A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

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A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

Post by HideawayStudio » Thu May 28, 2009 8:28 pm

Having fallen in love with the concept of owning a Hammond Novachord but knowing just how much work they require to run reliably I'm starting to wonder how many might be interested in a modern MIDI controlled rackmount interpretation of this beast using 50's tube technology. This is mainly a hypothetical dream just to judge people's reactions....

The Novachord was a beast but as a design engineer, like many seemingly complex products, once you break it down much of it is in fact a few carefully tweaked analog building blocks multiplied up.

By breaking the design down into a discrete stages and then substituting some with modern technologies you could possibly achieve something sounding close to the original but considerably more usable, portable and reliable.

Since the instrument would be mainly used in the studio you could consider ditching the power amplifier and replacing it with just a low noise signal output. The power supplies could be substituted with modern light weight switched mode designs mounted in an aluminium chassis for both the heater, logic and HT supplies. The HT supplies would be a tad lower in voltage anyway due to using more modern tubes. The tube oscillators and LC filters could remain similar but using current lower voltage 50's style tubes and feature basic midi control and a concept of preset memory and midi program change implemented. All space wiring could be replaced with modular pcbs on a backplane or just one large pcb with everything mounted to the front panel.

As you may have guessed I get a real kick out of combining the best of old and new designs - I'd be very interested to know how many of you would be interested by something like this baring in mind that obviously such a monster would never be cheap!

It's clear that interest is rising in valve based synths - this, in my mind, would be the bechmark!

My proposed feature list would be:

Lightweight Aluminium Rackmount chassis featuring SMPSUs
Entire valve array exposed through front panel with pcb sunk under top plate to shroud pins
All valve Oscillator and VCA design using 50's technology
MIDI control with basic preset memory
Electronic vibrato to substitute mechanical based subsystem using modern components but same architecture
LC based formant filters with MIDI preset control

Feel free to suggest any other features that might be of interest......
Last edited by HideawayStudio on Sat May 30, 2009 10:16 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

Post by Shreddie » Thu May 28, 2009 11:39 pm

Dependant upon the cost and features, I might well be interested. I love the sound of the Novachord and have taken an interest in the Metasonix Wretch machine as a result... But the Wretch doesn't quite float my boat as it lacks some of the features that I'm used to... Such as MIDI and user presets.

On the subject of control, I'd like to see something with a semi modular architecture perhaps along the lines of the Anromeda. I know that would probably require a certain degree of digital gubbins which some people may not like but I see that as a very good thing. Also, if flexible/versatile envelopes/LFOs could be included as part of that, that would be a major plus point for me.

I presume that you would be planning a polyphonic synth? What about multi-timbrality? I know that full multi-timbral operation may be impractical but bi-timbral would be nice.

External CV I/O would no doubt be useful for some people but the ability to route external audio through it would be pretty essential IMO!

Personally I wouldn't be bothered about DSP effects either way, it would be a nice plus but I could do without... Although, a chorus and/or delay, preferably analogue would be good.

While I can understand your motives for a 12U rackmount, I'd also like to see a keyboard version... Whether that's as an all in one unit or as a combined keyboard/control surface and seperate rack mount, I don't mind, I suspect that the latter may be more practical and if the rack had a "control in" connector for connection to the separate keyboard/control surface, it would allow those who purchased the rack to upgrade at a later date.

Those are just my instant thoughts, I haven't thought them through as such. Sorry if I rambled a bit!

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Re: A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

Post by meatballfulton » Thu May 28, 2009 11:59 pm

I can't imagine there would be many who could afford to buy a tube polysynth. Look at the Wretch, it's well over $2K and only a monosynth!

BTW Shreddie, the Wretch was originally offered with onboard MIDI-CV control (still no presets), it might still be available as a custom option.
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Re: A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

Post by 3rdConstruction » Fri May 29, 2009 6:47 am

This is an amazing idea. I was blown away by the sound of the Novachord, & would be ecstatic at the prospect of a new tube based polysynth... provided it doesn't end up costing $10k. I will also second the proposition of a keyboard version, as I like the idea of the vintage vibe of good ol' hand-powered sound-modification by knob twiddling while playing. I'd be just almost as happy about a keyboardless desktop unit like some steam-punk version of the Xpander.

Basic MIDI would be fine for me, but I do not think such a synth would need all the versatility, bells'n'whistles such as multitimbrality, of a more conventional modern analogue or digital synth, as it would clearly find a place for itself through it's unique tube-generated sound. I would also vote in favour of limited polyphony to make to unit more generaly affordable - I myself would even be happy with 4 voices if it put the price within reach.

Please do this - it is a brilliant concept & deserves to see the light of day. I just hope I will be able to afford it. [-o<
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Re: A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

Post by HideawayStudio » Fri May 29, 2009 7:37 am

3rdConstruction wrote:This is an amazing idea. I was blown away by the sound of the Novachord, & would be ecstatic at the prospect of a new tube based polysynth... provided it doesn't end up costing $10k.

Please do this - it is a brilliant concept & deserves to see the light of day. I just hope I will be able to afford it. [-o<
Hmm - this is the problem - I think it would cost $10K and factoring in any development expenses.. probably even more. Still its very interesting to see people's reaction to this.

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Re: A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

Post by madtheory » Fri May 29, 2009 8:41 am

A box that can be played via MIDI would be sufficient. Put the same controls on as the Novachord, and don't bother with patch memories, reverb or chorus. Perhaps have it as a one voice that can be expanded to eight, to make it affordable. One could buy an extra voice when one could afford to.

If you want effects, use an external unit. If you want multitimbral, overdub it. I think we've been mollycoddled by those two features. Wendy Carlos and Tomita managed fine with a monphonic modular!

But Hideaway, I think you should try to play a real Novachord, I'm not convinced that it would be as impressive as those demos.

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Re: A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

Post by adamstan » Fri May 29, 2009 9:10 am

I'm not convinced that it would be as impressive as those demos.
Right, because these demos are drenched in chorus, echo and reverb - any sawtooth run thru this amount of effects starts to sound huge...
erhaps have it as a one voice that can be expanded to eight, to make it affordable. One could buy an extra voice when one could afford to.
Then it wouldn't be novachord-like. Novachord is based on divide-down technology, not on VCOs. And tube VCOs usually have poor tracking.
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Re: A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

Post by madtheory » Fri May 29, 2009 12:22 pm

Ah OK, it's divide down. We went off on a bit of a tangent there :)

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Re: A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

Post by HideawayStudio » Fri May 29, 2009 3:38 pm

adamstan wrote:
I'm not convinced that it would be as impressive as those demos.
Right, because these demos are drenched in chorus, echo and reverb - any sawtooth run thru this amount of effects starts to sound huge...
erhaps have it as a one voice that can be expanded to eight, to make it affordable. One could buy an extra voice when one could afford to.
Then it wouldn't be novachord-like. Novachord is based on divide-down technology, not on VCOs. And tube VCOs usually have poor tracking.
It can't be as simple as just the result of tons of FX - if you swamp my ARP Omni in FX it doesn't come close and that is also a divide down synth with sawtooth generators.

I strongly suspect a lot of the "sound" is due to the modulator, LC filters, natural movement between the oscillators and VCAs and the desirable effects of typical valve distortion.

When I meant modular I mean between stages, not between oscillators which are, as others have said, based on divide down architecture. This is actually very good news as the overall result, despite being tube based, is very stable in the tuning department (provided the passive components are of good quality!!). The beauty of using valves is that everything is not precise and distortion across so many tube circuits must give the whole thing an almost organic quality.

The whole FX thing amuses me a little as there is no way an original Novochord, or indeed many instruments, would sound right in totally dry acoustics. I suspect it sounded best in a large room with natural reverberation - so why is it so bad to simulate these FX when most of us don't have access to such a room? Can you imagine how dreadful a full church organ would sound without the wonderful acoustics of a cavernous space?

That said I can understand why an owner would prefer to use high quality external FX. My only concern is that until I look at the schematics in detail I'm not sure if the mechanical modulator sits between stages - if this is the case then there would still be a need to have on board FX but hooked into the circuit in a more complex way than typical outboard.

I would love to design something like this but it's never going to be inexpensive and such projects require proper funding, dedication and time which, as the head of a busy electronic design department, is sadly something I don't have much of these days!

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Re: A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

Post by Shreddie » Fri May 29, 2009 5:05 pm

meatballfulton wrote:BTW Shreddie, the Wretch was originally offered with onboard MIDI-CV control (still no presets), it might still be available as a custom option.
I thought that was only on the prototype? Hmmm.

Something like the Wretch is a fair way off for me though, there are many other things that I will be spending my money on first.

No matter how much I love the idea of a modern day Novachord inspired synth, after reading what I have read here, I feel that it would either be impractical, compromised or prohibitavely expensive... Possibly all three! Still, I'd love to see it come to fruition!

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Re: A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

Post by madtheory » Fri May 29, 2009 8:12 pm

I still think you should go try out a real Novachord, rather than making huge assumptions based on a recording. There are a whole host of things that you would discover in real life I think.
HideawayStudio wrote:The whole FX thing amuses me a little as there is no way an original Novochord, or indeed many instruments, would sound right in totally dry acoustics.
Of course, but the Minimoog is a nice synth, that doesn't have onboard reverb. But as you say, if the Novachord's reverb is integral to the circuit, then it needs to be in there.

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Re: A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

Post by 3rdConstruction » Sat May 30, 2009 5:01 am

madtheory wrote:A box that can be played via MIDI would be sufficient. Put the same controls on as the Novachord, and don't bother with patch memories, reverb or chorus. ... If you want multitimbral, overdub it.
Absolutely. This should make the unit more affordable, and be more true to the vintage Novachord vibe. Nobody complains about modular synths not being programmable.
HideawayStudio wrote:The beauty of using valves is that everything is not precise and distortion across so many tube circuits must give the whole thing an almost organic quality.
Again absolutely. It would have such a distinct & unique sound, that the lack of programmability or other modern features would be irrelevant.
HideawayStudio wrote:I would love to design something like this but it's never going to be inexpensive and such projects require proper funding, dedication and time which, as the head of a busy electronic design department, is sadly something I don't have much of these days!
I'm tempted to insert video of Susan Boyle singing I Dreamed a Dream, but maybe it's best if I just say...please find a way to bring this idea to life!
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Re: A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

Post by HideawayStudio » Sat May 30, 2009 9:59 am

madtheory wrote:I still think you should go try out a real Novachord, rather than making huge assumptions based on a recording. There are a whole host of things that you would discover in real life I think.
HideawayStudio wrote:The whole FX thing amuses me a little as there is no way an original Novochord, or indeed many instruments, would sound right in totally dry acoustics.
Of course, but the Minimoog is a nice synth, that doesn't have onboard reverb. But as you say, if the Novachord's reverb is integral to the circuit, then it needs to be in there.
I have listened to a number of Novachord recordings - old and new - as I always do when researching instruments new to me. It's clear Phil's recordings are drenched in FX (both reverb and tons of multi-tap delay) but you can hear that the slightly unwell S/N 1536 has the beginnings of sounding similar. Rather interestingly I suspect a lot of the vintage recordings were making use of rather "conservative" organ like settings so as not to scare the punters - and probably not to alienate Hammond's signature sounds too much. They remind me of tame early TB303 recordings where the listener had no idea how the instrument was going to be setup and reach cult status 20 years later!!

What is more concerning for me is whether Phil overdubbed or multitracked his recordings (and I hope to Christ it wasn't layered with another instrument!) - I sincerely hope not - as he implies he fired it up and just started playing...

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Re: A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

Post by Shreddie » Sat May 30, 2009 5:51 pm

3rdConstruction wrote:Nobody complains about modular synths not being programmable.
Don't they?!

I do!

And if people didn't complain, then there wouldn't be a market for Motu's Volta which basically makes modulars programmable... And let's face it, there's been quite a buzz about Volta, 'scuse the pun!

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Re: A Valve Polysynth in a Rack with MIDI Anyone?

Post by cornutt » Sun May 31, 2009 3:14 am

If I were going to try something like this, I'd get away from the idea of building a fully polyphonic instrument like the Novachord, and go to assignable voice circuits instead. Among other things, this might make it practical to have real VCFs instead of non-voltage-controlled LC filters. I wonder how practical it would be to implement a Moog ladder filter with triodes -- if you used, say, 12AU7s to build a two-pole filter, it would be three per voice. Not too unreasonable, although I don't know if you're going to be able to rack-mount an 8-voice configuration with active cooling of some sort. A 4-voice configuration would be practical; it would have about as many tubes as a 1960s-era TV set. I'd do the VCAs as solid state since they don't really contribute to the tone any.
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