Given the sophisticated state of digital sampling and synthesis overall, it’s worthwhile to consider the way electronic musicians created orchestral sounds before we could capture and manipulate the nuances of actual strings, brass and woodwinds. String Machines (also referred to as string ensembles) proliferated in the 70s as a unique solution for bands wanting to orchestrate or pad their music with strings and orchestral ensembles in situations where such sweetening was unaffordable or logistically diffcult. Tone generation for early string machines was more closely related to the electronic organ than the synthesizer, and you don’t have to listen too closely to the initialized templates to hear the resemblance. As a result—to the modern ear—string machines can often sound primitive and unrefined; not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, their sounds bear a unique sonic signature that stand apart from their more realistic relations. UVI aims to let you be the judge, with its release of String Machines 2, a sound library for their Falcon synthesizer and the free UVI Workstation. String Machines is available à la carte, or as part of their expansive Vintage Vault 2 collection.
Expanding from the original collection of 11, UVI restored and sampled 51 additional instruments, comprising string machines and a few synthesizers that were particularly adept at creating string-ensemble sounds, such as Oberheim’s Matrix 12. In all, the collection entails 355 presets, ranging from recreations of the original instrument sounds to fanciful modern patches infused with motion and animated with layering, step sequencing, and gating effects.
Clearly, it would have been a fool’s mission to replicate the control panel of sixty some-odd string machines. Instead, UVI deploys a simple subtractive-synth engine to shape the sounds, so the result is that—despite a surprisingly diverse gathering of presets—the interface is consistent throughout, so it’s easy to use any of the patches that inspire you as a jumping-off point for your own creations.
Topmost in the UI are five buttons and a main-volume knob. The buttons shuttle you to controls on the Main, Edit, Mod, FX, and Arp pages. There’s plenty of basic editing for each of the two oscillators on the Main page, including volume, pan, sample selection by way of a pull-down menu from the sample title, or via the increment and decrement switches, and a button to engage or defeat either oscillator. Below that, you can select either or both oscillators simultaneously for editing, and balance the pair.
Each oscillator has independent ADSR envelope generators for amplitude and separate filters, with a choice of low-, band-, and high-pass—or no filter at all. Both amp and filter envelopes offer velocity control, and the amp envelope features an extra button to control the attack rate in addition to loudness. The Edit page sets up basic performance parameters such as Poly or Mono modes, transposition, stereo modes, mod wheel control over vibrato, tremolo, and filter cutoff. Here again, you can program oscillators individually or as a pair.
You’ll find the most significant deviation from the string-machine norm in the instrument’s Mod page (see above), with a Step Modulator offering up to 16 steps, speeds ranging from whole notes to ¼-note values, with triplet and dotted values as well; delay, rise time, and smoothing controls. In other words, you have an additional free-form LFO you can apply to volume and filter. Of course, you also have a standard sine, square, and sample-and-hold LFO you can sync to MIDI clock for control of volume, filter, and pitch. Inveterate tweaker that I am, I wish that there was more than a single Step Modulator and LFO for independently programmable oscillators. The FX section dresses up sounds with a basic array of effects culled from UVI’s Sparkverb, Thorus, and Phasor, and adds EQ, Drive, Delay, and Ensemble, with a modicum of controls. You also get simple (up, down, or up/down), but independent Arpeggiators which you can link together.
The topmost folder of presets in the browser, 01 Timeline, proffers a historical sequence of string machines, starting with the Eminent K150 from 1970, and culminating in the mysteriously-named German Box, which is presumably the Waldorf Streichfett, a digital emulation of analog string machines which made its debut in 2014. The Timeline folder naturally focuses on strings and string-ensemble sounds, although many of these instruments (such as the Korg EPS-1) were capable of producing other sounds, such as electric piano and brass emulations. Most of the non-string instruments are represented in other banks in the library, and you can access their samples at any time directly through the Oscillator window.
The Templates folder holds 18 useful starting points for pads, pianos, organs, stereo and mono patches, bass, gated sounds, and lots more. The next couple of folders, Animated Arp and Animated Step, pull out the all the stops with gated sequences, polyrhythmic arpeggiators, filter sweeps and lots more. At the same time, the sounds retain some of the raw character of the source instruments. The majority of banks dedicate themselves to instrument categories: bells, brass, keys, voices, leads, polysynths, and the like. In some cases, the resemblance is merely passing; Old School Funky, in the brass section sounds more like a repurposed clavinet—but it is funky, and many of its sounds will find use w ell beyond their category.
I always appreciate when authentic-sounding instruments are stretched well beyond their intended purposes. UVI has done a terrific job of capturing the essence of these vintage string machines in addition to a deep w ell of modern, animated synthesis. Along the way, they have supplied an ample tool chest of synthesizer features, laying them out in an easy-to-understand environment. As always, if you own UVI Falcon, your programming options multiply greatly, but the Free UVI Workstation is a more than ample springboard for playing and creating your own sounds. Check it out!
Marty Cutler is the author of The New Electronic Guitarist from Hal Leonard. He is currently working on a new book on improvising bluegrass banjo. Go figure.
More than 60 ensemble instruments at your fingertips. Easy user interface. Synthesis features coupled with step-sequenced modulation ofers creative leeway.
Could use another independent step animator and LFO.
$599 for Vintage Vault 2