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SynthCell | Virtual Instrument For Pro Tools

SynthCell | Virtual Instrument For Pro Tools

With the 2022 update, Pro Tools introduced the new polyphonic synthesizer, SynthCell. This powerful Synth is included with all version of Pro Tools. In this article, you will learn the basics of the SynthCell instrument which will allow you to create your own unique sounds.

SynthCell is a polyphonic software synthesizer that allows you to create your own unique timbres from the various controls provided. SynthCell includes the primary adjustable parameters found on most hardware synthesizers: oscillators, filters, envelopes, an arpeggiator. This article will be focusing on these parts of the SynthCell instrument.

SynthCell

Before you can open SynthCell within Pro Tools, you must first install the SynthCell instrument from your AVID account. Although SynthCell is included with a Pro Tools subscription, it does not come pre-installed with the Pro Tools software itself—it must be downloaded in addition to the Pro Tools application.

To add an instance of SynthCell into your Pro Tools session, you need to create an Instrument track and add SynthCell to an Insert slot.

To create a stereo Instrument track, do one of the following:

Navigate to Track > New Track

Use the keyboard shortcut Shift+Command+N (Mac) or Shift+Ctrl+N (Windows)

Choose a stereo Instrument Track as your new track and name it however you wish. Click Create.

On your created Instrument Track, insert the SynthCell plug-in from the Inserts drop-down menu.

Now you can click on the SynthCell insert to open up the instrument plugin window. Below is the graphic interface you’ll see when you launch a new instantiation of SynthCell.

With its myriad of knobs, sliders, drop-down menus, and ENV graphs, the SynthCell instrument may seem daunting, but if you know the basics of how synthesizers work, you’ll be on the fast-track to building your own custom presets.

Oscillators

Oscillators are the cornerstones of sound synthesis using analog and software synthesizers. In basic terms, an oscillator is how a synthesizer generates sound. An oscillator is a single-cycle waveform that loops continuously. The frequency (or pitch) of the oscillator waveform is determined by which key you press on your MIDI controller. An oscillator can generate different types of waveforms, or waveform shapes: sine waves, triangle waves, sawtooth waves, pulse waves, and noise. Each of these waveforms has a unique timbre, or sound color.

SynthCell features dual oscillators at the top left of the window. Each oscillator can produce a variety of different waveform types. Oscillator 1 can produce a sine wave, pulse wave, triangle wave, noise, and pulse-width modulation. Oscillator 2 can produce a saw wave, pulse wave, pulse-width modulation, and fine-tune the pitch. Furthermore, multiple waveforms can be applied per oscillator. The relative amplitudes for each waveform can be adjusted using the oscillator knobs, allowing you to adjust the balance of the different waveforms. To turn off any of the waveform oscillators, simply move its associated knob all the way to the left.

Filters

To the right of the dual oscillators, SynthCell provides access to two filters to edit your sound. Filters allow you to cut out, or filter, a range of frequencies from your sound. The Filter Mode drop-down menu allows you to choose different types of filters: high pass, band pass, and low pass. 

The knobs below the Filter Mode provide additional options for adjusting your filter settings:

Cutoff — adjusts the cutoff frequency of the filter from 20 Hz to 25 kHz

Res — adjusts the resonance of the filter from 0 – 100%

Key — adjusts how much the keyboard (pitch) affects the Cutoff frequency of the filter from 0-100%

Env — Adjusts how much the Filter Envelope affects the Cutoff frequency of the filter. The default setting is 0% (no effect).

Envelopes

In sound and music, we use the term envelope to describe how a sound changes over time, primarily how it relates to amplitude (volume). SynthCell comes equipped with an ADSR envelope generator—a mechanism that allows us to control how and when a sound should change in volume. ADSR stands for the four stages of a sound that can be controlled via the envelope:

Attack: the attack refers to how the sound begins the moment a key is pressed on the MIDI controller (or trigged by recorded MIDI data). This phase determines how quickly a sound reaches its full volume before it reaches the Decay phase.

Decay: the decay refers to how long it takes a sound to reduce in volume from the attack phase to the sustain phase.

Sustain: the sustain does not refer to a length of time, as the other phases do. Instead, sustain refers to the volume level at which a sound will sustain.

Release: the release determines how long it takes a sound to return to silence after a key has been released or a MIDI note even ends.

SynthCell comes equipped with two different types of envelopes: a Filter Envelope (Filter ENV) and an Amplitude Envelope (Amp ENV). In essence, the Amp ENV affects how the volume, or amplitude, of your sound changes over time; the Filter ENV affects how the filter is applied to your sound over time. The same stages of an envelope, ADSR, is used for both types of envelopes. In SynthCell, the ADSR curves for both the Filter ENV and Amp ENV can be adjusted using the knobs or by adjusting the graph itself.

Keyboard

To audition the sound you are synthesizing, you can use the built-in keyboard display found at the bottom of the SynthCell interface. SynthCell may default to the Arpeggiator view for this section, but you can switch to the keyboard display by clicking on the “KB” tab on the left-hand side. To return to the arpeggiator view, click on the “ARP” tab.

Arpeggiator

The arpeggiator can be used to arpeggiate your sound in a variety of ways. To toggle the arpeggiator on/off, click the “On/Off” button at the top right of the Arpeggiator section. Parameters that can be adjusted in the arpeggiator are the rate of arpeggiation, the amount of swing, the gate, the mode (or direction) of arpeggiation, and the number of octaves that the arpeggiation will span.

By clicking the drop-down arrow in the “Mode” section, you can access many different arpeggiation directions, as shown below. It can be helpful to toggle through some of these options to hear how they sound with your synthesized patch. By clicking the “Hold” button on the left-side of the Arpeggiator section, you can let the arpeggiation continue to play even if you’re not holding down the chord or notes on your MIDI controller or via keyboard typing.

The “Global” section on the right side of the SynthCell interfaces allows you to make adjustments that will affect the SynthCell instrument as a whole. You can change the max polyphony count, the degree of pitch bend, the function and rate of the mod wheel, the amount of glide between notes, and fine-tuning.

SynthCell comes equipped with multiple audio effects that can be used to alter the timbre or quality of your designed synthesizer sound. To toggle to the Effects display in SynthCell, click on the “Effects” button at the top of the interface. The currently selected view option will cause its associated button to light up green. To toggle back to the main SynthCell window, click on “Main”.

Once the Effects button is selected, SynthCell will display the variety of audio effects processing options that are available. These effects will process the main output of your synthesizer patch. SynthCell includes the following effects: reverb, modulation, delay, and distortion.

To turn any of these effects on, click on the “On/Off” button at the top right of the appropriate effect section of the window. Each of these audio effects allow you to not only adjust the character of the sound, but also the mix of the effected signal with the dry signal. From within the Effects display mode of SynthCell, you still have access to both the Global parameters and the Arpeggiator/Keyboard display. This is helpful, as you don’t have to toggle back to the Main display to adjust Global parameters or arpeggiation options.

Take time to experiment with SynthCell and find creative uses for you and your music. I'm sure you'll see how powerful SynthCell is, but also how easy it is to use.

Alex Thomen

Author: Alex Thomen
Composer & Music Technology Instructor
ProMedia Training, LLC
www.protoolstraining.com

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Alex Thomen
Alex ThomenComposer / Arranger / Music Technology Instructor
Alex Thomen is a producer, composer, pianist, mixing engineer, and music educator. He attained his Master's Degree in Commercial Music Composition and Arranging from Belmont University in Nashville, TN and taught as an instructor in Music Production at University of Miami Frost School of Music. From small-scale chamber groups and rock bands to full symphonic orchestra, Thomen arranges, produces, and mixes for a variety of ensembles and styles. Thomen’s education and experience have helped refine his skills in contemporary music production for Film/TV/Games. From ambient, musical soundscapes to fantastical, orchestral pieces, television commercials, and more, Thomen’s creative output evokes a vast variety of moods, settings, and themes.

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