keyboards and sound modules

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To really appreciate what a synth module is I have to take you back to the beginning, So don your time travel suit and lets go back, back, back, back to 1986. Every studio making money has a Yamaha DX7, a revolutionary all-digital synth whose realism led many to sell off their old dirty analog beasts for the clean, 80’s, digital sound. But the DX7 only boasted a 32 presets and sent and received on ONE midi channel. No multi timbrality yet. If you wanted 16 instruments to play at once, you either tracked it to tape or needed, yep, 16 keyboards. Naturally, no one wanted 16 sets of plastic ivories in their studio so the logical answer to this was a box that contained a full synthesizer that could connect to the midi thru and give you another channel of synthesizer goodness. Enter the first MIDI module.

After almost 16 years, the synth module is still with us. In some cases, it almost looks the same. You get a 19″ rack box, a display, a few buttons, maybe a few knobs. Lets just compare a standard module from today, a proteus 2000, to the 1st Proteii. The Proteus /1 had 191 presets, no resonant filters and could add one $500 expansion board that increased the sample rom from 4 megs to 8 megs. The Proteus 2000 comes with 32 megs of rom standard and you can add 3 more 32 meg boards for a total of 128 megs and over 2,500 presets when fully decked. The feature set includes resonant filters and more modulation options than many of us will be able to explore.

A good thing about many modules is that they can be racked.

It should be clear what the major advantage of the synth module is: You get the full features of the keyboard version (sometimes more, sometimes less) in a nice convenient package that fits in a studio rack and takes up little studio real estate. There’s been many a classic midi synth module that is still in demand today. As you might expect, the early analog synth modules still get premium dollars at online actions. I am referring here to the Oberheim Matrix 12, 6r, 1000, the Roland MKS-70 and 80 as some early notables. There plenty of classic modules still working in today’s studios like the Roland D550, the Yamaha TX802, TG77, the Korg Wavestation A/D and SR. These are still in demand because they sound great.

But today’s MIDI modules are a result of 2 decades of refinements. They totally overpower the modules of the past with memory, voices, dynamic range, signal to noise and just about any spec you want to toss at it. The display has changed from a 16 character non backlit LCD to a large graphic display in some cases, even touch-sensitive, in the case of the recent V-Synth XT. Modules that support 128 voices and 32 midi channels and sampling and rom expansion options line up the higher end. While in the early days you definitely needed 4-6 modules to make a full MIDI production, today you really only need one to do a full piece of music. And with today’s software synths, it is possible to argue that the module is becoming obsolete. We’ll get into that in a bit.

The Best Module for your Studio

Really depends on what else you have in your arsenal. Putting together a complete recording studio involves taking stock in what you already have and filling the gaps of what you don’t have. If you already have a general MIDI soundset on your keyboard, do you really need a general module that covers the same territory? Not really, unless the module does it significantly better. Yet if you only have a general soundset on your keyboard, and you want to do advanced DnB and techno, it makes a lot of sense to get a specialty module that has the sounds you want, ready to roll. If you already have a late model sampler, does it make sense to spring for a full tilt Roland 5080 with the sample cd rom loading option? Probably not, but the 3080 might work extremely well. But if you already have a keyboard you like, but it’s older or not very powerful with sounds, then you might want to look at some of the workstation like modules like the Triton Rack or the Roland 5080. Variety is the true spice. If you already have 2 emu modules should you get a third or should you get something different, like a Korg Triton rack? Go Triton. Synths which use the same engine, though they are based on different sound sets, often have a similar «ring» in the mix. Experienced tweaks can spot an emu vs. a Roland vs. a Triton in the mix regardless of which model you have. The difference in sound engines is much like the difference between two personalities. Forget brand loyalty. Mix and Match. You will sound better for it.


Polyphony is generally measured or specified as a number of notes or voices.

Most of the early music synthesisers were monophonic, meaning that they could only play one note at a time. If you pressed five keys simultaneously on the keyboard of a monophonic synthesiser, you would only hear one note. Pressing five keys on the keyboard of a polyphonic synthesiser which had only four voices of polyphony would, in general, produce four notes. If the keyboard had more voices (many modern sound modules have 16, 24, or 32 note polyphony), then you would hear all five of the notes. You might utilize a system like this to write a piece of music consisting of several different parts, where each part is written for a different instrument. You might play the individual parts on the keyboard one at a time into a sequencer. The sequencer would then play the parts back together through the sound modules. Each part would be played on a different MIDI Channel, and the sound modules would be set to receive different channels.

MIDI loops connecting diverse devices using all three ports can become complex very quickly. As a brief example, imagine four synthesizers named A, B, C, and D for convenience. A’s Gone is connected to B’s IN and consequently to C’s IN via B’s THRU. B’s Outside connects to D’s IN, whose THRU connects to A’s IN. A key pressed on A sounds A, B and C. A key pressed on C sounds C and C alone. A key pressed on B sounds B, D, and A, while a key pressed on D sounds D only. C does not sound when B is pressed on account of there is no open connection between B and C, and B’s notice, which does route through D, does not route through A into C since A’s THRU is not connected to C, or anything else for that business. A sign played on A does not sound on D for the same cause.
Machine manufacturers soon realized that the machine would be a fantastic tool for MIDI, since MIDI devices and machines speak the same language. Since the MIDI data transmission rate (31.5 kBaud) is different from ANY pc data rate, manufacturers had to design a MIDI interface to allow the pc to talk at MIDI’s precipitation. Apple Computers, with the Macintosh and Apple ][ series, and Commodore were the first companies to jump on the MIDI machine bandwagon [pun intended]. Roland designed an interface for the IBM series of compatible pcs a hardly any years later, and Atari designed a completely advanced machine, the ST series, with fully operable MIDI ports built in. Today, there are many different interfaces available for almost all types of pc system.

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