Paul Nagle takes the helm this month in our new regular feature on music and recording resources on the Internet, highlighting sites devoted to synthesizers old and new, and finding an essential download for owners of the Roland VS880.
For me, one of the most useful aspects of the Internet is the ability to turn up information on older synthesizers. Perhaps you've spotted an apparent bargain in the SOS classifieds but want to find out exactly what it has to offer. A good collection of scanned synthesizer photos is stored at the SynthFool site, www.synthfool.com, which has some real rarities and stuff I've personally never seen 'in the flesh'. Indeed, most of the pictures show synths you'd be very lucky to find, so it's a shame that some of these photos aren't displayed at better resolution. Nevertheless, if you want a tantalising glimpse of the Aries Modular, Buchla's 200 Series, PPG, Digisound or Emu modulars and, of course, Moog modulars, this is the place to go. Of more practical benefit, some of the scanned brochures for old synths are just the thing if you're unsure what that second‑hand discovery actually is. Assorted scanned schematic diagrams, a section on Roland Service Bulletins (plus the Initialisation Procedures for various Roland synths and drum machines) all add up to a site you should bookmark.
With both old and new instruments represented, the Vintage Synth Explorer site at www.pacificnet.net/~hypno/vs is another goody. Noteworthy are its Real Audio samples of many of the instruments and its image archive, which complements the photos at the SynthFool site. In a similar vein, take time to wander round the Virtual Synth Museum (www.synthmuseum.com) — although again, some of their scans aren't of the best quality. There's lots of info, including details on the production dates and even statistics on the numbers of particular models produced, although it's not certain how accurate these figures are.
If you want to check out what synth owners say about their instruments, check www.sonicstate.com/synth/test.html for user reviews. It's good to see contrasting opinions about the same synth which might help you to spot the strengths and weaknesses of a particular model — or they might leave you more confused than before. This being the Internet, you can contribute your own review here too, spreading your experiences, discoveries, and opinions to the world.
Having looked at assorted synths from around the world, it's good to see a venerable British synth manufacturer still going strong and represented by a great web page. EMS, makers of the VCS3 and Synthi A are alive and kicking. For those who share my fascination for bizarre‑looking synths, EMS have scanned a considerable number of their prototypes which never made it to the real world. There are instruments that look like they wouldn't be out of place in Dr Who's TARDIS, and I for one would love to get my hands on some of them — especially that groovy‑looking VCS4! There are some items of real historical significance here, which you just know would delight the anorak brigade if only you could obtain one to pose with on stage. Mosey along to www.hinton.demon.co.uk/ems/ems.html if such things appeal to you.
Hinton Instruments also hold some online reference material, which includes a list of manufacters' SysEx identifiers (along with links to many of their web sites) at www.hinton.demon.co.uk/midicode...., and there's a section on delays in MIDI systems. This should prove an eye‑opener to those penny‑pinching manufacturers who believe they can get away with omitting a hardware thru on some (not necessarily budget) modern instruments. Read this stuff (at www.hinton.demon.co.uk/hintmidi....) and never accept a software‑switchable thru/out again. If you're handy with a soldering iron, there is considerable data on the modification of the VCS3 and Synth A/AKS, along with the intruiging claim that "Nobody that was ever really serious about these instruments left them unmodified". The modifications are listed under three categories: essential, recommended and optional, and should be required reading for any EMS synth owner.
Perhaps the best set of general synthesizer links can be found at Synth Zone (www.synthzone.com) which should point the way to practically any current synth, effect or music software. It's worth remembering that not all 'vintage' synths are analogue; the PPG Wave and Waveterm synths offered their own particular brand of strangeness for many years and www.nashville.net/~antarct/ppg.htm has details of PPG synths, plus contact lists for PPG users throughout the world. If your PPG has a fault or requires a modification, this is a great place to seek help.
Lovers of the Korg MS series of synths can find some useful online resources at 188.8.131.52/ben/korgms/korgms.html, including complete online manuals, tips and techniques which include revelations about controlling a Korg MS20 from an Octave/Volt keyboard or MIDI/CV converter, which I'd love to try out if I still had mine. Also at this site is material about Korg's monster PS series of synths, and a helpful series of links to many other Korg pages.
No synth‑loving surfer's travels should exclude Harmony Central (www.harmony‑central.com). This site contains a great number of online articles, on topics ranging from intimidating, complex explanations of wavetable and FM synthesis to more easily‑understood texts on physical modelling, complete with audio examples. It's worth visiting often just for the news section; in fact it was here that I recently spotted a reference to the new Nord Modular software upgrade, (2.1) which should be available from November and features some great new modules including (at last) a ring modulator, key quantiser, digitiser, a vocal filter (with a control input so you can change smoothly between one vowel sound and another) and more. These, added to the vocoder, compressor, phaser and many other modules of version 2.0 almost amount to a new synthesizer, available free to Nord Modular owners as a simple download from Clavia's site (www.clavia.se/nordmodular). While you're there, grab some of the hundreds of free patches created by Nord owners around the world which demonstrate the power of this amazing modular synth.
Harmony Central isn't just for synth‑heads — there's also a great effects unit database and various excellent articles. One of my favourites, at www.harmony‑central.com/Effects/Articles/Compression, deals with exactly how compressors work and what you can do with them. Harmony Central also has links to some of the more synth‑related newsgroups which are useful forums for buying and selling synths, or just for asking 900 people you never met to recommend what synth you need to make techno... Possibly more useful is the online Synth Database which, like the Sonic State site, holds 'user comments' on a large number of instruments, with the facility to add your own opinions too.
The MIDI Farm is another large site, at www.midifarm.com, which I visit for online reference on MIDI Messages, the MIDI spec, SysEx etc. There's a wealth of information at www.midifarm.com/info/frameglat.htm which covers in detail topics such as the Sample Dump Standard, the MIDI Specification, MIDI Time Code, and subtopics like "What's Active Sensing?". This is really well‑written, and worth downloading and reading through even if you're already convinced you know everything there is to know about MIDI.
It seems that I'm not alone in my fetish for pictures of synthesizers as the Microwave 'erotic photos' site demonstrates. Yes, incredibly, a proud Microwave owner has taken his synth into the countryside of Japan and persuaded the shy young thing to be photographed in various poses (which never stray from the tasteful). And they say the English are eccentric! Check out www.soundonsound.com/sos/dec98/a..." target="_blank if you're that way inclined.
There's more serious Microwave stuff at Waldorf's own web site, www.waldorf‑gmbh.de, including the latest Microwave 2/XT upgrade — version 2.14 as I write this. This upgrade adds three new filter types (two notch filters and a band‑stop filter) to the Microwave's already impressive arsenal. Whilst at Waldorf's site, you might care to take a look at the specs and images of the forthcoming Q synthesizer, or check out the Microwave PC, a hardware add‑on for the Terratec EWS64 soundcard which is possibly the cheapest legal way to acquire a Microwave. Not only do Waldorf make cool synths, but they have a degree of personal accessibility which is all too rare. Their web page gives details on joining the Waldorf users' mailing list — an email‑based forum where Waldorfers can swap tips for Waldorf products, suggest desirable new features, and perhaps even get an idea incorporated into a product update. The Waldorf guys actively participate and are keen to discuss the synths that they obviously feel are their 'babies'. Contrast this with the approach of most larger organisations, whose only interest is in selling the current model and who rarely, if ever, add free enhancements to existing stuff they've already sold.
In direct contradiction to what I just said, I must mention that one large company, Roland, have a great add‑on for owners of the Roland VS880 hard disk recorder at their web site (www.rolandus.com/SUPPORT/SOFTWAR...). Version 3.1 of the VS880 operating system finally offers the ability to back up song data to CDR, and is a free download. For me, this instantly bumps up the desirability of the VS CD‑writing system (this backup function was absent when I reviewed it), to the extent that it has probably put an end to my own dithering over which CD writer to buy. A final addition Roland could make to convince other waverers would be to add the facility to back up the CD image files too, greatly reducing the time it takes to make multiple CD copies. There are many other handy VS880 resources on the Internet, including the VS880‑based sequencer from Australian company Datasonics (www.datasonics.com.au). This program (Music Master VS) allows you to perform onscreen cut, copy and paste operations with the VS880's wave data, as well as providing virtual consoles for instant control with no need to even touch the VS. Better still, multiple VSs can be controlled, so if you want to run MIDI on your PC but keep audio firmly away from your PC soundcard, this is a great way to go.
Other VS resources are linked from www.virtualstudio.org/Heber/vs88... and include answers to Frequently Asked Questions, diagnostics and software utilities — and the MIDI spec, which is a real boon if you want to create mixer maps or other control software for this excellent recorder. There's also an email‑based mailing list where users can swap VS tips, although if you subscribe, prepare for a big increase in your incoming mail, not all of which is directly related to the VS. The Internet is a great source of information but it's also a place where people feel driven to pass on their opinions, thoughts and prejudices on any topic that they like, often at great length. In fact, oddly enough, I've done exactly that and haven't left myself room to enthuse about my favourite music shareware sites, as I had planned — this will have to wait for another month. In the meantime, you could do a lot worse than surf to the Shareware Music Machine at www.hitsquad.com/smm. Happy clicking!
All this heady stuff might be a little intimidating — but thankfully, there are plenty of suitable starting points for beginners. A good place to begin is www.soundonsound.com/sos/dec98/a..." target="_blank which covers everything from "What is a synthesizer?" to explanations of terms such as multitimbrality, analogue synths, digital synths, modular synths, drum machines and samplers. Everything you were probably afraid to ask is set down here clearly and simply for you to read in the comfort of your own home. You want to know about vector synthesis, FM, granular synthesis? Well, pretty much everything gets a mention, but nowhere does it try to blind you with science.