A note from Angus Hewlett, FXpansion founder and Cypher2 lead developer.
After three years, tens of thousands of lines of code, long days, late nights, two hundred unique test systems and almost 100 kg of premium grade espresso beans, it's finally here.
Cypher2 is the latest and greatest in the Synth Squad tradition. Building on the original (has it been nearly a decade?), and the improvements made for Strobe v2 and 2.3, Cypher2 is simply the most powerful 5D, MPE-enabled, TransMod-powered synthesizer ever.
Literally every part of the engine has been overhauled and is more powerful than before. The same circuit modelled filters you know and love from v1, plus four brand new models. A far more intuitive TransMod with three times as many Mod Slots, dozens of new sources and all manner of real-time monitoring to help you navigate the system. A fully scalable vector-based GUI with colour themes for every taste and lighting environment. The powerful FX engine from Strobe2 with a few new twists, and the most capable sequencer / arpeggiator we've ever shipped. Switchable tri / sin core oscillators with additional audio-rate modulation paths for more complex, dynamic timbres. Spline Curves, Maths Modules, X/Y, slew generators, keyzones and a raft of Euro-inspired modulation tweaks. LFOs with multiple phase outputs and sub-oscillators, envelopes with four simultaneous curves, dual looping ramps, and a poly audio routing subsystem that lets you apply different FX mixes to different oscillators, different parts of the keyboard, different bits of the frequency spectrum.. or even the attack and release phase of the same sound. (Nice sound design trick: sending just the attack, or just the sustain part of every voice, to a reverb or delay on one of the buses).
And I haven't even got to the presets yet. But before I do.. a short story.
In the months after the Synth Squad launch in 2009, a couple of interesting things happened. Firstly, a sound designer unknown to me at the time, going by the alias "Himalaya", reached out about making a sound pack for Cypher and Fusor, to really recreate the sounds of the 70s' and 80s' greatest synths on our then-new circuit modelled synth engine. I’d not heard any of his work, but he came with a great reference from my old friend & Alchemy inventor, Ben Gillett (nowadays at Apple), and we bonded over a shared appreciation of Yamaha’s SY-77 - a one-of-a-kind sampling / FM hybrid synth from the early 90s. FXpansion’s co-founder Rhiannon McLaren immediately spotted the potential in offering a wider ecosystem of sound sets for Synth Squad owners, and we kicked off a project which evolved in to the Antiquity, Modernity and Electricity sound packs.
And secondly, a Ph.D. researcher who was working at FXpansion at the time, bringing some academic wizardry to Geist's beat-slicing and classification algorithms, introduced me to a university colleague of his who was working on 'something top secret' with an industrial designer at the Royal College of Arts, just across the Thames from FXpansion’s London HQ. The industrial designer was Roland Lamb, and the 'something top secret' turned out to be a very early prototype of what we know today as the Seaboard.
Fast-forward a couple of years and a few successful Himalaya / FXpansion Synth Squad collabs, and the Seaboard is progressing towards its launch. But it's a brand new instrument, and nobody really knows yet how it should sound; few existing sound engines can really cope all that well with the sheer depth and range of data generated by the new surface, let alone produce something that sounds musical. So I put Roland's team in touch with Himalaya aka Rafael Szaban, thinking he's just the person to subcontract for a week or two to figure it out. Raf and I worked on a customised build of Synth Squad to support what was then known as Multi Dimensional Control - the MPE standard didn't exist yet - which ROLI used to demo the pre-production Seaboard GRAND.
The rest, as they say, is history - five years on and Raf (Himalaya) is still designing sounds at ROLI, and of course now so am I, Rhiannon and the rest of the FXpansion team. Over the past two years, we’ve spent many an hour figuring out the intricacies of 5D expressive sound synthesis: not just implementing the MPE protocol (anyone with a JUCE SDK and a rudimentary knowledge of software synth development can do that) but making it respond smoothly, believably and above all musically. Especially if you've got a 5D controller (whether an inexpensive Seaboard BLOCK, Lightpad M or one of the big boys), you're going to enjoy the result.
So, those presets.
One of the most interesting things about developing synths or other creative tools - whether hardware or software - is that, although synth designers obviously try to build possibility, expression, freedom in; you can't anticipate every way in which people are going to end up using it, and someone will always be finding something you didn't know was in there. Roger Linn and Kikumoto-san (principal inventor of the TR-x0x boxes) never imagined their creations becoming the keystones of hip hop or acid house. Dave Smith couldn’t have foreseen, in 1983, that MIDI would find a home in multiple billions (yes, ‘b’) of devices. On this project, I've stayed strictly on the coding side, and left the sound design to others who are far more capable in that arena; it's been genuinely fascinating to see and hear what Raf, Mayur, Rory and the other contributors have come up with.
And yet, for an instrument where 5D expression, MPE and TransMod are at the heart of it, a preset is so much more than just a preset - as with e.g. Kontakt scripts, they're really not far off being software programs in their own right. What this means is that you get a whole additional layer of emergent behaviour: just as I can't anticipate what the sound designer will create with the synth engine, when they put it in the hands of a musician, something yet more emerges.
There are 1300 presets in Cypher2: 800 "2D" designed for conventional MIDI controllers (each with three additional degrees of freedom thanks to carefully mapped macro controls), and 500 "5D" designed for expressive controllers - they should work at their best with any controller offering velocity, poly pressure and MPE "Y Axis" (CC74), and these have five monophonic macro controls in addition to the five degrees of freedom inherent in MIDI Polyphonic Expression.
But rather than read about them any more, go and listen, watch, try!
Angus Hewlett, and the FXpansion & ROLI teams.