Music, Sort of. A Synthetic Solution.

While I’m waiting for “The Three Sisters” to come out tomorrow . . .

Back in 1972, on their first album after CSNY split, Graham Nash knocked off a little ditty called “Blacknotes,” released on the album Graham Nash David Crosby. At only 58 seconds, the tune barely had time to do anything other than suggest that you:

Sit yourself down at the piano, just about in the middle.

Put all your fingers on the black notes, anywhere you want to.

Write a song, sing along, and understand that you can play.

Or words to that effect, accompanied by Nash doing a bit of keyboard mashing, presumably only on the black notes. You can find the song on YouTube.

That song doesn’t show off Nash’s talent particularly, and that’s his point. I suppose some folks eventually begin to realize that listening to music is only half the fun. It’s hard to hear music for very long without beginning to feel your fingers twitching and realizing that you’d like to be doing that yourself. That was at least part of what Nash is talking about. But in 1972, keyboard mashing on the black notes was about the best you could do. Chopsticks.

Things are different, now. Software synthsizers make it possible for anyone to have a little fun making remarkable sounds, whether you know very much about music or not. I’ve messed about with two of them recently, SynthMaster and Yoshimi. If you’re the sort who listens to music and itches to mess about with it, but you don’t have a year or so to spare practicing before you start to sound like anything, this is a good way to start.

SynthMaster 2.9 is available for both Windows and Mac OSX from the KV331 Audio Team. They have put together not only an excellent programmable synthesizer, but they have also loaded it with 1700 preset voices, instruments, sequences, and effects so you don’t have to worry about figuring out how to actually program a synthesizer if you want to get straight to it. You can just load a preset from the program’s browser and start some keyboard mashing of your own, with your computer keyboard, of all things. And without even knowing the notes you’re playing, you can pick out something like this in no time:

Sounds complicated, but it isn’t. That’s just two of the sequences that SynthMaster gives you for the price of the synthesizer, one laid on top of the other. That’s it. If you have any ear for harmony, you can combine their presets into a wonderful variety of sounds. By the way, if you want to know where that sound comes from, visit He’s the one provoked that particular tune.

Here’s another which sounds like a lot more work than it was–the preset sequences do all the heavy lifting:

If the sequencers aren’t to your taste and you want something slower, just load a preset PAD or LD voice and lay down as many tracks as you want, one after the other. Record the first one, then go back and lay the second down on top of that, and so forth:

Or like this:

I hope you’re using headphones or good speakers to listen to these. Ear buds might not do them justice. Each of these excerpts above consists of about three tracks each recorded separately and laid one on top of the other, the first recorded using a free recorder for the computer, Audacity, and the next two tracks recorded one at a time using SynthMaster’s WAV recorder and then imported into Audacity and adjusted as necessary, mostly for timing, since you’ll have to line the two tracks up after you record them.

SynthMaster isn’t free, but it isn’t expensive either, compared to many synthesizers available, and you certainly get your money’s worth. If you like ambient music, you will get results fast. Just pick a good voice from the selection of pads or leads or SEQs or ARPs, hit a couple of keys at the same time to get something that works harmonically, and sit on it. You can turn out a fine drone in no time.

The ZynAddSubFX synthesizer is a great piece of work as well. The core program is a fine synthesizer by itself, and binaries for Windows are available, but if you want binaries for the free version you will have to settle for an older release. You can compile the source code on your machine for the most recent releases. Take a look at the Web site here. But the real story here is what other people have done with ZynAddSubFX: Yoshimi and Zyn-Fusion.

Yoshimi, also free, is built on the ZynAddSubFX engine and adds a wider selection of preprogrammed voices. The only catch is that Yoshimi is, for now at least, just available for Linux. It’s as capable as SynthMaster, though the user interface, same as the one for ZynAddSubFX, is tough to manage, and they give you fewer presets. But if you run Linux, and you should, you can’t do much better than this one. It will repay the hours you spend learning how to make it sing.

Recently the ZynAddSubFX project has been carried in a new direction with Zyn-Fusion, which you can demo for nothing and buy for a modest contribution. The big attraction here is the rewrite of the user interface, making the thing much easier to operate. And as with SynthMaster, you get preset banks of instuments so you don’t have to do anything more than select a voice or instrument and start to play. And as with SynthMaster, you don’t need anything more than the computer keyboard and a good ear.

Visit the Synthmaster and Yoshimi Web sites and listen to some of the samples they have posted. Sure, those samples are produced by actual musicians, but listen to the instruments that are available to you through these synthesizers.

One other point. If you look into making music of any sort on a computer, you’ll quickly see discussions run off into a tangle of information about high-end sound cards, digital audio workstations, and latency problems. Don’t worry about that. At least not right off the bat. You can do fine with nothing more than a softsynth, the motherboard’s built-in sound, and a free recorder.

So. A long time ago, if you weren’t trained in an instrument, Nash’s “Blacknotes” was the best you could do, and even then you had to find a piano. Not anymore. Each of the synthesizers above is a wonder. I wouldn’t steer you toward any one of them in particular. Well, maybe SynthMaster, if just getting it up fast and running on a Windows machine or Mac is your goal. That’s not really the point I’m trying to make here. I’m just recommending that, if you ever felt that itch, you give it a try with one or the other. Whichever synthesizer you try, the results may surprise you. Install a recorder like Audacity, sit yourself down at the keyboard, and understand that you can play. Sort of.


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