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 @ 1:46 PM
Because you have only one voice, it has to be extremely distinctive. The more modulation and the more performance input the better. In fact, I think the performance interface of the instrument is far more important than the details of how many oscillators it has and how you can get them to interplay. The more hands on control the better.

That said... I want a minimum of 3 oscillators, sync, ringmod, two or 3 lfos and at least a pair of filters that can be series or parallel and dont cheese out and make one of the LP only and the other multimode. Make them both multi mode or go home.

I know you didn't want to hear this, but I still keep my Korg Prophecy around because no one has really done it all quite as well as Korg did with that instrument. Its just god damn fun. My UltraNova has kinda replaced it, but it still lacks a mod-log and nothing beats the mod-log.

Mar.19.2014 @ 3:52 PM
Chris Randall
That's a good point. The mod log is a fairly expressive piece of kit. As a lefty, it always annoyed me by being in exactly the wrong place. But it's still cool. I think the X/Y/Z pad in the Z1 is better, though.


Mar.19.2014 @ 5:08 PM
If it has a keybed, give it aftertouch and 37 keys. I fucking love aftertouch for expression.

Mar.19.2014 @ 5:57 PM
What's the price point were talking about here? Is the goal to make something reasonably affordable, or the ultimate mono synth? The answer might impact my feature set.

That said, I'd want:

1. At least 2 oscs with selectable saw/square waveforms
2. A third osc that would add a sine wave (could be in addition to square/saw)
3. Pulsewidth
4. Osc mixer and detune for oscs 2 and 3
5. 12/24db filter types (24 can be great for basses but overbearing for leads)
6. Audio input on the filter
7. A simple LFO with sine, square, and sample and hold waveforms
8. Filter keytracking, filter LFO amount
9. MOOG-esque glide/legato
10. Fast, well tuned envelopes

Bonus mega mono synth features:

11. A second LFO
12. Osc sync
13. A 303esque step sequencer and/or arpeg

Mar.19.2014 @ 8:15 PM
I kind of want a properly knobbed up Casio CZ-1. I really love what you can do with phase distortion, but programming it is turrible.

And yes it's polyphonic, but I used it a lot monophically.

Other things that can make a monosynth rock: feedback, independently controlled low pass and high pass, some sort of modulatable wave-shapping.

Actually the Mopho was pretty brilliant, but it was annoying to program and I never found sounds on it I loved.

PS It's amazing how unsatisfying a computer editor is for an outboard synth. The Mopho one seemed to never work right for me, no matter what MIDI interface I used.

Mar.19.2014 @ 9:55 PM
I like mono-synths for their quirky features. Examples:

Envelope that can be triggered by the lfo (like the SH-2)
VCF modulation from audio oscillator (like the Minimoog)
Mixers each oscillator's wave shapes so shapes can be combined (like the Octave Cat, SH101, etc.)
Sample and Hold!
Duo-phony (like the Polivoks and Odyssey)
All sorts of cross mod (like the Mono/Poly)

I'm not sure how you would fit all of that into a synth without making the panel look too nerdy.

Figure out how to make a Cwejman S1 for less than a thousand dollars. I'm sure you'd have some takers for something like that.

Mar.19.2014 @ 10:21 PM
I agree completely with my "other" self. Three oscillators are really helpful. Even if I run it as an lfo through the mod matrix or as an FM source, I tend to use a third oscillator a lot when one is available. One of the things that I think is missing on a lot of synths is a highpass filter. I get around it with a bandpass (a must), but sometimes I like the heft that a lopass filter gives you, but want to dial out a bit of the bottom so the sound will sit in the mix somewhere. That is the main problem that I have with the MoPho. I really like the sound of the thing, but it ends up chewing up so much of the low end that it doesn't get used nearly enough. I don't like to have to eq synth too much after the fact. Synth sounds often lose a bit of cohesion unless everything is happening before the VCA. If I can't get an additional hipass, then I want a really nice bandpass mode. One with a bit of teeth and its own envelope.

Speaking of envelopes, I need at least two envelope generators, one of which is capable of looping.

I'm also currently obsessing over lopass gates. Not just for the Buchla Bongo, but all kinds of percussive sounds. Also, if it has a long enough decay, a LPG can add a lot of subtle motion to longer tones.

I really like the basic architecture of Aalto. I've been considering building a facsimile of it in euro (with the addition of an ALM Sid Guts for some added tonalities). A fully patchable monophonic CS-80 voice could also be interesting.

I do a lot of drone pieces, so as many modulation options as possible. Sample and Hold that can sample from a source other that just the noise source would be nice. Also, the speed of things needs to be able to clock really slow as well as fast. An LFO that can oscillate in the minutes long range is really helpful for that kind of work. I know that most people don't need that, but I do. In that vein, vector sticks and joysticks are more useful than pitch and mod wheels.

- William

Mar.19.2014 @ 10:30 PM
oh jeez.. gonna have to think about this one a bit. as soon as i thought "oh yeah.. no problem" i looked to the big modular at my left and thought "but it all needs to be there". .. which obviously isn't the point of the question you're asking.

Mar.19.2014 @ 10:45 PM
Im with the real will .. super slow LFO rate.

Mar.19.2014 @ 11:11 PM
One more vote for three oscillators.
One thing I've really liked on the rare occasions I've seen it (mostly in software, but also on the Evolver), is the combination of a wavetable oscillator with traditional oscillators.
I also think a legato/glide that is easy to dial in is pretty nice. There was one softsynth that had legato tunable per oscillator, which was fun for making really drunk sounding leads, and weird effects.

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