Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Introducing the YoaCrusher

As some of you know, I've recently been attempting to build virtual synths and FX modules. Well, now I've got one that... well, tries to work.

It's a bitcrusher, which basically takes a sound with a set sample rate and lowers said rate. In extreme cases, it creates a synthetic digital waveform. Here is a block diagram of how it works:

It's actually a pretty simple device.
1. First, the signal is mixed to mono. Sorry, but a stereo crusher is quite difficult to make work. I tried.
2. Other than the bypass, the first part is a ditherer, which quite simply adds pink noise to the mix to lessen the harshness on the crusher.
3. Then it moves to an LFO which you can make any waveform you want that's available. You can then also adjust the pulse width, or Jitter. I was going to attach an LFO to that so that you could created automated vocal sounds, but it didn't quite work as I had expected. I'll fix that later.
4. You then move on to the actual bitcrusher, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. It actually someone else's module that I partially reprogrammed. I need to further work on it so that the bit depth actually gets deep and is more easily controlled.
5. The bitcrushed signal then runs to the mixer, which is really just a switch on the bypass model that allows you to bypass the effect internally.

As per what everything I create with this will be, it's totally free (since I haven't bought the program I use to make these and the GUI shows up as just a big white box with the word demo on it but it's still fully functional), and you can download it below.


Here's the thing with this tool, though. It can, in extreme cases, do some pretty nasty stuff. When I was testing it in Ableton Live, it actually took the place of everything from a vocal formant filter to a distortion, and I found it can actually be run through itself to create even neater effects. I don't even know how this happened, but I know one thing: this beast is just that: a big ol' nasty beast. Careful out there.

Oh, and one last thing: if you are using it in something like Live, you'll have these options:

I recommend playing with not only these but the actual sliders on the GUI, because you can do some pretty neat sounding stuff.

Knob is LFO pitch
Oscillator Pulse Width is the LFO jittering
VCA Volume is Dither amount
Voltage to List is the amount of Bitcrushing
patchvalue is the LFO waveform

Download links:

With bypass
http://www.mediafire.com/?4dre7wa22duax3y

Without bypass
http://www.mediafire.com/?sp5e43bibwndwkb

Tweak list:
*fix bit depth control
*bypassable LFO on PWM for main LFO
*Adjust LFO pitch amount so you can't have a 20,000 Hz LFO. Kinda defeats the purpose. Maybe a max of 30Hz.
*set it up so that DAW's like Live actually understand what to control
*make it stereo
*anything else??

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Synth Chronicles 2: How To Make Sound

In the last part of this series, I talked about the basics of how analogue synths tend to function. Here, you will learn that there are SO MANY other ways to make sound electronically.

Additive - additive synthesis produces sound by adding sound waves together. These waves are usually Sine waves, but can be anything. This is just like that model you saw in school: if you have two waves that have matching peaks and troughs, the signal is twice as loud. If you move the second waveform just a little, it can have drastic effects on the output wave. How does this apply to music? consider other musical instruments. Their distinctive sound, or timbre, can be considered as the child of the of Fourier theory which states that sounds "consist of multiple harmonic or inharmonic partials," or overtones. Every partial used is a wave of a different pitch and amplitude. Additive synthesis produces sound by combining, or adding as the name suggests, the output of multiple wave generators, or oscillators.

Digital - digital waveguide synthesis is the synthesis of audio using a given template which mimics how acoustic waves are shaped. Digital waveguides are part of most modern synthesizers to produce realistic tones. You could think of it as a highly advanced filter which takes a normal waveform and makes it come to life. This can or can not also include the envelope that makes up how sounds naturally decay dynamically.

Distortion - Distortion synthesis is actually a group of synthesis techniques which changes existing sounds to produce more complex timbres. Before the discovery of distortion synthesis, complex sounds were created using many oscillators and modifying each oscillator's parameters. Distortion methods can form a complex frequency spectrum which is not only more efficient, but you can also separate and adjust parameters for various frequencies. Among others, a noteable example of distortion synthesis is FM or Frequency Modulation synthesis.

Frequency modulation - this form of synthesis distorts the 'carrier' frequency of an oscillator by modulating it with another signal, similar to how a vocoder works, if you are familiar with that. The 'distortion' of the first oscillator can be controlled in accordance with the amplitude of a modulating signal. This means that to alter the first signal, you must modulate it with another signal with a varying volume and pitch. For synthesizing 'pleasing' sounds, the modulating signal must have a harmonic relationship to the original carrier signal, meaning a pitch that would sound good with the first, assuming you played them as a chord. As the amount of modulation increases, the sound becomes more complex. To produce percussive sounds or noise, you can use non-harmonic modulators. Bell-like, dissonant (or chorused), and percussive sounds can easily be created by doing this.

Sample-based - this method of synthesis uses given, or seed, waveforms. These can be recordings of sounds or externally generated waveforms. You may ask how this is synthesis if it is just playing back sounds. Well, the synth using said sample interlaces the sample to cleanly loop, that is play repeatedly with no cracks or other disruptions in the audio. The synth can also have built-in filters to alter the sample.

Granular - Granular synthesis is a simpler method that uses the microsound time scale, and is based on the same principle as sampling. However, the samples are not played back normally. They are split into small, quick pieces, normally at a maximum of 100 milliseconds. These small pieces are called grains. Grains may be played as single parts like a sample, or layered to form a kind of additive synthesis. You can play grains at different speeds, phases, volumes, and pitches, too. A granular synthesizer can synthesize or remove parts of the sound to play and extremely slow or fast speeds respectively. At slower speeds, you get soundscape sounds, which are like drones or general background noises. At faster speeds, however, you can hear actual notes instead of noises. You can change the sample, envelope, overall length, panning, and density of the grains to produce some awesome sounds. Random neat thing; you can also sample a granularly synthesized sound and use that as a sample to re-synthesize.

Phase distortion - This form of synthesis is similar to FM synthesis, but this method dynamically changes the harmonics carrier waveform by applying another waveform, or modulator. This produces composite waveforms whose harmonics are both the sum and difference of the carrier and modulator waveforms. Fun fact: This was invented (or at least first used) by Casio. Yes, the same people who make calulators.

Subtractive - This method uses partials of an audio signal, usually of rich harmonic quality, and attenuates them with a filter to alter the timbre of the sound. This was pretty much what analogue synths of the 60s and 70s used.

Vector - This form of synthesis, invented by Sequential Circuits, namely the ProphetVS synthesizer, uses the fading between four sound waves using a single point on a vector plane as its synthesis technique. The mixing, if you will, was performed using a joystick, but could be automated using envelope generators or LFOs.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Synth Chronicles 1: Components of a Synthesizer

I decided to take the time to explain exactly what a synthesizer is and how it works. I hear far too often that it is just a computer and that it is not a real instrument. I'm here to reject your reality for you and implant the truth.

A synthesizer is basically a sound producer. There are a few basic components to a synthesizer: Oscillators, Amps, Envelopes, Filters, Mixers, and usually effects.

Oscillator - an oscillator (or osc) is almost always the primary sound source for any synth. The output of an Oscillator can be something very simple, like a pure wave, which is pretty much any of the basic waveforms: Sine, Square, Saw, or Triangle. Oscillators can also be supplied a sample, such as what is used in sampling synths or samplers in general.

Amp - An amplifier simply amplifies a signal, or makes it louder. Once you've got a signal coming from your oscillator, you will probably need to amplify the signal in some way in order to make it audible. In analogue synths, amps convert a voltage into audible sound. In virtual or digital synths, amps can often just act as volume controls because the amps are often integrated into the oscillator.

Envelope - An envelope is simply a way to control your sound over time. This is usually called an EG, or Envelope Generator. Most likely you will also want to use an envelope in order to control the way in which the loudness of the signal changes over time, but you can also use envelopes to control how filters and even oscillators react. This will have an enormous effect on the sound, and is one of the most important factors in determining the overall sound. Let's go a bit more in depth with this one.

If you compare the sound of different instruments, one of the many distinguishing factors is the way in which the volume of the sound changes over time. For example, an orchestra of strings tends to kind of fade in, whereas a guitar reaches peak amplitude, or volume, almost instantly. Similarly, after a note is not being played (aka the bow is not bowing nor the pick picking), there is some time between when the note stops being played and when it isn't sounding, usually as a fade out, or gradual decrease in volume.

Envelopes can control such things as pitch or velocity (how hard, and thus loud, the note is). The effect of these is similar to keyboard tracking: you can have the envelope's character change as you play up the keyboard or play notes louder. Envelopes can also be used to control many other parts of a synth whose parameters you want to change over time. For example, you might want to use an envelope to control a filter, so that the filter opens up over time as you hold a note. Other uses might be controlling the pitch or pan values of a note over time. As you can see, Envelopes can be pretty awesome not only for reproduction of real instruments, but for making some neat sounds.

Speaking of Filters...

Filter - a filter removes certain parts of a signal, just as a sieve will remove certain parts of a fluid. You can control what gets filtered out of a liquid by choosing sieves with different sized and shaped holes, right? You can do the same depending on choice of filter, the settings used, and what controls the filter. The effect of filters can indeed be incredibly powerful. Some people feel that filters are the most important feature of a synthesizer, and with good reason: filters can totally change the tone, acting as everything from an Equaliser to a way to make your sine wave sound like a crying child (it has its uses...). What is super important to know is that filtering does not just have a 'reductive' effect.

Filtering has a much more dramatic effect on your sound than simply taking things out because, due to how some can change qualities of the harmonics within a sound, it can not only reduce some harmonic overtones but it can also boost others. This results in sound that can differ greatly from the original. Some standard filters are called Pass Filters, which act as EQ settings, allowing only certain parts of the sound to pass through it. Low pass filters let only low frequencies pass, high pass filter allow high frequencies through, and band pass filters allow whatever the specified frequency only to pass.

LFO - LFO stands for Low Frequency Oscillator. Like the Oscillators described above, a low frequency oscillator outputs an oscillating frequency of some sort, usually in the same waveforms as the normal oscillators can, but the output of an LFO is generally much slower than that of a standard Oscillator (hence the name, Low Frequency). When you hear the output of a Sine wave from a normal sine oscillator, the frequency of the wave is generally so fast that you can't distinguish the individual cycles of the wave, you just hear a continuous tone. With an LFO, the cycle of the wave is so slow that you can (at lower frequencies anyway) actually distinguish the individual cycles of the wave. LFO's are generally used to modify some aspect of another part of a synth: the pitch of an Oscillator, the amplitude or panning of a signal, the application of a filter, et cetera. For example, using what I just described, LFO's can create a tremolo effect, vibrato, or auto-pan effect.

The actual uses of an LFO are pretty much infinite, though. With older patching synths, you could literally attach the LFO to whatever you wanted. With modern virtual patching, you can connect one source, in this case our LFO, to many things -- thus, one LFO can now control every aspect of a synth at once.

Mixing - Just like mixing signals from a band in a studio with a standard mixer by adjusting volumes, most synths come with a mixer for at least the oscillators. Some synths even have mixers for effects and filters affecting the wet/dry-ness of the signal. What this refers to is the amount that part of the synth affects the sound. Wet means that the signal is totally affected by the effect or what have you, and Dry means that the signal is totally unaffected.

Level - talking volumes, I should probably also mention what level means. Level usually refers to volume or mix. Volume, obviously, refers to how loud something is. Mix is like that effect mixer I was talking about above.

Effects - effects simply change the sound, very much like filters. Some effects don't remove anything, but add to the sound. Standard effects, such as flanger, phaser, chorus and delay/loop, have this affect. There are some more powerful effects such as Downsamplers that remove parts of the sound. Let's talk about some of these standard effects:

Flangers are kind of like a slow LFO affecting the pitch of a note's overtones.
Phasers shift the oscillations of a sound, in a more extreme way that flangers.
Chorus effects are liek a fast version of flangers. It gives the effect of being slightly but still musically out of tune.
Delay takes a sound and replays it after a set time. Delays tend to lower in volume over time.
Loopers are very much like delays, but they never get quieter.
Downsamplers literally lower the bit rate, or how fast the sound renders. At extreme levels, this can create a sound similar to slowly scraping metal... or a pissed off computer.

There are more things that I could go over, such as MIDI implementation, how synths know what pitch to play, various modifiers, et cetera, but I won't. At least, not now. This is just an overview of the basics of synthesis. Something to note is that all the parts that make up a synth are naturally created by normal instruments. Synthesizers allow the near-infinite tweaking of these parts to create equally infinite sounds.

If you wish to get into synthesis, I recommend getting Gunnar Ekornas' Minimogue VA (http://home.no/gunnare/). It has several of the elements listed here in a very easy to understand layout. It was actually my first synth. Just don't get the Luxus version. I've had problems with that. When you download it, you may also need to get something called savihost (http://www.hermannseib.com/english/savihost.htm), which will allow you to use the synth as its own program -- no installation needed. The instructions on boths sites are pretty clear, but just in case:

1. download the minimogue
2. download savihost
3. put both the one folder
4. name savihost.exe MinimogueVA.exe, or whatever exactly the dll file is named.
5. run minimogueva.exe.
6. enjoy synth happiness. It comes preloaded with many sounds, so you can look at the settings and get a feel for how the controls affect things.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Ke$ha

Ever since people discovered that I like Ke$ha (surprised?), I've had to come up with various reasons why. Good reasons, sure, and here they are:

Reason #1: I found out about Ke$ha through KORG, so there's an obvious first reason.

When I went to check her out, I (obviously) went to music first. I was kind of scared because she said in her interview:

"I knew the KAOSSILATOR PRO could make really cool laser-like sounds which I wanted to use in “Take It Off.” The idea to hang it from a giant chain was mine because who doesn’t want some bling?"

Right... you can imagine my skepticism. But, I kept reading, and found that her equipment is pretty nice: "...Korg MS2000 and I use effects from another KAOSS Pad with it. They’re really smooth but not typical and work great for my music. My band mates both also have Korgs in their rigs. My guitarist/synth player Max also has an MS2000 and my keyboard player Jenn uses a microKORG."

So of course now I'm interested (and that's possibly why I run my MicroKORG through my KP).

Reason #2: I like her music. I will admit, a couple of her songs, such as F**k Him He's A DJ, Cannibal, Steven, Kiss N Tell, and Sleazy are... well, I'm not as big a fan.

Musically, though, it's all awesome. F**k Him He's A DJ is a pretty different way of describing a club experience, and Cannibal has a very interesting bass line and really the lyrics are... creative. Kiss N Tell is really kind of J-pop-like, which is cool. Sleazy is interesting vocally. The percussion is pretty cool too. Cool thing is, if you know KORG like I do, you can hear classic and modern KORG sounds all throughout almost all of her songs.

Otherwise, I love all of her stuff wholeheartedly. As for favourites, um... assuming I can't say everything, I'd have to go with Take It Off.

Reason #3: She can be kinda hot.

Now look, I realise that's not really that important, especially considering she can look totally wasted (which sadly is more common):

...But it helps.

Reason #4: I like her personality and mindset. She seems really awesome and fun, and seems to think more like "Just have FUNN!!" Sure, she may talk a lot about relationships and love, but the way she does it is pretty awesome. Kinda makes me think of what her life was like, though. I mean, unless you pay attention to news or research stuff, I find it kinda scary to live a life she seems to have lived (considering the reference to Jeffery Dahmer...), which correlates somewhat to the rough childhood I had (just saying that we both may have had rough childhoods, y'know).

Reason #5: Did I mention she likes KORG, electronic music, music in general, is a good composer, amazing at using effects (not only for vocals), and has a nice voice?

Reason #6: I can. Most true reason anyone could give for liking something. LOL

I was even asked this just today: If you could do a collaboration song or two with Ke$ha, would you? My answer is simple: HELL YEA!! No, seriously, if she somehow discovered me and liked it enough to do a song with me, I'd totally do it.

-Yoa