Xylosynth update: Zynthian

Starting in late November, I was involved in 3 outdoor rehearsals for a [short] caroling event at Christ Church on Dec. 13. I was asked to play glockenspiel, but since was given creative liberties, I decided to play the melody and parts of the 2nd and 3rd clarinet parts on my Xylosynth, since there was only one clarinet available. I was never able to use it in a performance since getting it. I used my Macbook Pro + Mainstage setup as discussed before. I varied which instrument patch I used, depending what I thought would sound best. The video of that concert is posted on the Pensacola Bay Concert Band’s website.

I also used my Xylosynth with the same setup and other instruments to record a multi-layered song for DGR_Dave.

I like the Macbook Pro + Mainstage setup. The Mainstage instruments I use are pretty top notch. They sound pretty realistic, and the software was pretty easy to learn and set up with multiple patches, my foot switches, and an expression pedal. There were some disadvantages too however. The most obvious being the need to take an expensive laptop along with my expensive instrument. Another thing I have noticed more and more is the slight latency, which I attribute to the MIDI-DIN-to-USB Interface. It became increasingly noticeable when trying to use my sustain pedal with vibraphone parts. I naturally seem to try to pedal based on my ears, and I am pedaling late and some notes were getting dampened instead of sustained. I find it difficult to consistently compensate for this, but increasing the sustained note length on the Xylosynth seems to mostly fix this problem, but it is a compromise.

From my previous post:

I would also like to figure out a different live-performance solution that doesn’t involve me bringing my large, expensive MacBook Pro. Maybe something involving a Raspberry Pi and a small touch screen, but I don’t want to make many compromises in the sound quality of the voices. I need to look into it more.

I researched and found three possible solutions for using a Raspberry Pi with my Xylosynth. The first I found was Pisound, but it did not seem like a complete live performance solution. Another was something on a crowdfunding site. I cannot remember the name, but I don’t know if that project ever took off. The third option, and ultimately the one I went with, was Zynthian. It consists of a metal enclosure, a HifiBerry DAC, a custom board for audio input and output and MIDI DIN ports, and a custom board to control a touch screen and 4 push buttons and 4 push knobs.

I ordered a full kit and got a 4GB Raspberry 4B on my own. It shipped from Spain and took some time to arrive. Assembling the kit wasn’t the easiest task, but it wasn’t horrible. It didn’t involve any soldering, but some plugging in and wire clipping.

I did not use the Zynthian in the December 13th event, as I was still learning how to use it; but I am much further along now. One of the challenges that Mainstage makes me take for granted is finding decent, realistic sounding, orchestral instruments. The Zynthian OS has integrations for Pianoteq, so I purchased the standard version and additional instrument packs. The instrument packs I picked were “Harps”, “Vibes”, “Celeste” (which includes Glockenspiel), and “Xylo” (which includes Marimba). I also downloaded the free instrument packs, which includes Chimes, church bells, and a couple decent Pianos and Harpsichords and some other piano predecessors. This seems to be enough for my purposes, but I have other SoundFonts I’ve found as well.

So how does the Zynthian setup compare to my MacBook Pro + USB setup? Well… results are mixed really. The latency issues is basically gone with the Zynthian, which I am very happy about. If I’m being honest though, I think I like using Mainstage better than using the Zynthian OS interface. I find it is easier set up pedals and switches with Mainstage. I am also… used to… the instrument sounds provided by Mainstage. I am not sure if the Mainstage instruments are better than the Pianoteq instruments; they are just different. The Mainstage software was obviously a fraction of the cost of Pianoteq, but buying Mainstage also means you already bought an expensive Mac with MacOS.

Zynthian OS is a pretty sweet mash up of various free and open source projects, plus the optional inclusion of Pianoteq software. It can be accessed from the touchscreen and knobs, you can use the Pi’s HDMI ports, you can use the build in web interface, or you can use SSH and remotely show the display on another computer. One thing I do not like is that the Zynthian screen does not have access to the Pianoteq instrument parameters. In Pianoteq’s own UI (which can only be accessed remotely), parameters like reverb, mallet hardness, tremolo rate, and so on are provided. I can save these and load them on demand, but I cannot change them on demand from the Zynthian screen. These are all things I can work around though. I also haven’t figured out how to use my expression pedal yet. In Mainstage, I had set up my expression pedal to control the tremolo rate for Vibraphone (in other words, it controls the motor speed), but this doesn’t appear to be an option with Zynthian (as these parameters are only in the Pianoteq UI).

Another issue I’ve had is, in Mainstage, I am able to set patches to transpose per instrument. Naturally, glockenspiel is two octaves higher and xylophone is one octave higher than marimba and vibraphone. I would set each patch with this transposition, and it would just be taken care off when I switch instruments. With Zynthian’s “subsnapshots”, I can switch instruments quickly, but transposition settings don’t seem to be included in the subsnapshot save. They are included in full snapshot saves, but those take considerably longer to load. This just means that switching to xylo or bells will be more complicated, and I’d likely have to put them into their own snapshots.

It has been a pretty sucky year. I guess that goes without saying. For the previous couple of years, I had several (10-15) performances just in December. This year, I had one short, masked, outdoor concert with an ensemble, and I was lucky to have it. Christmas hasn’t really felt like Christmas because I haven’t had much Christmas music with all my musician/performer people.

Since I need to play around with my Zynthian to learn it, and I need to keep playing something, and I need seasonal spirit, I have decided to have what I am calling a “X-ylozynthian-mas E-Concert”. With the goal being to put out one Xylosynth + Zynthian recorded song each day from Chistmas until New Years Eve. I originally thought to do it until the full “12 days of Christmastide”, but most people don’t observe Christmas all the way to January 5. Plus, I’ll probably run out of prepared music by then. In truth, I may run out of music before new years!