Early '80s technology finds new life in a dance-oriented synth. - EMusician

Early '80s technology finds new life in a dance-oriented synth.

Every instrument has its own sound. As much as some synthesizer manufacturers would like to create a universal synthesizer that can create any sound imaginable,
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Every instrument has its own sound. As much as some synthesizer manufacturers would like to create a universal synthesizer that can create any sound imaginable, they never succeed. Or if they come very close-as with advanced sampling workstations-it is still the quirky little corners of the system that musicians always seem to seek out in their quest to find something unique and special.

The designers of the SidStation haven't tried to make a universal synthesizer at all. Instead, they've made something that has a unique, edgy sound all its own. The SidStation is a distinctive and powerful synthesizer that proudly sports a hacker or experimentalist orientation-absolutely every parameter of the sound can be programmed by the user.

VINTAGE CHIPSThe SidStation is based on the MOS6581 sound chip-also called the Sound Interface Device (SID) chip-which was designed to be the sound subsystem of the Commodore 64 PC. Elektron wrapped the venerable SID chip in a new operating system that provides all the trappings of a modern synthesizer, such as MIDI control and synchronization, preset voices, and voice editing. But at its heart is the SID with its own strange (some would call it cheesy) sound that you either love or hate.

When the Commodore 64 (C64) was first released in 1982, it represented a breakthrough not only in cost, but also in multimedia capabilities for a personal computer. It was designed from the ground up to be a game machine, and it was packed with innovations in both software and hardware to support this goal. The C64 introduced hardware support of sprites, which are essential for rendering the moving players; bullets; and bombs. It could be connected to color television sets and play games stored in plug-in cartridges, and it had advanced (for its day) built-in sound support in the form of the SID chip as well.

The SID is a hybrid analog-digital chip that implements three voices of a fairly classic analog synthesis structure. Each voice has one digital oscillator and an analog filter section. Users can freely route ADSR envelopes, as well as four LFOs, to nearly any sound parameter. In addition, there is a variety of unusual modulation and sync modes (these are described later) that are unique to the SID chip and that are perhaps the reason this chip has the cult following that led to the creation of this box.

SID chips are in short supply in the world, as they have not been manufactured for at least ten years. Elektron has somehow obtained a number of factory-new SID chips-it won't say how many-making the SidStation inherently a "limited edition" item. Connoisseurs of the SID will be happy to hear that the chips are of the R4 batch, which are reputed to have the highest sound quality.

SHINY BEASTThe SidStation is a brushed-chrome, drum machine-style tabletop box with a simple and clear user interface that reveals its hackerish roots (see Fig. 1). On the sloping top surface are a 2-line LCD panel, a large parameter wheel, four continuous controller knobs, and a 16-button keypad. Like a telephone, the keypad includes number, star, and pound keys, as well as an extra column of keys on the right labeled A, B, C, and D. The letter labeling doesn't seem to really denote anything: perhaps the keypad is a surplus item that's being recycled like the SID chip itself. Directional arrows are silk-screened below the pad and to the right of the pad, indicating the true use of the non-number keys in providing simple left or right and up or down navigation of the LCD panel menus.

The operating system for the SID is stored in flash RAM and can be easily updated by downloading a new file from the company's Web site. As with other MIDI devices, the system code file is encoded into a SysEx message in a MIDI file. The OS is then updated by playing this SysEx sequence from your computer sequencer into the SidStation. This is a very convenient and useful feature, as it eliminates worry about system obsolescence or having to live with version 1.0 bugs forever.

Elektron's Web site is well designed and well trafficked. On this site the company provides system updates, curates a lively user discussion forum, and maintains a growing library of user-uploaded patches. The "soft" nature of this synth means that Web access is really essential for anyone using this synthesizer. The factory preset patches, like the OS, are stored in flash memory, and it's quite possible to erase the original patches completely-I know, because I did it while testing the unit! I was able to download the patch set from the Web site and be back playing in five minutes.

Sound editing on the SidStation is straightforward; you can do everything with the keypad. But the rotary encoder wheel and the controller knobs can be used to select and modify voice parameters as well. The number keypad looks a little clunky at first, but it's actually a great way to edit voices once you know your way around. At any one level of the menu hierarchy, hitting a number key moves the focus to one of the available menu items and selects it, all in one move. This has all the earmarks of a good user interface: there are multiple ways to accomplish the same thing, ways that are a bit slower but clearer for the novice as well as speedy shortcuts for users who are more familiar with the box. The four controller knobs can be assigned to give you real-time control over any four parameters of a voice. In edit mode, the knobs can be used to set values that appear on the screen.

However, editing voices by hand on this machine is a daunting task, primarily because of the range of possibilities available. There are well over 100 user-adjustable parameters for any given sound, and many of the parameters interact in strange and complex ways. This is a rich field to work in, but it's also easy to find yourself in a corner of the parameter space where voices are not sounding, and it's hard to tell how to remedy the situation.

MIDI SAVES DAYThe SidStation's MIDI implementation is so extensive that for many users working with computers or MIDI controllers, voice editing may not be necessary. This is one of the few synthesizers that have gotten their MIDI controller implementation right. Most synths regard the mapping of MIDI controllers as a property of a patch: if you want certain parameters of a sound to be tweakable with a MIDI controller, you have to specifically set up that mapping.

This is not the case with the SidStation. All of the parameters of a sound are always adjustable in real time by a fixed mapping of MIDI controllers-102 of them in all. For example, Oscillator 3 Ring Modulation is always controlled by MIDI Control Change 79, LFO2 Depth is always CC 95, and so forth. This kind of setup is outstanding for experimentation and for creating new sounds from existing patches.

In a synth that has patch-based mapping of MIDI controllers, experimenting with real-time control is extremely laborious. First, you have to guess which parameters might be interesting to make adjustable in real time. Then, you have to traverse menus to edit a voice in order to make those parameters sensitive to MIDI adjustment. If you're wrong, you have to go back and change the mapping. And if you're right, you have to repeat the entire process for every voice you want to explore.

With fixed global mappings as on the SidStation, however, each voice can easily be driven into any weird and outlandish mode you fancy. With this configuration, you are much more likely to stumble upon interesting variations that you couldn't have planned in advance if you had to deduce which parameters to make active. Of course, the usefulness of this feature is based on the assumption that the user has a computer or MIDI controller hooked up to the SidStation.

The unit's four front-panel knobs are user-definable MIDI controllers and can be linked to control any parameter. The knobs also transmit Control Change messages through the MIDI Out on the SidStation so that they can be used to control external MIDI equipment.

CLASSICAL ARCHITECTUREThe SidStation's voice architecture at first looks like a fairly classic analog synth voice: LFO, oscillator, filter, envelope. However, there are some mighty strange details lurking in there that give this synthesizer something of its unique character.

The oscillators are digital, and can be switched between basic wave shapes such as triangle, saw, pulse, noise, or a mix of them. Ring modulation and several sync modes can link oscillators in a number of ways, leading to more nasty timbral richness.

Things get really weird, however, with the addition of a unique SidStation feature, the waveform table. This is a sequence of up to 32 oscillator settings (including waveform, ring modulation, pitch number, and sync state) that the machine can run through once or in a loop for each note attack. Conceptually, it's a little like a Wave Sequence in a Korg synthesizer. But on the SidStation, these sequences are usually looped very quickly, often at audio rates, and this creates highly unique timbres. The results lean toward wildly robotic and complex sonorities that are more reminiscent of the sound of a modem than that of an orchestral instrument.

LFO INTERLACEThe LFOs have a few tricks of their own as well. You can, of course, select the basic waveforms and modulate them in the traditional manner. However, the SidStation also offers a unique set of modifications that can be made on these signals.

One of the coolest effects is an Interlace parameter, which allows you to chop together two different LFO waveforms. This results in a noncontinuous waveform that incorporates three frequencies: the frequencies of the two different waveforms and the chop rate. Because the waveforms can be quite complex, the result is often a crazy digital sound unlike anything you've heard elsewhere.

GOT NOISE?So what does this thing sound like, anyway? Well, you better like noise and distortion. The noise floor is extremely high, just as in the original Commodore 64. The philosophy of Elektron seems to be to give you the real, unvarnished thing: if you want to run it through noise gates to clean up the sound, you're free to do it yourself. (A good amount of the chat on the Elektron Web site has to do with ideas about cutting down the SidStation's noise.)

And distortion! This is a synthesizer for lovers of distortion. All the Sid-Station's wacky digital-modulation schemes lead to a richly varied palette of nonharmonic goodies.

The analog filters have a distinctive sound and coloration of their own. They're quite flexible and are switchable between lowpass, bandpass, and highpass, as well as various quirky combinations of them all. An audio input is available on the box (see Fig. 2) for processing signals through the filter section. However, you're going to pick up a lot of computery hash noise along the way. You just have to like that kind of thing if you're going to get into this box.

GABBA HEY!The SidStation is ideal for technologically savvy experimentalists and hard-core dance stylists. Others may find the noise level, distortion, and occasional flakiness of the venerable SID chip not to their liking.

The SidStation really shines at creating heavy, distorted 303-through-a-fuzz-box bass lines, as well as intelligent variants of the classic computer-game beeps and explosions. Think gabba and other hard European-techno dance styles and you'll get the picture. The musical samples available on the SidStation Web site show to good effect what the device can do.

I like the whole-world view that went into this synth. It really seems to be about finding and exploiting a unique sound source and giving the users direct and total control over it. You have to be willing to go through a few rough spots at first. But for those interested in the edgy, frankly electronic part of the spectrum, the SidStation offers many rewards.

Tim Perkis (www.perkis.com) writes and makes rude noises in the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere.