The X

Few things in life are as much fun as exploring the features of a new synthesizer. Assuming the feature set is deep, of course. I’ve seen pretty much everything, so I sometimes measure out my excitement with coffee spoons, if you see what I mean.

I’ve just written reviews of a couple of new software synthesizers, the Cherry Audio PS-20 and the freeware Surge. Both are excellent, and those reviews should be live on the Synth & Software website within a few days.

We’re in kind of a golden age of softsynths. A lot is going on. How much of it musicians will be able to incorporate in their music is perhaps a slightly different question: Instrument design is moving faster than musical style. But electronic music producers are always looking for fresh sounds.

I probably won’t be reviewing Dexed, so I thought I ought to mention it here. Dexed (pronounced, I’m sure, “dee-ex’d”) is another freeware synth. You may now gaze upon it:

The reason not to write up a review for a magazine or website is that there is absolutely nothing new here. Quite deliberately, this is a faithful recreation of the Yamaha DX7. Aside from the charming front panel, which is a vast improvement over the very constricted panel of the DX, I haven’t spotted a single new feature — and that’s a good thing. There are no effects, no extra waveforms, no added algorithms, not even stereo panning on the output.

The DX7 took the synthesizer world by storm in 1983, for several reasons. What people remember best today is the sound of its FM synthesis. FM had a level of sparkle and detail that no other keyboard of that era could even come close to. For several years, the DX was showing up on one pop hit after another.

Eventually people got tired of the sound, and pop music moved on. The sound was derided as too clean, too sterile, and that criticism is not entirely without merit. But as with other electronic instruments of that era (such as the Roland TR-808), what was once looked down on may have hidden virtues that we can now appreciate.

If you never tried programming sounds on the DX7, the functions of the knobs on Dexed may not make a lot of sense to you. Best hunt up an old DX7 manual; I expect you can probably find one online.

The DX7 was a success for other reasons. It arrived at the same moment as MIDI, so a lot of musicians were rushing out to buy any keyboard that had MIDI in and out jacks. Its keyboard was velocity-sensitive, where the previous best-seller, the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, had only organ-type on/off keys. The DX7 boasted a mammoth 16 notes of polyphony, and no other user-programmable synth could play more than six or eight notes at once. And then there was the price — $1,995, if I recall correctly. This was half of what other manufacturers were charging for six or eight voices of polyphony with no velocity sensing.

All in all, it was a perfect storm. But none of those other factors is relevant today. What we’re left with is FM synthesis in its pure form. Sure, there are other FM softsynths — Native Instruments FM8 and Image-Line Toxic Biohazard are two of my favorites. But they’re tricked out with extra waveforms, filters, and effects. The now discontinued PX7 from Reason Studios was a sincere attempt at a DX7 clone, but they omitted the important EG bias implementation, so PX7 just wasn’t quite as expressive. Dexed includes EG bias. Also, if you still have a real DX7, you may be interested to learn that apparently Dexed will function as an editor/librarian, uploading and downloading system-exclusive files to your hardware.

Gotta go. Gotta make some music now.

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