They say the more things change, the more they stay the same. When it comes to synthesis, that statement certainly seems to be true. Names such as Moog and ARP come up in conversation as often as they did 30 years ago. This time around, however, the discussion is tempered by decades of improvements and conveniences in synthesizer design, such as patch memory, MIDI controllers, and computer synthesis.
The era of software synthesizers is in full bloom. Although many original synthesizers are being built entirely in software, numerous others are intended to emulate classic instruments from days gone by. EM decided it was time to check the state of the art in synthesizer emulation, so I tucked a computer under my arm and headed off to the synthesizer retirement home (yeah, I live in Florida) to do some comparisons.
The retirement home in question is the Audio Playground Synthesizer Museum in Winter Park, Florida (www.keyboardmuseum.com). Founder and curator Joseph Rivers has assembled an awe-inspiring collection of synthesizers and drum machines, from the classics to the curiosities. In actuality, retirement home is an inadequate description because the museum is housed in a full-fledged modern recording studio and features many of the latest synthesizers right next to the oldies.
The matchups for our comparison consisted of an ARP 2600 with Arturia's 2600V and Way Out Ware's TimewARP 2600; a Minimoog with Arturia's Minimoog V (and a Minimoog Voyager just for fun); a Roland TB-303 with Muon's Tau Bassline Mk2; a Korg MS-20, a Polysix, and a Wavestation with their counterparts in the Korg Legacy Collection; and a Yamaha CS-80 with Arturia's CS-80V.
FIG. 1: Shown below is our panel of experts (from left to right): Lee Riley, Sam Zambito, Andy Hagerman, and Joseph Rivers.
Our goal was to find how closely the virtual instruments sounded like their namesakes, therefore blind comparisons were in order. It was immediately apparent that numerous challenges had to be addressed. Some older instruments clearly gave themselves away by the level of hum and other noise they produced even before I played a note. To minimize the prejudicial effect of that unavoidable reality, we kept the real instruments live while playing the virtual instruments, so the virtual ones were heard with the same background noise as the real ones.
One of the most challenging parts of the comparison process was trying to ensure that any bonus features of the virtual instruments didn't leave telltale signs. I played everything in mono, turned off all effects, watched for unison modes where none originally existed, and matched polyphony carefully. Some virtual instruments made that easier than others. For example, Arturia's documentation usually identifies virtual-only features clearly for those obsessed with veracity.
Another noteworthy aspect of the testing was that the wilder the sounds got, the harder it was to make comparisons. For one thing, many of the (usually excellent) presets that ship with the virtual instruments under our microscope make a point of using built-in effects such as chorus and delay and using extra oscillators or modulation matrices. Turning those features off often robbed the patch of its essence, so it was often not useful to start a comparison from a preset. Because of that, in some cases the comparisons start with a single oscillator and build from there.
Similarly, the range of certain controls was often quite different between the real and virtual instruments. That could be attributable to age-related drift in the real instruments or to shortcomings in the design of the virtual instruments. In some cases it was possible to match sounds closely by using different settings, such as a filter cutoff set significantly lower and with much less resonance on one instrument than on its counterpart.
The first round of comparisons, which included the 2600s, Minimoogs, TB-303s, and MS-20s, took place in Audio Playground's Studio B, which fittingly features more than 1,000 active MIDI channels connecting 80 or more keyboards and synth modules. Of course, given the vintage synths under examination, we used none of those channels.
FIG. 2: The TimewARP 2600 from Way Out Ware is almost more real than the real thing. It stood out for the smoothness of its filter sweep.
I set up in the producer-performer area at the back of the room, and the esteemed panel of experts (see Fig. 1) sat at the console. An improvised screen shielded my activities from their eyes while allowing easy communication. Occasionally, panelists would ask to hear an example repeated or suggest a variation. The entire session was recorded in Pro Tools, and Web Clips are available online for most of the comparisons.
To keep the playing field as level as possible, all but one of the virtual instruments was played from the Open Labs OpenSynth neKo 64 keyboard workstation at 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution. The Way Out Ware TimewARP 2600 was available only as an RTAS plug-in at the time (AU and VST versions are in the works), so it was played through a Digidesign Mbox at 24-bit, 48 kHz resolution. Real and virtual instruments were patched to the console in mono and panned dead center. Levels were hand-matched carefully and often had to be changed from one patch to the next.
The first round was besieged by a number of time-consuming difficulties with the vintage instruments (score one for the virtual instruments), so a second round had to be completed remotely. I returned to the museum to record the comparisons for the Wavestation, CS-80, and Polysix, and I posted uncompressed mono files online for the panelists to analyze.
As the operator, I have to confess an unbridled preference for the virtual instruments. In fact, after spending many hours wrestling with drifting oscillators, sticky sliders, noisy outputs, faded silkscreens, persnickety connectors, and other assorted electronic maladies, I felt the need to spend a good solid week playing my bamboo flutes barefoot high in a tree just for balance. Certainly enough time and money would make playing the vintage instruments less like playing Russian Roulette, but for me the cost-benefit analysis weighs heavily in favor of spending that money on a fast CPU and a low-latency audio interface so I can spend my time making music with the soft synths. Our priority here is the accuracy of the emulation, however, so let's see what the guys with the golden ears thought.
Be wary of drawing inferences of superiority based on descriptive terms such as warmer or brighter. We each had preferences here and there, but they were often based on analyses more complex than isolated timbral distinctions.
The first synth under the microscope was the first synth to cause problems. Although the museum's ARP 2600 functioned pretty well, its companion keyboard didn't. To be fair, it wasn't clear whether the keyboard or the synth was at fault, but there was no way to get the two cooperating well enough to play musical phrases. The ever-resourceful Rivers brought out a MIDI keyboard with a MIDI-to-CV converter, and that was better, but still not up to the task. We had to resign ourselves to comparing the oscillators and filters more like scientists than musicians.
FIG. 3: The Korg MS-20 Controller is shown sitting atop its namesake and surrounded by its ancestors at the Audio Playground Synthesizer Museum.
After carefully matching output levels between the 2600 V (running on the neKo 64), the TimewARP 2600 (running on the Mbox), and the ARP itself, and doing everything possible to eliminate LFOs and filters as variables, I played raw waveforms for the panelists. Starting from silence, I ramped up the level to full volume, held it there for a few seconds, and pulled it back down. I immediately repeated the process with the other two instruments. Some differences revealed themselves immediately. I had expected that moving the onscreen control with my mouse would make the TimewARP (see Fig. 2) an obvious virtual, but in fact it was the ARP that gave itself away with a sticky slider. On subsequent examples, I was able to coax somewhat smoother behavior from the ARP.
In comparing sawtooth and pulse waves, the panelists had no trouble identifying the real 2600, although not necessarily for the reasons that one might expect. Bassist and composer Andrew Hagerman declared all three instruments “astonishingly alike except for some subtle color differences.” The 2600 V's sawtooth was unanimously declared brighter than the others, with the TimewARP's sounding rounder, fuller, and more interesting. The 2600 V's pulse wave sounded fuller than its counterparts, which were described as nasal by comparison.
Interestingly, when I swept the 24 dB-per-octave lowpass filter on each instrument, the most satisfying result for all of the panelists was from the TimewARP, with the ARP exhibiting a much coarser behavior than the others. Based on that, three of four panelists felt the TimewARP sounded more real than the real ARP. The ARP's cutoff control was jittery enough to be described as bad digital stair-stepping. The 2600 V also sounded stepped to three panelists, albeit less so than the ARP.
The ARP's sticky pot made me wonder about the differences between the physical controls involved. The Arturia was being controlled from the neKo 64's touch screen, whereas the TimewARP was being controlled from my notebook's Accupoint pointing device. (Accupoint is Toshiba's term for the eraser-head-style pointing stick, which I have always preferred to the more common glide pad. Now I have one more reason to prefer it!) It is hard to gauge the extent to which the difference was attributable to the physical control, but it's important to note that the expected superiority of a physical control clearly diminishes when that control is 30 years old.
For the final 2600 example, I cranked up the resonance and swept the filters again. The resonance characteristics varied more widely than any other parameters we tested, with the real ARP self-oscillating earlier in the control's range and more wildly than either virtual. That generated the only “yikes!” of the evening. The TimewARP again scored points for smoothness, with the Arturia displaying interesting artifacts, which were regarded positively by one panelist and negatively by another.
You would expect the instruments of Korg's Legacy Collection to be dead ringers for the originals, but the MS-20 was tough to match. Still, it managed to cause a bit of confusion. Two technical challenges, one analog and one digital, caused major delays in preparing the examples. The first real MS-20 we tried had such bad drift in the oscillators and in multiple components that by the time I got the virtual instrument matched, the sound of the real one had changed dramatically. Fortunately, the second unit was better behaved.
FIG. 4: A vintage Minimoog shares the stand with its virtual counterpart, the Arturia Minimoog V, running on the Open Labs OpenSynth neKo 64 keyboard workstation.
I had hoped to use the Legacy Collection's MS-20 Controller (see Fig. 3) — a USB device slightly smaller than the original MS-20 that reproduces its controls right down to the patch cables — to simplify the setup process. I quickly discovered, however, that settings on the controller don't always line up very well with the settings in the software. For example, raising a knob from a setting of 0 to 1.5 often failed to move the onscreen control at all, and higher settings were off by one or more values often enough to make the controller more hassle than it was worth in this context. (In performance, of course, you're usually not trying to match the settings of another MS-20 on the fly, so this is not an indictment of the controller when used for its intended purpose.)
One of the nice touches about the Korg Legacy Collection is the inclusion of the original manuals on the installation disc, including the Setting Examples, consisting of patch documents to be used as examples and blank patch sheets for user settings. I started with a couple of the example patches, first dialing them up on the real MS-20 and then matching the settings on the virtual instrument. Matching the knobs as carefully as possible did not result in a convincing sonic match. With a bit of imagination and effort, however, I was able to get the two to sound much closer.
The first patch was labeled Trumpet in the Setting Examples, and the drifting oscillators seemed to give the real instrument away. Despite its erratic pitch, it was described by synthesist and trumpet player Sam Zambito as “vibrant, rich, and detailed,” with a “stronger character” than the virtual version. The rest of the panelists agreed, calling the real instrument “more substantial” and “beefier” and the virtual instrument “thin” and “too clean.”
On the second patch, the comments ran along similar lines, so I decided to experiment with the virtual MS-20's Analog knob. Like some other designers, Korg has decided to allow users to determine how much old-school random behavior they want their soft synths to exhibit. I cranked the knob way up and reversed the order of the examples, and all of the panelists were convinced that the real MS-20 had simply gone further out of tune. Thus I scored the first and only successful deception of the evening.
The real MS-20 generally sounded bigger and richer than its virtual cousin, but as Hagerman put it, “Do I really want to battle drifting oscillators to get a slightly more present sound?” It was difficult to get rid of a persistent ensemble sound in the virtual MS-20, a characteristic that was not disliked but was taken as a digital giveaway. The most convincing part of the emulation was the analog=Misbehavior knob, a mixed blessing outside of our context.
The Minimoog (see Fig. 4) was one of the highlights of the shootout, both for the relative good behavior of the real Moog and for the quality of Arturia's emulation. There was actually a split decision from the panel on which was which, validating the accuracy of the Minimoog V's sound.
FIG. 5: One look reveals that Muon''s Tau Bassline Mk2 is a software emulation of the classic Roland TB-303. It''s as much a sonic dead ringer as it is a visual match.
I started with a one-oscillator patch, playing a few examples and varying the patch slightly as I went. Rivers used the term “rich” to describe the real Minimoog, while Zambito used the same word to describe Arturia's virtual version, demonstrating once again that musicians don't adhere to the same descriptive standards as scientists. Their description of the real Minimoog's high end was more revealing — one panelist said it sounded “more open,” and another said it had a “thinner” sound.
Three panelists independently used the term “reedy” to describe the Minimoog's sound as I tweaked the filter a bit. I tried hard to emulate that quality in the virtual version, but I experienced only a limited amount of success. There was always a bit of grit in the Minimoog's filter that the virtual one couldn't quite replicate. On the other hand, our experts agreed that at times, Arturia's virtual version sounded “dense” compared with the real Minimoog. At least one patch was described as better able to cut through a mix than the real instrument.
I couldn't complete my comparison of the Minimoog without trying my hand at a bass patch, and I took the liberty of switching the order just to keep everybody honest. Everybody knew immediately that I had switched the order; not everybody, however, picked which instrument was which correctly. Although the instruments were distinguishable, the entire panel thought the Minimoog V captured the sound of the original well enough that, as Hagerman put it, “given the extra functionality and consistency of the software, I'd probably opt for the soft synth on practical grounds.” Rivers added, “great software — I think they did the Moog justice.”
The Museum counts within its collection a signature-edition Minimoog Voyager, and we couldn't resist matching it against the others, so I dialed in the bass patch as closely as I could. This test was not blind, and we had already discussed the other two in detail, but it was nonetheless interesting to hear. Composer-keyboardist Lee Riley described the Voyager as “analog by nature, but with a clean digital approach — like Sean Connery in an Armani suit.” He went on to opine that the Minimoog V came closer to the Voyager than to the original Minimoog. Zambito felt the Voyager “seemed to deliver the best attributes of the [classic] Minimoog and virtual synth.”
The Wavestation (see Fig. 8) made for a particularly interesting comparison, pitting two digital devices against each other. Unsurprisingly, that made for some of the most perfect matches of the entire session. Still, some patches sounded different from real to virtual instrument.
FIG. 6: The Korg Polysix is part of the Legacy Collection, along with the MS-20 and the Wavestation.
The real instrument was the rackmount version, the Wavestation A/D, which slightly predates the Wavestation SR modeled in the Legacy Collection. The A/D's joystick controller, used to control the Wavestation's Advanced Vector Synthesis, is quite small, giving the neKo 64's touch screen or even a regular mouse a bit of an advantage for subtle timbral control. It was also convenient on the virtual instrument to be able to Ctrl + click to center the control or double-click on a corner to jump to that spot.
I paired up the first wave sequence that caught my ear, called The Wave Song. It was nearly impossible to hear any difference between the real and virtual versions. Being a decade or so newer than most of the other synths that we heard and not being dependent on lots of knobs and sliders to create its sounds, the Wavestation produced the best emulation right from the start. Riley commented, “Wow, this is a toughie. These two samples are pretty much identical.” There was no issue of excessively noisy output or oscillator drift, and the digital nature of the PCM waveforms and the patch information gave us a true apples-to-apples comparison.
The second wave sequence, Deep Atmosphere, exhibited some subtle differences between real and virtual. The fundamental pitch seemed to blossom a bit more fully in the soft synth, and the wind noise was a bit more interesting. After a bit of hedging over the differences, however, we concluded “that any differences between the two are almost not worth mentioning.”
On the third wave sequence, Sting Waves, the Legacy Collection's virtual Wavestation had a heavier metallic component, and its character was more dynamic right from the start of the note. Hagerman described it as “more intricate [with] a lot of internal detail and motion to it — definitely a more interesting sound.” The real Wavestation was a bit mellower and delayed the onset of modulation slightly. The character of the soft synth excited our memories of how these synths sounded to us back when they were new, with Riley declaring, “It has that typical Korg 1990s M1, pre-Triton aura about it.”
FIG. 7: With CS-80V, Arturia reduced the behemoth Yamaha CS-80 to laptop weight. As shown, the virtual version allows layering of as many as eight patches and a modulation matrix.
Next up was a searing lead sound called Mini Lead. Moving the vector controller changed the timbre by rebalancing the oscillators, which added life to the melodic line that I played. On the final note, I attempted a feedback-guitar effect, which was more effective on the real instrument than it was on the virtual one. The virtual instrument, however, had a percussive attack that wasn't present in the original, much like the attack that the virtual MS-20 sometimes exhibited. In Hagerman's estimation, it seemed to have “greater sensitivity to Velocity.”
Guardians is a hybrid between glockenspiel, electric piano, and subtle angel voices, with an arpeggiated burbling sound overlaid. The hardware and software versions were almost identical, but the software burbling was a tiny bit more pronounced. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing would depend entirely on the context.
When I heard Song Bells, I couldn't resist stacking fourths in tribute to a classic sci-fi theme. The virtual and real stars fell back into alignment, with the two instruments matching very closely. After demanding semiseriously, “Come on, these are both the same synth, right?”, the panel observed “a bit more definition to the attack” in the virtual version.
To Emulate or Not
Make no mistake — our strong consensus was that the makers of the virtual instruments deserve our respect for the quality of the emulations and our thanks for giving us great sounds with the convenience of software. Still, all things being equal, in several cases there were still reasons to prefer the hardware for pure sonic quality. For example, in discussing the MS-20, Hagerman noted a certain “it” factor that distinguished the vintage instrument from its emulation. It's difficult to be less vague about the distinction, but we all heard it.
Musicians have had this sort of debate since before synthesizers ruled the earth. How many violin makers have tried unsuccessfully to copy a Stradivarius? Nothing else sounds the same, no matter what we try. But then, as age and accident take their toll, there are fewer and fewer such antiques available, and musicians must have instruments they can play.
FIG. 8: Korg''s virtual Wavestation, another part of the Legacy Collection, matched up extremely well with its namesake due to the digital nature of the waveforms.
For that matter, how much does a Stradivarius sound like it did when it was made? How much does one Minimoog sound like another? The vintage Minimoog and the Voyager are cut from the same cloth, but they didn't sound identical. The virtual versions generally came as close to their namesakes as the Minimoogs were to each other, and sometimes closer.
Software emulations keep getting better, and the vintage instruments they model keep getting older. Like the paleobiologists in Jurassic Park, manufacturers search for the essence of what made the great old synthesizers so great and then do their best to reproduce that in living, breathing instruments.
At the risk of kicking a good metaphor too hard, consider that the reproduced dinosaurs in the movie picked up where their ancestors left off and started evolving and adapting to their new surroundings. Our assembled brain trust found that aspect of the emulations most fascinating. Sure, we can do a good job of capturing the classics in a more convenient format, but where do we go from there? It turns out that we can go quite far, as became evident from all the evolved features I had to defeat to do fair comparisons. Eight-layer multis of a CS-80? 32-voice polyphony (or unison) from a Minimoog? To our panel of experts, that sounded like the basis for a new generation of classics.
Brian Smithers is course director of Advanced Audio Workstations at Full Sail Real World Education and is the author of SONAR 4 Ignite! (Muska & Lipman, 2004). Special thanks to Andy Hagerman, Sam Zambito, Lee Riley, and Joseph Rivers for their invaluable assistance.
Meet the Golden Ears
Andrew Hagerman (www.singularityarts.com) is a bass player, composer, and author of Pro Tools LE 6 Ignite! (Muska & Lipman, 2003) and Digital Music Making for Teens (Muska & Lipman, 2004). He also coordinates Pro Tools training in the Asia-Pacific region for Digidesign Japan.
Lee Riley is a Pro Tools engineer, keyboard player/programmer, and film composer who has recently been involved in post-production stereo and surround-sound mixing. He is an associate course director of advanced audio workstations at Full Sail Real World Education.
Engineer, producer, and synthesizer authority Joseph Rivers operates the Audio Playground studio and its world-famous Synthesizer Museum. He has also worked as a consultant and sound designer for major synthesizer manufacturers.
Trumpeter Sam Zambito is one of the first and most prominent proponents of Nyle Steiner's Electronic Valve Instrument. He has done sound design and programming for the likes of Michael Brecker and Bob Mintzer.
Way Out Ware,www.wayoutware.com