Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Yamaha FS1R Editor for Mac OS X

A Musical Lifetime's Worth of Background:

It's been about five years since I sold my New England Digital made Synclavier Digital Music System, which I had for a full twenty years since 1984. I loved that thing because it was a digital additive/FM synthesizer that could make unique never before heard sounds, I could play it with a Roland GR pickup equipped guitar (I used a Steinberger GL2T-GR axe), plus it had a thirty-two track sequencer that operated just like an analog or digital tape deck, but with all of the editing advantages a virtual digital world brings.

For years after I got it I would spend hours every day pouring through the several phone-book-sized manuals and just messing with its synthesis capabilities. I got so good at it that within a couple of years, New England Digital was distributing many of my timber programs, including the sound effects that gave me minor fame, with every new Synclavier sold.

For an idea of where that curiosity about the nature of sound lead me, here's a piece I created with the Synclavier way back in 1994 - a full ten years after I got it - when I was a doctoral candidate at UNT. Almost every sound in that - with the exception of the church bell, I think - is something I created from scratch just starting with a sine wave and an FM ratio. Not only that, but all you'll hear in that is the Synclavier: No reverb, effects, or even EQ. That was recorded straight out of the Synclavier's stereo outs into a DAT deck.

Of course, I also have the Synclavier to thank for making me aware of the fact that music works because the overtone sonority is a dominant seventh chord. There's nothing like directly messing with the harmonic series through additive digital synthesis to make one aware of the true nature of sound: The Synclavier enabled me to mess with both the amplitude and the phase relationships of the harmonics out to P32, apply FM to the resulting waveforms, and then to even crossfade a series of them together (Which is how I created my groundbreaking sound sculptures like in the background of this Synclavier sequence).

Well, when I switched to nylon string guitars in 1988, I initially went through a back-to-basics pure acoustic phase as a player. I still used the Synclavier for electronic music composing, but I wasn't really interested in playing it with a guitar anymore. My acoustic phase was short lived, however, as I soon missed my phase, flange, chorus, and reverb effects. Plus, performing with an acoustic classical guitar is a loser's game, as even polite conversation can drown it out. So, by 1990 I was experimenting with electric nylon string guitars, and finally in 1998 Lexicon came out with the MPX-G2, so it took a full eight years just to find a preamp/effects unit I liked.

As for electric nylon string guitars - sheesh, what a grueling ordeal that has been - I started out with the only game in town at the time, which was a Gibson Chet Atkins CEC. It weighed a ton and was a pain to EQ. The Godin's were the breakthrough because of the RMC Polydrive hexaphonic pickups... which can run synthesizers. But it wasn't until I discovered the Blackbird Rider Nylon guitars just last year that I finally had an axe that I was over 90% satisfied with (The Rider's fingerboard is radiused, whereas it ought to be flat). The Rider Nylon can also be had with the RMC Polydrive, of course, and I now have two of them and play them exclusively.

Having the sound system and guitar sorted out - a process that took twenty years! - naturally lead me back to thinking about playing synthesizers with the Polydrive equipped Rider Nylons. So, I got a Terratec Axon AX-100 Mk II guitar to MIDI interface, but it just had a GM sound card, and wasn't a synth. that lead me to discover the Yamaha FS1R formant sequence/FM synthesizer, which I had never even heard of before last year. It had slipped under my radar between the time I stopped playing the Synclavier and when I started getting interested in synthesis as a performer again.

I was fortunate to find a virtually new one on eBay - they were only made for a couple of years - that had never seen a rack, and so I was off - or so I thought. Like a lot of Yamaha products - even the classic DX-7 - the programming architecture was tortuous to navigate. It was even worse than the DX-7 because everything was compressed onto a 1U rack faceplate! Additionally, there was no way to edit the formant sequences even on the unit itself: A major flaw, as the formant sequences were one of my primary points of interest.

Back in my Synclavier days - after the MIDI option came out for it - I had eight MIDI outputs to work with, so I paired it up with a Yamaha TX-816, which ammounted to eight DX-7's in a 4U rack chassis. Well the individual TF-1's - that's what the DX-7 modules were called - had no programming controls at all on them, so this was the first thing I ever encountered that required a computer software editor. Back then - we're in 1986 - the best one in terms of intuitive usability ran on the old Commodore 64: That was my first experience with a GUI, and it was earth-shattering (I wasn't a Mac guy then, obviously). It worked fantastically, and I learned the Yamaha carrier/modulator algorithm architecture, so I already knew a lot of what is in the FS1R - it can actually load play DX-7/TF-1 programs - but I needed an editor.

Well, a link at the bottom of the Wikipedia FS1R page lead me to the website of Japanese Mac programmer and synthesizer programming virtuoso K_Take.

K has written a fantastic FS1R Editor for Mac OS X, and it's available as a free download!

Minor Teething Pains

There were a few problems, as I don't think the FS1R Editor will work with FireWire MIDI interfaces. At least, it wouldn't boot with my Lexicon I-ONIX FW810s. So, I got one that was in a screenshot on his website, the EDIROL UM-2ex. After installing it and downloading the advanced driver, it worked perfectly. Now, however, I have to find one of the discontinued UM-880's for a rack mount version (I need one for my growing studio anyway).

I finally got it all set up last week.

The G5 PowerMac is running the FS1R Editor, the M-Audio KeyRig 49 - I program sysnths with a keyboard, not from the guitar - the UM-2ex, and the lower of the two FS1R's in the rack. That's right, I now have two FS1R's; one to program, and one to play with the guitar.

The MacBook Pro runs the FW810s mixer, and so it does the guitar rig part of the rack, which is everything else in it. I also record with the MacBook Pro using the 810s and Garageband or Cubase LE.

As you can see, it's a tight setup, and I can perform, record, and program without moving at all. The tiny Apple wireless bluetooth keyboard and the Kensington trackball were absolutely essential, as was a USB keyboard of not more than four octaves plus the obligatory semitone.

Eventually - when I start performing with this rack - the second FS1R will split off into a dedicated stay-at-home recording rack, but right now it's excellent for programming and having a second unit to back everything up to (I had to replace one battery already, which is thankfully very easy).

The FS1R Editor GUI

When you first launch the FS1R Editor, you are greeted with the MIDI Interface Setting window. The very first time you do this, you have to use the drop-downs to select everything. After that, it comes up just like this, unless you forget something like powering up your keyboard, in which case you have to quit, turn it on, and relaunch: It won't recognize a keyboard that is powered up at this stage of the game.

After you click OK, FS1R Editor scans the FS1R, which takes several seconds, and then greets you with the Performance page of the editor, which actually has four pages in it. This is the Part Parameter page, and since an FS1R Performance program can have up to four parts, you select those with the buttons at the top left of the recessed field.

The MMM template is 700 pixels wide, and the actual window is 1000p in width, so this is 300 pixels narrower than actual: It's plenty big enough to work on comfortably, but a trackball does help to accurately grab and move the small sliders.

The second Performance page has the Formant Sequence selection and control. yes, you can create formant sequences but I haven't tried that out yet.

Master tuning and transposition is on the right - very handy since I tune to A=432 - and you can also transpose the entire unit here.

One of the very best things about the FS1R is that it contains a full suite of onboard effects: Reverb, phase, flange, chorus and three band parametric EQ. K hasn't made the FS1R Editor anything like graphic-intensive, but the routing schematic is particularly useful here, as is the EQ shape and scale.

The final Control page of the Performance section allows for assignment of the knobs and MIDI controllers, and their sensitivity settings. There's a helpful Default Setting button for when you get into, "Oh my God, what have I done?" territory.

The Voice page is where most of the fun happens for me, as this is where you create sounds. It took me a minute to notice, but the Common Parameter box on the left actually has six pages to it, which are the sideways buttons along the left. This is unusual, but I'm sure K did that because they wouldn't all fit horizontally along the top. The LFO box is what you get when you first hit the page.

Believe it or not, the programming section on the right reminds me of a high resolution version of the old Commodore 64 program I had to program the TX-816: very simple, straight forward, intuitive, and self-explanatory. The graphics are just what's needed: The pic of the algorithm selected, the shape of the envelope, and the Frequency-based Envelope Generator.

Yes, we have filters, just like an analog synth.

And the filters have envelopes, of course, which is another nice place for a simple graphic representation and intuitive faders.

The Pitch Envelope Generator.

Here's the Formant Control section. It's a mix-and-match section for the internal formants unless you initialize one from scratch (As I understand it at this point, which isn't very well yet).

And finally, the FM Control box. You select the voiced and unvoiced operator to work with to the right, just under the algorithm graphic, by the way.

There's an on screen keyboard you can use if you don't have a USB or MIDI keyboard, but I found this very unsatisfactory to use. I need a physical keyboard for immediate feedback.

To summarize, this is a very compact and elegant little program that is an absolute must have if you have an FS1R and wish to program it. Can you imagine how long it would take to get to some of this stuff just using the FS1R's faceplate controls? Me neither.

Much more to come about this, of course.


Blogger Keith said...

Hi, just came across your site whilst looking for help on the FS1r editor.
Just wondering how you are getting on with it and if you now fully understand the FM and Formant control sections, because I don't. hee hee

10:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you look at FS1R's FM algorithm 87 (and switch off osc #1), it should be close to the synclavier's idea of FM. Of course, only 6 carriers here. But easy to turn this into 24 using part mode and copying the modulator (#2 in alg #87) to all parts.

Is that something you find in your setup, meaning are you able to reproduce synclavier sounds just from using the FS1R's FM part in a synclavier manner - of course without formants and all the extra stuff?

If yes, that would be extremly cool! (Don't get me wrong, I love the way my FS1R sounds, but I'm missing all the early day synclavier experience..)

7:50 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

The FS1R is very, very cool, but I'm actually thinking of getting an old Synclavier again. There is just no replacement for a Synclavier.

12:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to give a quick update on my earlier question:

I tried it on algorithm #80. I used a frequency analyzer to set the sine wave outputs of the operators, which were tuned to ratios like 1.00, 2.00, 3.00,... so basically this is using FS1R as an additive synthesizer. Each harmony can have its own EG, nice.

On the scope I noticed a movement depending on the note (!) played. (Key-sync on for all, of course.) This seems to be an inaccuracy of the FS1R, but as it's just a phasing on the harmonies, it's not audible, until...

..FM comes in. So playing with the modulators, I get these sounds that feel to me like Synclavier (though I never had the chance to use one). But now, as one or two modulators are modulating all the sine waves at the same time, there's constant moving going on, depending on the note you play. It sounds wonderful, but there's no way to get rid of this.

My guess is the original synclavier is way more accurate and doesn't have this limitation. On the plus side, we have the powerful feedback parameter and even a second modulator at hand using the FS1R. Worth a try,

6:59 PM  

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