Making Music with the Internet’s Most Reviled Synthesizer

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I recently bought a Red Sound Systems DarkStar eight voice, polyphonic, tabletop synthesizer. This feature packed virtual analog (VA) was released in 1999 by the British manufacturer. Despite a glowing review from Sound on Sound on arrival, the instrument didn’t quite take off and was discontinued, along with its younger sibling the DarkStar XP2, after just a few years in production. Even more curious than that is the amount of vitriol amassed for the DarkStar on forums all over the web. I could go on, but suffice it to say that “piece of shit” was among the milder comments.

So why bother trying to make use of an abandoned device that broad swaths of the community dismiss while more zealous members condemn? Well, digging a little deeper led me to discover that although the instrument does have its shortcomings it also has its strengths and at least a handful of people seem to appreciate the character and flexibility of the DarkStar. Five part multi-timbral, two MIDI clock sync-able LFOs per part, low-band-high pass switchable 12db filter, full MIDI implementation, and loads of modulation routing add to the depth of the synth. It also has some quirky features like a formant waveform on oscillator 2, ring modulation, and a random LFO shape that interpolates between the values.


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Vintage FM: Swapping Bricks for Loaves of Bread

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I recently picked up an eighties vintage Yamaha TX81Z FM synthesizer. I’ve always loved the sound of frequency modulation synthesis, but like many of us, lacked the patience to do the programming; especially since most FM synthesizers have hundreds (thousands for the Yamaha FS1R) of parameters that one is expected to edit via a few buttons and a thirty two character LCD.

Understandably FM has largely taken a backseat to subtractive synthesis, wavetable synthesis, and sampling. In the 80s FM was great because memory was expensive. Bell tones, plucked instruments, strings, and brass could be simulated by cleverly selecting an algorithm and adjusting the frequency, levels, and envelopes of the carrier and modulator operators. The price of that sound quality was handling the complexity of the instrument and the time investment that that required.

Soon memory fell in price and the cost of sampling and wavetable synthesizers dropped with it. By the mid-90s the broad popularity of FM synths like the Yamaha DX7 had given way to samplers, ROMplers, and wavetable synths. Perhaps we were attracted to the realism of sampling, or the uncanny quality of pitching familiar sounds into unfamiliar territory. But, all of these synthesis technologies have their place, and what makes FM synthesis relevant to this day is not simulating brass or bell tones, but its ability to uncover new sonic palettes through the complexity of maths, parameters, and algorithms versus the brute force of digital memory banks.

So, how do we navigate this world of nearly infinite possibilities? There are many approaches to this dilemma. Software editors are available, and FM synthesizer plugins like Ableton’s Operator and Native Instruments FM8 are much, much easier to program than their hardware counterparts. All while maintaining flexibility and sonic range. FM8 can load DX7 patches, morph between sounds, or randomize parameters. My approach to this experiment was to exploit a hardware instrument (the TX81Z) already limited by its design.

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I composed this piece by designing a Max for Live process to “degrade” patches in the the Yamaha TX81Z over time. The TX81Z is fairly simple within the scope of FM synths. However, the spectrum of sound is still vast thanks to a few clever features; each of the four operators can have one of eight waveforms, while older FM synths only had sine waves. The degradation process occurs as shuffled parameters in the synth are randomized at a specified pace. Imagine pulling bricks out of a wall and then replacing them with things like a loaf of bread, Legos, or a shoe. The degradation can be interrupted at any moment by the performer to “freeze” a patch for later use, or looped to generate chaotic textures that morph continuously. This excerpt stacks two layers of the degradation process with some panning and reverb to add ambience. Based on these results I anticipate that a lot more is available to be discovered through this and similar techniques. Currently I am working on a way to interpolate between the existing parameter and the “degraded” one for a more legato feel to the entropic process. Stay tuned!

In Habit: Living Patterns Complete Collection on SoundCloud

I have made the entire collection of pieces that I composed for “In Habit: Living Patterns,” performed at Northern Spark in June, 2012, available as a set of sixteen tracks on SoundCloud. This set will be downloadable for a unspecified time window, so get it while you can.

Duet from In Habit: Living Patterns

This is the fifteenth of sixteen pieces that I composed and performed during each vignette of the dance production “In Habit: Living Patterns,” performed at Northern Spark in June, 2012. This is also the last of two of the pieces in the series that I used a patch that I programmed to simulate a Japanese reed instrument called a shō.

Revision from In Habit: Living Patterns

This is the fourteenth of sixteen pieces that I composed and performed during each vignette of the dance production “In Habit: Living Patterns,” performed at Northern Spark in June, 2012. This one was based on the Eight Minute Drone that I shared last year.