John Bowen Synth Design Solaris

Synthesizer

Published in SOS June 2012
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Reviews : Keyboard

Years in the making, John Bowen's Solaris is finally with us. So is this hugely ambitious synthesizer everything we hoped it would be?

Gordon Reid

John Bowen Synth Design Solaris

Over the past few years, many vintage synths have been analysed, converted to digital algorithms, and found themselves reborn as software plug‑ins. The flow has always been from hardware to software, exchanging wood, metal and plastic for wafers of silicon and a few gazillion mildly inconvenienced electrons, and many musicians now take this for granted. Love the sound and ergonomics of the SuperPoly80Xa, whose manufacturer went bankrupt a decade before you were born? Don't worry: like buses of the large, red, double‑decker variety, a selection of virtual analogue recreations will arrive presently. But have you ever wondered what would happen if somebody turned this concept on its head, taking an established Virtual Analogue soft synth that's not based on a vintage synth, and converting it into a large lump of wood, metal and plastic? Well, now you don't need to, because that's what John Bowen has just done.

At the recent Musikmesse in Frankfurt, I asked John how the Solaris was conceived. He told me, "When I was at Korg, we were working on the software for the original OASYS card and I noticed that Creamware were essentially doing the same thing. I saw the virtual Minimoog come out on Scope and went to try a system in Canada, and when I realised that Korg was probably not going to continue with our little group, I jumped ship. After a year with Creamware and some consultancy work elsewhere, I decided to go it alone and see whether I could make it writing plug‑ins for the Scope platform. My first plug‑in had been called the Orion and, because people kept asking me to add things, it just grew and grew until, around the fourth iteration, I went bonkers and added lots of new stuff and then realised that it wasn't the same product any more. So I gave it a new name and the Solaris plug‑in was born. I thought it wouldn't be too shabby as a hardware instrument, and since the ex‑Creamware guys and I had remained friends and said that someday we would do something together, we decided to develop what is now the Solaris keyboard. By this time, the plug‑in had grown to over 1200 parameters, so I had to figure out a way to translate its user interface into a physical control panel. I had wanted to try multiple displays on a hardware synth for some time, and at first we were thinking of the Solaris as something with a small keyboard, but when I mocked things up to fit the available width, the front panel looked too 'deep'. Arranging everything across a wider keyboard, it became clear that this was how the Solaris needed to be.”

The Solaris' Oscillator and LFO sections. The Solaris' Oscillator and LFO sections. John settled on a design that uses five text displays and a single, larger screen that contains everything else in dozens of menus, and which will eventually (if all goes well) provide a degree of graphical editing. If this looks familiar, I'm not surprised, because if some nasty people kidnapped your granny and said, 'update the design of the Matrix 12 to bring it into the 21st century, or the old lady gets it', you could send them a photo of the Solaris and she would be back home baking cookies in no time.

Oscillators, Rotors & Mixers

In many ways, the Solaris is a modular synth, but instead of patch cables or a modulation matrix, routing is determined using menu items in what the manual describes as a "destination-based modulation” scheme. This is less intuitive, but it means that multiple modulation sources can modulate one parameter and one source can modulate many parameters, as you choose. The disadvantage of this is that you're sometimes going to find it time consuming to work out why a patch sounds like this when you thought you had programmed it to sound like that.

The Solaris offers four oscillator slots, and you can choose which type is inserted into each. There are six options: recreations of Minimoog and CEM oscillators, a multi‑mode oscillator with wave‑shaping, a wavetable oscillator with all 63 tables licensed from Waldorf, plus Prophet VS and WAV (sample playback) oscillators. It's a remarkable list, and suggests that, in addition to its own signature sounds, the Solaris will be able to create patches with the underlying characters of Moogs, various Prophets, and Microwaves.

In addition to the expected LFOs and so on, there's a vast array of modulators that you can apply to the oscillators. For example, I'm delighted to find that (as a perfect complement to the Prophet VS waveshapes) the Solaris offers two flexible vector-synthesis modules that allow you to create morphs of much greater complexity than was possible on the VS or successors such as the Korg Wavestation. In addition, two 'Rotors' accept four signal sources (which can be audio or control signals) and then cycle around them to create another set of complex audio signals, complex modulators, or even a weird mixture of the two. The rotation rate of the Rotors can reach into the audio band, so you can do things as esoteric as superimposing audio frequency cross‑fading, stepping, and modulation onto the source waveforms, as well as creating slowly evolving waveforms for insertion into the audio and modulation paths.

Following its oscillator section, the Solaris offers four 'Parts', each with a mixer, a filter, insert effects and an amplifier. In addition to the conventional sound sources, and in true modular style, these can accept signals from modules further down the signal path, and can be cross‑connected, so patches can become spaghetti‑like very quickly. Nonetheless, the mixers themselves (each of which offers four inputs and can draw on all of the sound sources) are not overly complex. Well... you can modulate all 16 inputs individually and all four output levels individually, but that's not overly complex by the standards of the Solaris.

Filters, Amplifiers, Modulators & Envelopes

The Mixer and Insert Effects sections, beneath which can be seen the synth's main control panel. To the right are Filter, VCA and Envelope sections. The Mixer and Insert Effects sections, beneath which can be seen the synth's main control panel. To the right are Filter, VCA and Envelope sections.

Next come the four filters, which can be patched in a variety of parallel and series ways that I won't attempt to describe here. There are six filter types, offering... wait for it... 36 filter profiles! The Multi‑mode filter includes 23 of these, there are five vowel types in the Vocal filter, the Comb filter offers two modes, the Obie filter offers the standard four types, and then there are Minimoog and SSM emulations to complete the set. With four modulation inputs for each filter, this is a ridiculous amount of flexibility, made even greater by four Insert Effects sections that allow you to place one of three effects — decimation, bit‑crushing and distortion — before or after each. These are not nice effects; they are designed to make things sound nasty, and some people are going to love them.

Unless told otherwise, the audio signal now passes to the four VCAs ('Virtual Controlled Amplifiers'), one for each Part. You can choose linear, logarithmic or Minimoog–type responses, and each VCA has a boost parameter that allows you to overdrive it, plus two modulation inputs — one for gain and one for pan.

The modulation sources start with five MIDI‑sync'ed LFOs that include a dedicated vibrato generator hard‑wired to the pitch of the four oscillators. Each LFO can be faded in and out, and each has three modulation inputs that allow you to modulate the modulators in all manner of ways.

Alongside these, there are seven contour generators, and you can determine the nature of the slopes of each of their stages, ranging from linear to exponential (and all stages in between). Six of the contours are five‑stage, velocity‑sensitive DADSRs with Attack, Decay and Release rates that range from sub‑millisecond to 20 seconds, and these also respond to key‑tracking, the mod wheel, and the assignable continuous controllers. Interestingly, the Sustain stage in each of these is actually a second Decay that can be set to ramp up, ramp down, or remain constant as it would in a conventional ADSR. The seventh generator produces a two‑dimensional (Prophet VS–style) MIDI‑sync'able, loopable, eight‑stage contour. Phew!

The Solaris also offers two Amplitude Modulators. These accept any input signals and, with four forms of AM provided, including ring modulation, they can create many classic effects. Also worthy of mention are the four Key Tables that allow you to modify the nature of sounds as you play up and down the keyboard. Think of these as key tracking using complex curves or even individual values for each note. This is more useful than it sounds, because it allows you to determine the timbre on a note‑by‑note basis. It even allows you to confine individual sounds to regions of the keyboard, which suggests all manner of possibilities.

Output Effects, Arpeggiation & Sequencing

The Solaris is a substantial synthesizer and measures 98 x 42.5 x 15cm.The Solaris is a substantial synthesizer and measures 98 x 42.5 x 15cm.

The one area of the Solaris that is less than intuitive is that of getting its sound from its Amplifiers to its master effects and outputs. To cut a long story short, the output of each visible VCA is fed into an invisible fifth VCA hard‑wired to Envelope 6. The output from this is called 'Synth', and you can then direct it to the effects channels or to the physical outputs. In truth, there's nothing here that's rocket science, and it's straightforward once you've worked out what's happening.

The effects are surprisingly basic, comprising a single three‑band EQ, a delay, a chorus/flanger and a phaser. You can allocate these freely to the four Parts, but with only one of each to go round, there's much less flexibility than one would expect. You can host dozens of EQs or simple effects on a SHARC (the chip favoured by Creamware and also used in the Solaris), and one of the six in the Solaris is dedicated to the effects, so most of the chip is just sitting there, twiddling its virtual thumbs.

The Solaris also offers a MIDI‑sync'able arpeggiator. This offers the four usual modes — up, down, up/down and random — and a fifth called 'As Played', which does what it says on the tin, up to a maximum of 61 notes. You can access up to 64 32‑note patterns at any given time, and an editor is planned for the future. Oh yes, and patterns can also be transmitted over MIDI, which is very unusual and very welcome.

Alongside this, there's a four‑row, 16‑step sequencer with independent loop points per row, to make things a bit more fluid than they would otherwise be. You can use this as a polyphonic sequencer by directing a row to each of the four oscillators, but it is better suited to modulation duties, especially since you can pass its outputs through the lag processors to create smooth glides from one value to the next. I found the sequencer most interesting when I treated it as four 16‑step, MIDI-synchronised, looped contour generators. Nice! As on the arpeggiator, 64 patterns can be stored and an editor is planned. Watch this space.

Performance Parameters & Controls

John Bowen Synth Design Solaris

The Solaris generates velocity and channel aftertouch messages and it also responds to polyphonic aftertouch, although the keyboard doesn't generate it. Behind this, the ribbon controller generates two virtual CVs if you touch it in two places. If you scale it appropriately and direct its outputs to two of the oscillators, you can even play it as a duophonic Ondes Martenot. While the response isn't perfectly linear and the scaling isn't exactly equal to the keyboard width, they're close enough to obtain some remarkable results.

You'll find the programmable pitch‑bend and modulation wheels in their usual positions, and above these there's a joystick that can be used as an X/Y modulation source. You have to be careful, though, because this isn't spring‑loaded, which can lead to some unpleasant errors if you knock it accidentally.

To the right of the joystick, you'll find two assignable buttons. In addition to accessing a small number of pre‑determined functions, these appear in the modulation source list, and can be used for switching things on and off, altering parameter values by predetermined amounts, and more. You can also re‑assign the lower row of five knobs below the larger screen to act as real‑time controllers, and the Solaris responds to MIDI Continuous Controllers, although you can only assign five at a time within the modulation source list. However, you can route these through the lag processors, so that the zipper noise of swept 7‑bit MIDI CCs is smoothed out. I like that a lot.

Finally, there are all the twiddly bits that you might expect on a flagship synth: independent portamento/glissando modes for each oscillator, octave shifts, keyboard modes, note priority modes, voice assignment modes, envelope retriggering modes, unison, a chord mode, and more.

Feel & Sound

I like the look and feel of the Solaris, and even before I got to grips with it, I felt that I wanted to program and play it. Mind you, it took a while before everything 'clicked' and I realised that, despite its complexity, its principles are quite straightforward.

To be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of its Fatar keyboard, and I would have preferred a spring‑loaded joystick, but other little touches are nice... things such as fast initialisation, the way you can use the shift key to make coarse controls finer in their response or slow ones faster in theirs, and the ability to audition a memory location before overwriting it with the current sound. Other things, such as the on‑board method for naming patches, are not so slick.

But what of the sound? I can summarise this by saying that, if I didn't know where the Solaris came from, I might have guessed that it was German. This is because, despite its huge flexibility, there's a precision to its sound; it says (in its best 'Allo 'Allo accent), "You instructed me to do zis, so ve vill do precisely zis.” I asked John whether he felt that this was a fair observation, and he replied, "Yes. The Solaris is built in Germany and the coding is German, but it's more than that. There was an extreme focus on precision in the sound quality, especially when we were guarding against aliasing. But many less‑than‑perfect waveshapes sound nice too. One of the things I loved on early Oberheims was the cycling of voices that were a little bit 'off', so I hope that we will see things like analogue randomness appearing on the Solaris.”

So who is the Solaris designed for? Clearly, it's not for the player who just wants to grab a couple of knobs and have something fashionable happen. Instead, it rewards thought and careful programming. But once you've got to grips with it, some amazing sounds pour out. One of my earliest attempts was an emulation of my Taurus pedals. I got close, and then wondered what would happen if I switched on the Unison mode and detuned the voices. Bloody 'eck! If Beelzebub played bass, that's the sound he would use. You can also stack and detune all 10 voices to turn the Solaris into one of the world's most expensive lead synths, and the results can be glorious. I then moved on to a selection of ensemble strings, poly/brass and pipe organs, which were also excellent, but my ears pricked up when I attempted to emulate the simpler sounds of my beloved ARP Pro Soloist... and succeeded. (The Solaris justified a sizeable wodge of its cost right there and then.) Then there were the vocal patches (yummy!), the evolving VS pads, the glassy Microwave‑y sounds, the arpeggios and sequences, the off‑the‑wall effects, up to four‑part mixtures of the above, and... well, you get the picture. The only thing I would warn against is treating the Solaris as just a Minimoog/Prophet 5/Prophet VS/Microwave emulator. It's capable of creating patches that are close in character and sound to each of these, but to limit your approach in this way would be to miss out on huge chunks of its capabilities. A few hours spent stepping through the factory patches demonstrates this clearly. The imitative sounds can be impressive, but it's when the Solaris is used as a Solaris (if you see what I mean) that it shines. For example, I was particularly impressed with the way in which factory voicing programmer Kenneth Elhardt used a microphone, one of the analogue inputs and the envelope follower to provide the equivalent of breath control over two brass patches. I might never have thought of that, and I'm sure that there are many other neat tricks waiting to be discovered.

Wish List

There are a couple of little interface bugs still to be sorted out, but if I have to discuss shortcomings, I'll confine myself to just three more significant ones. The first is the master effects section, which lets the Solaris down. Unless it's developed further, I would use outboard to provide the multiple choruses, phasers and delays I might want, as well as more complex effects and reverb. The second lies in the absence of a Multi mode, but this is scheduled for a later revision, so I won't say any more about that. Thirdly, the Solaris is not well‑endowed in the polyphony department. John: "The oscillators are the most DSP intensive modules, and I needed a minimum of four for the rotors and the vector synthesis. The Sonic Core guys argued that we should make the Solaris a 48kHz machine, but I wanted audio quality to be top of the list, and if that meant 96kHz and less polyphony, I was prepared to accept that. Of course I am concerned, because there's been a polyphony competition over the years, but we were able to fix the number of voices to 10. On the Solaris plug‑in, there's Dynamic Allocation, which we haven't implemented in the hardware yet, and I'd like to think we could get the polyphony up to 15, or maybe even 20 voices.”

Will low polyphony prove to be the Solaris' Achilles heel? I think it might — select even the minimum unison and polyphony drops to five notes. I would be much happier if the Solaris offered 20 voices, but many people feel that the best polysynths ever built were the OBX, Jupiter 8 and CS80, which all offered just eight, so I may be worrying unnecessarily.

Happily, John has many ideas for upgrades and enhancements, including 'analogue feel', voice cycling, new effects, and possibly even hosting third‑party software. I asked him why these hadn't appeared already: "It got to the point where we either continued to put resources into software development, or we started production. Our pre‑order customers had been very patient, but I knew we had to get production going so we put off further development for later. There's lots of room for reverbs and things such as a fixed filter bank and a vocoder, and I would also like to include a 'less perfect but useful' oscillator from the Creamware days. There's even the possibility of a second multi‑mode filter. But I'm glad that the Solaris is out and that people seem to like it, even in its initial form.”

Conclusions

The hyperbole surrounding the Solaris has been exceptional, with some people already describing it as 'a milestone in synthesizer history'. Others (who haven't played one) will dismiss it as just a horrible digital synth that sounds nothing like 'the real thing'. John himself is much more cautious, describing it simply as ”a tool by which musicians can get ideas from inside their heads out into the real world”. But however you view it, I have no doubt that sound designers and synth geeks will be digging their teeth into it for years to come, because it provides a level of programming flexibility that few others can equal.

Inevitably, some people are going to question why it needs to exist at all. It's a virtual analogue synth running on DSPs, so it should be software, right? And all you would then need would be a controller keyboard and a software editor, right? Well, no. As demonstrated by the second‑hand prices of CS80s and Jupiter 8s, some players are prepared to pay exceptional prices for the immediacy, the playability and the pleasure of using a hardware polysynth even when there are low‑cost 'soft' alternatives. OK, the analogy isn't perfect, because the heart of the Solaris pumps pure binary. But neither is it a poor one, because the Solaris is a big, loveable lump, and — whether you warm to its Teutonic character or not — it can sound superb.

John Bowen deserves our applause for refusing to let the Solaris die when it would have been much easier to walk away. The Solaris isn't just a synth, it's a labour of love.  .

Alternatives

One alternative to the Solaris is the Arturia Origin, which also offers vintage synth emulations and complex modulation capabilities in a flexible architecture. Indeed, the Origin is in some ways even more flexible than the Solaris because it is truly modular, in the sense that you can create whole new architectures by choosing the number and type of modules used. Another alternative is the Access Virus TI Keyboard, a synthesizer powerhouse that offers fewer programming options but a huge number of voices, a vast number of effects, and a 16‑part multi mode with dedicated effects per part. All three have their fans, and rightly so.

The Background To Scope & Sonic Core

In the mid‑1990s, a German company called Creamware Datentechnik GmbH released a low‑end audio editing and restoration system. This was received less than enthusiastically (Sound On Sound described it as "rough around the edges”), so Creamware switched development to a new mixing, routing and effects system called the Scope Fusion Platform. This could host all manner of 'soft' instruments, but Creamware's products were sometimes too 'techie' for their intended customers, they were too frequently announced before they were completed and, when products did appear, they were often rushed unfinished into the market. In 2003, while Sound On Sound was waiting for the Solaris soft synth to arrive for review, Creamware Datentechnik declared itself insolvent.

Resurfacing as Creamware Audio GmbH (which, while unethical, is nonetheless legal), the company continued to develop Scope until its founder moved much of its software development to India, establishing inDSP Audio Technologies in Bangalore. During this period, Creamware achieved moderate success with its ASBs (Authentic Sound Boxes), which were Scope software synths presented in dedicated DSP boxes with control panels that echoed the original instruments. However, in 2006 Creamware again filed for insolvency, and its intellectual property rights were distributed to inDSP and Sonic Core GmbH, which was founded in March 2007 by two former Creamware employees.

The mission statement of Sonic Core was to keep the Scope platform alive, and in this they have been successful, with numerous hardware and software options available, as well as products from third‑party developers. These include John Bowen's Zarg Music, which still offers the Solaris plug‑in plus eight other synthesizers and a drum synth for the platform.

Memories

The Solaris has no memories. Instead, it saves all of its data to a Compact Flash card. This is a cost‑effective way of providing huge storage capabilities and portability between units although, on the down‑side, letting the card fall through a hole in your pocket could mean losing all of your sounds.

The Solaris is supplied with a 2GB card that is sufficient for 128 banks of 128 sounds, plus a number of Sample Pools. Apparently, this card also comes with some Help and ReadMe files on it, as well as a simple OS X application for renaming presets, but my MacBook Pro — in common with most computers — doesn't have a CF slot, and I have never had the need to buy an adapter, so I can't access them. Fortunately, adapters are not expensive, but I can't help feeling that USB sticks would have been a better choice for users.

Sample Playback

The Solaris is not a sampler, but is able to replay samples loaded into its internal 32MB of RAM. Samples have to be presented in RAW format, and the Solaris requires an associated text file that contains the information about root keys, mapping, and so on, to tell it what to do with them. (The manual also suggests that WAV files are suitable, but if these contain chunks of non‑audio data they are also replayed, leading to glitches.)

The Compact Flash card that is supplied with the Solaris contains two 'Sample Pools' (the samples and their associated text files), and it proved simple to load one, select the WAV (sample replay) oscillator, wait for the Solaris to create an internal map, so that the synth can use the data, and then play it.

Creating Sample Pools is not straightforward and, since I don't have the 'Translator' application from Chicken Systems that can adapt samples and create the appropriate text file, I wondered whether it would be worth the effort. What's more, the Solaris doesn't understand multisamples yet, so individual samples are distributed across the whole keyboard, unless you jump through a few hoops to limit the range in which an individual WAV oscillator plays. But when I experimented with the glockenspiel and harpsichord samples provided, I changed my view. I may have to rush out and buy a CF card reader to try some of my own samples before I give the Solaris back!

Solaris Vs Solaris

Although the Solaris V5 software synth isn't identical with the keyboard version, you may wonder whether the Solaris is essentially a €299 soft synth housed in a €3200 controller. It isn't. John Bowen: "Between 1998 and 2000, Creamware created a library of 'soft' synthesizer modules. To me, the Creamware algorithms didn't sound as sophisticated as those I'd worked on for Korg, but the platform offered me a freedom that I hadn't had before, so I accepted the compromises and built my soft synths from that library. The Solaris plug‑in is based on that code.

"When we decided to develop the keyboard, we hired a guy from Finland who did the initial work, but he disappeared in 2007 and I had to throw out all the code and start again, losing a year of development. However, a few months after things came to a halt, the same coder who had started with Creamware — having learned a lot in his time with Wizoo and then Digidesign — became available again, and I was extremely happy when he agreed to come to work for Sonic Core to create the Solaris code. Everything was rewritten to run at 96kHz, optimised, and of much better quality. So that's what you're paying for: higher quality software, as well as the keyboard, the screens, the controls, and all the rest of the hardware.”

At The Back

The Solaris is not short of audio I/O, being supplied with eight analogue outputs, four analogue inputs, and S/PDIF in and out. Unlike most synths, external signals can be freely assigned within it, meaning that they can be treated as audio or as virtual CVs. Use these with the on‑board envelope followers and lag processors, and you're in territory normally occupied by modular synths, so this is all good stuff. You can even use external sources for vector synthesis and the 'rotors' and, of course, filter them, apply modulation, and add effects to them as you wish.

Alongside the audio interfaces, there are inputs for sustain and expression pedals, MIDI on five‑pin DIN and USB, and a slot for the Compact Flash card. My only gripe is in the use of an external power supply when the instrument is big enough to host an internal PSU and offer an IEC mains input.

John Bowen Synth Design Solaris €3590$3999
pros
It's enormously flexible.
The sound quality can be superb.
It feels like a 'real' synth and has that indefinable 'mmmmm' factor.
cons
The polyphony may be restrictive and there is no multitimbral mode.
The effects structure is weak.
It's not cheap.
summary
Not an instrument for players requiring umpteen‑voice, 16‑part multitimbral workstations with gigabytes of samples and scores of effects, the Solaris is an old‑school synthesizer, albeit one based on six SHARC processors. With low polyphony, few effects, and no multitimbral mode, it feels like a powerful vintage synth, but can sound both vintage and contemporary, and it rewards time spent learning how to get the best from its hugely flexible architecture.

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