Tim's Atari MIDI World

Soft-synths and Atari


Recently I recieved an e-mail asking questions on soft-synths. The serendipity was that I have recently taken the dive into soft-synths myself and saw an opportunity to share my enthusiasm in this column. Here is the original letter:

    I am into keyboards and keyboard music and home studios myself. I have played keyboards for many years and I'm always getting something new to make a new sound with. Synthesizers, FX distortions, and everything. Only problem is, I do things the hard way - the way they did it a long time ago. I am trying to get into MIDI, MIDI controllers, software synths, and synthesizer modules.

    So my questions on this are:

    • What is a rack-mount synth and how do you trigger the synth sounds?
    • Can you use a MIDI controller or MIDI keyboard to trigger a sound on a synth module (or a sound from a software synth) and hear it live?
    • What can you do with a MIDI controller? Can you use a MIDI keyboard and MIDI interface to play a software synth live?

    What I have in my set-up is some keyboard FX boxes, a powerful (2.4 GHz) laptop comptuer with USB. I am also heavily into live sound. I don't like the thought of playing something and recording it and not hearing it until I finish recording it.

    I am also curious about all of this Atari equipment you mention  on your site. How does it compare to everything else on the market? I have never seen any Atari equipment in any of my MIDI/keyboard catalogs.

    Thank you for your time.



You are asking a lot of questions here and I will try to answer the best I can. Since you have a powerful PC, you can get into soft-synths. What you need is a VST host such as Orion, Cubase VST, Fruity Loops or other freeware/shareware host such as energyXT. The other thing you will need is a MIDI keyboard controller. There are some new ones on the market which are designed just for controlling soft-synths which are reasonably priced with knobs and faders directly on the keyboard for ease of use. These range from $100.00 to $300.00 depending on your needs and how many features you want. However if you want just a MIDI keyboard controller, those can be had for less than $100.00. You can even use an old Casio CZ-101 or Yamaha DX7 and have great sounds to boot!

In order to use the MIDI keyboard controller and soft-synths you will also need a good sound card. I recommend Creative Labs' Sound Blaster Live!. You can also use the EMU APS drivers with these so you will get less latency, which is a big issue with soft-synths. 

For more information, go here:

Another aspect about using the Sound Blaster Live! card is that you can use SoundFonts which are basically samples with synth processing. You can experience no latency as well and they can sound quite good. There are tons of good SoundFonts on the internet as well as commercial CDs.

[Screen-shot: Lots of soft-synths]

As far as soft-synths, there are so many freeware/shareware as well as commercial products on the internet, you will have a hard time choosing! Some demos for the commercial products are still very useable and give you a good presentation of the synthesis methods used. Commercial products I recommend are Absynth, Moog Modular, VirSyn TERA and Cube, and VAZ Modular. There are many others as well. As far as the freeware/shareware options there are many good sounding possibilities. My favorite is Synth 1 VST which is a Nord Modular clone. Another is Crystal which offers so many synthesis methods and sonic exploration. In addition there are many soft-synths made with SynthEdit, a VST synth maker. Some people have gone wild with this application and have created some really excellent creative soft-synths. Examples include Dr Ambient's Phadiz, Cosmogirl2, Orbitor, Motion2, Barking Wombat, Mini-se (Mini Moog clone), SunRa, and many, many more. You can find all of these including the commercial ones on the link section below.

[Photo: ACE MIDI in action]

How does all of this work with Atari? If you have an Atari computer you are using for sequencing (such as Cubase or Master Tracks Pro) you can simply have the PC in the MIDI chain (Atari MIDI Out to PC MIDI In). However, even if you don't have an Atari computer, you can still use Atari software by using an emulator such as Steem (see You can install a virtual MIDI cord (called Hubi's MIDI LoopBack, available free on the internet) and use Atari software to control your soft-synths. Examples can include using algorithmic generators such as Tunesmith to trigger soft-synths set up in your VST host, and assigned to different MIDI channels. There are also algorithmic applications that allow you to use Continous Controller (CC) messages. All you need is the list of CCs that can be controlled on the soft-synth (usally provided in the download) and set up the application to control it. An example of this is Dr Ambient's AEX which allows you to use CCs in its generative output. Another is Neil Wakeling's Pulsar which allows you to map CCs with each note generated. You can get some rather wild effects with this and it is very much worth exploring! What's more, you can capture the output as audio and save the performance directly on the computer. You can use the host's built-in wave capture routine, or there are plug-ins you can use for the same application.

As far as a set-up is concerned, here is an example with two external synth modules.

PC only

  • MIDI keyboard controller MIDI Out to MIDI In of PC (usually on the game port using an adapter cable).
  • PC MIDI Out to MIDI In of synth module A. You will need to set up your sequencer/VST host so it also routes MIDI Thru to the MIDI Out port of the PC. It's usually under MIDI set up.
  • Synth module A MIDI Thru to synth module B MIDI In.

Using an Atari computer

  • MIDI keyboard controller MIDI Out to Atari MIDI In.
  • Atari MIDI Out to synth module A MIDI In.
  • Synth module A MIDI Thru to synth module B MIDI In.
  • Synth module B MIDI Thru to PC MIDI In.
  • In this case, the PC's MIDI Out is not used as the Atari is the main master controller.

I highly recommend using soft-synths as it allows more sonic possibilities and ease of sound creation. However, hardware synths also have a place with their unique sounds with dedicated DSP and no latency which is the main issue with using soft-synths, especially in a live situation.

Atari, the company is no more, or rather the computer/music part. It has been taken over by Infogrames which is now calling itself Atari, so all the games it produces are under the Atari brand. However, back in the '80s and early '90s, Atari was the biggest thing in music because of built-in MIDI ports and expressive software. There is still a large internet community today and new applications are still being developed.

Useful links


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MyAtari magazine - Feature #8, August 2003

Copyright 2003 MyAtari magazine