact that this is a monophonic instrument? Well, as it's designed to produce solo instruments, there's little point in making it polyphonic, as you can't effectively control the nuances of more than one note at a time, and if you're not going to animate the sound, you might as well stick to a more traditional type of instrument -- and save yourself a few bob into the bargain. Having said that, it's inevitable that this technology will appear in a polyphonic instrument, or at least as a multi-timbral module.
This is the first imitative instrument that really works. If it's played well (and that's the key), I feel that in most instances there is no way that even an experienced orchestral musician could tell the difference between a recording of a VL7 and one of an acoustic instrument. The physical modelling process eliminates the problems encountered when other synthesizing techniques are used to recreate acoustic instruments; sampling and other forms of synthesis are good for abstract sounds, but pale when compared to the VL7 and VL1 for imitative and impressionistic synthesis.
It all looks good, but -- and here's the big 'but' --, you really have to learn how to play it. The VL7 cannot simply be hooked up to a sequencer and 'fiddled with' (or rather, it can but it won't fulfil its potential). To even half utilise the power of this instrument you need to spend a lot of time practising. Are you prepared for that?
The technology is great, and I'm sure it will find favour with a large number of pro musicians, but Yamaha do have a track record of developing a technology then evolving it and bringing out more and more instruments at lower prices and with more features. VA Synthesis is undoubtedly the major advance in synthesis so far this decade, but is the VL7 the instrument with which to embrace this technology? I'm not sure, but if you do go to check out this instrument, do not go away without having tried it with the breath controller, or at least having heard it being used with this remarkable expressive tool -- it'll take your breath away.
The VL7 is supplied with a BC2 Breath Controller. This is a vast improvement on the BC1 that Yamaha used with their DX range. Firstly, it is worn like a pair of headphones -- the only problem with this is that when you've got the BC2 on, there's no room for headphones -- earpieces only. The old BC1 had a little hole in it that let the air out, and the first thing any non-wind player would do would be to block up this hole so that they wouldn't run out of puff halfway through the first number. The BC2 has a 'drain cap' which can be used to control the flow of air, thus at least giving you the chance to get into the second song of the set.
Why is a breath controller so desirable? It's a true real-time controller that is extremely expressive (and doesn't tie up one of your hands). In effect, the breath controller is an infinitely variable envelope generator, and in most instances you use it to control the amplitude and timbre of the sound. OK, it looks a bit weird -- dribble is involved, you may be loath to pass your breath controller around, and you may (as I was by the end of doing this review) end up feeling completely out of puff and a bit giddy, but this little controller literally breathes life into any sound, and is an essential part of the VL7.
Published in SOS March 1995
Monday, October 28, 2013
Analogue Monosynth (Retro)
Reviews : Keyboard
PAUL WARD looks back through time to 1980, and considers the hidden strengths of one of Roland's more overlooked monosynths -- the SH09.
Whilst Roland's SH101, MC202 and TB303 seem to have risen to the status of 'classic' synths, the humble SH09, released in 1980, has often been regarded as a poor relation. Having used and abused all of these synths in the past, I have to say that this is not only unfair, but downright inaccurate! OK, the SH09 doesn't sport the sequencing capabilities of its stable-mates, but to be fair, it did precede them by a couple of years. More to the point, I think it unlikely that many of these machines are purchased primarily for their sequencers in any case. The main thing that sells them is their sound -- and what a sound!
For anyone new to analogue synthesis, an SH09 is an ideal introduction -- operation is about as simple as you're ever likely to experience in a synth of its era. But don't let that operational simplicity fool you into believing that the SH09 is inflexible, or sonically limited. Whilst you are unlikely to be able to achieve the complexities of sound offered by a wall full of Moog modular units, neither are you going to be stuck for a few off-the-wall sound effects or ambient textures.
The SH09 is a monophonic, single-oscillator synthesizer (although a sub-oscillator is available -- more on this in a moment), with a two and a half-octave, 32-note keyboard. In its day, this keyboard size was something of a limitation, but with the advent of MIDI/CV control, it's now less of a problem, since you can use a controller keyboard of any size.
The oscillator is capable of just four basic waveforms; sawtooth, square, pulse and noise, and the octave range is switchable between 32 and 2 feet. The pulse width (or 'mark/space ratio') of the square/pulse waveform can be set at a static value, or can be modulated by the Low Frequency Oscillator (LFO) -- a favourite 'thickening' trick for single-oscillator synths. Provision is also made for pitch modulation (vibrato) via the LFO.
The LFO, in keeping with the rest of the synth, is a simple affair, supplying square or sine waveforms. A feature from which many early synths could have benefited is the LFO delay control, which makes up somewhat for the lack of a mod wheel by gradually introducing modulation over a period of time. Another generous feature (which many other synths of the period lacked) is an LFO speed indicator in the form of a small red LED.
The mixer section offers level control of the oscillator, the external input and a sub-oscillator. The external input gives access to the SH09's filter (useful for giving an avant-garde treatment to vocals, or as a tool for removing hiss from a noisy source signal). The sub-oscillator can provide a square or pulse waveform set at an octave below the main oscillator's frequency, or a pulse waveform only, set at two octaves below the main frequency. Fans of Roland's other 'bleep-master' synths will be well aware of the benefits offered by sub-oscillators in creating those deep, squelchy bass lines. I am convinced that Roland must be responsible for the early demise of a great many bass speaker cones over the years!
ENVELOPE AND FILTER
Roland's analogue filters definitely have a 'sound'. They are relatively tame when compared to a Moog or ARP filter, but do nevertheless exhibit a certain 'musicality' that sets them apart from the opposition. The SH09 filter is no exception. In territories where the TB303, SH101 and MC202 are to be heard blooping and squeaking to the beat, the SH09 also treads confidently. Indeed, in my own experience, I have found that the SH09 sounds even warmer and more squelchy, although this is really a matter of personal taste. Alongside the usual cut-off and resonance controls (the filter will happily run on into self-oscillation) are the filter modulation options, specifically from the LFO and envelope generator.
The envelope generator is a full ADSR design (full for 1980, that is), and doubles up for both amplitude and filter modulation duties. Unusually for a synth of this stature, the envelope can also be pressed into service for pulse width modulation, which can create some delightfully 'twangy' sounds. You can even bypass the amplitude section entirely, and either hold the amp open (useful when tuning up, or generating sustained 'drones'), or control the amp from the keyboard gate signal. This latter feature leaves the envelope in control of just the filter, with the amp merely opening and closing as keys are played. This is far more useful than it might first appear, especially when programming bass lines, which rarely require any attack or release, but often need filter modulation to provide some movement in the sound. Low filter sustain values don't have to mean that the bass sound amplitude also dies away. This is a simple and effective way of circumventing some of the limitations of a single-envelope synth.
IT'S REAL-TIME, JIM, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT
If the SH09 has a weakness, it's probably the limited range of real-time performance controls. The only performance feature as such is a single left/right bender lever to the left of the keyboard. Behind this are two sliders to enable the lever to control either pitch and/or filter cut-off. Setting a specific pitch-bend interval here is a bit hit-and-miss, though no worse than on many other synths of the era. Other than this lever, you're really down to tweaking the controls on the main panel. Introducing vibrato on the fly is a pain, since you have to take your hand off the pitch lever and hit the correct slider; not an easy task in the heat of the moment. The LFO delay can help with this, by introducing vibrato automatically, but it's not really the same as being in full control of the effect. Happily, modern technology can now help the SH09 -- a well-specified MIDI/CV converter can provide all the control options we know and love, such as aftertouch or mod wheel control. Unfortunately, you'd probably find that the cost of such a converter would buy two SH09s!
As ever, it's the end results that count. I doubt that the sounds from the SH09 would ever be described as 'searing' or 'fat', but they might very well elicit such adjectives as 'cheesey' or 'bleepy'. The sub-oscillator goes a long way towards making this synth an excellent bass provider, though it doesn't have the grit and thunder of the Moogs or Oberheims. All of those blippy-bleepy sequencing sounds are available, and the filter resonance is capable of reaching into areas where many synths refuse to tread. Delicate lead sounds are also a strong area for the SH09. Here lie oboes, flutes and clarinet sounds by the bucket-load. The very simplicity of the machine keeps the results clean and uncluttered, helping sounds to sit in a mix without swamping other instruments.
The best thing that I can say about my SH09 is that I use it -- a lot. It's not the kind of synth that is ever going to have analogue fans drooling or beating down the doors of second-hand shops, but it is a reliable little work-pony that deserves to be taken seriously alongside its more famous stable-mates. It's cute, cuddly and there's not an LCD in sight. What more could you ask for?
Published in SOS March 1995