The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'softsynths'
Web toy of the day (if not the year): Hobnox Audiotool. A TR-909, two TB-303s and a bag of effects pedals in a Flash applet, with a nifty patch-cord interface.
It sounds pretty authentic (well, at least as much as the various ReBirths and 303 softsynths) and flexible (the knobs produce the right amount of variation in the sound), which suggests that there is more to this than a bunch of samples in a simple player. The two options are:
- Recent versions of Flash have some kind of MSP/SuperCollider-style unit-generator-based audio engine built in, and pre-stocked with a bunch of useful components (such as wavetable oscillators, envelopes, filters, delay lines, convolvers, &c.), so that the Flash code only has to assemble a network of these and press play. Which essentially means that this sort of high-powered computer music infrastructure has become thoroughly commodified, to the point of being embedded for free in the infrastructure, remaining unnoticed until one actually uses something made from it. And that it would be possible to assemble quite usable audio production web applications in Flash, or:
- The applet merely communicates with a process on the web server, which synthesises the audio and streams it back to it.
Japanese electropop band YMCK are known for making catchy pop songs with instrumentation sounding like 8-bit Nintendo game music. And now you can do the same: they've just released a software synthesiser plug-in that emulates primitive 8-bit sound chips like the one in the Nintendo Famicom. Named the Magical 8-bit Plug, it is free-as-in-beer and available for MacOS X (in AudioUnit format; sorry, Cubase users) and Windows (in VSTi format); it even comes with a demo MIDI file.
My most recent softsynth discovery is QuadraSID; this is a VST/AU softsynth which emulates, as the name suggests, 4 SID chips (and emulates them quite thoroughly, down to letting you choose the chip model and whether you want bugs to be emulated accurately or fixed), along with enhancements such as external envelopes, arpeggios and a mini-sequencer. It comes with a batch of presets designed by Commodore 64 game composer Chris Hülsbeck (perhaps best known for the Giana Sisters score), and now there is an additional sound bank by Rob Hubbard, which is full of fuzzy, warbly SID goodness. Of course, it's not limited to C64 game-music homages; a stack of SIDs can have its uses, from Broadcast-style lo-fi to fat pads.
The company which makes quadraSID also has some other interesting products, such as Slayer2, a guitar synthesiser based on physical modelling, along with amp and pedal models; it sounds almost like the real thing; not quite as authentic as sample-based systems, though a lot more flexible. The fact that it can turn randomly pressing keys into an over-the-top finger-shredding cock-rock guitar solo of the gods is impressive enough in its own right. (If I ever end up revamping a certain track from my last year's NaSoAlMo album, I may have to invest in a copy of this).
Nokia have made available VST plugins simulating their mobile phones; the Nokia Audio Suite contains a softsynth which can simulate a number of phone sound chips, and an effect which can simulate the tinny little piezo speakers of those phones. They're ostensibly for ringtone composers, but there's nothing stopping musicians from using them. Unless, of course, the musicians in question don't use Windows.
The NYTimes has a piece on Vocaloid, the new singing voice-synthesis program that could automate the last part of music performance still done by humans. Vocaloid is interesting because voices are stored as interchangeable "fonts" of vast numbers of samples and articulation data. The first fonts coming out (from British samplemongers Zero-G) are a pair of soul-singer voices, Leon and Lola:
In the case of Leon and Lola, session singers were hired to record what Mr. Stratton calls "generic soul-singing voices." The decision to start with soul was purely a marketing calculation: Mr. Stratton figured that the most common use of Vocaloid, at least in its early stages, would be to serve as background singers. With a soulful sound, the company could target a commercial market that ranges from Justin Timberlake to Jay-Z.
(Bugger soul singers, I say, just give me Liz Fraser. Or Ian Curtis. A generic French-accented female voice could also be useful for all the post-Stereolab acts.)
The process, of course, could be exploited for mischief, as described below. Though doing so would require a vast amount of raw data, work and expertise to prepare the voice font, something beyond the reach of casual pranksters.
What's to stop dilettantes from creating their own fonts? Could it be long before falsified but entirely convincing clips of Britney Spears begging for Justin's forgiveness circulate on the Web to say nothing of George Bush conspiring with Tony Blair about weapons of mass destruction?
The major market will be celebrity voices, undoubtedly priced beyond the reach of mere mortals, and giving Fortune 500 corporations that touch of class that comes with having Frank Sinatra sing the company song:
Licensing Elvis for Vocaloid would be a different matter, though, says Gary Hovey, vice-president of entertainment for Elvis Presley Enterprises. "If someone came to us and said, `We want Elvis to sing this new song,' we'd have a lot to contemplate," he said. "We tried to retain the integrity of his original song with the remixes. Now you're talking about a whole new vocal performance of a song he never sang or knew? How do we know he'd want to sing it?" "Believe me, that would go all the way to Lisa," he added, referring to Elvis's daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, who owns Elvis's estate.
Once a full palette of vocal fonts is available (or once Yamaha allows users to create their own), the possibilities become mind-boggling: a chorus of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra; Marilyn Manson singing show tunes and Barbra Streisand covering Iron Maiden. And how long before a band takes the stage with no human at the mike, but boasting an amazing voice, regardless?
The article then points out that, with this in place, the entire process of song production could be automated. Lyrics could be pieced together from a database of stock phrases or using a narrative engine (though, then again, given how songs can succeed without the lyrics making sense (look at any 90s Eurodance hit), that may not be necessary); instruments can be synthesised (this includes guitars; I have in my collection a program named Virtual Guitarist which does just that, passably if inflexibly in places, though certainly well enough for pop songs), and the mixing can be automated. Finally, the hit quality of the finished product can be mathematically assessed using the Hit Song Science algorithm, and a genetic algorithm used to evolve the catchiest song. All stages of the process (from instrumentation/lyrical content to final scoring) could be tweaked using market research ("Electroclash is out, booty bass is coming back ironically, chip tunes are the dog's bollocks, and 90s grunge retro is due any day now"). And then we may all end up living in a Greg Egan story.
The MacOS X softsynth landscape is set to look slightly less austere, now that Muon are finally porting the softsynths (CM101, SR202 and DS404) they wrote for the Computer Music magazine cover discs to MacOS X. That's 3 fewer things I'll have to do without when I finally end up taking the plunge (probably when I have A$900 to spare and nothing better to spend it on). Hopefully by then Pluggo will be out for OSX as well.
Of course, this doesn't resolve the massive VST/AudioUnits uncertainty that's balkanising the OSX digital audio world. But that's another issue.
Yamaha have developed a program for synthesizing sung vocals. Named Vocaloid, the program uses libraries of vocal fragments and articulation algorithms to synthesise realistic singing. It currently comes with a "Soul Vocalist" data set, for all your throaty dance vocal needs. Windows-only, I'm afraid, and no word of VST compatibility; there's a screenshot here. (via Found)
It's good to see some physical modelling softsynths emerge, rather than the usual (and relatively boring) idealised analogue synths and sample players.
Update: I've compiled vstserver and the k_vst~ Pd object and (after some hacking) have managed to get VST plugins working under Linux. Things are still a bit flaky (for some reason, vstserver refuses to recognise plugins anywhere but the current directory it's run from), but I've now got the familiar mda Combo plugin crunching up an Amen Brother break, all in a Pd patch under Linux. Life is good.
This looks (and sounds) pretty nifty: Virtual Guitarist, a VST plugin which plays rhythm guitar in various styles, getting chord information from MIDI input. It appears to be an intelligent sample player/chord engine and a big bank of guitar note/part fragments.
I'm not making this up: Some Dutch students have written a VST plug-in which synthesizes Tibetan throat singing. I'm not making this up. Named Delay Lama, it uses formant synthesis, is MIDI controllable (with the pitchbender controlling vowel sound) and sounds uncannily lifelike. And if that wasn't enough, it draws an animated Tibetan monk, lip-synched with the audio, in the GUI. Best of all, Delay Lama is free (though donations to a Tibetan charity are encouraged).
Big Tick Audio have some pretty doovy-looking VST instruments, including a funky-sounding (and free) Clavinet emulator and the pretty impressive-sounding Angelina, a "formant synthesizer" which makes vocal-sounding pad sounds. Unfortunately, there's no Mac version of the latter yet.
I was walking past Manny's in Fitzroy today, and stopped in, finding that they had a few items on sale. Hence, I ended up buying a copy of Waldorf Attack, the VST analogue rhythm synthesizer plug-in. (Something I had been meaning to get my hands on for a while; though the fact that it was on sale sealed it.)
It's pretty doovy; one can make all sorts of sounds with it, from analogue drum sounds to the sorts of bizarre noises found only in German laptop electro and Warp CDs, and miscellaneous odd burblings, hisses and insane ring-modulated cacophonies. And the fact that one of the preset kits it comes with is comprised of video-game sound effects is encouraging.
I laughed out loud when I heard the start of the "Beat Box 3" sample song, though; there it was: a perfect knock-off of the Casio VL-1 "Rock 2" pattern (that's the one from Ninetynine's Wöekenender).
"Girl" is a very odd name for an audio synthesis program, but the description sounds pretty doovy. Basically it's a modular sample-based synthesizer/mixer of sorts, which can apparently work standalone or as a VST plug-in, and can be controlled in realtime using the keyboard or 2D 'plane controllers'; which brings to mind all sorts of glitchy loop-based laptop mayhem. The demo MP3s on the site also sound quite promising, in a What Is Music? sort of way. Though whether it's worth the A$200 or so it'd cost to register it remains to be determined.
The latest issue of Computer Music magazine comes with a VST drum-sampler plug-in (SR-202, by the Muon people). Unfortunately, the Mac version of this plug-in can crash the entire machine, which renders it rather useless. Hopefully they'll fix this in a future issue (as it looks like quite a doovy plug-in; potentially better than LM-4).
(Yes, MacOS's nonexistent memory protection is to blame; I'll be glad when they start making native audio software for MacOS X, and compiling VST plug-ins for said platform too. Mind you, I'll also need a new Mac then, as my beige toaster doesn't want to boot MacOS X (probably because of the CPU upgrade).)
In other plug-in news, Roland have a VST version of their Sound Canvas module out; I'm thinking of spending the A$135 (with 3RRR subscriber discount) and buying it (I do have an ancient SC-55 module, but this is internal and VST-based, and thus more convenient; and you never know when you'll need some GM sounds).
I must say I'm very impressed with Maxim's J10 VST soft synth. It's one of the more capable free synth plug-ins I've seen, on a par with real synths. I'll probably be using it in places I'd otherwise record an external synth.
Cesare Ferrari has a new shareware VST FM synth plug-in, FMHeaven, which can import DX7 patches. (No idea how much it sounds like a real DX7.)
More VST instruments you can shake a stick at. Though their images and some of their links seem to be broken.
Cubase geek stuff: There is now a Mellotron plug-in for VST. The demo sounds pretty doovy, though the fact that it takes up "hundreds of megabytes" is a bit daunting. Time to get a new disk for my Mac, I think...
VST plug-in update: I've just played around with Ces's synth plug-ins, and they're great. Well, the ones that work (which would be the analogue synth, the wavetable synth and the first drawbar organ). The wavetable synth makes some interesting sounds, the analogue is top-notch, and the drawbar organ sounds pretty useful too. (The analogue drum synth didn't seem to want to play anything other than the kick drum when I tried it though.) Anyway, nice one, mate! I'll be buying some registered versions in the near future. (Though I still reckon they should do something about the names...)
Speaking of VST plug-ins, this site seems to have a number of VST soft synth plug-ins of various sorts (standard analogue, drawbar organ, wavetable). Looks interesting, though one can't help but think that the names leave a bit to be desired...
Interesting VST plug-in of the day: VSamp, a virtual sampler for VST 2.0. May be useful for using all those vintage synth separates off Future Music cover CDs...
Free VST toy of the day: VB-1, a virtual bass guitar simulator, using physical modelling techniques, and capable of sounding like a bass guitar, a clavinet, a DX-7 and a bunch of other things.
I've been playing with a demo version of Pluggo, an amazingly doovy collection of audio effects plug-ins for Cubase VST, and getting some interesting sounds out of it. I'll probably end up buying it sometime soon, especially since it's only US$74 (though that's about twice that number in Australian play money).