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The Synthedit Revolution
By JJ Biener - 02/11/2006 - 08:45 AM EST

The Revolution

When Steinberg first created the VST plugin architecture, it was a revolution in music software. It made programs like sequencers and audio recorders far more useful by allowing the user to extend and customize functionality. It also opened up a huge market for software developers. The only difficulty was that one had to have significant programming ability in order to produce a new plugin.

That was before Jef McClintock created Synthedit.. At its most basic, Synthedit is a shareware virtual modular synthesizer. If that was all it was to it, Synthedit would be a good if unremarkable product. However, Mr. McClintock added the ability to save instruments and effects created in the program as VST plugins. Therein lies the difference. In that one stroke, the ability to make plugins for personal or even commercials use was taken from the exclusive domain of software developers and placed it firmly in the public domain. You could say that by placing the means of plugin production in the hands of the non-technical user he broke the chains of the musical proletariat.

Anyone who is familiar with programming synths, especially modular synths, will recognize the basic modules: oscillators, filters, controllers, envelopes, etc. What one may not be expecting are functions like math, conversion, logic, and flow control. These are dropped on to the workspace and connected together to create a project.

Synthedit provides a special module type called a container. It is a grouping mechanism to hold related modules and keep them distinct from other parts of the project. I/O modules can be added to allow audio and MIDI to enter and exit the container. One I/O module is created automatically with the container. General purpose containers can be saved as prefabs to be used in subsequent projects.

Synthedit has one more interesting trick up its proverbial sleeve. McClintock provides the ability to add custom modules. On the Synthedit website (http://www.synthedit.com/) in the developer section, a user can download a software developerís kit (SDK). As a result, dedicated users have provided a great many modules which can be added to the program. These modules include new filters, oscillators, effects and even a surround sound encoder/decoder.

Synthedit in Use

When I first installed the program I wanted to see if I could put together a simple synth. I looked through the modules and picked out inputs and outputs first: MIDI In and Sound Out. I knew I was going to need an oscillator, so that was next. Since this is an emulation of an analog device, I knew I would need some conversion modules, MIDI to Control Voltage (CV) and a Voltage Control Amplifier (VCA) to convert the output of the oscillator into something audible.

With those basic modules, I connected the MIDI In module to the MIDI input on the MIDI to CV module. The Pitch output of the MIDI to CV module connects to the Oscillator. The Oscillator was set to a simple saw waveform for this test. The Audio Out from the Oscillator connects to the Signal input of the VCA. The VCAís Audio Out is connected to channel 1 and 2 on the Sound Out module.

I was about to fire it up and test it out when I realized a volume control was probably a good idea. I dropped a slider into the workspace and attached it to the Volume input on the VCA. Now I was ready. I clicked the play button and pressed a key on my synth keyboard. Sure enough a the typical buzzing of a saw waveform came out. I was hooked.

What to do next? I added Moog-style low-pass filter, an ADSR envelope to control the VCA, and a set of 4 sliders to control the envelope. I swapped out the simple oscillator for a phase-distortion oscillator. I also put in a controller module to get the modulation wheel data from the MIDI In stream and I used that to control the filter. That sounded much better. I then added a flanger module and a delay line to give the sound a little more interest. That was sufficiently interesting for me to move on.

All that remained was to save the instrument as a VST plugin and fire up my sequencer. Well, it wasnít quite that easy. In order to save a project as a plugin, all the elements have to be in a single container. Input and output from the container has to be done through the IO Mod modules and not through the MIDI In and the Sound Out modules.

I made those changes to my project and saved it as a plugin. Here is a short snippet of what it sounds like in context. Demo Song

To this point I havenít talked about crating a user interface for my plugin. Synthedit provides a means of constructing a unique interface from a set of function call sub-controls. They provide a means to take graphic images and animate them to make switches, knobs, wheels, drop lists, etc The sub-controls are relatively primitive and it takes several to implement each knob or button. This makes them somewhat cumbersome to work with, but it provides the maximum flexibility for the person creating the interface.

Available Resources

When looking for resources to learn about and expand Synthedit, the place to start is www.synthedit.com. This where you will find the SDK, tutorials, additional modules and links to other websites which use and/or support Synthedit.

There is a Wiki site for Synthedit, http://synthedit.xwiki.com/xwiki/bin/view/Main/WebHome. This contains links to tutorials, forums, modules, white papers and other items of interest to Synthedit users.

If you still have questions or you are looking for a module you canít find try subscribing to the Synthedit Users Group mailing list (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/syntheditusers/). This is an open mail list of experienced users who share information and the results of their explorations. I have been monitoring the list for a couple of months and they are knowledgeable and friendly to newbies asking questions. A word of warning, these folks can be rather prolific with their emails so you may want to opt for a digest version of their discussions to keep your inbox from being overrun. I set up a filter on my email account to send the messages to a special folder I created for that purpose.

If you are looking for still more websites using and/or supporting Synthedit, you should checkout the Synthedit Webring (http://e.webring.com/hub?ring=synthedit). This webring currently has 27 member sites offering modules, plugins, discussions, and various other resources for the Synthedit aficionado..

If you would like to see some examples of what can be done, http://www.kvraudio.com/ is a great repository of plugin instruments and effects created with Synthedit. As of this writing there 408 instruments and 191 Effects with more being added all the time. KVR offers a weekly newsletter with links to news releases from software manufacturers. I recommend it for anyone wanting to keep up with the latest developments.

Conclusions

I think Synthedit is an extraordinary product. It has captured the imagination of a great many bright and creative people who are eager to share their knowledge and experience. This provides electronic musicians with vast resources for little or no money. Something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

I suppose a small caveat would be in order here. As with anything, the instruments and effects created by Synthedit are only as good as the person who created them. There are a lot of unspectacular plugins created by people who stuck together a few modules and put them on the internet. There are others, though, which are truly useful and creative. When you find those, it makes the search truly worthwhile.

In the meantime, check out Synthedit and see where your creativity can take you. While you are at it, send Jef the registration fee so he can continue to improve the product.



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