The ADD-ON EFFECTS are plug-in effect programs for Yamaha digital mixing consoles DM2000V2, DM1000V2, 02R96V2, 01V96V2, and PM5D. Several of the programs employ the innovative VCM (Virtual Circuitry Modeling) technology, which involves a technique to model the analogue circuitry on a component level and faithfully reproduce even the saturated sound of analogue recording in the digital domain. This technology was developed by one of Yamaha’s most progressive engineering groups called K’s LAB. K’s LAB was formed in 1987 to create a new tone generator technology and six years later came out with the world first synthesizers to utilize physical modeling, the VL1 and VP1. We interviewed Toshifumi Kunimoto, head of the group.
Kunimoto was writing articles on effects for a music magazine when he was a grad student. After joining Yamaha in 1982, he was engaged in the LSI development for several years and in 1987 re-assigned to the engineering project of the historic VL1 sysnthesizer, followed by a few others including the ones for the AN1x, EX5 and Motif. And in 2001, Kunimoto finally came back to the world of effects, his home ground, with K's LAB and the VCM technology.
Could you explain the VCM technology in layman’s terms?
Sure. This technology is based on a technique commonly known as physical modeling. After the release of VL1 and VP1 in 1993, we continued to refine this technique and made it applicable to effect processors. That’s the VCM technology. While for musical instruments you should simulate things like air waves in a pipe, vibrations on a string, moves of a reed or a bow, etc., for audio effects you need to model each component of electronic circuitry. Sometimes it is necessary to model a single part like the IC amp, transistor or magnetic tape and other times you only have to model the behaviour of a combination of parts like the filter. One way or the other, based on such a micro level modeling technique, the VCM accurately reproduces the behaviour of the entire equipment in software.
What made you decide to apply a technology originally developed for the tone generator to effects?
We started the development of the VCM in 2001. Back then it seemed very few digital effect technologies could go beyond a superficial simulation of sound characters and achieve high degree of musicality. We saw an opportunity there and decided to pursue it in earnest. We were believing in physical modeling and thought if we pushed forward what we had done for VL1 and VP1 we could make something very good.
What was the biggest concern in the development?
Well, we decided what we were making had to be very musical. After all, we are Yamaha and a mere theoretical modeling was not enough. The point was how it would sound musically. So we hired two veteran recording engineers with a professional ear for music as consultants. What’s really important in the modeling of effects is something beyond technical data. Together with our consultants, we used our imagination and groped for what lied beyond the theory.
The key was musicality, right?
Yes. Lately, physical modeling has become popular and everyone wants to use it, but technology shouldn’t be a goal. It’s no more than a tool. We always have to bear that in mind. Anyway, we conducted listening evaluations with the consultants over and over again and discussed how we could make the programs as musical sounding as possible. They were very busy and could spare only a little time for this project, so I had to shuttle by bullet train between Tokyo and Hamamatsu, the city where Yamaha’s headquarters is located, with my laptop and audio files in my bag. Whenever they had time, I ran to the station. I don’t remember how many times I went back and forth. One way was a two-hour ride and I sometimes fine-tuned algorithms in the train. As our consultants were uncompromising and never approved a program unless it sounded really musical, and as we have a strict rule of bringing no programs into production without getting the go-ahead from reliable third party evaluators, this project was pretty tough for all of us.
How did you proceed with the modeling? What was the biggest challenge?
When working on the “Open Deck” programs included in the Master Strip package, as soon as we started analysing the process of analogue recording, we got a big headache. It was very hard to model the non-linearity and signal loss. It was so complex we were almost at our wit’s end, but we stuck to it and tried our best and somehow managed to translate it into an algorithm convertible into digital circuitry. Then we moved on to the measuring of vintage analogue tape recorders. Each component of a recorder had to be recreated on a DSP chip so we needed to measure everything involved in the process such as the recording head, playback head, playback NAB EQ, and so on. Of course, we measured tapes, too. We hired some commercial studios with good service technicians where we could use well-maintained recorders that were as close to brand-new as possible. What was annoying in this process was even the same model recorders sounded differently depending on the version and the tape used. We had to think hard how we could handle such differences. We discussed a lot with the consultants and found a solution to each problem one by one. In the meantime, we noticed an intriguing fact, which is when different types of recorders are used for recording and playback, a very interesting sound comes out. In the real world, it sometime happens that what was mixed into a Studer machine is played back on an Ampex recorder. We simulated that on the VCM and got a fascinating result. It was then that we realised we could use a tape recorder as a new type of effect processor for musicality like atmosphere or presence of sound.
Anyway, we hired studios and gathered data and came back to the lab and analysed it and converted it into the digital domain. That was the routine.
Seems like it is time-consuming and requires a lot of patience. What was the reaction to the sound you created with such an effort?
We had evaluation sessions in London and New York in addition to Tokyo, where we invited more than a dozen world class recording engineers including Elliot Scheiner. We brought there several prototype programs like compressors, EQ’s, phasers, tape-emulation, reverbs, etc., etc. and asked for advice. Then, the “Open Deck” drew tremendous attention in particular and we were really glad to hear some of them even say the VST and TDM plug-ins seemed to be nothing more than gimmicks compared to this technology. We felt kind of rewarded having confirmed these effects not only sounded analogue-like but were musical enough and usable for the professional recording.
The Channel Strip package consists of Compressor 260, 260S, 276, 276S and Equalizer 601, and all of them employ the VCM technology, too. These were also appreciated very much at the evaluation. Among these others, Compressor 276 received very favourable comments. Some said it was close to UREI 1176 or a NEVE and others felt it sounded like tube compressors. There were various opinions, but as a matter of fact, this program is something that combines many good analogue compression characteristics into one digital processor, rather than strictly emulates one single analogue compressor. It’s one of the greatest advantages of the VCM to be able to create a completely new and ideal sound out of multiple devices.
Not only sound but also graphics have really elaborate designs. It’s amusing to see a tape reeling on the screen with the Open Deck programs.
I think for plug-in effects graphics are an indispensable feature, and that’s why we have our own graphic designer at K’s LAB. As to the ADD-ON EFFECTS, we gave a vintage-like look to everything down to the texture of switches and knobs as well as VU meters, LED’s, etc. Not only are they of high quality as a GUI but you can enjoy a feel of the time the original equipment was released. That’s another appeal of the ADD-ON EFFECTS.
Thank you very much for your time today. Before closing the interview, do you have any comments?
Even today, lots of engineers still stick with analogue recorders for the “tape compression” effect that adds the warmth and punch to the sound. A good example of that is Steely Dan’s recent album “Everything Must Go”, on which Elliot Scheiner used a combination of analogue and digital multitrack recording in order to benefit from the best aspects of each technology. Needless to say, analogue has shortcomings. It can neither recall settings nor make a copy without degradation. The VCM, however, can cover such shortcomings and create the nuance only analogue could bring, while enjoying the convenience only digital can provide. It isn’t difficult for the VCM to reproduce even the sound of tube amps, stomp boxes, or expensive vintage analogue consoles in digital. It might sound like a dream, but it is not. Technology is already here. I would really like all of you to experience the VCM yourself on the ADD-ON EFFECTS.
The “Seven Samurai” at K’s LAB