John Bowen – Creator
Of The SOLARIS Synthesizer

A happy John Bowen with his Solaris synthesizer

Happy John Bowen with the Solaris synthesizer

GS: Since the day of the announcement and until the release of SOLARIS some time has past by. Could you please tell us a bit about the reasons?

John Bown: Yes, there are 2 main reasons we have had quite a few delays – a lack of money at critical times, and the lack of the right persons who could work on the project (which you might say is also tied to the first reason). Since we started the project in October 2006, I would say approximately half of those 5 years represent absolutely nothing being done on Solaris – complete ‘dead’ time, with no coding, no engineering, absolutely no work at all being done.

Even so, I should have known that we were introducing the Solaris too early, at Frankfurt Messe 2007, but I optimistically thought things could be done within a year or so!

For example … the first delay was a ‘person problem’ – I had hired a guy from Finland who I thought was a great fit for the Solaris – he had a good understanding how to make great emulations of analog circuits, had done some excellent ‘proof of concept’ work, was very smart, and a nice guy as well. He worked for 6 months, getting the prototype to work just in time to show the Solaris at Messe 2007. After the debut, we never heard from him again (even to this day)! I was quite worried, as I had no idea what had happened to him, but we eventually found out through some friends of friends that he was still alive and basically OK. No explanation as to why he stopped communicating, however.

John at the Frankfurter Musikmesse

John at the Frankfurter Musikmesse

Following that, I had the first delay of 6 months of down time, with nothing happening while Sonic Core searched for another DSP coder. Eventually, we were very fortunate to have the original DSP coder from the old Creamware company come onboard to do the project.

GS: We titled our review „John Bowen Solaris – a life’s work“, do you agree with that?

John Bowen: Sure, that is a perfect way to describe it!

GS: What was your motivation to develop a synthesizer like the SOLARIS and what were the main challenges?

John Bowen: Well, since I started in 1973 with Bob Moog, my primary use and enjoyment working with synthesizers was very much related to being able to directly use parameters with knobs and sliders, etc., and in all the instrument designs I have been involved with, I have been trying to make sure things are clear and relatively easy to use. As synths became more complex, it was a challenge to handle all of the information available, and so you try to find ways to address this.

John mit Bob Moog, Tokio 1973

John together with Bob Moog, Tokyo 1973. John: "The other important event to come from this Japan trip was that we were staying in the same hotel as Mahavishnu Orchestra, who were playing the next evening at the Nippon Budokan. When Bob & I got back to the hotel after a long day at the Tokyo Music show, we waited for the elevator to open, and when it did, there were all of the band members! Since I was still new being around really famous people, I was starstruck, not to mention Mahavishnu Orchestra was my absolute most favorite band at the time! (You could say I sort of 'worshipped' them :-) ). So I was really thrilled!! Bob knew them already, of course, since they had all been to the factory and were interested in getting more into Moog synthesizers. We were given free tickets to the show (which I hadn't even known about), and it was a memorable evening of blistering technique and powerful emotional music."

With the Prophet 3000, I used a soft key/graphics display approach, using nested menus, where pressing one button would take you ‘down a level’ to a new position in the logic tree, and a new set of soft key labels would appear, etc., with each successive sot key selection taking you further down in levels. This didn’t go very deep in the P-3000, but when I started in on the Wavestation, I used the same approach for the UI (User Interface), and took this to an extreme, having a possible 5 or 6 levels to dive into!

Korg Wavestation

Korg Wavestation

Even though I felt it was fairly logically laid out, it was tedious on the Wavestation to go down into the layers of soft key menus, than exit out, then back down another direction, etc., and this was one of the things in my mind when I designed the Solaris for adaptation into hardware. By using multiple displays, and arranging them in logical blocks similar to the way we had things laid out in the old analog synths (left to right), I hoped to make the Solaris easier and faster to get around.

The main challenge with this approach was that, to avoid a lot of paging through sub-menus, I needed to be able to show a lot of parameters at once, so I sought out the longest displays we could find at the time, without going to a custom design path (which would have cost much, much more). Ideally there would be room for 8 parameters across – but the accepted optimal human use factor for knobs is about 3 cm from center to center, and the longest available text display at the time only allowed a spacing of 5 knobs. (Even at 2.5 cm spacing, which we use for the center graphics display, I would only have 6 knobs below these text displays we used. The vote for the graphics display spacing was to keep all 5 knobs within the edge boundaries of the display itself, but it’s not as comfortable to use as the 3 cm spacing.)

John&friends

John's 'Old Friends' picture, from left to right: 1) Charlie Bright, John's boss at Korg R&D (John "a brilliant DSP coder") 2) Chris Meyer (who came up with the idea of what you now know as 'Vector Synthesis', having made a mockup of his idea using some homemade modular system and presenting it to us) 3) well... John 4) Karl Hirano, who was Yamaha's main engineer in charge of a small keyboard project called the DX-7. He also led the Yamaha team in helping develop and promote MIDI. Karl was head of DSD, the company that was formed after Sequential and purchased by Yamaha at the end of 1987. John said "When we switched over to Korg, we asked (begged) that Karl come with the group, a move that was a real Big Deal, as back then you just never left a company, especially such an important one as Yamaha, and with someone who had played such a big part in Yamaha's synthesizer history....but he did join us in the early years at Korg R&D. He went on to become an active member in taking care of MIDI, and spent many years as head of the Japanese MIDI Manufacturers Association."

With the restriction of having to put a maximum of 5 parameters per screen page, I had to rework my plug-in layout (which had 8 parameters across the oscillator section) to fit in the hardware version, which meant more pages to get through. I still wanted to avoid a lot of paging, so I came up with the plan to have variable parameters on both the upper and lower lines of the display (which are 2 x 40 character displays), reducing the paging, but requiring the user to operate up/down cursor buttons to move the active cursor between upper to lower lines. This is how the first prototype of the Solaris worked, and while it did, indeed, reduce the number of pages needed, it was extremely frustrating to use! I was continually adjusting the wrong parameter, because I had forgotten to move the active cursor line first.

Solaris Prototype

Solaris Prototype

After working with this system for a while, I knew I had to change it….which meant a simpler approach that put the parameter labels on the top line, with the values directly below them on the bottom line – but this definitely increased the number of pages one would have to go through. Changing this also left me with a number of extra buttons for each display, which we eventually removed (from the Main/Mod control). However, I retained the division of these Main/Mod parameters sets, even though it made less sense with the change.

With the new system, I had some trouble as well, and found that it worked best for me to be able to keep one hand on the Up/Down paging cursors, rather than constantly moving between them and the Main/Mod buttons, so additional functionality was added. For some it made sense to use the Up/Down cursors exclusively, either in a continuous direction (called Wrap mode, where pressing Up or Down repeatedly gets you to ‘loop’ around all of the pages), or my preference, to stop when you had paged through all available parameters (with Wrap set off). The original idea of having the ability to move between Main pages and Mod pages was still a valid one if there was a need to toggle back and forth between, say, Main page 1 and Mod page 3 (to adjust Pulse width mod and initial position), so I had them keep that from the older design, and called it Split mode.

In the end, there is still more paging than I would have wished, but the ability to add or update parameters without having to resort to some creative button pushing (Hold X while pressing Y to get a new filter type, for example) was also a guiding principle for me, and I think we have achieved a decent compromise in this regard, providing a  way to navigate hundreds of parameters in the Solaris design, but still being flexible to address future updates. (Having said all that, the extra cost of multiple displays, plus the added labor on assembly, probably means I would not do another product with multiple screens!).

Sequential Prophet-5

John Bowen was responsible for the original 40 factory programs of the Prophet-5

GS: SOLARIS comes with Minimoog Oscillators, Wavetables, Oberheim, CEM- and SSM-Filters. How satisfied are you with the sonic quality?

John Bowen: I’m very happy with the results. Our DSP engineer worked very diligently at making all the models as accurate as possible, but also wanting to avoid any aliasing in the upper frequency range. The Minimoog and CEM models are very accurate, and the wavetable implementation is done in the original way, so as to produce a good bit of ‘digital dirt’ in the indexing.

Some of the coloration you hear in older analog models is due to imperfections or variations in the circuits, and since these change from unit to unit (just compare several different Minimoogs or Prophet 5s), it’s not easy to represent an ‘exact’ model of these – rather, you need a subset of variables that can be added in, and at times, not have a perfect or absolute model. This is something we discussed at length, but did not get to implement in the first OS. You also have the problem of subjectivity – that is, something sounds good to one person, but not to another. How do you model that?!

In the end, I think most people will be very happy with the sonic quality provided, because my initial goal of high fidelity and quality was definitely achieved! What I’d like to add in the future is more ways to subtly modify the models to have some of the imperfections as well, even thought that might mean occasional aliasing problems, for example.

GS: Do you think that DSPs can replace Hardware completely one day?

John Bowen: Ummmmm ……. I would say …… probably. You’d want a fairly sophisticated set of algorithms for that.

GS: Are there any things you would have liked to include into the SOLARIS but are not there at the moment?

John Bowen: There are a number of things on my specification list that we didn’t get into the first round of the OS, such as:

  • Phase Modulation Oscillator (for correct DX-7 style ‘FM’)
  • User wavetables
  • MultiTimbre Mode
  • DSP allocation optimisation (varies the DSP load based on what objects are On or Off, such as Oscillators, allowing for more polyphony)
  • MultiMode Osc 2 – a bit ‘grungier’ version of MM1
  • Reverb
  • Multisample block object (allowing for more than one sample per oscillator)

… and numerous other small ‘tweaks’. Hopefully, we can address these next year as we get past the initial production phase.

Z-1 Produktvorführung auf der Frankfurter Musik Messe

Z-1 demo, probably 1990 or 1991, and most likely from Frankfurt Musik Messe

GS: will you add the “randomize” function we talked about at Musikmesse?

John Bowen: Yes, we had a couple of discussions as to how to easily implement this. One simple idea was to use the LFOs when set to S&H and 0 for the Rate, with retrigger, then every key pressed would generate a random output.

There’s also the possibility to add to the Mod Source list, but this becomes more of a extra work to add it that way, but you would have something like KeyRand or something as a Mod source. Although….it would be nice to have some control over this randomness, wouldn’t it…so, maybe a new function with some parameter ranges.

GS: What is your favourite feature of SOLARIS and who do you think are the main customer, sound developers?

John Bowen: Favorite feature? Hmmm….maybe the fact that we can run modulations at audio rates and route any signal we want, not worrying about feedback loops causing problems. In digital VSTi systems, this has been a problem because of the processing power needed (although there are a few plugins now that are doing this). Adding in the output of the Filter/VCA into its own input provides for some nice ‘organic’ effects, for example.

As for “who is the main customer“ – obviously, like many instrument designers, I started out to produce something that fulfills my own interests, so as a sound designer, that would definitely be my first type of customer….but really, it could be anyone who enjoys and places a high value on quality and an uncompromising approach in what they’d like to do.

John Bowen Solaris

The Solaris is available in black or white

GS: What are your future plans John, do you have any other synthesizer or any other developments in your mind?

John Bowen: Always! But you don’t expect I can tell you about any of that, do you? :-)

GS: What are your general thoughts about developments on the synthesizer market?

John Bowen: There has always been the search to have a keyboard produce ‘real instrument’ sounds. You can take a look at the organs used in the Renaissance period, and find names that infer certain instrument timbres….up to when the first Chamberlins (and then Mellotrons) were created, and this has remained to be the mainstay of all commerical keyboard development. Whether you should be calling these instruments ‘synthesizers’, or the more popular term now, ‘romplers’, there is still the interest to have realistic instrument sounds at your fingertips, and this is where the bulk of the money comes, from customer sales and demand. Products like the Solaris are in what we call the boutique synthesizer market, and so are for a more specialized customer. Until now, the real innovation in the boutique market has been by all of the Modular synth companies – and the selection is actually growing, more now than ever before!

John Bowen, Seattle 2004

John together with son James and Billy Cobham, Seattle 2004. John met Cobham in Japan: "From that, I ended up getting to know in particular Billy Cobham, who was very intrigued with the Moog Drum controller which Bob had recently shown him. Billy also bought a Modular 55 system, and I ended up working for him occasionally, setting up his system for a number of albums, including Stanley Clark's 'School Days', and Billy's own 'Inner Conflicts' album (the only one where I have a credit), plus a few other things that were never released. (That's why I've included a picture of myself and my son James visiting with Billy when he came to Seattle in 2004.) In fact, I saw Billy in Switzerland the last time I was over there (October 2011), and he had actually just found some of those unreleased tracks on tapes that had been stored in some anvil cases. He's hoping to get them in playable condition, and seeing if any of that material could be used for a future release."

There’s a very active community out there that is interested in exploring sound design and manipulation, which I find very exciting. Certainly if you check out a lot of the ‘dubstep’ sounds that are quite popular now, you hear some pretty radical or non-traditional results.

GS: As we have seen on Facebook, you are still making music and obviously enjoy it, so how does your home studio look like and what kind of music do you like to listen and play?

John Bowen: What you must be talking about on Facebook is the 70’s band in which I play bass. Bass is my main instrument, and I’m happiest doing just that. With keyboards, you have so much more to carry! (And I don’t like running the keyboards through the house PA system, so you really need a decent setup.) Plus you have to be concerned with a lot more issues, whereas bass is pure and simple, with a minimum of fuss!

The music we play is not what I’d call my favorite, since I really was more into jazz fusion and funk….but I had stopped playing bass completely by 1980, switching to keyboards, because I knew I was going to need that skill for the synthesizer world. After 25 years, however, I have picked up the bass again, and this time the music isn’t so complex, but I will have to say I am getting a lot of satisfaction seeing the joy and smiles on people’s faces as they sing along with all of these really popular songs we play, so now it’s a different kind of enjoyment to play. Before it was much more self-centered.

Regarding a home studio – I don’t have one. When I was doing plugins for Scope, I would just have the Scope system in my computer, and work on presets as I developed the plugins, and enjoying playing the sounds ‘in the moment’, never really recording things.

Theo Bloderer - Solaris Synthesizer - John Bowen

March 2012: honorable visit from America. John tested our Solaris extensively.

Of course, sometimes I needed to have some audio examples, so I would just pick a single sound and play it live, and record that as a demo. I don’t have a DAW or use any sequencer – I haven’t done that since my days at Sequential Circuits, when I needed to do presentations. Back then it was either the Commodore C-64 product we made, or the Studio 440 once that was available. So, I have to confess I am really unaware of all the things most people are doing now to create music, since I prefer to just play live. It seems there is much less keyboard playing now, as it is more about arranging loops and assembling pieces, and orchestrating things, a different kind of approach. Obviously, quite valid, though. More about data manipulation skills, in a way.

GS: SOLARIS is not produced in the States, it is produced and assembled in Europe. This means that you are spending quite a lot of time in airports and on planes?

John Bowen: Yes. Well, I don’t mind the travelling – I love being in Germany (home of my grandmother), and occasional visits to other European countries. Last year I made 6 trips to Siegburg, staying 2-3 weeks each time. I really feel at home when I’m there, so I’m quite happy to have this chance to mix business with pleasure!

GS: After all the developments, many of which you were part of, what are your three favourite synthesizers?

John Bowen: The Prophet 5, of course, the Wavestation, and, well, I have to say, the Solaris :-)

GS: All the best John, and thank you very much for the interview.

John Bowen: Thank you for asking to have me here!

________________________________________________________________

Link to our comprehensive SOLARIS Review.

Released: January 19th, 2012 © Peter M. Mahr

3 thoughts on “John Bowen – Creator
Of The SOLARIS Synthesizer

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