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 @ 4:30 PM
Things I like:

1. Two or more oscillators (I'm not deadset on 3 like everyone else long there is also a noise source)
2. Multiple modulation busses, envelopes, LFOs, filters
3. Being able to set LFO to retrigger without lifting a key is a sorely missed feature on modern synths (IMHO)

Deal breakers to me:

1. Toy-like size/build: 25 key or less keybeds, minikeys, 1/8" jacks (except for Eurorack interconnects), baby knobs
2. "Retro" limitations: less than 128 patch memories, poor or absent MIDI implementation, lack of velocity/aftertouch sensitivity
3. "Designer" layout: Make it fit in a standard road case or gig bag PLEASE, no weird Phatty fixed slanted panels..., don't make it rely excessively on a skittles bag of LEDs, make it easy to read even in low light

Mar.20.2014 @ 6:42 PM
As mentioned in another post a HP filter is very useful - even on basses. I have it on my MS-20 and turning up the HP just a bit with lot of resonance on a bass fills the ear cups. LFOs are important but controlling the filters (or anything) with external audio would be a nice feature. A noise generator is a must.

Mar.20.2014 @ 7:24 PM
i'm of two minds about this monosynth jibba jabba... but then someone who thinks the desktop evolver is mindblowingly perfect would.

so, i like a simple small mono with a few tricks and clever useful mod routings. there are a shit ton of sounds that can be created with just the right things done well and simply. see arturia microbrute for example. fast, fun, sounds good, has simple sequencer and is generally well done imo.

also, there's live and there's studio.. saving presets or just a bunch of knobs and sliders?

being of two minds means i'd have 2 monosynths.. something akin to a microbrute or 101 etc.. and something like a pro one/evolver etc..

what does it needs for me to be happy?

FM/cross mod/ modulation matric.. ability to fuck with the oscillators a lot to generate new waveshapes, get weird oscillator sync + FM/cross mod sounds. mod amount over FM, phase mod, waveshaper/wavefolder or similar, ability to place before or after filter (switching relays anyone?), looping envelopes that go into audio range, lfos that go into audio range, filter pitch tacking for 'playing' the filter, simple sequencer/arp.. so i guess i'd be happy if one voice of the microwaveXT was mated with the Knas Polygamist.

i think all those options could be implemented pretty simply.

and the other me.. well.. a more basic monosynth akin to what others have mentioned here. liquid bass and leads.. smoothness and rubber.

and i couldn't give a fuck about keys.. 25 is fine. i wish all my synths w/keys had 25 keys and a panel to match so it could fit in my lap so i could take it out of the studio and sit somewhere w/headphones and make sounds. octave switches are fine w/me.

Mar.20.2014 @ 8:43 PM
mike kiraly
I'm with Boobs about the desktop Evolver. Not so much the sound, but the parameter editing matrix is very well thought out.

Mar.20.2014 @ 11:10 PM
I have a seemingly little-known monosynth - an Analogue Solutions Red Square.
I like it pretty well. The layout consists of 2 oscillators, a sub/noise, LP filter,
LFO, S&H, 2 envelopes, ring mod and a midi- CV converter. Plenty of multiples, and I forgot the VCA. All in all a well-thought-out machine. I don't think I'd be interested in fewer features, and I can always use my FreqBox for another oscillator.

Mar.20.2014 @ 11:25 PM
3 Oscillators, goddamned SINE WAVES as a fucking option, 2 Separate Multimode Filters, "fast mode" for envelopes, and an LFO that has a "slow" option (more than a minute).


Mar.21.2014 @ 1:43 AM
A bit of a tangent, maybe, but when it comes to any kind of audio hardware I'm big on interface. This was one of the primary driving factors in my purchase of a Minibrute. The controls are laid out nicely in a sensible manner and everything is clearly labelled. There's no guesswork involved; I can find controls quickly and immediately tell what everything does. I tested out a mopho and did not have nearly the same experience. Interface, interface, interface. It doesn't matter how good it sounds - I won't touch it if it's difficult to use.

As for sound - well, I'm a relative n00b here so I don't know much about monosynths. I guess 2 oscillators w/ a sub-osc, a basic filter w/ envelope, and a couple of mappable LFOs would make me happy. I'm also a sucker for a delay effect.

Mar.21.2014 @ 2:23 AM
Make whatever you want in a mono and then just make it polyphonic.

Mar.21.2014 @ 5:38 AM
I'm with Dagon on the sine waves. Are they really so hard to generate, unless you've got a digital oscillator? I get the point about tuning stability, but apart from that, why do so few synths have that? Sine waves are so great for deep sub basses.

An additional note on the three-oscillators-hype: There are quite a few comments here mentioning two oscillators and a sub osc. Well, Make it three and you get more flexibility (assuming that the oscillators are designed accordingly): use them as two-plus-sub, use them for subtle detuning to achieve sweet fatness, or use them to build complete chords with one voice and get nice stabs or drones with built-in harmonies. I just believe that three oscs can add so much to the musicality of a monosynth.

Mar.21.2014 @ 6:10 AM
I'm by no means a synth expert but... sine waves have no overtones. Theoretically not that useful in a subtractive synth, which is the paradigm that a lot of monosynths go for.

I use sine waves quite a bit though. Really like sine waves made on a hardware filter with high resonance, so that it is self-oscillating.

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