The Art of Synth Soloing: Pitch-Bend as Manual Vibrato

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Fig. 1. Logic’s ES2, with CC16 (our ribbon/X-axis) set up as Ctrl C, routed to Pitch123 (to control all three oscillators at once). You set range or depth by moving the orange and green triangles.

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By Jerry Kovarsky

IN OUR DECEMBER 2011 COLUMN, WE INTRODUCED USING AN LFO TO PRODUCE vibrato. Since vibrato is a form of pitch modulation, you can also produce it manually, by wiggling the pitch-bend mechanism. Many players like this approach, as it keeps your hand on the same controller the whole time (you’re not jockeying between pitch and mod wheels), and lets you be truly connected to the amount of vibrato you produce.

Wheels and Joysticks

Hold a note and wiggle your pitch wheel up and down (or your joystick side to side) to get a smooth, rapid alternation of pitch, first below and then above the held note. With a pitch wheel, you have to get used to moving through the center detent of the wheel, which is a “null” or non-bent safety area. This takes some practice, as you can end up with a jagged or jerky sound at first until you gauge the amount of force needed to travel through the detent smoothly. With a joystick, there’s no physical detent, only a null area with a small amount of spring resistance, so it can be easier to get comfortable.

You’re aiming for a smooth gesture that sounds like the LFO-driven effect. As you get better, try different depths and speeds by making wider and faster movements. The heart of the technique is that you are the vibrato instead of an LFO playing that role.

Next, start with a small amount of slow vibrato, and then intensify both the range and the speed. Gradually increase the “width of your wiggle” and the speed of your movement at the same time. Play some simple licks and introduce manual vibrato at the end of the phrase. Finally, work on some of our bend phrases from previous lessons, learning to differentiate more traditional pitch-bend technique from the “wiggling” to get vibrato on some longer notes.

An important difference in the results of this technique versus LFO modulation is that with an LFO, you can always get the pitch to vary both above and below an already-bent note. With the manual technique on an already-bent note, there may not be any room left to wiggle above the pitch. This happens when your pitch-bend range is set to the same interval you’re bending to (+2 is most common). In that case. you can only go below the held pitch and back to the bent result. Try it, comparing the manual wiggle to using the mod wheel. Can you hear the difference? My opinion is that during performance, the difference in the result can be hard to hear, and only becomes apparent in slow phrases with a lot of long notes that are being bent. So this difference is not a reason to avoid the manual technique. Many players tell me they find it a more organic way of adding vibrato to their phrases, and can be less confusing than switching between two controllers (wheels), or two directions of a controller (joystick).

Fig. 2. Korg Mono/Poly, with CC16 routed to VCO Pitch (to control all
oscillators at once). Intensity is set to approximately two semitones.
Ribbons and Touchpads

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Less common, but worth searching out, are synths and controllers that offer a ribbon strip or touchpad. Yamaha’s legendary CS-80 and GX-1 synths offered ribbon control, as have all Korg workstations since the Trinity, along with their Prophecy synth. Other ribbon-sporting models include the Yamaha Motif ES, XS, and XF; their older AN-1x virtual analog synth; Kurzweil’s K2500 and K2600; and Roland’s JP-8000. Synths with X/Y touchpads include the Minimoog Voyager, Korg’s classic Z1, and Novation’s SL Mk. II controllers. Some interesting but pricey instruments like the Haken Continuum and Zen Riffer offer wonderfully expressive touch surfaces. Many “keytars,” including the Roland AX series, Yamaha KX-5, and Alesis Vortex have ribbons as well.

These touch surfaces are great for all sorts of modulation and realtime performance control, and especially as a very smooth way to use pitchbend for manual vibrato. With a ribbon, if the pitch can be set to be original (null) in the center, then you can produce vibrato with a side-to-side motion. Just set the ribbon as the source of pitch modulation, with whatever you want for the maximum bend (two steps, three steps, an entire octave, etc.). With an X/Y pad you only need one axis (likely the X-axis) for side-to-side finger movement. On hardware synths you can usually choose the controller by name, but on a MIDI controller keyboard (or when using a hardware synth as the controller for something else), you’ll choose which MIDI control change number (CC) it will send. Then, use that CC as the modulation source in the synth you’re controlling. Figures 1 and 2 are examples using Logic’s ES2 and Korg’s Mono/Poly.

Finally, a cool thing is to set each mechanism to different ranges, so you might use the wheel for your “normal” bends but set the ribbon to a wider range so you can use it for both vibrato and multi-octave dive-bombs.

Jerry Kovarsky has had a more than three-decade career in product development, brand management, and sound design with Korg, Ensoniq, and Casio. An accomplished keyboard player, he enjoys learning and teaching about music and synthesis. And coffee.

Essential Videos

Our good friend Jordan Rudess is a master of these techniques and an excellent communicator. This Moog video encompasses many techniques we’ve been learning, including manual vibrato.This Korg demo shows how Jordan uses a joystick on some of his signature leads—start around 5:05.

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This vintage Rock School episode shows off Jan Hammer’s wheel technique, not to mention some classic ’80s clothes and gear! Jan shows up at 3:37.Korg Prophecy promo, with plenty of close-ups of Jan’s hands. 

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