Designing a beginner synthesizer pt.2

This series is being reworked and will be re-released in the distant future

Recap – Background from last blog post

In the previous post which can be read here: Designing a beginner synthesizer pt.1, I introduced you [my readers] to an idea that I’m currently entertaining – to create a synthesizer where you can achieve the sound that you want, with little to no knowledge about synthesis or the synth itself. You could call it a beginner friendly synthesizer, that instead of relying on a lot already conveyed knowledge about synthesis, relies on conveyed naturalistic knowledge by using a terminology closer to our day-to-day language. Sounds complex? Head over to the link above to read my previous article and learn more. For those of you who are still with me, let’s continue from that point.

Features and restrictions

In the previous article I listed some notable points that due to my experience will be important in the design:

  • Having an interface with less projected complexity.
  • Naturalistic and relatable naming of parameters.
  • Visuospatial and audible difference as response to manipulation of parameters.
  • Built-in keyboard.
  • Built-in effects unit.
  • MIDI over USB and possibly over DIN to increase value for more advanced users.
  • Built-in audio interface with audio over USB.
And I want to add a few mantras to these. One is “directness”, eg. having all the controls at hand to avoid menu diving. And the other; “making music”, eg. being able to produce some kind of results, such as a sequence from the sound that you’ve created. And maybe, just maybe integrating a really simple sample-based drum machine as well. As I think this is very important to a beginner – to be able to make something that you can listen to right away without exporting to a DAW or hooking up an extra drum machine (which this user probably doesn’t have). I want to point out though, that I have no ambition to design a full-blown music making machine (as that would be too complex) and the point is simply for this to be a bonus feature aimed at novices.
So the concrete additions I would like to add, would be a compressor, some effects (rev/echo), a sequencer and a feature to make a simple backtrack of drums. However, instead of using a regular compressor I want to borrow the Maximus Soundgoodizer from FL Studio. Which is a great example of how terminology can be used to simply convey what a parameter does. The Soundgoodizer makes it sound better – fuller, and there’s that. For a Sequencer, it should work basically as the Monologue for now. Eg. that you start recording either while playing or step by step, and hit the notes that you want to play to record the sequence.
Like this:

Some hurdles along the way

The basics is in place, no excuses to not get going. Just one question. Or two. Or three. How on earth do you concatenate features normally found on (several) quite complex synthesizers and music making things into one unit that is also easy to use? And which parameters do you choose to join with each other? And what should the names be? And how should you order all these proprietary knobs in a way that makes it easy to understand what different things do?
None of these are necessarily easy to answer questions. But I took a look at my Monologue and found out that in actuality it does already do some of these things very well. I sure as hell hadn’t thought much about it previously, but the different sections is very well divided and grouped. So I decided that the most logical way to group parameters, would be between parameters from the same sections. Do you really need a VCO 1 and VCO 2 rotary knob in the mixer section? Can you not simply have a mix knob that mixes between “sounds”?
This connects to that the interface could be conveyed not only as this “blob” of rotary knobs, but rather a “process”, where you start at one point, combining waveforms of different shapes as well as manipulate the envelope, LFO and add filters and effects on that. Synthesis is essentially a chain of manipulating parameters, that eventually add up to the final sound. And as that’s not something that most people need to know in their day-to-day life, most people does not really know it either. So conveying that through the interface itself, without adding unnecessary complexity would be very much preferred for this project.
So to answer my questions the interface could be concatenated in a way that take the lead in grouped a interface and join those that belong to the same ones on the Monologue, giving both sections and parameters descriptive terminology, while ordering them chronologically. This could very well be a viable framework for the finished design.
For the curious that want to know more about how synthesis works on a more technical level, you can have a look at what makes up a synthesizer with a tutorial on modular, here’s a good way to start:

Getting started on the layout

The features to convey in the interface:
  • All the sound designing functionality from the Monologue, give or take some features
  • 64 step sequencer
  • Drum sequencing
  • Effect section with compressor

When I first got started with this project I made a few sketches that cover the fundamentals of what this synth would be, here’s one of them alongside with the inspiration source itself:

Many of the things that I’ve listed above is not included, but it’s a start. Interface design, as sound design – is a process.
The Monologue on the bottom is used as a foundation for this project. I’ll make a list below that shows what I have replaced with what, and how this sketch isn’t quite sufficient for the final design that I will reveal in the next blog post. I am calling the beginner synthesizer “The Monolearn” by the way.
Monologue = Monolearn:
  • VCO (1 and 2) = Designing, where you’re designing the foundation of your sound.
    • VCO 1 = Sound 1, which instead of “shape” and choice of waveform is simply just a gradual “smooth” to “rough” knob.
    • VCO 2 = Sound 2, which instead of “shape” and choice of waveform is simply just a gradual “smooth” to “rough” knob.
    • VCO 2 Octave + Pitch = Depth, a parameter controlling both Octave and Pitch in VCO 2 in a sensible way.
    • Sync/ring = Unknown, in the above sketch I’ve called it clarity but that doesn’t quite convey the full power of the choice of modulation, so I’ll leave this be for now.
  • Mixer = Layering, but using only one knob instead, where both oscillators are mixed equally on the middle, while compensating to either/or direction if compensating to left or right. With more thought on this however, I would rather call it Mixing, possibly doing it in another form than a knob.
  • Filter = Filtering, because that’s what you do – you’re filtering. This replaces cutoff and resonance with a muffled/open rotary knob.
  • Unrepresented = EFX (Effects), there’s no effects section on the Monologue, so it’s unrepresented. Chronologically EFX should be at the end and maybe be called something else as well, where you could also add the Soundgoodizer for example.
  • EG/Envelope Generator = Shaping, here’s where you shape your incoming sound
    • Attack = Harshness
    • Decay = Longevity
    • Type = Constant (switch), makes the sound sound the same from when you press the key to release (no attack or decay)
    • Unrepresented = Hold, holds the pressed note
  • LFO = Shaping/Filter (terminology not decided at this point), controls the LFO which stretches from smooth to rough.
    • Wave = Smooth/Rough, may or may not be altered to something else than a rotary knob.
    • Rate = Speed, the speed/tempo/rate that the filter operates in
    • Intensity = Depth, the depth of the choosen LFO/wave
The thinking behind the language used in the interface is that you’re currently doing something, acting upon the sound and shaping it in real time, instead of using passive terminology such as “filter” (where I use “filtering”), another component is trying to replace proprietary (for sound design) terminology with words that are more common in our language such as “Attack” vs “Harshness or “EG” vs “Shaping”.

Is less always more?

As you can see, since I drew these sketches (possibly three months ago) I’ve had some time to think about things, whether some decisions would be good decisions, and quite frankly many of them isn’t. Designing an easy to use synthesizer that’s also representative of the real deal – as well as actually being possible to make – is not easy. A beginning goal I had was to lessen the amount of knobs and buttons, and while that may be good, it does not outweigh the importance of usability. However, with the added functionality and the corrections in layout and terminology that I’ve come up with since then, I do here bring a more correct design, even if not yet perfected:
With this design I’ve left the knob-craze behind and the interface is logically well arranged. The mixer and sounds do cohere better to each other, to show what you’re really mixing between. The interface is more visual even on hardware level, and has more focus on icons illustrating what parameters do. On top of that a sequencer is added, along with the choice to make longer patterns with +/- buttons, however the final sequencer is going to be 64 steps with 16 steps in each section (not 8 as it is now), and there’s quite a lot of controls missing as well. The synth/kick/perc/hihat shows that you can choose between different things that you sequence, I just wanted to include them for illustration purposes; in short the sequencer will look much different in the final version.

Wrapping things up

So that’s that for this time around. In the next blog post (to be expected in the beginning of august) I will share with you the final design of the interface, also talking a bit more on why some choices where made and so forth. That will also be the more fun blog, with a lot more visual things to talk around, rather than a great wall of text. After that I will make a follow-up blog on some of my thoughts on this project, as well as at some point I will make an illustration of how this synth will look like and work complete with the software solution, that is however not to be expected in a while. In the meantime, you can look at my other posts, both here on the blog and on my Facebook page (where I make shorter reflections on news and such).
Thanks for reading, and don’t hesitate to share your thoughts in the comment section!

Feature photo by Steve Harvey

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