The Integrated Synth-Based Studio

WAY BACK IN THE 20TH CENTURY, A WELL-ARMED PRODUCER’S STUDIOWOULD 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.
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By Francis Preve

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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.

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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 nearly untamable.

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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 PhattyMy 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.

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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.

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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.

Hybrid Horsepower

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 project plays.

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.

That Syncing Feeling

Korg’s new analog wünderbox, the 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 buffer settings.

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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.

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***Get the author's Ableton project for syncing your Korg Monotribe to Live.