ideas, learning, theory

Learning to cook with synths

This is something of an addendum to my recent post about learning modular synthesis. In reference to how presets can be used for learning… below is what I believe to be an effective way.

Welsh's Synthesizer Cookbook
Welsh’s Synthesizer Cookbook

Amongst other things i’ve been going through Welsh’s Synthesizer Cookbook, building the patches listed in the book on different synths as a way of discovering how the different elements work together.   The patches in Fred Welsh’s book are designed to work with a fairly basic 2 Oscillator setup but as no two synths are alike part of the fun is identifying the difference.  (He provides a basic synth covering all the basics made in Synthedit and therefore for Windows only.)

I thought I’d give you an example of the process using patch specifications from the book that I’ve recreated in Tassman 4, UltraAnalog, Vaz Modular 3 and an M-Audio Venom.  A discussion of the results and verdict on using each synth follows after the jump.

Didgeridoo patch from Welsh’s Synthesizer Cookbook

Vaz Modular 3

Vaz Modular setup for Didgeridoo patch

This is the first one I tried out.  Vaz has the most modules of all the synths featured but doesn’t list a square wave.  Fortunately I know this as a pulse wave at 50% which is the base level pulse-width Vaz goes.  As it doesn’t go below the second oscillator is not functioning as per requirements.  I also realised that I forgot to drop the first oscillator 1 octave.  So competent I am!  I added the Chaotic LFO to provide extra filter modulation as I thought the plain version sounded quite dull.  So now it somewhat emulates those over-breathing noises that can be made with a real didg.

Ultra Analog

AAS Ultra Analog VA-1 Didgeridoo patch setup

Ultra Analog hews the closest to Welsh’s synth specs in both modules and the way values for each parameter are reported.    It doesn’t have the fanciest, most user-friendly interface but it manages to sound quite good for a cheap synth (well I got it cheaply).  I decided to add the resonance modulation as standard for each example and it works a treat here though the overall sound is slightly metallic like amplifier feedback.

Tassman 4

Tassman 4 schematic for Didgeridoo patch
Tassman 4 modules for Didgeridoo patch

The Tassman 4 had the most incompatibilities with the specifications and was also the most difficult to setup.  The schematic at the top is how you setup modules in this program, something I really like for learning synthesis and everyone else on the AAS forums complains that it is cumbersome.  While all the correct modules were available, none of the setting values reflect the format Welsh uses and with more time I would have taken it in a completely different direction.

M-Audio Venom

Unfortunately I neglected to save the editor screen so no piccy for you!  The Venom has slightly more functionality than the Ultra-Analog and many more modulation possibilities which I did not really explore in the recorded excerpt.  As with the Tassman, the parameters are expressed differently – mostly in Midi controller values here so 64 is centre in bipolar controls.  I’m not sure if it is my imagination I feel like the Venom has the most bass presence of all the recordings.  Compared to the other three, it is a sample-based virtual analog so there is less in the way of modelling (though oscillator drift can be set).


As you can tell there is a lot of difference between the four examples.  I’m pretty sure fiddling with the settings of each synth more along with some harmonic analysis tools we could get it closer. It doesn’t invalidate the method so much as highlight what a useful exercise it can be getting to know each synth by way of the different components and how they work together.

Vaz is a real pleasure to use.  It took me five minutes to put the original patch together and it definately rewards experimentation as the addition of the Chaotic LFO shows.  It’s a shame that it has not been released for Mac though I have managed to get it working in Wineskin.  It seems to be stable but I want to test it more before I do any recordings with it.

Ultra-Analog is the soft-synth I would recommend if you are a Mac user and want a synth that will do everything that Fred Welsh asks of you as accurately as possible.   My demo was a little metallic sounding but it makes a surprising variety of sounds if the presets are anything to go on.  The normal retail is quite expensive but it seems to be readily available at a cheaper price if you look on KVR marketplace.  I got my copy for $35

Tassman 4 is a much more complex beast from the makers of Ultra-Analog.  I have found it much easier replicating Doepfer patches than Welsh’s which could point to the fact that his model suits the more instrumental Moog style analog than the patch and sequencer Buchla style.  As with Vaz though there are tons of modules so it is much easier to stray from the template and come up with something wierd.  Tassman is more heavily focused on modelling of bowed, blown and resonant objects as well as electronic ones.  This gets really interesting making hybrid patches that use samples as resonators for synthetic waveforms.  Suffice it to say, Welsh’s model didn’t really translate but there are better ways of emulating a didgeridoo in T4.

Finally the M-Audio Venom.  A pretty great synth for the price, unfairly treated by Avids exceptionally bad support and a very temperamental software editor made by an unhelpful third party.  It was recently discontinued as part of the Avid sale and for now you can pick them up fairly cheap.  If you do, don’t waste your time with the supplied editor.  Send me a private message and i’ll point you in the right direction 😉  Getting this patch setup took very little time, but that is only because I have my own “bare-bones” presets ready for the occasion.  The incompatible parameter values make it challenging to use with Welsh’s book however as with the Ultra Analog, it gets the job done and offers a plethora of extra modulation capabilities to lose yourself in.

EXTRA EXTRA!! I’ve added another variation on the fake didg patch using KarmaFX Modular.

KFXMod is quite a nice addition to the modular synth collection. It is as easy to patch as Vaz but not quite as deep and the modelling has a much brighter sound. It does have a number of nice Additive features including this object that lets you draw your own waveforms. In this patch i’ve gone totally my own way, completely ignoring Welsh’s recipe, and I think the results are in some ways better. The key to this patch is that i’m running the generated waveform through an SVF filter where the frequency and resonance are modulated LFOs that are in turn modulated by the initial waveform. A kind of daisy chain feedback. In the demo track I also switch to modulating the filter via the Reverb output. Fun stuff.

KarmaFX Modular
KarmaFX Modular

5 thoughts on “Learning to cook with synths”

  1. Hello, I have the M-Audio Venom and am curious about what you said about another editor for it. Any chance you could point me “in the right direction?” Much thanks.

    1. Hi there,

      There are two alternative editors.
      Fabrizio Poce has Venom Control which requires Max For Live.
      And there is VenomEd which is a Windows VST. I haven’t tried this one because i’m mainly on OSX but it might work in VFX which has let me run a number of Windows only VSTs.
      I ended up selling my Venom to help fund a Nord Modular purchase but before I did I downloaded the latest Vyzex 1.2 and actually found it pretty useful – many of the problems I had with it were fixed so if you haven’t already I recommend checking it out.
      Good luck!

  2. I really like the Ultra Analog version of the patch – so much so, that I’m going to get Ultra Analog and recreate it according to the picture you posted 🙂 Incidentally, do you know about this?

    At 00:35 the Didge patch comes up. Amazing how different they all sound. I can’t use SCB because it’s windows only, but I’m curious to know how the patches I created in Ableton’s Analog sound in comparison with the SCB ones.

    The Karma FX patch sounds great! When you say you used a SVF (state variable filter), can I interpret that as meaning you used a lowpass filter? I’m unfamiliar with the term SVF, but I looked it up and it seems to be a filter than can change from highpass, lowpass, bandpass, and band reject. From the pic above, it looks like you were using it a s a lowpass filter.

    What do you mean when you say that the LFOs are modulated by the initial waveform?

    What from the Reverb is modulating the filter?


  3. Hi Andy,

    The new version of Ultra Analog (VA-2) is quite different. Interested to hear your results.
    Thanks for the link to the video – I hadn’t seen it.
    SVF I believe is just a generic term for a filter with selectable filter types. Karma FX models a Moog ladder filter as well as a bunch of other ones.
    I couldn’t find my Karma FX patch but from looking at the way it is setup:
    LFO 1 is modulating the Cutoff of the SVF, LFO 2 is modulating the Resonance.
    Looks like the Reverb is modulating the Amount of LFO 1 and the Rate of LFO 2. I guess the Waveform Output was modulating those parameters and I changed it to the Reverb before I took the screenshot.


    1. Hi ][oyd,

      How does an audio effect like reverb modulate a synth parameter? Reverbs usually don’t output any kind of control signal or MIDI data in my experience. I have seen units that take in an audio signal and read the amplitude of the audio signal and generate control data – is that what you are talking about?

      I listened to some of your soundcloud – great stuff! Is there an active scene in Brisbane for ambient music?

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