Article from Issue 224/2019

One weekend this month, Graham's synth obsession took him 600 miles in a rental car into ancient Cornwall to buy a beat-up old 1980s MIDIBoard. Stay tuned for a Linux editor! Graham looks at Surge, fd, Kloak keystroke anonymizer, Symphytum, uMatrix,†and more!



If you're into synthesizers (and you really should be), you can't help but have noticed that the open source scene has exploded. This is mostly thanks to the amazing VCV Rack, a truly modular software synthesizer platform that runs virtual recreations of real and imagined hardware, all connected with virtual voltage and audio cables. Each month, there are new, and often open source, modules released to expand your VCV Rack system. It's now possible to build a virtual modular synthesizer on Linux that would cost you tens of thousands in real life.

However, VCV isn't the only amazing open source synthesizer that has recently become available on Linux. There is also Surge, a once-commercial product created by one of the developers behind the brilliant Bitwig commercial, loop-based DAW. Surge's code has been released, because the developer no longer has enough time to maintain it. That means not only do we get an incredible sound generator, we also get a Linux version where there were previously only Windows and macOS versions. What's particularly brilliant about this is that, because Surge was once a commercial product, there's an uncommon polish to not just its amazing sound, but in areas where voluntary projects often (quite understandably) struggle. Surge comes with a huge sound library of over 1,000 categorized patches, for example, and there's great user-interface (UI) design, and (wait for it) … a comprehensive manual!

But what really matters is the sound, and Surge is also one of the most powerful synthesizers you can find on your Linux desktop. It starts with the three oscillators per voice. Each can have one of eight waveforms: classic, sine, wavetable, window, FM2, FM3, sample/hold noise, and audio input. This is really exciting because the first (classic) is actually a morphable oscillator that shifts between pulse, saw, and dual saw – classic sounds that cover a huge chunk of synth history. From the oscillators, the sound is sent to an equally well-specified filter bank. There are two filters, each offering eight different algorithms, including classic two- and four-pole low-pass filters; notch, band pass, and comb filters; and a waveshaper – all with self-oscillation. This means you can create classic vintage sounds just as easily as experimental, futuristic sounds.

The remainder of the synth features 12 low-frequency oscillators (LFOs), each with their own DAHDSR envelope and seven different waveforms, which can all be routed to modulate almost any source, such as pitch or filter level. And finally, there's an effects section featuring reverb, delay, chorus, EQ, rotary speak, and even a vocoder. This is a hugely well-specified synthesizer, but the proof really is in the output, and it sounds amazing. Classic mono leads scream from your speakers, while patches using the LFO step sequencer create notes automatically. There are equally beautiful pads, strings, and atmospherics. This really could be your one synth to rule them all.

Project Website

1. Scenes: Unique to Surge is the way it uses two separate instances of the engine for layering and splits. 2. Patch library: Over 1,000 different patches are included, in many different categories. 3. Character: Use the warm characteristic to emulate vintage hardware, or bright for modern digital hardware. 4. Effects: Add reverb, delay, chorus, distortion, and EQ to your sound. 5. Oscillators: Three per voice to generate a huge morphing variation in sound options. 6. Oscillator routing: Even complex FM sounds, like those from Yamaha's DX7, can be generated. 7. Filters: There are just as many filter options and values as there are for oscillators. 8. Envelopes: One for the amplitude and one for the filter, both with analog and digital modes. 9. Modulation: Change the sound of many different parameters with the output from many different sources.

Keystroke anonymizer

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