With analog synthesizers getting most of the attention these days, it’s easy to forget about the digital side of the equation. Developments in digital technology have been the main driving force in synthesizer evolution over the past few decades. Digital’s success results from a versatility and flexibility far exceeding the limits of analog technology. Some digital methods, like sample playback and virtual analog, have become so popular that they now part of the status quo.
Even with this success, the conquest of the digital synthesizer may just be getting started. The complexity of modern software-based interfaces open up new potential for navigating older digital synthesis methods. Though these methods were powerful in the past, their hardware interface limited access. The more recent success stories of Massive and Razor, both from Native Instruments, show’s the potential for software to re-envision earlier digital synthesis methods. These two soft synths brought additive and wavetable synthesis back from the history books and straight into the mainstream. This trend will most likely continue into the future, perhaps even leading to new forms of synthesis. But before formulating any logical conclusions about the future, it helps to take a look at the past.
Early History of Digital:
Digital synthesizers started to appear on the scene in the 1970′s. Though somewhat obscure, the RMI Harmonic Synthesizer appeared in 1974 and is widely acknowledged as the first commercially available digital synthesizer. A few years later in 1979, the Synclavier from New England Digital arrived. Perhaps as a glimpse of the future to come, this high-end synthesizer utilized Frequency Modulation (FM) synthesis (expanding later with additive and sample playback). The next digital synthesizer, the Wave from PPG, arrived a few years later in 1981. The PPG Wave, like the Synclavier, was not cheap. As a result, digital synthesizer technology in the early 80′s was primarily the domain of the rich and famous. The great equalizer however arrived in 1983 with the release of the Yamaha DX7. This FM synth became so successful that it singlehandedly eschewed in the digital era. Once these floodgates were open, a pack of digital synthesizers, mostly from Japan, stormed the shores in the late 80′s. Roland, with it’s successful D-50, gave a glimpse of the future to come with it’s sample playback engine. Korg as well, would lay the groundwork for the workstation of today with their release of the M1.
Though the 80′s were a time of some of the greatest successes in synthesizer history, it was also a time of experimentation. With digital technology finally at a price low enough to be profitable and no standards yet in place, the future was wide open. Synths like the Ensoniq ESQ-1 and the Kawai K3 brought the wavetable synthesis established by the PPG Wave a few years earlier to the masses. Waldorf also capitalized on the Wave. In 1989 they released a slimmed down rack version called the Microwave. Sequential Circuits also entered the fray, introducing the world to vector synthesis with their highly regarded Prophet VS. Finally, development of the mysterious, yet powerful Kyma system also began in the 80′s. This system would go on to become perhaps the ultimate digital synth providing unparalleled flexibility in the digital domain. Though these synthesizers may not have had the success of the DX7, M1, or D-50, many of their developments would play a serious role in the decades to follow, including vector synthesis in the 90′s that followed, and even wavetable and hybrid synthesis that are only just recently beginning to enter the mainstream more than 25 years later. This spirit of exploration however also begin to fade as the 90′s rolled in.
Digital Trajectory Through the 90′s:
If the 80′s were defined by the DX7 and it’s FM synthesis, it’s sample playback that would be the synthesis method to dominate the 90′s. With computation power getting cheaper and more powerful, digital synthesizers that combined successes of the 80′s began to appear in the early 90′s. The Yamaha SY77 with it’s sample playback and FM, and the Korg Wavestation with it’s vector synthesis, are both good examples of this mentality. But it was Roland that went had the greatest success by focusing on sample playback alone with it’s JD, JV and XP line of synthesizers. These synthesizers established sample playback domination that has continued to this day in the form of the relentlessly popular workstation synthesizer. But as sample playback wasn’t the only big developments of the 90′s. Later in the decade, the analog sounds of the past would go on to collide head-on with digital technology resulting in explosion of synthesizers and even new musical genres. This collision is known as virtual analog and the synthesizer would forever change trajectory of the synthesizer.
Digital synthesizer have certain advantages and disadvantages. Much of this has to do with the interface. Digital technology offers far more options that analog technology. With these options however comes more complex, and oftentimes unintuitive interfaces. From the very start, through the 80′s and into the mid 90′s, most people with very powerful digital synthesizers would be limited to using only the presets do to these complicated interfaces. These interfaces often revolved around an LCD with constantly updating text along with an array of buttons. Interestingly, this style was like an institution on digital synths with very few diverging. The most notable being the JD-800 which amazingly had a slider or knob for virtually every function. On the otherhand, the analog synthesizers of the 70′s and early 80′s often were the complete opposite, coming standard with knobs or sliders for every parameter. Perhaps eventually the sheer misery of programming unique sounds on most digital synths caught up, something needed to change. Virtual analog took the analog style interface and paired it up to a digital recreation of an analog synthesizer sound generator. Pairing this concept with modern features like multitimbrality, polyphony, presets, and internal effects, and the result was a recipe for success.
The virtual analog conversation starts with the Yamaha VL-1. This synthesizers, released in 1994, utilized physical modeling technology to create sounds based on mathematical models of real life instruments. In a way, physical modeling is a sort of complicated version of virtual analog which is the mathematical recreation of the relatively simple models used in analog subtractive synthesis. The first purely virtual analog synthesizer was the Nord Lead by the Swedish company Clavia. The Nord Lead had an interface resembling the knob-per-function designs of the old analog but with a fully digital sound engine. This offered instant gratification that ended up being very popular. Within a few years, the market was flooded with VA’s from nearly every company. Some of the more popular of these included the Roland JP-8000, Access Virus, Novation Supernova, and Yamaha An1x. Other synthesizers released at the same time explored the Physical modeling approach including the Korg Prophecy and Yamaha FS-1R. Though they had sound architecture that was fundamentally more powerful and flexible than typical Virtual Analog synths, these physical modeling synthesizers suffered the typical digital problems of having parameters that were difficult to map to the control section in an intuitive way. The ease of use of the VA synths overshadowed physical modeling technology and went on to establish themselves as a staple technology that is mainstream today.
Recent Developments and Current Technology:
One serious and new development in digital synthesizers in the last decade however was the move from hardware to software interface for synthesizers. Though software based synthesizers like Rebirth and early version of Reaktor got their start in the late 90′s, computers at the time were not quite powerful enough to equal the current hardware products. With the ever ongoing increase in computing power, the home computer hit a price to power point in the early 2000′s that brought the software synthesizer into direct competition with it’s hardware adversary. This shift brought a lot of power to the musician at a very low price. As a result, innovation and progress on hardware from many major manufacturers slowed as they sticked with what was proven and refining only refining these designs incrementally. companies like the Access with their Virus released various models that offered more processor power computer integration while sticking to the overall design that struck gold in the late 90′s. Clavia did similar with their Nord which is still available today in virtually the same configuration since the 90′s. Smaller VA companies, like Quasimidi, just vanished. Novation quietly shifted into building products more relevant for the times focused on hardware control for software applications. Though many of these VA synthesizers are still available today, the virtual analog has moved primarily into the software synth domain. What was once cutting-edge a decade earlier can now be found included free with a software application.
Though software hit virtual analog hardware pretty hard, there was a hardware implementation that actually expanded in the 2000′s, the workstation. For many electronic musicians, it’s important to have a bunch of sliders and knobs to change the sound intuitively. But there are also many more traditional musicians in bands or just not as interested in the technical side that just want something that makes great sounds. A workstation is based around this idea, and takes it further by adding recordings, mixing and sequencing capabilities for a complete all-in-one package. It takes serious resources however to develop and release a complex machine like a workstation as well as knowledgeable research and development department. Three companies of Roland, Korg, and Yamaha fit this description and seized the opportunity. The workstation can even be seen to have gotten it’s start many years earlier with the D-50, M1, and SY77 respectively. It was not until the early and mid 2000′s however that the workstation came into it’s own. Unlike the VA that was consumed by the home computer, the standalone workstation is still selling well and though maybe not the most glamorous, is a digital synthesizer implementation not to go unnoticed.
Though the 00′s in the future may be looked back upon as the dawning of the soft-synth era and in general a further stabilization of proven technologies of the 90′s, there were some hardware manufacturers on the fringe pushing synthesis forward. Most radical of these was the Hartman Nueron, a “Nueral Network Sampling” synthesizer. Though it met with little success probably due to it’s high price tag, it’s ambitious goals involving neural net synthesis and sampling are one of a kind. A bit more down to earth and successful however has been the trend in digital synthesizer design by the most cutting-edge designers and companies towards hybrid synthesis. Hybrid synthesis combines multiple digital synthesis methods like FM, additive, sampling and physical modeling and unifies it under one interface. A benefit of this is that it allows the different methods to interact with one another and giving the synth a wide range of possibilities. Examples include the Kyma System, Elektron Monomachine and Machine Drum, and software synthesizers like Absynth. Another perhaps crucial development in the past decade has been the ability to work with pitch and time independently in new breeds of samplers such as Roland VP-9000 and their technology called Variphrase. This concept has been quietly making it’s way to both software and occasionally hardware like the Elektron Octatrack. Most notably however has been the Roland V-Synth which combines Variphrase sampling along with Virtual Analog and an emphasis on effects processing. Though it might be too early to tell exactly what will catch on and go global, concepts like pitch/time independence and hybrid synthesis made their entrance this past decade and if history repeats itself, will go on to play a crucial role in future developments.
Modern Digital Synthesizers:
Now that history has given us a little better perspective on how we ended up in the present, let’s take a look at five modern day digital synthesizers. Though each is unique unto itself, together they provide a pretty clear picture of the current state of the digital synthesizer. But at this point, it’s safe to say that the word digital really doesn’t have to be used. Going back to the 80′s, pretty much all progress in synthesizers has taken place digitally. So these synthesizers don’t just represent the current state of digital synthesizers, but the synthesizer overall.
As is obvious from the looks alone, each of the synthesizers below takes a very different approach to creating sound. Most utilize a unique combination of digital synthesis methods in a hybrid format. The advantage of flexibility really comes to the surface when these 5 synthesizers for example are compared to a selection of modern analogy synthesizers (see analog synth shootout here). You may notice quite a big of difference between each when compared to say five modern analog mono synths or a few modern day workstations. This is just another result of the flexibility and vast potential that digital technology offers. Also, though perhaps not as obviously mainstream as cutting edge digital technology was in the 80′s and 90′s, these modern day synthesizers make apparent that it’s digital that’s still pushing things forward and setting trends, just like they’ve always done.
Roland V-Synth GT:
Roland was at the forefront of the digital revolution of the 80′s with it’s D-50 synthesizer and still is at the top today with it’s V-synth GT. This fully digital monster synth is focused on Roland’s proprietary Variphrase technology. Variphrase is a high-quality method of altering pitch, time, and formant of samples in real-time. This advanced sampling engine is paired with virtual analog technology Roland perfected with their JP-8000 series along with an emphasis on effects processing as an integral component of the sound design engine. There are few hardware synthesizers out today that can compete with the Roland V-Synth GT and though it’s been out for a little while already, it’s still a cutting edge digital synthesizer.
Symbolic Sound Kyma:
Symbolic Sounds’ Kyma is another digital synthesizer that sits at the top of the pack. It’s a hybrid hardware/software device that gives direct access to virtually every digital synthesis method through a deep, multi-level software programming environment. This, along with high-end sound quality make a Kyma system arguably the most cutting-edge and powerful synthesizer available. Though it can do almost everything, it’s strengths include granular synthesis and time/pitch domain processing. A Kyma system however is not cheap and comes with a serious learning curve, but that’s the price of admission to perhaps the ultimate in digital power and flexibility.
Radikal Technologies Spectralis 2:
Another complex and powerful digital synthesizer comes in the form of Spectralis 2 released by Radikal Technologies. The Spectralis uses a hybrid architecture that blends high quality virtual analog with sampling, a fixed formant filter bank, and an analog filter. Though it’s known to have a slight learning curve, this synthesizer is beloved by many and sounds great. No doubt inspired by some of the classic Virtual Analog gear of the 90′s, this synthesizer is probably a pretty accurate realization of what everyone wished they had back then. Best of all, it is the singular vision of one designer, Jörg Schaaf, who in doing so proves that you don’t need to be a big company to release a cutting-edge digital synthesizer.
Elektron is a mid-sized manufacturer based in Sweden that has been setting trends in synthesizer design since they started with their Sidstation at the end of the 90′s. Though the Sidstation was definitely cool, most of the credit should probably go to Robert Yannes who designed the SID chip in 1981. Take one look at the Monomachine however and it’s striking to see how far Elektron has come since. The Monomachine is a hybrid digital synthesizer that blends FM, VA, and physical modeling with advanced control capabilities. The mono machine, similar to the SID station in this respect, is a good example of a device that takes technology of the past and updates it to new power and flexibility required to compete in today’s synthesizer market.
Mutable Instruments Shruthi-1:
Last and not least (but definitely the smallest), is the Shruthi-1. This synthesizer comes in kit form (assembly required) from the one-man operation Mutable Instruments. Unlike the rather expensive synthesizers mentioned above, the Shruthi-1 delivers traditional wavetable synthesis to all with a very low price tag. According to the designer Olivier, the Shruthi was influenced by the digital synths like Casio CZ-101, Ensoniq ESQ-1. Different from most of these however is the included analog filter to warm up the sound too. The Shruthi proves that modern digital synths don’t have to be expensive or even necessarily cutting-edge, to be effective.
What the future holds
Each synthesizer above is unique and powerful in it’s own way. One look at the timeline above and it’s apparent that this uniqueness has been a part of digital synthesizers since the beginning. But as analog synthesis has more or less been stagnant since the 80′s, digital has expanded with methods like physical modeling, VA, and granular synthesis. This primarily comes down to the advantage digital has over analog as being much more powerful and flexible (though arguably at the cost of overall sound characteristics).
And this power may only be beginning to be unleashed. Commercial synthesizer products move towards integration with software like the discontinued Nord Modular and current Access Virus TI. On the other hand, software synthesizers will hopefully start taking hardware considerations of interface and control. Software synths like the Additive synths Razor, Physical Modeling Spark, and advanced wavetable Skanner by NI designer Stephan Schmitt of Reaktor fame, are starting to develop core of digital synthesis methods to extreme new levels. Some of these may even lead to new synthesis methods themselves. This combined with hybrid approaches integrating old and new like granular and physical modeling will be the starting point for the future to come.