Vector synthesis was invented by Sequential Circuits and first appeared in the company's Prophet-VS synthesizer in 1986. Subsequent classic hardware vector synths include the Yamaha SY22/TG33 and the Korg Wavestation series.
FIG. 1: The Mixer section of the Envelopes tab has a 5-segment envelope for -automating the vector in Arturia Prophet-V.
The Prophet-VS has a joystick that controls the mix of four oscillators, the volume of each oscillator being proportional to the joystick's distance from one corner of its travel. Vector synths usually provide one or more means for automating the movement of the joystick, and that can produce anything from subtle timbral shading to radical morphs.
Vector synthesis is making a comeback in the virtual world. Arturia's Prophet-V combines the classic Prophet-5 analog synth with the Prophet-VS. Korg has reissued the Wavestation in virtual form in its Legacy Collection. Other virtual synths that incorporate vectoring are Apple Logic ES2, Native Instruments FM8, and U-he Zebra 2. Zebra 2's vector implementation is impressive, offering four x-y pads and an intuitive MIDI Learn function. Teaming a vector soft synth with a MIDI x-y controller such as the Korg Kontrol or one of the Novation ReMote series gives you hardware control of vectoring in the digital domain.
I'll use Arturia Prophet-V for my examples, but you can adapt them to any of the soft synths just mentioned. Fig. 1 shows the Prophet-VS mode of Prophet-V. The joystick in the Mixer section mixes the output of the waveforms chosen for the four oscillators to its left. Clicking on the numerical next to an oscillator label pops up a window displaying a graphic of the selected waveform, and moving the joystick to the corner for the same oscillator allows you to audition the waveforms as you scroll the numerical.
Having chosen four waveforms, you can use the onscreen joystick to mix them in any proportion. You can also use the Mixer section of the Envelopes tab of the Modulation area to set up a 5-segment envelope automating the vector. You set up the automation by dragging the numbered squares to different positions, clicking on the Envelope button below the Mixer, and setting the four knobs to the desired times for the segments of the envelope (see Web Clip 1).
Vector envelopes work well for sustained notes and chords but not for rapidly played notes, because the vector envelope retriggers every time a note is struck. And vector envelopes can be tricky to program, especially if you want them to follow the music rhythmically. An elegant alternative is to record MIDI controller data in the context of a song using your hardware joystick (see Web Clip 2). That allows the vector contour to evolve over many notes, but you do sacrifice each note having its own contour. The musical context will determine the preferred method.
If you don't have a joystick or other hardware x-y controller, you can use two standard sliders or knobs. First, map the controller's MIDI output to the soft synth's vector. In the Prophet-V, right-click (PC) or Command-click (Mac) on the onscreen vector control, and enter the MIDI Control Change numbers either manually or using MIDI Learn.
Once you have the hardware configured, record note passages into the sequencer as usual. Vector-manipulated sounds work well for quick 16th-note arpeggio or ostinato passages and long, sustained chordal motifs. Because there will be a lot of motion in the sound, don't blow through rapid chord changes; you'll have plenty of color with more-straightforward, simple parts.
Next, create a new track in your sequencer for the same MIDI channel and use that track to record the joystick controller data. You could overdub the controller data on the music track, but having a separate track will simplify editing. You can draw in automation as an alternative to recording the controller data, but recording usually yields a better feel (see Web Clip 3).
Mitchell Sigman is a Los Angeles-based musician. He plays keyboards in the classic '80s synth-pop band Berlin.