Single synth obsessions


#1

Since many years back I’ve had this strange obsession with only using a single synth/sound source for making entire tracks, either via multitracking or completely self-contained if it is more of a groovebox piece of kit.

As with many of my particularities when making music, I suspect this could stem from my first musical foray was with an old school Nintendo Game Boy running Little Sound DJ. It features four tracks (2x Pulse, 1x 4-bit wave buffer, 1x noise), each very clearly within the exact same ‘world’ of sound.

And for me, I think it’s that last notion I am a bit obsessed with. It’s of course nice to mix and match different timbres and instruments, but there is just something about a somewhat homogenous sonic palette that is very appealing to me. Perhaps chip music is again to blame, but I really like when it all fits together perfectly.

And on the flip side, I think in some way we are seeing a similar methodology or dogmatic approach in contemporary electronic music and its scene. Many opt for a modular-only setup today, not necessarily because it’s the best means to an end, but because the concept in itself is appealing.

There are a few artists that have done similar things (and you could of course draw historical parallels with solo piano pieces and such, but I think that’s maybe a bit besides the point), here are some neat examples:

SND - Atavism
FS1R for every synth sound, and highly stylized samples for the drums.

Errorsmith - Superlative Fatigue
Made entirely with NI Razor, which he designed for Native Instruments.

Eliane Radigue - works from 1971-2001
Radigue worked exclusively with an ARP 2500 during this period.

Autechre - Elseq
A bit of an edge case, but they state that they work with solely their own software designed in Max since a few years back, which is a similar dogmatic approach.

Aurechre - We R Are Why / Are Y Are We?
Autechre has a penchant for dogmatic ways of working I think, this particular release is made with only (maybe) a Yamaha RY30 as sound source.

Hizmi - New Power
Hizmi has only used a Sharp X68000 home computer for his amazingly detailed FM-only productions. We were lucky enough to have him design some presets for the Digitone actually!

TM404
Known for hoarding 303’s, his music does feature a mix of Roland boxes, but some are almost exclusively done with a small army of silvery transistor basslines, or something of that ilk.

System Impossible - works
Exclusively used a Roland System 100

Surachai - Ritual
All done with a Cwejman S1

And so on …

I guess my point being, working in this manner is to me so much fun and inspiring. The (in most cases) extreme limitations of using only one sound source (in whichever manner you prefer) leads to a lot of experimenting with what the outer limits of the sound source is, and how you can use that or its faults to your advantage.

The end result I find very appealing, a gesamtkunstwerk which inhabits a very singular and balanced world of sound.

Or - does it just sound boring and flat? Maybe I am wrong. There is that risk too, without variation or a broad palette of sounds the end result will be sterile. How do you combat that? SND offset their clinical sound with intricate rhythms, TM404 treated his Rolands with a small village of effect units. Does that ruin the integrity of the singular source and/or make the process pointless? (I don’t think so, I would argue the opposite)

Right now I’m working solely with a Roland MC-202 (cue whole Elektron office rolling their eyes due to how much I talk about this synth) to make some pretty intricate techno tracks. Making a bassdrum can take a few hours in search of perfection, but for me the end result is really satisfying. It’s just as much about the result as the process, which is pretty interesting.

Sure, the listener doesn’t care, but that argument is weird. Surely, the one who makes the music should care about what they are doing and how?

Anyway, discuss! Do any of you work like this as well? What are some of your favorite pieces of music that relied on only one sound source?


#2

Yes! My last few tracks have been pretty much exclusive Rytm as a sound source. But that feels like cheating because you can make, and put in, any sound. If it helps, I only use like one or two tracks and multitrack everything or sync patterns by hand, not midi.

The Dual VCO has opened up a whole new world to using just 1 device

Last few


#3

Have only used the Volca fm exclusively for my synths sounds, melodies and basslines.

The takt handles percussion.

404 handles samples


#4

This is one of my obsessions as well, Simon. I have done many, many tracks that use a single synth for all sounds, including percussion. I’ve done tracks that use only PPG, Minimoog, Super-Jupiter, Prophet-5, VCS3, Odyssey, MS-20, Kyma, and recently the Moog Grandmother synth. I’ve done similar things with many software synths. For me, it’s a great way to explore in a practical way what a synth can do. It also recalls the productivity of a past era decades ago when I could only afford one or two synths.

Indeed, the process is important for the one making the music. I often cite it as my favorite part of making music. Maybe it’s the Eno fan in me, but I dearly love setting up (often unrepeatable) processes as part of my production, whether it’s a one-off dictum to amp and mic everything in a track, or to create a track from tape loops, that’s what keeps this stuff interesting for me after nearly four decades of doing it.

Currently, I’m trying to do a track using only the gear I owned in 1989. i.e. Roland SH-09 and Ensoniq EPS, along with a Yamaha RX7 drum machine. The only effect unit being brought into play is an old Midiverb III. I’m not restricting myself to a single synth this time around (technically I am, since the SH-09 is the only actual synth, and is providing all of the fodder for the EPS), but I am restricting the instruments and process being used. (It’s great fun and a little frustrating. I am finding it a little hard to believe I made entire albums with this setup).

(also, the MC-202 is pretty danged cool)

In any event, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who enjoys working this way!

Here’s the Grandmother-only track:

Here’s one with an ARP Odyssey (which, contrary to what the video suggests, i decided not to sell):

Technically, this one uses only one synth as a sound source: a VCS3. However, some tracks were sampled into Digitakt and sequenced that way. The Analog Keys is used to sequence the VCS3 for a track or two, as well, though the AK itself isn’t actually heard.

Here are a couple more (audio only). Unfortunately, it seems like Soundcloud’s compression algorithm is pretty brutal. Still, it gives a reasonable idea.

OP-1 doing Berlin School:

Roland Super-Jupiter:

Kyma wavetable stuff I made:


#5

Ive got a 202, a 202 tshirt, and a 202 pillowcase :slight_smile:

I too am obsessed with working with a single instrument / groovebox.
For me it keeps things simple, and forces me to work within a set of strict constraints.

I also tend to shove my entire mix thru an overdriven desk or tape. I very much love a uniformed palette.


#6

i can understand such obsession well, if the synth is Blofeld


#7

Sharing this rather awkward ‘talk’ for its strict on-topicness rather than it being a personal testimony (it’s been ages since I listened to this), think of it as an invitation to try this guy’s album which is an exploration of creating 20 tracks with a sole synth/system per track


by way of a personal testimony to one of the most influential artists of my late teens, albeit not strictly synth on this occasion, it is a very restrained source (a sole 4 seconds or so of a tape sample)


exploring the boundaries of an instrument is perhaps more necessary when you place restrictions and this is perfect for my creative juices, less is generally a lot more for me and certainly more liberating - it’s also a better way to get to know it - so many folk buy new things when they probably haven’t really explored the last thing

by far my favourite vlog of a synthesist is a guy who only records direct (one take) from his MS20, nothing else beyond patch cables and he has really mastered it and pushes the boundaries, really sublime vignettes - both musical and satisfying as you know there’s craft in getting to these places

utterly impossible to pick a favourite as he covers so many bases but this is sweet

I could listen to most of these as is, captivating and perfect and made all the better because of the limitation imho, great topic


#8

I agree with the OP. I’ve always agreed that limitations breed creativity, and also allow you to learn something a lot more deeply. I actually don’t like not having limitations. Having a DAW as a blank canvas is one of the most anxiety-inducing things. Hats off to the folks who can just open up a DAW and get to work.

But yes, when I got the MnM, even though I already had a MD, I decided to make whole backing tracks with its Bbox machine and everything. This came out of it

I’ve since lost that patch, but I still learned a lot from making it.


#9

this is a really interesting topic!

I plan to make an entire project mostly based on the heart and soul of one “machine”. The limitation is very relieving and also very challenging at the same time. It’s a great way to really get to know your gear.

There are also so many great music peaces out there for solo instruments like a piano or a guitar. You can almost think about it like music from one preset.

And it’s not only the way it sounds, it’s also the way you think and express when making music with it!
Every instrument has it’s own feel that is influencing your whole creative process.


#10

a bit off-topic since it doesn’t really qualify as synth, but I could easily do everything I want with a sampler and a sequencer. Back in the days it meant an akai + atari st and now it’s Digitakt, or TR-8S.

I could probably do complete tracks with a Blofeld + DAW too, bouncing tracks when needed.

I guess working with a single synth is also an easy way to achieve sound coherence, as well as minimizing cognitive load.


#11

this is how i feel with my analog four. Even when I burn a track two for drums I’m still able to add a lot of other elements with the remaining voices/oscillators.

I have a few projects saved with a few banks filled with “a4 only” patterns that include both drums / synth stuff that I should clean up and post but always thought they were too simple. This is of course without any overdubbing/multitracking. I could probably make them sound more finished with a few passes through the DAW.


#12

I love how a guy that helps create all these next level advanced machines packed full of features, the machines that folks obsess about having them all and continuously request even more advanced features, a person who probably could set up any sort of rig they’d like, just wants to do everything on a sequencer from the 80’s…

You rock man…


#13

Nice thread!

I feel lost when using more than one synth (together with OT that is). And made complete tracks with just a MS20 (when i had one).

Focus is the key.


#14

To be right on topic…
I like this concept and seems like a worthy journey, but for me coming from playing in bands I’ve always approached my voices used like each machine is a band member, one for drums, one for bass, one for rhythm, one for leads, etc… In my world they each get their own distinct voice but that voice sticks to a certain role.

I really enjoy contrast of sounds. I think my creamy moog bass sounds even better when mixed with some crisp digital hi fi sounds. For me mixing “the right sounds” that are very different from each other helps to make each stand out even more, while somehow maintaining a wholistic meshing of the sounds into a unified transmission…

In general that’s how I’ve approached things, but I’m always willing to deviate and explore other concepts and possibilities…


#15

I often work only on the A4 or only DN.
But that‘s fairly simple because of the groovebox character…

one of my favorites is Autechres Cichli suite. I read that nearly every sound was done with the Nord Rack 1


#16

Is that you Keanu Reeves?

:yum:


#17

Huh? I don’t get it haha


#18

Your voices are quite similar according to my ears, result may vary.

Oh and i love the effect you create at 10.35 reminds me of old Yello. I need to learn how to replicate that.


#19

I absolutely love working like this. I think the process works for some people, and not others. I’m one of those that finds that having some constraints or limitations to work around makes me creative. I think the most fun I’ve had making music in years is with either the DT or DN, (or the pair in some cases). Squeezing every last drop out of them is a lot of fun, and their somewhat more simplistic interfaces makes it even more fun. I also really enjoy picking some sub-set of functions on a modular, and working within that. There are times when I like to use everything at my disposal, but that’s usually more of a planned sort of thing, whereas grabbing the DN and hopping onto the couch with a set of headphones starts an entirely different sort of process for my brain.


#20

I like the idea of restrictions but I rarely go as far as single synth. But for any given album/ep/project I will select a limited number of synths to help with cohesion and get me into exploring each more deeply. I think part of the appeal of older electronic music (say, pre 2005) was that it tended to be much less kitchen sink.

That said, the one time I did a track with a single synth (the classic Synth1 freeware) it worked out really well and I learnt tonnes.