Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Jack of all trades? The synthesiser

As the synthesiser became available to the masses descriptions of its abilities became exaggerated, it was going to make performers redundant, replace whole orchestras in film music, and cupboards were going to be full of traditional instruments and children given keyboards as their introduction to music making. 
As with all fears an element of truth existed in this view. In certain circumstances the synth could be used in place of (or in addition to) a traditional instrument, certainly not as a second violin in a string quartet, but possibly as e.g. a contrasting texture to a bass guitar.  The role of the synthesiser in film has several interesting features, it was fortunate that the sounds produced most easily on the synth invoked associations with mechanical sounds, weapons, flight, wind sounds etc. all ideal for sci-fi and combat movies.  The extension into video games was a natural progression.  Far from reducing the employment of musicians the opportunities for making capital expanded enormously.  As for our children many have learnt the basics of music making on relatively cheap keyboards. The quality of teaching and the development of technique depend a great deal on the educator but considering the numbers of children involved one has to accept that there are advantages to learning how to perform on any instrument over no instrument.
The primary concern of these blogs is to consider composing techniques, but before moving away from performing with a synth it may be useful to consider the work of a jazz keyboard player who has explored the world of synthetic sounds, Joe Zawinul.  He gave an interview to the music engineering magazine Sound on Sound and his insights make fascinating reading, two short extracts provide an oversight which may encourage reading the whole article.
I can play with a drum machine, and I can make a drum machine sound like a real drummer because of how I play around it. It's an art. You cannot be a slave... It's an art to play to sequencers or drum machines, and even some of the really famous guys can't do it.
And on composing:
(Its) about sound. And synthesizers are even more difficult, because there's a greater menu. It's much easier to choose the best dish out of five ... than out of 400."
Understanding the basics of synthetically produced sounds will illustrate why the synth has been largely employed in a relatively limited way when its potential is enormous.  The rate of change in sound production is such that composers often move onto new ideas before exploring fully the possibilities of “older” technology.  The summary is deliberately short and may be skipped by those with even a basic knowledge of the synth.
Synthesisers start with the production of a tone produced by a sine wave generator, combining several sine waves with pitch control produces more musical tones. Tone generation is produced by an oscillator which may select a variety of waveforms such as sawtooth, triangle, square or pulse.
The filter removes parts of the frequencies generated, after filtering, a bright sawtooth wave can be altered to a warmer sound with reduced treble. Resonance and drive may also be used to alter the tone to replicate instrumental sounds.
The module known as an envelope controls the levels for the beginning, middle, and end portions of the sound.
The signal may require a modulator, the LFO (low frequency oscillator) is frequently employed to affect the main signal to add vibrato or create filter sweeps. Selecting the LFO waveform dramatically affects the range of vibrato etc.
In addition to the sound production there are global controls for overall loudness, glide or portamento and the bend range particularly useful for emulating small pitch fluctuations.
Noise can be added to produce percussive sounds and replicate natural sounds.

That is sufficient detail for the moment, varieties and developments will be considered in conjunction with particular pieces of music.

The use of sine waves alone is not going to produce particularly pleasing results, Stockhausen worked with combinations of sine waves processing them with reverberation in his desire to create new sonorities

the following link provides a wealth of information about the technical aspects of sine wave manipulation in the Stockhausen Studies (and some of the human responses to the work carried out).
On a personal level I find the music compelling, it is never predictable and demonstrates what many musicians understand, working within constraints assists the composing process.

Early pioneers of the synthesiser also included jazz musicians, Herb Deutsch worked alongside Bob Moog and his account of developing the attack on a tone via a door bell makes a wonderful story:


There are video clips on YouTube concerning Herb Deutsch which demonstrate the pitfalls of the instrument, particularly with tuning, but which pioneer ever expected an easy ride?

The two approaches (Stockhausen and Deutsch) take us into interesting territory, was the synth going to be used as an instrument with certain acceptable sounds appropriate for melody or bass or as a source of new material to open up extensive possibilities for contemporary serious music?

The MIDI table offers an insight of one solution to being faced with a near infinite number of possible choices.  Various companies developed the sounds in these categories; I used a Roland Sound Canvas for many years and learnt a great deal even from applying basic alterations to the sounds. Before selected banks were provided a great deal of donkey work was required, and saving sounds required careful planning.  The EMS VCS 3 belongs to this pre-table period, though similar synths are now available as software versions which make recalling patches easy.  This account from the Vinyl factory of the VCS 3 is entertaining:
 It was so quirky that most musicians couldn’t even fathom how to coax actual melodies out of it, prompting some to label it as a bulky, expensive effects unit. Those that persevered were rewarded, and the bizarre-sounding synthesizer was a bottomless treasure trove of peculiar pops, clangs and whines. The fact that you could play it with a joystick, a la Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones (the keyboard was sold separately), only added to its charm.

The phrase “how to coax actual melodies out of it” speaks volumes about the way certain musicians approached this synthesiser.
As companies developed their own particular synthesiser sounds individual musicians became associated with those textures, e.g. Herbie Hancock  made use of the ARP Odyssey on “Chameleon”.

Keyboard players would find the limits imposed with monophonic synthesisers troubling but synths like the CS-80 opened up polyphonic play.  In terms of composition polyphony cuts both ways.  There is always the temptation with a polyphonic presentation of being lazy, and the repeated use of a lush texture can ruin a good idea.  Similarly the stacking of several voices (possibly through a chain of instruments) can make an immediate impact but fail to sustain interest. We are back to the old repetition and variation problem.

With the advent of the Fairlight CMI sampling became a source of new sounds, however the range of sounds was limited by the length of the samples taken. As PCM synthesis became a new standard in sound production, it tackled, but did not overcome the problem of authenticity with instrumental sounds.

Another development which was to stimulate the imagination of serious contemporary composers was FM synthesis.  This method modulates the frequencies of combinations of sound waves to create a new wave rich in harmonic content.  For performers one great advantage was that the digital nature of the instrument ensured that tuning was no longer a problem.  The main challenge for musicians was in the programming, and once again engineers produced banks of sounds that were a mixed blessing to the world of music.
Thankfully now there is a software version of the DX keyboard, FM8 in which one can either alter sounds on a basic level (Easy/Morph) or at a more complex level (Master), or of course one can open a ‘new sound’ which is a single sine wave and explore at one’s pleasure.

Having put in place some of the basics of the synthesiser and mentioned some of its exponents I will conclude this blog with a hint of some of the uses in contemporary music using Jonathan Harvey’s own notes on “Inner Light 3”


One of the tapes other roles is to transform one instrument's waveform into another's, often in the course of a journey round the concert hall. For instance, a trumpet sound leaves the orchestra, changes progressively into a clarinet in mid-flight, so to speak, and returns to the stage area where the orchestral clarinet takes it up. The spatial engulfment of quadraphony and the dreamlike reverberation of orchestral events are, together with the alpha wave treatment, further aspects of the 'superhuman' role of the tape. There is nothing new in regarding the mechanical as superhuman; everyone in Western tradition who has ever thought of the organ as a bearer of sacred meaning, or in the East of the gong in such a light has done the same.