March 18, 2014

Let's Talk Mono-Synths...

by Chris Randall

I was joking to my wife the other day that I have like five jobs right now. Which made me sob a little on the inside, because I actually do. In my ludicrous amount of free time, I'm trying to come up with the archetype mono-synth design. And I thought it'd be interesting to get some input from people that aren't me on this subject.

The mono is kind of a beast unto itself, and that platform is the source of some of the most enduring sounds in the synthNrrrd's arsenal, to the point where we refer to particular sounds not by the place they fill in the sonic spectrum (e.g. "squelchy, knocky bass") but rather by the machine that makes the particular sound best. (e.g. "303.") I find that interesting, because with other instrumentation, we don't generally dwell on the toolset used to create it (say, Strat through Fender Super Reverb) but rather we generally reference a player who used that combo ("I think this song needs a Stevie Ray tone...")

We do this with keyboards too, but much more specifically. The Hohner D6 Clav and "Superstition" are so intertwined as to be functionally synonymous, for instance. Likewise the Mellotron and "Strawberry Fields Forever." But by and large, these are still machine-specific references. P-Mac is hardly recognized for his keyboard chops. You never say "get me that Paul McCartney keyboard sound." You say "I want the Strawberry Fields Mellotron flutes."

Anyhow, how about it? I'm not asking for a running litany of everyone's favorite monosynth. Nobody gives a shit. What I'm wondering is more about the "why" of it. If you were going to make a mono, what would you absolutely require of it?


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Mar.19.2014 @ 1:07 AM
I've actually built mine. Based on Roland System 100m circuits (similar to SH-2 sound). 3 Osc+Sub, Noise, Ringmod, LPF/HPF/BPF, modulation works a bit like Pro 1, 2 ADSRs, semi-modular. Sounds great.

Mar.19.2014 @ 1:16 AM
Maybe songs like Strawberry Fields get noted for this because they were early and popular examples of an instrument, and were examples where the band really went with that sound. I've heard lots of other songs with mellotron and they are often more sedate in either their use of the instrument or how it's mixed into the full track, and they were usually after that. There are lots of tracks with 303, and not many where you can't tell it's a 303 (I'm sure I'm wrong on that), and the initial tracks using the 303 in the recognizable way were not famous. Those sounds had to build up into genres before a lot of people would know what you were talking about, and 303 is almost tied with acid as the words to use. There are many tracks where you can't tell you're hearing a Minimoog, even though that's also seen as a recognizable synth. People tend to use as generic a description as possible when talking to people they don't know, and some things are describable in the generic, while others require fairly specific information to get the information across. So maybe it doesn't have to do with the type of instrument, more the possible associations or the recognizability of a particular sound.

I think the Minimoog has sort of become the default archetypal monosynth, at least culturally. I have very little in the way of gear, but my Minimoog is always set up to play. My must-have features on it are the pretty useful envelopes, the ability to use the filter as a sound source, and the feedback ability. Those features make the thing so playable and varied. Weirdly enough to me, I don't even know of mainstream recordings that use either the feedback or filter as sound source features in a recognizable way. Maybe they were just used more subtly?

Mar.19.2014 @ 5:14 AM
raoul duke
I'll probably get shot down in flames here.... but my favourite mono synth (from my limited experience mind) is the Arturia Microbrute.

I also own a Moog Prodigy, an Evolver, and a Shruti that I built.

I've also tried all sorts of other stuff.

The main things I like about the micro is that it's small, fun to use, and easily interfaced with other kit.

It's limitations can also be overcome by interfacing it with other eurorack modules.

The new MFB Dominion looks like a beast though. I've been really impressed by what I've seen of it so far (on the web mind).

Mar.19.2014 @ 8:48 AM
I like monosynths simple but flexible. My preferred set up might be:

2 osc, with freq crossmod
2 ADSR and 2 LFO, with flexible routing
noise source
multimode filter
VCA with bypassable gate

Three oscillators, subs, ringmod, arpeggiators, S&H, sequencers, etc, all have their place/use, but sometimes I feel they might get in the way of the essence of the thing. I'd prefer fewer major components to the signal chain, but with a lot of little extra switches and tricks thrown in for cool and unexpected opportunities.

Regarding signature sounds, I suspect in a lot of the early, iconic uses, they were little more than the successful musical application of just turning the damned thing on. The Moog bass, for instance, is super easy to dial in, a straightforward sound for keyboard players to play, showroom impressive, and was probably the only patch that in-store techs knew to show prospective customers.

Mar.19.2014 @ 9:15 AM
Something different. Minimoog and 303 have been done to death. If I'm forking over dough, I want something I don't have.

Then again, most people don't buy different. I know several people with a dozen Strats. The top selling plugs are always clones of 1176, SSL, etc. So maybe something that can cover the expected, but add some new sound I haven't heard before.

Mar.19.2014 @ 9:53 AM
Lots of bass (sub oscs and 'character' lpf) and modular architecture ideally with editor and patch cables, if not mega mod matrix.

Mar.19.2014 @ 10:55 AM
Three audio oscillators.
I feel everything needs to reach a certain baseline of detail. Polys can get by with two VCOs per voice, because polyphony is what gives that sort of instrument its complexity.
But a monosynth is not the same thing as one voice of a polysynth. And there are already too many 2-VCO architectures out there.
Chorusing without cancellation is the obvious application, but there are other uses. Even if it's mixed down *really* low, the third VCO of a mono tuned up a 4th, or to the seventh harmonic, can add quite a lot of character.

Mar.19.2014 @ 11:14 AM
Chris Randall
Interestingly, I've in the past had two oscs as my benchmark, and all my previous monosynth designs have only had two, but due to this research, (and also my recent heavy use of Monark) I've been led to the conclusion that Will is absolutely right, and three oscs is a world of improvement in sound possibilities.

Every time I consider a feature in design, my main concern is this: does the user get more out of it than the trouble of adding it would entail? I think that three oscs versus two is a very good example of how that is the case.


Mar.19.2014 @ 11:54 AM
(Who's Will? haha)

Mar.19.2014 @ 1:32 PM
Chris Randall
Derp. I just saw "wgparham" where it says "wavingpalms." My bad.


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