Grant's Gear Pages

Page 3: Software and DAWs

Datel Digital Sound Sampler for Sinclair Spectrum 48K

Datel Sampler Sinclair Spectrum
I bought the Datel Sound Sampler for the Spectrum via mail-order, after reading a review in the April 1985 issue of Electronics & Music Maker magazine. This was at a time when sampling was still a mystical technology available only on high-end instruments like the Fairlight and Synclavier. After plugging it into the back of my Spectrum and loading the software from cassette, I was able to record and play back all sorts of sounds in glorious 8-bit resolution. The supplied software consisted of various utilities such as echo (with a hardware feedback level preset pot, accessible with a small screwdriver). There was also a musical keyboard which allowed you to play back samples at different pitches.

Things really got interesting when I got down to writing my own software to drive the hardware, though. Basically, the hardware consisted of an Analogue to Digital Converter (ADC) and a Digital to Analogue Converter (DAC), with the necessary circuitry to provide an anti-aliasing filter on the input and a reconstruction filter on the output, as well as input gain and feedback. Recording audio consisted of reading the ADC in a tight loop and storing the values in RAM. Playback consisted of reading the values in RAM and sending them to the DAC in a tight loop. Different playback pitches could be achieved by altering the time between outputting values to the DAC, or by taking different step sizes when reading through the sample data in RAM.

My first project was to create a pitch shifter. I read values from the ADC into a table in RAM. If memory serves (no pun intended), I made the table 256 bytes in length so that I could perform "fixed point" maths using two 8-bit registers as an integer:fraction pair. If you set the replay increment value to 256, this would step through the sample values at exactly the same rate as which they were being written. Setting the increment value to 512 would mean that you would replay the sample values at twice the rate at which they were being written; this would create an upwards pitch shift of one octave. Of course, this would mean that you would quickly run out of values to read. The table could be considered a circular loop of tape, with the record head running round at a fixed rate, and the replay head running faster (for an upward shift) or slower (for a downward shift). Eventually, the two heads will pass each other, which could lead to a discontinuity in the output waveform, causing a click or glitch, depending on the input waveform. Anyhow, the system worked remarkably well, allowing you to create real-time chipmunk and demon voices. Applying a bit of hardware feedback led to upward or downward spirals of sound. Admittedly, due to the 8-bit resolution, noise would eventually swamp any desired sound.

My next project was more involved. It was a Phase Distortion Wavetable Synthesizer. Like the pitch shifter, I built up a series of wavetables, each one 256 bytes in length, so that I could use the same integer:fraction increment value for choosing the playback pitches of two 'virtual oscillators'. The contents of each wavetable were calculated offline to allow the creation of dynamic timbre and amplitude envelopes. Like the Casio CZ-101, there were a limited selection of phase distortion wave pairs (carrier and modulator). Off the top of my head, there were two or three FM sine pairs, sine to square and sine to sawtooth transforms, some hard sync sounds and some 'phase offset' waves which allowed you to perform vibrato by quickly varying the starting phase of each oscillator. A musical keyboard was laid out on the 40-key QWERTY Spectrum keyboard. I was so pleased with the program that I sent it off on a tape to Datel with a view to them supplying it with the sampler. I heard nothing back. :(

Next up was a multi-timbral drum machine. I wrote this with a view to actually using it for recording or jamming, and not just as an intellectual exercise. I calculated that it would be possible to add the output of three virtual playback channels together within the time allowed for one sample replay period. I created an editor which was a little bit like the Fairlight Page R sequencer, with a grid of 16 beats on the X axis, and three channels on the Y axis. Each grid location could contain a sample number (1 to 8) or a rest. To create accents, you could place the same sample number on two or three of the channels at the same beat location. The editor allowed you to build up several "bars" in memory and then chain them together into a "song". It was surprisingly useful as a drum machine, and could even be used as a poor man's Fairlight if you chose suitable samples as your source. In many ways, it was quite similar to the hugely successful Cheetah Specdrum, with the important distinction that you could sample your own drum kits (or any sample set, for that matter).

d-lusion RubberDuck TB-303 simulator

RubberDuck TB-303
I downloaded a shareware demo of this when I was at DMA in 1996. A few of us clubbed together to buy a license for the full version. I think it was the first genuine virtual analogue softsynth I'd heard which really lived up to the promise. You can download it for free these days from the d-lusion website (along with many other interesting applications).

Propellerheads Rebirth RB-338 TB-303 / TR-808 simulator

Rebirth RB-338
I was gobsmacked by Rebirth when it was released in 1996. I guess that both the original TB-303 and TR-808 were starting to achieve iconic (and overpriced) status by that point in time. To hear them replicated so closely in software, and to be able to run it on mid-'90s PC hardware, was an outstanding achievement. Propellerheads (now Reason Studios) went on to develop the very first version of Reason in 2000, and it was similarly able to run efficiently on fairly modest equipment.

n-Track Studio

n-Track Studio
Since using the Pro-Tools III setup at DMA Design, I had always dreamed of being able to run it (or something similar) at home. That "something similar" appeared in the form of n-Track Studio for Windows. It was available to download in a demo form, with restrictions on the number of tracks you could use, and what effect plug-ins you could apply. It was a good marketing strategy, as it let me test out its usefulness for my purposes. After a few days use, Colin bought a full license for it, and it became the Under the Dome studio software for a few years. In fact, Bellerophon was mixed in n-Track Studio, and the track 'Return' was completely 'moused' into the piano-roll MIDI editor, without a single note being played on a musical keyboard. n-Track Studio had most of the features of Pro-Tools, such as mixdown automation, DSP plug-ins for effects and softsynths, and a non-linear recording paradigm. My single gripe with it was that it would often lock up completely when you were setting automation points on audio tracks. I had to get into the habit of saving tracks before attempting automation editing. Apart from that, it was a fantastic system, which supported Direct-X and VST plug-ins, and VSTi synths. I even upgraded to the 24-bit version when I bought the M-Box, preferring it to the Pro-Tools LE software which came bundled with the hardware.

Pro-Tools LE

Pro-Tools LE
After Colin left DMA, he bought himself a full PT-III system second-hand and it still resides at Dome Studios North (though sadly dormant for many years). When I bought my M-Box audio interface in 2005, it came bundled with Pro-Tools LE, which worked completely in software. The demo song that came with it really showed off how powerful a system it could be. The more powerful your processor and the more memory and disk space you had available, would allow it to expand the number of tracks available and the number of effects plug-ins you could run. Sadly, I never really had the time to fully explore recording music on this system. I was bitterly disappointed that I couldn't use the M-Box on Windows after the introduction of Vista / Windows 7. I ended up giving it to my nephew Craig, along with a second-hand Windows XP machine.

Propellerheads Reason Adapted

Reason Adapted
As well as Pro-Tools LE, the M-Box came bundled with "Adapted" versions of Ableton Live and Propellerhead Reason. I must admit that I never really formed much of a relationship with Ableton, but Reason was right up my street. If memory serves, you had a fixed rack with two instances of SubTractor, one of the NN-19 sampler and one of Redrum. It was limited in many ways; for example, a patch that you constructed for NN-19 was tied to the song you created, and could not be stored off as a separate disk file. As you can imagine, building up a multi-sample patch such as Mellotron Choir was a lot of work to have to replicate every time you created a new song. However, once again, it was a great marketing ploy on the part of Propellerheads (now simply Reason Studios), to give out a restricted copy of the full suite free of charge. From that point on, I was very interested in getting a full copy of Reason, especially after hearing what Colin could achieve with it for the UtD track "Philadelphia Experiment".

Propellerheads Reason 4.0

Reason Adapted
Back in the day when Reason was still a self-contained real-time MIDI-driven software studio, it was possible to download, ahem, "Evaluation Copies" (AKA cracked software) from your friendly local neighbourhood torrent tracker. I found a version of Reason 4.0 with a bundled key generator and so had access to the full version of it (complete with Orkester sample disk). I have to say that I was blown away by the quality of many of the instruments and effects available, and just how efficient it all was in terms of CPU load. I never actually used the recording and mixing side of things to any great extent, and ended up using it mostly as a real-time softsynth played from a remote MIDI keyboard (Alesis QX49, which I still use to this day).

I created many multi-sampled soundsets for NN-19, particularly Mellotron tapesets from Klaus Hoffmann-Hooke's archive CDs. I've never been a fan of sampling as a synthesis method, with two notable exceptions: sampling individual percussion sounds for a drum machine, and multi-sampling over the entire range of an instrument. As a result, I really had to wait years for it to become possible for a home recording hobbyist to be able to throw huge amounts of memory at a multi-sampled sound.

The other module I found to be incredible was the Thor Polysonic Synthesizer. You can create patches using pretty much every synthesis technique available from the analogue sounds of the '70s, through to PPG wavetable techniques, FM synthesis, Phase Distortion, etc. To this day, Thor is my go-to synth for pretty much anything, except those few occasions where I require very special machine-specific quirks, such as the MiniMoog filter or its envelope response. The main drawbacks with Reason were the lack of audio tracks and the inability to add third-party VSTs to the rack. These two factors could be mitigated to a certain extent by running nTrack Studio in sync through Re:Wire, but it was such a complete faff that it drained you of any creative impulses before you even got started.

Arturia V-Collection Classics

Arturia Mini V
Of all the genuine vintage synths I had always dreamed of owning, the MiniMoog would have to come in at Number 1. There's something so electric about its sound, and it has been responsible for so many of the synth sounds that blew me away when I was growing up. Sadly, the chances of me actually being able to own a genuine one seemed very remote, even during the late '80s, when I got into synth collecting in a big way.

The Steinberg Model-E softsynth showed that it was possible to create MiniMoog-ish sounds purely in software, and that there was nothing inherently 'magical' about the analogue hardware. However, as soon as I had a play about with the Arturia Mini V demo, I knew that someone had got about close to the real thing as possible - or at least something which did everything that I would require of the real thing! Of paramount importance to me was that:
1) The oscillators would continue in the background, even when the output was silent.
2) The envelope generators wouldn't reset to zero when a new note was played.
In fact, the Mini V envelopes even do that weird 'increasing attack peak' trick as heard when rapidly retriggering notes on the real thing - an effect most beloved of Gordon Reid at Sound On Sound.

As well as the MiniMoog, the V-Collection Classics package contains the ARP-2600, Prophet 5 / Prophet VS, Jupiter 8, Oberheim SEM and Analog Lab. Of these, only the ARP 2600 gets any real play time from me. I love it squelchy filter, so reminiscent of Steve Hillage / Miquette Giraudy. It's great for creating 'modular' FX patches, too. Mellow brassy lead sounds also seem to be a particular forte of the ARP. Although the Jupiter, Prophet and SEM are all good in their own way (and remarkably good emulations of their namesakes), I guess I'm just not a huge fan of analogue polysynths. Somehow, I'm much more drawn towards digital polysynths, and even more weirdly towards 'paraphonic' half-way-house analogues such as string synths. Which brings me neatly to...

Arturia Solina-V

Arturia Solina V

To be continued...

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