For those who do not know, Don Buchla died on Wednesday September 14, 2016. He is of course one of the simultaneous co-inventors of the modern synthesizer. He was a beloved figure in the modular synth and experimental music community.
Buchla’s synthesizers were the instrument of choice for many women I have personally admired as composers and artists, specifically Suzanne Cianni and Laurie Spiegel. Laurie in fact divulged some of her experiences with Don Buchla and Suzanne Cianni in New York in the early 1970s.
People really do not grasp how often the people who do play modular electronic instruments often know their makers on some level, either personally, or through correspondence. These experiences and interactions often touch people closely who play these instruments. Don knew many musicians in his life because he was an active experimental musician himself, and he developed friendships that lasted a lifetime. He will be deeply missed by his friends and family.
Arturia recently released a new version of its long running V Collection. Normally I would not spend time reviewing it, the product has been around a long time. Even though there has been various iterations and new additions to the keyboards that are part of the software instrument collection.
This year is special. Two things happened, and I am legitimately impressed. The first is they basically revamped their entire line of synthesizers. The second, more importantly Arturia brought back one of the world’s most exclusive and complex digital synthesizers, the Synclavier.
Before I get to the Synclavier, let me start with the fact they basically updated every single synth in their product line. The major improvement that everybody who previously used Arturia’s plugins will notice immediately is the UI. The long frustrating aspect of Arturia instruments is while they sounded pretty good, the UI was frustratingly small at times. While it was pretty easy to navigate the mini (their version of the minimoog), it was difficult to read things such as the CS-80 V, Modular V, etc. This made creating patches a bit more of a pain. Thankfully the era of the tiny-hard to read Arturia’s is over. The size is now adjustable! Much rejoicing!
In addition to changing the size, they also updated the UI itself. The UI is much more crisp, exploring patches is much easier. This makes the entire experience of using these software instruments better.
There were some other tweaks as well along the way, many of the instruments also saw an update to their synthesis engine. While some of this is likely refactoring of the algorithms that underlie these synthesizers, it means the sound has improved, sometimes significantly. This is not to say Arturia’s synths sounded bad to begin with. But for some instruments, namely the Prophet 5/VS, there is a considerable bump up in quality and they are closer to the real thing.
There are also new features, this is most noticeable in the Modular V, which saw some important updates. The modular V now features FM on the oscillators. It may seem like a small thing, but it really does help expand the utility of the instrument. This may be a deviation from the Modular V being true to the original Moog Modular, but this is a major improvement in functionality, and more reflective of modern modular synths. There are other places here and there that saw new functionality, but the list is likely long and more incremental.
The other major aspect I noticed is the Arturia plugin synths are less resource intensive on the CPU compared to previous versions.
So we have a better looking and sounding synths, with some new features, that take less of a CPU hit. Arturia made a major update which ended up in a big improvement.
In addition to all this, Arturia introduces several new organs and pianos. This is not something I am really focused on, but these are useful if you do not have other software that models or samples these instruments. I have personally used their electric piano and organ instruments in the past, so the are in no way disposable. But let us not kid ourselves, the draw to the product is the wide array of software emulations to classic synthesizers. Which gets us to the big one they introduced with this new release of the V Collection, and it is no mere emulation. The Synclavier.
The Synclavier V
Most Arturia synths are emulations of classic analog synthesizers using the best approximation of a hardware synthesizer, most often an analog synth.
The Synclavier was a different beast, the Synclaiver at it’s heart was a musical computer with a synthesis engine. It’s cost, and unattainability came from this fact. The Synclavier’s synth engine, was driven by computer code. What makes the Synclavier V project different than other Arturia efforts is the fact they basically took about restoring and enhancing the core code from the Synclavier’s original synth engine. Basically the Synclavier V, is a Synclavier at its heart. Synclavier Digital was a partner in this effort throughout the entire process. Even though it is a plugin, the original code is there. What is missing is the nice Synclavier controller, but we have a range of midi controllers to choose from to these days to suit our own preference. Unlike the past, we also now have machines that far surpass the computers the Synclavier ran on.
It is important to note, the sampling engine and other add on modules that the Synclavier had are not here. This is the core synthesis engines, which is FM and Additive. This is enhanced for some deeper capabilities and now there is more partials (layers). Some of the other capabilities may be added in future versions, or they may not. But we should not dismiss the fact we are being handed possibly one of the best synth engines ever created.
I have not been thrilled with most additive synth engines that appear in synth plugins. Which is surprising since additive synthesis most computers should do very well. They often seem to be missing something. I cannot say this with the Synclavier, whatever that thing that was missing, is there. The fact that Arturia and Synclavier has basically re-introduced one of the classic additive and fm synthesizer engines should be lauded. Because what is here is a digital synth engine with a real soul.
The synthesis engine itself is a hybrid of additive and FM. This may be where it is special. The waveshaping is done through an additive method using harmonics. This gets interesting when one is diving into the Time Slices, as the wave can be changed through time. The time slices are where the enhancements to the original engine come out. Even though this has a fairly straightforward UI, the synthesis is seriously complex. one can spend years probably diving into every aspect. While I know quite a bit about FM and Additive, for the first time in a long time, I am being introduced to new sonic territory in terms of synthesis. Adding these two methods together seems like a revelation, especially in the way the Synclavier combines them. Most FM engines use fixed sine waves, in this case there is deep wave-shaping via additive synthesis of the carrier and modulator waves. This allows for the creation of complex waves, it is akin to wave multiplying and folding on a modular synth. This is very different FM than one would find in a yamaha fm engine. Everything about the Synclavier feels new, because it is not just an engine many of us have never touched, it is the fact they changes are bringing new depth to that engine. This makes accessing it a bit wonderful, it feels like unfamiliar territory, there is a sense of discovery with every bit of a manipulation. A wonderful part of being a synthesist is learning new things, new approaches, and that is what the Synclavier-V offers.
Like most FM and Additive Synthesizers this synth thrives with complex pads, weird FX, and bell tones. But this synth never feels “cold” in the same way other digital synths can. There is a great deal of character, and may I say warmth. This may be because of the strength of the engine. It may also come from the ability also to dial in the fidelity, from its original 8 bit, all the way to 24 bit. But even when dialing up the fidelity nothing is lost in terms of character.
If you are used to the rather straightforward nature of subtractive synthesis one finds on most keyboard synths, this may not be for you. Complex digital synthesis is not for everybody. Like Yamaha’s DX engine it takes a bit more thought in crafting sound. Subtle variations can often change things in a big way, but there is no resonant filter here to help simplify things quickly. Almost everything is done through manipulating harmonics, Frequency Modulation, and envelopes. This is familiar territory for those used to digital additive and FM synthesis, but a conceptual leap for others in terms of sound design. I should note, I am not one of those people, as much as I love modular synthesizers, I have a love for FM and additive synthesis. Arturia did produce a fairly in-depth manual, but it may take some experimentation to understand every concept within it for those who do wish to dive in. You will not become Suzanne Ciani overnight.
Arturia and Synclavier Digital has given a beautiful gift to synthesists with the Synclavier V. While I love modular synths, the fact I can now play the Synclavier’s classic FM and Additive synth engine is a dream come true.
While this update cost a bit more than Arturia’s previous upgrades, it was worth every penny. There were major improvements here. The addition of the Synclavier V though, is also not to be dismissed. This is easily the most important software synth Arturia has released. It gives people access to a synth previously outside the range of affordability and access. Additionally, if anybody was holding off on the V collection, now is probably the time to jump in. Arturia right now has a comprehensive selection of software instruments, and they are now much more usable as a result of the UI update. Between the product wide updates and the Synclavier-V, I highly recommend the Arturia V Collection.
So I do not think many people really appreciate just how huge a deal this Synclavier thing is. This really was the pinnacle of digital synthesis. For me getting it is $199 upgrade away. $199 for one of the most advanced synthesizers of all time.
I will be reviewing it because how can I not. I also think this thing may be too advanced for most people. This is one case where complexity is not a bad thing either. For those that love synthesis this is a dream synth. So having some version, even a software version, is impressive.
I look forward to exploring it in the coming days.
On Wednesday the North Carolina’s GOP legislature and governor crammed through a virulent anti-lgbt law. This law not only stripped localities of their local anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, but also included many specific anti-trans provisions.
For those who do not know North Carolina politics in the last few years, there has been an increasing gulf between the mostly liberal cities, and the arch-conservative GOP state legislature and governor. I highly suggest people to look up “Moral Mondays” to see how contested this has been. Asheville, where Moog Music and Make Noise music is located is very liberal city which includes many of these protections.
The response from Moog, well was pretty much perfect. Wendy Carlos is a trans woman who was Robert Moog’s lifelong friend. The picture is a deeply symbolic response. When Moog says they synthesize inclusion, they mean it. Wendy helped raise the profile of Moog, and synthesizers. Her “Switched On” classical albums basically exploded the popularity of synthesizers in popular music. To explain how popular these albums were, one must consider they have few real rivals. There are few albums that changed music forever, Switched on Bach was one of them. Moog and Moog Music has supported and promoted many LGBTQ artists over the years, Wendy was just the first.
This is the point, I get the calls for a boycott, I really do. I am pissed as hell about this law as a queer person. But by boycotting some companies in NC, we may in fact be hurting the companies that will be in the front lines fighting against this legislation. Moog being one of them. There may be no better corporate ally with regards to these anti-LGBT provisions than Moog. Moog holds a massive music festival in NC, and has made NC a destination for many musicians who come through the state visiting their factory and Asheville. When they say #Thisisnotus they mean it. The fly by night efforts of the NC legislature’s exercise in bigoted anti-lgbtq law making should not be used against the very real efforts by NC businesses and cities which are trying to make themselves inclusive places. These are allies in the fight against intolerance, and they should be supported, not boycotted. I am not saying “don’t boycott”, but rather be selective. We need to boycott the money and businesses behind the intolerance, but we also need to support those who are or will be fighting it.
As an employee-owned company, we are a group of wonderfully diverse individuals who share a passion for designing inspirational tools. Bob Moog believed, as do we, that the most beautiful and innovative solutions evolve from harnessing the collective power of divergent ideas and perspectives. Exclusion limits our path to progress and denies our living connection to each other.
The Moog factory and Moogfest are, and always will be, safe and inclusive spaces for the LGBTQ community and their allies.
Over the last 18 months I have played live extensively, more so than I ever had before. I probably learned more in these shows than I would have had otherwise.
I really enjoy recording music. Probably more so than performing live. Thankfully, the number of shows have slowed down in recent months. As a result of the slower pace in shows I have been able to record an album called Decay, and I am working on another one. So the blog posts will be a little slower.
Over a month ago Else Marie Pade died, and this has stuck with me more than other recent musician deaths.
For the very fact Else did more in her life than most of us ever really will. She had an uncommon passion for jazz, musique concrete, and fighting Nazis. The last part by the way is absolutely true, she was a demolitions expert for the resistance during WWII, and was eventually imprisoned for it.
I have often linked the relationship between avant garde music and jazz, but Else really makes this connection especially strong as an electronic musician. While there are many other members of the Avant Garde music community in Europe who were jazz musicians at one point, Else had an uncommon passion for the musical style even if she didn’t pursue it in traditional way. She really did bring a love for it into her music.
This passion eventually lead her to musique concrete and early electronic music. It is how she took this passion is what makes her unusual, in that she basically took oscillators to tape, and created the early groundwork to more austere experimental electronic styles. While Oram was playful in here compositions, Else droned and mangled. Else embraced the more chaotic elements of early electronic instrumentation. The reality is people like myself are in fact standing on the shoulders that Else laid the groundwork. Especially those of us who bring free improvisation and chaotic leanings to electronic instrumentation.
There is something that deeply interconnects those of us who are so rooted in passion for avant garde electronic music and improvisation with Else. It is a deep love, almost nerdiness, for the edges of sound. One does not go about making avant garde music without some deeper need to explore, to connect. Else had that, and the world is a better, and wonderfully weirder place for her contribution to the art of sound.
I hate writing a post like this again. A few months ago I was mourning the loss of the closest art space to me, which was Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring.
Now I am fearing the loss of an equally important space, Union Arts DC. Union Arts is one of the few spaces in DC which provides rehearsal space to musicians, in addition to providing artist studios. It is also a famous “DIY” venue in DC run by Luke Stewart who co-founded Capital Bop, and founded Creative Music DC. The space has hosted multiple Jazz and Avant Garde performances, but also every other genre of music under the sun.
To say Union Arts is the glue to DC’s creative community is not an understatement. It’s the truth. Right now, the space is at risk for being torn town and turned into a luxury hotel. While there has been promises for creative spaces from Cultural DC, they have been limited, and given to a group that rents out spaces for a rather steep fee. This is especially the case with performance spaces which run into the hundreds of dollars per night.
I have performed at Union Arts myself, and some of my best performances were at this venue. It’s loss would be deeply felt, but I am not giving up.
The problem with this, is this is becoming a trend nationally. Art’s spaces are disappearing, and the truth is this is the only one of its kind in DC.
The picture in the post has information on what can be done, and I highly suggest if you live in DC, or have patronized Union Arts, to send an email to the zoning board and other officials in DC.
Because of a funeral, I had to skip out of writing anything with this years winter NAMM. This is not to say that there were not some interesting things shown this year, Make Noise contributed to the low cost modular market with the 0-Coast, and Arturia’s MatrixBrute semi-modular synthesizer introduced a novel spin on the matrix modular concept.
I will likely write more on both in the future. The reality is it was a bit hard to keep up with things during the last few weeks.
Synthrotek is a company that has built their business on affordable DIY kits for Eurorack. But it has also sold built modules of these kits. Synthrotek will soon putting out small complete systems, the first being a two voice synthesizer. They are likely going to be an affordable option for those seeking an entry into Eurorack, or a quick way to expand for those who have something like the Moog Mother-32. The pricing is still not available though, but it will be soon.
There has been some confusion in the last year with regards to the difference between modular and semi-modular. Some people for example have been calling the Kilpatrick Phenol Semi-Modular. This however is not accurate, the Phenol is in fact a standalone modular synthesizer.
The difference between semi-modular and modular is that semi-modular has a hard-wired signal path that can be altered through patching, and fully modular instruments on the other hand requires patching. Modulars do not need separate units can be replaced. This is why the EMS Synthi and the Fenix are considered fully modular instruments. Semi-modular instruments of course are the Arp 2600, Korg MS-20, and more recently the Moog Mother-32.
The extent one can patch with a semi-modular synthesizers can vary greatly. The MS-20 for example lacks pre-filter/pre-mixer outputs for its oscillators. While the Arp 2600 allows for a great degree of patching between the various functions without such barriers. The Moog Mother-32 adds a feature in that it can be hooked directly into a modular system. The Buchla 208 was really what pushed out this concept. These instruments can even be experimental, many of the Ciat-Lonbarde instruments are also semi-modular, such as the Sidrax. These limitations though often allow for some benefits, specifically the ability to approach the instrument without patching. This can be helpful for those just learning synthesis to ease into modular functionality.
Modular synthesizers on the other hand come in two variety. One is modular systems, where you have cases or cabinets with modules you place modules or panels in. When you think of Moog, Buchla, and Eurorack, you are looking at a modular system. This is a common standard where functional modules can be taken out and added. There is another category of modular though, which is the stand alone. EMS pushed forward with this concept with it’s Synthi pin matrix synths. The Fenix, and later the Phenol bring this concept to the realm of patch cable synthesizers. These stand alone instruments do bring certain advantages, such as having all the necessary components for a voice, but still having all the advantages of signal path routing as a modular system. They also can bring increased portability, which can be an issue as modular systems grow in size.
Whether one is going with a fully modular synthesizer or a semi-modular, is often more about personal preference and budget.