Master Class: Arturia Synclavier V

Tap into this software's FM and additive synthesis powers
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Arturia’s reboot of the NED Synclavier has given synthesists everywhere a reason to rejoice. For starters, the company reduced the price from its original jaw-dropping $500k (fully loaded) to a mere $199. More importantly, it delivered one of the most powerful digital sound design engines to thousands of softsynth fans.

While many of its flagship features—like FM and additive synthesis—are now stock elements in studio arsenals, the Synclavier’s fusion of those two technologies remains astonishingly powerful, once you understand what’s going on under the hood. The secret to mastering the Synclavier isn’t just brushing up on its synthesis tools, but also discovering how they interact with NED’s other innovations, like Time Slicing and a wide assortment of hands-on macro parameters that make editing complex FM patches much more intuitive, once you get the hang of the system. So let’s get started.

SYNCLAVIER FRONT PANEL

Synclavier envelopes While the bottom section of the Synclavier V’s knob-based interface is straightforward and self-explanatory, the upper panel offers a lot more control for tweaking the factory presets. What’s more, there’s a factory preset in the Templates category that lets you treat this panel as a relatively painless introduction to FM synthesis.

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The preset is called Simple Sine, and that’s an apt description for its basic tone—a single sine wave and nothing more, which is why it works so well as a way to grasp the Synclavier V’s essential parameters.

Hands On: Here’s how to get started with the Simple Sine preset. Start by adjusting the amplitude envelope, leaving its sustain parameter at maximum value for the rest of your explorations. From there, you’ll notice that the harmonic envelope doesn’t seem to have any effect; that’s because there’s no frequency modulation in the sound yet, so turn the FM Amount knob in the Partial Settings section (which reflects all of the mixer parameters, as we’ll discuss below). As soon as you increase its value, you’ll immediately notice a dramatic timbre shift and the harmonic envelope parameters will now affect the sound more predictably.

At this point, I’ll let you in on a little secret for getting more from FM synthesis, even if you’re only experienced with traditional analog and subtractive synths. There’s a way to translate the Synclavier’s front panel to more familiar parameters via the Simple Sine preset. It’s by no means exact—and I’ll elaborate further in the next sections—but it’s enough to help build confidence before you fully dive into its inner workings.

I’d recommend spending a fair amount of time with the Simple Sine preset and front panel before reading further, unless you already have a grasp of FM synthesis, because we’re going to go much deeper in these next sections.

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FM BASICS

At first, FM synthesis may seem incredibly daunting, but at its core lies a very simple principle that may make it easier to understand: It’s just vibrato. The differentiating factor is that unlike traditional synthesizer vibrato—a sine or triangle wave LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator) applied to pitch—the “vibrato” in FM is in the audio range. So, instead of creating the operatic, Theremin-like quiver that we know and love, the audio rate pitch modulation of FM synthesis instead manipulates the harmonic content of the oscillator output.

Taken a step further, these core elements of FM synthesis’s approach to pitch modulation are no longer the familiar “oscillator” and “LFO” that create vibrato. Instead, they’re referred to as “carrier” (the oscillator we hear) and “modulator” (the source of the frequency modulation). Alone, the carrier waveform generates its own harmonic spectrum, and in the case of classic Yamaha’s DXstyle FM synthesis, that waveform is a sine wave consisting of a single frequency: The fundamental. From there, the modulator is applied. Depending on its tuning and waveform, this will generate a series of additional higher frequencies, which are usually (but not always) integer harmonics. The end result of the carrier/modulator interaction is a new waveform that can be shaped over time by adjusting the modulator’s envelope parameters. For example, a short modulator envelope with quick decay and no sustain will add sharp transients to the carrier’s tone, whereas a longer decay will create smoothly morphing harmonics until the modulator’s intensity reaches zero. Of course, these are only two examples of using modulator envelopes, with more complex attack, sustain and release settings allowing for different types of timbral shifts.

On the carrier side, its envelope governs the overall volume of the FM patch, much like a VCA envelope controls the loudness contour of a classic analog sound. Fortunately, the envelope names of the Synclavier V are more aptly defined than those of other FM synths: Amplitude (carrier) and Harmonic (modulator). Simply put, the harmonic envelope handles timbre—like a filter envelope—while the amplitude envelope handles volume. With this knowledge in place, take some time to experiment until you start getting predicable results.

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ADDITIVE BASICS

Additive synthesis relies on a completely different approach to tone generation. In the Synclavier, you’ve got individual level and phase control over the first 24 harmonics for both the carrier and the modulator. Leaving the modulator out of the equation for a moment, this allows you to sculpt the timbral output of the carrier by adjusting the relative volumes of these harmonics—and truly, the possibilities are endless.

That said, thanks to the Synclavier V’s presets for common waveforms like sawtooth, square, and triangle, you can quickly see the harmonic content for these classic waves. Sawtooth waves contain all integer harmonics descending in volume, whereas square and triangle waves contain only odd numbered harmonics at decreasing intensities. For further experimentation, note that you can create formant-like vocal waves by “scooping out” sections of these harmonics—or bell-like textures by adding a few widely-spaced single harmonics. And keep in mind that these additive textures can be quite complex on their own, before you start integrating the FM features described above.

PARTIALS: FM MEETS ADDITIVE

Modulator harmonics Unlike the majority of FM synths—Ableton Operator and Xfer Serum being notable exceptions—the Synclavier is unique in that it combines both FM and additive synthesis tools in the form of “partials” that consist of carrier/modulator pairs with independent control of harmonic structure for each. This allows for patch designs that would require complex arrays of interconnected modulators (often called “algorithms”) on Yamaha’s system or more recently, Native Instruments’ FM8 softsynth. The Synclavier V’s independent harmonic control for each carrier/modulator pair lets you quickly dial-in the your basic waveform on the carrier, then sculpt the sound further by adjusting the harmonics of the modulator.

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Hands On: To quickly get a feel for the Synclavier’s approach to creating interesting partial pairs, set both amplitude and harmonic envelopes to a classic gate shape with full sustain, then set the modulation amount to 0.00 in the Time Slices window and the FM Mod for that partial to 1.000 (maximum) in the Mixer window. From there, max out the volume of only the first harmonic in the carrier. This will result in a pure sine wave akin to the Simple Sine preset. Next, increase the modulation amount (in the Time Slices window) for that partial to 2.00. This will introduce a bit of FM from the modulator. With those settings in place, experi ment with different spectra for the modulator by simply dragging your cursor around in the harmonic editor. If you hold a key, you can hear the results in real time as you make these adjustments. When you find a texture you like, this becomes the maximum harmonic content of your partial pair (unless you further adjust the modulation amount parameter) and you can then adjust the harmonic envelope to add animation to the partials. Once you get the hang of that, it’s a simple matter to expand your experiments to the carrier harmonics, modulation amount, and amplitude envelope.

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Carrier/modulator pair with 1 to 4 ratio tuning Pro Tip: You can simulate traditional DX-style FM synthesis by limiting the carrier and modulator to just the first harmonic sine wave, then adjust the ratio parameter in the Synclavier V mixer section according to your objectives, but that’s the slower method when working with multiple partials in the Time Slice window. Instead, select single harmonics in the additive editors and adjust the volumes accordingly. Since FM ratio settings correspond to specific harmonics, a carrier/modulator pair with a 1 (carrier) to 4 (modulator) ratio tuning can also be accomplished by simply adjusting the volume of the first harmonic in the carrier and the fourth harmonic in the modulator.

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TIME SLICES

The feature that sets the Synclavier apart from every other FM synth is a line that sits at the top of the Time Slices window, above the carrier and modulator. This is a timeline that allows you to animate the values of every parameter in the window—up to fifty times for a single partial pair. This isn’t simply impressive, this is absolutely paradigm shifting. Here’s why.

In the previous section on setting up the parameters for an FM/additive partial, we manipulated the harmonics and FM amount for the carrier and modulator, which is extremely powerful in its own right. With time slices, we can specify those values as a specific snapshot, then create an entirely new set of values for a second snapshot—called a “frame” in Synclavier parlance—and use the timeline to morph from one state to the next. Each partial’s timeline can incorporate up to 50 unique frames over the course of up to 300 seconds, allowing for insanely complex sounds that evolve for up to five minutes without repeating.

Time Slices timeline Hands On: Start by setting both envelopes to a gate shape, as outlined in the “FM meets Additive” exercise, then create a somewhat muted-sounding set of values for the harmonics with an FM amount at 2.00 or lower. This will serve as the Synclavier’s “Basic Partial”, i.e. the first point in the timeline. From there, click on the Copy button above the carrier, click anywhere on the timeline (to create Frame 1) and click the Paste button. This will copy all of the values from the Basic Partial to the first Frame. Now, hit the “solo” button to focus exclusively on Frame 1 and make a few radical adjustments to the parameters in that frame. Go wild, as this will allow you to see and hear what’s possible with this feature. Once you’ve edited the frame, unclick the solo button. If you’ve followed the steps correctly, the sound will now morph from the Basic Partial to Frame 1, based on its position on the timeline. You can now move Frame 1 to any position in the timeline. Move it closer to the partial for quick decay-like effects or further down the timeline for slowly evolving textures. Once you pick your jaw off the floor, contemplate the fact that you can repeat this process 48 more times with a single partial pair—and there are twelve partial pairs in the Synclavier V, as opposed to the original’s set of four.

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Pro Tip: To get the most dramatic and controllable results from the timeline, keep your amplitude and harmonic envelopes at full sustain with no decay segment, then create unique frames that encompass multiple parameter values and move those frames around on the timeline. The results will be a more sophisticated form of the DX7’s multi-envelope breakpoints, but with up to 50 discrete points for a single partial.

Top: Key Dynamics window Bottom: Single-partial mixer 12-WAY MIXER & KEY DYNAMICS

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Now that you have a feel for what each partial can do on its own, you can dive into the Synclavier V’s mixer section, which allows you to fine-tune the blend of up to 12 simultaneous partials and/or map them to different sections of the keyboard for splits and layering.

Every partial has its own set of eleven global mix parameters. Here’s a handy cheat sheet for understanding what’s available:

Volume and Pan: Adjusts the level and panning for each partial.

Tuning: Detuning for each partial up to 125 cents in either direction.

Transpose: Interval tuning for each partial up to 24 semitones in either direction.

Octave: Sets the octave range for each partial.

Voice Chorus/Fine: Any setting other than zero activates a tuned duplicate for that partial, which can range from an octave below the original to the sixteenth harmonic (four octaves higher).

FM Mod: Governs the total FM amount for that partial. Setting this to maximum (1.000) before switching to the Time Slices window gives its individual modulation parameter greater range.

FM Ratio/Fine: Adjusts the coarse and fine tuning ratio for all modulators within that specific partial.

Pitch Track: Turns off keyboard pitch-tracking for that partial, which is useful for both drones and creating unpitched transients.

Note that these are the same parameters available on the Synclavier V’s second set of front panel knobs, but in this window, they’re visible simultaneously for all partials. Any adjustments made in either interface will be reflected on the other.

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The Key Dynamics window is useful for complex crossfade layering and splitting of the keyboard. While the uses for this feature in the context of simple DAW sequencing may not be obvious, some FM patches can sound extremely harsh in the top range of the keyboard. Copying the offending element to a second partial, then lowering the FM amount for that partial and crossfading between the two ranges is a time-honored method for keeping a sound balanced across the entire keyboard range.

To round out our Master Class, here are a couple more Pro Tips: In the Key Dynamics window, grabbing either end of the partial’s range from the bottom corner allows for abrupt split transitions, while grabbing it from the upper corners allow you to crossfade between partials based on key position.

Pro Tip: To achieve more traditional “chorus” effects via the mixer, set the Voice Chorus to 1.000 (unison) and adjust the chorus Fine knob a few cents in either direction. For a more dramatic effect, copy the desired partial to a second partial slot and detune each by the same amount of cents in opposite directions and then pan each by equal amounts.

FRONT PANEL TRANSLATION

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Voice Chorus and Chorus Fine add a second, identical oscillator that can be tuned to intervals and/or detuned.

FM Amount behaves similarly to a lowpass filter cutoff knob in the 0.000 to 0.200 range; beyond that, the results are extreme and harsh—interacting dramatically with the harmonic envelope. FM Ratio loosely translates to an oscillator’s “waveform” parameter, with additional metallic and bell-like options, thanks to the Synclavier’s ability to set fractional ratios.

With small amounts, FM Fine can add a bit of harmonic detuning animation. Larger amounts deliver nasty ring-mod-like artifacts.

Frame Speed will do nothing for the Simple Sine preset, but on many other factory presets it will govern the speed of evolving sounds.

The amplitude and harmonic envelopes function similarly to VCA and VCF envelopes (the latter when the FM Amount knob is set above zero). For more predictable results, set the harmonic envelope’s release stage to maximum.

The vibrato section behaves like a pitch LFO, whereas the stereo section works like autopanning, unless the phase knob is set to zero (fully counter-clockwise), in which case it functions like tremolo/VCA modulation.

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OTHER SOFTWARE

While the Synclavier is in a league of its own when it comes to blending FM and additive synthesis, you can still apply some of these techniques to other softsynths—notably Ableton Operator and Xfer Records’ Serum.

ABLETON OPERATOR

One of the most popular FM synths, Ableton’s Operator offers customizable additive waveforms—with up to 64 adjustable harmonics—for its carriers and modulators. In fact, if you use the dual, stacked carrier/modulator pair algorithm, you can simulate the basic sound of two Synclavier partials. As for the Time Slicing tools, you’ll have to depend on complex track automation to recreate those, but with a bit of patience and a lot of time, that’s possible too.

XFER RECORDS SERUM

While everyone thinks of Serum as the ultimate wavetable softsynth (and it is), Serum includes the ability to create original waveforms via additive-based editing and bidirectional FM between its oscillators. Of course, with only two oscillators, you’re limited to simulating a single Synclavier partial. To recreate Synclavier-style Time Slicing, you can generate several different harmonic states in the additive editor, then use the wavetable morphing tools to shift smoothly between them. From there, use envelopes or LFOs to modulate the FM amount. This requires a bit of forethought, but the results are truly impressive.

Electronic Musician contributor Francis Prève is a professional sound designer and an editor-at-large for Keyboard magazine.