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A Is For Analog

Ableton Live Tips & Techniques
By Len Sasso

Screen 1: This classic setup for Live’s Analog instrument emulates early performance synths. Analog’s central display differs for each shell module. See the main text for details.Screen 1: This classic setup for Live’s Analog instrument emulates early performance synths. Analog’s central display differs for each shell module. See the main text for details.

We get to grips with Live’s deceptively powerful Analog synth.

Analog is one of several Live instruments developed in collaboration with Applied Acoustic Systems. It is similar to the AAS plug-in Ultra Analog VA2 but with Live’s style of user interface and without the built-in effects and arpeggiator of the AAS instrument. Analog is included in Live Suite and is a $99 add-on for Live Standard. It is a physical-modelled instrument, which in this case means it mathematically emulates the circuitry of classic performance synths like the Minimoog, ARP Odyssey and Oberheim SEM. It is not a re-creation of any of those synths, but conforms to the subtractive synthesis model used in all of them. Most importantly, no samples or wavetables are used — when you change a setting, Analog recalculates its model to reproduce the results.

Analog comes with a huge complement of presets covering 16 categories, and when you’re looking for a particular subtractive synth sound you’ll surely find something close in that collection. But the true performance-synth experience comes from creating your own sounds from the subtractive-synthesis model — oscillators feeding a filter followed by an amplifier — and that is the approach I’ll take here.

The Art Of Subtraction

Unlike their modular brethren, early performance synths had limited modules and minimal routing options. Live’s Analog emulates and expands on those synths in several ways, but a good place to start is with the basic setup shown in screen 1.

Analog’s user interface comprises a display with a black background in the centre surrounded by a shell of gray modules. You select any module by clicking it. It then turns white and the display changes to show additional settings for that module. (The Noise module has no additional settings and cannot be selected.) Each module shows its name at the top left of its shell panel, and clicking the name enables and disables the module.

When you load Analog, the Global module will be selected in the shell and at the left of its display you’ll see four Quick Routing options. Click the routing at the bottom left to call up the simplest subtractive-synth model. Set the Global display’s Voices parameter to Mono and play a few notes. Because the low-pass filter’s cutoff is set to its maximum of 22kHz, you’ll hear a bright, raw sawtooth wave. A few basic modifications can add a lot of flavour to this preset. Here are the details of the modifications corresponding to the red numbered links in screen 1.

1. Osc1: raise the tuning by seven semitones (a Perfect Fifth). In the display section, add a slight downward slide at the beginning of each note by setting Pitch Env Initial to 15 percent and Time to 50 percent.

2. Osc2: add some low end to the sound by setting the Octave to -1. You can bring in a second oscillator tuned an octave below that by increasing the Level setting in the Sub/Sync section at the bottom right of the display. Alternatively, you can use this section to manipulate the oscillator’s waveform by changing the Mode to Sync and using the Ratio control to raise the pitch (reduce the wavelength) of an unheard internal oscillator to which the main oscillator’s cycle is sync’ed.

3. Fil1: next get the 24-dB-per-octave low-pass filter into the action by lowering its frequency (Freq) to 300Hz and increasing the resonance (Reso) to 40 percent. Experiment with the shape of the filter’s dedicated ADSR envelope, shown in the display section, by using the square drag handles on the waveform along with the top-row settings. Also switch between linear (LIN) and exponential (EXP) envelope modes and try the Legato and Free options both separately and together. You can control the effect on cutoff and resonance of both the envelope and the incoming MIDI note number by using the Env and Key settings in the bottom row. Notice that you can choose one of 10 filter types from the drop-down menu in the shell.

Screen 2: Analog’s Quick Routing chooser provides three alternatives to the classic subtractive routing. Parallel gives you a separate path for each oscillator, Dual provides two paths for a mix of the oscillators and Serial gives a single path with the filters in series.Screen 2: Analog’s Quick Routing chooser provides three alternatives to the classic subtractive routing. Parallel gives you a separate path for each oscillator, Dual provides two paths for a mix of the oscillators and Serial gives a single path with the filters in series.4. LFO1: activate LFO1 by clicking its name and then set its rate to 4Hz. You can apply the LFOs to a variety of oscillator, filter and amplifier parameters. Try applying LFO1 to filter frequency using the FreqMod/LFO1 control in the filter 1 display. Try MIDI Mapping that control to your Mod Wheel with a range of 0.00 to 0.50. The LFO display’s Delay and Attack settings determine how the LFO fades in and are applied in addition to the Mod Wheel. Modulating filter cutoff frequency is often preferable to the more common use of an LFO for vibrato (pitch modulation) or tremolo (amplitude modulation).

What differentiates Analog from early hardware models is its second filter and amplifier chain. Those are shown in the bottom row of the shell. You’ll notice that both oscillators as well as the noise module have a control labelled F1/F2. That sets the ratio of the module’s output that is sent to the two filters. Filter 1 and filter 2 always feed amplifier 1 and amplifier 2, respectively, but you can also direct a percentage of filter 1’s output to filter 2. That lets you arrange the filters in series by turning amplifier 1 off and setting filter 1’s To F2 control to 100 percent. When both amplifiers are on, manipulating the oscillator, noise and filter 1 routings provide for parallel as well as a combination of serial and parallel operation.

Different Strokes

The Quick Routing section in the display for the Global parameters offers three options in addition to the classic subtractive routing (see screen 2). Selecting a different option is a quick way to generate variations on a preset. When you do that, only the on/off, F1/F2 mix and To F2 parameters are changed, so the basic nature of the preset is usually preserved. Here are three examples:

1. Switch the preset from screen 1 to Parallel mode (top left). This lets you separately envelope and filter the low end provided by oscillator 2. Tweak the frequency and resonance of filter 2. Increase the amplifier 2 attack time and lower its Sustain level. Adding LFO1 panning to amplifier 1 will pan the highs while leaving the lows in the centre.

Screen 3: This Instrument rack’s four chains hold the Analog presets described in the text. Macro knobs are assigned to parameters most effective for real-time tweaking.Screen 3: This Instrument rack’s four chains hold the Analog presets described in the text. Macro knobs are assigned to parameters most effective for real-time tweaking.2. Switch to Dual mode (top right). Turn on the Noise module, route it solely to filter 2 and route oscillator 2 solely to filter 1. Next, select AD-R from the Loop drop-down menu in filter 2’s display. As long as filter 2’s Sustain is less than 1.00, the Attack and Decay phases of the envelope will loop until the note is released, at which time, the Release phase will kick in.

3. Switch to Serial mode in order to apply the filter 2 AD-R loop to the whole sound rather than only the noise.

Hands On

One of the charms (or limitations, depending on your point of view) of the early hardware synths was that there were no presets. Your path from one sound to another was by means of the knobs, switches and sliders, and if you were doing it in the middle of a set, you had to know which control to grab and how much to change it. Furthermore, you could manipulate the controls as a performance tool. In Live, you can replicate that by mapping Analog’s controls to any hardware knob and button box you might have. Alternatively, you can enclose Analog in an Instrument rack and map ‘essential’ controls to the rack’s Macro knobs. Saving that rack gives you a consistent physical interface that automatically maps to any Live-supported control surface, such as Ableton Push or the AKAI APC series.

You might expand on this setup by including several instances of Analog in separate rack chains and using a Macro knob assigned to the rack’s Chain selector to step or crossfade among them. Once you’ve made a Macro knob assignment in any chain, you can right-click on the mapped control in the Analog panel and choose ‘Map to all siblings’ to replicate the assignment for the other Analog chains. In screen 3, I’ve created a rack from the four presets described above and mapped the controls I consider most useful. Whatever chains and Macro knob assignments you choose, you’ll have a performance-synth-like setup and eight knobs to play with.

Published June 2015