The Future of Synthesis

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You might not have Keith Emerson's epic rig, but you can re-create these sounds (and so much more) with modern synths.

Photo: Keith Mari-Kawaguchi

Synthesizers were once big, expensive, instruments that carved out a unique sonic niche. Over time, the technology multiplied—wavetables, FM, sampling, modeling, phase modulation, and more—culminating in a digital takeover that inspired a “race to the bottom” to see who could pack more features, at the lowest possible cost, with the fewest buttons.

But introducing a huge number of people to synthesis created a backlash to the race to the bottom, where people wanted more—and were willing to pay for it. Once again, we''re seeing keyboards that have the “legs” to become classic instruments, and even budget keyboards—like Casio''s surprising workstations or Yamaha''s MOX series—couple sound quality with a user interface that invites, rather than discourages, tweaking.

This month''s roundup is a bit different because these aren''t reviews per se. I''ve worked with all of these instruments, and frankly, they''re all excellent for their intended purposes. But each one stakes out a particular territory and, it seems clear to me, is driven by a specific, identifiable vision. As a result, we can look to these for clues of what to expect from not just the present models, but also from . . . the future of synthesis.

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Have it your way

$3,750 (61 keys), $4,360 (73 keys), $4,650 (88 keys)
Korg Kronos product page

At Summer NAMM I asked Korg product manager Rich Formidoni to talk about the Kronos from the perspective of a lifelong keyboardist who plays live and in the studio—not someone with a corporate affiliation. When I asked him why he liked the Kronos so much, his answer was simple: “It can do anything I want it to do.”

Korg invented the modern-day synth workstation in 1988 with the M1, which aggregated disparate functions into a single instrument. The concept hasn''t changed—only the depth of the implementation. Musically, the hook is the group of nine audio engines: Superb acoustic piano, electric piano, clonewheel organ, virtual analog, PolySix, MS-20 (the latter two from Korg''s Legacy Collection plug-ins), “variable phase modulation” (think FM with a twist), and physically-modeled string synthesis. The coup de grâce is the HD-1 sample-based/wave-sequenced engine (including all sample libraries) that formed the core of Korg''s OASYS synth, introduced as the company''s flagship keyboard of 2005. Its technology has trickled down to numerous Korg products; in a way, Kronos is like an advanced OASYS, at half the price.

From a technical standpoint, you could make a convincing case that Kronos is a computer-based, virtual instrument—wrapped in the body of a keyboard workstation. Its Intel Atom processor runs a Linux variant, with a 30GB solid-state disk drive for fast, easy sound loading, and (with OS 1.5) up to 3GB of memory, of which about 2GB is available for samples. As expected from most Korg synths, Kronos has a companion editor for computer-based sound tweaking, and can serve as a “physical” VST/AU plug-in for software hosts. Highlighting the computer heritage even more, the “sequencer” isn''t just about 16 MIDI tracks; it can also record 16 24-bit/48kHz audio tracks. And the sound . . . well, it ranges from beautiful to edgy, as needed.

For a while, it seemed like the battle would be virtual vs. physical instruments. When veteran sampler-based keyboard lines (E-Mu, Ensoniq, and Akai) ceded extinction at the hands of computers, it seemed all keyboards might follow eventually. But instead of submitting to the computer, Kronos has co-opted it. Clearly, Kronos is designed to be transportable from studio to stage, and back again, by incorporating elements of both: It dedicates the computing power of a typical DAW to a keyboard, while offering the physical controls and playability expected from a musical instrument.

This fits in with the trend of packaging “computers” into dedicated devices—iPhones, videogame consoles, or even a Firebird X guitar—that successfully masquerade their heritage. Kronos does the equivalent of packaging your laptop computer, peripheral drives, the extra memory you installed, and a bunch of software instruments into a single, transportable keyboard that looks, feels, and plays like a musical instrument—not a computer. And unlike standard computer-based setups, it''s not a house of cards that topples over whenever Apple or Microsoft sneezes. The future will give us more instruments that, while becoming more dependent on computer technology, will break further away from traditional computer paradigms.

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Got live if you want it

$3,999 (76 keys)
Roland Jupiter-80 product page

The Jupiter-80 doesn''t try to be all things to all people—you can look for a multitrack sequencer all day, and you won''t find one. What you will find is a laser focus on live performance. This isn''t just about control, though; what''s sometimes been overlooked in the attention to its SuperNatural sound engine and Behavior Modeling Technology is the stunning sound quality. They say in live theater, you have to be twice as good just to get through to the back rows; the Jupiter-80 reminds me of that, as its sound is so detailed it could indeed survive the onslaught of sonic abuse from typical live performance venues.

But “live performance” doesn''t mean “stage only.” In the studio, a live, realtime keyboard part bests laying down a sketchy MIDI part (or playing a virtual instrument with loads of latency), then editing it afterward. Sit down with a Jupiter-80, and you''ll find both its sound and playability inspiring. With the Jupiter-80, I often found myself playing a part, and when it was over, realizing I had my take. Done.

The Jupiter-80''s emphasis on expressive acoustic emulations has been a big deal, but quite a few people have missed the point, thinking this is only about trying to imitate acoustic instruments. Granted, composers and soundtrack writers will relish producing “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” scores—but the emphasis is on expressiveness as an end unto itself.

The analogy I make is comparing SuperNatural to CGI graphics. CGI is about emulating the real, but it also has a veneer of “perfection” that''s not of this world. SuperNatural''s guitars have no dead spots on the neck, and the brass sounds like it was recorded with a theoretically perfect ribbon mic in a theoretically perfect acoustic space. The sonic clarity and perfection befit the description “super-natural.” If you''ve ever bumped up the saturation in a paint program, the Jupiter-80 can do the same for sound—yet somehow, without sounding artificial.

Devices like the iPad are pointing a direction for the future of live performance instruments. As touchscreens and tablets become less expensive, instruments can have amazing control surfaces. The Smithson-Martin giant touch screen for DJs is just a start—this technology will continue to come down in price, and provide more points of entry into an instrument.

The Jupiter-80''s touchscreen is almost like having a monitor in your instrument, but a monitor with which you interact—and it complements the set of controls in a well-thought-out manner. As people like the Jupiter-80 engineers are turned loose with even more capable and affordable interface technology, the result will be live performance instruments with the nuances and expressiveness of acoustic instruments—not just from a sonic standpoint (and make no mistake, the Jupiter-80 has taken gigantic strides in that direction), but from a performance gesture standpoint as well.

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An extreme makeover

$4,299 (76 keys), $4,599 (88 keys)
Clavia Nord Stage 2 product page

Stage piano, circa 1970: A big, heavy, temperamental instrument that sorted sound like a piano.

Stage piano, circa 2011: Everything we''ve learned about synthesis, modeling, and sampling, but applied to a live-performance, on-stage context.

Frankly, there''s really nothing the Stage 2 does that, say, the Kronos or Motif XF can''t do: It has great sounds and a fine keybed, and you can take it to the gig without having to pack a chiropractor. But it''s included in my futuristic roundup because it shows how familiar technology can be packaged to focus on a very specific scenario.

Despite an exponential increase in functionality over its ancestors, the Stage 2 user interface keeps all crucial functions no further than one button-press or control-tweak away. Also, a lot of technology has been thrown at the piano and organ sounds (including an excellent rotating speaker); for most people, that alone would justify the “stage piano” moniker. But as more stage pianos also include other “bread-and-butter” sounds like strings, choirs, brass, and the like, the Stage 2 adds a comprehensive synthesis section for virtual analog, wavetable, and FM synthesis. You''ll also find a full roster of effects—again, easily controllable in the heat of performance—and master keyboard capabilities.

The Stage 2''s 384MB of flash RAM comes pre-loaded with sounds, and the system includes Sound Manager software for transferring other samples, including ones you create. (Sample Editor software is also bundled.) It''s compatible with the online Nord Sound Library, and DVDs with additional sounds come with the unit. Note that Nord''s sample library sounds are free, and the library continues to expand with both standard sounds (guitar, bass, voice, brass, tuned percussion, etc.) and relatively esoteric sounds, like Mellotron and Chamberlin keyboards. While a “virtual” feature, the Sound Library is a compelling selling point for the Stage 2.

Despite advances in workstations, instruments like the Stage 2 remain relevant for live performance. But the key to maintaining relevance is instant, hands-on control (and of course, convincing sound quality). While the same concepts that lie in the future of an instrument like the JP-80 also apply to stage keyboards—bigger touchscreens, better control, more physical controls—stage pianos have to walk a fine line between versatility and simplicity.

Nord has done a fine job with the Stage 2''s companion software; you can ignore it if you just want to play, use it to take advantage of the online Sound Library, or get deep into creating your own sounds for performance. While it''s conceivable that stage pianos will become an endangered species in the future as workstations add more stage-oriented functionality, it''s more likely that both instrument types will follow parallel paths, with stage pianos continuing to refine their suitability for live performance, and workstations continuing to criss-cross the studio/stage/computer boundaries.

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“Real-izing” the virtual

$3,499 (61 keys), $3,200 (tabletop)
Arturia Origin product page

Arturia made their reputation by virtualizing classic analog instruments, without slavish purism. They often made little tweaks, or added features, that weren''t part of the original instruments but which nonetheless fit well. They still took emulation very seriously; when creating their Minimoog, they asked Bob Moog for his endorsement—whereupon he sent back a list of what they needed to do if they really wanted to sound like a Minimoog. Rather than saying “it''s good enough” and releasing it sans endorsement, they implemented everything Bob asked for—and earned his blessing.

Over the years, Arturia''s roster of synthesizers became the “go-to” soft synths for many players. But taking a laptop loaded with soft synths onstage—while doable—is not as ergonomic as playing a keyboard instrument, which can also accommodate a control surface. Hence Origin, a modern physical instrument that incorporates modules from emulations of classical physical instruments (Moog Modular, Yamaha CS-80, Roland Jupiter-8, Minimoog, ARP 2600, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, and Prophet VS). How''s that for a convoluted product design path?

Nor did they stop with just “real-izing” virtual synths. Although you don''t exactly have the “one control per function” paradigm of analog synths, with 33 encoders, 21 potentiometers, and a joystick, it comes very close to the ideal. All of this is put together in a musician-friendly way that makes programming the synthesizer enjoyable.

In the process of turning virtual into physical, Aturia also revived several physical concepts and made them virtual—Origin is a semi-modular synthesizer in which you can mix and match modules from the various virtual synthesizers, modules designed specifically for Origin, and effects processors. Also, the display is highly graphic, as if you were actually playing with a synthesizer rather than entering parameter values into a series of fields. And although there''s no workstation-type sequencer, there are three step sequencers with 32 steps each, and an arpeggiator.

Origin had a precedent with products like the Muse Receptor, V-Machine, and various Open Labs products, which were essentially virtual instrument hosts. But, there''s a major philosophical difference here: Origin is clearly a musical instrument that embraces computer technology, whereas its predecessors were computers designed to accommodate musical instruments. And from an aesthetic standpoint, Origin is a beautiful example of industrial design.

Of course, Arturia had an advantage with a stable of respected software instruments that they could port to a hardware host. But, we will likely see a general trend for software companies to move into hardware, or at least forge partnerships with hardware companies. Despite predictions of the paperless office, we still have paper—and musical instruments still need physical control. Origin manages to hit the sweet spot between the synth heritage of the past, and what we expect from an instrument of the present—and in some ways, even the future.

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Deep instrument meets sound library

Spectrasonics Omnisphere 1.5 product page

Before Spectrasonics'' Stylus groove software, loop libraries came on CD-ROM. Stylus changed all that by combining a huge sound library for its time (about 3GB) with an audio engine with controls that were optimized to work with Stylus, thus turning it into more of a realtime instrument than just a library. Stylus also launched the sample-library-meets instrument genre adopted by Native Instruments'' Kontakt Player, Ueberschall''s Elastik engine, East West''s Play, IK Multimedia''s SampleTank platform, and others.

Omnisphere was introduced with an approximately 40GB library and thousands of sounds. However, it blurred the line between sound library and instrument even further, as Spectrasonics went way beyond “standard” instruments to produce immensely evocative, novel sounds that were equally at home in sound design and multiple kinds of music.

The version 1.5 update adds another dimension to the sound library/instrument/sound design core by incorporating live performance components and even deeper sound programming capabilities. One of these is support for polyphonic aftertouch, an incredibly underrated technique for expressive playing. Another is a new control method called The Orb.

Perhaps the closest description would be a joystick on steroids that responds to MIDI controllers and mouse movements, but if you also have an iPad, you can run the Orb in the OMNI TR app and end up with a touchscreen joystick on steroids and psilocybin. As you move a dot around the Orb, the sound changes in ways that make musical sense—it''s not just randomization. Or, let the Orb do the work: After you move it, with the Inertia button on, it will follow a “trail” based on your initial Orb movements as it wanders around within its little circular universe. If you don''t like its sound-morphing choices, click the “Dice” button and generate a new set. Orb analyzes how the sound was originally created, and generates intelligent modulations; it can also be used as a mod source within Omnisphere, and the movements are recordable.

The synthesis aspect is enhanced as well, with 780 new patches that bring the total to more than 5,000, and the ability to expand the Waveshaper, Granular, and Harmonia editors for more detailed programming control.

Actually, 1.5 has already shown what the future of this genre is all about: accommodating live performance. The complaint about sound libraries (whether loops or instruments) was that despite their convenience, they locked you into a specific sound. While of course not a loop library per se, Omnisphere often incorporates movement into its patches—sometimes rhythmic, sometimes subtle. But you have a great deal of control over this movement, not just with the Orb, but with velocity, aftertouch, other controllers, and deep modulation possibilities.

You can think of Omnisphere as a sound library that came to life, and in the process, became an innovative keyboard synthesizer, a sound designer''s dream, and now, an onstage companion. $499 may seem a bit pricey for a virtual instrument, but it''s a bargain for an Omnisphere.

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The first digital synth “re-issue”

Cakewalk Z3TA+2 product page

Guitar players know about re-issues, where a company realizes they had a pretty cool guitar some time ago so they re-issue it—often with tweaks such as better pickups, a new choice of finishes, more versatile electronics, and the like. While virtual instruments started off mainly by “re-issuing” classic analog, and then digital, synthesizers, the genre is old enough that we''re now seeing Z3TA+ 2.1—a re-issue of, for lack of a better term, a classic virtual instrument.

What makes this a “re-issue” rather than an “update” is that more than nine years have elapsed since the original Z3TA+ hit the world under the aegis of rgc:audio. Its unique waveshaping options, non-traditional interface, and non-stereotyped sound set it apart from the virtual analog synths so common during that time. Although it had multiple updates over the years, even after Cakewalk bought the company in 2005 the core of the instrument remained unchanged.

The original Z3TA+ had a truly cult following, especially among electronica fans. And as guitar companies know, when you do a re-issue, it has to be either down-to-the-last fret authentic or represent a significant improvement that remains faithful to the original design. We''re dealing with software, so if you want the vintage Z3TA+ you don''t have to scour pawn shops, as it will still work in today''s computers—which leads to the “faithful to the original, but better” aspect.

Version 2 has a much more open graphic user interface, with the downside being that it tends to take over your screen. But the main point is that this builds on the original. You like waveshaping options? You have all the originals, and four more, with more flexible modulation options—particularly as they relate to modifying the waveshaping parameters. The filter, LFO, and envelope sections are improved, with much better visual feedback. You can also load your own files, and there''s a new performance module for realtime control. Z3TA+ 2.1 even has Scala tuning support, with a full library of Scala tunings; and the arpeggiator patterns can be dragged out of the Z3TA+ 2.1 into MIDI tracks, making it easy to double a line with a second, different synthesizer. (You can also import MIDI files into the Z3TA+.)

It wouldn''t surprise me to see more re-issues of virtual synths in the years ahead—in fact Wolfgang Palm has just re-issued Plex, originally a commercial product sold by Steinberg, as freeware. Can Music Mouse be far behind?

It''s good to see companies not just tossing the old on the trash heap. The original Z3TA+ was a groundbreaking synth, but the concept that drove it is still groundbreaking today, and made even more so by judicious additions. Who knows? Maybe in 2019 we''ll see the “20th Anniversary Limited Edition” of Steinberg''s Neon (which is currently a free download). Meanwhile, it''s great to have a Z3TA+ for the 21st century. It''s a honey of a virtual instrument.

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Networking as a way of life

$2,999 (61 keys), $3,539 (73 keys), $4,039 (88 keys)
Yamaha Motif XF product page

The Motif series—one of the most successful and longest-lived keyboard lines—is a special case here, because it''s the “past” of synthesis. But many of the concepts it introduced, which are enhanced in the XF series, are shaping the future.

The Motif emphasizes not only the standard workstation fare of sounds and sequencer, but integration and networking: The XF series can network via Ethernet, FireWire (using Yamaha/Steinberg's FireWire protocol that has replaced mLAN as the interface for the FW16E expansion card), and USB.

The interfacing isn''t just for show. Yamaha introduced bi-directional, computer-based editors early on, offering them for free to Motif users, and augmented the communication with DAW remote control based on using the faders and knobs as a control surface. (The Motif also includes templates for other DAWs.) And Yamaha adapted Cubase into Cubase AI, a specialized version with extremely tight Motif integration. Not only can you use all the control surface options, but also import sequences—including audio and MIDI data—into Cubase. With the FireWire interface, it''s even possible to stream 16 channels of audio from the XF into Cubase, which automatically recognizes the incoming sound sources.

The Motif also kept refining the workstation sequencer; the XF includes 128MB of internal memory for integrating audio recordings (triggered via MIDI) as part of a sequence. You can record directly into the Motif or import WAV/AIFF files, and interestingly, the sequencer offers both linear (tape-type) and loop-based workflows, which you can jump between within a single project. Time- and pitch-stretching are available, as is “resampling” the output (i.e., mixing down through the equivalent of an onboard Yamaha digital mixer).

Although the concept of non-volatile sample memory isn''t new, the XF accommodates 2GB total. This capability isn''t trivial to implement; the RAM has to be fast enough to play back a plethora of voices. But the end result is that you can customize what is ostensibly a synthesizer the same way you did with samplers, but without the load times.

The Motif also helped establish a “human network” of users through, which goes way beyond the usual manufacturer web portal. Operated independently but with Yamaha''s participation, it''s the center for free downloads, exchanging tips, and keeping up on the latest news. Yamaha has even embraced the iPad, producing programming and performance tools to complement the XF.

The emphasis on instrument-as-network element will continue to be refined. Many of today''s pro synthesizers can serve as “physical” plug-ins with DAWs, and allow using their controls as a control surface. However, few can do DAW integration as deeply as the way the XF partners with Cubase AI. We can also expect flash RAM to become standard; sure, you can load samples into dynamic RAM or perhaps an external memory device, but having those samples live within the keyboard, and be accessible as easily as you would access onboard ROM sounds, is a very different experience. And we can hope more companies follow Yamaha''s Motifator example as the future of user support.