Synthesist Erik Norlander, above, stays busy, keeping the prog flame alive with his solo and band projects; touring with rock supergroups, including Asia Featuring John Payne; performing on and producing dozens of albums; and doing design work on synths like the Alesis Andromeda.
We asked Norlander about the UNO, and how he and IK Multimedia went about designing the new synth.
Synthtopia: Since the UNO Synth was introduced at Superbooth, there’s been a lot of discussion about it, on Synthtopia and on other sites. For anybody that hasn’t heard about it yet, though, what’s your ‘elevator pitch’ introduction?
Erik Norlander: The UNO Synth is an affordable 2-oscillator real analog synthesizer, with a 2-pole multimode filter, 2 envelopes, LFO, arpeggiator, sequencer and 100 presets.
Did I mention it’s real analog? It’s real analog.
Synthtopia: What about your background and how you got into designing synthesizers? Your career has included recording and releasing dozens of albums, touring with rock and prog supergroups, music production and designing synths like the Andromeda. That’s a lot of territory.
What’s your ‘day job’ and how do you balance all these projects?
Erik Norlander: That’s actually the key to balancing these various projects: I don’t really have a day job!
I take every project super seriously, whether it’s designing a synthesizer, recording and editing a sound library, making an album or doing a tour with a rock band. I don’t over-commit, and I do my very best never to “phone in” any project.
It’s either do it 100% or don’t do it. All of these jobs are things I would do for free (and have done for free!), so it’s real privilege to have reached this point in my career.
But as you can imagine, being an active musician and designing products goes hand in hand. You know exactly what sounds work, exactly what features work, etc. when you are using the stuff every day in real life.
One example is our Syntronik product. You can imagine the huge amount of sample editing that was required for that. I did a lot of the editing while on a tour bus in Europe! I was doing this lengthy tour there, but of course all the actual gigs were at night.
So what do I do all day? Work on the sample library!
Why not? Often I even tried out sounds onstage when I needed to see what worked and what needed further refinement. How’s that for opportunity?
Synthtopia: Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into doing synth design work and some of the projects you’ve worked on before working with IK Multimedia?
Erik Norlander: I got into the synth design world in the early 90s, after licensing some samples to Alesis Studio Electronics for the original QuadraSynth. I think it was Rhodes, Hammond and some synth samples, if I remember correctly.
They liked my sounds, so after the product was released and not received so well, they asked me to come in and help with the re-voicing of it. That led to my first actual product, the QuadraSynth Plus, which was a major revamp of the instrument.
I became the first Synthesizer Product Manager for the company, and that let to the QS6, then the QS8 and other related products like the NanoPiano and other modules, including the DM5 and DM Pro drum products.
But, of course, the height of my career at Alesis was the Andromeda, a 16-voice 32-oscillator 32-filter real analog synthesizer (did I mention real analog?).
The Andromeda was made at a time when analog was not really done anymore. It was all about “virtual analog” then.
I convinced Keith Barr, the owner of Alesis and a genius chip designer, to design custom silicon ASICs (Application Specific Integrated Circuit) for the Andromeda, which he loved doing.
By the way, did you know about the secret pun in the product name?
The Andromeda also has the designation, “A6.” You would think that stands for “analog” and “6” for 61 keys. Yes, true, but if you say “A6” in English, it sounds exactly like “ASICs,” the chips that make the actual sound of the synth.
Our marketing guru, David Bryce, came up with the name “Andromeda,” but I insisted on keeping the A6 for that reason. My sense of humor, I suppose!
Oh, and I was even able to get Bob Moog to consult and help us!
I used to get these faxes from Bob, and I would take them to Keith and the engineering team like bringing down The Ten Commandments from the mountain. “Hey, check it out, Bob Moog said to try THIS!”
Then after Alesis, I did some independent work for Yamaha, Dave Smith Instruments, Waldorf, Midiman / Avid, MOTU and other companies. All the while recording albums and touring as a musician.
See the lines on my face? Now you know what put them there!
Synthtopia: Some readers may not realize that you’ve been working with IK Multimedia for quite a while. Can you tell us how that came about, and some of the projects you’ve worked on with them?
Erik Norlander: I met Enrico Iori, the owner and main designer of IK in 2010 through Dave Kerzner, who owns the Sonic Reality sound design company. I’ve known Dave for over 20 years since he was going to music school in Los Angeles with a bandmate of mine.
Dave went on to provide some sample content for me at Alesis which we used on several of the “Q Cards,” expansion libraries for the QS series synths. I returned the favor in the mid 2000s when I licensed samples for the SampleMoog virtual instrument to Dave.
So I already had a connection to IK from that, but I didn’t know any of the other IK guys directly. Dave’s brother, Gary, runs IK in the US and is a major force in the company. They actually asked me to do some writing for the company, both technical and marketing, so I started helping them with that, believe it or not.
Then I got involved in the SampleTank 3 project and recorded a lot of content for that, particularly the Ethnic and Percussion category sounds which I recorded with my drummer friends, Greg Ellis and Gregg Bissonette. Greg Ellis and I then went on to record the Cinematic Percussion and Orchestral Percussion instrument collections (sound libraries) for SampleTank 3. I also recorded some of the content for Miroslav Philarharmonik 2, like the mallet instruments.
From there we created Syntronik, a synth virtual instrument based on my rather extensive synthesizer collection. I provided the samples — which I had recorded over a period of about 20 years! — and IK provided the brilliant modeling technology for the filters and effects.
We continue to add to it. As you know from Superbooth in Berlin, earlier this year we released 5 more synths for Syntronik, including the ones based on the EMS VCS3 and Memorymoog. I plan to add more there, naturally. I really love that product!
Designing The UNO Synthesizer
Synthtopia: So your latest project is the UNO, which has already generated a lot of interest and a lot of questions from readers. Before we get into reader questions, though, tell us how the idea for the UNO came about.
Erik Norlander: Enrico, the owner of IK, of course knew my background with synths, and he and I had talked about making a hardware synth product for some time. Then through serendipity, Davide Mancini and Sound Machines approached IK in Italy, to see if they would like to collaborate on a product.
It was the perfect storm. Enrico and I designed the UNO Synth — after about a thousand iterations! — and Sound Machines executed the design in hardware. The IK CTO, Davide Barbi, was instrumental in the process as well. He is a super talented electrical engineer, among other things, so he was great at problem solving and identifying various issues.
Synthtopia: What was the original concept or design spec that you started with?
Erik Norlander: IK has done very well in the mobile world, starting with the iRig guitar interface and of course continue with things like the iLoud series of powered speakers. So we wanted to enter the hardware synth market with something that would fit with that kind of a product line, a super portable synthesizer.
We wanted it to be affordable, too, as that usually goes hand-in-hand with the mobile market. Oh, and it had to sound amazing, so real analog was the clear pathway to that.
The idea was to create “the analog synth for everyone.” And that’s what we did in the end.
Synthtopia: How do you go from an idea like that to having a prototype that you can demo at Superbooth? We talked at Superbooth about it being a team process with IK and Soundmachines. What’s that process like and who does what?
Erik Norlander: We started with just breadboard prototypes of the circuit. Sound Machines would send us audio and even video examples of the various sections, and we would evaluate those.
Then with 3D printing, it was possible make physical prototypes of the units to test the functionality of the capacitance sensing technology and do a real proof-of-concept with the user interface.
With every step, of course there were things that needed to be refined, some in hardware, some in the firmware. The firmware in particular tends to be an ongoing process.
Synthtopia: Here are a few questions we’ve seen popping up from readers.
Some readers look at the UNO and it reminds them of the membrane switch synth interfaces of the 80’s, which were a weak spot on some of those synths.
Can you clarify the difference between a membrane interface, and the capacitive sensing panel of the UNO?
Erik Norlander: Yes, that is naturally what you think of when you first see the UNO Synth.
Happily, what we are doing is completely different from the old membrane switches on things like the DX7, Moog Source or ARP Chroma. Those are physical switches with a plastic overlay. So as you continue to press the buttons, the switches start to wear away at the plastic and eventually poke through. You see so many old DX7s that have holes in the overlay now.
The UNO Synth uses capacitance sensing technology for the buttons. There are no physical switches on the synth, aside from the power switch on the back. It has more in common with the old Buchla capacitance sensing keyboards and controllers, where the surface detects the capacitance of your finger. It works very similar to a smartphone that way.
So you actually don’t have to “press” anything on the UNO Synth. You just touch it, glide over the surface. It’s very elegant and artistic when you get used to it. I’ve seen a lot of people come up to the synth and start truly banging on it like it’s an MPC drum machine. But you don’t need to do that — a light touch works just as well.
Synthtopia: A lot of readers are wondering about what’s analog and what’s digital on the UNO. And how do you decide which elements of the synth you want to make analog or digital?
Erik Norlander: That’s a good question, and happily the answer is super clear and easy. The audio path is analog, and the control path is digital.
So the oscillators, noise generator and filter — all the things that actually make the sound and color the sound — are analog. Then the things that modulate the sound — the LFO, the envelopes, the CV control of pitch, etc. — are digital.
This is what we did on the Andromeda, of course. It’s a great way to get the best of both worlds. You get real analog sound, that infinite, constantly changing beautiful tone that we all love so much, along with precise digital control.
The digital also allows us to actually add features after the hardware is built. Because the oscillator and filter frequencies just get a final coefficient as a control, we can generate that control almost any way we want. For example, It could be via a 2-stage envelope, a 4-stage envelope, a simple ramp or even something completely wild and esoteric beyond the typical controls.
Synthtopia: Readers are interested in whether the oscillators are VCOs or DCO’s, if the noise source is analog etc.
Erik Norlander: They are real VCOs, not DCOs. And the noise source is analog.
UNO Synth FAQs
Synthtopia: We also saw a lot of reader questions that can probably can be addressed with short FAQ answers.
Can you chain patterns on this or is it 16 step patterns only?
Erik Norlander: You cannot chain patterns, but since every preset has a pattern associated with it, you can change presets, the UNO Synth will wait for the next bar line to actually change. So you can go from pattern to pattern this way without any hiccups or odd bars.
Synthtopia: Can you sequence parameter changes? Can you record motion sequencing?
Erik Norlander: Yes you can. You can record 20 synth parameters for each of the 16 steps. This lets you completely transform the sound from step to step.
And because of the analog circuit design, the changes are smooth with no zippering, even when they happen super fast.
Synthtopia: Is MIDI control limited to 128 steps?
Erik Norlander: Yes.
Synthtopia: Can it be used as a MIDI keyboard controller via USB?
Erik Norlander: Yes it can, and it is also a USB MIDI interface, since we have both USB MIDI and the 2.5mm to DIN connector jacks for the traditional 5-pin MIDI connection.
So if you want to connect your computer to your old DX7 with the broken membrane switches, you can use the UNO Synth as the MIDI interface.
Synthtopia: How can the Line In be used?
Erik Norlander: It is simply a pass-through connection for daisy chaining another UNO Synth, a drum machine or other audio signals. The audio in does not go through the filter.
Synthtopia: Can the digital effects be bypassed entirely to get straight analog audio?
Erik Norlander: Yes, the delay is just added to the analog output, not mixed or balanced with it.
So if you don’t want to hear the digital delay, set the Mix control to zero and you have nothing but beautiful analog synth tone.
Synthtopia: Is there an option to store presets under the pads, or something like that, to get quick access to sounds for performance?
Erik Norlander: Not yet.
Synthtopia: Does the filter self-oscillate?
Erik Norlander: It does not, and this was by design. There is this strange fascination with turning a filter into a sine wave oscillator, and I know a lot of people find that interesting. It would be easy enough to do on the UNO Synth — we would just let the resonance control go farther. But we made the decision to limit the resonance for the sake of clarity and simplicity.
If we let the filter self-oscillate, then many less experienced users might get stuck wondering why the oscillator controls no longer worked, or if filter keyboard tracking was turned off, why the keyboard no longer played notes.
But if you really want the sound of that self-oscillating sine wave, okay, just set one of the oscillators to the triangle wave and turn down the filter cutoff. Et voilà!
Synthtopia: What additional options do you get access to by using a computer for editing?
Erik Norlander: You can also use an iPhone or iPad with the UNO Synth Editor.
You can adjust the oscillator shape modulation or pulse width modulation, the sweep of the pulse width or oscillator shape controlled by the filter envelope, the speed of the scoop and dive controls, the depth of the vibrato, wah and trem controls, turn keyboard tracking on and off, set global functions like the MIDI soft through or knob editing mode (Absolute, Relative, Pass-Through) … lots of cool things like that.
You can also do these things with MIDI CCs and SysEx, but it sure is a lot faster with the editor.
Another cool thing about the UNO Synth Editor is that when you use it as a plug-in within a DAW session, it will store the current state of the synth in the DAW session, just like a virtual instrument plug-in. So no need to actually save the preset for the song in the synth itself, if you don’t want to.
Synthtopia: Erik – thanks for taking the time to share some background on the creation of the UNO – and to answer some reader questions, too.
Erik Norlander: Thanks as always, Synthtopia — we love you guys!
You can find out more about the UNO and Erik Norlander’s work at IK Multimedia via the Superbooth 2018 videos embedded below. Details and demos for the UNO Synth are available at the IK Multimedia site. And see Norlander’s site for more about him and his music.