Synth-ify Your Life

Synth-ify Your Life


1. Predator
Predator’s three oscillators and wide variety of waveforms make this synth shine. Notice at the bottom right the morphing and variation options.

Drummers do not live by playing beats alone. Sometimes we must program beats, compose tunes, create soundtracks, or sculpt our musical moods from sonic seeds. The recent advances in software synthesis have produced a slew of new programs that are designed to push the boundaries and create brand new sounds.

As a foundation for understanding what we’re talking about, here’s how a basic synthesizer works: An oscillator generates a waveform – sine, sawtooth, square, etc. – that serves as the raw musical material. The waveform then passes through a filter that increases or decreases certain frequencies to alter the original. Once the sound leaves the filter, it heads off to an amplifier that determines the overall volume of the sound.

If that’s all there was to it, the world of electronic music would be pretty damn boring! LFOs, envelopes, audio effects, and even arpeggiators get added to give a basic synth more individuality. But, with software, there is really no limit to the functions a creative designer can build into an instrument. Want to have an audio sample used as the oscillator’s waveform? No problem. Want to let the musician design her own waveforms from scratch? You got it. How about adding a step sequencer or a series of X/Y pads for live performance? Done.

We’re going to take a look at a few newer instruments that have made their mark on the cutting edge of sound design and creative musical applications. If you haven’t heard these yet, check ’em out.

Rob Papen — Predator

With a name like Predator, you’d expect this Rob Papen synth to be a beast – and it’s nice when you get what you expect. When you enter Predator’s world, you get your hands on a ton of sounds that cut, bite, scratch, and claw their way through a mix.

In terms of presets, the synth comes out of the box with more than 30 extreme banks that are named for their musical genre and potential use. For example, you’ll find dance, dubstep, hardstyle, Dutch hardcore, trance and psytrance, as well as several more. From each bank, you select from a large number of different presets that fit within that particular style bank. All in all, Predator comes out of the box with more than 4,400 presets. That should keep you busy for a good long while.

Predator’s oscillator section consists of three different oscillators, each containing 128 different waveforms ranging from the typical analog-style waves we all know and love, to waves that are vocal, additive, and spectral. There is also a symmetry control that changes the shape of the wave. Typically, this sort of control is primarily used to change a square wave into a pulse wave. But in Predator, this control can affect any of the waveforms, thus making a near-infinite variety of initial sounds. As you might expect, the oscillator section allows you to fine-tune the wave, and tune the semitone control over an eight-octave range. There is also a sub oscillator that adds an additional lower octave to the sound. A spread control has the effect of adding a number of layers with just a little detuning between them. You can also select the oscillator to be free running or have it begin anew with each new note. If that’s not enough variety for you, there is also a Pulse Width Modulation control (along with a “speed” control) that acts as a dedicated LFO for the symmetry of the wave. As you can tell, with all this control and variety, you can take a single oscillator and make it sound incredibly thick and rich. Last but not least, the output of the oscillator can be sent to the filter, or to another oscillator for further modulation!

A variation option let’s you quickly and very easily make variations to a preset to create a new preset that is related to the original. The variation control consists of four parts (A, B, C, and D). The first three create variations on the synthesizer parameters while the “D” variation modifies the effect section of the preset. Predator also has the ability to create brand new presets by morphing between any two presets you select. A simple click of the morph button and you’re in the preset creation business.

Most synths have an LFO that can be routed to pitch in order to modulate the pitch for vibrato effects. The cool thing about Predator is that you can use this dedicated pitch modulator instead of using up one of your other LFOs, saving them for more important, and mutant, purposes.

While not nearly as obvious as some of the other controls inside this synth, Predator allows you to change the slope and shape of the attack and release portions of the amplitude envelope. When these controls are in their center position, the shape is linear. You can also select exponential or logarithmic. There is also a strum option that adds an automatic and adjustable delay between the notes of a chord, offering still more variety and creative applications.

Predator offers up three different effects to the output arranged in series. This means that effect one will feed into effect two, and two will feed into effect three. There are 27 different effects that run the gamut of nice and friendly reverbs, delays, and filtes; to more aggressive distortions, phasers, and flangers. Each time an effect is selected, a window dynamically changes to offer all of the effect’s parameters. For those of you with real-time-control issues, Predator lets you select any two MIDI controllers and route them to any of the effects’ parameters.

Most drummers that I know are suckers for good arpeggiators. Getting a synth to play melodic and rhythmic figures on a single note-on event is a great way to thicken a texture or create an interesting groove. Predator has a pretty advanced 16-step arpeggiator that can be used as a normal step sequencer, or as a modulation source for the parameter of your choice. Each step can be tuned over a four-octave range, and includes controls for tie, slide, and velocity. And the direction of the sequencer can be set to run up, down, up/down, down/up, random, ordered, reverse ordered, and more.

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