MATRIXSYNTH: Formant Synth Dream

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Formant Synth Dream

Update as of 9:26 PDT: I made a couple of minor updates in case you read it before then. Sorry!

A quick note on posts like this: I hope you enjoy them. If not, just skip them. When I first started the site I used to share my synth dreams but stopped. Personally I get a kick out of them. I won't share every one, just some of the stand outs. The last one stood out for the humor, this one stood out for the design of the instrument. It reminds me of different makers and their approach. As a maker, do you set out to design a synthesizer, an instrument, or both? Are you locked in by the tools, components, and paradigms of what makes a synth? In my dream both the musician and the maker (who never made an appearance BTW) didn't really know what a synth even was. The maker just designed an instrument and the musician just played it. This reminds me of Don Buchla's original designs and specifically the Buchla Music Easel. This was at the birth of synthesis as we know it. What's interesting is his designs weren't meant to be what they are commonly perceived as today. They were meant to be unique instruments, palettes for sound, hence the Music Easel. I heard even his modular systems weren't meant to be complete fixed instruments, they weren't meant to be mixed and matched. Think about that for a bit. They were modular in design, but they weren't meant to be modular in nature. They were meant to be wholly formed instruments. In the following dream the musician reminded me of Marc-Henri and Barry Schrader to an extent. Marc-Henri almost exclusively uses an Access Virus Ti as a music easel for his compositions. Barry Schrader started with Buchla and then moved to FM synthesis for his compositions. You can find an extensive interview with him here.

And the dream...

I had another synth dream last night. In this one I was at an ensemble event held in kind of a classroom/workshop/gym-type of open space at what felt like an old English or New England boarding school - lots of wood, flat tall ceilings, and windows along the length of the far wall. The ensemble consisted of maybe 18 people in a semi-circle with a small audience in front of them, mainly standing, which I was one of. The instructor had each member of the ensemble introduce their instruments. I was in front towards the left of the ensemble and noticed the last two instruments to be electronic desktop boxes sitting on a card table (synth gathering anywone?), both vintage and almost DIY looking in style. I remember thinking, "I know what these boxes are. They are synths! I can't wait to talk shop with the owners and check them out." Well the instructor starts going around the ensemble starting on the opposite side. Each member introduces their instrument and talks a little bit about them and their technique. There were some interesting brass-like instruments. I think there was one based on an alto trombone, but it was just a flat pipe and no horn at the end. Funny side note is my daughter is currently learning to play piccolo. She plays flute in high school band and decided to finally give the piccolo a try as a stretch goal. If you don't know what a piccolo is, it's a tiny flute for super high notes. She said there were tiny versions of most instruments including the trombone. I looked one up and sure enough there is. A tiny trombone not much longer than a foot exists. The instrument in my dream also bore a resemblance to the ribbon controller featured in the Nunomo QUN post, so I'm guessing that's where it came from - some bizarre mix of the two. Anyway, when the instructor/host got around to the last two instruments, it turned out the first was a theremin based synth minus the antennas. It was made of wood and looked vintage. It would have been interesting if not for the next box. That was something. It was black with white and silver sliders, levers, buttons, and knobs. It was a unique instrument custom made for the owner who knew the maker. The interesting thing was the musician wasn't familiar with synths and didn't even see the instrument as a synth. The maker also wasn't into synths. In the dream he was more like a luthier, more of an artist instrument maker than a synth maker. No offense to synth makers! :) Anyway, it was about the size of an EMS SYNTHI and was black with white levers and sliders and had a bunch of esoteric control blocks with non standard names/labels; similar to something like the Hartmann Neuron where controls are familiar but the names are completely different. For some reason it reminded me of a black Lassence uVentury, Modor NF-1, mixed with some MacBeth and Folktek in design, but again completely different. Again, this maker wasn't into synths. This was a unique instrument. After the talk was over the musician gave a little demo. The sound of it. It was like formant analog but the timbers coming out of it were rich and full, not thin or glossy like most formant synthesis. It sounded like nothing I've ever heard before. After the talks were over I walked over to it to check out the controls and design. I wondered if I could touch it and play with it a little and for some reason, as happens in dreams, I knew it was OK so I started playing with it. There was a thin ivory white reed-like lever about an inch and a half long that controlled a female formant timbre. It was amazing. There was an group of lever-type sliders that controlled a multi band formant filter block and I remember thinking, "Oh this is a filter!" There were envelop sliders and other familiar groups that I now forget, but there were a bunch of interesting controls on it that didn't quite match up to common synths. There were additional effects and shaping tools built into the design and everything just flowed like a natural instrument. Again it kind of reminded me in concept to a Hartman Neuron and Modor NF-1, with maybe a bit of Folktek, but it was more vintage and simplistic in design - just a sold black block with white and silver controls. It was definitely designed as a work of art instrument vs. a synth. Similar in concept to the Buchla music Easel as I mentioned in the intro to this dream above. So after checking it out a little and talking to the owner I realized I should take a video of it for the site! I got the OK to film it, pulled out my iPhone, and started trying to capture some of the controls and timbres it was capable of. When I got to that formant female slider it was gone! I couldn't remember what I did to get that sound and I couldn't find the control again. Damn dreams.... And as in many real world sessions I wasn't getting those rich timbres again. I got lost between timbres! I thought my readers would be disappointed in my programming chops for a split second, but then I reminded myself anyone into programming synths will understand and not care, so I kept tweaking. Well, right then, a foster kid boarding at the school distracted me and started talking to me. I hand gestured to him (no I did not flick him off) to hold off for a second because I was in the middle of filming the synth and trying to capture audio. He understood for like five seconds and started talking again. I asked him to give me a sec but he got upset and said I should be there more for people. I felt bad and wasn't getting anywhere with the instrument at that point, so I stopped filming to talk to him before he left.

And that was it! Everything felt right with the kid so that was good, but that instrument! It's gone forever...

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