Don’t you love it when a sound you make by accident changes your music for the better? Or when a moment of undirected noodling sparks a new idea altogether? Live 12 Suite’s new macro oscillator synthesizer Meld is designed to make these unexpected successes a bit more likely to happen. Inspired by the adaptability and multi-functionality found in the world of modular synthesis, Meld’s creator Christian Kleine and lead engineer Rob Tubb set out with their team of developers to make a new device that encourages intuitive exploration based on musical intention.
With two engines, a vast selection of pre-designed complex oscillators to load in, and plenty of interesting ways to route, cross-modulate and combine, Meld is easy to get to grips with at a glance, and deceptively sophisticated under the surface. There’s a broad, colorful palette of sounds to be explored, and Meld’s built-in scale awareness makes it easy to tame your weird and wonderful experiments into key – meaning nothing is off-limits and surprises are guaranteed.
“It’s one of those things I always felt I wanted to do,” explains Meld’s concept lead and UX designer Christian Kleine. “The inspiration was not so much from a technical perspective, but more from a musical perspective.”
Meld is bi-timbral, meaning its distinct engines can produce, sculpt and combine two complete sounds without being tied to the amplitude and filter envelopes of one system. Of course, you can choose to combine the basic wave shapes you’d expect to find on pretty much every other synth, but Meld also allows you to start with sounds that would usually be the end result of another technique.
Early on, the team put their heads together to get inventive with the sound sources on offer. “It was fun,” remembers lead engineer Rob Tubb. “We had a few weeks where we all just made oscillators in Max. We made a list of all the bases we wanted to cover, started off with all the bread and butter things and then got progressively weirder as we went down the list.”
You can try grabbing a fizzy folded FM oscillator for Engine A and merging it with a the mysterious dial-up internet sounds of “Bitgrunge” or the swirling barberpole “Shepard’s Pi” on Engine B. “It’s two synthesizers in one,” says Christian. “It allows for a combination of two things, and this makes the sum bigger than its parts.”
Christian hopes that working with predetermined complex oscillators will lead to musical exploration starting earlier in the creative process. “There’s a technique of synthesis you can achieve with a certain synthesizer like Operator or Wavetable or whatever. And of course you can do that, but then that’s all you’ve done,” he says. “I wanted to continue that path, basically.”
Each engine has two main macro controls, which change function depending on the oscillator in use. The macros give you immediate command over selected parameters under the hood, so any tweaks make big, noticeable changes to the sound right away. “If you think about it like two controls dictating the overall underlying sound of an engine, and you can control these dimensions with the push of a button,” explains Christian, “then you can think more about the musical relevance of these things rather than the technical setup.”
This all makes it a lot easier to harness Meld’s MPE capabilities, adds Rob. “If you’ve got a billion parameters, you have to map a ton of stuff in order to get anything happening for MPE control. Whereas, if you’ve just got a few macros, you can say, well, this macro can be dedicated to slide and it’s definitely going to do something useful.”
But the macros are there for quick and effective handling, not to create limitations – there are plenty of options for customizing and altering the sound in more detail. This side of Meld takes inspiration from the flexibility found in modular synthesis. “I’m a massive fan of Mutable Instruments stuff,” says Rob. “The sheer adaptability and multi-function stuff that modules can do, that was a big influence. We have this thing where you can assign an LFO, but then process that LFO with something else to create a different shape. And that idea is really lifted from the modular world where you can process anything with anything.”
It was especially important for Christian to deliver this kind of creative flexibility without alienating less experienced users. “My main interest is to make something for both ends of the spectrum. Not to create a system that’s really only for nerds, but too complicated for beginners. People who know everything about synthesizers and why a modular system is so powerful, they can apply some of that knowledge back to have fun with something like Meld.”
Deep sound design
One way to open up Meld’s deeper potential is by using the Spread function as a modulator. Usually, spreading would mean panning or slightly detuning oscillators as a way to bring more width to the sound. But with Meld, you can map it to anything in the modulation matrix. “You can map it to filter frequencies so you get loads of filters at different frequencies all at once,” Rob illustrates. “And then you can map it to LFO speed so you have different LFOs all starting at the same time – even stuff that’s modulating other stuff. It can get deep and dense and weird quite quickly.”
For in-depth sound design, you can pop open the modulation matrix for a full overview of all the options, including cross-modulation between the two engines. This means you can modulate Engine A with the modulators from Engine B and vice-versa. “Cross-modulation has its own interesting technical possibilities,” says Christian. “If you really want, you can have four LFOs, or three envelopes on one engine, but the main thing is really that it helps to meld the two engines together.”
It’s also here that you can copy values from one engine over to the other. Rob explains that this can be especially useful when you’ve gone down a rabbit hole and patched something that would be tricky to repeat in the other engine. “I use it quite a lot to just copy the modulators across, because you can get these super complicated Euclidean rhythms going through envelope followers and all sorts of nonsense. And then I might want that to happen for something else, but I want to just change one thing about it. So then I can copy it across and make one tweak to get it working.”
Endless modulation options and the ability to make very complex sounds can make it a bit of a puzzle to keep everything in check from a musical perspective. Live 12’s scale awareness feature makes it easy to explore tuning systems and stay in key. But integrated with Meld, scale awareness provides even more opportunities for sound design – for example, you can quantize the pitch and use an LFO to create a pitch-stepped glissando effect that’s in key with your music.
“Even if you don’t use scale awareness, this is a feature that I think is a must-have for any modern synth,” says Christian. “It’s just a very musical type of modulation because the ear is so sensitive to the continuation of pitch.”
Meld’s Plate and Membrane Resonator filters also have scale-aware capabilities, so you can use the resonance to create chiming bell tones from the incoming signal and have them play in the scale of your choice. “You can have all kinds of nonsense going into these filters,” says Rob. “But because it’s tuned to your scale, it comes out as music.”
“All of this helps you to lock into these harmonic mysteries,” adds Christian. “It immediately brings a different musicality to any sound, and you can explore harmonic relationships in a different context.”
For Christian, the ability to integrate scale awareness was a result of Live’s integrated design. “Ableton devices are generally more integrated,” he says. “It feels like a modern feature that’s different from other modern features. You can always get there somehow with other devices, but I find it intriguing to just hit two buttons or activate scale awareness and then just try things. Try it with modulation and the results are sometimes very different from being just bound to the chromatic scales.”
Ultimately, Meld’s story is about trying things out and seeing what happens, says Christian. “If you just have Live on a laptop and you’re spending three weeks on an island, what would keep you excited? And I think Meld is one thing that would keep me excited because it’s more open ended. It was actually designed to have accidents, and I’m quite fascinated by these.”
“I think it will grow on people over time,” he concludes. “It’s not the synth that you look at once and say, ‘that's the most amazing thing I ever saw.’ But the more time you spend with it, the more you’re surprised and get attached to it, because it brings you into sound areas that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.”
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