Does the current passion for analogue mean you have to put your digital synth back in its box and track down an analogue instrument? Not if Nick Magnus has anything to do with it — follow his tips to make your digital synth put on an analogue hat...
There can surely be nobody reading this magazine who is unaware of the passionate interest in all things analogue that is currently pervading the musical instrument world. From synthesizers to valve amps and back, we are witnessing new products hoping to emulate this Ancient Magic, and the secondhand prices that the original devices are commanding can scarcely have escaped anyone's attention.
This article is thus inspired by the relatively recent appearance of the Emu Vintage Keys module, one of the first contemporary purpose‑built instruments to address itself to the growing demand for the sounds of yesteryear.
Naturally, arguments are raging as to whether analogue synthesizers are better than digital, and indeed, well known artistes have been interviewed in these very pages claiming undying devotion to analogue synths, and condemning digital instruments with almost religious fervour.
It can be argued that this is a somewhat unbalanced view, as terms such as "better" and "worse" are as meaningless as comparing a trumpet with a slice of Ryvita. Each technology has its strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately they can work together hand in hand, complimenting each other admirably.
The qualities of analogue synths are certainly unique and desirable. But is it possible to recreate their magic with their reputedly cold, clinical brethren, digital synths? I would maintain that, to a degree, the answer is yes.
Not all brands or models of digital synth are alike. They, too, have their own characteristics, specialities and limitations that make them what they are. Some people, for example, would have no trouble identifying the sound of a Korg M1 in a blindfold test, just as Yamaha's DX series has its own sonic fingerprint which is hard to mistake. The main areas of difference are in the variety of waveforms available, and quite often the way in which the envelope generators behave. For example, the Roland SH101 has very fast ramp times, unlike the JX8P/JX10, whose attack and decay times are relatively sluggish. Even two similar models can vary: the JV80/880 synths' envelopes and filters have 127 programmable levels as opposed to the JD800/990 models, which have only 100 possible programmable steps. This means that the JV series' parameters are, in theory, more precisely definable than the JD's. The trick, then, to emulating one synth on another is to be aware of these differences or limitations and to make full use of what you have. In addition to the above‑mentioned points, bear in mind that some features found on analogue synths are not found on many digital ones, such as ring modulation and oscillator sync (one exception being Roland's JD990). Therefore don't expect to be able to cover too many areas of sound creation. The possible sound palette, however, is still huge.
At this point we should put the differences between analogue and digital synths into perspective. If we look back over the last 10 years, we find that up until 1983, analogue reigned supreme. Leading instruments of the time would have included Sequential's Prophet series, Oberheim's OB synths, the Roland Jupiter 8 , the ubiquitous Moogs, ARP's Odyssey, Pro Soloist and Omnis, and the weighty Yamaha CS machines. At the cheaper end of the scale were Korg's Poly 6 , Roland's Juno 6/60 and a trail of monophonic synths from various manufacturers. There were also digital/analogue hybrids such as PPG's Wave keyboards, but these used digitally generated waveforms which were processed through analogue filters and envelopes. Fairlight and Synclavier, the toys of the rich, also existed, but what we're interested in is when the first all‑ digital, affordable true synthesizer appeared. Hands up anyone who knows when and what it was? Yes, well done Wiggins Minor; it was the Yamaha DX7 in 1983. Coinciding with the release of the Prophet 600, the wonderful world of MIDI was also born.
Up until this point, synthesizers were characterised by their very artificial nature; the thick pads, brasses, whooshes and searing lead sounds were familiar to all. The DX7 represented a radical departure from this; here now was a synth with a totally different sound. The general perception was of a synth with a very 'acoustic' nature, often thin and bright with lots of attack and dynamic control. The delineation between the two technologies was such that there was practically no sonic common ground between the two. The DX7 was soon recognised as being inappropriate for producing the thick, lush textures we had come to expect from synthesizers thus far, just as the analogue synths were not known for producing convincing Rhodes pianos, slap basses or xylophones. It was a case of choosing the right synth for the job.
The stark contrast between digital and analogue continued until 1987, when Roland introduced us to another radically new concept; the first Sample + Synthesis instrument, the D50. Here was the first attempt to blur the boundary between the two technologies by combining digitally generated 'analogue' waveforms with sampled snippets of real sounds. Together with digital emulations of analogue filters and internal digital effects, it was stunningly successful at combining the previously mutually exclusive qualities of 'real' and 'artificial'. Korg followed suit soon after with the M1, which took the concept further; the sampled snippets of the D50 now seemed meagre compared to the longer length multisamples of the M1. The all‑digital, multitimbral Sample + Synthesis workstation had arrived with a vengeance.
Given that this line of development indicates a quest to produce an instrument which is all things to all people, it is time to put such a theory to the test, and to see whether indeed today's digital all‑singing, all‑dancing synth has the chameleon‑like abilities necessary to don the sonic cap of an analogue synth.
So where do we begin? Squeezy bottles, string, newspaper and an inexhaustible supply of sticky‑back plastic are not necessary, you will be pleased to learn. What you will need is a synth with the ability to layer at least two (preferably three or four) 'tones', 'elements' or 'voices' depending on the manufacturer's jargon (and they do love their jargon!). This is due to the fact that many analogue sounds rely on two or more oscillators to produce their characteristic fatness. A resonant filter is also especially desirable for full harmonic shaping. Yamaha, Roland, Kurzweil, and Ensoniq, in particular, make synths that meet these criteria.
Assuming that one wishes to create authentic emulations of specific instruments, attention should be paid to how the original actually responds in terms of playing style, velocity, etc. While there should be no absolute rules in the world of synthesis, you would be unlikely to encounter a velocity sensitive Prophet 5, or a Mellotron with the ability to sustain notes indefinitely. Therefore, find out as much as you can about such matters, including whatever sound processing the instrument had. Thick chorus would not exist on a Minimoog, but it would be appropriate to a Yamaha CS80 or a Korg Poly 6. Tempting though it may be to use the arsenal of internal effects or random stereo panning your synth enjoys, few instruments before 1987 would have had them. That's not to say you can't be creative after the synth's output jack...
Next month, we will embark on a journey through the thought processes and methods involved when I undertook to recreate a number of classic 'analogue' sounds on a Sample + Synthesis instrument. The instrument used was a Roland JV880 module, but almost all the facilities within that module are to be found on many other contemporary devices.
And the best bit is — you don't have to ask your Mum before you try this at home! As for me, I'm off down to the Trumpet and Ryvita for a swift half....
A set of 64 classic retro sounds for the Roland JV series synths, including the sounds which will be mentioned in this series, is available free of charge from Roland dealers, or contact Roland UK on 0252 816181.
It is commonly thought that few people bother to understand the arcane workings of their digital synths, and we may never know the true percentage of people for whom this is an unfair accusation. Those of you who have delved into the menus lurking beneath the dreaded Edit button will have discovered that most of today's digital synths base their whole architecture on the well‑trodden subtractive synthesis techniques of analogue. That is, a waveform is chosen, which is then harmonically altered by a low or high pass filter and then further shaped by an amplitude envelope. Sound familiar? The large majority of Sample + Synthesis instruments allow you to do exactly this. To begin creating ersatz analogue sounds it is useful to have an analytical approach to the sound you wish to produce, in conjunction with the question: "How would I make this sound on a Juno/Prophet/Jupiter", or whatever.