Last week I got older and to compensate I bought
a red Ferrari a bunch of Arturia virtual synthesisers on the cheap. I think I now own about eleventy billion VSTs – bought, sent by nice companies, picked up for free – and truth be told I can’t remember all of them. There being so many important things I should do this weekend I avoided any of it and instead held a sonic rummage.
I’m past worrying about whether VSTs sound ‘real’. Perhaps not something cobbled together in Synthmaker, but the official versions of gear I’ve owned are impressive. For example Korg’s virtual MS-20 rewards all the tricks I’ve learned over years of owning three of the ‘real’ thing. I’d be tempted to call the MS-20 one of the best virtual synthesisers, but suspect it’s just familiarity talking. (The iPad iMS-20 seems a bit off to me but that could be headphones).
Likewise the SQ-8L. I’ve still got the hardware and have copied over all my patches. They sound as good, perhaps better, in the virtual instrument. Again, I’m an unreliable advocate as the ESQ-M was my wife for a couple of years.
In middle age you’re supposed to get all the things you ever pined for when young. Never owned a Jupiter-8, much too expensive. Owned an SH-1, SH-101, MC-202 roughly same era (the TB-303 Shitbox doesn’t count) and later a MKS-80 ‘Super Jupiter’. I’d previously avoided Arturia’s emulation of the J-8 as the demo proved insanely CPU heavy. It still is, but on an i7 you can get away with it. To check it out I make a sound I know well which mixes a sine and white noise through a very thin gate of high and low pass filter for a breathy tinkling sound. Perfect. But there’s plenty of 2OSC VSTi’s that can do that and more. I’m no longer sure why I was an advocate of Roland gear; the J-8 is not very exciting.
Likewise the Yamaha CS-80, the only interesting thing about it is it’s insanely heavy and falls out of tune. As both problems are fixed in the virtual there’s not much to report apart from it having so many little knobs it tickles my failing eyesight. I’ve used a ‘real’ CS-30, it was ‘reedy’ if I can remember well. I should say in passing that people should stop making a fuss that Stevie Wonder once owned a keyboard. He owned every keyboard. He probably burned them to warm his mansion.
Of Arturia’s suite I think the only ones that will interest me are the Oberheim SEM, which has quite a unique sound and the Prophet VS which is a curiosity – it was Sequential’s last synthesiser before being absorbed by Yamaha, and ended up spawning the SY-22 and the KORG Wavestation. Never owned a Wavestation and never thought about it until I picked up the Legacy Collection – but again and again it’s been useful in creating odd overtones and inharmonics that flesh out sounds from another machine. Pity it’s an arse to program. Instead of the SY-22 I had the SY-77 and I can still feel how heavy that bastard was.
The one manufacturer that has brought me most good times in the new millennium is Native Instruments. They started with the wood grain but pretty soon moved into interfaces that work on a computer.
Interface is part of the sound. If you can’t see what you’re doing then your sound design will be cautious and shallow. I love the FM-8, I had a ‘real’ DX-7 in 1985 that I agonised over, trying to get the kind of seamless waft that Eno could somehow achieve. The FM-8 is dead easy when compared and comes up all Eno in a trice. NI’s Absynth is supposed to look quirky I guess – truth in advertising. I can figure it out – hell I even taught it back at Uni of Western Sydney but imagine how much better it would be if they dropped all the aqua ducting. I also suspect that 90% of the Absynth sound is that resonant pipe effect. Turn it off and you’ll see what I mean.
But my favourite NI keyboard is Massive. I avoided it for years, because everybody talked about it as dedicated to dubstep = damning it with very faint praise. Massive turns out to be an excellent synthesiser to make your OWN sounds. Starts as a three oscillator virtual analogue PLUS wave tables PLUS modular patching without stupid animated cables PLUS complex controllers. Start with simplicity and make good workhorse sounds, then gradually add the right amount of complexity for the weird and wonderful.
The other workhorse is Synth 1. If I have a sound in mind I can usually dial it up in a few minutes on Synth 1. Nothing unnecessary, nothing unneeded. Apparently it’s based on a Clavia NORD Lead 2, something that came out when I had $50 to my name so I’d have to take their word for it.
If I have neglected Image Line it’s not for the sound of their machines. It’s just that Harmor:
looks like a meat lover’s pizza. It does everything, but it looks like getting there is half the fun. I load it up. I stare at it. I feel the will to make music die off. Most times I use Harmless instead, which sounds absolutely thunderous and needs far less feeding. Both are additive synthesisers that have been tamed behind analogue style controls – which is the holy grail of synthesis really.
There’s not enough time to for me to go on. If you like you can go on with your own loves and hates.