Expanding and Tranfering your Synth Sounds with the Atari

Atari-MIDI-Synth-Sound-Bank-LibrarianExpanding and Tranfering your Synth Sounds with the Atari
by David Etheridge

As MIDI musicians we're spoiled rotten in our choices of sounds. Every other week some new keyboard and/or module is issued with the manufacturer's promo material boldly proclaiming new and unrivaled ranges and fidelity to the original (whatever it is that the patch is supposed to emulate) type sounds.

Now this is all very well, but there are drawbacks. As Atarians, our sounds are now limited to the kind of editors that were released when Atari was the flavor of the month. So aren't the instruments that we're using a bit, well, past it? And, what about all those Sysex libraries on the net that appear to have been mucked about with to correspond to one particular PC-based system or another? As we shall see, there are ways around it.

The Preset Syndrome.

First of all, let's go back in time to the Atari's halcyon days, when men were men and the DX7 ruled the roost. By the late 80s, I had come across only two people who claimed that they could program a DX7 sound from scratch. One was the legendary Rod Argent of Zombies and Argent fame (and one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, as well as being a stupendous player); the other one was an idiot who was all too obviously lying.

The bald fact at the time was that very few people had a clue about FM programming, so 90% or more of DX users stuck with the presets. Well wouldn't you? The bells, the pianos, and the basses were all very different from the “old outdated” analog synths, and we were captivated so much by the sound that we used them to death.

There probably weren’t any 80s pop hits that didn't use a DX at some point, but those innovative bells and pianos became cliché very quickly simply because you heard the buggers all the time. When I got my much-loved DX5 in 1988, I was in for a surprise. Soon after, a friend gave me a disk with a demo version of DXpert on it. The demo version showed you what the program could do, but you couldn't save the results. No matter, because the main point was that there were a bunch of DX sound banks on the disk, just about all of which put the standard (and by now rather boring) DX presets to shame. Another friend gave me a copy of 600 sounds for the DX7, with all the parameters painstakingly listed for each sound. By entering them in (and I did, risking RSI with the parameter slider), I could then save the results into DXpert, which turned out to be a fabulous librarian program. The 600 sounds actually turned out to be superb, showing the DX to be capable of far more than typical FM tones; it could actually do some quite farty analog sounds when pushed in the right direction.

Mind you, I was set up for disappointment when I got four volumes of 100 more sounds for the DX from an entirely different publisher. Organs 1-64 were a chore to enter, and after a while everything was starting to become disturbingly familiar. I checked the patches only to find out that many of them were only a gnat's whisker away from each other and hardly worth the bother. In effect, 100 sounds for the DX turned out to be around 20 sounds; the rest of the sounds were the minutest variations on the original 20!

However, the point here was proven to me: third party sounds can often be light years away from the original manufacturer’s presets. I've posted my sounds onto the Atari MIDI archives forum, and the late Tim Conrardy managed to persuade the original programmers of DXpert to make the program a freebie, so you can now try out the DX sounds for yourself. There are many available, and it takes time to audition the lot, but you can use DXpert to make up custom banks to your heart's content, and create your personal DX greatest hits. These days, many have forgotten the DX range and the sounds that are available, so listeners who don't know the originals may accuse you of being innovative in sounds!

Remember one other point: a lot of the synths we use with Atari editors were state of the art 20 years ago. Now to my mind, quality is timeless (what I call the Secondhand Rolls Royce Syndrome) and the Atari editors are deep, even compared to today's offerings. Most of us never even approach the limits of what these synths are capable of – certainly more than some computer soundcards of the 21st century!

More Libraries.

Have a look through the Atari Archives's lists of sounds – they cover quite a range. The Kawai K-series, Roland's LAS range, Oberheim, Kurzweil, Ensoniq, Korg and even the Casio CZ and VZ synths. All of these synths have a lot more mileage left in them and are very cheap on the used market as musos trade in and go all soft-synth.

Now, why should we consider them for our studios? Because, even now, musicians haven't discovered all that they can do. The main factor here is time. It takes time to really get to know what a synth can do and how it creates sound. If you think the DX can be forbidding to program, the Kawai K5 is even more in the “how the hell do I do this?” realm, and it's been pointed out elsewhere that trying to program a Wavestation is like trying to paint a room by poking a paintbrush through the keyhole. So, one would need to be of a particular mindset to actively enjoy climbing into a synth's sound engine and work the programming out from scratch. Most folks don't have the time and inclination; others take a preset and tweak it to see what happens. But the main point is that most musos never stray from the presets. So, if we look at the libraries and editors available in Atari format, we will almost certainly find some delightful and inspiring patches that immediately get the songwriting muse working overtime.

In my case it was the Kurzweil 1000 range. Kurzweil helpfully produced their editor/librarian program, Objectmover, which originally came with a few banks of alternate sounds (and very nice they were). About ten years ago, I discovered a whole bunch of extra sounds on Kurzweil's own download site, including even more for the Mac Version of Objectmover. Borrowing a Mac, I spent a happy afternoon loading the Mac sounds into my 1000 module and saving them back into my Atari Version. I've now posted the entire collection on the Atari MIDI archives site and the K1000 users group. As a result, another contact sent me his collection, and that added even more to the library. The third party sounds demonstrate to an even greater extent what the 1000 series can do, and they are light years away from the (already rather good) presets of 20 years ago.

Sysex or not to Sysex?

Take a look on Tim's Atari MIDIworld or the Atari MIDI archives, download the editor you need, and away you go! But what about all those Sysex libraries on the net? I became a real cropper with Roland D50 patches a few years ago. I found a site brimming full of Sysex dumps for my D550 module. I saved the lot and tried porting them across to the D550; nothing happened. I tried various handshaking routines, different programs, biting the carpet, temper tantrums, the lot – not a sausage. Then I looked more closely at the site and discovered that while they had amassed a huge set of files (including some that were originally from an Atari collection), those files had all been messed about with – headers removed and other bits that a mere mortal, such as I (who doesn't speak fluent hexadecimal programming language), can only guess at. In addition, I find that an otherwise excellent program like Dumpit won't talk to my D550 properly. Either that or the D550 doesn't like Dumpit (which is probably nearer to the mark). In the end, I found that Midian is a reliable way of getting sounds into the D550.

Even with that, suppose you have no idea how to get your Sysex files into your synth. Well, the easiest way around that is an essential little program called Mex2Mid, which converts most Sysex dumps of into MIDIfiles – and back again if needed. This way you can use Sysex for virtually any synth (whether an Atari editor exists for it or not), convert the sounds to MIDIfiles, send the files to your synth, and audition your sounds to taste.

Once you've got a bunch of sounds into your synths that you like, try combining them in a MIDI backing. Here, the important thing is to try combining sounds from synths that use different systems of sound creation. I personally hear a lot of the same partials in (say) Korg M1 sounds, and you might find the LAS Roland range has the same character. But combine analog, FM and LAS with some S&S textures in various combinations, and you'll find that each type of sound creation has its own strengths and weaknesses that others can enhance in their own right. In addition, you'll find that the resonant peaks in the sounds complement each other and make mixing easy. Go to it and put the preset merchants to shame. Even using 10-20 year old synths, the sky really is the limit!