The newest addition to my studio … er … collection of music creation gear is the nanobox|lemondrop from 1010Music. It’s a very portable granular synthesizer that I initially mentioned in passing in a post back in March.
So, just what is granular synthesis? Wikipedia has a good general explanation:
Granular synthesis is a sound synthesis method that operates on the microsound time scale. It is based on the same principle as sampling. However, the samples are split into small pieces of around 1 to 100 ms in duration. These small pieces are called grains. Multiple grains may be layered on top of each other, and may play at different speeds, phases, volume, and frequency, among other parameters. At low speeds of playback, the result is a kind of soundscape, often described as a cloud, that is manipulatable in a manner unlike that for natural sound sampling or other synthesis techniques. At high speeds, the result is heard as a note or notes of a novel timbre. By varying the waveform, envelope, duration, spatial position, and density of the grains, many different sounds can be produced.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granular_synthesis
This opens the possibility of taking everyday sounds such as musical instruments, traffic noises, a babbling brook — literally anything that can be recorded — and turning them into completely different sounds or soundscapes. For example, I loaded a couple of musical loops from a couple of Kontakt instruments:
The two loops were each separately processed — granularized — and then mixed together along with a sawtooth “synth”. This was all done within the lemondrop, and the result is a soundscape that is simultaneously familiar and foreign. While this example might be considered mundane, it is but the proverbial type of the iceberg with regards to what can be done using granular synthesis.
While I already had this capability to do granular synthesis in software, I also thought that it would be beneficial to be able to do it in hardware, especially after I learned about the possibility of “granularizing” an audio source in real time. While part of me was aware that the lemondrop was capable of doing this from the time of its announcement, I only recently discovered the prospect of being able to feed a monosynth to the input of a granular synth, and being able to play chords based on the sound from the monosynth — for example taking the output of my Modal Electronics Craft Synth 2.0 and using it to play chords.
There are a couple of ways to do this. First, and simplest, is to simply play and hold a note on the Craft Synth, switch one or both granular oscillators of lemondrop to process the external source, and then use either the onboard “virtual keyboard” or a MIDI controller to play the lemondrop. And, this is great as far as it goes, but it doesn’t retain any of the time-based character of the original sound, such as amplitude of filter sweeps that are triggered when a note is first played. And, simply sending the same MIDI data from the controller to both the monosynth and the lemondrop won’t work because as chords are played, the monosynth’s note will change in what could be an unpredictable manner, which in turn, affects the re-pitching that the lemondrop is doing to make new notes from the source audio.
My way around this is to use the Blokas MIDIHub to transform all incoming MIDI note data to a single note (I chose C3) and pass that on to the Craft Synth on one of its outputs, while simultaneously passing all data through to the lemondrop on a second output. It’s a little kludgy yet, but it does generally work (I apologize in advance for the ugly sound, but it’s got a fair amount of character, and I wanted to see how well it would pass through the lemondrop):
The result is an instrument that, while a little quirky, is quite playable and retains almost all of the sonic character of the original. While I didn’t do it in this example, I can also use the various controls on the Craft Synth to alter the sound in real time.
I was initially a little concerned about the user interface of the lemondrop. For one thing, it’s really small. And because it’s so small, it has a very sparse, minimal UI — just two endless encoder knobs, four buttons, and a tiny touchscreen. As a definite knobs and buttons kind of guy, I figured that using the thing would be rather a pain. Surprisingly, the UI and workflow are so well thought out that getting around is a breeze, and making interesting and beautiful sounds (or boring or ugly sounds) is really pretty fast and easy once you understand the lingo. Other than the granular engine, the rest of the synth is very straightforward.
I do have a couple of reservations about the lemondrop — all is not perfect, but all is seldom perfect. Size and cost considerations of course mean that compromises get made. In the case of the lemondrop, they’re pretty reasonable concessions, but they are concessions nevertheless. First is the use of 1/8″ mini jacks for all of the I/O. Yes, I know lots of products do it nowadays, and I should probably just get with the program. But, 1/8″ mini jacks aren’t known for being the most robust connectors on the planet. Second, I’m not a big fan of micro-SD cards as they’re fragile and easy to lose. That said, the included 32GB card is of excellent quality. My final gripes revolve around the USB port. First, the USB port provides for power connection only. I’d much rather have seen a LiPo battery as the primary power source that could be charged with over USB, and I’d also have been happier if the USB port functioned as a class-compliant MIDI/audio interface, or at least provided access to the SD card so that samples could be dropped onto the card without having to remove it an plug it into my computer. Obviously, I realized that “correcting” these issues would result in a larger and more expensive synth, and they’re not “show-stoppers” for me, especially given the sub-400-US dollar pricetag.
Look for a “late to the party” video on the lemondrop in the future. In the mean time, you can watch these (again, if you watched them the first time I mentioned the lemondrop).