A Beginner’s Guide To Music-Making With CRAFTsynth 2.0
by Andy Price
If you’re making that first bold venture into the perplexing world of synthesis completely fresh, we can entirely empathise. The baffling world of oscillators, modulation, wavetables and more acronyms than you can shake a filter at may seem like a huge and daunting ocean to be jumping headfirst into. It’s particularly unnerving when synth-heads casually bandy about terms with the assumption of a universally understood knowledge which – in reality – has taken them years to fully grasp.
Making electronic music with synths is nothing to fear however. In actual fact, it’s an absolutely fascinating and thoroughly fulfilling way to explore not just new musical ideas, but the very nature of sound itself.
As with most things, while reading the basic theory provides a useful grounding, the absolute best way to absorb any new information is to get hands-on and get stuck in for yourself. Though buying a (typically pricey) analog or digital synth may seem a whopping investment if you’re a newcomer, Modal offers the perfect entry-point, in the shape of the diminutive CRAFTsynth 2.0. Don’t be fooled by its size, however, this miniature titan has everything you need to explore the deep complexities of synth-theory.
How CRAFTsynth 2.0 can unlock the synth universe
While it may be small, CRAFTsynth 2.0 features all you need to figure out how synthesisers interact with sound waves to generate noise. But before we dig into its capabilities, let’s pull back and explain just what a synth actually is, from a technical perspective.
Firstly, have you ever wondered just where the dazzling sonics of a synth emanate from? Before the layers of manipulation that you can affect via its knobs and dials, a synth generates its root sounds via an oscillator. This noise is emitted at a frequency within the audible range of human hearing. Traditionally these oscillators would transform the direct electrical current into sound, (referred to as Voltage-Controlled Oscillators), and so, the resulting sound frequency could be manually tweaked by modifying the voltage running into the oscillator, or by setting the oscillator to intermittently fluctuate how much input voltage was being taken by the oscillator. This principle lay at the heart of all those classic synth sounds.
Most synths have more than one oscillator, with each one capable of emitting sound waves that move differently within different frequency ranges. Control of the frequency and the pitch is typically achieved via a keyboard, or rotary encoders. The standard waveform shapes are named based on their physical shape when charted on a graph, and the defaults are as Sine, Triangle, Sawtooth and Pulse waves. Though these are just the traditional bedrock, these days synths are capable of outputting all manner of wild and wonderful waveshapes, and a major aspect of the synth-player’s creative joy is the merging of different waveshapes to yield completely unique sounds.
Inside CRAFTsynth 2.0 lurk 8 oscillators, which are all capable of generating a huge range of pre-shaped waveforms in a process that is referred to as ‘wavetable synthesis’. Rather than modifying the frequency and momentum of your classic waveform shape via interfering or adding more to the electrical signal, the digital approach of wavetable synthesis instead has banks of different wave shapes. These can be stacked up together, or gradually morphed into each other in interesting ways to easily build rich sound movement. Wavetable synthesis has been a vital addition to the electronic music composers’ rulebook since its early conceptual origins in 1978, and is now an integral mainstay of the digital synth world.
Surfing The Wave
So, we’ve explained the fundamental sound-generating ethos of synths, and delineated how wavetable synthesis differs from the norm. But let’s dig in and explore this ourselves. We’ll assume you’ve either got a battery or USB-powered CRAFTsynth 2.0 in front of you, all correctly set-up to output sound. You’ll see that at the front of CRAFTsynth 2.0’s front panel, that the first knob is dubbed ‘Wave1’ and, slightly to the right, you’ll see ‘Wave2’. These knobs allow you to perform undisturbed sweeps through its 8 banks of five uniquely designed wavetables. The Mix knob (slightly above the two Wave knobs) gives you the means to pan (or blend) the output sounds of these two waveform banks, while you can choose one of the 8 (or 9, in Wave2’s case) banks by holding down the Preset key, and turning the same knobs to activate the third of its three levels of functionality (written beneath in grey text). There’s Bank1 (for Wave1) and Bank2 (for Wave2). To get a sound going, press one of the in-built 8 touch keys at the bottom of the unit.
While the sound you hear at this stage may be a little untamed (we’ll explain how you can clean this up as we dig into modifiers and effects), it’s still easy to hear how the root waveforms are being morphed. The Wave knobs have 32 steps (turning increments) between each waveform so the speed at which you sweep and morph can produce some totally original results. Give it a try.
To grasp this concept further, download the free MODALapp to your mobile device and connect it to your CRAFTsynth. In the top left of its interface, you’ll be able to see a visualisation of the waveform as you turn the dials to transition between states.
Turn The Tables
As we’ve stated, CRAFTsynth 2.0 has 8 banks that contain 5 wavetables (plus, that extra bank of more effect-oriented noise) Once you’ve selected a bank, hit a note and turn the Wave1 or 2 knob to scroll through the following arranged selections:
1: Virtual Analogue – these are your typical, classic waveforms (Sine, Triangle, Sawtooth and Pulse)
2: 002 Bank 1 – Some quite characterful waveforms taken from the larger Modal 002 synth
3: Math – Some fascinating, mathematically-generated choices
4: Polygon – Some odd waveforms, modelled on polygons
5: Modal 1 – A selection of colourful waveforms hand-sculpted by the eggheads at Modal
6: Formant – Waveforms that emulate certain vocal and formant (human voice) sounds
7: 002 Bank 2 – Even more waveforms lifted from the Modal 002
8: Modal 2 – Further waveforms designed by the Modal team
9: Sine/Noise (on Wave 2 only) – A whole bank of chaotic noise, that can be useful when sound designing
Making sense? We’ve just cracked the first level of synthesis, and have an overview of the wavetable banks we have at our disposal with CRAFTsynth 2.0. To widen our sonic control, we can modify our oscillator’s tuning. You’ll see that beneath the Wave1 and Wave2 knobs you have options for Fine and Tune (highlighted in blue). To access this second level of alternate options for the encoder, you need to hold down the Shift button as you turn them. Moving the Fine knob, you can very gradually affect the tuning of the Wave1 waveform in tiny increments, while the Tune knob provides broader tuning for the waveforms coming from Wave2 with more defined intervals. This can be used to find the right frequency to place your synth sounds in your surrounding mix, or be more creatively applied to manually manipulate your synth in a musical way when performing. You could even use it for fattening up sounds by having a slightly detuned, identical wave side-by-side to create a chorus effect.
Exploring CRAFTsynths 2.0’s wavetables (step-by-step)
Power up your CRAFTsynth via USB or batteries, wire up your headphones or speakers and turn on the unit. Press a few keys on the keyboard to test if you can hear sound as it should be (adjust the volume control at the bottom left of the unit’s encoder section) Let’s start by holding down the grey Preset button and slowly turning the Wave1 knob. Press a note.
What we’re actually scrolling through here are the CRAFTsynth’s 8 banks of wavetable presets, you’ll notice that the small light above the 8 notes of the keyboards will illuminate, this determines which bank is currently selected (counting between 1-8)
Do the same with Wave2 (Bank2). You’ll notice that there is the additional 9th bank of Sine/Noise here which will light-up the last and the first note to indicate that it is selected.
As you may hear when playing notes at this stage will produce sound – don’t worry if it sounds a little messy and effect-laden (we’ll get on to how to control these shortly) At this stage, we want to just focus on our oscillators and waveshapes.
The best way to visualise what’s going on as you cycle the waveforms is by installing and syncing up the MODALapp, which you can download from the App Store or via Google Play for your mobile device. Connect to your CRAFTSynth via USB.
As you scroll, you’ll see in the visualiser on the upper left-hand side of the screen (or by selecting ‘OSC’ on the mobile version) how the waves subtly morph between their defined states as you rotate the encoder. Often the best results can be found in the hybrid waves. Understanding this root process is your first step towards synth mastery!
One Small Step...
Now that you’ve grasped how CRAFTsynth 2.0’s internal oscillators work and how to cycle and morph through its wavetables, in the next instalment we’ll explore how you can get even more creative, and use the onboard Oscillator Modifiers to further shape the sonics of your wavetables. As well as how using the MODALapp can bring even wider choices to the fore. See you then!