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19 July 2010

AAS TASSMAN 4.1.4 | ~£230 (~£65)

What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a Tassman? I must confess when I first encountered this physical modelling sound-design tool shortly after its launch in 2000, I thought it a monster. Hence trepidation oozed from my very pores as I set to wrapping my brains about the latest incarnation. Would it drive me to Tassmania? Would I up-sticks and emigrate to Tasmania? Would I ever figure out what ‘tassman’ means? Actually, it's derived from AAS employee number three's name Stéphane Tassart, so that's one mystery solved already, Watson. Earlier Tassman releases were, as it were, something of a mindf*ck, such was the sheer wealth of patch-editing options available. And I’m not talking about patch editing in terms of tweaking the odd knob or slider here and there. Being modular, Applied Acoustics' Tassman enables you to build shiny new custom synths from scratch.

Back in the day, when music technology was young and flanging had more to do with stroking tape reels than leaping on stomp boxes, there was a doctor called Bob. You could have a word with Bob and mention that you’d like a wooden cabinet stuffed with voltage controlled oscillators (VCOs), voltage controlled amplifiers (VCAs), filters (VCFs), envelope generators (ADSR being a popular choice) and whatever else he had lying about the workshops of RA Moog Co, plus a binload of patch cables. Once built, you could link each unit of a Moog Modular synth in whatever ways made sense, hence the synth term ‘patch’ was born. Changing the patches of a Modular is not a mere mouse-button click, though. Oh no. It entails a frenzy of patch-cable replugging and physical knob-twiddling in order to arrive at a configuration about as stable as a weeble. Internal voltage requirements, plus ambient temperature and humidity, are wont to warp the functioning of a Moog Modular’s analog components, making such a fundamental as keeping the thing in tune no fun, but mental.

Keith Emerson performing at NEARFest, 2006.Emerson & Moog via Wikipedia
While the system was originally intended for use by academics, muzos saw interesting possibilities and the first to really ignite interest in this mad Moog was Wendy Carlos with her 1968 work Switched-On Bach. Subsequently, ELP’s Keith Emerson and Tangerine Dream’s Klaus Schulze, among others, actually managed to tour their monstrous Modulars with varying degrees of success. I think it’s one of the few keyboard instruments that Emerson refrained from knifing on-stage.

Jump-cut to Montreal, Canada. No, we’ve not got ELP performing for the Games of the XXI Olympiad. The year is not 1976, but 1998 and two scientists, Philippe Dérogis and Marc Pierre Verge, have a yen to set up audio software company Applied Acoustic Systems (AAS). Come the turn of the century, AAS plonks Tassman firmly on the market and reception is mixed. Die-hard tweak-heads love it because Tassman enables them to configure software synth modules in multitudinous ways, link them together with virtual patch cables, audition the result in a trice and save it to disk. While cable manufacturers wept, and many a preset pilot scratched his or hear head, muzos with OCD were cock-a-hoop with the facilities to bolt together tone generators, envelope shapers, filters, step sequencers and more, then control the settings of each via MIDI.

There are no samples involved - Tassman is all about physical modelling, in that it has algorithms representing models of natural and electronic audio components and calculates what they’re up to on the fly. This makes for a small footprint in terms of disk space, but does give the computer’s processor a run for its mathematical moolah. Time did its marching-on thing and come 2004, Tassman had already reached v4, but there have been numerous service updates since. The latest update is to v4.1.6 for users of 64-bit Windows who have found their bowed instruments crashing. There’s also a downgrade until the end of July 2010: $250 off the usual $349 SRP, making for a temporary price tag of $99 (~£65). Now you’re talking. The reason for this act of apparent commercial suicide? No, it’s not in anticipation of v5, which is a way off yet (but shall come, promises AAS). No, it’s “simply to shake things up,” says a company spokesman. With a discount like that, AAS is entitled to shake babies. But, compared with previous versions, will Tassman 4 be as kind to my cognitive function as it is on my wallet?

I’ll forget the trauma of former encounters and focus on what we’ve got right here, right now, with an overview of how to knock up and play one’s own custom soft synth. We’ve two fundamental modes: Builder and Player, which can be toggled between via a button on the main interface. When building, you drag and drop modules from nested folders in a pane at left into the main Builder window. When aiming to make a sound, it’s best to start with something that makes... A sound! Tone generators are to be found in the Generators sub-folder of the Modules folder and include the bog-standard VCO, plus such modelled modules as Flute, Organ and Mallet. Drag in a Generator and hear it do absolutely nothing. You’ll need to drag in a module from the Output folder - Mono or Stereo Out - then link the output of the Generator to the input of the Output module by clicking and dragging virtual patch cables that snap neatly into place. Provided Tassman’s audio out has been assigned to your audio interface, a tone will emanate from the monitors. Exciting stuff, eh?

Thankfully, there’s a Keyboard module, and a self-explanatory Polykey, in the MIDI folder which, when linked to the Generator and set up to receive note data from the keyboard, switching to Player mode means you can play a tune. Or skip that, hook up one or more of the seven Sequencers and have them trigger the Generator instead. You’ll also need to insert a VCA to switch notes off when keys are released. To further shape the sound, we’ve 10 Filters, 15 Envelopes, 16 effects... Take the Tassman Tour for a full list. Select each that you want to apply by dragging them across into the Builder’s main window, patching them together and flipping into the Player by which to twiddle their knobs. And yes, you can use your controller’s knobs, assigning them via the Edit MIDI Links dialog under the Edit menu. So, we’ve arrived at a rudimentary synth so far, but you’ll be sharpening your knowledge of sound synthesis as you build. One useful educative endeavour, aside from RTFM (read the ... manual), is to open one of the bundled, pre-authored instruments and examine how it’s arranged and connected in the Builder. Some look nightmarishly complex, but once the basic concepts are grasped, you’ll see how trigger sources affect Generators, how such Resonators as Bowed String, Membrane and Marimba affect timbre, and thusly.

OK, wake up at the back! While the keenies at front are drooling over their laptops, I notice that those less interested in the guts of software synths are drifting toward catalepsy. If you prefer the easy life, there are 50 pre-built synths bundled and more than 1,000 presets to mess with, so you can be up and running in minutes. In fact, Tassman being a physical modeller, it takes less than a minute to install and presets load very quickly indeed, so instant gratification is not far away. And with its small memory footprint, running multiple instances shouldn’t strain the system too severely. Also, if you find the included presets limiting, there are numerous libraries available from third-party developers. So let's give it a whirl, shall we? Here are some audio clips to demo what's possible...

Juan Solo meets Dr Lizard

Mike Shannon & Juan Self featuring Tassman & Lounge Lizard EP-2

FM vs Analog + Tinefull FX

Lounge Lizard's Tinefull FX with Tassman's FM vs Analog bass, by Robert Voelk, mixed by Markus Reiter at Cyberfunk

Funky Vocoder

Composed by Deadbeat, aka Scott Monteith

GP Trios-Rivieres

Publicity clip from Jean-Sebastien Robitaille


Cinematics from AAS co-founder Philippe Dérogis

Abstract World Fusion Beats

By Jeff Rhodes of Perimeter Sound Arts

It should be plain that Tassman 4 is a synth suite worth exploring, and there are some nifty features that might well excite. Most significant is an audio input, so that sounds from other sources can be routed through Tassman’s modules, in effect turning it into a ruddy great effects processor when assigned as an insert or send in the host DAW. When devising devices, this latest version offers Sub-Patches - pre-authored module configurations - which make life much easier when constructing instruments, and Performances by which presets from different synth configurations can be grouped and quickly switched between. Along with the facility to customise MIDI controller assignations, Performances turns Tassman into a useful live-performance instrument. There’s a built-in audio recorder so that, say, sequenced patterns can be rendered as audio files for loading into an audio tracker or sampler. And sequencers, delay repeats and other temporal elements will sync to the tempo of a host sequencer. Accessing this lot is made the easier in v4 by an Output Effect stage that displays in Player view and which is automatically assigned to each instrument. The über-important thing is that Tassman is capable of producing sounds sublime (and some pretty disgusting stuff, too, if that’s more your cup of trash).

It’s pointless me pointing out signature sounds because, it being a synth-construction kit, Tassman can pretty much make any blarp, swoosh, wash, bleep or ping that you like. The retro-looking Player interface may not appeal to some, although it does to me, as does the more streamlined workflow compared with earlier versions. Perhaps its real appeal is that it can help you get a better handle on the workings of a synthesizer, which is useful knowledge if aiming to gain a better appreciation of the other soft synths in your plugin library. If tempted by Tassman 4, just ensure that you get yours before the end of this July when the price is likely to be more realistic, but that little less attractive.

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