Four Freeware/ Shareware Software Synthesizers:
Recently, for better or worse, my guitar has been gathering dust. I've been neglecting the faithful Fender for instruments which gather no dust: virtual synthesizers. And if you're a soft synthesizer junkie like me, or if you dig the sounds of square waves, oscillators, modulators and filters, but your budget doesn't include an Arp 2600, there are some cool noise generators out there that can be had for the price of the time it takes for you to download them. These lesser-known gems aren't as wack and complex as my ultimate favorite, Absynth (Native Instruments), nor as versatile as Reason (Propellerhead), nor as precise as Steinberg's PPG Wave plug-in. They are, however, 100% cheaper and in their own way, just as cool. If you're into sound design, soundscapes, or if you get a kick out of adding some electronic color to your mixes, check these out. You'll be in tweak-city heaven. One of these (RTGS) is shareware, so if you like it and plan on using it, kickback the minimal amount of cash requested by the ingenious creator.
Vibra1000 Software Synthesizer for MacOS
From Danish company Koblo comes this stripped down, monophonic version of their Vibra9000. To my ear, this simple, colorful synth sounds great; and it's MIDI controllable. Oscillators include controls for square, sine, triangle, attack, and release. Filters include cutoff, envelope, attack, and decay controls. The Vibra1000 has also got a great arpeggiator. Experiment with running it out of the Mac's sound manager into a preamp or even a guitar amplifier for sonic grins. (free download, www.koblo.com)
Spongefork Software Instrument for MacOS
Spongefork is without question the strangest of the lot, and therefore possibly the coolest. Developed by programmer Ryan Francesconi, a Cal Arts graduate, Spongefork is the only instrument I know of that comes complete with an artist's statement: "Spongefork was created with an intent to create a self-contained software instrument capable of responding to gestural control while requiring a minimum of hardware components."You play Spongefork by making mouse moves that emulate the "gestures" you would use to play a Theremin. The synth itself consists of two wave table oscillators. Each oscillator can generate sounds from a sine, triangle, ramp, square, pulse, or noise wave; or from a preloaded sample. Imagine loading into Oscillator A a square wave and into Oscillator B your most raddest, Van Halen-inspired guitar solo. As you move the mouse across the horizontal x-axis, you hear Oscillator A gradually increase in pitch and speed. Move the mouse up at the same time (along the y-axis), and you'll hear the oscillators mix in ways you can't imagine. This guy's website is pretty cool too. He's in a Balkan folk band as well, but I guess that's a different article. (free download, www.spongefork.com)
Real-Time Granular Synthesizer for MacOS
RTGS is the must-see of the bunch. Created by Marcel Wiercx, it's quite an impressive achievement. To be perfectly honest, I'm still getting a handle on granular synthesis, where basically the wave is snipped into a tiny sample, or grain, creating a tone. A repeating grain of a voice, for example, creates a digital stutter effect. The size of the grains can be controlled, as well as the direction in which they play.The Real Time Granular Synthesizer sonically destroys any audio file loaded in the buffer. But that is the point of granular synthesis; and in these postmodern days, or pre-post-everything days, destruction and reconstruction is a good thing. Start with a hint of something real/rational/discernable by loading an AIFF into buffer 1, and blast it to death by literally taking bits of the original file and mixing them back into themselves. Use the slider controls to do this backwards and forwards, linearly or randomly. Mix in another sample from buffer 2, play around with the panning, grain density and length, and you'll be heading back into the lounge for another b-load, dude. We're talking craaazy, nightmarish sounds. Or, back off on the controls for a more repetitive, meditative sound that bears (slightly) more resemblance to the original file in the buffer. The RTGS works in real-time, so you can tweak and hear your results instantly. There are MIDI controllers and transposing tools, and a simple onboard sequencer records slider movements. There's even a record-to-file function, which requires you to pony up a meager amount of cash if you wish to record more than a minute. Furthermore, this thing can process live input, hence the importance of the titular "real-time"; and it includes an envelope follower. Examples of this synth in live performance can be found on the website. ($35 shareware, http://home01.wxs.nl/~menti049/rtgs.html)
SoundForum Synthesizer for MacOS and Windows
A module of Native Instruments Reaktor, the SoundForum Synth was created for a tutorial in Keyboard magazine.This 64-voice capable synth can be quite complex in terms of signal routing, and yet it's very streamlined, even elegant. It includes knobs and buttons to control the two oscillators,envelopes,filters,FM,sync, LFO, and a helluva lot more. A cool feature is the oscilloscope that displays the waves as they're generated and manipulated-a great visual way to learn how certain parameters affect the wave, and therefore what you hear. The sounds are full, clear, and pure, and when cranked on studio monitors, are sure to please the vintage synth-o-philes among us. Plus, the cool thing about SoundForum is that it was created as a learning tool and to that end succeeds grandly, especially if you follow along with Peter Gorges' tutorials on the website (or in print). (free download, http://archive.keyboardonline.com/fea tures/soundforum/sf0105.shtml)
In fact, another benefit of all of these software instruments is that they're great educational tools. Once I became hooked on the sounds of synthesizers (or more accurately, the potential to create sounds), I soon realized that knowledge of the principles involved in synthesis was paramount to their exploitation. Although I'm far from being an expert, with tons of reading and lots of tweaking and experimentation, I've managed to move beyond the rank novice. These freakin' free (or very cheap) virtual instruments have served as a great course in synthesis, as well as added some desired quirkiness and texture to my music. But this field, like that of recording, is complex; and there's always more to learn. (The following are some great resources: tilt.largo.fl.us/contents.html, www.eae.org/glossary.html, www.vintagesynth.com.) Good luck, and happy tweaking.