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Build a synthesizer | THINK, MAKE, PLAY | Max/MSP

Build a synthesizer | THINK, MAKE, PLAY | Max/MSP. article by Mr Steve Powell

What’s the first thing you do when starting a new track or build a synthesizer on your computer? Fire up Logic or Max/MSP? Warm-up the TB808? Sit on top of a hill and hope musical inspiration hits you whilst pondering the meaning of existence? Any of those things would do, but if you’re like most people, you sit in front of a blank screen wondering where to start for at least ten minutes. If it’s a bad day you sit there for hours, not getting anywhere. One of the hardest things about making music can be trying to force inspiration when it won’t come. Sometimes you can kick yourself into it, sometimes writers block is as stubborn as a mule. There is avenues of relief though, and some of them don’t involve vegging in front of the TV or raiding the fridge for the fifteenth time that day. Carrying on in part from my last article, I will try and give some food for thought about ways of being creative with music.

As I see it, there are three main things to stifle the inspiration of the creative music maker, presuming you have all the stuff and are ready to go; not knowing what to do, not knowing how to do it, and being worried that what you do is going to be any good. Well, for the last one I can answer it really quickly… everything you do is good because being productive is good and the next time you do something it will be even better. In this article though I’m going to dig into the first, and partly the second stifling factors. If you are lucky enough to have a Roland TB808 as the guy in the first paragraph, you pretty much know what’s going to happen. You select a drum, press a button in the sequencer and you make a drum groove. That’s what 808’s are, and so it doesn’t take long before you’re in Detroit Techno heaven, and that’s why they’re great: focus. So… what does a computer do? Well, lots of stuff. You’ve got three hours to make some music so you may start at the synthesiser. Or perhaps the sequencer, or record some samples for the sampler. Maybe buy a sample pack, or download some new loops for inspiration, or one of the massive variety of programs at your disposal, and that’s before you even get into the program itself or write a note. The conclusion? Choice is a great thing but also, it can be a bad thing. Conventional wisdom says to find one or two instruments and a few effects and learn them inside out so you can use them really well. This is a fine way to go about limiting your options so you can concentrate on doing rather than deciding. There is more than one way to skin a synth though, and the way I’m going to explain does the job of helping decide what to do and teaching you how to do it at the same time. The answer? DIY.

We’re not going to be putting up flat-pack or hammering in nails but in practice it’s not too different than doing just that on a computer. Often as not, after learning how to use a music program, getting it to do exactly what you want can be tricky, or even impossible. Most of the time there is a work-around or some kind of compromise, but often as not we don’t want a compromise; we want it exactly how we want and it seems those functions should be clear, accessible and functional. I personally find that I often use huge programs in a very simple way and have no need of all the bells and whistles it offers. Then when the trial period is over and you find yourself with a potentially big bill for doing something simple it can grind a bit. Therefore another big bonus to making it yourself is that it can be as simple or as complicated as you like, although if you fancy making a fully functional commercial DAW it may be worth letting the entire however-many-strong Apple development team do it for you. Right then, back to the title… think, make, play.

I’m going to skip over the actual thinking process here, just to say that whether it’s on the aforementioned hill, on the toilet or in the hazy morning after the night before, ideas will come, usually when not expected. When you have one, break it down to find where to start. An example of this started with a problem given to me by a guy who wanted a little plug-in design help in Max/MSP. He wanted a gizmo to read the pitch of whatever instrument he was recording (usually guitar and voice) and to play harmonising notes in real time through any synth, whilst recording the audio, and the midi notes into Logic. The choice of program (instrument) on the synth and the type of harmonisation was to be controlled by a midi foot pedal. Step one: Get all the routing done so all the midi and audio runs to the right places. Two: Set up pitch detection. Three: Set the pedals to control harmonisation and program change. Four: Test, debug, tweak. Five: Graphic User Interface Design. Doing all this is of course a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the process in a nutshell. During this process I had two great ideas that I decided to put into practice in my own performance software: An arpeggiator that creates harmonised delay lines of incoming audio by reading the pitch, and using pedal combinations to create shifting harmonic lines around the main melody. So by making something for someone else, I got great ideas just when I wanted a new gizmo to play with.

The main point I make here is that synthesiser design, sampler design, FX design and pretty much any tool you can think of design can take us in new and interesting directions, and can really beat those blank page blues. Also, for those of us that want to do something a bit different, or really stamp their identity by doing something in a new way, try a new angle. Try this thought for size: Why adapt your music to someone else’s system when you can adapt a system to your music? After all, the music is what it’s all about. Don’t compromise your music, change the system to suit it best.

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