Patching together unique sounds on the classic Buchla 100 was an impetus for a new software instrument by Randy Jones – just released for Windows. Photo (CC-BY) guiltyx/roll_initiative.

Software can easily enough emulate, down to each knob and patch cord, a vintage synthesizer. But can a genuinely new software synth incorporate the ideas about instrument design beloved in a classic synth like the Buchla modular? How do you balance open-ended sound design with the sorts of limitations that give an instrument personality, limitations that inspire?

And could all of this be meaningful even for someone first discovering synthesis, who may never have seen or heard of a Buchla? (If that’s you, please don’t bail on us just yet!)

It’d be pretty pointless to celebrate the legacy of designers like Don Buchla or Bob Moog if you didn’t think that legacy would be carried on. Randy Jones, of Madrona Labs, is just the kind of person to watch. He’s the creator of the innovative multi-touch, tactile Soundplane hardware, as well as the semi-modular Aalto soft synth, updated this month. Madrona has just released Aalto 1.2. The banner feature: Windows support, meaning you now have full 64-bit (or 32-bit) support on Mac and Windows alike. There’s now really no reason not to try out the instrument, with free demos on each.

What makes Aalto special? It has a unique interface that focuses on sound, and semi-modular design that allows you to produce the sort of sounds a Buchla modular would – without trying slavishly to emulate that hardware in software. It’s something new. As Randy puts it:

The main UI element is a combination oscilloscope + dial that is totally new. It’s inspired by the Max/MSP multislider, as well as the idea “computers are so fast now, and promise so many new possibilities for visualizing sonic systems, why are we still making virtual knobs?”

Randy is reflective as well as inventive, so here are his thoughts on designing the instrument – as well as the most unique approach to copy protection (and cookie-cutter soft synths) I’ve ever heard. (And I do mean heard.)

Aalto, the software, takes some of the best conceptual features of gear like the Buchla 100 and melds it with ideas about software design – even Max/MSP.

Aalto, a Tool for Sound Designers; No Two Are Alike

I had two basic ideas: one was to build a softsynth that really encouraged people to make their own sounds, made it fun and easy. Also I wanted to make software that could duplicate some of the Buchla sounds programmed by Morton Subotnik– those wonderful Vactrol / LPG plunks, because I’d never heard that done in software before.

So I picked the Music Easel as an inspiration, not just in sound but in UI, making a small set of modules that would lead to a surprising variety of results.

Limitations are really key, and while Max/MSP and other general environments that try to do everything are very useful, I think musically there’s a lot to be said for making fixed instruments that you learn and don’t mess with. That way you don’t have this situation where everyone ends up with their own instrument. This idea goes for hardware as well as software…

I think good instruments are style-agnostic… hardware as well as software. Making something for a particular genre is just reacting to fashion, which is the enemy of expression.

It’s depressing how popular sample sets are. There are so many possibilities for making your own sounds—recording sounds well, processing and synthesizing them are all easier and cheaper than ever before. If you do electronic music, timbre is a crucial element– how can you buy a sound from someone else? That’s like a poet buying words from someone else.

Aalto is designed to be unhyped. Sit well in a mix. Good music makers have their own compressors, they don’t want a synth to decide to compress itself. Good music makers have their own effects, they don’t want a ton of reverb and delay slathered over every preset.

A precise tool that’s good for learning is also good for using. Knobs are marked with actual time and pitch units. It’s harder to learn synthesis if your knobs all just go from 0-1.

Nothing that affects the sound is hidden. Everything is one click away. Aalto has no menus. I think this makes it a softsynth actually good enough to perform with, not just playing notes but moving through patch space.

It’s easy to go off the rails. Enough rope to hang yourself. A whole world of bad sounds is available at the touch of a dial. Because without them, the surprising good ones wouldn’t be there, only the boring good ones.

The signal scaling to oscillator pitch is a handy knob– one turn of it totally messes up the musical intervals if you want. It’s also easy to get back to a default.

As a composer and performer I’ve been burned time and time again by copy protection, so Aalto doesn’t have any. You can make as many copies as you want, but only run one of them at a time. The registration is embedded in the plugin itself, so there’s no keyfile to worry about. Want to use Aalto at a friend’s studio? Copy it to your zip drive and use it.

Because of the embedded license info being available, I went and did something a little weird: each copy of Aalto makes a slightly different sound. No more than different units of a Prophet-5, but the filter cutoff and oscillator detune and some other parameters are slightly affected by your unique user data. So the sound of the synth is in a way made very personal to the license holder.

Though it’s not so easy to make a good one, it’s a lot easier to make a new softsynth than a new hardware synth. So why are softsynths mostly so boring? Why so little experimentation? I think more interesting things are happening on tablets, with weird audio-visual toys people wouldn’t have made without the interface being available. But the sound quality is not there yet with the tablets. We still have these desktop and laptop computers of amazing power that everyone is using for production… but where is the spirit of innovation that we see in the tablet space?

Being a Small Company

Little companies can do stuff unimaginable a decade ago, thanks to the internet for research and promotion, and the open source community for access to tools. There’s this big area of possibilities with companies like ours that have more of a craftsman than a startup vibe, are not in it to get bought out but to make things of value and beauty over the long haul. Certainly the monome folks are a huge inspiration to me here.

You don’t need a big team to make and promote cutting edge tech anymore, you just need a few really good people. What that means is that companies like ours can innovate and make a product for an audience of a few thousand, something that a Roland or Korg would never bother with, and have a sustainable business model doing that.

Hopefully, this gets the conversation started. Randy’s very open with his ideas, so we’ll be in touch; if you have other questions for him, let us know. And, of course, we should look at Aalto very soon.

  • Bendish

    My favorite soft synth handsdown.


  • Warrior Bob

    I imagine that having each license holder have a slightly different sound is going to be controversial, but I personally think that it's a really neat idea. I like neat ideas. I hope this synth does really well.

    Unfortunately, the Buchla comparisons were somewhat lost on me because I don't know much about them – I've only ever really seen one once and didn't get to play with it. Can someone with more experience shine some light on what it is about them that makes them so cool? I mean, they look and sound awesome, but I know there's more to it than that.

  • wi_ngo

    I recently picked up the u-he ACE (which is really fun, BTW), and assumed my softsynth arsenal was robust enough for the moment.

    Apparently I was wrong. I'm really interested in checking this out. Really love the concept, and the sounds that come out of this thing are fantastic and quite original.

  • Cliffman

    The comment about no compression, reverb and FX was enough to make me grab the demo. I totally agree – Many times when I try some new thing (see: Roland)  all I hear is piles of FX. I generally figure if the maker has to cover the demo sounds with reverb, chorus, etc – the base sound probably isn't that good to begin with. Hope this catches on!

  • eclectic reader

    holy shit, talk about being on point

  • renderful

    Aalto is my favorite synth/has been since I bought it. Percussion, FM, subtractive. I am working on a study, using it as the only sound source. With the new update, my Macbook Pro can actually handle a bunch of layers!

    I love the high level patching interface, and waveguide is so so ace.

  • Robbe K

    Respect! Awesome! I am here!

  • Seamus

    I've been reading a lot about Aalto recently, looks like a fantastic piece of kit, nice price to boot, and yeah, everything the guy says is completely on point.  Really like the approach here.

    Will demo tonight :)

  • active

    i picked this up the week it was released. have used it on almost everything since. it is a great investment and a truly inspiring tool. thanks randy!

  • Tim

    Just a pity there's no RTAS. Maybe I really do need to look into Ableton.

  • A Consumer

    "It’s depressing how popular sample sets are. There are so many possibilities for making your own sounds—recording sounds well, processing and synthesizing them are all easier and cheaper than ever before. If you do electronic music, timbre is a crucial element– how can you buy a sound from someone else? That’s like a poet buying words from someone else."

    "Good music makers have their own compressors, they don’t want a synth to decide to compress itself. Good music makers have their own effects, they don’t want a ton of reverb and delay slathered over every preset."

    Yes AND Yes.

  • Alex

    In the first caption that "just released for Windows" should be corrected since there's full OSX support! will try it tonight, looks very cool!

  • 5meohd

    to Alex: it was originally released ONLY on OSX… so the new update is "just NOW making it available on windows" :)

    I agree, best soft synth I've ever used. I've been getting into absynth lately because of some of its amazing modularesque features.. the problem is all of the menu switching. That drives me nuts.. and if its not driving me nuts its limiting my expressive experimentation. 

    I think that Aalto may not have a standalone version due to it being developed by one guy? I'm guessing that if enough of us actually buy the damn thing we'll be able to make that happen. However, I don't think its all that necessary.. like he mentioned everything you see in the screenshots is right there on the front panel… so its likely that many users are going to want a few instances or at least a few busses with fx racks or something.

    I also want to HIGHLY recomend those with Maschine 1.6 to demo this NOW!!!!!!! all of Randy's parameters are named on maschine's lcd displays… making this "semi-modular" soft synth that much more tactile.

  • Random Chance

    I would be interested in how the vactrols (and circuits using them like the LPG) are modelled. There's quite a bit of nonlinearity in a vactrol circuit and it's always fun to see how people deal with that in DSP models of those circuits.

  • Sam Greene

    This synth is so much fun.  I love how when you drag a patch cord to a destination, it previews the sound before you let go of the clicker and commit to that patching. 

    Search for Aalto on soundcloud – lots of examples of what this can do.  Here is one of my favorites – just one patch says the creator: &nbsp ;

  • active

    @5meohd – thanks for the tip! i love my maschine and this will be a great new way to play with aalto! more live patching!!!

  • Bruno

    So, have any of you played with Bazille before? It's very interesting and I'm wondering what you feel like the sound possibilities are compared to Bazille. 

    I think it's amazing all these new smaller developers bringing something to the market that is of so high quality

  • nightmorph

    hey, linux users: i got the windows version of aalto running on linux.

    i used dssi-vst, but any daw/host that can load windows vsts should work. you could even run savihost/vsthost inside wine64, then run the 64-bit aalto plugin inside that, and connect it to the rest of your software stack via wineasio.

  • vanceg

    @5meohd (and others): Do you feel a standalone version of softsynths are particularly valuable/useful? What advantages do you see to standalone versions over using a plugin inside a host? (Which has it's own inherent set of potential advantages…such as MIDI mapping of controllers, recording of the audio output, keyboard splitting, etc). What's the attraction of a stand-alone version?

  • 5meohd

    Personally, I don't find much of an attraction. I've specifically seen many people talk about the limitation's possible being the benefit… its also important to realise that most quality stand-alone apps will feature some sort of midi/audio preferances. Obviously CPU load could be a factor for some.. Maschine might be the only plug-in I use in stand-alone and for me its only been happening since the 1.6 update which turned it into an actual host. It's possible that some people may not have found a DAW or hast that works for them, personal/workflow wise, and it is mentally/physically easier to just start the synth and play. Also costs.

  • Sean Costello

    "Good music makers have their own effects, they don’t want a ton of reverb and delay slathered over every preset."

    It is worth noting that the reverb that is built into Aalto is pretty darned fantastic. Just the right amount of darkness and grain to sound like the spring reverbs found in the old analog synths, but with its own unique character.

  • Sam Greene

    I've put up a site for trading Aalto patches.  Hope you enjoy! &nbsp ;

  • c. todd [phylum sint

    Aalto is one of those synths that always made me jealous of Apple rigs… which nowadays is pretty difficult to do when it comes to audio.

    It just got way harder. I love Aalto and have scrapped a bunch of stuff just to make room for it. It gets busy on its' own without a lot of the post/granular modulation i usually do otherwise, and has so much character that doesn't emulate anything too cliche.

    I agree with the developer's approach to UI design – why the hell are there so many synths that try to pull of the feel of having some ancient box in front of you, when it's so clear that the most important aspects (usability, accessibility, instantaneous understanding) are better without some glossy BMP obfuscating the real information you're trying to manipulate? I really hope it catches on – very few popular hardware synths outside of modulars have enough control stitched into their boxes anyhow for my taste. Give me access and visualization for every parameter, i didn't get a quad core computer to pretty pseudoknobs.

  • c. todd [phylum sint

    to [twist]… pretty pseudoknobs…

  • Shannon

    Randy needs some sound examples on his site!

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