Sonic LAB: Expert Sleepers - Modular Synth Control

US ES-1, ES-3 and Silent Way software suite      30/06/11
    MP4 10:40 mins    

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We now have the beginnings of our own modular synthesizer here at Sonicstate housed in the Monorocket Mission M6B case.  And to kick off the reviews we’re looking at the Expert Sleepers ES-1 and ES-3 with the Silent Way suite of control plug-ins - these convert incoming MIDI into control voltage and trigger/gate format and allow for complex control of your analogue gear.

To use the software, you need a DC coupled audio interface - this is capable of outputting Control Voltages needed for controlling analogue gear. Expert Sleepers provide a way to do this if you dont own a compatible audio interface - with the ES-1. This 70mm deep Eurorack format module provides 8 analogue inputs which can be taken from a regular non DC compatible soundcard, and converts them into DC coupled. We’ve also got the ES-3 - which takes an ADAT input and converts to 8 DC coupled outputs- this is what we will be using to test the Silent Way software bundle.

The Silent Way consists of 10 plugins in AU/Vst for Mac  or VST for Windows. Its a download from the Expert Sleepers site and requires installation of a license manager - it was a pretty simple process for me on Mac 10.5.8  - once the license key was provided, the plug-ins showed up in Logic and Live no problem.
The best place to start is with the SW Voice Controller - this is a fully featured Gate/CV with 3 envelopes and a velocity output and can use up to  6 outputs, though its pretty simple to use just CV and Gate to control the basic pitch and trigger of a synth.

First up, you need to calibrate the plug-in to your synth module - simply return the output of your synth into any available audio input. set that to the input of the channel you have the plug-in across and hit calibrate  - you have V/oct (Doepfer and many current synths)  and Hz/V (MS20, Yamaha CS15 etc). This outputs a series of voltages and tunes the CV range to scale across the octaves. You can save this setup for later recall to avoid having to repeat this step again.

Now you’re ready - -simply route some MIDI to the plugin, set the outputs to your relevant audio outs - in our case the ADAT output with the ES-3 connected (outs 1+2) patch it up, and your off.
Of course, some synths require a little more specialized setup - for instance the MS-20 needed to have the gate polarity switched - this can be done inside the Voice Controller Voltages section, but I did have to search forums to discover this.

Some DAWs require a more complex setup - for instance in Logic - you need to add some aux tracks to the plug-in instance so that all six of the available outputs don’t get summed - this one had me scratching my head for some time. But once you have it sorted it just works. The Voice Control can also be used to work in polyphonic mode too which I thoroughly enjoyed - watch the video for details. There are plenty of tutorial videos around to help with the setup.

More Silent Control
Additional control  is easy, simply patch up the required outputs and your envelopes and velocity can be hooked up too. If you want more try putting the LFO or Step LFO plugs on a spare set of outputs  - these are really full featured and give you enormous amounts of additional tweakery the LFOs are both dual channel with a very wide speed range and multiple, blendable waves.
In my opinion these are equal to, if not better than hardware equivalents. I can easily see how you would not need envelope or LFO modules in your setup - just use these plugs.
Other modules include SW DC - for mapping MIDI CC to  CV control, SW Trigger - ideal for triggering an envelope - say for a drum sound or FX where pitch control is not needed.Quantizer will constrain CV to discrete values - great in conjunction with the Step LFO for creating pitch sequences. The possibilities are really endless, and with enough discrete audio outputs, you can create monster software controlled patches and setups. I found that with one LFO and some judicious controller mapping I could get a very wide range of sounds out of a single LFO module controlling the filter modulation.

Shout It Out
In my opinion, the software alone is mind boggling in its possibilities. The level and depth of control outside of the regular MIDI to CV stuff is enormous. It may be that I’m having a modular overload given that I’m just getting to grips with the system at the same time, but it really does open up the possibilities of integrating your DAW and analog gear. There is of course MOTUs Volta as an alternative, but that costs way more and frankly, is more complex and CPU hungry.

If you have a DC coupled audio interface and analogue synth gear, then Silent Way software is a no-brainer at £32.50. The hardware interfaces do as they say, and give you access to the software - if you do already have a multi-out analog interface, then the ES-1 is your choice, Simillarly with and ADAT out the ES-3. But also in the pipeline is the ES-4, a cunning Spdif interface that somehow manages to get 5 channels of CV and up to 8 gates from a single digitial output - worth waiting for in my opinion.

I rarely get to review stuff which I feel is almost flawless, but I think this is one of those occasions - though I suppose I could criticize the plug-ins UI - they could be prettier, but I’m not that shallow... am I?

Silent Way Software:  £32.50 *download only
ES-1  £142.50
ES-3  £186

Software requirements:
  • Mac
    • Mac OS X 10.4.11 or higher
    • Audio Unit or VST host application
  • Windows
    • Windows XP SP2
    • VST 2.4 host application


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