In 2014, I reviewed UVI The Beast [Tape Op #104], a sample-based virtual instrument recreating the sounds of the infamous and very expensive Synclavier workstation, which New England Digital Corporation first released in the '70s and continued to manufacture (and update) into the '90s. While The Beast is capable of playing back a wide variety of sounds and has some degree of programmability, The Beast is essentially a rompler. Although the Synclavier ended up being best known for its sampling abilities, it also had very advanced additive and FM synthesis capabilities (and was one of the first multitrack hard-disk recorders too). With sampling being so commonplace today, the novelty of sample-based synthesis has worn off, and instead, the Synclavier's algorithmic synthesis capabilities are what intrigues vintage synthesizer fans now. I'm not going to get too in-depth here into FM or additive synthesis. For more on these topics, see my reviews of Subatomic Software Audulus [#103], Herbert Janßen's "SY Programming" technical paper [#112], and Mark Vail's The Synthesizer book [#103].
With the update to their V Collection, Arturia has added several new instruments, including Synclavier V. (The other new instruments in the collection are the Piano, B3, Rhodes, and Farfisa V instruments.) As usual, Arturia has done a great job of porting the hardware synth into the virtual environment. But even for Arturia, there are a few firsts here. Most of Arturia's soft synths are digital emulations of analog synths using the company's TAE (True Analog Emulation) technology, whereas Synclavier V is based on what was a digital synth to begin with. Arturia collaborated directly with Cameron Jones, one of the three founding designers of the Synclavier. Cameron worked on the software side of the actual machine, and he assisted in porting over the original code to Synclavier V. So it's pretty safe to say that, as far as the Synclavier's synthesis capabilities are concerned, Synclavier V is pretty much a real Synclavier for thousands of dollars less than the cost of one back then, or even now! (See the end of this review for more thoughts on this.)
For $200, you are getting what we've come to expect from Arturia's soft synths — great sound and an easy-to-use, great-looking GUI. The "ORK" Original Keyboard from the Synclavier II model is graphically represented, with its wood chassis and its round, red, backlit buttons (which NED sourced from the aircraft industry for their reliability). Some of the more advanced programming capabilities of the Synclavier are accessed through a VT100 terminal emulation that reprises the green-on-black computer screens of the early '80s. In general, for really digging into the sound-design aspects of Synclavier V, the terminal screen workflow offers greater efficiency and more elegance, beyond that of the ORK interface.
Arturia and Mr. Jones have also upped the ante a bit with the synthesis capabilities of Synclavier V. The original had four voices, called partials, with each partial able to control the amplitude and phase of up to 24 harmonics, plus a sine-wave oscillator that modulated the carrier for basic FM synthesis. The new Arturia implementation increases the number of partials from four to twelve, and the modulation oscillator now offers a full 24 harmonic additive waveforms, not just a sine wave. These two upgrades to the original algorithms and code give you exponentially more sound-creation options. You also can control the bit depth of the synth. The original was 8?bit, but now you can set it between 4 and 24–bit sample depths. The Synclavier also used what was called a Timbre Frame, which Arturia has renamed Timbre Slice. With Synclavier V, you can sequence up to 50 Timbre Slices for complex, evolving sounds and textures.
The key to understanding the Synclavier V's simple-yet-complex synthesis engine is in how the additive and FM components work together. While either by themselves is powerful by 1983 standards, the combination of the two remains unique and very powerful even in 2016, despite the seemingly simple topology. Take just one voice, or partial for instance, and start with an additive waveform with up to 24 harmonics and an envelope generator. Now use that as the carrier signal for the FM synthesis, and modulate it with another waveform, which can also be additive with up to 24 harmonics. The standard FM parameters of ratio and amount can be tweaked of course. Now, apply a second envelope generator between the modulator and carrier, and you have control over the time envelope of the frequency modulation. This is just one of 12 partials. Combine these partials into Timbre Slices that evolve over time, and you begin to have an idea of how complex a Synclavier V sound can be.
But, what I'm most impressed with is how Arturia and Mr. Jones have taken this complexity, updated it for today's laptop world, and made it more elegant and easy-to-use — without sacrificing the simplistic complexity of the original Synclavier. Simplistic complexity is something that I think is a bit of a lost art these days, especially in the digital world. A piano, for instance, is a simple but very complex instrument. The action of its seemingly simple interface — pushing down a key causes a hammer to strike a string which then vibrates a sound board — still captures our imagination, centuries after its invention, despite there being many newer keyboard instruments with much more complex interfaces and many, many more parameters to adjust. Yet, the piano still captures our imaginations in a way that many new complex synthesizers and digital workstations do not. I would argue that in its relatively simplistic implementation of two additive oscillators — one able to modulate the other with a pitch envelope — the Synclavier V has a similar simplistic complexity that will reward experimentation in the same way that you can hit the same note over and over again on a piano, but with different degrees of velocity, and discover new nuances of the resulting sound. It's this kind of technology that can make entirely new but still "real" sounds in a way that subtractive analog synthesis (or digital emulations) can't, and I think that's pretty exciting. Hat's off to Arturia and Mr. Jones for making the elegance and simplicity of the instrument not only available again, but available to so many people.
Note that a restored basic Synclavier system, without the sampling or HDR options, can be purchased for $4000 from Synhouse <www.synclav.com/NED-systems-home.html>. Synclavier V doesn't include sampling or HDR capabilities (which are what drove the 1982 prices upwards of $200,000), but these features are essentially included with every modern DAW application. The other thing you're not getting is the Synclavier library of samples, but if you want those original samples, UVI The Beast has most of them. Some versions of the Synclavier also did additive re-synthesis from FFT analysis, which neither Synclavier V nor The Beast can do. However, Image-Line Morphine [Tape Op online #115] does do FFT-based re-synthesis. So in other words, with Synclavier V, Morphine, and The Beast, you'd pretty much have every capability and sound option from a full-blown Synclavier system, and it would only set you back about $600 total.