Synth Shop

"Synthesizer preservation via restoration and sampling."


The Web SynthArk

MIDI Programmers

Introduction

We are currently designing MIDI SysEx programmers for various vintage synthesizers. We are using a modular approach for the programmers, so various configurations of knobs/sliders can be customized for each one. Additionally, the programmer panels are designed to work with Eurorack cases and our custom MIDI controllers. Here are our first targets:

  • Korg DWGS family (including DW-6000, DW-8000, DSS-1, DSM-1)
  • Roland (later) Juno, JX, and Jupiter families (including Alpha Juno, JX-8P, MKS-50, MKS-70, MKS-80)
  • Emu Proteus Family (including Proteus 1000 and Proteus 2000 based members)
  • Yamaha FM family (incuding DX/TX, FB01, V50)
  • Kawai K family (including K3, K1, K4, K11)
  • SIEL EX-80

Design Philosophy

Historical Perspective

In the early days of synthesizers, analog circuitry lent itself to dedicated physical controls (knobs, switches) for each parameter (pitch, volume, modulation, etc). But all of the dedicated circuitry was expensive and imprecise. As microcontrollers became practical (in the late 1970s), synthesizer manufacturers began migrating to digital control, offering precise control over pitch and other parameters and memory recall not available from fully analog predecessors. Microprocessor software allowed a layer of abstraction between the user interface (UI) and the control circuitry. It also allowed for more features, like matrix modulation, to be packed into synths. The separation between the UI and control circuitry allowed manufacturers freedom to optimize the UI for cost, by not including as many mechanical parts. The simplicity of the dedicated function UI was now transformed into a complex maze of submenus, with most parameters adjusted by a single slider. While the new UI philosophy was functional, it lost the ability to be a performance tool and required much more dedication to go beyond the preset sounds, provided by the manufacturer. However, that was a necessary trade-off for the majority of consumers, since most were more concerned with the quality of the "piano" reproduction (and other emulated instruments) and the ease of selecting presets, than the programming interface.

Fast forwarding to the present, romplers are available with superb instrument emulations and UIs have improved in many cases. Musicians are more diverse, acknowledging that synthesizers of the past still have a very useful place in music and are no longer considered obsolete. Now that synthesizers are well established instruments, rather than novelties, performance control and programming are much more critical to unlocking the full potential of any synthesizer. Luckily, thanks to MIDI System Exclusive (SysEx), musicians do not have to be hobbled by the UI implemented by the manufacturer.

Current Solutions

MIDI SysEx programmers are not a new concept. We have used software editors for a long time to program our synthesizer collection (and highly recommend MidiQuest). However, while software programmers eliminate menu diving, they do not allow for a tactile human interface (except via generic controller) and require the additional complexity of a host (computer). Generic controllers (knob boxes) address the tactile issue, but lack the ease-of-use of a dedicated programmer. Plus, many can only handle MIDI CC (Continuous Control) messages, not SysEx required by most synths for more comprehensive control. That brings us to the dedicated programmers ...

Dedicated programmers offer the simplicity and instant access, which allows muscians to dive into a synth spontaneously. Minor quibbles with some existing programmers include cramped panels and the lack of support of some synths. The cramped panels are the result of cost control and the form factor (being able to fit on top of a synth). Dedicated programmers tend to target early MIDI synths (analog/digital hybrids), since they are most similar to their knob laden analog counterparts, enjoying a rebirth. Plus, later digital synth parameter explosion (matrix modulation, FM) would make programmers larger and expensive. However, we think even digital synths deserve the full access provided by a dedicated programmer.

To address the cramped panel issue, we use full size knobs and sliders, configured in a modular format, which allows for layout flexibility, customization, and simplifies targetting many synths. The Eurorack format was adopted, since it is already accepted by the industry and we eventually plan on expanding polysynth control to the Eurorack community. The modular format also simplifies inclusion in our line of multiple manual keyboard controllers.

Status

Board Test

We plan to release our first set of programmers later this year. We are currently finishing up the limited production build/test for the DWGS and J programmers. Limited production for the other programmers (FM, K, P, CC) should be complete early next year, once the encoder interface boards are built.

Completed tasks

  • Interface board designs.
  • Software for DWGS programmer (Korg DW-6000, DW-8000, DSS-1, DSM-1).
  • Software for K programmer (Kawai K3, K1, K4, K11).
  • Software for J programmer (Roland Alpha Juno, JX-8P, MKS-50, MKS-70, MKS-80).
  • Software for P programmer (Emu Proteus).
  • Software for FM programmer (Yamaha DX/TX, FB01, V50).
  • Software for CC programmer (Programmable CCs, SIEL EX-80).
  • Core controller software and board design.
  • Stock 4x4 knob/slider, 8x20mm slider, 2x60mm/6x20mm slider, switch, core boards.

2017

  • Encoder interface board design/build.
  • Encoder based programmers (FM, K, P, CC).
  • Full production build and test.
  • Stock expansion boards.
  • CV input interface board design/build.
  • Online custom programmer builder launch (order interface).
  • Stock 4x60mm/4x20mm, 6x60mm/2x20mm, 8x60mm slider boards.

TBD

  • Additional encoder based programmers (Alesis QS/Nano, Casio VZ, Emu EIII/ESI, Korg M/T/01W/WS, Peavey DPM/Spectrum, Roland D/U/JV, Yamaha SY/TG families).
  • S programmer (Emu Emax, Roland S-550, Oberheim Matrix 6/6R/1000).
  • SC programmer (Mopho, Evolver).
  • Sysex dump based programmers (Casio, Ensoniq, Sequential Circuits, etc).
  • Eurorack arbitrary waveform generator (envelope/oscillator/sequencer).
  • Eurorack wavetable oscillator.
  • Programmers for more recent synths.