The Charm of Soft Synths

LMMS originally stood for Linux MultiMedia Studio. Now those initials don’t stand for anything, in part because the system has been ported to Windows as well as to MacOS. It is a perfectly adequate soft synth, for anything but the most advanced professional uses. Screenshot:

In the previous century, electronic musical instruments often contained inferior electronic components. I discovered this working in an electronic repair shop during the early 1970s. It was here I met a pair of (for lack of a better term) electric-organ enhancers who had come in to buy used components. Their business plan involved two related activities. Plan A: They would encourage churches to replace pipe organs with their custom built electric organs. If a church already had gone over to someone else’s electric-organ, they would resort to Plan B, and offer to fine-tune it. With either plan, they would typically begin with an off-the-shelf electric-organ console, and then replace electronic components (such as resistors) with ones that were closer to the needed values, using variable resistors if necessary.

Their work held very little appeal. It was tedious and time consuming, and not particularly well paid. Fast forward almost 50 years, and the question that needs answering is: Why struggle with hardware, when one can use software? If one starts with a reasonably powerful computer, software programs can be written to take advantage of the existing hardware. Of course, regardless of the approach there will be a need for some music related audio hardware, especially microphones, speakers (or at least headphones), an audio interface and – perhaps – a musical keyboard.

Initially, Rosegarden had been considered as the underlying program for the soft synth. This was mainly because of its built-in scorewriter, that writes musical natation. Rosegarden was started in 1993 at the University of Bath. Rosegarden 2.1 (X11 Rosegarden) was released under the Gnu Public Licence (GPL) in 1997. Rosegarden 4 began in 2000 with Version 1.0 being released in 2005. The current release is Version 20.12 Altissimo, which was released 2020-12-09. The main challenge with Rosegarden is that it only works with Linux and related BDS operating systems (OS). This could restrict colaboration with people using Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac OSs. In the end it was decided to use LMMS for the synth. Since scorewriting is not a feature found in LMMS, MuseScore was selected as a scorewriter. Both of these work on Linux, Windows and Mac OS.

LMMS originally stood for Linux MultiMedia Studio, and was used exclusively on Linux OSs. Now those initials don’t stand for anything, because the system has been ported to Windows as well as to MacOS. While there are many commercial and open-source software synthesizers available, LMMS is a perfectly adequate soft synth, for anything but the most advanced professional uses. As an open-source product, it is available at no cost.

LMMS is not perfect. It is gudenuf = good enough, for most amateurs. There are flaws, especially with respect to the windowing. However, these can be worked around. The main problem with any soft synth, including LMMS, is latency or lag time, which is often caused by sound being routed through a sound-server program, such as PulseAudio, an open-source program. This arises even if the audio interface to set to ALSA = Advanced Linux Sound Architecture. To correct this problem, LMMS needs to directly access the sound card. This can be done by writing and applying three lines of code.

A software synthesizer such as LMMS, will come with multiple editors, synthesizers and samplers.

  • Song Editor – arranges instruments and samples.
  • Beat+Bassline Editor – sequences rhythms.
  • FX mixer – sends audio inputs through effects and to other mixer channels.
  • Piano Roll – edit patterns and melodies
  • Automation Editor –dynamic adjustment of knob/ widget settings
  • BitInvader – wavetable-lookup synthesis
  • FreeBoy – emulator of Game Boy audio processing unit (APU)
  • Kicker – bass drum synthesizer
  • LB302 – imitation of the Roland TB-303
  • Mallets – tuned-percussion synthesizer
  • Monstro – 3-oscillator synthesizer with modulation matrix
  • Nescaline – NES-like synthesizer
  • OpulenZ – 2-operator FM synthesizer
  • Organic – organ-like synthesizer
  • Sf2 Player – a Fluidsynth-based Soundfont player
  • SID – emulates Commodore 64 chips
  • TripleOscillator – 3-oscillator synthesizer with 5 modulation modes: MIX, SYNC, PM, FM, and AM
  • Vibed – vibrating string modeller
  • Watsyn – 4-oscillator wave-table synthesizer
  • ZynAddSubFX
  • AudioFileProcessor (AFP) – sampler with trimming/ looping capabilities

LMMS supports many audio plugin standards, as do most other major modern software synthesizers and sound editors. Here, three will be discussed. Virtual Studio Technology (VST) was developed by Steinberg Media Technologies in 1996. It is used extensively in the Windows universe. VST plugins work in LMMS most of the time. However, since VSTs are written to be Windows compatible, VSTs tend to work better on Windows LMMS installations. Linux LMMS installations require Wine to be installed before these plugins can be used.

Wine HQ explains, “Wine (originally an acronym for “Wine Is Not an Emulator”) is a compatibility layer capable of running Windows applications on several POSIX-compliant operating systems, such as Linux, macOS, & BSD. Instead of simulating internal Windows logic like a virtual machine or emulator, Wine translates Windows API calls into POSIX calls on-the-fly, eliminating the performance and memory penalties of other methods and allowing you to cleanly integrate Windows applications into your desktop.”

Audio Units (AU) is an equivalent system used with Apple’s macOS and iOS. LV2 stands for LADSPA Version 2. It is open-source software, used with Linux as well as other systems.

While Linux Audio Developer’s Simple Plugin API (LADSPA) still exists and is operative, it is probably best to refer to it in the past tense. Thus, it was an application programming interface (API) standard for handling audio filters and audio signal processing effects. It was open-source, licensed under the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL). It was used in many free audio software projects and there were a wide range of LADSPA plugins available. It was written in the C programming language. Because of its simplicity many plugins were written using it, that were easily embedded into many other programs.

Disposable Soft Synth Interface (DSSI) was a virtual instrument (software synthesizer) plugin architecture for use by music sequencer applications. It was designed for applications running under Linux DSSI extended LADSPA to cover instrument plugins.

LV2 is a successor to both LADSPA and DSSI, but permitting easy extensibility, allowing custom user interfaces, musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) messages, and custom extensions.

All of these APIs integrate software synthesizers and effects units into a computer. They use digital signal processing to simulate traditional recording studio hardware in software. Such an interface can work with almost any modern desktop or laptop computer, a dedicated digital audio workstation (DAW), and/or other dedicated equipment. Software programs can also emulate other types of hardware, including compressors, equalizers, expanders and maximizers. Many plugins emulate specific hardware models.Thus, such an API can be an affordable ways to make a spare room/ attic/ basement studio sound like a commercial operation.

It can be appropriate to distinguish between three different types of API. Software instruments generate sound in one of two ways. They either synthesize = construct or they sample = record. These APIs may produce their own distinctive sound, or imitate that of a specific hardware synthesizer.

Effects process audio rather than generating it. They act like hardware audio processors, including reverbs and phasers.

The quality of plugins can vary from outrageously poor to acceptable, depending on system resources qualities (Read: RAM, SSD capacity, processing capacity). Another challenge with samplers has to do with the quantity and quality of the samples.

There are thousands of plugins available. Some only take a few hours to produce and are free, but the quality is terrible. Some are made by huge companies and sound amazing, but are expensive. Many plugin developers try to recreate a sound that is as close as possible to that of an instrument, but the original instrument is probably always going to sound better than the plugin.

Electronic musicians/ composers may have a concept in their mind of the sound they are trying to produce. Often, it might be of an existing instrument, familiar from a particular situation. One example might be try to produce a rich, full-bodied church organ sound. While there are numerous such organs in existence, it may not be possible for that composer to access one, or a sufficiently talented organist. No one has access to every type of instrument, or every type of musician, so a plugin will have to do. The good news is that as computers evolve, plugin technology is able to take advantage of these evolutionary improvements, so that their quality improves with time.

Users will often say that a scorewriter engraves sheet music. This implies a higher order operation that creates, edits and prints a score. A scorewriter is to music notation what a word processor is to text, providing flexible editing, automatic layout and high-quality output.

One of the main values of a modern scorewriter is its ability to record notes played on a MIDI keyboard. Here it will also be used to play music back on the synth. Of course, it is possible to input data for a composition using a tablet, or touch-screen based computer. MIDI is most often a more appropriate solution for a softsynth. MIDI controllers produce MIDI effects that create MIDI messages that send MIDI data to the softsynth, or to other instruments and hardware, including speakers.

The Charm of Teenage Engineering

Teenage Engineering OP-1 Photo: Teenage Engineering, 2014

The Stockholm, Sweden consumer electronics manufacturer, Teenage Engineering AB = Aktiebolag = Share company, was founded in 2005. To understand millennial appeal for the OP-1, boomers and gen-x-ers should carefully examine the following photograph of a more mainstream, Eurorack synthesizer.

Patched Eurorack synthesizer. Photo: Robert Verrecchia

While there may be many words to describe it, the first that comes to mind is mess. While sound might emerge from this contraption, it will not do so with any elegance. Boomers seem to have spent so much of their lives protesting, that they have failed to realize that they have become the establishment they are rebelling against. Millennial dissent is inclusive, innovative and harmonious.

For someone who grew up with the functionalist designs of Dieter Rams (1932 – ), Teenage Engineering products are a déjà vu, all over again.

OP-1 (2011)

The OP-1 is referred to as a portable synthesizer, and is the company’s core product, one that has existed since 2011. The OP-1 is minimalist in design, yet famous, at least among synthesizer users. It looks like a toy, but delivers an exceptional sound. Users comment positively on the build-quality. There are high quality components. The display is crisp and bright. The colour-coded multi-function knobs feel precise. In general, its minimalism results in a compact, portable, durable and simple machine, with an understandable interface.

Users are positive to the sounds produced, both in terms of quality and variety. Jean Michel Jarre commented on the machine’s flexibility, but also said that musicians will be still using the OP-1 in 50 years.

There is nothing wrong with an OP-1, if one doesn’t look at its price, which is approaching NOK 15 000 (US$ 1 300). That is almost enough to buy a real synthesizer, or several Eurorack modules. There have been attempts to produce OP-1 clones before, such as the Otto.

Teenage Engineering OP-1 and Oplab Photo: Teenage Engineering

oplab (2012)

Oplab is a musical interface for electronic instruments, that allows them to interconnect with music software. It has evolved over time. Teenage Engineering first referred to it as a Musical Experimental Board. Later, it was described as a Connectivity Module for OP-Z. The Rumble module is a haptic subwoofer allowing people to feel music. it also has a silent metronome mode, designed for live performance.

OD-11 (2014 – with Stig Carlsson Foundation)

An original Stig Carlsson speaker from 1974, and the Teenage Engineering OD-11 clone from 2014. Photo: Teenage Engineering

Conventionally speakers are engineered using an echo-free (anechoic) chamber to provide a flat frequency response curve. Unfortunately, people don’t live in anechoic rooms. Stig Carlsson (1925 – 1997) developed what he referred to as OrthoAcoustic speakers that were optimized for use in a regular residence. He marketed these using OA + a number. Over the years, he changed his approach to determining how an OrthoAcoustic speaker should sound.

OD-11 wireless, stereo speakers claim to follow the principles established by Stig Carlsson. They are upgraded clones that provide what as warm/ relaxed sounds. The audio quality is generally found to be good, but targeting at fashionistas. Thus, they are available in red, black, blue, yellow, walnut and white.

OrthoPlay is the software remote control for OD-11 available as a app for iOS and Android, and as a web application for any platform. For those wanting a more physical relationship, there is the OrthoRemote, a wireless remote control that allows one to adjust the volume, skip tracks and pause from any room, at up to 20 meters away. It has a magnetic back so sticks to any magnetic metal surface, like a fridge.

Pocket Operators (with Cheap Monday)

Pocket Operator units in the 10 and 20 series. Photo: Teenage Engineering.

Cheap Monday was a Swedish clothing brand created by Lars Karlsson, Örjan Andersson and Adam Friberg in 2004. Its main product, jeans, were tight fitting, and associated with indie and emocore music styles. At first, they were sold only in the Weekday store chain, before being distributed to other retailers throughout Europe and the USA. The brand was owned by Fabric Scandiavia, who sold it to Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) who made it part of their Weekday Brands subsidiary. Later, the Cheap Monday brand was used on numerous other clothing products. In late 2018, H&M scrapped the brand.

10-series (2015)

Since 2015, Teenage Engineering has produced the Pocket Operator (PO-10) synthesizer series. The PO-12 rhythm is a drum machine; the PO-14 sub is a bass synthesizer; the PO-16 factory is a lead synthesizer. Each model incorporates a 16-step sequencer. In terms of sound characteristics, they are similar to vintage synthesizers.

20-series (2016)

In 2016, PO-20 series synthesizers were introduced with additional effects. The PO-20 arcade synthesizes and sequences sounds associated with pinball and other entertainment games found in arcades; the PO-24 office is a machine for sounds found in an office environment; the PO-28 robot produces fictional robotic sounds.

30-series (2018)

Then, in 2017, the PO-30 added a drum synthesizer, a sampler, and a voice synthesizer. These have a microphone to record audio samples. The PO-32 Tonic is a drum and percussion synthesizer and sequencer; the PO-33 K.O! is a micro sampler with 40 seconds sample memory; the PO-35 Speak is a voice synthesizer and sequencer.

Impossible i-1 (2016 – for Impossible Project)

The Impossible-Project i-1 instant film camera. Photo: Impossible-Project, now Polaroid.

Impossible Project was the original name of a Dutch photography company founded in 2008, that manufactures instant film for its original cameras, including the Impossible i-1, that was designed by Teenage Engineering, as well as for select Polaroid Corporation instant cameras. In 2017, Polaroid Corporation’s brand and intellectual property were acquired by Impossible Project’s largest shareholder and the company was renamed Polaroid Originals. In March 2020, it rebranded again, changing its name to simply Polaroid.

The Impossible i-1 was the first new camera system in over 20 years that used the original Polaroid photo format. The camera is equipped with a ring flash, for portrait photography. There is an optional i-1 app to connect the i-1 camera to a phone. Photography is essentially an analog/ manual experience. The camera uses Impossible i-type and 600 type instant film.

Raven products (2017 – with Baidu)

Raven H speakers. Photo: Teenage Engineering.

The Raven H

Raven is a startup that Baidu acquired in 2017. The Raven H is functionally similar to other smart speakers, but looks nothing like an Amazon Echo or Google Home. While, it uses the Baidu DuerOS intelligent voice-controlled personal assistant platform, product design is from Teenage Engineering. It consists of a stack of eight metal squares, the top one of which is removable. There is an LED touch screen controller that can be detached from its position at the base of the stack to use as a voice-based remote that connects with Baidu/ Raven’s other home devices.

Teenage Engineering is also working on the Raven R, which is a planned robotic smart speaker with six moveable joints, used to perform simple function and express emotions on an LED display.

OP-Z (2018)

An Oplab connectivity modules waiting to be fitted onto the back of an OP-Z synthesizer. Photo: Teenage Engineering.

The strength of the OP-Z lies in its sequencer. Some may regard it as 3/4 of an OP-1, at half the price. In 2020-12 Teenage Engineering updated the OP-Z app to include many new video functions, especially an update for the Photomatic engine (allowing one to sequence video clips and GIF animations in the photo/video player) and better MIDI compatibility.

Pocket Operator Modules (2019)

Multiple Pocket Operator Module units in three different sizes, the POM-400 in yellow, the POM-170 in red and POM-16. Photo: Teenage Engineering.

These are self-build kits that needs to be bent, snapped and screwed together. These are expensive for Do-It-Yourself (DIY) products.

The POM-400 analog synthesizer came with 3 oscillators, noise, random generator, 2 envelopes, 2 Voltage-Controlled Amplifiers (VCAs), Low-Frequency Oscillator (LFO), filter, mixer, speaker, power supply and a 1-16 step sequencer. The kit featured a yellow powder coated aluminum chassis, 16 modules, 15 patch cables, a screwdriver and an illustrated build guide.

The POM-170 analog monophonic synthesizer with 1 oscillator, built-in programmable sequencer. The kit has a red powder coated aluminum chassis, keyboard, filter, envelope, LFO, VCA, speaker, power supply, 8 patch cables, a screwdriver and an illustrated build guide.

The POM-16 is a stand alone keyboard with individual tuneable keys and a programmable step sequencer.  This unit is designed to send control voltage/ gate (CV/ gate), midi, and Pocket Operator syncronization (PO sync) signals to control a POM-400 or other synthesizer. These control signals do not make sounds. The kit has a maroon powder ocated aluminum chassis. Reviewers have reacted negatively to the keyboard especially. A specialist tool is required to change batteries.

This video shows a PO Modular 400 in operation.

Frekvens (2019 – for IKEA)

Frekvens is a series of limited edition products sold through IKEA that combine light and sound. Perhaps the best way to appreciate these is to watch a video.

The IKEA Frekvens collection. It is no longer available in Norway. Photo: IKEA.

Playdate (2019 – with Panic Inc.)

Playdate. The gray crank on the left side of the machine was designed by Teenage Engineering. Photo: Panic, Inc.

Panic Inc. was founded in 1997, and has its headquarters in Portland, Oregon. Many of its products are exclusively for Apple Mac/ iOS machines, but some are available for Windows and Android. A few even work under Linux.

Playdate is a bright yellow hand-held gaming console/ system with a black and white (400 x 240 pixel 1-bit) screen, a four-way directional pad, two game buttons and a crank, a rotating analogue controller.

Panic stated the Playdate name referred to bundled games being delivered on a schedule of 12 per season, and they were interested in including games by under-represented developers and game makers, as well as stating that in season one, there was at least one game by a woman, as well as games by “queer/trans/enby” developers. It is an open system that allows sideloading of games that are not part of a season, without the need for jailbreaking. Games are created using a Software Development Kit (SDK) that includes a simulator and debugger and which is compatible with both the C and Lua programming languages.

As the timeline for release of Playdate extends into 2021, Teenage Engineering was forced to issue a disclaimer stating “that we were only involved in the crank design of this product …” According to Panic, Teenage Engineering was also involveed in the design of other parts of the physical machine. This certainly looks the case.

The Charm of Synths

Two versions of the Switched-on Bach album cover appeared. The one above was the first one used. Unfortunately, the synthesizer is incorrectly set up. The earphones are plugged into the input. The output isn’t connected to anything, offering silence as the synthesizer’s final product. A second cover, with a standing Bach, corrected these faults.

It is now over fifty years since I first heard a recording of a synthesizer, and became intrigued (but not enthralled) by this rather artificial music production machine, as were many other young people. As is frequently the case, the older generation was more sceptical. Wendy (then Walter) Carlos (1939 – ) performed on and programmed the synthesizer, Benjamin Folkman (? – ) performed on supplementary keyboards, while Rachel Elkind (1939 – ) produced. The album was Switched-on Bach (1968), and referred to ten works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) in the public domain.

These pieces were played on a modular Moog synthesizer. The recording process was labour intensive, and necessitated a close cooperation with Robert Moog (1934 – 2005), designer of the instrument. A custom 8-track recording machine was built by Carlos from components. The synthesizer was monophonic, meaning only one note could be played at a time. This meant that each track had to be added individually. Each note had to be released before the next note could start. In addition the synthesizer frequently needed to be tuned, because of tonal drift. The album took approximately five months and about one thousand hours to produce. By 1974 over a million copies of it had been sold.

Why anyone would want to buy an off-the-shelf synthesizer is beyond my comprehension. Synths are ideal DIY projects. Despite this, there are several approaches that can be taken to build one.

YouTube contains a number of sites dedicated to music and electronics. The one I have found most useful is Notes & Volts. Its three basic Arduino videos provide insights that go beyond the introductory tutorials provided by Jeremy Blum: Arduino on a Breadboard; Arduino as ISP; Arduino on a Proto-Board. It also has 9 videos about MIDI for the Arduino. All of these provide insights that extend far beyond the Arduino. There are also several music related projects, including an Arduino Granular Synth and a Teensy Synth. More information about the Teensy Synth is available at Arduino Slovakia. Teensy is a development board made in Sherwood, Oregon. The latest version, 4.0 uses an ARM Cortex-M7 processor at 600 MHz. However, the Notes & Volts synth specifies version 3.2 using a much less powerful ARM Cortex-M4 processor at 72 MHz.

Another approach is to find a kit, buy it and build it, slavishly following provided instructions. Elektor is probably the best place to look. It is a bi-monthly electronics magazine first published in Dutch in 1960, and in English since 1975, renamed ElektorLabs magazine in 2019. It offers a wide range of electronic projects, background articles and targets engineers as well as enthusiasts. Synthesizers are just one area of many, where PCBs, kits and modules are available. Microcontroller based projects have downloadable source code and (sometimes) executable files available free of charge from their website, along with PCB and other artwork.

People who regard assembly of an IKEA flatpack, as DIY, will be pleased to hear that Eurorack is the flatpack standard for modular synths. The format was originally specified in 1996 by Doepfer Musikelektronik. There are two basic technical specifications that have to be met:

The starting point for constructing a Eurorack is usually a case and power supply. DIY cheaters, will be able to buy these either separately, or together. The electrical specifications require the use of a red stripe to mark the -12V supply on each module’s power cable, and include keyed connectors which physically prevent modules from being plugged in incorrectly. 3.5 mm monojacks are used to connect

Purists will then populate their rack with modules containing sources and processors.

Sources – characterized by an output, but no signal input; it may have control inputs:

  • VCO – Voltage-controlled oscillator, a continuous voltage source, with an output signal that may be a simple or dynamically modified waveform.
  • Noise source – A random voltage output typically providing white, pink and/ or low frequency noise.
  • LFO – A low-frequency oscillator, optionally voltage-controlled. Typically used as a control voltage for another module.
  • EG – An envelope generator is a transient voltage source, typically configured as ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release) to control the amplitude of a VCA.
  • Sequencer, aka Analog Step Sequencer, may act as a source or a processor.

Processors – characterized by a signal input and an output; it may have control inputs:

  • VCF – Voltage-controlled filter, attenuates = lessens frequencies below (high-pass), above (low-pass) or both below and above (band-pass) or between (band-reject = notch) certain frequency. Typically with variable resonance, sometimes voltage-controlled.
  • VCA – Voltage-controlled amplifier, typically a unity-gain amplifier which varies the amplitude of a signal in response to an applied control voltage, with a linear or exponential response curve.
  • LPG – Low pass gate using a resistive opto-isolator to respond to the control voltage.
  • RM – Ring modulator where two audio inputs create sum and difference frequencie but suppress original signals.
  • Mixer – A module that adds voltages.
  • Slew limiter – Sub-audio lowpass filter.
  • S&H – Sample and hold, typically used as a control-voltage processor.
  • Sequencer- (see above).

To populate their rack appropriately, the ModularGrid database can be used to find suitable modules. As this is being written in 2019-10, there are 8 525 Eurorack modules to choose from, that have populated 224 551 racks in the Eurorack universe.

The advantage of a modular synth is that it can be whatever one wants it to be. The user is the designer. It is relatively easy to customize. It also allows the user to start off small, and to expand gradually. This has a second advantage. It takes time to learn how to use gear. One can start off by reading the manual, but then one has to experiment. Patching = connecting with 3.5 mm monojack cables, is part of this process. If a module turns out to be of limited use, it can be sold – or even traded.

The Charm of Keyboards

Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, the original programmable polyphonic synthesizer, and the spiritual ancestor of every polyphonic keyboard synthesizer produced today. Photo:

Pianists are typically dependent on the venues where they play, to provide them with an appropriate instrument. Without a team of roadies, it just isn’t practical to load a piano onto the back of a tour bus, and offload it for every concert/ gig. Other musicians may have instruments with considerably lower mass. A piccolo weighs in at about 160 g, a flute is generally less than a kilo, a trumpet just slightly more. Even a tuba has a mass of 20 kg or less. An upright piano weighs about 200 kg, and a grand piano may reach 500 kg, or more.

The pianoforte was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655 – 1731) about 1700. This early instrument is a vastly different from the one in use today, which is a distinctive product of the industrial revolution. Not only does the modern version offer a larger tonal range, its treble register is enriched by using a three string choir. Wire strings mounted onto an iron frame, precision cast to withstand the tremendous tension of these strings, also offer the opportunity to vary loudness. Accessibility to the piano was enhanced with the invention of an upright piano in 1826 by Robert Wornum (1780 – 1852).

Is the acoustic piano still fit for purpose in the 21st-century? Opinions are mixed.

Enter the keyboard. Even one that is relatively massive, such as the Yamaha MX88 with its 88 full-sized, touch-sensitive keys, weighs in with a mass of less than 15 kg. It is a lightweight and portable synthesizer, augmented with over 1 000 voices from a sound engine that can mimic strings, woodwinds, brass and even pianos! Many professional users complain that it doesn’t work well as a synthetic pipe-organ, in part because it lacks drawbars, and features a piano oriented keybed. Keybed refers to the keys of a keyboard and their underlying mechanisms.

I am imagining my mail box filling with an infinite number of virtual complaints from irritated Scandinavians for my failure to prioritize their regional favourite, the Swedish Clavia Nord. To make amends, I will not mention other Japanese brands such as Casio, Korg or Roland that make impressive keyboards, but focus all my energies for the rest of this paragraph to describe a Nord Electro 6. Yes, it weighs less than the Yamaha. Yes, it has fewer keys (73 or 61), but the keybeds are available in two flavours, hammer action for pianists, and weighted waterfall for organists. Yes, it can imitate 1960’s transistor organs, Vox Continental and Farfisa Compact. Yes, it is available in an attractive red. It also costs over twice the price (over NOK 20 000), compared to a Yamaha (less than NOK 10 000).

Stop! I’ve tried to illustrate by example, a major problem with many equipment reviews. They attempt to compare two (or sometimes even three or more) products, and are far too taken up with the specific qualities of some market leaders, rather than looking at the principles that will help a person decide what sort of product they need.

It is important to understand the intended purpose of a keyboard. There are different qualities of keyboards for different purposes. A synthesizer is a keyboard that produces sounds, without additional equipment, although some may need amplifiers and/ or speakers. A keyboard synth is especially useful for musicians interested in practising and performing. It is something that will fit in any practice room as well as any performance venue. Most use sample-based synthesis, using pre-recorded sounds. The Yamaha MX88 is an example of such an instrument. In contrast, the Nord Electro 6 is – at least in part – an analogue synth that manipulate electrical signals to create sounds. The number of keys on these instruments can vary, but with 49, 61 and 88 being three standard offerings.

For composing and recording, a music workstation is an upscale device from a synth, that can be more appropriate for recording work because it incorporates more hardware and software. It is also more difficult to use. It is essentially a computer in disguise. The most important additions involve onboard storage, such as hard disk drives or SD card slots capable of preserving multi-track recordings of performances. They typically include a touch-screen display. Connectivity to and from other devices is also important. Perhaps the most important music workstation was the Open Labs Production Station, introduced in 2003. Unfortunately, Open Labs went out of business in 2010. Many music workstations use custom operating systems built on top of the Linux kernel. Less sophisticated, but more portable models, are often referred to as arranger keyboards.

Digital pianos differ from the above instruments in that they only try to fake one instrument – an acoustic piano. Typically, they use weighted keybeds or hammer action to realistically simulate the feel of an acoustic piano. Their embedded sound clips are most often sourced from acoustic pianos, with realistic sustain and decay programmed in. Most digital pianos have 88 keys. Amplifiers and speakers may be separate, or built into console units designed for residential use.

Most modern electric organs today use sample based sound synthesis, but incorporate drawbars and modulation wheels to modify sounds.

If, at this point, I were asked which of these I would prefer, my honest answer would have to be – none of the above. My interest in a keyboard is limited to having a MIDI controller, a device that generates and transmits Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) data to other MIDI-enabled devices that will ultimately play some form of electronic music, when attached to appropriate amplifiers and speakers/ headphones.

MIDI controllers come in various of forms including drum pads and other control surfaces, samplers, sequences and other units with knobs and/ or sliders, as well as keyboards. There are even wind (read: breath) control units. This means that I want a synthesizer separate from the keyboard. Potentially, it could be inside a computer, but even here there is a need for flexibility.

Keyboard MIDI controllers vary in the numbers of keys offered (from 25 to 88) and response characteristics. They can be velocity-sensitive – where they respond to the speed at which they are pressed; varying degrees of weighting for varying degrees of piano like realism; with or without aftertouch, to assign additional parameters including vibrato or filter sweeps. The most impressive characteristic of a keyboard MIDI controller is its cost, typically from less than NOK 1 000 to 3 000.

The MIDI communication protocol avoids sounds, but encrypts parameters that specify sound characteristics so that a hardware or software instrument can decrypt them and play a sequence of sounds. In 2019-01 a new MIDI 2.0 was announced, updating MIDI with auto-configuration, new DAW/web integrations, extended resolution, increased expressiveness and tighter timing. It is backward compatible with previous versions of MIDI, preserving the interoperability of older devices.

There are two other devices that should be mentioned in conjunction with keyboards. A sequencer is a device that records MIDI data and plays it in a user-programmed sequence. It is in essence a 21st-century player piano. A sampler records live sounds digitally to produce audio clips. These clips can be manipulated in various ways. Some keyboards incorporate sequencing and or sampling capabilities, usually implemented using a combination of hardware and software.

An alternative approach to the use of a keyboard synthesizer or a music workstation, is to use a Eurorack modular synthesizer. Its format was originally specified in 1996 by Doepfer Musikelektronik. Currently, it is the dominant hardware modular synthesizer format. There are over 5000 modules available from more than 270 manufacturers.

Once the category of keyboard has been determined, it is then possible to specify the characteristics of its components. Here are some, in order of importance.

Connectivity: Keyboards can connect to computers (and other devices) physically for the transfer of data in a variety of ways. There are FireWire, MIDI, mLAN and S/PDIF and many other types of interfaces that will work. However, a guiding principle should be to avoid these and other legacy connectors, and stick to USB ports, where these are available. Analogue signals are another matter, XLR connectors, 6.35 mm (1/4″) TRS audio jacks and 3.5 mm TRS minijacks are all commonly used. 3.5 mm monojacks are also used to connect to Eurorack synthesizers. Digital audio can be combined with video using HDML connectors.

Number of keys: They vary from 25 to 88. Reasons for opting for less than 88 include space restrictions and musical genre. Personally, I am considering 61 keys, but will be making a mockup of both it, and a 49 key unit, to ensure it will fit onto the height adjustable desk that I will be using.

Keybed action: There are four main choices. Weighted, semi-weighted, hammer and synth. Weighted and semi-weighted offer varying degrees of resistance. Hammer action approaches the feel of an acoustic piano, with mechanical hammers. Synth action could be more properly called no action, because of its lack of resistance. Personally, I would want something in the middle (weighted or semi-weighted), rather than something more extreme.

Key sensitivity refers to the ability of a key to sense the force/ speed of a key and to either to create a sound or send an appropriate MIDI message.

To understand voicing, polyphony and timbrality it is necessary to look at some theory, along with recent technological history. Voice is used in two distinct ways. In the second paragraph, the Yamaha MX88 was described as having 1 000 voices. That is, 1 000 descriptions of how a sound potentially can be played involving an oscillator, amplifier and assorted filters. When the time comes to actually play a note, a specific voice will be selected. A monophonic instrument is one that can only play one note at a time. It cannot play chords. Most woodwinds and brass instruments are monophonic. During the 1960’s and 1970’s almost all synthesizers were also monophonic.

A polyphonic instrument allows many notes to be played simultaneously allowing the possibility of playing chords. A piano is an example of a polyphonic instrument. The Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, an analogue synthesizer manufactured between 1978 and 1984, was the first fully programmable polyphonic synthesizer and the first musical instrument with an embedded microprocessor. Now, most synthesizers are polyphonic, producing between 8 and 128 note polyphony.

Timbrality refers to the ability of a keyboard to play notes on different channels simultaneously. A mono-timbral instrument produces one sound on a single channel. A multi-timbral instrument can produce sounds on multiple channels. For example, one channel might imitate a piano, a second channel a guitar, a third channel a bass and a fourth channel a flute, etc.

Arpeggiator: An arpeggio is a chord whose notes are played successively, rather than simultaneously. An arpeggiator electronically creates an arpeggio when a single note is played on the keyboard.

Since I am not a musician, I cannot justify the expense of an expensive keyboard. When called onto the financial director’s carpet to justify a keyboard purchase, at some time in the future, I will have to explain why I need yet another, relatively expensive input device. Fortunately, she is used to my imaginative stories. I will try to divert attention away from the purchase price, to the cost saving of not buying a Nord Electro 6.

Here is my short list of MIDI keyboards with prices in NOK (Norwegian kroner). The quick, but not particularly precise, way to convert NOK to USD is to divide these prices by 10.

BrandModel49 keys61 keys
SamsonCarbon 9501 550
M-AudioKeystation1 0001 450
Native InstrumentsKomplete Kontrol MKIII1 7002 150

The MIDI keyboard will be used to input data to LMMS, an open source digital audio workstation application program on an Asus VivoMini. Output will be through a headphone connected to the computer using a 3.5 mm TRS minijack.

Note: In writing this post, I thought very often of my friend, Olaf Olafsson, former Moscrop junior secondary school (Burnaby) language teacher and resident of New Westminster, who retired to Squamish, where he became an avid keyboardist.