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Audio Developer Diary – Episode 2 – Design vs Evolution

Very few customers show up at my virtual door with any sort of instrument design. UI design yes, an overall idea of how they want it to sound also yes. But audio routing? Internal instrument structure? Nope not so often. That’s quite understandable though if you think about it – because all that design work is hidden beneath the UI design, so it seems to happen by magic – except of course it doesn’t.

The internal design of the instrument is really really important. It can allow some features easily and deny others, or make them incredibly hard to do. In truth (with a nod to our title here) a good design will allow lots of great evolution to happen, you get a good instrument to start with and as you are working if a cool idea occurs to you then it can be lots easier to build it in.

So I started on design. This was going to be a sample-based instrument so how many “voices” should be included? (A quick aside here: see how “voices” is in quotes? Well that’s because its a problem what you name a thing, and the hardware audio industry hasn’t helped any – I’m looking at you Roland, Yamaha, Korg, ..actually I could go on all day with this list of manufacturers. Suffice to say I will do another post about the names of things – because its pretty important, and there is no definitive right answer….sadly).

Back to our first question. Well I’d built 2-voice, 3-voice and 4-voice instruments (tho’ to be fair only synths seem to ever have 3-voices, 3 oscillators usually) . But why not 5-voice, 8-voice, hell 12-voice? Well apart from the added load on the end users system, it was in my experience a land of diminishing returns: 2-voices was nice, 4-voices was really kinda good , and anything past this seemed to add not enough “umph” (<-technical term here) to be worth the effort. So 4 “voices” was the sweet spot.

I already had a 4 “voice” product – called Atmosia 2 so, remembering my list of “learnings”, I took that and loaded it up with a bunch of semi-random sound sources to see what it gave me. It gave me 3 things:

  1. 4 “voices” was a good choice – I could make really interesting and good things with it.
  2. The multi-menu system of Atmosia 2 wasn’t ideal as an approach to sound-design. I would have to change that around somehow.
  3. The effective controls for getting nice new sounds was (no surprises) the individual voice volume controls – and tweaking each one in turn was a pain – I would need a better way to manage and control the voice volumes

So for number 1 – great – no surprises there. For number 2? Well I’d already decided on a different layout that might help there, so hold off on judgement and try the new approach to see if things get easier to use. For number 3? Sigh, I already *knew* what the solution was, an X/Y pad. I just didn’t want to have to build it. It meant messing about with vector drawing, log maths and discreet event handling, there was that internal voice saying “please, please dont make me do this..its a PITA, come on, it’ll all be fine..”, of course that voice lost, but it did bargain me down to “lets do that later…”.

So 4 “voices”, each would have to have a set of editing controls what should they be? Well the “standard” stuff: volume envelope, multi-mode filter, a set of modulators (LFO’s for volume and pitch, and Filter frequency), some per-voice effects (I chose delay and wave-shaping/saturation – I cant remember why now I just did…call it whimsy), I had the “field effect” – a convolution processor aimed at changing timbre not adding reverb – so I added that in too, then a set of “controls”: pan, stereo width, pitch, pitch wheel amount.

Next a set of global (instrument level) features, first some effects: Chorus, Phaser, Reverb, Delay, Compressor and Limiter. Some instrument level controls too: Mono/Stereo, Glide, my Infinite Round Robin Engine (IRRE) and my Drift-processor(emulates older-synth style tuning drift).

That seemed enough for a start.. so off I went to (re)build all this.

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