Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Evolution Of Software Digital Instruments...


Since its acceptance by the musical community as a networking standard for musical instruments around 1983, MIDI or Musical Instrument Digital Interface has changed the face of music and how it is created around the world. Being both a cable standard (defining which pins do what on a 5 pin cable) and a standard for networking protocol used to transit information between instruments, MIDI itself covers a lot of ground in terms of its specification as a serial interface.

In the days before interfacing with a computer (few computers were capable of the requirements with the exception of the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga, both of which were way ahead of their time), the instruments and all of their sound presets (known in the day as "patches") were all contained in solid state memory within the instrument itself. Often these patches were ROM (read only) and the instrument contained a small portion of battery backed memory that would store the parameters such as ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release) for your VCAs (Voltage Controlled Amplifiers), VCOs (Voltage Controlled Oscillators) and VCFs (Voltage Controlled Filters) after you had turned the synthesizer off.

During the computer revolution which followed shortly thereafter which found household after household with the versatility of a home computing device, more and more digital music enthusiasts emerged. Some (such as my friend Chuck K.) might argue that the ZX Spectrum or the Commodore 64 long preceded this revolution with capabilities such as 4 oscillator synthesis (four note polyphony) and multicolour video (sometimes as many as 16 colours on the screen or even by throttling the computer a 64 colour mode).

Artists like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Vangelis all of whom were producing electronic music in the 1970s had started a progression in music that has branched into many different styles and genres. During the 1980s and 1990s one of the forces that became instrumental to forging the Rave scene and the electronic music movement was the Demo and MOD music scene. During this movement, coder groups would get together and show off their latest graphics programming and music demos, most of the music being produced in the MOD file format, a file format that stored the note events and digital samples and synthesis parameters inside of a single file. These were the first digital parties there were and they would prove instrumental (forgive the pun) in opening the doors to the electronic music scene and forge the way for bands like Depeche Mode, and many of the modern electronic bands we hear today. In Europe, this movement was tremendously popular and forged the first early electronic dance songs and inspired many of the popular artists or the Rave movement and dance scene.

In the mid to late 1980s a music computer was developed that was built from the ground up for the job of producing music using a mixture of synthesis and sampling. This computer was known as the Fairlight CMI and was a force in the production of many records (there were still records at that time). Trevor Horne used his to produce bands such as The Art Of Noise, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Propaganda and albums by 1970s super rock group Yes. Its sound was unmistakable by the way of its often used Slap Bass, Air Choir or its most commonly used Orchestra Hit patch. At more than a hundred thousand dollars per unit, these computers found their way into high end studios more so than into the homes of garage musicians and music enthusiasts. The Fairlight's impact upon music is undeniable. Similarly, Yamaha's Synclavier and the Clavanova too were high powered music workstations whose power versus price were still beyond the reach of most musicians but they too had tremendous impact upon music production and the design of future music workstations.

Throughout the 1990s synths were produced more and more in a modular rack cabinet form without the presence of a musical keyboard, as MIDI allowed musicians to connect their existing keyboard via a 5 pin MIDI cable to the rack mount version of a synthesizer to trigger its sounds. This modularity allowed musicians, composers and studios to build stacks of synthesizers each of which had very unique sounds or were strong in one area while lacking in another. Using one synthesizer for its rich piano and strings sounds versus another synthesizer for its brass and synth pads sounds was and still is common practice.

As home and business computers grew in performance and computing power and more and computers contained high quality sound hardware, a gradual transition occurred seeing MIDI instruments becoming virtualized in software, arguably the first targets of virtualization besides video game emulators. This meant that the entirety of the bulk of computing necessary to perform the various algorithms responsible for sound synthesis in popular keyboards like the Roland Jupiter 8 or the Korg Poly-61 or the Yamaha DX7, each of which use a different algorithm to produce its synthesis was possible as well as emulating more recent synthesizers such as the Roland U20 and the ever popular gigging musician's keyboard the Korg M1.

With the introduction of these virtual instruments, Steinberg's Cubase standardized the production of these virtual instruments (calling them VST instruments) inside of a redistributable file format common on the Windows PC making it possible to trade in complete synthesizers just by copying a file to your computer and using it in Cubase or your music production software of choice.

When instruments found their way into the domain of software, buying new instruments or simulating existing classic instruments became possible and the price of doing so became affordable to musicians everywhere. Add to this the fact that the internet made it possible for musicians to share digital instruments and record tracks with other musicians from around the world by sharing the production files, audio takes or bed tracks.

For those of you who are looking for such instruments, try VST4Free, a great service which catalogs free and commercial synths available for download and evaluation in an easy to navigate format.

For those of you who are looking to jump in on a virtual project, try Digital Musician, a software that allows you to collaborate on music tracks with others over the net in real-time including webcam and chat interface along with the means to stream audio for recording takes and collaboration.

For those of you looking for Vintage sounds try Korg's Legacy modules which includes the M1 (Advanced Integrated synthesis) and the ground breaking Wavestation (Advanced Vector synthesis making it the first synth to offer wave form linear sequencing and morphing). 

Checkout Yamaha's Legacy collection for their VST versions of their classic synths, which have always been best known for their use of FM synthesis and their great piano sounds.

Roland doesn't seem to be offering VST synths but you can read about and maybe write them to asking them to revive some of their synths in a virtual format like the U20 or their classic analog synths. They do have this page covering their discontinued Virtual Sound Canvas, a virtual synth which ran on the sound canvas engine, which was primarily designed under the General MIDI 2 specification and was the MIDI audio producing engine in many sound boards.

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