John Bowen Synth Design

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Solaris FAQ
  1. What is a Compact Flash card?
  2. CompactFlash (CF) is a mass storage device format used in portable electronic devices. For storage, CompactFlash typically uses flash memory in a standardized enclosure. The format was first specified and produced by SanDisk in 1994. The physical format is now used for a variety of devices. CompactFlash became the most successful of the early memory card formats, outliving Miniature Card, SmartMedia, and PC Card Type I in mainstream popularity. There are other memory card formats that came out after the introduction of CompactFlash, such as SD/SDHC/MMC, various Memory Stick formats, and xD-Picture Card. Most of these cards are significantly smaller than CompactFlash while offering comparable capacity and read/write speed. Proprietary memory card formats intended for use in the field of professional audio and video, such as P2 and SxS, are physically larger, faster, and significantly more expensive.

  3. Why did you pick the CF card format for Solaris?
  4. Reliability, for one reason. The CF card package has helped keep this format popular in professional digital camera use because it is fairly robust and not as easily damaged as many of the smaller, thinner memory cards. The CompactFlash card also includes error checking and correcting (ECC) and wear leveling circuitry that is transparent to the user. Also, since the CF format is based on the older IDE communications buss, it was faster and simpler to implement the transfer protocol.

  5. What should I look for in a CF card reader?
  6. Most card readers now are ‘multiformat’, meaning they have slots for CF, SD, SDHC, and others. I have several card readers of the multi-format type, and I’ve noticed that the pins in the CF card slot can be easily bent with some of the cheaper readers, rendering the reader useless! I don’t recommend a particular brand, but it seems card readers with a ‘deeper’ CF slot channel are safer, as it allows the card to be more fully inserted along the guide rails, and gives better contact to the pin connectors.

  7. What Type of CF card does Solaris use?
  8. CF cards come in Type I or Type II size (Type I is 3.3 mm thick; Type II is 5 mm thick). Solaris uses Type I.

  9. What size (amount of storage) do I need?
  10. The size (or capacity) of most CF cards now on the market start at 2 GB (gigabytes), and go up to 32 GB. The Solaris data uses a very small amount of that capacity, so a smaller capacity, such as 2, 4, or even 8 GB is fine for use. The only reason to have high capacity cards would be to store large numbers of sample files, or to have multiple versions of Preset folder groups, or to use the card to store additional non-Solaris related data (since Solaris will ignore any folder names not specific to the Solaris code).

  11. What about the rated transfer speed?
  12. This does have some impact on how the card will interact with Solaris. The transfer data rate is usually (but not always) listed on the card as some capacity number per second (written as 30MB/s, which means 30 megabytes per second). Another speed rating found will be some number followed by ‘X’, such as 266X, 400X, or 533X. This is the same system used for CD-ROMs, and indicates the maximum transfer rate in the form of a multiplier based on the original audio CD data transfer rate, which is 150 kbyte/s. You will also sometimes see references to Write Speed and Read Speed. The only time the Solaris is writing to the card is when you are saving a preset, or System data. Unlike the need for digital cameras, a faster write speed is not a big deal for Solaris use. The Read speed is more critical, as it affects how quickly the Preset names can be scrolled for viewing in Preset Mode, as well as sample loading time (to a certain extent). As of yet, we have not thoroughly tested a wide variety of card speeds, so I cannot provide a recommended minimum speed for use, but there is a theoretical upper limit to USB 2.0 for internal card readers of 60MB/s (400X). External card readers may be slower. Since faster cards are much more expensive, and Solaris doesn’t need a really fast Write speed, I would expect users will be fine with 133X as a minimum. (For personal reference, I use SanDisk 8GB cards rated at 30MB/s or 200X).

  13. What about formatting the card?
  14. Typically now, CF cards will come pre-formatted, but you should know that the Solaris can only recognize FAT32 formatted cards.

Is Solaris digital or analog?

All processing inside Solaris is digital (and very high quality, running at 32 bit, 96kHz). The software code implements highly accurate models of the components of some (highly desireable) vintage analog synthesizers.

Will the Solaris be getting updates?

Yes, the firmware (i.e., software stored inside the synthesizer's memory that enables its operation) can be updated via the CF card. This would potentially give your Solaris synthesizer expanded, or even entirely new, capabilities.

Is the Solaris's step sequencer polyphonic?

You can play polyphonically, and all voices played will be controlled by the sequencer, with the root pitch determined by the notes you are playing. The Solaris sequencer is a step sequencer that outputs 4 rows of control values. The Overall rhythmic timing is established by Sequence A; the other 3 rows can have different lengths, but they will still use the rhythmic pattern set by Seq A. Even though you can set up 4 independent 'channels' per preset in Solaris for articulation, the overall Amplitude envelope controls all final output (i.e., you can set each signal path's VCA to be controlled by separate envelopes, but those ADSR time values have to 'fit' within an overall Amp EG setting). So, my gut feeling is that it is not polyphonic in the sense you may be wondering, but the real point of the sequencer is that it can produce some fairly complex sounds. 

How are samples loaded into the Solaris, and what format is used?

Sample files are loaded from Compact Flash cards in this method for the 1.0 release:
1) Sample files need to be in .raw format. 
2) The samples need to be described in a text file. The name, number, sample start and end, loop start and end, root key, fine tune values, low and high keys need to be listed in this text file (see this forum post for example). This text file is what makes up a 'sample pool', and you can have several on the CF card.
3) The samples and text files are loaded via computer onto your CF card.
4) The Sample Pool is selected from the System page and loaded into the Solaris for use in any of the four oscillators.

What Compact Flash cards are compatible?

The CF card does not need to be a certain brand nor high speed. It uses the FAT file format, which is how most CF cards are formatted.

What is the estimated polyphony for a typical patch?

Expect 10 voices with the system going full - all 4 filters, oscs, etc. (note that for the first OS release there won't be DSP offloading so most likely no matter the configuration there will still be 10 voices.)

Is the Solaris multitimbral or capable of keysplits?

The Solaris v1.0 Ss will not have a Multitimbral Mode. For Keysplits, you can use one of the four Key Tables to define any ranges across the keyboard as you wish - even multiple "split points". You can then apply this key table output to the VCA of any channel to create a "split".

Are the knobs on the Solaris pots or rotary encoders?

All knobs are rotary encoders except the Master Volume.

Do the knobs on the Solaris have detents?

The final decision is to not use any detents for the Solaris encoders.

How are the knobs on the Solaris tuned? Expression vs resolution?

Currently the algorithm for the knobs takes into account the range for the current parameter. So for filter cutoff, where the range is 12 octaves, it takes 1 and 1/2 turns to reach the whole range, sweeping by semitone, whereas with Resonance, you have 0-100%, which happens in 1 turn, moving by 1% increments. Holding down the Shift key inverts the current control algorithm per knob - changing the cutoff sweep moves by 1/10 of a semitone, and Resonance moves by 5% increments. We will continue to tweak this until I think it's at a an optimum point for most parameters.

Can the Solaris do Unison Detune Stacking?

Yes, definitely! This feature is based on a voice assignment level and the detune is set upon the key-on event. This means that if you change the Detune value while holding down a key, you will not hear any change until you select a new note. The Unison stack can be 2 to 8 voices, All, or Chord. If play is set to Polyphonic, the stack of voices will 'divide' to allow polyphonic stacking as much as is possible, even if All voices are assigned. Chord Mode allows you to use the Unison stack to play a chord in parallel, based on the notes you hold down before pressing the Unison button. In this case, Detune is not activated.