Audio Controlled synths

can change one’s workflow from the bottom up. But can this really mean a shift in the way we sequence analog synths?

If you asked us that question a couple of years ago, we would probably laugh (and cry) like most of you probably are right now. Until Sonicsmith introduced the ACO with our Audio Controlled Synths (ACS’s) musicians only had two options: 1) Pitch to CV and CV to a VCO; or 2) Digital audio controlled synths either via software plug-ins or digital hardware, both options lacking CV and requiring lots of processing power.  Both systems have their respective drawbacks. But when you have a deeper look at Sonicsmith’s ACS’s and how far analog oscillator technology has come with the introduction of our Audio Controlled Oscillator, you can’t help but ponder on the same beaten topic…

What’s wrong with MIDI?

It’s been nearly 40 years since the MIDI protocol was introduced and through the years, it has gained many fans but also many frowns. Even if you agree that 128 steps are enough to define your pitch and dynamics, there are many problems still plaguing it by nature. The serial nature of it could cause the occasional “stuck note” requiring musicians to press the good ol’ PANIC button (that can quite literally be a show stopper), the rare and expensive after-touch control makes expressiveness quite limited, not to mention worrying about special cables and interfaces never helped anyone’s budget or inspiration.

The majority of guitarists would never even consider buying a “MIDI guitar” or installing a MIDI pickup and brass / woodwinds players can chime in with how much they desired a “breath control” MIDI instrument. A rumor has been circulating the internet since the early noughts about a renewed protocol, which should have been called MIDI 2.0 (or something of that sort), promising to overcome many of the limitations of the old MIDI but such protocol hasn’t been announced and efforts seem to have died out for now. Meanwhile the return of the Eurorack format and the surging trend back to CV-controlled synths only emphasize the frustration (and perhaps boredom?) of the 8-bit digitized control which constrains each note into a specific definition.

Isn’t it finally time for audio control?

A LOT has changed in sound engineering and music production in the last few decades, especially in the digital domain. Modern DAWs weren’t so popular until about 2003 but since then, every beginner with no budget at all and a basic computer can enjoy unlimited audio multi-tracking, editing and processing. 92dB dynamic range is no longer a highlight but a mere minimum and even the basic sound interfaces these days have 4-8 audio outputs, most often left unused. It seems that with all those new resources and means of controlling audio so meticulously, it might just be the right time for audio to control something back.

The ACO chip, developed over the past 5 years using state-of-the-art analog and mixed-signal design techniques borrowed from telecommunications, is not only the first real leap in analog synth technology but a gateway to a brand new workflow. If it’s so easy for us to generate, record, edit and quantize audio, why couldn’t we just leave the old MIDI protocol and rely on audio to sequence our synths? In other words, instead of trying to “pick up” the musician’s hands movements and gestures while designing look-alike plastic instruments, why not just leave the real instruments in the hands of their proud owners and just extract the actual output of their performance? It doesn’t get more analog than that.

So how do you do it?

Of course, our Audio-Controlled Synths are designed to convert audio from electric or mic’ed acoustic instruments directly to synth.  This means you can “play” your synth track with whatever instrument (or voice) you’re most comfortable playing.  As if that alone weren’t revolutionary enough, Audio-Controlled Synths also give you a new way to sequence audio that can bypass MIDI and get around the limitations MIDI imposes on expression and musicality.

All you need is an audio track (even a sine wave) whose frequency and envelope match what you want to produce on the synth.  You can create this audio track using whatever tools or DAW you’re most comfortable with, and then simply play it into the main audio input of our ConVertor or Squaver P1.  You can optionally use our 1v/octave pitch CV and envelope CV outputs to control any other modular synth if you want to add voices or if our square and sawtooth voices aren’t exactly what you’re looking for.  And that’s just from one audio track.

Of course with multiple Audio-Controlled Synths there is opportunity for polyphony, where each sequenced voice will cost one audio track in your DAW.  If you combine this with some of our patching options like analog ring modulator, the tonal possibilities that become available are almost endless.

So what do YOU plan to do with your Audio-Controlled Synth?