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Spector Synth

Steinberg Cubase Tips & Techniques
By John Walden

Our recent explorations of the new software synthesizers introduced in Cubase 4 conclude with a tour around Spector...

The Spector interface.The Spector interface.In recent columns I've looked at the Prologue and Mystic synths, which were introduced in Cubase 4, and this month I'll take a closer look at the third and final of Cubase's new synths: Spector.

Spector shares a number of features with its two siblings; for example, the same LFO, envelope, event and effects options are provided. However, given that Spector makes use of spectrum filters for shaping its sounds and features a pair of oscillator waveform types (although these are produced by up to six oscillators), it has more in common with Mystic than Prologue.

Like Mystic, Spector is relatively simple to experiment with and can be used to create a wide range of sounds. Many of these are unashamedly synthetic in nature — so this is more of a synth for pads, soundscapes, synth leads or basses and interesting rhythmic textures than for 'realistic' sounds. That said, Spector can be good for creating organ- and bell-like sounds.

As usual, the Plug-In Reference manual covers the basic controls pretty well but it falls short of providing a tutorial — and that's something I'll try to do here in two stages. First, I'll consider how a basic sound can be build from the ground up, so I can introduce some general principles for sound creation in Spector. Then I'll look at how you can make use of Spector's processing options to create some more interesting rhythmic sounds. For those of you who have on-line access while reading, I've placed a number of audio examples on the SOS web site at www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul08/articles/cubasetechaudio.htm to illustrate the various stages described below.

Additional Bells & Organs

The basic nuts and bolts of making organ and bell sounds are described in the main text, but another important element is the volume envelope. By default, Spector uses Env 1 for volume and for an organ sound a rapid attack, short decay, high sustain and short release tend to work best. In addition, many real organs (as opposed to their synthesized equivalents) do not respond to how hard the keyboard is struck and if you want to recreate this response you should make sure that the Velocity settings in the Event options are kept clear of any control over volume. For bell sounds, a short attack and relatively long decay and release settings (allowing the bell to ring out) work best, and for realistic bells the key element of the envelope is a sustain of zero.

Count To Four

The various LFO, Env, Event and EFX processing options aside, there are four main steps in creating a Spector sound: choosing an oscillator configuration; choosing waveform types for the oscillators; choosing (or drawing your own) spectrum filter curve; and, finally, tweaking the Cut, Detune and Raster controls. I'll use a couple of very simple examples — organ and bell sounds — to illustrate each of the basic steps in turn... and if you want to work through this process on your own system, create an instance of Spector as shown in the first screenshot, making sure you remove any settings within the LFO, Env, Event and EFX screens before proceeding.

Spector offers a range of oscillator configurations, with higher oscillator numbers generally producing richer sounds.Spector offers a range of oscillator configurations, with higher oscillator numbers generally producing richer sounds.Spector sounds start with a bank of six oscillators, and our first step requires the user to select from a number of preset oscillator configurations. Each of these combines the oscillators in different ways, from a simple one-oscillator configuration (a good starting point for basic bass sounds) through to all six oscillators operating at the same pitch. Configurations between these two extremes use different numbers of oscillators set to different pitches, with higher numbers of oscillators tending to generate richer, more complex sounds, particularly if some detuning is also applied. For the purposes of a basic example — building the organ or bell sound I mentioned earlier — any of these oscillator configurations can be used, but if you want to keep things simple the two-oscillator configuration serves as a good starting point.

Each of the Spector oscillators produces two waveforms (labelled 'A' and 'B') and our second step requires you to select waveform types from the six available (the same six that are available in Mystic). Returning to our simple example, for organ sounds the waveform choice is the most important of the four steps listed above, and two of the waveform types — Partial Octave and Partial Quint — provide the best basis for the sound. The Partial Octave waveform provides more of a church-organ sound, while the Partial Quint is perhaps more suited to a rock/pop flavour. In contrast, for bell-like sounds the Resonant Pulse waveform is a good choice, although other options can also be used.

The third step requires the user to choose frequency contours through which waveforms 'A' and 'B' are passed. Again, the options are similar to Mystic but the two spectrum filters are independent (by default, Mystic's are inversely linked). Users can, of course, draw their own filter contours using the mouse. Again, for something as simple as an organ sound, almost any filter contour can be used — the 'organ' element created by the waveform will still come through. However, it's worth using different contours in the two filters, as this gives different tonal characteristics. The Morph control can then be used to alter the blend between them, giving some variation to the sound. A range of different spectrum filter contours also works well for bell-like sounds.

A choice of six waveform types is available for the oscillators.A choice of six waveform types is available for the oscillators.The fourth and final step in basic sound creation involves setting the cluster of controls at the centre of the Spector window. The two Cut controls operate as conventional cutoff frequency controls and can be set independently or linked (using the chain-link symbol located above the Morph control). As mentioned above, Morph shifts the blend between the outputs of the two Spectrum Filters, while Detune detunes the various oscillators. All of these controls can be set as targets for LFO, envelope or Event control. However, the Raster control, which reduces the number of harmonics used in the oscillator waveforms, cannot. This is probably a good thing, as this rather innocuous-looking knob can have a significant impact upon the sound, while the influence of the others tends to be a little more subtle. Returning to our simple organ and bell examples, the key controls here are Detune and Raster. For organ sounds, low values of both tend to work best; try values of around 4 for Detune (a very subtle chorus effect) and 1 for Raster. In contrast, bell sounds can tolerate higher Detune settings (giving the bell more of a clang) and require higher Raster settings: a setting of 20 makes a good starting point.

Of course, Spector can create a wide variety of sounds beyond basic organs and bells. Some starting points for a couple of other examples are given in the boxes, and hopefully these will encourage you in your own experiments.

Bass Basics

Spector is capable of some pretty good bass sounds, but if you want to start with the bass basics, the '1 Osc' configuration, a sawtooth waveform for Oscillator A and the 'Dark Side' Spectrum Filter contour can do the trick. If you then dip into the EFX section and add in a little distortion, you can turn a perfectly serviceable (if somewhat polite) synth bass into something a little more assertive. All the different distortion types work well, but things get gradually more aggressive from the bottom up, so you can tailor the sound character to the mood you're after.

The Rhythm Method

Users can choose from the Spectrum Filter presets or draw their own filter curve with the mouse.Users can choose from the Spectrum Filter presets or draw their own filter curve with the mouse.Of course, the above examples are very simple, but Spector is perfectly capable of creating more complex sounds (have a quick trawl through the presets if you want to get a feel for this), including some interesting rhythmic effects. The delay built into the EFX options can certainly contribute, and this could be applied to a sound with a fast attack and little sustain (such as the 'Tincrystal' preset) to provide a range of different delay types. Higher values of the Delay's Feedback and Level controls produce longer delay lines, while lower values of the Filter control mean that each echo contains less high-frequency content, creating a nice change in the tonal qualities of the sound.

For more complex rhythmic effects, we need to investigate the LFO options. There are a number of possibilities, but to make them work to best effect we need to start with a sound that has some sustain — anything where the sound sustains while a note is held will do the trick. The Formantor preset provides a useable starting point for experimentation, because its tonal character changes as a note is sustained, adding further interest (although it is a good idea to go into the EFX page first and switch off the Delay effect). You can then configure LFO 1 or 2 to control Volume. The screen shot at top right shows a suitable example. Note that the LFO Depth is set to 100 and the waveform as Ramp Up, while the speed is linked to MIDI (to sync to your host sequencer). Essentially, this put the overall output volume under LFO control — rather like placing an automated noise gate or tremolo effect across the output. Using the settings shown in this example, it creates a fairly rapid pulsing of the sound, and this, combined with the way in which the character of the sound changes as the note is held, can produce a really nice rhythmic soundbed. For slightly different effects, the Triangle, Square and Ramp Down waveforms are equally effective in the same role, while varying the LFO Depth changes the intensity of the effect.

Using an LFO to control Volume can produce some interesting rhythmic effects when combined with a suitable sustained sound such as a pad.Using an LFO to control Volume can produce some interesting rhythmic effects when combined with a suitable sustained sound such as a pad.The 'sample and hold' LFO mode can also be used to add a rhythmic element to a sound.The 'sample and hold' LFO mode can also be used to add a rhythmic element to a sound.Combining the LFO-based approaches described in the main text with the standard delay effect in the EFX section can create complex rhythmic patterns.Combining the LFO-based approaches described in the main text with the standard delay effect in the EFX section can create complex rhythmic patterns.For a slightly different method, the Sample (sample and hold) LFO waveform can be used. This allows one LFO (for example, LFO 2) to sample values of the other LFO, which it then 'holds' until the next sample is taken. In essence (if you want a detailed explanation of how this process works, Gordon Reid's 'Synth Secrets' article from SOS August 2000 is worth a read), this provides a way of creating some interesting rhythmic effects where the tempo is influenced by the way the speed settings from both LFO 1 and LFO 2 interact. If you want to experiment with this approach, a good starting point is the Feed Back Module preset. Once loaded, it is worth making a few adjustments: first, turn off the Delay effect in the EFX section; then set the Max Voices count (located top-right) to 1 (making the sound monophonic) and then switch Legato mode on with a Portamento value of about 25. The LFO section should then be configured as shown in the screenshot in the middle, where LFO 2 is using the Sample (and hold) waveform. While there are all sorts of other options you could try here, this sound can be used to create a nice, fat (and rather cheesy!) dance/disco bassline, with a strong rhythmic element created by the LFO-controlled closing of the Cut filter. Setting lower values for LFO 2's Cut control makes the rhythmic element a little less prominent but also produces a much brighter sound — so hold on to your speakers! The Stalactite preset provides a good example of the use of this 'sample and hold' approach.

You can, of course, add a further layer to these rhythmic sounds by using the Delay effect (which is found in Spector's EFX section). The screenshot above shows an example that could be added to the sound based upon the Feed Back Module preset described above. Using the Cross Delay bounces the repeats around the stereo image for extra interest, while the Song Sync option means that the delays are matched to the tempo of the Project. Keeping the Filter setting in the lower part of the range (as in this example) means that the repeats lose higher frequencies and this can give a nice warmth to the echos. You then just adjust the Level control to taste.

Respect Spector

So there we are: Spector is not a particularly complex synth, but it is nonetheless capable of producing some excellent sounds and — as I hope I've illustrated here — it is not too intimidating for novice programmers. Even a quick whizz through the supplied presets suggests that it has something to offer almost any musical style that you might throw a synth at... so go on, ditch the presets and roll a few sounds of your own! 

Extra Padding

Almost any combination of the four basic steps discussed in the main text can be used to generate a pad-like sound within Spector. However, the key elements would be envelope shape and using the LFO, Env and Event options to make the character of the sound evolve as the note is held. Envelope Sustain settings in the higher half of the range work best, and a non-zero Release setting allows the sound to fade slowly after the note is released. Using different waveform/spectrum filter options for 'A' and 'B' allows the Morph control to blend between two sounds, either manually using mod wheel control (configured via the Event settings) or automatically, using the LFO control.

Published July 2008