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.21.2014 @ 11:35 AM
I'm with TomE

Mar.21.2014 @ 3:04 PM
Duke Fame
What's the verdict on the Reon Beatnic Mountain? I'd never even heard of it until I saw the article pic.

Mar.21.2014 @ 7:24 PM
I'm with boobs. Except on the 25-key thing. I can't wrap my head around how anyone could possibly not hate a 25-key keyboard... give me three octaves or you can keep the damn thing.

Mar.21.2014 @ 7:44 PM
polyphony can eat a dick. really. well maybe not. ;)

i have a couple poly synths.. digital ones.. see no reason to get all hot and bothered about analog poly. voyetra 8 would be nice.. sure.. but whatever.

polysynths imo are for different things. big complex sounds seem to work better for me with 1 voice.

what i mean is.. a poly can be simpler bread and butter for me unless it's multitimbral.. that's another thing.

i prefer multitimbral to poly. and one of the fun things about multi is voice stealing when poly runs out. can be funky!

i do love my NL2X and MW XT and DX11 but these are things i can use multitimbrally

I could see maybe duophonic in a little mono type synth but just for doing weird things w/triggering modes and envelopes.

@mitchell.. i'm not a "player" so it's less relevant to me. i'd rather tweak than play. design sounds is always more fun to me than playing... mostly because i suck at playing. ;)

Mar.21.2014 @ 9:51 PM
I'm glad to see the sine wave love, I thought maybe I was just wrong. But I also get tired of just seeing square and triangle as my options.

Mar.22.2014 @ 1:47 AM
b00b5: "polysynths imo are for different things. big complex sounds seem to work better for me with 1 voice."

Push the Mono button, I reckon.
People do really wonderful music with mono keyboards. But hell, it's not some something I would purposely design except to sell ultra cheap analogue keyboards. If cheap analogue is what's being talked about I'll tip toe away, because that's all the last few years have talked about and there's already a glut of them.

I want polymorphously perverse.

Mar.22.2014 @ 10:18 AM
Chris Randall
There's something to be said for a dedicated mono. But that said, Tom is generally in the right of it, imo.

All that said, we don't do analog. Our shit's code, yo. I'm most assuredly _not_ talking about an analog mono.


Mar.22.2014 @ 3:58 PM
@TomE: "Push the Mono button, I reckon."

true.. but then that's just stacking voices or going into unison and spreading them out. all well and good and in some polysynths you can program in variations per note or w/velocity etc and pan different notes to different places etc so they can become very dynamic and expressive instruments.

Mar.22.2014 @ 4:12 PM
I still have some seller's remorse about the Yamaha CS-5 I fostered for a while... but as a fixit type it does tend to be "play with it until all the problems are fixed, and then get paid for giving it back". So I find that I'm more about less oscillators and more about clever tricks, which the CS-5 did have. Pursuant to the comments of others, it does have noise as a source along with the single oscillator. And I'm always a sucker for a sample & hold.

Mar.22.2014 @ 8:47 PM
Chris Randall
The CS-5 is remarkably capable for a single-osc. I'm still regretting selling the World's Most Expensive CS-5. It is, in my opinion, the absolute limit of how crafty a 1-osc analog can get.

That said, if we don't limit ourselves to analog, something like the Minimoog is fairly easily done in code (with varying degrees of success; I believe Monark is the best code version) but again, we get in to a philosophical discussion about whether there's a point to cloning an existing, readily available, and perfectly capable analog like the Minimoog, while wilfully avoiding the things that make code-based synths "special," and far more capable. (Aside from the blindingly obvious cost:benefit ratio. In that regard, Monark absolutely destroys both the Voyager and the original Mini.)

I personally am not sold on "analog warmth" or any of that bullshit. A good producer is a good producer, and a good song is a good song. No amount of magic pixie dust will enable either of those things, so we fall back on discussions of comfort or inspiration or whatever.

So, let's assume the following things are immutable:

1. In a synth that is code-based, polyphony is only limited by CPU power. So there's no fundamental difference between a mono and a poly at that level. (With the caveat that some topologies, like the Mini, just don't sound good poly. They're too fucking thick.)

2. In a synth that is code-based, "analog warmth" (or what we call in the business "even-order harmonic distortion") can be added. So let's assume no reasonable difference between an analog and its digital clone with regards to "warmth."

If we take both of those things at face value, and reading back over the previous 50-odd comments, I'm left with the following opinion: all other things being equal, control is the main concern, not sound. A synth that is immediate and easy to program, with the panel providing the obvious controls in mostly pleasing ranges is better received than one with a confusing panel that is hard to program.

At least, that's my meta-impression. Did I get that wrong?


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