Persona Digital Music Studio

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Synthesizers, a Brief History

I have played with synthesizers since 1974. I enjoyed making and analyzing musical sounds, interesting psychoacoustic effects and compared the construction of synthesizers with the construction of the human brain. A synthesizer is built from function-specific modules that are linked together to produce the final results.

When I was first studying electronics, I constructed a synthesizer from modules that each performed one function. The modules had jacks on their front panels so that each could be connected to other modules by using patch cords. To generate musical sounds you connected a piano-like keyboard controller that sent out a different voltage from each key to a voltage controlled oscillator that generated the sound waves at the appropriate pitch. The oscillator was typically connected to a voltage-controlled amplifier that was in turn controlled by a ramp generator, since musical sounds emerge and decay within an amplitude envelope. To finish a convincing musical sound, many modules would be connected in a single path.

Robert Moog created a revolutionary analog synthesizer, used, for example, by William (Wendy) Carlos's in the popular album Switched-On Bach (1968). In the 1970s synthesizers become portable keyboard instruments used in live performances. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) made it easy to connect synthesizers with computers and other electronic devices. Software synthesizers appeared in the 1990s.

Analog Synthesis 1974

I started my synthesis career in 1974 with module kits from John Simonton (PAIA). A module kit consisted of a circuit board, transistors resistors and capacitors. There was a circuit schematic and some instructions. You supplied the soldering iron and assembly skills. A basic system required 8 kits, one Voltage Controlled Oscillator, one Envelope Generator, one Voltage Controlled Amplifier, one Low Frequency Oscillator, one Noise Generator, one Low Pass filter and one Band Pass Filter. A power supply was required. The modules had jacks on their front panels so that each could be connected to other modules by using patch cords. left wing cabinet To finish a convincing musical sound, many modules would be connected in a single path.



The VC Oscillator module produced sine waves, square waves and sawtooth waves. The pitch was determined by a voltage input for a keyboard, for example. The simplest synthesis path was keyboard > VCO > EG >VCA> LPF to BPF > sound amplifier.

Digital Synthesizers

Digital Synthesis evolved along with digital recording hardware and software. The first digital synthesizers were revolutionary. The engineering of evermore complex keyboards and stand-alone sound modules became increasingly sophisticated both in the production of high-quality sound and in the techniques of music compositions. The MIDI agreement among the major manufacturers created abundant opportunities for music production and embraced a detailed, deep understanding of music composition and recording.

Yamaha DX7

My first digital keyboard was the Yamaha DX7 in 1983.The DX7 was based on Phase Modulation Synthesis ( Yamaha called it frequency modulation), an innovation in digital technology that produced remarkably clear instrumental sounds. The DX-7 became the best selling synth of its time and appeared on numerous pop recordings. The voices included convincing simulations of the Rhodes electric piano. It used an early implementation of midi and computer based voice editors and librarians became available. It could only play one voice at a time with 16-note polyphony. It had 32 sound creating algorithms offering different combinations of 6 sound operators. I recall hours of enjoyment learning to program new sounds.

Oberheim Matrix-6

Next I added the digital-analog hybrid, Oberheim Matrix-6 with a velocity sensitive keyboard with aftertouch. It was limited to 6-note polyphony. A voice was generated by a Digital oscillator, a VCF, three envelope generators, two ramp generators, portamento and FM controls. Oberheim sounds were often distinctive and provided quite a different sound palette than the DX7. The two synths combined nicely.

Roland D 50

A Roland D50 was the third acquisition, a handsome responsive digital keyboard with a collection of sampled waveforms that were added together to form patches. The D50 combined samples with analogue-like waveforms and a signal processor to create some unique sounds that became very popular. The D50 had a special ability to create complex, evolving sounds that made it a famous ambient sound generator.

EMU Proteus

In 1971, Dave Rossum and friends from Cal Tech built an analog synthesizer they called E µ. Later with Scott Wedge, Dave formed a company and the name became E-mu They advertised their products in Popular Electronics and in Electronotes, a newsletter for engineers. In 1973, E-mu introduced a digitally-scanned polyphonic keyboard, which featured a built-in digital sequencer, the prototype of the EMU modules I continue to use. In 1979 they were inspired by the high end Fairlight CMI and began designing a sampling keyboard - the E-Mulator was first released in 1981.EMU became well known for its digital samplers and developed a large library of digital samples for use in synthesizers. I rushed to the music store in 1989 when the sound modules, the EMU Proteus, first appeared. This was a truly polyphonic sound module, based on digital samples. The sounds were crisp and clear. Mixes with the Proteus were better that I could achieve with other synths. I have been an EMU Proteus fan ever since.

More About EMU X3 Sampler/Synthesizer

Korg Trinity

I have ongoing attachment to the Korg Trinity and the EMU Proteus 2500, both magnificent electronic devices that contains the equivalent of hundreds of modules and thousands of patch cords. Rather that actually building modules physically and connecting them with real wires, these synthesizers simulate modules and patches by using a digital computer to calculate what the output would sound like if you had a set of modules connected in a certain way. On the Trinity, you choose the "modules" from menus on a touch sensitive screen; then you choose values for many parameters that control the modules and connect modules to form the "patch" or sound that emerges in stereo from the output jacks of the synthesizer. The sound can be a single instrument played expressively, an entire string section or a complex and evolving mixture of sound effects suitable for a Star Wars soundtrack. The synthesizers with virtual modules and dense, variable inner connections provide a modular interconnection concept that can be applied to studying the brain. You combine the knowledge of what each module does with knowledge of how different connections add to, modify and combine the function of individual modules.

Equipment manufacturers have created hundreds of keyboard synthesizers and sound modules sporting a range of prices, features, and variations on the basic engineering of sound production equipment. A new buyer faces a proliferation of and potentially bewildering ranges of choices.

Software Synths

All of the analogue synthesizers worthy of mention have been simulated in software versions. A number of companies market soft retro synths. For example Arturia offered in 2010 software package of 7 well-known analog synthesizers: Minimoog V, Moog Modular V, Yamaha CS-80V, ARP 2600 V, Prophet V, Prophet VS and Jupiter-8V. They also offer Analog Factory, a synthesizer of their own design. These synth simulations are of interest to a range of people and are useful for students who want to learn the basics of analogue synthesis. They can also be used as plugins to software sequencers. The advantages as numerous as disadvantages when used as sequencer plugins. I use software synths to create composition sketches and first drafts but always use hardware sound modules to complete compositions for final recording.

Synths 2016

The design ideas I have summarized continue to be used by the major manufactures (Korg, Roland and Yamaha). The acoustic piano has been replaced by digital stage pianos with excellent sound and expression capabilities. Keyboard work stations combine all the modules of a recording studio complete with libraries of recorded drum tracks. Arranger keyboards can create complete arrangements with minimal input. In the hands of an experienced performer, the arranger keyboard produces a one-man band.

Yamaha offers state of the art keyboard workstations. They stated "The first Yamaha synthesizer was released in 1974, at a time when synthesizers were only just beginning to be accepted into the musical mainstream. Yamaha has been at the forefront ever since, with instruments that have defined musical styles and propelled countless artists to stardom. We have created the limited edition 40th Anniversary MOTIF XF Music Production Synthesizer. The commemorative MOTIF XF is pure white, symbolizing both our dedication for the past 40 years and a new beginning from which an even brighter future for musical creativity and expression will arise."

Korg described a recent contribution: "The Pa4X Professional Arranger is more than a keyboard. It’s your backup band; your accompanist; and your musical director. It’s your soundman; your effects engineer; and your always in-tune background singers. Best of all—you’re always in charge! Ideal for composing, recording, and combo use, the intuitive Pa4X really comes to life in the hands of the solo keyboard performer and entertainer. And nowhere else is the flawless operation and superior sound of one keyboard instrument more in the spotlight"

Roland: "The new FA series completely reimagines the music workstation, streamlining it for effortless real-time power, ultra-fast workflow, and maximum versatility. Ready to support any type of music you play, the FA-06 is packed with a massive sound collection inherited from the flagship INTEGRA-7, a ton of studio-quality effects, and expressive real-time controls, plus onboard sampling with zero load time for instant audio playback from the 16 backlit pads. The sequencer features simple operation and non-stop loop recording, letting you capture songs and ideas as they come and export them as multitrack data to use with your DAW. Flowing seamlessly into every part of your creative world, the FA-06 morphs instantly from a standalone keyboard to become the command center of your computer music studio, with USB audio/MIDI interfacing, powerful real-time controllers, DAW transport controls, and much more."

  • Topics presented at Persona Digital Studio are from the book,
    The Sound of Music
    by Stephen Gislason.
    Click the Download button to order the eBook 

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     Persona Digital Studio is located on the Sunshine Coast, Sechelt, British Columbia, Canada.

    Persona Music Recordings: Our Music Catalogue includes recorded performances by the P2500 Band, Em4U, and the Persona Classical Consort. Some music online is offered to illustrate music history, advance music education and appreciation. The recordings presented online demonstrate Persona Studio's arranging, recording and mastering techniques. All the recordings are completed in house by Stephen Gislason.

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