A software synthesizer plugin for the
DSSI Soft Synth Interface
Xsynth-DSSI is a classic-analog (VCOs-VCF-VCA) style software
synthesizer which operates as a plugin for the DSSI Soft Synth
Interface. DSSI is a plugin API for software instruments (soft
synths) with user interfaces, permitting them to be hosted
in-process by audio applications. More information on DSSI can be
Xsynth-DSSI is written by Sean Bolton, and copyright (c) 2009 under
the GNU General Public License, version 2 or later. See the enclosed
file COPYING for details. While this software is 'free' within the
requirements of this license, I (Sean) would appreciate any or all
of the following should you find Xsynth-DSSI useful:
- an email stating where you're from and how you're using
Xsynth-DSSI, sent to <musound /at/ jps /dot/ net>.
- copies of or links to music you've created with Xsynth-DSSI.
- any patches you create for Xsynth-DSSI.
- suggestions for improving Xsynth-DSSI.
- offers of paying work writing this sort of code!
Xsynth-DSSI is based on Steve Brooke's Xsynth 1.0.2, which is
available (also under GPL) at:
Xsynth-DSSI retains the basic synthesis model of Xsynth, while
adding the following features:
- operation as a DSSI plugin,
- polyphonic operation,
- band-limited oscillators,
- a new, more stable filter mode, and
- velocity-sensitive envelopes.
Xsynth-DSSI requires the following:
- DSSI version 0.9 or greater, available from the
dssi.sourceforge.net address above.
- liblo version 0.12 or later (0.23 or later recommended), a
library implementing the Open Sound Control protocol,
- pkgconfig with PKG_CONFIG_PATH set appropriately to pick up
DSSI and liblo.
- GTK+ version 1.2 or 2.x. (If GTK+ is not found, the plugin
will be built without the GUI.)
- the LADSPA v1.x SDK.
- the ALSA headers (DSSI plugins use ALSA structures, but not
the actual drivers, so you don't necessarily need the
drivers installed.) Users of non-Linux systems can use
libdssialsacompat, available at:
- a working DSSI host. Xsynth-DSSI has been tested with
jack-dssi-host, available in the DSSI distribution, and with
ghostess, available at:
- automake 1.7, autoconf 2.58, and libtool 1.4.3 or better if
you wish to recreate the build files.
The generic installation instructions in the enclosed file INSTALL
aren't particularly helpful, so try this instead:
1. Unpack the tar file.
2. Make sure PKG_CONFIG_PATH is set correctly to locate the
dssi.pc and liblo.pc pkgconfig files. On many systems, this
$ export PKG_CONFIG_PATH
3. 'cd' into the package directory and execute './configure'.
configure will add '-Wall' and my favorite optimizations to
CFLAGS for you if you don't include any '-Wall' or '-O' options.
If you're using gcc and wish to provide your own optimization
flags, you MUST at least use '-finline' and a non-zero '-O' flag
to get decent results.
4. Enable debugging information if you desire: edit the file
src/xsynth.h, and define XSYNTH_DEBUG as explained in the
5. Do 'make'. Hopefully it should build without warnings (or
6. 'make install' will install the following:
Feedback on your experiences building Xsynth-DSSI is appreciated.
To run the Xsynth-DSSI plugin under the jack-dssi-host provided in
the DSSI distribution, I do the following:
1. Start JACK.
2. Start jack-dssi-host, supplying the correct plugin path
and filename (substitute <prefix> as appropriate):
$ DSSI_PATH=<prefix>/lib/dssi sudo jack-dssi-host xsynth-dssi.so
jack-dssi-host should start, and moments later the Xsynth-DSSI
graphic user interface should appear.
3. Use aconnect or kaconnect to connect jack-dssi-host to a MIDI
source, such as vkeybd.
4. Begin playing sounds! If you get no response, try clicking the
'Send Test Note' button in the Xsynth-DSSI GUI. This sends a
note directly via the host to the plugin, so if you hear sound
now, look for a problem between the example host and your MIDI
source. If you still don't hear sound, I'd look for a problem
between the example host and your output device. If you
continue having trouble, you might recompile with XSYNTH_DEBUG
bit 2 set, which will cause the plugin to continuously output a
quiet buzz to help debug your outgoing signal path.
Xsynth-DSSI starts up with a small set of sound presets, or
'patches', that you can select either by selecting the GUI 'Patches'
tab and clicking on the patch name, or by sending a MIDI program
change from your MIDI source with the appropriate program number.
You may load additional patches by selecting 'Load Patch Bank...'
from the GUI 'File' menu, and pointing the file selection dialog to
a Xsynth-DSSI patch bank file. One such file is patch_library.Xsynth,
which is installed with the plugin, in <prefix>/share/xsynth-dssi/.
After selecting a patch bank file, you will be asked at which
program number to begin loading the new patches. This allows you to
overwrite the existing patches, or to add the new patches at the
end. Note that if the starting program number you select, plus the
number of patches in the patch file, exceeds 128, the additional
patches will not be loaded.
Selecting 'Save Patch Bank...' from the 'File' menu will allow you
to save your patch bank to a file. After specifying the file name,
you will be asked to specify the range of patches to be saved.
Selecting the 'Patches' tab displays a list of all the patches loaded.
Clicking on the name of a patch causes that patch to be selected.
The 'Test Note' controls allow you to send a test note to the
plugin, by clicking on the 'Send Test Note' button. Changing the
'key' and 'velocity' sliders will change the pitch and velocity of
the test note. A key of 60 is generally considered to be
Patch Edit Tab
This tab allows you to edit patches.
The controls in the VCO1, VCO2, LFO, MIXER, PORTAMENTO, EG1, EG2,
VCF, and VOLUME sections all offer real-time control of the
synthesis parameters used by the plugin to create sound. The voice
architecture is described in more detail below.
Note that the rotary knobs may be manipulated in several ways:
- Clicking and dragging a knob with mouse button 1 sets the
value directly, by making the knob pointer point toward the
- Clicking and dragging a knob with mouse button 3 allows
incremental adjustment of the knob's current value (without
a sudden jump.) Horizontal movement produces large variation
in the knob value, while vertical movement allows finer
- Clicking on a knob with buttons 1 and 3 increment and
decrement the knob value.
The NAME text box allows you to change the name of a patch.
Once you have edited a patch to your satisfaction, you may save it
back to the patch bank by clicking the 'Save Changes' button. You
will be asked to which program number you would like to save your
new patch. If you do not wish to overwrite an existing patch,
selected the highest available patch number, next to which '(empty)'
will be displayed, to save your changes to a new slot. Be sure to
then use 'Save Patch Bank...' from the 'File' menu to save your
changes to a file.
Tuning: Sets the tuning of this instance of the plugin, as Hz for
Polyphony: Sets the maximum polyphony for this instance of the
plugin. If you attempt to play more notes than this setting,
already-playing notes will be killed so that newer notes can be
played. If you are getting xruns, try reducing this setting.
'Off' - polyphonic operation.
'On' - monophonic operation, where the envelopes are
retriggered upon each incoming note on event.
'Once' - monophonic operation, where the envelopes are triggered
only on the first note on of a legato phrase -- that
is, if you hold one note while playing a second, the
envelopes will not be retriggered for the second note.
'Both' - monophonic operation, where the envelopes are
retriggered at each note on, and upon note off when
other keys are still held.
'Legato Only' - portamento (a 'slide' in pitch between two
notes) is only used when a new note is played while
another is held.
'Non-legato Only' - portamento is only used for single
(staccato) notes, or the first note of a legato phrase.
'Always' - portamento is always used.
'Leftover' - like 'Always', but ... more difficult to predict.
'Off' - disables portamento.
Pitch Bend Range: Set the pitch bend range, from 0 to 12 semitones,
for this instance of the plugin.
Xsynth-DSSI models a simple analog synthesizer, where two
oscillators (VCO1 and VCO2) are mixed (MIXER) and fed to a low pass
filter (VCF), which then feeds an amplifier (VCA) controlling the
MIXER --> VCF --> VCA --> output
Modulation of these elements is possible using two envelope
generators (EG1 and EG2), a low-frequency oscillator (LFO), and the
MIDI key and velocity.
Oscillators VCO1 and VCO2
The frequencies of VCO1 and VCO2 are controlled by the MIDI key,
plus the value of the 'pitch' control. Compared to a base pitch of
'0', a value of '5' is one octave higher, and a value of '10' is two
The pitch from the MIDI key may be lagged by the PORTAMENTO 'glide'
value, as determined by the glide mode and other keys in play (see
The frequency of VCO2 is also affected by the 'pitch mod' amounts
from EG1, EG2 and the LFO.
The waveforms available for both oscillators are:
2. ascending sawtooth
3. descending sawtooth
5. variable-width rectangle
6. variable-slope triangle
The 'pw/slope' control sets the width and slope of waveforms 5 and
6, respectively. It has no effect when waveforms 0 through 4 are
VCO2 may be 'hard synced' the VCO1, so that its phase resets
whenever VCO1 completes a cycle, by selecting the 'osc sync'
A 'balance' setting of '0' causes the mixer to output only VCO1, a
setting of '10' outputs only VCO2, and a setting of '5' results in
an equal mix of both.
Low Pass Filter VCF
The VCF cutoff frequency is set by the 'cutoff' control, plus the
'filer mod' amounts from EG1, EG2, and LFO.
The filter resonance, or 'Q', is set by the 'resonance' control. Be
aware that the filter is not always stable when the resonance is
very high, and when the resonance is very low but the cutoff is very
The 'mode' option menu controls which of the three filters is used:
'12 db/oct' - the original Xsynth two-pole filter.
'24 db/oct' - the original Xsynth four-pole filter.
'MCVLPF-3' - Fons Adriaensen's MCVLPF-3, modeled after the
voltage-controlled lowpass filter invented by
R. A. Moog.
The gain of the VCA set by both the 'volume' control and the
envelope generator EG1.
Envelope Generators EG1 and EG2
The envelope generators are classic 'ADSR'-style: the 'attack'
control sets the time it takes from key-on for the envelope to reach
full output, the 'decay' control sets the time it then takes to fall
to the 'sustain' level, where it stays until key-off. The 'release'
control sets the time it then takes to fall back to zero output.
The 'vels sens' (velocity sensitivity) control determines the amount
the envelope output is reduced by low MIDI velocities. At a
sensitivity of '0', the envelope always goes to full output. At
maximum MIDI velocity (127), the envelope always goes to full
output. Otherwise, the lower the velocity and higher the
sensitivity, the greater the reduction of the envelope's output.
Low-frequency Oscillator LFO
The duty cycle of the waveform 5 (rectangular) is fixed at 25% high,
and waveform 6 (variable-slope triangular) is not available.
MIDI Controller Mapping
For DSSI hosts that support MIDI controller mapping, Xsynth-DSSI
requests that they map two MIDI controllers:
- MIDI Control Change 5 "Portamento time" is mapped to the
PORTAMENTO 'glide' control, although in a somewhat backward way:
higher CC values map to shorter glide times, and lower CC values
to longer glide times.
- MIDI Control Change 8 "Balance" is mapped to the MIXER balance
Xsynth-DSSI itself interprets several other MIDI control messages:
- MIDI Control Change 7 "Volume" controls the output level, without
affecting the VOLUME control.
- MIDI Control Change 1 "Modulation wheel" reduces the VCF cutoff.
- MIDI channel pressure and key pressure are combined to boost the
Questions that might be frequently asked
Q. Woah! Where'd that nasty sound come from?
A. A certain grittiness has always been part of Xsynth's charm for
me, but if you're getting really nasty sound from a patch, check
for the following:
- Volume too high: especially when using high resonance, your
signal may be so hot it's clipping.
- Resonance too high: yep, the filter will go to
self-oscillation with high resonance settings. Try backing
the resonance off.
- Resonance too low: Xsynth's filter is unstable near zero
resonance when used with high cutoffs. Try setting the
resonance to 0.2.
- Resonance getting boosted by keyboard or channel pressure: try
playing softly or turning your keyboard's pressure
sensitivity off. I know, this should be configurable....
- XSYNTH_DEBUG XDB_AUDIO set: if you've got a ~600Hz buzz in the
output even when you're not playing anything, your plugin
was probably compiled with the XDB_AUDIO debug bit set. Fix
that and recompile.
- Pitch too high: even with the band-limited oscillators, it is
possible to get audible aliasing on very high notes. This
is especially true when using oscillator sync while VCO2 is
producing a sine wave, since the band-limiting technique
doesn't deal as well with waveforms having continuously
Q. Help! I just installed Xsynth-DSSI 0.9.x, and now my sessions
that used the older Xsynth-DSSI 0.1.x don't sound right. What
should I do?
A. Xsynth-DSSI 0.1.3 is the last 0.1.x-compatible version, but it
does include the anti-aliased oscillators and MVCLPF-3 filter.
If you just want to use your existing sessions, you'll have to
use version 0.1.3. If you want to convert them to 0.9.x, you'll
need to save any custom patches or patch banks using a 0.1.x
version, then install 0.9.x, load the custom patches, then tweak
the mix and glide settings as needed. (Note that the version
0.1.x default patch set is installed by later versions as
Q. Why aren't the GUI slider values and the corresponding LADSPA
port values the same?
A. The LADSPA port values are the actual numeric values used by the
synthesis code, while the GUI slider values are all the 0-to-10
values used in Steve Brookes' original Xsynth interface.