Thursday, August 05, 2004

Synclavier: Sampling, MIDI & Days Gone By

The introduction of Sampling technology and MIDI to the Synclavier proved to be enhancements that led to a kind of undoing when it came to users and operators going for a Synclavier synthesized sound.

I think of sampling technology, in particular, as both the beginning and the end of an Era.

The reason for this is that after New England Digital introduced sampling as an instrument option, technicians and musicians –both– abandoned the instrument’s unique synthesis capabilities in favor of triggering perfectly ‘real sounding’ samples. It’s probably fair to say that there is a lot of Synclavier use on albums that you'd never know was Synclavier because it was being used to trigger samples, or as a Digital Audio Workstation, and not as a synthesizer.

Keep in mind, when when I say 'sound of the Synclavier', I do not mean way the sound waves generated and output by the digital-to-analog convertors were colored. I mean the actual sound synthesis possibilities unique to the instrument.

Synclavier sound synthesis met continued diminished use after the additional introduction of MIDI. At that point the instrument might be used not just to trigger an internal array of samples, but also as powerful sequencer triggering a battery of layered other synths of the day, like D-50's, M1's and Emu.

In fact, by the time I began working for Jonathan Elias, none of the staff composers used the inherent synthesis technology of any of the three units the studio owned. It was all about MIDI Sequencing of samples and outboard gear.

So, would I buy one of these vintage beasts today, given the power and economy of today’s music production tools? Well, they’re no longer so expensive. A machine that original sold for nearly a hundred thousand twenty-five years ago could probably be bought and restored with MAC functionality for about a tenth of the original price.

And I’m a synthesist in the classic sense, myself, at heart, not a guy who triggers samples. My ears are shaped by years developing an expertise with both the Moog and Synclavier, and listening to them through analog Neves and Yamaha NS-10s.

So my answer would be resounding YES. Hey, I still get wobbly knees when I hear that original Synclavier factory Gong patch lead off Michael Jackson’s BEAT IT.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Synclavier: ReSynthesis

Another interesting approach for sound modification offered by the Synclavier was called ReSynthesis.

I think ReSynthesis struck the computer musicians of the day, like myself, as more interesting and useful than it struck traditional composers and production personnel.

In brief: Using ReSynthesis, up to 96 individual sampled instruments –each with their own envelope– could be sequenced by triggering a single key stroke. So for instance, a single sound could start out with a trumpet attack, transition into a violin down stroke, then into a child's laugh, then into a car horn, etc - up to 96 such changes, if one so desired.

The same thing can of course be done today by cross fading through a series of samples, but in 1987 it was a mind boggling concept.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Synclavier: Synthesis & The Sound of The Synclav

The power of the original Synclavier II and Synclavier instruments lay in the combination of Fourier styled synthesis and FM built into the user functionality of the units. The combination of technologies 'under the hood' created stunningly organic sounds for the time - even in sounds that weren't necessarily simulations of 'real' instruments.

Frequency Modulation on the Synclavier worked differently than I’ve seen it implemented on just about every other synthesizer I've come across. Unless you’ve actually worked with one, it’s hard to grasp just how uniquely FM was used within the context of a Synclavier environment, especially if your only experience with FM is, say, on a Virtual Analog that maybe has one rotary knob labeled 'FM'.

I’m sometimes asked today if there’s a way to get that Synclavier sound on any of the contemporary VA’s.

Yes and no:

I can coax steady state Synclavier-like sounds (pads, bells, hits) out of any virtual analog. The thing with the Synclavier though, is that the FM aspect of it was used to integrate expression into the sound, not just as a superficial modulator, as it is on so many other synths.

For instance, one would use the FM to create the sliding bow to enhance the realism of the underlying tonal string sound; or the breath on a horn's mouth piece for a brass patch. This was a big concept in its day, that by layering a primary tonal sound with secondary audio information whose color mimicked the noise of a musician working his or her instrument could capture and really enhance the realism of any given simulated sound.

But even more exciting, this meant one could create a totally unique patch, that sounded like nothing else in the universe, and program information into it that made it feel like a 'real' instrument, albeit one you've never heard before. And that was a sonic revolution.

You can't do that on a virtual analog synth. But, –yes– you can approximate some of those otherworldly Synclavier leads and pads if you wanted to.

And for what it's worth -and I mentioned this somewhere online before- the Waldorf products do an exceptional job making pads that sound like vintage Synclavier patches.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Synclavier: Artists and Albums

My Favorite Synclavier albums would be Laurie Anderson's MISTER HEARTBREAK and Frank Zappa's JAZZ FROM HELL which as far as I remember both featured Synclavier arrangements created before the advent of sampling technology.

MISTER HEARTBREAK was interesting for that very reason: The mixes include ambient sounds –like birds and other nature sounds, for instance– layered into the music tracks. Those sounds aren't samples - they're synthesized sounds. Which is to say, that essentially, the Synclavier was so powerful that one could synthesize sounds to the degree they sounded sampled, if one had such an ear.

I like to think of the ability to synthesize sounds to such a specific degree as a talent akin to perfect pitch: that is, the ability to reproduce what you hear. I call this talent and indicator of Aural Intelligence.

Some songs that particularly feature the Synclavier include Soft Cell's TAINTED LOVE - as was, I can safely say, probably most of anything produced by Mike Thorne throughout the eighties & nineties.

I was an acquaintance of Mike and went down to his studio in lower Manhattan on occasion. One of his ‘tricks’ was to feed a Serge Modular rack into the sampling input of the Synclavier. In those days I was all about working 'within the box' at the time, so I thought sampling the Serge was a pretty neat idea.

Martin Rushent was another producer I had the chance to meet (at the Synclavier II Seminar I mentioned in another post on this blog), and he was a HUGE Synclavier fan. I think he may have been the first producer who hired a dedicated Synclavier operator to assist him in record production, such was the level of his investment in the technology. I suspect all the Human League Albums were arranged on a Synclavier as were the electro elements on Pete Shelley's HOMOSAPIEN.

Sometimes when you read the liner notes for some albums, it says everything but the Synclavier. Back in those days many producers tried to keep their Synclavier usage on the hush hush. But you can hear it all over the place! And by hear it, I don't just mean the sound of the instrument, that is the patches produced by its synthesis engine, I also mean the warmth of the samples and timing of its sequencer, which pretty much locked everything right on the beat and definitely did NOT swing. There are some indie cats out there that mock the quarter million price tags of those beasts, and you can hate on the old dinosaur all you want, but the eighties wouldn't sound they way they do without the Synclavier.

Michael Jackson's THRILLER is chock full of Synclavier sounds - the opening gong that makes up the intro of BEAT IT is not only a classic sound created on the Synclavier, but in fact it was a PRESET on the original unit!

Of course, Yes' UNION album is also chock full of Synclavier sounds. That album is notorious for the bad blood that evolved between the group's legendary keyboardist, Rick Wakeman, and my boss, record producer Jonathan Elias. In the end, as it was my understanding based on a glance at the old 2"s, Jonathan's writing partner, Alex Lasarenko, performed a good chunk of the final synth parts.

Stevie Wonder was another fan and if I remember correctly even appeared on the Cosby show with it!

I can't mention great Synclavier artists without mentioning Pat Methany. Regardless of the fact that omits any mention of Pat Methany’s use of the Synclavier (as of this writing), In 1985 or ’86 I had the opportunity to stand five feet away from Pat while he played the Synclavier via a Roland guitar controller - probably a Roland GR-303 but I can't remember the make. It was mind blowing, and earth shattering. I still remember how my coffee cup jumped out of my hands.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Synclavier: Stradivarius of Synthesizers

Years before Digital Audio Workstations, such as Cubase, Digital Performer, Logic, Nuendo Sonar and Pro Tools became de rigueur for audio production, studio professionals were generally divided into two camps: Those who produced work using Fairlight technology, and those who worked on New England Digital’s Synclavier or Synclavier II Workstations.

To this day I think the Synclavier II must be the most beautiful electronic synthesizer ever made.

Both the Fairlight CMI and NED's Synclavier were staggeringly expensive by today’s standards, and yesterday’s. The Synclavier was a modular and system, meaning a unit could be purchased in a variety of custom configurations. One could easily spend over a hundred thousand dollars on a unit. I was the Head of Production for a studio that hosted three such machines.

Other popular machines of the day whose capabilities resembled Fairlight and Synclavier technologies were Yamaha’s DX-7 and Kurzweil’s K250, which was first to offered ROM-based sampling in the unit itself. Both the DX-7 and the K250 were undoubtedly among the top of their class as far as synthesizers go. But the quantum leap between those machines and units offered by New England Digital and Fairlight, was that the latter two manufactured something more than a synthesizer. In fact, it could be stated that they produced the precursors to today’s Digital Audio Workstations.

I would venture to guess that 90% of the US television commercials, produced in the mid eighties to mid nineties, and much television scoring in general, was produced using Synclaviers or Fairlights. I personally didn't know a music production company that didn't use one or the other as a primary compositional tool.

Eventually, and for a variety of reasons, there was a paradigm shift away from these behemoths to newer, cheaper technologies, such as Digital Performer and Logic.

Synclavier operators and users, however, tend to have a relationship with their units much the same way that a violinist who owns a Stradivarius has with his instrument. Indeed such a relationship exists between most traditional musicians and their instrument. Unlike a piece of software, a Synclavier is a musical instrument, on par with, –and in the class of– Stradivarius violins, and vintage Gibson and Fender guitars.

Today’s soft synths have a lot going for them, but I don’t know of any that endear that kind of love, or anyone who thinks software has what we colloquially refer to as ‘soul’.

I’ve worked on a variety of Synclavier units, since the prototype stage and through every upgrade up to 1997. I still know of some instruments that continue to be used in production today, despite the advances in technology and the advent of Pro Tools, I think New England Digital’s musical machines continue to sound great.