Low End Theory: Digital Synths

October 16th, 2006

I’m a super fan of all things analog. So it may surprise some to hear I recently purchased a digital synthesizer off eBay. I’m going to try and explain this odd purchase (partly to rationalize it for myself). You see, I’ve been looking into buying a decent analog synthesizer for some time, but the search has thus far been fruitless. Really, there are no good deals out there on analog synthesizer, except those PAiA kits requiring soldering and assembly. During my search though, I began to run across all these ‘80s era digital synthesizer selling for peanuts. For example: Kawai K1s fetching $35.00 on eBay. Christ, you can’t buy one of those crappy digital keyboards at Radio Shack for $35.00 these days. And when it comes to the K1 and its ilk, we’re talking fully programmable synthesizers with thousands of user made and commercial sounds online. So against my better judgment, I recently bought the K1’s big brother, the Kawai K5. This monster is the antithesis of analog since the sounds are created completely digitally on a little chip. To understand these instruments, you have to step back in time to the wonderful ‘80s when digital was king. In those days, the compact disc ruled the audio world. People dumped old LPs by the millions. The digital fad bled over into the electronic music world as well, where the all digital Yamaha DX-7 rode the ones and zeros fade and made Yamaha a fortune.

k5m_01.jpg

But the Kawai K5 had the unfortunate luck of coming late to the digital craze. By the end of the decade, electronic musicians had grown indifferent to the bonanza of digital products flooding the market. Synthesizer designers had basically created machines that were impossible to program due to the bewildering number of parameters required to make even the simplest of sounds. Most digital instruments simply became factory preset machines and few electronic musicians dared to poke around under the hood. And Kawai really shot itself in the foot by designed the K5 around a new form of synthesis (additive, rather than the traditional subtractive championed by Bob Moog). In the K5, you can choose one of 126 harmonic levels as the building block of your sound. WTF are harmonic levels? Kawai doesn’t make it any easier by throwing around other bits of arcane terminology like “envelope-to-harmonic routing” – what, did they intended to market this thing to MIT graduate students? But the K5 wasn’t Kawai swan song. In the late ‘90s, Kawai took one more stab at additive synthesis with the K5000, which tanked almost as bad as the K5. After that, Kawai went back and focused on mining the real money vein: pianos.

I’ll probably keep my K5 despite its many shortcomings. I haven’t managed to program anything useful out of it yet, but I now recognize its potentional. There is a PC program out there allowing samples to be resythesised and loaded into the K5 which looks really cool. Luckily, there is still a very active K5 community on the internet and they seem more than happy to share tips and tricks to get the most out of this strange synthesizer. Recently I downloaded some raw waveforms that had been resysthesised from other keyboards, like the Korg DW-800 and the Kawai K3 (I’m really waiting for some Waldorf Microwave waveforms though). These are actually pretty cool and could serve as building blocks for sounds of my own. But honestly, I doubt programming is really a short term options unless I end up w/ a ton of time on my hands…like if I was laid up with lupus or avian flu and needed something to pass the time.

Mucking around with the K5 has got me thinking about all the synths I’ve owned in the past. A lot of them sucked, but there are a few I regret getting rid of. And there are some I still have, sitting in the basement waiting to be powered up and explored. Below is a chronological list:

Korg 707
My first synthesizer purchased new around 1987 w/ paper route money. The 707 used licensed FM technology from Yamaha for synthesis, but it didn’t really sound like the DX-7. Not a bad little keyboard despite its limited features and poor present sounds. It had only 49 keys, but it looked really cute and it had pegs for a guitar strap if you wanted to use it as a keytar (the horror!). Couldn’t program this thing to save my life though, but I did find a ROM card with a ton of great sounds. I eventually sold the 707 to a sketchy storefront church in McMinnville sometime in the early ‘90s.

Kawai K1rII (rack mount)
This was a little rack mounted synthesizer I purchased new in 1989 for around $225.00. Damn, what a deal! Wish I still had it. The K1 had great strings sounds and all manner of weird noises lurking around inside this simple 8 bit sample playback synthesizer. But with the low price point, many corners were cut giving the K1 an undeserved bad rap.

Yamaha Portasound VSS-30
This was given to me by Matt Barker back in high school and I still have it. The VSS-30 is shit-hot; much better feature-wise than the more popular Casio SK-1. You can do these crazy Philip Glass like arpeggiated riffs. You can also sample sounds with the built in mic or with the line in RCA inputs. You can even apply evenvelopes to samples. These would be great thrift store finds.

Korg M1
Purchased new in 1992 from the same place I got the K1rII. As it turns out, the M1 wasn’t my cup of tea…too polished and slick sounding. There was this preset sound called “Pole” and you would hear it on every other popular Top 40 songs during the early ‘90s. Plus, I couldn’t program this thing either due to it’s minimalist interface. Sold the M1 in 1996 to a McMinnville based Ranchero band to pay for graduate school.

Yamaha TG33 (table top)
Purchased used in 1998 while I was living in Virginia. Still have it and use it from time to time. Similar to the Wavestation (see below), this synth features vector synthesis developed by Sequential Circuits, but uses 8 bit waveforms instead of 16 bit like the Wavestation. I used one as an undergrad in college in the University of Portland’s wonderful electronic music lab, so when I finally had some money, I decided to pick one up. Like the K1, this little bastard lacks filters (D’oh!).

Ensoniq Mirage (rack mount)
Purchased used in 1998 for about $50.00. Technically not a synthesizer, the Mirage can do additative synthesis with special third party software I have on floppy discs. I still have the Mirage, but don’t use it much, even though it has sweet sounding analog filters. All the sample discs I have are hopelessly cheesy: lots of orchestra hits that were so vogue in the ‘80s when the Mirage came out. But hey, if the orchestra hit ever comes back, I’m set.

Roland JX-8P
Purchased used in 1999 from some guy who was paranoid about Y2K and need money to buy emergency supplies. Overall, it was a nice synthesizer, but mine had issues, like bad keys and dodgy buttons. On the upside, it was pretty easy to program and there are some good computer editors floating around on the internet (would have been even easier with the hard-to-find PG-800 controller though). And it had some analog goodness lurking inside, like the filters. Sold it 2004 to some weirdo on Craigslist.

Roland U-220 (rack mount)
Purchased used in 1999 for no good reason other than it was really cheap. This thing sucked big time. I totally hated it in so many ways. Hopelessly impossible to program and Roland’s supplied manual read like it was translated by a Japanese high school student. Sold in 2002 to Trade-Up Music in SE Portland just to get it out of my sight.

Roland D-110 (rack mount)
Purchased used in 1999 around the same time as the U-220 for peanuts. This thing sucked worse than the U-220 and wasn’t event worth the little I spent on it. Like the U-220, Roland made these things impossible to program — it’s a wonder these products didn’t sink the company. Sold the D-110 in 2002.

Elektron SidStation (table top)
Purchased new in 2000 directly from the manufacturer in Sweden. A love/hate relationship quickly developed. This thing was designed around the sound chip from the old Commodore 64 computer and paired with analog filters and wavetables (like the old Waldorf PPG). But the SidStation turned out to be really flakey. Often times it would just freak-out and reset itself, erasing all my carefully programmed sounds. And it sure was noisy – even when notes weren’t being played, the SidStation would buzz like an angry bee. Subsequent operating systems and a new chip minimized these problems, but by then, I was done with it. Sold in 2004 on eBay for more than I bought new. Apparently, the SidStation is now considered a “classic” synthesizer and commands a premium price. Frankly, I’d rather have my K1rII back than another SidStation.

Korg Wavestation
Purchased used in 2003 with the proceeds from winning fantasy football that year. The Wavestation was developed in the late ’80s by the folks from Sequential Circuits and is a direct descendent of the fabled Prophet VS. Still have it and use it quite a bit, even though it’s very difficult to program. The Wavestation has a really nice feel to its keys, so I use it as a controller for the most part.

Wish List

Oberheim Matrix 1000
This is the rack mounted version of the Oberheim Matrix 6. Like the JX-8P, it has analog components mixed in with digital ones. Since there are no knobs for programming and it’s not fully analog, it tends to be overlooked on the used market. I’ve seen them going for around $150.00, so I’ll probably pick one up sometime in the near future.

PAiA Fat Man
These are cheap, around $150.00, but you have to solder them together. I’m still pretty shaky with the old iron, so this project will have to wait.

Pie in the Sky

Waldorf Microwave
These were made in West Germany during the late ’80s early ’90s and are the offspring of the wonderful PPGs. I almost bought one in the late ’90s for $350.00, but backed-out at the last minute because it seemed like an insane amount of money. They probably still cost about that much (if not more), but are definitely worth it. It would be great if Waldorf started making them again, but I’m not holding my breath since Waldorf hasn’t fully recovered from its bankruptcy. There is also the Microwave II from the late ‘90s, but it has digital, rather than analog, filters.

Alesis ION
This is a synth often categorized as a virtual analog. All the sounds are created by a computer processor instead of by circuits. But it’s supposed to sound pretty good even though it’s really just a computer with a keyboard attached. Not really analog, but pleasant none the less. And it has lots of knobs making it easy to program. The Alesis Fusion looks pretty cool as well, but doesn’t have the kind of hands on control like the ION. Like the ION, it has virtual analog capability but it also does sampling and FM synthesis. And it has an internal hard drive. Just wish it would playback soundfonts.

Dave Smith Mono Evolver
I think these sell for around a grand. A nice combination of analog and digital with lots of knobs. I think I would pick this over the Moog Little Phatty because of all its features, but I’d have to take a closer look at both.

MOTM modular synthesizer
When I get student loan paid off, I might seriously consider doing the whole MOTM (Module of the Month) thing. You send them, like $150.00 every month, and they send you a module. At the end of the year, you have a modular synth. And the MOTM stuff sounds and looks great — very Moog like. Actually, after looking at the website, I don’t see any references to the whole module a month thing, so maybe I’m confusing MOTM with synthesizers.com.

Entry Filed under: Electronic Music, Low End

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. loren  |  January 23rd, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    man where’s a yamaha tx81z and a dx (9,11,21,27) on your list?

    you should check one of those out in tandem with a software editor. on my to-do list is setting up my behringer bcr2000 as a patch editor for the tx81z. I am very interested in finding disks to mess with additive synthesis on the mirage. you should get an ensoniq esq 1 as well. all very useful, usable, cool sounding synths for cheap. I have loved every ensoniq piece i’ve owned and had time to get familiar with..

  • 2. admin  |  January 23rd, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    It’s been a while since I’ve made this list, but I’ve sold the TG33 and Mirage. Finally bought a Microwave II, which is fantastic. And I now have a tx81z which I run through a talkbox — although I have issues with the replacement battery I recently soldered into place. I also have an ESQ-1 now, but it’s on long term loan to B-Love.

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