Exploring Sonar 4's TTS1 Synth

Workshop

Published in SOS June 2005
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Technique : Sonar Notes

The TTS1 soft synth bundled with Sonar 4 has many hidden talents — but you have to know where to find them.

Craig Anderton

 
sonarClass TTS1
The visuals are those of a 16-channel mixer, but it's really an interface for up to 16 instruments. Additional windows allow fairly extensive editing.
The visuals are those of a 16-channel mixer, but it's really an interface for up to 16 instruments. Additional windows allow fairly extensive editing.

From the early days of Sonar, Cakewalk bundled the program with the Edirol VSC (Virtual Sound Canvas). However, the advent of Sonar 4 brought a change: goodbye VSC, hello Roland-powered TTS1. The concept is the same — a General MIDI synth that doesn't use a lot of CPU power — but the new synth is surprisingly capable, especially once you know how to take full advantage of it.

In terms of basic architecture, the TTS1 is 16-part multitimbral and is both General MIDI and GM2 compatible. Each part is 'hardwired', so that MIDI channels 1-16 are mapped to the equivalent TTS1 parts. The parts are arranged visually as 16 channels of a virtual mixer, complete with level fader, pan control, two effects sends and a master output section. Additional pop-up windows allow you to dig beneath the surface.

Multiple Outs

Let's start our tour with the four individual outs. To take advantage of these, when you insert the TTS1 into Sonar 4 tick 'All Synth Outputs (Audio)', instead of 'First Synth Output (Audio)' when the 'Insert DXi Synth Options' window appears (unless, of course, you want only a stereo output instead of multiple outs). I'd also suggest creating additional MIDI tracks for each instrument you want to use, so that each instrument has its own MIDI track. I find this more convenient than cramming several MIDI channels' worth of data into one track. On the TTS1 itself, to assign parts to outputs:

sonarClass MultipleOuts
It takes a few mouse-clicks to get there, but you can assign each TTS1 part to one of four outputs.
It takes a few mouse-clicks to get there, but you can assign each TTS1 part to one of four outputs.

Click on the System button toward the upper right.

A bright-red System Settings box appears: click on its Option button and a window appears.

Under the Output Assign tab, assign parts to outputs by clicking the radio button to the right of each part (see the screen on the left). Note that you can assign multiple Parts to the same output, but you can't assign one Part to multiple outputs.

Clicking the Reset button reassigns all the Parts to output one, which may be important if you're using the built-in reverb and/or chorus effects (I'll be returning to this subject later).

Other System Settings

The red System Settings window also provides three other useful adjustments: Master Tune (variable in 0.1Hz increments, from 415.3Hz to 466.2Hz), Master Key Shift (transposes from -24 to +24 semitones), and Polyphony Limit, from 10 to 128 voices.

To change a parameter value you can click on a knob and drag it, but also note the numerical field below each control. Clicking on the arrows to the side provides 'fine tuning' — for example, if you click on the Master Tune parameter's right arrow, the value increments by 0.1Hz. Furthermore, double-clicking on the numerical field allows you to type in a number; clicking OK then enters it. All numericals work in the same way, including the ones for the level, pan, and send controls on the main front panel.

Editing A Part

At the top of each part's 'channel strip' you'll see an Edit button. Click on it, and a window opens up that offers a variety of editable parameters — something the VSC never had (see screen below). You can still tweak any visible 'mixer' parameters, even when the Edit window is on top.

sonarClass EditableParameters 2
The TTS1 offers far more sound-shaping options for synth sounds than the earlier VSC.
The TTS1 offers far more sound-shaping options for synth sounds than the earlier VSC.

There are two time-saving features to be aware of. Firstly, you can cycle through the parts via the part left/right arrows towards the upper left, so it's not necessary to close the Edit window, open one for the next channel, close it, open another one, and so on. Second, the little preview button with a note symbol plays a pre-recorded note or riff in the style typically used by the selected sound (you can choose between note and riff, as described later). Sadly, you can't latch the button so that it plays while you tweak parameters.

The editable synth parameters are pretty standard fare, but there are a few fine points to bear in mind. The On/Off button in the top row is needed only to enable/disable the tone controls (bass, mid and treble). The Filter and Character controls are always 'live'.

In the middle row, Envelope and Vibrato are, again, self-explanatory. However, note that even if the Vibrato depth control is at zero, you can still add vibrato with your synth's mod wheel, but this requires that the Mod Depth parameter in the lower row be set to a non-zero value (the main Vibrato depth control is designed to add a constant amount for each note you play). Unfortunately, the delay parameter doesn't fade in the vibrato; instead, it switches in after the elapsed delay time.

sonarClass DrumParameters
The drum programs have some parameters that are individually editable for each drum sound (middle section), as well as parameters that alter all drum sounds in the program.
The drum programs have some parameters that are individually editable for each drum sound (middle section), as well as parameters that alter all drum sounds in the program.

The lower row has controls for Tuning, a Mono/Poly switch, a Portamento control with on/off switch, the aforementioned Mod Depth parameter, and a Bend Range parameter (up to a maximum of plus or minus two octaves).

The drum sets have their own editable parameters. The middle part of the window lets you step through the various drum sounds, each of which has adjustable Level, Pan, Coarse Tune, Fine Tune, Reverb Level (send), and Chorus Level. The MIDI Edit button, when enabled, lets you choose the drum sound to be edited simply by playing its corresponding MIDI note. Note that the master channel Pan control weights the various drum sounds more to one side or the other, but the pan relationship between drums is maintained within those constraints.

The lower strip of parameters (Filter, Resonance and Tone controls, which must be enabled if required) affects all drum sounds in the program: these parameters are not individually adjustable for each sound.

Saving Performances

The TTS1 has a 'combi' mode, for creating 'performances'. If you come up with a particular performance you like — specific instruments loaded as specific parts, which may also have been edited — there are three ways to save this. The simplest is just to save the project containing the performance. When you call up the project, the TTS1 will appear as you last left it, pretty much like any other virtual instrument. However, if you want to be able to call up the performance independently for different projects, you need to save it as a file.

sonarClass SavePreset
Here, a preset is being saved. The drop-down menu will let you choose from any of the presets you've stored. If you select a preset and then click on the 'X' button, the preset will be deleted.
Here, a preset is being saved. The drop-down menu will let you choose from any of the presets you've stored. If you select a preset and then click on the 'X' button, the preset will be deleted.

One way to do this is to type a name for the performance in the Presets field at the top of the instrument, then click on the floppy-disk button, as shown in the screen below. (For younger SOS readers, a 'floppy disk' was a prehistoric storage medium used by the ancient Etruscans. Its legacy lives on to indicate a 'save' function, but it's otherwise pretty much forgotten.)

The other way to save a performance is to click the System button, then the System Settings Option button, then the Options tab. The top line has buttons for loading or saving a performance file. There's no pre-ordained folder for this. I simply created a TTS1 Performances folder inside the Cakewalk folder on the root drive. (TTS1 performances have a .GMF suffix.)

If you call up a performance, it's a good idea to set the patch parameter for any MIDI channels feeding the TTS1 to 'none' before you hit playback. Otherwise, if a patch is specified, it will be called up in the TTS1 and you'll need to reload the performance.

Saving Edited Sounds
sonarClass SavePerformance
You can create a library of TTS1 performance setups for use in any project.
You can create a library of TTS1 performance setups for use in any project.

This process isn't exactly obvious, but then that's why Sound On Sound publishes this type of article! The confusion arises because the Part Edit window has a Write button. So you click on that, choose a program location in a User Normal bank (1-4, or the User Rhythm bank if you're saving a drum set), and you're asked if you want to overwrite the existing patch. Having clicked on OK, you might think the job was done, right? Well, not really, unfortunately. The patch will show up in a MIDI channel track if you select the correct bank and patch, but if you exit from Sonar at this point, then launch the program again and call up the same bank, the patch will be gone and all the patches in the user bank will have reverted to a Piano sound.

This occurs because although writing the edited part stores it in the bank, the bank is in RAM. So you need to take the additional step of saving the bank. Once you have the edited patches written into the bank, click on a patch name, either in the Part Edit window or in the strip to the right of the channel fader in the main mixer view. From there, select Save Bank. Choose the bank you want to save, give it the desired name and save it in an appropriate folder. The next time you want to access your edited sounds, click on a patch name, select Load, and choose the bank containing the sounds you want to use.

MIDI Control

Just about all controls of the TTS1 — knobs, sliders, and buttons — can be controlled by MIDI controllers (not notes, however). Just right-click on the parameter you want to control and the Control Change Assign window appears. You can enter a controller and channel number here or, more conveniently, tick the Learn box and simply tweak the physical controller you want to use.

sonarClass ControlChange
The 'Normal' controller map has been loaded. This assigns the most commonly automated TTS1 parameters to various MIDI controllers.
The 'Normal' controller map has been loaded. This assigns the most commonly automated TTS1 parameters to various MIDI controllers.

Having said the above, there are a couple of points to bear in mind. Firstly, if you assign a controller that was previously assigned to a different parameter, the previous assignment will be shown in the window's lower-left corner. If you decide to go ahead and reassign it, the previous assignment will be cancelled. As a result, you can't control multiple parameters with the same controller. Secondly, you might think that checking the 'Apply to All Parts' checkbox and, for example, assigning a controller to filter cutoff makes the control affect filter cutoff for all parts. But that's not the way it works. Instead, checking this box assigns the parameter in question to respond to the same continuous controller number for all parts. For example, if you assign Controller 15 to Filter Cutoff for part six and the Apply to All Parts box is ticked, Controller 15 will also affect Filter Cutoff for any other selected part. Furthermore, ticking Apply All Parts forces each part to respond only on the MIDI channel whose value is the same as the part number. In the example above, if you wanted to control Filter Cutoff in, say, part 11, Controller 15 would have to appear over channel 11. If the Apply to All Parts box is not ticked, a part can be assigned to respond to a controller coming in over any MIDI channel.

Controller Maps & Automation

If you click on the System button, select 'Option' from the System Settings window, then choose the Options tab, you'll find the option to Load and Save Control Change maps. Under 'Load', you have three options: Minimum Map, Normal Map, Logic Map (which uses Logic mappings for controllers — probably for those who switched over to Sonar from Logic for PC) and File, where you can load maps you've created and saved.

sonarClass ControllerMap
The TTS1 offers a Learn function for MIDI controllers, which can control virtually any TTS1 parameter.
The TTS1 offers a Learn function for MIDI controllers, which can control virtually any TTS1 parameter.

So what are these maps? Well, when you go to create a MIDI envelope in a MIDI track, TTS1 parameters are pre-mapped to particular controllers and labelled in the Envelope drop-down menu, and the maps govern exactly how this is done. If you load the Minimum map, only a few parameters show up. The Normal map is what you'd, well, normally use. You can also create custom maps for working with external hardware controllers.

Speaking of real-time control, you'll also notice another option just below the Control Change Map buttons: Record Panel Operations. When this is checked, if the MIDI track driving the Part is in 'record', any TTS1 front-panel control movements will be recorded as MIDI data. On playback, the knobs will move to reflect those controller changes. So there are three ways to record automation with the TTS1: via envelopes; by recording knob motions from the TTS1 panel; or by recording MIDI data from an external control surface, and passing it through to the TTS1.

Other System Options

Before signing off, I'll just bring to your attention and explain the significance of the three other checkboxes under the System Options tab:

Tone Remain allows notes to sustain while you change from one program to another. This eats more polyphony, but will not be an issue in most cases, as the TTS1 is pretty efficient. Just make sure you've set the polyphony control high enough to accommodate any transitions.

Enable Phrase Preview determines what happens when you click on the little note symbol on the preview button. If Enable Phrase Preview is unchecked, you'll hear a single note played on the currently selected sound when you click. If it's checked, clicking on the note symbol instead plays a phrase in a style representative of how the currently selected instrument is played.

Light Load Mode reduces CPU consumption even further by using less-intensive internal algorithms. Unless your CPU is seriously performance-challenged, the odds are that you won't need to use this option

Closing Words

Some Sonar users look down on this humble instrument because it's bundled — so how can it be any good? The surprise is that the TTS1 can be a very effective sound module, and its editability makes it that much more useful. When you throw in the ability to add expressiveness through the use of external controllers, you can make some pretty good noises. Give it a go and you'll see what I mean.

Just For Effects
sonarClass EffectsParameters
Choose the chorus and reverb algorithms, then adjust the parameters as desired. If you're not using the processors, turn them off to save CPU power.
Choose the chorus and reverb algorithms, then adjust the parameters as desired. If you're not using the processors, turn them off to save CPU power.
The TTS1 provides two effects: chorus and reverb. Each part's 'mixer channel' has a chorus and reverb send control, which is duplicated in the edit window. However, note that the effect sends are taken only from instruments whose outputs feed the main output (output one in a multi-output setup). Furthermore, the effects return only to the main output. As a result, if you're using multiple outs and you turn up the reverb and/or chorus send control for any parts that aren't assigned to output one, you won't hear the effect, as those parts are not being processed.
The effects can be edited in a fairly basic way. Click on the Effect button (above the Master Volume slider) and the Effect window appears. Here you can choose one of six chorus/flanger algorithms and one of six reverb types. The only reverb parameter you can edit is reverb Time, but in the case of the chorus you can alter Rate, Depth, Feedback and Rev (reverb) Send. The last sends some of the chorused sound to the reverb.

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