With so many wavetable synths flooding the market in the wake of Xfer Serum, it’s easy to mistake Pigments for yet another clone of that insanely popular softsynth. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Pigments is very much its own synthesizer, cribbing elements from iconic analog synths, as well as a massive array of modulation resources that strongly evokes the capabilities of contemporary modular rigs.
Pigments’ sequencing, arpeggiation, and effects all tread familiar territory, so in this month’s masterclass, we’ll take a deep look at the core synthesis engine, which does tricks no other softsynth in its class can. Consisting of two distinct tone generation engines, a pair of powerful filters with a few unique vintage elements, and modulation tools that include multiple random generators and a pair of elaborate function combinators, the synthesis amenities are far more than meets the eye and ear. With so many vintage-inspired elements, Pigments is also a great way to explore the history of synthesis itself, so let’s get started.
Instead of traditional oscillators, Pigments offers two “engines”, each of which can be either Wavetable or Analog. Since both are available at any time, your voice can be based on either two Wavetables, two Analogs, or a combination.
The Analog engine bears a strong resemblance to a Minimoog, with three oscillators and a noise generator serving as the basis for its sound. The Wavetable engine is reminiscent of Serum, but with the inclusion of four simultaneous audio-rate modulation tools, many of which are derived from the golden age of vintage digital. Both are so feature-rich that you can develop extremely detailed tones with a single engine. Combined, the results are gargantuan.
Since the Minimoog oscillator architecture has been around for nearly 50 years, this section will be straightforward to all but the newest of newcomers. Even so, here’s a summary of what it includes, along with some tips on Arturia-specific additions.
As with the Mini, three oscillators with selectable waveforms (sine, triangle, saw, and square) can be tuned and mixed to create thick analog textures. The global tuning section for this engine includes a drift knob that really helps to warm things up and add a touch of vintage chaos to the pitch of all three oscillators simultaneously. Also in this section is a modern feature—tuning quantization— that’s available for the global coarse tuning. With this, you can define a scale/mode by selecting notes on a one-octave icon. With quantization active, sweeping the coarse pitch with an envelope or LFO will create glissando or arpeggio effects.
Pro Tip: While setting this up for specific keys is impressive, especially when combined with delay effects, you can achieve more tasteful effects by selecting just the root and fifth for your key, creating simple arpeggio trills that won’t clutter your tracks.
Like the Mini, you can toggle keyboard tracking off , here you have options for both oscillator 2 and 3, which is useful for unusual atonal effects. There’s also a hard sync switch that ties osc 2 to osc 1 for harmonic sweeps.
Additionally, the width knob governs more than the duty cycle of the square wave, here it can also be applied to the triangle wave, which morphs it into a sawtooth shape at maximum values.
Pro Tip: Applying envelope modulation to the Width of a triangle wave imparts a sweep that’s a bit like a lowpass filter in motion as the waveform shifts from all integer harmonics (saw) to muted odd harmonics (triangle). In a single-oscillator context, this has a classic Kraftwerk feel that historians may appreciate.
While the Mini had a choice between white and pink noise sources, Pigments has a continuously variable color knob that transitions between red (diminished highs) to blue (diminished lows), operating a bit like a filter or tone control.
The last nod to the Mini here is the ability to apply frequency modulation from either oscillator 3 or the noise generator to oscillators 1 and 2 simultaneously, with an amount knob that can be modulated from any of Pigments’ sources. Since this is a digital environment, the results are much more consistent than on the real thing.
Pigments’ Wavetable engine is so reminiscent of Serum that you can actually import Serum wavetable files by pointing its browser at either a wavetable folder or set of files and instantly add them to your library. But that’s missing the point, as Serum is still very much its own synth with unique strengths that keep it relevant, even now.
Where Pigments shines is its ability to apply four simultaneous audio-rate modulation sources to any of its wavetables, each with independent amounts that can be simultaneously modulated via the vast array of resources [Fig. 5]. Since each of these sections has a distinct flavor (and historic relevance), it’s actually easiest to explore them using the Wavetable Engine’s “Basic Waveforms” table, which consists of sine-triangle-saw-square. From there, you can advance to the more complex options in the factory library.
All four destinations are governed by the same audio-rate Modulator [Fig. 5] — an audio-range oscillator offering the standard waveforms (sine, triangle, etc) and five noise colors [Fig. 6]. Its coarse tuning knob can operate in relative, absolute, or non-tracking Hertz mode. For getting the hang of these techniques, it’s best to select the “relative” option as it yields the most musically consistent effects.
The first section is true Frequency Modulation, as it was originally discovered by John Chowning in 1967. While there are options for both linear and exponential FM types, linear is the more musical of the two and approximates the results of Chowning’s pioneering work. Since the only other parameter in this section is FM amount, the modulator tuning and waveform play a crucial role in the timbral output.
Technique: While other waveforms will yield growly “Big Room” tonalities, begin by using a sine wave from both the Basic Waveforms table and the modulator. As for tuning, since the modulator’s coarse tuning is in semitones (unlike mainstream FM instruments’ use of harmonic tuning) it’s useful to understand the correlation between specific notes and harmonics. That is, coarse tunings of 0, +12, +19, and +24 are the equivalent to the first four harmonics, respectively. It’s also worth noting that proper FM delivers a more subdued effect than its more popular cousin, Phase Modulation, so if you’re looking for vintage Yamaha timbres, the next section will be of particular interest.
Often a point of contention between synthesis historians, Phase Modulation is the actual technology implemented by the Yamaha DX and TX synths that dominated the 80s. Since the sonic output is nearly identical, this debate is largely academic. As a result, the FM description also applies to PM, with the difference being that PM is a tad brighter, overall.
Technique: Using the FM approach outlined above, assign envelope 2 or 3 to the PM amount knob as its modulator at around 50% and give the envelope an immediate attack, 0.400 second decay, zero sustain and quick release. This will create a classic 2-operator configuration. From there, here are the coarse tuning values for some of the most famous harmonic ratios:
● 0 delivers a 1:1 ratio, good for basses and, with longer modulation attacks, some horns.
● +12 is a 2:1 ratio, which creates the famous “knocking” house bass tone.
● +19 is a 3:1 ratio, the core timbre of the DX “Jazz Guitar” preset.
● +22 is close to the 3.5:1 ratio for the iconic DX “Tubular Bells” preset. Use a longer decay and release on your modulator envelope, with a lower modulation amount for best results.
● +24 will give you a 4:1 ratio which has a similar character to the +12 tuning, but a tad brighter.
Originally implemented in the Casio CZ series back in the eighties, Phase Distortion was a competitor to the DX sound, favored for its more “analog” texture. While it imparts a filter-like “wow” on harmonically complicated waveforms, you can recreate the behavior of the original Casio CZ-101 by again starting with a sine wave, leaving the modulator amount at 0, then selecting from one of the six “Phase Disto” waveform targets from the PD menu.
As with the original Casio, this will smoothly morph your timbre from the pure tone of a sine to the brighter texture of the target wave, which was how the CZ achieved its pseudo-analog flavor.
Pro Tip: While the above technique may deliver “thin” results when used in the traditional manner, it sounds quite contemporary when paired with Unison settings higher than four voices.
This transformation tool is having a bit of a resurgence thanks to its prevalence in West Coast design techniques. It’s also found on Arturia’s Minibrute series, disguised as “Metalizer”, as it’s most controllable when applied to a triangle or sine wave. The principle here is that it functions a bit like a distortion or saturator that specifically folds the top of the waveform back down on itself using one of three shapes: Sine, triangle, and an undocumented “squiggle”, each brighter and grittier than the last.
Technique: To familiarize yourself with the essentials — and understand what’s happening with the Metalizer parameter in the Minibrute — start with a triangle wave in the basic wavetable, leave the modulator tuning at zero, set the fold shape to triangle, and increase its amount or modulate it with an envelope or LFO. From there, try the harmonic tunings outlined previously, in conjunction with the modulation depth knob at around 50%.
While most readers will already be quite familiar with Unison effect, it’s worth noting that Pigments also includes a Chord option for this feature. Unlike the Classic detuning effect, this lets you select specific chord types (major, minor, seventh, etc) which are great for vintage techno and house stabs.
The dual filters can be configured in serial or parallel, with the added bonus of independent sends for each synthesis engine via the Filter Mix parameter. For example, in the serial configuration, you can route Engine 1 into Filter 1 followed by Filter 2, while simultaneously sending Engine 2 into Filter 2 alone. Parallel lets you send both engines into the filters, with independent mixes and volumes for each.
Each of the dual filters can operate in any of the following formats, discretely: MultiMode, SEM, Mini, Matrix 12, Surgeon, Comb, Phase, Formant. Most of these types are recognizable to softsynth users, but Surgeon and Matrix 12 both deserve special attention.
Surgeon is an astonishing 64 dB/octave filter that is most dramatic in conjunction with bandpass, delivering tinny “telephone” effects when processing the Wavetable Engine or bright analog waves.
Matrix 12 offers uncanny recreations of the Oberheim Matrix 12 (and Xpander) synthesizers. While the primary options are fairly standard, the Notch+LP6 and Phase+LP6 [Fig. 11] types are remarkable, imparting a breathy “fizz” to bright waveforms—especially in tandem with an LFO.
Technique: In parallel mode, you can recreate the design approach for iconic Roland D-50 patches with a bit of advance planning. The secret here is to assign a Wavetable engine to Filter 1, with a chime/ bell wavetable (Polygon Inharmonic is a great choice), giving it a percussive mallet-like envelope with very fast decay. Then turn Filter 1 off. Next, create a thick triple detuned sawtooth using the Analog engine and send it to Filter 2 in MultiMode with the LP24 slope and a low cutoff. Then give it a soft, pad envelope. At the end of the chain, apply generous amounts of chorus and reverb.
Pigments’ array of modulation tools is astonishingly comprehensive — and everything in its arsenal can be routed to nearly any parameter. In addition to essential tools like common MIDI controller assignments, three envelopes, and three LFOs, there are three Function generators with customizable shapes for step-sequencing and sidechain patterns. These can also be used as one-shot sequences for sophisticated enveloping tasks.
There are also three Random function generators [Fig. 13], which are marvelous resources for adding organic “chaos” to textures. Here, you’ll want to use very small amounts on timbral and tuning parameters. The first option is Turing, which generates random sequences that can also be locked into loops of up to 64 steps, for instant pattern creation. The Sample & Hold generator includes Rise and Fall lag generators for smoothing, which sounds fantastic if applied tastefully to Wavefolding—simulating the sound of decaying circuitry. It also lets you select the keyboard as its trigger source, like the ARP Odyssey, generating a different random value every time you hit a key. The Binary generator randomly flips between two extremes, with variable probability, which is useful for those hyper-erratic modular effects that are all the rage on Instagram.
Also noteworthy for modular fans are the dual Combinate tools, which allow you to select a source, a modulation input, and then apply one of eight mathematical transforms to the pair. These include everything from adding and subtracting, to multiply, divide, crossfade, and threshold gates. While these aren’t terribly practical for practical musical applications, they’re terrific for constantly evolving generative soundscapes, specifically with the Random value generators.
Once you get the hang of Pigments’ sophisticated synthesis engine, adding effects like chorus, delay, and reverb is just the icing on an already delicious cake. The fusion of vintage and modern tools in this extraordinary synth is a one-of-a-kind design experience.