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.20.2014 @ 12:53 AM
And another thing, if we're talking about digital synths as well as analog synths, give me more break points on my envelopes. I LOVE the sound of the filters on the Roland S series samplers. Why are we still stuck with ADSR on digital boxen?

- William

Mar.20.2014 @ 5:28 AM
I'm curious to actually hear and play the new meeblip Anode. They've taken a pretty aggressive stance on what you can manipulate with the synth, but I have a hunch it's going to work.

Could you take the same minimalistic approach with a 3 OSC format? Hard to say. Maybe load up a default Monark patch and try tweaking only 8 or 9 controls, and see how far you get.

My only real "requirement" (as in, gets me considering parting ways with cash) is that there's some "discoverability" to it - that you can push the synth in some way(s) to make interesting sounds. I could give a fuck if it has one OSC or 20, 1 lfo or 100. If I can experiment with it and come up with some unique sounds, that's good enough for me.

Mar.20.2014 @ 7:12 AM
Portamento. Overdriven filters. That's pretty much all I need.

Mar.20.2014 @ 7:20 AM
I'm pretty flexible with what I like in a monosynth but the main things I am looking for are very snappy envelopes and a ballsy oscillator tone. Key sync-able lfo's are also nice sometimes.

If I were really to reach I'd ask for a stereo filter path with pan-able oscillators to get that nice super stereo sound without having to resort to chorus or some other trickery.

Mar.20.2014 @ 7:48 AM
If it has two envelopes, it needs to be able to route one of them to both the filter and amplitude at the same time (I love this feature on the CS-15). There are many sounds where this is all that's needed, and it lets the other envelope perform modulation elsewhere without modulating the filter.

Mar.20.2014 @ 10:22 AM
Simplicity. It's all about simplicity.

The real question is what defines simple for your target audience. For some, I would argue those who understand synthesis in a more core way, it's the Mini-Moog design with 3 Osc and limited controls. For others, namely players and gigging musicians, a box with only 4 knobs and a hidden preset system would be MORE than enough in 99% of cases.

A one to one assignment is most simple. You get past that in complexity and you're going into territory where one has to create a more complex mind map of what's going on. The more you have to have in your head, the more difficult it is to stay in the creative space (unless your creative process is in your head: see 'target audience'). This extends past a 1 knob to function assignment, it's also with oscillators and envelopes and such. The more you add, the more complex it becomes. Best way to approach it is from a minimal standpoint, then add from there, depending on the product you want to make, some questions need to be asked:

What aspects are you focusing on? Fun? Playability? Range of sound design capability? Flexibility?

Who is your target audience, what are their strengths? What do they already know intrinsically that you can use to your advantage in the design? eg., do they know envelopes and routing like the back of your hand? That means you can obfuscate those parts and still have a simple design. What is the minimal architecture that they require to be creatively engaged?

The rub is that you should be answering these questions multiple times to pare down the idea to a core philosophy. Are 4 oscillators really necessary? why? 3? 2? The 'why' is the key there. If you have a strong reason to add it, it's part of the design. If not, it should probably be taken out no matter how strongly you feel about it... at least until you figure out the 'why.'

Even incredibly complex things can be incredibly simple. The best music, for me, always feels simple until I start listening closer and realize how much subtlety and talent was put into it. Experts look like they do things effortlessly. That's the way the best synths feel

Mar.20.2014 @ 10:44 AM
Thinking along the lines of previously released AD tech, I played around with using two instances of Bitcom as a synth today. I racked it up in Ableton so one 'com could be tuned differently, threw a filter and distortion at the end of them, and mapped some of the controls to a novation launchcontrol.

I'll post the Ableton set later for folks to play with. It's not a perfect idea, and some creative thinking would have to be employed regarding the bit grid in a small desktop format but, it's kinda fun to play with.

One thing I did was map the run/idle control to a toggle switch on the controller. With the grid generating random bit patterns, it was kind of fun to "freeze" them, and just play that one sound. An extension of that idea - only have the step move forward with each MIDI note. Naturally, something like this would ideally have an audio input jack, too.

I'll clean the set up a bit and post it to dropbox.

Mar.20.2014 @ 11:24 AM
mike kiraly
These are not must have as much as wish list items:

- modulation, modulation, modulation. I hate synths that have 1 LFO and it's hardwired to either pitch or filter. Likewise, 1 envelope for amp and filter. The cash would start coming out of my wallet if there was a sizeable mod matrix - at least 4 LFO's that could hit pretty much any destination, including (especially?) the other LFO's. Other sources would include at least 2 envelopes, velocity, mod wheel, etc. DSI seems to be the only people who thinks this is a marquee feature

- one knob per function, or as close as it can get

- preset storage with LCD screen, even if it's just 2 lines

- CV for more than just pitch and gate

- I'm with the guy who said LPG. I don't know anything about the hows and whys of vactrols, but I know that I use my MMG and Optomix in every single modular patch.

- more than 25 keys

- built like a tank with firmly secured knobs. I have a Moog Phatty and the knobs wobble like they're scotch taped on to the end of lollipop sticks.

- this is really wish list, but I'm a big fan of lit encoder rings a la Nord Lead 3 or the Moog Phatty line. Especially if the knobs have to double up on functions.

But this is obviously a seriously expensive synth. But I'd gladly pay for it.

If you're talking about something to compete with this new barrage of $500-ish mono synths? Well then, it just needs to sound either like whipped creamy butter or biker bar badass.

Mar.20.2014 @ 12:32 PM
My first thought was: Preset storage! The Mopho's got 384 programs, even the MFB Dominion's got 128 programs. Yes, yes, Peter Kirn wrote elsewhere in a different discussion that you'd have a DAW for this kind of storage, but I disagree. These days, I do not see why any synth should not have any kind of storage for your patches. The convenience of that cannot be overestimated! Volcas, M'brutes etc. - even the Sub Phatty with its ridiculous 16 patches... Seriously, give me a break. It obviously depends on everybody's approach to making music, but to me that would be key.

And a nice addition is a USB port with full MIDI implementation. Yes, that is what I want to use my DAW for: Sequencing all sorts of synths around and being able to automate all sorts of parameters, just like you can do with a software plug-in. It is usually not as straightforward as software, and nothing will probably ever come close to DAW integration as the Access Virus TI. But that's not the point. Being able to prepare a live set, where not only program changes (see my first point), but also all sorts of dynamic sound changes can be automated, add so much flexibility to a live setup.

Apart from that: +1 on the 3 oscillators thing. The MFB Dominion is a beast. More of that, please.

Mar.20.2014 @ 12:34 PM
For those who want to play with it, a very rudimentary Bitcom synth: link []

Requirements: Ableton Live 9, legit copy of Bitcom.
Notes: MIDI is processed on two incoming channels. If you want to tune Bitcom/OSC2 to a different note, you do it there (on the first 'MIDI to Bitcom2' channel).
Caveats: Bitcom is not really intended to be a standalone synth. The MIDI could be processed better (I'm looking into this) going into the Bitcoms. Right now, there's obviously no env control, and I have the Ableton Note Length processing to hold notes a bit. If you turn those off, sometimes notes will get cut off.

Definitely rough around the edges, but also a lot of fun if you have something to map those macros to. Enjoy.

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