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additive painting

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In the next week or so I should be taking delivery of a Kawai K5000S synthesiser. I’ve never owned a proper synthesiser before, the closest I’ve come before was a Casio home keyboard that had some synthesiser-type control over waveforms and a filter. More recently, I’ve been working with virtual synthesisers, mostly two programs from Native Instruments:

  • FM7 starts as a digital recreation of the Yamaha DX7, which can use original DX7 programs, but it then goes much further. Some additional features were not possible with 80’s technology, e.g. total flexibility in modulation, or not considered suitable for a digital synth, such as the distortion and the analogue-type filter.
  • Reaktor is effectively a synth construction kit, allowing me to put together any combination of components that will get me the sound I want. This is the platform on which I built the whippet synthesizer.

With both these synths, real-time control will be a real help, since moving things on screen with a mouse takes too long and is too clumsy for live use. While it is possible to buy a separate MIDI controller box with knobs on it, all the models I’ve looked at seem to be lacking in some way or too expensive for what they do. The K5000S has some excellent real-time control facilities, including a 16-knob control bank and a much better quality keyboard than the cheap “master” keyboard I have currently. This is all in addition to the primary reason for buying a K5000S: its Additive Synthesis engine, which will need a little explaining.

Additive synthesis is a way of constructing sound by building it up from its fundamental harmonic elements, i.e. sine waves of different frequencies and amplitudes. A Hammond organ, believe it or not, is a primitive additive synthesiser since, by manipulating its drawbars, you are adding tones together to build up a complex waveform. The K5000 series uses digital signal processors to do this, but with far more precision and detail than any organ or analogue synthesiser could ever manage.

This is the opposite of the subtractive synthesis found in most synthesisers, in which the filter is a primary influence on the final sound. Whatever the sound source is used there, the filter selectively boosts or cuts frequency ranges. The SOS review (see below) of the K5000W, the first in the K5000 family, describes the differences by analogy with the visual arts: sampling as photography, subtractive synthesis as sculpture, while additive synthesis, by the same analogy, is like oil painting. Painting with sound: where have I heard that phrase before?

All synthesised sound can sound boring if the method used to produce the sound is “static” over time, unchanging. A Hammond organ is rarely seen without a huge rotating “Leslie” speaker attached, or electronic simulation thereof, to add some life to the results. My own attempts at additive synthesis by calculation, over the years, weren’t very interesting because of this, but the K5000 engine has been designed with the modulation facilities to get around this. It isn’t the most fashionable of instruments – they were only made for a while during 1996-7 – but they have a cult following, and are only going to get more expensive as time goes by.

Sound On Sound magazine have two useful reviews: the K5000W is a different model in the same family, but the review includes a good explanation of the Additive Synthesis engine common to all models. The K5000S review covers the model I’m buying, with more on performance features such as the excellent Arpeggiator. The SonicState page for the K5000S has mostly positive user reviews, some quite comprehensive, a few of the “it rocks | sucks” school of (un)thought.

Kawai were to Additive as Moog were to analogue synthesis and Yamaha were to FM synthesis; the pioneer in practical applications for a technology that would otherwise have stayed academic, unusable in a live musical setting. What I’ve heard of the K5000S so far sounds very lively, while more recent reviews I’ve seen have friendly warnings about potential speaker damage, while extolling its benefits as a creative instrument. I don’t mind admitting it also appeals to the math geek in me, but there’s no shame in spending hours playing with sounds, as long as I get to use them live or on record too. We’ll see.

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Written by brian t

June 22, 2003 at 6:53 pm

Posted in art, bass, life, music

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