Francis Preve

Sound designer. Producer. Professor. Journalist. Author.

Design: Harmonic Sequencing

An ever-increasing number of mainstream synths are supporting microtonal tuning these days. On the hardware side, Korg’s Monologue includes a set of the most common tunings, as well as user-created scales. On the software side, synths ranging from Alchemy to Zebra provide access to custom scales.

While getting the hang of composing with microtonal tunings can be daunting, there’s a simple way to experiment with one of the more common flavors: Harmonic sequencing. Although the standard 12-tone equal temperament scale is essentially based on the harmonic series with caveats for each key, working directly on harmonic sequences offers a tonal purity that’s immediately enticing for some artists.


Recreating the 10CC Choir

In the pantheon of legendary productions, 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” ranks among the most respected tracks of all time. In fact, it reached a new generation of fans, thanks to its inclusion on the Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 1 soundtrack.

Consisting of minimal instrumentation, a lead vocal recorded in one take, and a bass-plus-music-box middle section, its arrangement was incredibly risky for a radio hit, even by modern standards. The element that glues the track together — keeping it transcendentally beautiful even after over forty years — is the song’s centerpiece: A painstakingly multi-tracked set of vocal loops, consisting of 48 tracks of voices per note over the chromatic scale. These multi-tracked vocals were then repeatedly bounced and re-recorded as eight-second tape loops that were then played via the mixing console, as sampling hadn’t even been dreamed up at that time. [Diehard fans can pick up the original choirs as multi-sampled instruments at]

Nowadays, the elaborate production technique for creating these vocals can be replicated much more easily using 21st century tools. All that’s required is a good microphone, a DAW, ample hard drive space, and an endless supply of patience. From there, it's quite straightforward.


Design: LFOs as Envelopes

In last week’s post, we examined a few methods for turning envelopes into LFOs on synths that support envelope looping. This time, we will invert that process and cover the possibilities lurking within LFOs that can also operate in one-shot mode.

One-shot mode is a neat LFO trick that can be found on several hardware and software-based synthesizers. The first time I encountered it in hardware was in Korg’s monophonic Monotribe ribbon sequencer. As for software, the ubiquitous Xfer Serum included it from its first releases.

Depending on the synthesizer’s implementation, one-shot LFOs can be either basic or mind-bogglingly complex. Here are a few techniques you can use on synths that support it.


Design: Envelopes as LFOs

Without modulation resources, a synthesizer is just a sophisticated organ. Modulation breathes life into a sound, adding motion to oscillators, filters, and amplifiers. Naturally, sound designers want as many options as possible for modulating synth parameters, but as is often the case with instrument design, pleasing every user equally is a daunting task: Some users want oodles of envelopes; others want LFOs galore.

What’s more, the feature set of a synth is a core component of its overall sound. While it’s fun to fantasize about softsynths and modular rigs having unlimited possibilities, the instruments that stand the test of time have a particular sound. And that sound is partially defined by the modulation tools that are available.

In this tutorial, we’ll look at a few ways to use envelopes as LFOs. Not every synth supports this level of versatility, but quite a few mainstream products—both software and hardware—do. Here are techniques for three of the most popular synths available now.


The #Vanlife Mobile Studio

In Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, the motto of the Nautilus was "Mobilis In Mobili", which is roughly translated from Latin as, "moving amidst mobility", "moving within the moving element", or "changing in the changes".

Pretty apt for the #vanlife thing, right?

After posting several adventures on Instagram, I received quite a few questions about the specifics of my mobile rig, so here's a full summary of the Galileo III production equipment—with links for those who are interested in more info on each item.

Field recording is covered by the Roland R-07, which is—by far—my favorite portable hi-res stereo recorder. The fact that I can use my Apple Watch or iPhone as a remote (placing the recorder on a table or closer to critters) is just icing on the cake. A full review of this unit can be found here.

The iPad Air 2 with Logitech Type+ keyboard is loaded with every relevant iOS music app. That said, my main software tools for mobile composing and production are Korg Gadget and Kymatica AUM. Gadget is simply the most complete composition tool available for the iPad—and it also exports mix stems to Ableton Live. Better still, if you own the MacOS desktop version of Gadget, it will export complete projects to Live, with MIDI clips that use Gadget's bundled array of specialized VST and AU synths.

Korg Gadget, Doss Touch Speaker, Korg NanoKey Studio

AUM, on the other hand, serves as a comprehensive hub for mixing IAA, Audiobus, and AUv3 apps and effects plug-ins, with everything synced and also available wirelessly via Ableton Link. For example, with AUM I can combine Gadget and Fugue Machine, with Rozeta controlling synths like the amazing and totally free Synth One, then apply effects. Upon returning home, I can then export the results as a mix or stems for later use. It also has options for recording audio via my latest mobile interface, the CEntrance MixerFace R4.

CEntrance MixerFace R4 self-powered interface with Kymatica AUM (and my indestructible MDR-7506 headphones)

CEntrance MixerFace R4 self-powered interface with Kymatica AUM (and my indestructible MDR-7506 headphones)

The MixerFace is wholly unique, as it's the first (and so far, only) mobile interface with an integrated rechargeable LiPo battery. This lets it do neat tricks like power 48V condenser mics with super clean pre-amps and an integrated headphone amp. It's also the only interface I own that supports AUM's 32-bit resolution, with 192kHz sampling rates. Admittedly, I don't multitrack with those settings because my current iPad crumbles under the stress of keeping up with that resolution, but it's nice to know it's there when I inevitably upgrade the rig.

Combined, those two apps make iOS a legitimate recording platform for general tasks and road compositions that I can finish later at my studio. For MIDI, Korg's NanoKey Studio adds keys, drum pads, and knobs for the iPad. It sends that performance data via Bluetooth and shockingly, latency has never been an issue. It always feels like magic...

For taking analog on the road, MeeBlip's incredibly practical BlipCase contains a set of four Korg Volcas: Volca Beats (drums), Volca Bass (three discrete analog oscillators), Volca Keys (3-voice analog paraphonic), and the Volca Mix for gluing the three units together and adding an input for the iPad or MixerFace. These form the core of my on-the-go performance rig, with the iPad running Moog's Animoog app for soloing. I got that idea after seeing Suzanne Ciani perform live with her Buchla 200e and Animoog at Ableton Loop 2016. The Volcas may not be a Buchla, but on the road, they're far more practical (and affordable).

Surprisingly, monitoring in the van isn't too tricky. In addition to my 20-year-old Sony MDR-7506 headphones (indestructible, affordable, and surprisingly flat), I use Vmoda Zn earbuds which sound fantastic and are quite sturdy. As for sound moving though air, I use the Doss Touch Bluetooth speaker, connected via cable to the iPad headphone output. It covers the basics and sounds full enough to compose bass lines. The Doss has an integrated SD card reader in addition to its analog jack, making it useful for reviewing field recordings from the R-07. I've even plugged the Volca rig into the Eurovan's stereo for additional referencing.

If I'm doing a preset project for desktop software I'll bring my laptop, but I generally prefer doing design work in the studio for optimal monitoring. The above rig has met my needs on every trip—and when I'm traveling light, it's just the iPad, NanoKey, R-07, Doss speaker, and Vmoda earbuds.

And if you've made it this far, follow the journey on Instagram.

Master Class: DSI OB-6

It’s no exaggeration to say that Dave Smith Instruments’ OB-6—a true collaboration with Tom Oberheim—has quickly become one of the most sought-after analog polysynths of the 21st century. By combining elements of Smith’s own Prophet 6 with the filter topology of the Oberheim SEM, the OB-6 is capable of textures that are unlike any other analog poly to date.

For this Master Class, I won’t be rehashing the generalities of analog synthesis. Instead, the focus is on programming tricks and techniques that highlight the possibilities lurking within the OB- 6. It’s also worth noting that several of the tricks in this Master Class also apply to the Prophet 6, thanks to its similar architecture, so proud owners of that synth may find a few tidbits they can use as well.


Master Class: Korg/ARP Odyssey

Back in the early ’70s, the Moog vs. ARP “war” was just as passionate as the Mac vs. PC debate is today. At the time, the Minimoog and ARP Odyssey were the two dominant mainstream monosynths. On the Moog side, the Mini offered three oscillators, Bob’s massive filter, and ease of use. On the ARP side, the duophonic Odyssey included lowpass and highpass filters, hard sync, ring mod, and incredibly sophisticated modulation resources.

Korg’s ARP Odyssey re-issues are available in a tabletop version, a module version, and the Odyssei app.

Even now, the classic Odyssey’s features are capable of textures that we normally associate with modular gear, which makes sense as the Odyssey was basically a slimmed-down version of the 2600—arguably the synth that first brought modular to the masses. So with Korg’s reissue of the Odyssey available in three formats (keyboard, module, and the Odyssei iOS app), it’s high time we took a closer look at its vast capabilities, using the tabletop version as our frame of reference.


Pro Tip: Understanding Paraphonic

If you have an old digital polysynth that you no longer use because you’re unhappy with the sounds, here’s a way to bring it back to life with some analog attitude.

If you own a monosynth that includes an external-audio input jack, you can use its filter and amp to process the output of the other synth. The term paraphonic is used to describe this scenario, where a polyphonic instrument is running all of its voices through a single VCF and VCA. Modern analog monosynths with an external-audio input include Korg Monologue, the Arturia Minibrute and Microbrute, the Novation Bass Station 2, and all of the recent synths from Moog Music.


Master Class: DSI Prophet X

In just 10 years, Dave Smith Instruments has released examples of true analog, advanced digital synthesis, two DCO-based hybrid synths, and a powerhouse drum machine collaboration with Roger Linn—along with a slew of more affordable products that slide into almost any budget. While everyone pondered, “What’s left?” Dave revived a few elements from his groundbreaking Prophet 2000, packed it with 150 gigabytes of top notch multi-sampled instruments, and folded in his trademark filter and modulation tools, creating a synth that’s much more than a workstation ROMpler. The Prophet X is a new breed of hardware synth.

Having worked with the Prophet X for much of the spring as a member of the preset design team, this tutorial will cover many of the insights I’ve gleaned about its deep synthesis engine, which offers far more than just sample playback with a bunch of synthesis tools.


Pro Tip: Emulating Chaos

Among the main characteristics of true analog instruments are the subtle idiosyncrasies that occur at the circuit level. While many modern softsynths attempt to re-create waveforms and filter curves accurately, there is a certain richness that comes with the variations that occur in real-world instruments. Even Dave Smith Instruments includes a “slop” parameter for the Prophet 08’s DCOs to re-create these artifacts.

In this tutorial, we’ll look at ways to use common tools, such as noise modulation and high-speed LFOs, to add low-level indeterminacy to your oscillators and filters.