By Francis Preve
WAY BACK IN THE 20TH CENTURY, A WELL-ARMED PRODUCER’S STUDIO WOULD
consist of a sequencer, a bunch of hardware synths running into a mixer, and more
often than not, one or more tape-based digital multitracks such as the Alesis ADAT
or TASCAM DA-38. Shortly after we crossed the millennial finish line, computers got
fast enough that many of us transitioned to soft synths and DAWs. With the promise
of virtual analog, FM, sampling and drum machines all in the box, why rely on a
room full of bulky synths controlled by miles of MIDI cables?
Now, real analog is back with a vengeance.
Moog, Dave Smith, Tom Oberheim, and a slew
of boutique manufacturers have ushered in a
new era of hardware, and everyone from dance
music producers to prog rockers to film composers
either has it or wants it. Yet our DAWs offer
workflow advantages we couldn’t have imagined
in the days of MIDI-sequencing a wall of synths
and bussing the audio to eight tracks of an ADAT.
Bridging the two worlds—software and real analog
synths—is the question of today, and it’s a
good one. Last summer, I took on the Sisyphean
task of reconfiguring my studio to do just this.
Sisyphean? Over the past couple of years, I’d
acquired several new tabletop analog synths: the
Moog Slim Phatty, a Tom Oberheim SEM CV edition
with its modular patch bay, the new Korg
Monotribe, and a Doepfer Dark Energy were all
now synths I used nearly every day. On top of
that, there’s my beloved Prophet ’08 (which also
serves as my MIDI controller), Avid Venom, pristine
Roland SH-101, monstrous Yamaha SK-50D,
and ultra-rare Davolisint. Add in my small but
essential collection of go-to soft synths—Ableton
Operator, FXpansion DCAM Synth Squad,
Native Instruments Razor, and of course, the
Komplete bundle—and the whole shebang is
Previously, I was using an almost laughably
old school approach to tying this rig together.
All the synths ran into a Mackie 1402VLZ Pro
mixer with an old Behringer Composer compressor
on the record out bus, then into my MOTU
UltraLite Mk. 3 audio interface. I’d long since
moved from a PowerMac G5 tower to an Intelbased
MacBook Pro, so every session consisted
of swapping USB and FireWire cables, patching
synths into the mixer, and constantly adjusting
levels and hunting down buzzes. This was slow,
inefficient, and creativity-stalling.
Then it hit me in a moment of what felt like
divine inspiration. I knew exactly what I had to
do—and that it might change how people approach
their own studio configurations forever.
Don’t believe me? Keep reading.
Slaying the Cable Medusa
First, because of my soft synth collection, I realized
that the number of inputs needed for my
everyday hardware synths was really only four:
Slim Phatty, Prophet ’08 (call me a heretic, but I
run it monaurally), SH-101, and SEM. The Doepfer
Dark Energy was already configured in tandem
with the SEM, that is, its output was running
into one of the SEM’s two external audio inputs.
The UltraLite Mk. 3 has eight analog inputs, so I
could use the two remaining 1/4" inputs on the
back for the Mackie, which would take all of my
“occasional” synths—leaving the MOTU’s frontpanel
XLR combo input free for mics and guitars.
I know—using a multichannel interface as
a flexible patch bay is hardly revolutionary, but
things are about to get more interesting.
Musicians of all types rely on multichannel
audio interfaces in our home studios,
but generally, we leave most of the outputs
untouched—a pair drives our monitor speakers,
then maybe we add additional monitors.
Getting more ambitious, some of us add sends
for external effects, which is certainly cool,
but still, it’s been done.
|Moogerator: Ableton Operator routed through Moog Slim Phatty|
My tabletop analog gear flanks my laptop on
either side so that I have instant access to tons of
knobs as I work. This in itself is a huge time saver
and keeps the creative juices flowing. So the next
order of business was to connect a good USB2.0
hub so that all I’d have to plug into the MacBook
Pro would be USB from the hub, FireWire from
the MOTU, and the power supply—docking the
laptop with just three cables. Things were getting
a bit sexier now.
Now for the lightning. As I connected the
synths to the USB hub, it dawned on me that
every one of my tabletop synths has an external
audio input—and that I have eight free audio
outputs on the MOTU. So, outputs 5 through 8
each fed a different synth.
Grand Syntral Station
|Doepferheimpler: Abelton Simpler into Doepfer Dark Energy into Tom Oberheim SEM. Dark Energy also converts MIDI-over-USB from Abelton to control voltage, which in turn controls SEM.|
My DAW of choice is Ableton Live, which includes
simple plug-in-type tools for interfacing
hardware synths and effects, the aptly named
“External Instrument” and “External Audio Effect”
devices. Ableton also includes devices called
Instrument Racks and Audio Effect Racks, which
are used for combining and layering multiple
synths within a single “macro” device.
The first order of business was to create custom
devices in Live for sending MIDI to a specific
synth—for example, the Phatty—then routing
its audio output back into that same device via
the MOTU interface. I then saved the results as
presets. Thus, when the laptop is docked, all I
have to do is drag the device I’d created for the
Phatty into a track, and the Phatty comes online
(see “Creating an External Instrument Device”). My mind was now racing.
The next thing I did was create an External
Audio Effect device that sent audio to a device
but didn’t receive any audio back. When used
as intended (bi-directionally), this device can
insert a hardware compressor or EQ into a
track—a neat trick, to be sure. But by setting
it up to send audio but not receive, I can drop
it at the end of an instrument chain within an
Instrument Rack and send any soft synth into
the Moog, SEM, Dark Energy, or Monotribe.
From there, the combined analog-plus-soft-synth
audio runs from the analog synth back into a
free input on the MOTU, to be recorded in Live
(see “Configuring a One-Way Audio Effect).
By doing this, I can use Operator, Razor, Kontakt
or any soft synth as the “oscillator bank”
for one of my analog synths. The whole of digital
tone generation combined with the warmth and
fuzz of analog filters and the snap of analog envelopes
is far more than the sum of its parts.
What about latency? Well, the I/O devices in
Ableton Live have programmable latency off sets
for each preset, and you can get things pretty
darned tight. See “Latency Compensation” on
page 57 for a step-by-step how-to.
With the I/O configured and the latency off set
in individual for each synth, it was time for some
Ableton Instrument Racks that combined hardware
and software synths and routed their audio
in creative and useful ways. The first such device
I created is called the Moogerator. It routes the
output of Operator (Ableton’s FM soft synth)
into the external input of the Moog Little Phatty,
so I can process Operator through the Moog’s
wonderful filter and amp. Via MIDI, Ableton’s
clip envelopes can control pretty much any parameter
on the Moog as well, so I can do all kinds
of nifty LFO and step sequencer tricks as my
I called my next Instrument Rack the
Doepferheimpler. Since Tom Oberheim’s SEM
CV edition doesn’t have USB or MIDI, I use
the Doepfer Dark Energy’s built-in USB-to-CV
conversion to control the SEM from Ableton.
Thus, by creating a single instrument chain
within an Ableton Instrument Rack, I can control
both from the Dark Energy. What’s more,
the synthesis tools get a lot more complex,
because the pair is a true modular beastie with
color-coded CV cables running between the
two so that the SEM can use the Dark Energy’s
audio-rate LFOs and ultra-fast envelopes. On
the second instrument chain in the Rack, I
have one of Live’s Simplers (their basic sample
player) routed into the SEM/Dark Energy
pair via the External Audio Effect method described
above. Now, the SEM’s dual external
audio inputs can process either the audio from
the Dark Energy or the Simpler. What’s more,
the Dark Energy converts mod wheel info and
velocity into an additional pair of control voltages,
so again, Live’s clip envelopes can be used
for all kinds of rhythmic mayhem.
Ready for another miracle? If I click “Freeze”
in Live, it will play the synths in real time and
record an audio track transparently. From there, I
can “flatten” the track (that is, commit the freeze
to audio) and take it home, to another studio,
wherever. This is a godsend when I’m in the zone
doing something incredibly complex with the
Doepferheimpler, because it’s pretty much impossible
to recreate a modular synth patch at a
future date. A few clicks, though, and the resulting
audio is captured forever.
Using soft synths as oscillator banks for the
analog synths isn’t the only trick this rig can do.
The entire studio is essentially a modular synth.
This means I can drop the Moog or SEM External
Instrument Devices into a MIDI track, turn both
oscillators off , then route the audio from any
recorded track in Live into the synth. So it’s a
few clicks to process a drum loop, vocal, or guitar
riff through the analog realm for gating, multifiltering, or LFO-modulated insanity.
Korg’s new analog
Monotribe, briefl y
presented an obstacle to my goal of having everything
interconnected and available in real time.
While it has an external audio input, it doesn’t
have any MIDI or USB sync, just old-school
Roland-compatible voltage trigger I/O.
Time for an experiment: I recorded the sync
output as an audio track into Live and looked at
the resulting waveform. Sure enough, it’s a series
of unusual upward-ramping spikes. I clipped out
a single spike, put it into a Simpler in Ableton,
created a one-measure sixteenth-note stream of
those spikes, and routed it to a free audio output.
This then fed the Monotribe’s sync input. Bingo.
With a really hot volume output, the Monotribe
synced up to Live. What’s more, since the Monotribe’s
trigger was able to drive my trusty Roland
SH-101, so could the Simpler track. If you have
a Monotribe, I’ve posted the click as an Ableton
project with the online version of this article.
The New Frontier
There are still a bunch of other tricks this rig can do
that I have yet to explore, like patching a chain of
analog guitar pedals to an input/output pair, or using
the Dark Energy’s mod-wheel CV out to manipulate
various settings on my Moogerfooger Analog
Delay, but suffice to say, even with everything I’ve
described, I know I’ve only scratched the surface.
It’s worth repeating that once the initial connections
are made, all of the tricks I’ve described
are accomplished via mouse clicks, not re-patching
cables. It just works. Again, since these synths
are tabletop models with small footprints, you
can have every knob within inches of your laptop,
so it really feels like you’re in the cockpit of a
spaceship that will take you absolutely anywhere
your production muse leads.
Creating an External Instrument Device
This is for playing an external synth using MIDI
from Ableton Live and capturing its audio to a
track. First, add an External Instrument Device to
the desired track. In the “MIDI To” pull down, select
your external synth—the Moog Slim Phatty in my
case. Set the MIDI channel to the synth’s receiving
channel. In the “Audio From” pull down, select the
input you’ve plugged the synth into—my Phatty
feeds input 3 on my MOTU audio interface.
Configuring a One-Way Audio Effect
This is for routing audio from Ableton to a synth but
not returning the audio to the same track, as you’ll
record it to a different track. Add the External Audio
Effect to track. In “Audio To” pull down, I’ve selected
“8,” which is the output on my UltraLite that goes
to my Moog’s audio input.
While the usual way to address latency between external hardware and soft
synths is to slide your soft synth track(s) forward in time so they match up
with any incoming audio, Ableton Live’s Devices include adjustable latency
compensation. With a little advance planning, you can integrate that info
directly into your presets.
Step 1. Using the External Instrument device, create a one-bar, sixteenth-note
loop on your analog synth with a clicky, percussive sound. Record it as audio,
then freeze and flatten the resulting track so you can see where the clicks hit
in relation to the sixteenth-note lines in the audio clip view.
Step 2. Zoom in on the audio—turn warping off in Live 8 to
see actual time at the bottom of the audio window—and
note the approximate number of milliseconds that the first
few events are behind the markers. Based on that, nudge
the Hardware Latency parameter up a few milliseconds,
then repeat Step 1. This might take a few tries, because
each studio is different, and buffer settings and USB hubs
impact latency in somewhat unpredictable ways. Your final
setting will most likely be between four and 25ms, unless you use very high
Step 3. Once you’ve nailed the compensation, your hardware-generated audio
should look like this. Save the preset as an External Instrument and you’re
good to go unless your rig changes.