John Bowen’s Solaris synthesizer is an amazingly flexible machine. While most playable keyboard synthesizers have a fixed (and simple) signal path derived from old analog synths, the Solaris is a semi-modular design. Like a real modular synthesizer, you can patch its various components together in flexible ways. It is not as infinitely flexible as a modular, but for practical purposes, there is little you can’t do.
The key to this flexibility are the four mixers. While the synth has “hard-wiring” from OSC-Mixer-Filter-VCA by default for each of the four voices, this is not a path you have to follow. The mixers are each capable of taking sound from four inputs. These inputs can be anything that makes or processes audio in the synth from oscillators, to rotors, to filters, to insert FX, to the VCA’s. This means that you can reconfigure the signal path in almost any way, and blend any combination of feedback or sequential processing you can think of. Each mixer input (and the master out) can be modulated by any control parameter of the system, enabling full control of any of these audio signals.
This flexibility is dizzying at first. Every section of the Solaris is full of options, and then you can combine them in almost any way. How do you learn to use this beast? Well, one easy way is to arrange the signal path to mimic a successful historic analog synth. The Solaris can easily create the signal path of almost any synth you either owned or always wanted to own. This is easy to believe if we pick something simple like a MiniMoog, or a Jupiter 6, but the reality is that the Solaris has resources to be far more ambitious!
Let’s consider the legendary Yamaha CS-80 polysynth, which is perhaps the most desirable analog polysynth ever made. Functional used copies sell for upwards of $20,000 if you can find one at all. Maintenance is not cheap or easy. The synth provided 8 notes of polyphony and full polyphonic aftertouch. The Solaris can mimic the architecture and provide 10 voice polyphony, with polyAT (though you might need a Roli Seaboard to get the PolyAT going…). Here’s the voice architecture of a CS-80 – Yamaha was kind enough to print it on the top of the instrument.
There are two identical voices that can be programmed, so in effect there are two of this signal chain to represent. The Solaris does not perfectly re-create this, but it can get very close (it even includes ring-modulation in the Amplitude Modulation section!). Of course, it’s modulation matrix is vastly more capable than the CS-80, so it is actually far more capable than the CS-80 in most respects. Let’s see how we can lay this out in the Solaris, using the mixers to bring the Solaris components into the right order.
This layout recreates the modulation control present in the CS-80. If you want access to the Ring Modulator in the Solaris, it is available in either Mixer. The Ring Modulator is in the AM1/AM2 section of the synth (hit the MORE button on the global screen). You then access the audio by selecting AM1 or AM2 as the input to one of the four mixer channels. In most patches, I’d replace the Noise input with the AM1/AM2 input, but this is clearly flexible per voice and per patch. I highly recommend adding a bit of the Ring Modulation – maybe 5% strength, modulated by the wheel, and then mixed in at low volume, maybe 3-5 in the Mixers. It really adds a nice subtle harmonic complexity that changes wonderfully with the wheel.
The Solaris has near infinite modulation possibilities beyond this, but this patching arrangement will allow the exploration of the core CS-80 sound palate. What I did is set this up, and then I saved it as a patch. I don’t edit this patch, but use it as a template for other patches.
Clearly, this same approach can be taken toward other classic synths. If we can model a CS-80, Jupiter8’s and many others are all possible. In fact, this is a great way to learn the Solaris. Every component of the Solaris is more capable than the CS-80. The oscillators are capable of digital wavetables, the filters have many different types compared to 12/24db HPF/LPF, the modulation matrix and control inputs are many times larger. But the synth voice architecture is proven and will produce playable sounds at every turn. The wonderful thing about doing this exercise on a Solaris is that you can start with a known, proven architecture, and then when you want more control, use the extra facilities or the Bowen to modulate the attack portion of the envelope with velocity, or use the rotors, etc.
I’ve never owned or played a real CS-80, and may never get to. This post is not arguing that the Solaris is going to produce so authentic a sound that CS-80 ownership is rendered moot. Instruments have a gestalt – including the Solaris – that isn’t going to be recreated on something else. What this post does suggest is exploring the sound space that instrument was capable of making, and then using that as a point of departure to do things that the CS-80 was never capable of. By replicating, and then exceeding the architecture of previous synths, it is possible to creatively explore new territory.
This is not a post with a lot of my own thought attached. I referenced George Howard’s work earlier this week. This content was originally published on Forbes, I believe. This is some of the best thought that I’ve seen printed about how a future can exist outside the current mega-label hegemony. Those of us who are not selling – and may never sell – millions of records are not well served by the existing royalty, tracking, payment and rights administration schemes. What is proposed here would be transformative for composers, song-writers, indie labels, and just about anyone who makes things that exist in digital form. I don’t know how close or far this is, but the ideas are important and worth discussion and advocating for.
Without further ado, here are links to the articles. Personally, I wish George Howard & Imogen Heap success in what they are championing. It is refreshing to see new thought on these subjects that is not just echo-chamber material.
This is not a new interview, but I just came across it and found it to be insightful and challenging. You can enjoy a transcript here and then watch the video:
George Howard is on a roll over at Forbes. His latest set of articles on the interplay of music and commerce are not to be missed. He recently sat down with Ryan Leslie for an hour long interview. This is well worth the time. Ryan is a musician, entrepreneur and generally well-thought out young man. George’s interview is insightful, thorough, and gets to the meat of the issues surrounding releasing music, building a fan base, being able to market one’s music, etc.
Though a friend, I was notified of a Hammond organ and Leslie that were free for the taking about a year ago. It turns out that the instrument was a Hammond H-100. This was a “home” version of the B-3. Like the B-3, it has a full set of tonewheels. Unlike the B-3, it adds several “orchestral voices” that are really not very emulative. The organ from a monetary standpoint is worthless. While it does the tonewheel thing just like the B-3, it is not really a B-3.
The Leslie is an interesting beast. It’s a Leslie 222. This is the “home” version of the 122, and is laid out horizontally instead of vertically. The treble rotor is beside the bass rotor, so the whole thing is about the size of a standard high-boy Leslie turned on its side. This one is finished in “Provincial Walnut” It has a tube amplifier that looked as new as the day it was built when I opened it up – not a speck of dust inside.
The Leslie was very noisy with static, pops, and a hum too! After 40 years, all the capacitors were quite shot, so it was time for a rebuild. I ordered a rebuild kit and instructions from here. They have rebuild kits for organs and Leslie speakers of all types. Their 122 kit had everything needed to fully refresh the amp.
So, after storing it in my studio for a year, I got tired of looking at it and decided it was time to move it along. I followed the directions and replaced all the capacitors with fresh modern ones (that’s all the Orange Drops in the picture). One of the power supply diodes was also fried, so I replaced all four of those as well.
I had a frustrating go at first until I put a bigger tip on my soldering iron. The old leads were kind of chunky and just needed more surface area to transfer the heat. Once I was going, it went pretty quickly. The nice thing is that the schematic is printed on the side of the amp, and it is also available on-line. This made verifying all the parts and their location very simple.
The amp worked correctly as soon as I turned it on. All the magic smoke staying inside, and it is ready for another 10-15 years of service.
There is something to be said for the serviceability of a fine tube amplifier. All the parts are readily available, often with better parts than were available at the time of construction. The work is simple, and anyone who can solder can easily complete basic maintenance.
The organ and Leslie are on their way to my neighbor, who used to play, but hasn’t had a instrument in years. It will be good to move this out of my space and onto its next owner. I will certainly be glad to have the floorspace back.
For my own use, I think I’ll just stick to emulators. There is magic in a perfectly maintained and updated tube Leslie matched with a fine and fully restored B-3. There are also not that many of them, and they require maintenance. B-3 maintenance is a whole different level or maintenance than a tube amp. Not really being a Hammond player at heart, the emulations are frankly good enough for my purposes. I’d rather spend my instrument maintenance budget on my piano. Putting a screaming organ behind some distorted guitars seems to work fine with VB-3 or the B-3 emulation built into Apple’s Mainstage. Both are quite serviceable. There is a bit of magic that happens with the sound bouncing around inside the room, but not having ever played the real thing, I don’t miss what I don’t have muscle memory for.
I had one of the best piano technicians in the area come and tune my piano. There is really no comparison. The unisons are essentially perfect, and the whole instrument is much better than I did. It now sparkles the way a piano should and there is no chorusing on unisons. Interestingly, he did comment that he agreed with the stretch tuning, but that it had just fallen about 3 cents flat. So, the software is quite good. But it also confirmed that my skill at using the tuning hammer is just not there.
So, my brief stint as a piano tuner is over. I can’t say that I’m interested in doing it again. In every way it is better to let the pro do the job. He is faster, less expensive (when my time is considered), and of substantially higher quality. And, by using him regularly, I build relationship with someone who can help me when the instrument requires regulation, which it undoubtedly will at some point.
In the end, fine motor skill is fine motor skill and there is no replacement for experience and practice. It is true in front of the keyboard whether playing or wielding a tuning hammer.
Since my new piano has now settled into its new home, the bass was a bit wonky. Knowing that I am going to get it tuned professionally, I thought it would be a perfect time to experiment with my tuning hammer. Pianos cannot be tuned properly with just a normal chromatic tuner. Due to the inharmonicity of the metal strings, adjustments must be made on the bass and treble ends of the piano. Typically the bass is tuned progressively flatter and the treble is tuned progressively sharper. This creates the normal “piano” sound we are used to. Professional tuners do this by ear, counting beat frequencies against certain intervals.
I am not a professional, but the Internet is a wonderful place and there are lots of piano tuning aids. The one that seemed most interesting to me was The Entropy Piano Tuner. This is an open source project by several very learned German piano technicians. Having a laptop, and a very flat measurement microphone, I was in business.
The software is interesting because it uses a mathematical formula to compute the best deviation from standard tuning for each string. Instead of using a smooth curve, each string is individually considered. The workflow is simple. First, I recorded each string into the software.
This process takes about 20 minutes. The blue marks indicate where the current tuning falls. The rough shape of the stretch tuning is clearly visible. After recording, the next step is to let the software run its algorithm to calculate the ideal tuning for each string, taking the inharmonicity into account. Basically, the metal strings do not vibrate purely as strings, like on a violin. Their mass and stiffness also cause them to behave a bit like rods. This alters the normally pure harmonics produced by a vibrating string. The software’s job is to figure out the best tuning for the string that puts its harmonics in the best relationship.
Now it is easy to see where the present tuning deviates from the ideal calculated by the software.
The final step is to tune the piano to the green lines. There is a special tune mode that makes this fairly straight-forward. So, tuning hammer and mute strip in hand, I started at A0 and worked my way up. The software is very accurate, and it turns out that tuning a piano is a very subtle affair. Very small movements of the tuning hammer make a significant difference where a few cents are concerned. In the past, I haven’t done much outside of touching up unisons. The single strings went without much difficulty, but the double and triple strings gave me more hassle, as I learned the best way to tune unisons the hard way.
The piano is now in tune, and I like the results. The low bass strings are now very resonant and sound much better, particularly the ones that I nailed within one cent of the calculated value. The very highest octave of the treble was a bit bright, so I let the very highest notes down a few cents. Their theory seems to work as advertised, and, as they suggest, a bit of fine-tuning by ear can be important. It was a very time consuming process, due to my inexperience with the physical mechanics of operating the hammer. I improved a LOT over the course of the exercise. All total, I probably spent 10 hours getting it right. That said, it was a great experience, and one that I probably won’t repeat.
The software is excellent, and works as advertised. It does nothing to endow one with skill using the tuning hammer, however! I am not fast enough to make it worthwhile financially, and it is as interesting as playing to me. It was a solid learning experience, and it was interesting to play with the beat frequencies. They are quite easy to count. It also made me able to hear the stretch and its musical effect. I am glad there are professionals who do this every day, and outside of perhaps re-running this software to inspect a tuning job, I will return to playing the instrument vs. inspecting it.
In the last post, we looked at a brand-new piano incorporating a carbon fiber soundboard. We explored the idea that material science will offer radical and high-quality improvements to basic acoustic instruments made of wood. In this post, we’ll explore how this same technology will be able to advance wind instrument manufacture as well.
Carbon fiber slides for trombones have been available for several years from a few manufacturers.
Several benefits come from using carbon fiber. First, the slides can be half the weight, allowing them to be moved and stopped faster than traditional metal slides. Second, the tolerances can be extremely fine, allowing for only fine layer of lubrication between inner and outer slides, making the whole mechanism more stable, secure and responsive. Also, because carbon fiber is so strong, the tubes will not dent with casual handling and knocks the way that thin-wall brass tubes do. The costs are high at the moment due to limited manufacture, but this is definitely a welcome development.
In late 2014, videos and pictures have started to emerge of new carbon fiber trombones where most of the instrument is constructed from carbon fiber. Here is a prototype made by trombonist David Butler:
The sound is certainly quite credible:
The Swiss company daCarbo has been manufacturing trumpets with carbon fiber bells for some time, and appear to be adding a carbon fiber trombone to the range shortly. Their website indicates that they are taking pre-orders. Their horn is interesting in that it incorporates a traditional F-trigger system made of brass – using carbon for the bell and outer slide.
If the blues are more your thing, here’s Trombone Shorty on a daCapo:
I know that I would welcome an instrument that weighs half of my Edwards and that was more responsive in every dimension! I know that I’ll be watching the developments in this space carefully. These initial instruments will be refined, improved, and perfected as time passes and create wonderful options for brass players. Unlike the cheap plastic trombones that can be had for just over $100, the instruments in this post are professional grade instruments – and are priced accordingly.
The piano has been a largely static instrument for the last 100 years. Steinway produced an 88-note model in the late 1880’s and that more or less standardized the instrument. There are very minor differences between makers in agraffes, rim composition, etc. All these add up to perceptible tonal variation, and musicians develop preferences based on these. It must also be mentioned that much of what is paid for in a piano is luxury work – fine (and increasingly rare) tone woods, luxury veneers, hand craftsmanship vs. automation, etc. Much of piano marketing is more akin to the kind of marketing done for pure luxury goods like leather, perfume, etc.
The last two decades have seen a marked rise in the quality of all pianos, even very inexpensive “stencil” pianos from factories in the far east. While they do not have the cachet of European and American brands like Steinway, Bosendorfer, etc, the quality is improving rapidly, as one would expect. When piano technology is 100-150 years old, it is mostly manufacturing prowess to learn how to make a better piano. With modern factory practices and intent engineering, a rise in quality is all but inevitable.
What has been lacking is actual innovation in the instrument itself. Wayne Stuart of Stuart and Sons Pianos in Australia is definitely taking this head on. He has produced a new agraffe that lowers the soundboard pressure, as well as extended the key range to 97 and 102 key instruments. His instruments have a substantially elevated sustain and tonal compass and produce some of the finest piano tone I have heard. Wayne is firmly committed to extending the art of piano making.
I have just become aware of another maker seeking to improve the art of piano making: Gergely Bogányi. His pianos are visually stunning:
They incorporate a carbon fiber soundboard, and a very curvaceious case that cantilevers the case over two legs. Interestingly, Steingraber & Sohne also produce a piano with a carbon fiber soundboard, but maintain a traditional wood case. So while the core innovation of the Boganyi is not “new”, it is still radical in the traditional world of piano manufacture. I would expect that a certain number of these Boganyi instruments will be purchased just as objets d’art.
I believe that carbon fiber will become more and more accepted as time passes. We already have carbon fiber stringed instruments that compete with professional quality wood violins. As research into material science accelerates, it will be possible to make resonant surfaces and cavities that are much more controlled and consistent than wood. For much of the world, the ambient humidity is not conducive to wood instrument longevity. Carbon fibre is not a limited resource in the same way as fine tone wood, and can be manufactured in large quantity. Once the layup recipe and composition are stabilized around a given tonal goal, manufacture can be be quite efficient, leading to higher quality at lower cost. This is sure to be a good thing for most musicians. It will not be the end of wood instruments, but will surely be a good thing for musicianship and allowing more people to access instruments on a global basis.
In the last post, we discussed a framework for evaluating musical technology that centered around how well it facilitated artistic vision. I have been thinking a lot about this because of a fluke rash of equipment issues in my studio. Camel Audio decided not to keep the Alchemy synth software going, my box of knobs failed on a firmware update, and my Bowen synth no longer turns on. In all cases, the manufactures have been helpful, but equipment or software that I use regularly suddenly became “unavailable”. In no way does it stop me from making music, or being creative. But it takes time and money to remedy or replace the lost capability. My trombone doesn’t do this in the same way, or my classical guitar – though in fairness, both could easily be destroyed through careless handling. The net result has been that I’ve been considering how I’ve invested into musical instruments and technology and have been thinking about how I want to position myself moving forward.
As I think about categories of investment I’ve made, I make several observations:
Software is the least permanent, whether synthesizers or DAWs, effects, etc. Versions come and go. Apple updates OSX every year, as Microsoft does with Windows. Digital rot is real, and in most cases it is “upgrade or die” where file formats and software are concerned. There is a real ongoing cost of doing this of time and money. Yes, one can “freeze” a system at a moment in time and use it until the hardware dies, but it doesn’t change anything – that simply makes a full upgrade of all hardware and software at once inevitable. I’d rather pay the tax gradually as tech is so disruptive when it is not working. Software is basically worth it in terms of immediate and constant use. Software things that are not going to see regular use just aren’t a good investment unless matched with cash flow from a project. There is just too much drift and loss over time for this to be strategic for me. I have mid-term investments into Cubase for my orchestral template and probably 150-200 hours of working on that. DAWs won’t go away, but try telling a composer he or she has to move their templates…. Possible, but no fun, and a major interruption to productivity.
Computer based controllers need to be reasonably priced for this reason – they too are tied to operating systems and digital rot. It is unlikely that I will be using the same box of knobs and buttons in 15 years. If I get 3-5 years of solid use, I’ll probably be glad, and I need to keep these things in check accordingly. The Ableton Push is also in this bucket. Useful if used, but it will not have a long shelf life relative to a piano or high-quality microphone.
Orchestral sample libraries are pretty stable, and do not soon go obsolete. As time marches onward the programming and scripting improves and the state of the art moves forward. The cost of buying a complete “virtual orchestra” at the state-of-the art is high, but promises 5-10 years of commercially viable capability. In this world, continued availability and updates to Native Instrument’s Kontakt sampler is a critical part of the infrastructure, along with Vienna’s Ensemble Pro software that distributes load across my computers. Those are dependencies for which no perfect alternative exists. This whole industry is made of small players compared to the giant MI companies like Korg or Yamaha or Roland. Again, there are maintenance costs, but beyond a certain point of having the necessary orchestral palette, having every possible flavor is not a strategic goal for me. While some growth of my sample library is inevitable, I consider myself pretty well invested and there is a pretty high bar for me to consider adding additional things at this point. Certainly, I am not significantly limited in what I can compose and turn out at a professional level.
Electronic instruments like my Bowen Solaris synthesizer are supposed to offer a stability and longevity that exceeds software. By virtue of having a dedicated firmware that is stable, the idea is that this kind of gear leaves the factory in full working order and keeps working until physical failure or mechanical damage intervene. Because there is not an operating system to upgrade or other software to conflict, hardware does tend to be much more stable and reliable. Gear like this works just fine without ongoing updates. It works the same every time. That said, my Bowen is currently sick. It will be fixed – John is a great guy and very responsive. But what about 10 years from now? It is doubtful that it will still be made new. It is unlikely that there will be a parts depot for key parts. Unless it is a simple power supply issue, the reality is that it will likely not be repairable. So, I see both sides with hardware synths, and embedded systems like audio interfaces. It is certain that USB has and will outlive whatever OS Microsoft and Apple make this year, but these are also not likely to be around in another ten years. Even with hardware, many things that we take for granted are really just tools of the moment,and need to be justified by significant and immediate use.
I would tend to categorize the Seaboard in this category as well, except that it serves a different function for me. It’s long term viability is unknown, though I wish Roli maximal success, as it has software dependency on OSX. It cannot work without a computer. That said, this is on my “R&D” list. In order to be at the front of progress, one must be at the front of progress. There are lots of ways to be there in software and hardware. None of us can try or own every product. I want to be involved with this one and it fits my situation, so whether I am playing it in 10 years or not, I will have had an experience at the forefront of a new era of controllers and that is worth something to me, and it is worth being part of that dialog. There is a fundamental shift happening in controllers, and it is important to electronic music and musicians that these develop and are adopted.
Other types of electronic hardware can be much more long lasting due to serviceable components and lack of digital components. Microphones, monitor speakers, amplifiers, electric guitars and basses, analog recording equipment all fall into this category. These items are rarely cheap, but are serviceable, most parts are available apart from the manufacturer, and much of this equipment can last for 20-30 years, even with very regular professional use. Not all items in these categories have that much life in them, but the best items certainly do, and can last for the better part of a career. My current monitor speakers are over 10 years old and still working very well. They have been a fantastic investment, and I would have to spend a lot to do better in my room. It is definitely possible to make strategic investments in this category for tools that will see daily use. At the same time, buying highly specialized microphones for infrequent use isn’t worth it. Studio time is too easily rented where those pieces exist.
Acoustic instruments sit atop my chart for longevity expectation and strategic value. Some instruments, like a grand piano, age at about the same rate as a human being and one or two instruments can last a lifetime. Acoustic guitars and stringed instruments like violins and violas can last a very long time with proper care and repair. Professional wind, and brass instruments are not as durable as these instruments mentioned so far due to mechanical complexity, but can certainly be expected to last 7-15 years under heavy professional use with appropriate maintenance. Most professional players would purchase new instruments before 7 years, but this would be after many thousands of hours of demanding use, and at least in part due to changed requirements or tonal preference. If the hours of use are reduced, many instruments can last for decades.
It turns out that in our technology driven era, choosing equipment has artistic implications and requires a variable investment profile with a mix of short and long-term investments. Choosing one’s place on both artistic and investment dimensions is important. Some will need to be on the cutting edge technicality, and their instruments and studios will be constantly shifting mix of software and hardware. Archiving to WAV file will be very important for this group to avoid losing work to digital rot. For others, playing and physicality are more important, and for them, the scale will tilt heavily towards more traditional interfaces and instruments, serviceable electronics, and longer-term investments – often at a larger cost per item. I suspect that the absolute cost is similar. For the $8,000 it takes to buy a fine professional oboe, one can buy and upgrade quite a lot of software, so it really is a matter of preference. I have become more clear on my preferences by writing this. How do you think about investing in musical instruments and equipment?