Nightlife VST Cool Features, Part One: Oscillators!
By Mitchell Sigman
In this installment we’ll talk about Mixcraft’s fabulous (and FREE, get it HERE) new Nightlife VSTi virtual synth. On the surface, Nightlife has a relatively standard oscillator>filter>amplifier–controlled–by–envelope generator synthesis architecture, but it has some unique tricks up its sleeve. In the coming weeks, we’ll check out the filter section and mod sequencers, but today we’ll talk about its multi–talented oscillators.
Rather than going on at length about how oscillators work, I’m going to highlight some of Nightlife’s fun and unique oscillator features.
Whole Lotta Waves – Unlike most analog–style synths that typically feature just a handful of waves, Nightlife includes dozens of waves ranging from simple analog sawtooth and square waves, to harmonically complex digital waves. Best of all, you can easily create your own custom waves by simply clicking and dragging the mouse in the wave display area, and you’ll hear the resulting modifications in real–time. (Check out the video at 1:26 for more info on Nightlife’s waves.)
Pulse–Width Modulation (PWM) – This is a pretty standard analog synth feature that alters the width (aka “duty cycle”) of a square wave for thinner and thicker tones as well as a chorus-like motion when modulated by an LFO or envelope generator. Nightlife’s implementation is unique in that it morphs between a standard PWM square wave sound and whatever wave you’ve selected. This lets you create interesting evolving timbres, especially when modulated from an aforementioned LFO or envelope generator. (Check out the video at 2:47 for more info on pulse-width modulation.)
Ring Mod – Ring modulation is defined as, “an implementation of amplitude modulation performed by multiplying two signals and outputting the sum and difference frequencies.” Just pretend like that made sense and keep reading… what you really want to know about ring mod is that it’s a way of mixing two oscillators that results in a lot of inharmonic frequencies, and that translates to: good for bell sounds, metal getting whacked sounds, and clarinets. Again, you can use any of Nightlife’s oscillator waves, so there are tons of possibilities. Remember that you’ll only see the ring mod knob if the Oscillator 1 tab is currently selected. (Check out the video at 4:19 for more info on ring modulation.)
FM – This stands for frequency modulation and isn’t the same as FM radio (although it works on a similar principle). You’ll see the FM knob if Oscillator 2 or 3 is currently selected. FM is really just a fancy way of saying that an oscillator is essentially applying vibrato to another oscillator with the pitch changing according to the shape of the oscillator doing the vibrato–ing. However, when you hear vibrato, the oscillator doing the frequency modulation is typically oscillating at a very slow speed (if you can hear the pitch going up and down, it’s way beneath audible range). In the case of FM, the oscillator doing the modulation is oscillating in the audio range, WAY faster than a typical vibrato. This creates complex “sideband” frequencies, opening up a whole new tonal palette. Like ring mod, this will sound different depending on waveform selection. BTW, FM is the basis of the classic Yamaha DX7 digital synth from the 80’s. The diagram below should help illustrate how FM synthesis works. (Check out the video at 5:32 for more info on Nightlife’s frequency modulation.)
Sync – Oscillator sync is another fun multiple–oscillator interaction trick wherein one oscillator restarts the period of another oscillator, so that they both have the same base frequency (i.e. they’re both playing the same note). Depending on the pitch setting of the slaved oscillator, its harmonic spectra gets harsh and funky sounding. The most classic oscillator sync trick is to sweep the pitch of the slaved oscillator resulting in the familiar plasticy “tearing” sound famously heard in The Cars’ “Let’s Go” and (later), No Doubt’s “Just A Girl.” Nightlife lets you use sync with Oscillator 2 and/or Oscillator 3. In the diagram below, you can see how the waveshape of the upper waveform gets altered when it syncs to the wave on the bottom. (Check out the video at 7:22 for more info on oscillator sync.)