The Design

 

What if the design of a synthesizer was not dominated by economic considerations or with regards to certain brand criteria? What, if I could run free, use any material and manufacturing process, that I think feels right, fits and looks the best to design a synthesizer? If I could just choose the right ergonomic concept, no matter what it finally costs?

 

20 is this instrument. We dedicate this design to 20 years of designing synthesizers at Design Box. 

 

The outside is a 3-dimensionally shaped, full aluminium casing with an ultra-thin collapsable panel that opens up with the push of a button. All user interface elements are made of milled aluminium. Everything the user touches is real material, with pleasing haptics.

 

Me and the team at Design Box invested almost 2000 hours in the aesthetical and mechanical design of the casing and all parts. We spent an infinitely long time to find a company, who can make the aluminium works, or who can laser edge the product graphics on such a wide panel. The body shell is milled out of a massive aluminum block, which alone weighs over 80 kilograms in its raw state.

 

Like the collapsable panel, it is being produced in a rapid prototyping process on a CAD/CAM-controlled 5-axis milling machine. The milling itself is not trivial at all. We had to redesign the mechanical setup several times to avoid vibration during the process, as this would cause significant inaccuracy, which we absolutely not want. But the aesthetically results of this technology are simply stunning. The inside perfectly includes all PCBs and cabling. The entire surface and the sides of the casing are pillow shaped. The entire outside of the instrument is wearing a slightly structured anodized surface - which looks and feels fantastic.

 

The synthesizer is handcrafted right in the heart of Europe. It is not a series product - only 20 silver and 20 black units will be built and sold.

 

The Engine

 

To make this project possible, we adapted already existing technology. The sound engine is designed by Waldorf, making this synthesizer an easy to use, yet enormously deep, powerful instrument. Oscillator 1 includes the classic PPG Wavetables for the creation of digital textures and soundscapes, as well as all kinds of bellish / metallic sounds, known from so many number 1 hits of the 80’s up to today. The included sample memory is filled with samples from the prestigious Neuron synthesizer, optimized by Kurt Ader and his team to fit perfectly into the structures of the soundengine.

 

German high-end audio manufacturer SPL added a specially designed version of their SUPRA op-amps, that integrates right behind the synthesizer DSP. With 120V operating voltage, this technology provides exceptional performance throughout the whole signal processing path for the 20, adding balanced stereo and high-end headphones outputs.

 

The User Interface

 

We re-use the basic Frontpanel-PCB layout and setup of the Studiologic Sledge synthesizer. For a better feel, we use pots with a full metal stem, instead of the standard pots with plastic stems. Also, we redesigned the pushbuttons and invested into a taylor made plastic injection-mold. We also replace the standard TP 9 keybed with a high end TP 8 keybed, specially molded for this synthesizer in all black.

 

The simplicity of the extensive user interface allows for an incomparable experience when working on sound, and makes this synthesizer much more a musical instrument than a technical device. The layout of the user interface mirrors the signal flow of the synthesizer. The interface reads from left to right, starting with the LFOs. The 3 Oscillators follow to the right, feeding the Mixer section, where each of the Oscillators, plus the Noise generator are equipped with an on/off switch.

 

The Multimode Filter with its dedicated ADSR Envelope Generator to the very right is located on top of the Amplifier Envelope, and the two Effects.

 

All parameters are accessed directly - there are no shift or secondary functions, that distract from sound design.

 

The distance between each of the knobs and switches matches perfectly the golden rules of German Industrial Design (minimum clearance of 40mm’s)

 

The Sound

 

My first love was music - I have been playing the piano since I was 9 years old. At 13 years, I started to play in a band - using a Yamaha YC25D organ (the red one) and a Fender Rhodes Piano. Shortly after, I was infected by the sound of the synthesizer. Back then, the Yamaha CS10 was the machine I wanted, not knowing that the CS10 was missing at least one oscillator. I could (almost) get around this deficit by using an octaver plus a tape echo . . .

 

A few years later, polyphonic synthesizers came up - and again I was completey mesmerized by that sound. The same in the early 80’s, when the first digital synthesizers hit my ears . . .

 

The love of synthesizers and music still holds. And all the years while earning my money with the design of electronic musical instruments, I have been an active performing musician, working on my own sounds for the bands I play in, but also contributing to the sound sets for some of the synthesizers I designed.

 

 

The Sound Designers

Kurt Ader

Kurts legacy in sound design does cover the "who-is-who" in our industries. Kurt is an absolute specialist, when it comes to orchestral, and pad sounds. He received many highly acclaimed awards for the work he has done for EMU Systems ®, Korg ®, ROLI ®, and many other companies in our beloved synthesizer world. Besides the sounds that he worked on together with Dr. Peter Jung, and their KApro team, especially for this synthesizer, Kurt could not resist, to come to Ravensburg, and work on the 20 prototype for several hours, to create a set of his very personal sounds.

 

 

The KApro team - Dr. Peter Jung & Dr. Guido H. Bruck

Let’s call Dr. Peter Jung and Dr. Guido H. Bruck the busy bees behind KApro / Kurt Ader’s Sound Design Factory. Peter and Guido helped to boil down many megabytes of Neuron Samples to fit into the limited Sample Ram of the 20. Besides that, the KApro team delivered further material from their excellent synthesizer sample stock, thus extending the sound spectrum of the 20 tremendously.

 

Based on these samples, Peter did program more then 200 marvellous sounds for the machine, covering almost every genre, one could think of in conjunction with a modern synthesizer. With his extensive know how, he also helped us to straighten up the process of selecting, sorting, and naming the sounds, as well as detecting the cause of some problems that we encountered on our way to the perfect hardware. Without his continual personal support, and all of KApros help, this journey would have been a rapturous one.

 

 

Peter Gorges

Peter has been working in our industries for decades. Starting with sound design for Yamaha's DX7 ® back in the very early 80s, Peter soon became one of the world’s most sought-after sound developers. Besides his work as an author for German Keyboards magazine, Peters charismatic sound creations and influence helped shaping Clavia's Nord ® modular or Kawais K5000 ® synthesizers. With his work for Wizoo / Steinberg ®, Digidesign ®, and as a co-founder of technology visionaries UJAM, Peter has been the driving force behind many of the virtual instruments all of us are using in their production environment day by day. His deep understanding for synthesizers, and in particular his love for unconventional sounds can be found in his contribution to the 20 sound set. As a tribute to our friendship and his love for the project, Peter spent two days with the instrument. The outcome are 20 highly individual, meticulously designed sounds.

 

 

Wolfram Franke

Wolfram develops high-end software music instruments and effects. He has been a sound designer and product specialist for ex PPG / Simmons / Steinberg distributor TSi and Waldorf ® back in the days, before he became main developer of plug-ins such as the Waldorf Largo, PPG Wave 2.V and 3.V, Attack, as well as Steinberg A1 among others. Wolfram heavily participated in the development of all Waldorf synthesizers starting with the Wave as well as the Access Virus TI, and one can really say, he is a complete synthesizer nurd.

Wolframs award-winning instruments and sounds can be heard on countless hit records starting back in the late 1980's up to today. Wolframs expertise and experience did help us a lot on the finalization of the factory soundset for the 20. He also delivered a beautiful soundset for the machine; - lots of playable, functional sounds. And first time for years, that he did that at all . . . so, - many thanks, Wolfram! 

 

 

Erik Heirmann

Since the 90’s, Erik has been active in music as a musician, engineer and sound designer. Having worked for leading music companies such as Waldorf ®, Novation ®, EOWAVE ®, SPL ® and Avalon ® to name a few, he has a great ear for innovative sounds that will work in a real world production. As an artist he produces music under the projects „Setsuna" and „Prahlad“, with which he performed at festivals and clubs across Europe.
For the 20, Erik designed various electronica patches, which make ample use of unisono stacking and some distortion for extra depth and punch. Locking himself in a room with the 20 for about that many hours he came out with a smile on his face and a USB stick full of sounds. These patches are guaranteed to cut though busy mixes and give you that extra energy boost just when you need it. You can hear his music at www.setsuna.de 

 

 

 

The Building Process

 

The milling of the aluminium blocks takes several days alone. After all parts are finished, the outside of the casing is glass-bead blasted in a computerized process to achieve an optimum of accuracy for the surface. Then all visible parts are anodized, and the panel and the back panel graphics are laser edged. The entire process for the aluminium parts is done in a small, exclusive factory in South Germany, close to the Lake Constance. 

 

 

 

The soundboard and the SPL op-amp board are both located on a slide-in drawer to the back of the instrument. The soldering and manufacturing of the board is done at the SPL facilities close to Dusseldorf / Germany.

 

 

Once all parts are finished, they are shipped down to Recanati / Italy, where the 20 synthesizer is assembled at the Fatar factory. There, all parts are married, tested, and carefully packed to start the journey to the owner of this exclusive synthesizer.