Yamaha FS1r : This was bullshit now it’s good.

Pre-amble – the fates are strange, the fates are tempestuous. As soon as I wrote this article I was presented with a FS1r for a considerably lesser price. I thought to myself “is this a cosmic trick? A calling out of my hubris?” Then I thought “who gives a fuck?” and scored. Let me say on first contact this is still not the holy grail that it purports to be. More here.

FS1r

$4000USD. This is a healthy hearty heap of bullshit. A single rack synthesiser, launched 1998 into oblivion by Yamaha and thus rare – the collectors crawl all over it like picnic ants and bid like it’s a Hurst skull. Does it create the voice of the siren? Does Bog and all His angels descend when you turn it on?

Let’s put it this way – when the electric piano patch is a stand out, along with a metallic Santa laugh – no. It’s yet another bloatfish – all diagrams, no meat.

What you get is an 8-operator FM synthesiser, which is cool for all those people (zero) that found 6 operators far too easy to manage. Alongside these are 8 noise sources fed through formant filters. When you arrange those in the right way you get vocal forms – a e i o u. The manual is particularly unhelpful about how all this fits together but the general plan appears to be to stack the formants on top of your FM to get consonants, breath, rosin – that sort of thing. You can sequence the formants to create speech but only by hacking the pre-set ‘formant sequences’.

It sounds vaguely interesting if the machine cost 1/10th of the asking price. But at over $4000 why don’t we look behind the curtain? Why did this rack appear so unexpectedly in 1998? As always the case, the technology did not spring from the primeval soup, instead being an adaptation of another, far less glamorous device.

2013-04-05yama00-thumb-510x374-68939

The PLG series was Yamaha’s big idea for the late 90’s, a series of cards that allowed the owner to expand their keyboard with different synthesis systems. The PLG100-DX is a DX7 on a card, the PLG100-AN is a An1x virtual analogue and here is the PLG100-SG which, like a hipster rock band, you probably didn’t know about. It sings, with many different voices, although only in Japanese, using exactly same formant sequencing system as on the FS1r.

You might have the inkling of something come to your mind – yes, that’s right. This is the first Vocaloid virtual singer, performed in hardware. It becomes clear that Yamaha developed the FS1r as a gesture towards ‘professional’ music production, but in the long run found a much more lucrative income from virtual girls in scanty clothing.

hatsune-miku-vocaloid-19486

Now, if you’d like something a bit like the FS1r, you need a PLG100-SG, a PLG150-DX and any Yamaha rack that can house both at once – the MU128 is pretty cheap. The most expensive bit is the DX board, but I reckon all up about $800 max. I’m well aware that the FS1r does more than combine these two sound sources, but you know what? For $3200 discount you can live with it.

But actually, I don’t need to to do any of that. Because now I understand something about the Korg Radias. When I first started playing with this I found it offers ‘formant motion’ which seemed a weird thing when sampling would be a more obvious choice. You speak a vocal phrase into the microphone and the Radias converts it into phonemes, which can be saved and then used to drive the vocoder. Of course it makes sense once you remember that Korg was once part of Yamaha, probably had a few drinks one day and broke into the cupboard where the dev kit for the old FS1r was stashed. Formant motion is an extension of formant sequencing, but performed in real time.

If Vocaloid is the main evolutionary pathway from the SG card, then the Radias includes the alternative universe where it attempted to become a viable professional tool. But that is another story.

Thing 666: destiny

The portents were all there – the fussing with waveforms, the obscene level of interest in Roland system exclusives. It starts with Aspirin and it ends up with Heroin, or in my case the evening my hand slapped eBay hard for a card.

$_57

SR-JV80-04 VINTAGE SYNTH – artefact of an era when Roland JV synthesisers lumbered unchallenged through prehistoric tropical forests. A hardware sample library with waveforms from Roland’s stable of ancients, plus some mysterious additions from MG and KG and OB, whoever they may be. Quite a few different cards were made and bless you if you wanted the Hip Hop one, but I’ve been after these particular waveforms since I encountered that orange thing and realised that it was the Abbot And Costello Meet The Wolfman to the Bride of Frankenstein of my dreams.

What use? I have paid a small army of Japanese sound engineers wearing identical uniforms to make looping samples of their equipment library – probably the same library as seen in the recent AIRA videos. They’ve done a better job than me, with sources I can’t match. Look through available sample libraries from software vendors you’ll rarely find the raw sounds. You’ll get lots of interpretations of the sounds, legally unique but not what I want. The card represents access; technical and legal.

photo

Actually they want as much old crap as they can eat.

You will be astounded to hear that there are bearded men on the Internet who argue over which box should house this card. The consensus is that it must live in a JD-990 because warmth, phatness, monster cables – who the hell knows why really. I tend to trust those souls that have owned various boxes and say they all sound much the same. The JD-990 was the last of the D generation, followed by the JV-1080. I don’t know what the D and V mean. I do know that the JV-1080 was Roland’s biggest thing in years, a huge seller. The JV-2080 was much the same but had a big screen, and the pinnacle is the JV-5080 which had people selling their daughters, but probably not too many daughters, as cheaper boxes soon arrived.

$(KGrHqMOKpYFJlzlQvD7BSdzbi,F,!~~60_57

Knowing my disease, some day a JD-990 will come. Meanwhile fleacore rules say that small cheap box is best. The JV-1010 is the first one of these cheap boxes and has the same guts as a JV2080 + a card called Session built in. It’ll do nicely.

There’s no editing available on the box itself and so you have to run a cut down version of Emagic Sound Diver, particularly quaint on a Windows machine where the Mac OS7 graphics look tres moderne. Works pretty nicely mind you; the 4 Roland tones roll along an endless panorama of sliders and knobs…

diver

clicken to biggen

Sonically it’s a mixed bag. The basic sounds are tiny samples compared to today’s software, and have obvious loop points. If I wanted an oboe I’d stick with NN-XT. The Session card has a sweeter sound, let down a little by the low sample rate (apparently 32KHz) which some people then claim is ‘warmer’ (rule 34). As with all audio hardware the slight imperfections of cables and amplifiers add a little noise that works like a studio exciter, a bit of natural sparkle.

The waves that come with the Vintage card are good in that morbidly obese Roland way. As you run through the list you notice duplication – the first two are JP-8 Saw A and JP-8 Saw C. (Where’s the B? It’s over on the main wave bank. Mysterious east at work). Inspect the presets to find that their slight differences are combined to create analogue-like drift and disparity. Strings will have more variations that basses. The different sounds are sometimes subtle and sometimes recognisable, you’d have to be very obsessive to need every single one of them but the obvious ones do make sound design easier.

The filters are Roland filters and no one is going to write a sonnet about them. If you really were hoping for an authentic OBX sound you’re not in luck, although few of the waves have original filter sweeps in them, notably the wretched TB303. Compare the sampled Prophet 5 sounds with the sounds made by the AN200. Yamaha have access to the circuits of the original and have designed their failures, the JV doesn’t know how to fail on that level. The AN200 is wilder and greedier for the spotlight.

But let’s be honest, you don’t buy a box with Roland on it looking for punk. Roland is summery afternoons, small children splashing at the beach, your favourite pullover. The JV will always be the warm fuzzies up in the gearshift of your next anthem.

jd990

Pottering comes to an end.

1st of January. Sounds pretty sweet. Except it’s the day before 2nd of January and – bugger it, I am then back at work. The last trumpet of holiday cheer is here.

7seals

So then, back to waveforms. Our Birmingham Correspondent has chided me for not paying attention when he explained Zebra, which does indeed create transwaves. Fortunately I didn’t have to buy the whole caboodle to get the oscillator section as it’s included the free Zebralette. I’ll let this guy explain Zebra, even though he’s pretending to be Andrew Kramer. No one can be Andrew Kramer, it’s just not possible. This bit don’t matter too much, you can use any means by which to create interesting single pitched sounds.

The important part is – to get the sound into the Blofeld as a wavetable you have to generate exactly 128 waves at the right frequency to fit one second at 44.1KHz. That’s not any particular pitch and I spent a stupid amount of time doing the maths to try make a MIDI note event on F2 last for the exact duration to get 128 cycles. I failed, endlessly and tediously – if the pitch is even slightly wrong the wave drifts out of frame and sounds horrible. Seemed like the vacation was going to end with a whimper, and without much hope I tried one more search for wavetables and convert and nerd desperation. And I found blacktomcat666.

In case that makes no sense to you, he’s taking a sampled word ‘ensoniq’ and through his own Windows software called Audio Term, translating it into a PPG style wavetable which he’s showing ready to be sent to the Blofeld. And I’m screaming like a little girl.

The guy is a genius but he needs a publicist; the software was hard to find, I had to go bouncing around discussion boards looking for him. Yes, it looks a lot like the PPG Wave Term interface which is kind of cool once you get the hang of it. It does more than convert samples to PPG but that’s what I needed.

wavetermb

So I made some samples of various bits – Zebralette, some analogue gear, odd noises. The Zebralette samples work almost perfectly because they are using the same principle and stick to a single pitch. Anything pitched or based on noise will be washed away in a vocoder effect, and you’d need to use the Blofeld’s sample playback instead. Even so, some hard synch sounds made on a Jupiter 8 came out nicely with a bit of pitch bend.

As with most free software there’s no manual. If only it was the start of the break and not the end I’d make one, but things turned out right after all. Still, the career train waits for no man, and next stop is MS Excel CIty,

Pottering, descriptions thereof.

Rather than leave the year on that last sour note, I thought to mention a few things that are making my little corner of the world just that bit neater. That’s of no interest to anyone, but seeing as no one reads this it’s incredibly relevant.

Sevcom.com has been running for a long time. Actually I can’t remember how long exactly, must be about 18 years. The Australian Film and Sound Archive did a backup earlier this year and I was going to let it decay gently, but turns out that there’s just one more thing. The site’s been converted to a WordPress install which is going to make updating more likely in an era where I’m middle management, time poor and unlikely to want to do jack shit after work. Please visit.

Christmas follows the law of diminishing returns and at this stage of life, where family are dead, diaspora or insane it’s simply a period in which my middle management position gets a back seat to vague attempts at having a creative life. A year ago it was all HH computer game all day, this year the vacation is pretty vacant and so pottering about.

potter2 vb

1. (intr; often foll by about or around) to busy oneself in a desultory though agreeable manner

(Apparently the Internet has decided that Pottering means shoving a broom up your backside, jumping in the air and pretending to be Harry Potter. The Internet is wrong, because many opinions divided by each other tend towards zero.)

This is an innate behaviour of the ageing male. Young women and the *gendered are welcome, but it really does seem to go with ugly pullovers and odd socks. My old man had a large model train layout that never got anywhere. I worried why he never seemed particularly worried, but having reached middle management I see the sheer beauty in incompleteness.

However, my generation are about synthesisers – their purchase, arrangement, connection, twiddling, reading of manuals, disconnection and rearrangement, augmentation and every now and then actually using the stupid things to make music. I have enough synthesisers real and virtual to equip a large orchestra. It’s very messy and that’s the entire point. Most of all I’m obsessed with redeeming Thing 04.

d2

You’ll recall that this was a frugal purchase on the basis that it was nearly useless. It will require a great deal of tweaking and fussing and seemingly being cross about it while secretly enjoying the pointlessness of it.

I can poke numbers at it over MIDI and get a hint of the potential. But the editing software is old and it doesn’t ‘see’ my keyboard, so I have to type the notes as numbers and I need a modern way to talk to it. Because it’s one of Roland’s JV series of synthesisers I could adapt something that works with them. That leads to looking at Roland JV’s, thinking it would be easier to use one instead, finding something cheap, tabulating the included waveforms, learning I need an extra voice card, seeing that they only can be found in America, realising that it’s not the bloody point and all I’m doing is trying to get this bit of junk to make a useful noise.

That can fill endless happy hours. I’m probably a Mastermind contestant for Roland synthesisers of the 1990s.

With VST instruments you’re using Continuous Controllers – e.g. CC#43 might control the filter. Machines of 90’s use System Exclusive messages – much harder. My Yamaha boxes are not too bad, they use messages that go something like this:

  • SYSEX MESSAGE FOR
  • YAMAHA
  • DX200
  • NUMBER 10
  • SET KNOB 43 (FILTER)
  • TO 127
  • KTHNXBYE

Roland boxes aren’t nearly as friendly:

  • SYSEX MESSAGE FOR
  • ROLAND
  • D2
  • NUMBER 10
  • I HAVE SOMETHING FOR
  • SYSTEM ADDRESS
  • PATCH ADDRESS
  • TONE ADDRESS
  • POSTBOX
  • DO THIS
  • DO THAT
  • DO THE OTHER THING
  • DID YOU GET THAT ALL OK?
  • KTHNXBYE

Instead of referring to a particular knob, the Roland way is like sending a letter to a street address, a consequence of the way JV’s work. The Yamaha AN200 has 5 voices that are all two oscillators through a filter making the one noise. The Rolands have many patches, each of which is made of as many as four tones, each of which is two waveforms and a filter. So you might have 64 filters to talk to and each of them set to a different patch. There’s also a checksum in the message to double check that the box got the right set of hexadecimal. Like a Facebook relationship, it’s complicated.

And in moments of sanity I ask if it would be easier to just rip the waveforms out of this thing and put them in a more modern box. The JV’s are sample players, so if you got JD8000 SAW out of the box and put it in Thing 01 instead that would be enough? Not easy. Here I am, money in hand, ready to buy the waveforms from Roland. Here is Roland, unsold hardware in warehouse, in no way allowing the waveforms off the physical chips. I’ve sampled the D2 sounds, edited them into single cycles (yes, they mostly are) and they are in the Blofeld. But you know, that’s messy.

Here a entire universe of pottering about is opened. What’s the difference between a JD8000 SAW and a JP8 SAW? Why would you choose one over the other? That’s very interesting if like myself you thought A = A.

squares1-6

Three square waves. Half the people not reading this say ‘yeah of course’, the others say ‘since when are any of these square waves?’ I say, how do I make waveforms like this? I’ve used FM and additive and subtractive and yada yada and I don’t quite know a control method which will create sound shapes like this. I’m looking at the output of various Things on a VST oscilloscope and it’s being instructive. Found a waveform designer. What could come from all of this?

Thing 04 : jumped the queue with sheer brilliance.

I’m so proud one of my colleagues heard I was collecting bad synthesisers, and offered one I might like – it shows my reputation for quality is growing. From that day I mercilessly hounded him for the transaction which he seemed to then mysteriously avoid. Perhaps he worried that a man of my standing knew something about the box that made it worth more. Perhaps it was pity for such a fool as would take this thing that he’d been using upside down as a stand for something else. But I was not to be turned and exchanged some trifling DOEPFER box that was just well made and useful.

d2

A photo doesn’t do the D2 justice. It’s bright orange, made of metal and reminds me of something that would have steered a model boat in 1973. When you turn it on it spends the first few minutes doing a light show. Every time you turn it on. (It then dies, or at least until I got the right 9v adaptor.) When you push the play button it emits the most enticingly flabby, tired and hackneyed ‘dance music’ that the mind of Roland could devise. Ladies and Gentlemen, if a synthesiser could be compared to a font – this is Comic Sans.

Why would I want this thing? Well let me tell you about the time I spent 400 bucks on a new Roland box which was uglier, less versatile, harder to use, and in every way a miserable excuse for pathetic shit, so much so that I gave it away. Of course I mean the TB303 Bassline in 1982. I was one of (if not the) the first people in the world to make ‘dance music’ with it (referring to Eighties Cheesecake) so I am pulling rank and saying – if the Bassline is a classic, then this is a super duper classic.

Don’t just take my word for it – listen to this Internet guy:

I LOVE MY GIRL D2! I use a Krog microKONTROL midi usb keybord on her and let me tell you its the best! Im on my 2nd D2 groovebox! The 1st one i had I lost it at the pawn shop!(im still mad)Now this one i have now i got off Ebay and i LOVE HER! the 1st gear i had was the Roland mc-303 groovebox! The year was like 1999 i was poor! then i saw the Roland mc-505 and i fell in love with her! i never got one but i all ways played with

Actually, don’t listen to that guy. He’s nuts.

OK so how do we tame this shrew? Some reading tells me it’s the same as a MC505 Groovebox, but with all the controls reduced to a simple XY touchpad. That’s like ‘the same as a championship wrestler but with no arms.’ The noise is the same but the controls have had a pre-frontal lobotomy. The big issue for me is that Roland has left no way to change the damn waveforms. Seeing as the D2 is sample based that’s really bitter and twisted. Roland! Spend the 5 bucks!

Some more reading tells me that the MC505 uses the same voice structure as the JV series, although I’d have to quibble that ‘same as’ means ‘selected’. The sounds are half samples of Roland drum machines, and much of what’s left are saw waves of some sort particularly those from the wretched TB303. There are however a range of inharmonic clanks, bangs and noise loops which sound like they could work nicely once I load them up into the right patch. There’s four tones per patch, each being an oscillator with associated filter and LFOs so a bit of stacking should get somewhere.

The touch pad is much the same deal as a Kaos pad. The only fun thing is a DJ mode where you ‘spin’ the sequence backwards. That never gets old, ever. The XY mode is more useful in live tweaking the filters and LFOs, but not to any level of precision. Probably there will be a time where I will risk using the sequencing and arpeggio for some kind of improvisation but I need some decent noises first.

So I thought to myself – if I found a way to control a MC505 then maybe I could control the D2. Again and again I would read about a particular piece of home brew software that did this, but when I’d follow the link the Geocities or Angelfire host was long gone. I almost despaired, but after a titanic struggle of mouse clicks I found it. And it works!

tones

It is in fact identical to the MC505, and rather shocking to see how much is hidden in the engine that’s ignored in the manual. For example there’s some kind of FM modulation as well as a delay mode that I’ll have to read about in a JV1080 manual I guess. You can at least change the waveform and sweep the filter and do pretty much everything you could hope from a bright orange tugboat. Once you have this ability the box becomes a decent sound module that can e.g. play four pianos through a ring modulator. By nature it wants to have the keyboard mapped to include all 8 parts, switching it over a multi mode fixes that by moving each to a different MIDI channel. It’s not yet victory, but I think there’s a distant chance that one day I will carry this thing on stage, push the button and produce that which will define 21st century music.

Thing 02: RADIAS

Preamble

If Internet Nerds ran the world: all that Roland has to do is reissue their oldest equipment. The world is dying for an SH1 all over again. Why does Roland not see this!!1!!?

Actually like any large company Roland are pretty good at market research, and what they have found is visible right there in the product: nerds aren’t the customers. The buyers are the one man bands that play Bye Bye Miss American Pie at your local. They’re the suburban church or the guy that has to come up with 23 minutes of incidental music for some cable TV show. The people that need a decent piano are 50x the ones that whine about analogue fatness.

The Roland Bassline 303 was designed for the one man band, and when he found it was useless for Miss American Pie he hocked it. The next guy bought it for 40 bucks, and mistaking it for a Roland MC202 (the real source of ‘acid’) started pushing buttons at random, which is easy enough to become a fashion. The one man band guys didn’t actually want any of that, but they wanted to feel like it was an option just in case, and Roland carefully supplied boxes called MC-something-or-other that still worked for the choir practice on Sundays.

And so to the RADIAS.

bony_landmarks_radius_ulna1310955356828

The rumour starts here: they were originally going to call it the ULNA.

My reasons for buying a RADIAS are a bit iffy, but not entirely unreasonable. Right in the middle of the hilarity when I denounced the MS20 Mini, I was actually seeking a positive – what would Korg themselves consider their progress from that point – where had the MS20’s ideas gone after it was retired for the first time?

Straight after the MS period was a muddle – amidst a bunch of random ideas only the Poly6 and Mony/Poly were careful responses to the American keyboards of the time, but considerably cheaper. Korg took on this budget area with a succession of ever more hideous digital keyboards bottoming at the loathsome Poly800. It wasn’t until the M1 that they seemed to have any clear idea of where to advance themselves, and once they found it there was no shifting them from this ‘high end workstation’ identity. The baroque OASYS physical modelling system and the many splinters of it were the capstone of an edifice that Roland has tried to invade ever since.

Suddenly in 2000 we have the MS2000. Why? The full OASYS keyboard failed to sell, probably because Korg are good at potential but not good at designing its daily use. The big idea was sliced into workloads, and one of these (having belatedly reached the mainstream buyer) was the dance club; thus the Electribe, the Kaoss pad, and the 4 note MS2000. On the evidence it’s not so much an evolution as a de-evolution of an overblown idea and unless there’s been a hero in Korg ruining every design meeting with ‘What are we doing about aceeeeeeeed!?’, my interest is misplaced. Too bad.

developers1

We designed OASYS, the world’s most advanced synthesis system and you didn’t want it? Fuck you, have this crap instead.

No really, on to the RADIAS

Despite the complex history the RADIAS does present some kind of connection with the MS2000 and the MS system before it. There are some quality differences that our Polish friend can explain better than me; I’m really more interested in the oddness, and here it is.

Delete all the factory presets. They’re not terrible, but they make you think the wrong thing right away.

There’s a conscious attempt to lay out a MS style panel, with the 2 oscillators, 2 filters and so on, including a SQ10 down the bottom. I found it easy to set up my test MS sound which is a fake formant made by a hi pass and low pass combination. Not the same sound as the MS20 but pretty nice. To answer GearSlutz question number one: your tendency is to turn up oscillator 1 with your tricky sound then try to put a sine from oscillator 2 under it to add the bass. This will fail. Put the sine in first, then add the tricky sound gently into that. Now use the drive before the filter to warm up this mix and you are done. If you need it, turn up the bass EQ, that’s why it’s there. You now have the phat sound you always use for everything, so go away.

RadiasAna

The rest of us can notice useful features spread all over the signal path in unexpected places. There’s a sub oscillator in the amplifier as part of the wave shaper, which must have been where it was needed technically, but logically should be visible alongside the others. Also in this section is ‘punch’ which adds a square wave to the attack only. Osc 1 is the fancy one with PCM samples and supersaws and the like – you’re not going to use the string sound much but the inharmonic spectra are pretty good when detuned as are the various waveform distortions. Osc 2 is less fancy but ready to detune, ring and synch.

While you can ring modulate the two main oscillators, there’s a stereo ring modulator in the effects which adds another LFO and saves you the voice. And in general the three effects sections are all part of the noise making circuit – while something like reverb is obviously for the master effects, the grain shifter seems part of the patch. I’m not dead sure but it also looks like using the FX doesn’t cut into the voice budget, whereas most knobby treatments will halve your polyphony. The strategy is not that of an analogue signal which overcomes circuits downstream, you instead work back and forwards across the whole flow to get the sound you want.

The phrase sequencer is new to me, as I was too poor to buy anything at the time the Electribe was in style. You arm a recording and then tweak a knob to make a ‘phrase’. Now the tweak is part of the sound patch – you can have it do the tweak on each key press, or keep doing it in a loop. Much easier than my SQ10, although the bottom row of knobs can be twiddled in the old way, and I have done so to create burblings that remind me of 1985.

RadiasAna

Behind this Vocoder is a door to another dimension.

Right. Vocoder. Shit idea that restarted with the MS2000 and infected everything after with a bad case of Robot Concept Album. But there’s some strange things going on here as well. The first is Formant Motion, something that records up to 7.5 seconds of you yelling YO EVERYONE IN DA HOUSE but only as a modulator for the vocoder. Why wouldn’t you just make it a sound sample? Simpler, more versatile, would still work? I don’t get it, except the Korg engineer guys thought it was extra cool to convert your voice into phonemes. I have to get some time to throw a bunch of stupid sounds in there to see what it does.

Better still is that with much reading and re-reading of the manual I found that you can send a voice’s output to an internal bus, and then have that bus sent to the vocoder such that one voice vocodes another, which is what vocoders were always about in the good old days. So far it sounds horrible, which is a good sign for the future. It was only after I’d turned off the gear for the night that it struck me – what happens if you feed a voice back into itself? Will it explode? It was that moment I knew that the RADIAS is my kind of machine. If you don’t hear from me again – it was a glorious success.

Thing 01: Blofeld

Let’s get this over with quickly:

Blofeld

which is basically Waldorf’s sense of humour in one image. The humour is essential to the inner mind of the Blofeld synthesiser, although there will be times when you want to road rage their clown car, for reasons given below.

History

Around 2004 Waldorf’s strategy of ‘sell really frikken expensive keyboards that are all basically the same painted different colours’ earned them a life prize at the insolvency court. Three years following, the reborn company’s new idea, ‘sell a little box for a lot less and pack it with good shit’ paid off and is a lesson for anyone that runs a music company. You will meet people that carry on about how Waldorf’s older large digital synthesisers are better than their new small digital synthesisers because of wood grain, yellow paint or some such garbage. These people are wrong.

waldorf_blofeld

Actually the Blofeld is software, wrapped up in metal. They’ve made the metal heavy so you think there’s something inside. But there’s actually nothing there, which is spooky if you think about it. In fact they sell a software synthesiser called Largo which is exactly like Blofeld except for various mischievous alterations that fool no one.

So why then did I buy a Blofeld? Because it’s odd, and I give nothing for warm or phat or analogue or any of that, what I want is something ODD. It’s also at that sweet middle age where no one cares. The very young and the very old synthesiser are treated as mythical, while Blofeld is six years old and no one came to the birthday. That makes it cheap even new, and small/cheap is the best of the best. And I really like wavetables.

Of course you should first check out Nave, running on the iPad. It’s more advanced than Blofeld, and certainly prettier. One day there will be decent way to both power and MIDI connect my iPad at once and then maybe it will actually be useful.

The Big Picture

In broad terms the Blofeld is a subtractive synthesiser. Three oscillators are mixed and sent through a filter, amp and effects. The basic waveforms are the usual sine/triangle/saw/square, and with a touch of overdrive included the unit is able to perform as a ‘virtual analogue’ which will please small children and GearSlutz commenters. One of the filter modes is a PPG filter, which I have half an idea was just a sidestep around Moog’s patent but is now a selling point.

The first two oscillators will also play wavetables, which are sets of waveforms arranged such that when played sequentially you get interesting harmonic progressions – filter sweeps, bells, spoken words and so on. It holds a standard library of these which have grown as the PPG and Waldorf synthesisers have been developed, and some of them date back to 1979 when Wolfgang Palm drew a filter sweep on a piece of paper. It’s good that the old tables are there, but it’s the mysterious ‘user wavetables’ that caught my attention. The manual says nothing, and we must rely on some intrepid reverse engineers that have road raged the clown car.

Stromenko loves his Waldorf and PPG toys and has pictures to prove it, which he says I must not show you. More than that, he has done some investigation into wave tables and created some that fit into the Blofeld’s reptile brain – including Ensoniq SQ80 waves, which is wonderfully perverse and inspires an idea below.

Kotró László Lehel is the ultimate dude for Blofeld dudeness. Behold his software for drawing waveforms and pushing them into the reptile brain. There is much more that can be done with this, and I’m only beginning to to figure it out, but it’s pretty much what I wanted from life in general, to draw horrible sounds with a pencil.

blofeld_wavetable_creator

Of course my great idea is to take the transwaves of the Ensoniq FIZMO and get them into the Blofeld, which will cause an ultimate oddness singularity. I will then paint the Blofeld purple.

Samples?

Instead of addressing the wavetables, Waldorf is more keen to sell you sample storage in the unit. The sample memory is there, or perhaps another phantom presence inside this empty box – you just can’t see it until you send a MIDI code which translates as “another 99 euro passed our lips like sweet wine”. I was curious enough to pony up. Sounds are transferred to the machine en masse over MIDI, which takes about 18 minutes. The factory set is an indifferent lot of pianos and voices and whatnot, but you can make your own, and I certainly will.

Once a sample is loaded into an oscillator it just plays from start and loops as far as I can tell. There seems to be no effect from modulating the play point. But most of the other features are there, including frequency modulation. When I owned a SY77 I was able to FM a piano sound with itself. It was horrible then, and I was pleased to find it equally horrible here. Success!

Pretty much the samples are there to add natural elements to the synthetic oscillations, which is reminding me of Roland’s LA synthesis and now I feel a bit queasy remembering all those ‘chiffs’. No, samples probably not needed on the Blofeld.

A warning: if you use the MIDI controller from Soft Knobs and then load a sample it will go to a very dark place and cry uncontrollably.

Summary

I wanted something with character and by Wolfgang I got it. I used to own things that were good and I ended up getting rid of them because they were just good, when deep in my heart I wanted something that was a helpful irritant. These are the tools that by their obscure rules help you develop ever more obscure paths to creativity. I am also very fond of owning something that cost a few hundred bucks that does exactly the same as a vintage something which sells for $10,000. Vindictive bastard.