The Making of Neuron|
The development of Neuron is a venture that since March of 2000 has involved companies and experts in different fields of electronics, data processing, design and construction. The underlying concept for the product was the brainchild of Axel Hartmann and Stephan Bernsee, who first brainstormed the idea at the Frankfurt 2000 Musikmesse trade show. Hartmann is the proprietor of Design Box, a design company located in Ravensburg, Germany; Stephan Bernsee is a music software developer and founder of the successful Karlsruhe-based software company Prosoniq.
The drive to develop Neuron's soft- and hardware kicked off in April 2000. The designers first focused on the user interface, which would be based on adaptive computer algorithms that Stephan Bernsee had evolved over many years. In late summer of 2000, they began seeking out people and companies who could help implement the synthesizer.
The Neuron Idea
Contemporary music productions have benefited from computer assistance for many years now. Often tracks are created entirely in the virtual realm. Though computers have taken on the role of the actual recording equipment, they also come in many other musical guises. Case in point: Where in the past synthesizers and samplers were composed of discreet electronic components, today they run as programs on a DSP (digital signal processor).
The past five years have seen the advent of a technology so powerful that it allows emulations of musical instruments to be integrated into computer-assisted music systems in the form of software plug-ins. This lets users enjoy the convenience of accessing virtual instruments right there on their computers. The instruments are "played" by means of a graphical user interface. An image of the instrument control panel appears on the screen alongside the actual recording software. It presents various control features such as faders, knobs, buttons, switches and so forth that serve to play or operate the virtual instrument, sampler or synthesizer. Despite this convenience, though, ever more users are voicing their dissatisfaction with the ergonomic shortcomings of playing an instrument via screen, computer keyboard and mouse. Musicians and producers alike feel that this working method is an encumbrance, hampering creativity and the all-important impelling force of musical intuition. The growing success of specialized remote controllers - outboard gear sporting physical knobs and faders - attest to the fact that many musicians miss the touchy-feely vibe of a real instrument. The irony of this retro yearning is that most virtual instruments are nothing but a computer-generated emulation of what was once a real instrument. But the allure of the corporeal is compelling, and savvy users have come to appreciate that tactile sensations play a part in making music, and that hands-on handling of an electronic instrument's man-machine interface gets their creative juices flowing.
Though this bias towards the palpable helped birth Neuron, tactility is just one of many aspects. Taken in its entirety, it is nothing less than the next logical step in the ongoing development of synthetic sound generators. Courtesy of an innovative conceptual approach, we are able to make the most of the benefits which state-of-the-art computer technology can bring: At heart, Neuron is a highly specialized PC. With its custom-configured operating system and peripheral components (user interface, power unit, mass storage, etc.) tailored to the system, it provides the hardware underpinning for a novel take on software synthesis. And its man-machine interface is a remote control designed specifically for this application. Though this interface affords direct access to the formidable creative powers of a sound synthesis engine, it is so much more than merely an access tool. It is an organic extension of the synthesizer's heart and soul, the synthesis engine.
That said, though, any explanation of the true breadth and depth of the concept behind Neuron requires a trip down memory lane to recap the history of electronic musical instruments and synthesizers. Almost a century ago, the pioneers of electronic music began experimenting with colossal sound generators powered by electricity. On a quest for new sounds that classic instruments were incapable of producing, these musical modernists developed devices that would inspire many great tunesmiths and composers of film scores. The driving force behind this crusade was the desire to explore the great sonic frontier. That would change over the course of the coming decades. Commercialization and corporatization changed the way music was perceived and made. Technological advances, particularly strides made in the past 30 years, made it possible to produce entire compositions using electronic instruments called synthesizers and samplers. The new market paradigm for instrument builders was to fashion "authentic" sounds - timbres and tones as close as possible to those produced by traditional instruments. Imitation gave way to innovation in the last decade or so when musicians began to see the tremendous creative potential that the all but forgotten classic synthesizers harbored. Concurrently, a new musical style emerged that celebrated the sound of electronica as such.
Today contemporary productions are for all practical purposes musical hybrids in which typical synthesizer sounds share sonic space with the time-honored instruments of pop music. That explains the modern-day renaissance of archetypal synthesizers, albeit in the guise of the aforementioned digital emulations rather than as an assemblage of complex discreet circuits.
In the course of these development phases, mad scientists toiled away in labs, concocting all manner of approaches to synthesis. Key technologies emerged and held sway over the synthesizer market for many years. Hordes of companies embraced them and incorporated them in proprietary products. A handful of technologies prevailed - to this day, they provide the coordinates by which every manufacturer charts his synthesizers' course. A case can be made for the point that a trailblazing technology arrives every 15 to 20 years and, equally important, spawns generations of commercially successful products:
- subtractive synthesis
(pioneers: Moog, EMS, Buchla, Sequential Circuits, Oberheim, ARP)
- additive synthesis
(pioneers: Fairlight, Synclavier, PPG, Technos)
- wavetable / digital synthesis (pioneers: PPG)
- FM (frequency modulation) / PD (phase distortion) synthesis
(pioneers: Yamaha, Casio)
- FM (frequency modulation) / PD (phase distortion) synthesis
(pioneers: Yamaha, Casio)
- virtual sound synthesis / physical modeling
- sampling (pioneers: Fairlight, EMU Systems, Synclavier)
We are convinced that with Neuron, we have created the technological underpinning for a sonic revolution of the same order. Neuron employs a technology that in the near future will reshape the perceptions of the entire computer industry. Neuron is powered by adaptive computer algorithms. Its sound generation system is rooted in the mind-boggling potential of resynthesis. The term is easily defined: resynthesis is a process by which an original exemplar is artificially replicated - in this case, a digital mirror image of a sonic event - with all its characteristic features remaining intact. We applied the principles of an adaptive program that has evolved and been refined over many years. Now for the first time in the history of synthesizers it is possible to access resynthesized sounds with astonishing accuracy and reshape them drastically and to spectacular effect.
Like a sentient being, Neuron recognizes a sound. But more than that, its intelligence is such that it puts at the user's disposal parameters whose structure is dynamically adapted to suit this sound. And that makes Neuron the first synthesizer with a nerve center that does not work with fixed parameter assignments.
Neuron is a professional synthesis tool for musicians, producers, sound artists, and sound enthusiasts. It debuted for all the world to see at USA's premier musical instrument fair, the NAMM show, in January 2002.
The People behind Neuron
Today a designer known and respected by the music industry throughout the world, Axel Hartmann earned his wings as the in-house designer at Waldorf Electronics. To this day, he remains the creative force behind this German high-end synthesizer manufacturer's corporate design. With the Wave, Q and Attack families - actually, all Waldorf products as well as the company' attention-grabbing corporate identity - to his credit, the merits he garnered there were many. In 1995 Axel Hartmann joined forces with Stefan Leitl, launching a design company based in Ravensburg, Germany. His accounts list reads like a who's who of the entire music industry. Numbering among his most striking accomplishments are the Waldorf Wave, Alesis Andromeda, Steinberg Houston, and Creamware Noah, to mention just a few.
With Neuron, Axel Hartmann has made a long-held dream come true - to develop a synthesizer a breed apart. His determination yielded an instrument boasting uncompromising aesthetics, innovative technology, and a totally ergonomic feel in perfect harmony with Stephan Bernsee's jaw-dropping synthesis engine.
Stephan M. Bernsee is the R&D mastermind of the Karlsruhe-based software smithy Prosoniq. He also works as a consultant, hiring out his formidable digital signal processing know-how to leading companies of the music and communications industries. The founder of Prosoniq, he has developed the underlying technologies for the company's products since 1991. He succeeded in developing software that morphs audio signals using perceptional models on the Silicon Graphics IRIX platform in 1988, as well as time-frequency transformation processes designed specifically for this purpose. This was a major stride in analyzing, researching and imaging key functions of human auditory perception on the computer using structures borrowed from nature.
Next to his track record of achievements at Prosoniq, he also developed important technologies for leading music industry companies, among them the formant correction feature found in Emagic's Logic Audio as well as Steinberg Nuendo software's time stretching feature. Stephan Bernsee's innovations have been bundled and sold in soft- and hardware packages by Creative Labs, Steinberg, Emagic, Prosoniq, Digidesign and others. Products such as the NorthPole VST freeware plug-in, developed jointly with Frederic Schelling, ranks among the most prevalent products on the market. Recent developments include a polyphonic real-time resynthesizer (Prosoniq Magenta) as well as software applications for de-mixing signals and for simulating auditory perception on the computer.
In his collaboration with Hartmann, he is taking his research activity in the field of perceptional models from fringe to mainstream science, employing it for the first time in an electronic musical instrument. Bernsee also takes an active role in advocating education in this field. Focusing on related issues, his private homepage is http://www.dspdimension.com.
A summary of the Hartmann philosophy in 100 words
- The Hartmann brand converges passion for music, top-drawer design and visionary technology.
- Hartmann makes premium products for music-makers.
- All companies contributing to Hartmann products satisfy the highest standards for quality.
- Hartmann products are intelligent and inspiring.
- Hartmann instruments are all about ease of use, intuitive handling and enjoying new technology.
- Elegance and lasting value are hallmarks of Hartmann products.
- Every Hartmann product is honest. Its visuals reflect its technological sophistication.
- Hartmann products are timeless.
- The imperative to provide an excellent instrument or music-generating device to customers prevails over purely economic interests.