Vintage virtual orchestration on a budget: Part 3

Sonic Charge Cyclone

Sonic Charge Cyclone

Cyclone is something of an oddity. If virtual orchestration can be defined as “emulating an orchestra by using a sampler”, what do you call it when you’re emulating a sampler that emulates an orchestra… virtual virtual orchestration? Very meta. Now to be clear, there’s nothing odd about virtual instruments emulating classic synth or sampler hardware. There are tons of those. Normally though, said emulations usually feature a lot of streamlining and modernizations so that the experience is a little more user friendly compared to the original hardware. Not so in the case of Cyclone. Cyclone emulates everything, down to the loading of 720k floppies and the speed of the unit’s internals.

Cyclone is based on the Yamaha TX16W, a rack sampler released in 1988. While it never reached the same popularity as Akai’s and Roland’s S-series of samplers and was notorious for its gritty sound quality, it was a relatively affordable alternative to its competitors and retains something of a cult following to this day. The team behind Cyclone are the same guys who developed a 3rd-party OS for the TX16W called Typhoon in the early 1990’s, which added new features and various performance improvements. Cyclone runs the exact same version of Typhoon that was available for the TX16W, and works exactly like it did on the hardware.

Yamaha TX16W

Here’s the thing. A sampler without samples to load is a pretty useless thing. So if you’re going to give Cyclone a try, make sure to download these disk images so you have something to play with. Again, as with the S-YXG50, these are official Yamaha disks from ages ago which are most likely copyrighted. Still, Yamaha has always been supportive of people still using their legacy hardware and if a developer like Sonic Charge allows this on their official forum, it’s pretty safe to assume that Yamaha is cool with it or otherwise it would have been taken down by now (the post is from 2015).

These disk images contain all you might need for setting up a complete retro VO-template, and much more. The samples are of surprisingly good quality and I honestly suspect that the TX16W’s reputation for being lo-fi stems more from its DAC and other electronic components that are not emulated in Cyclone rather than any deficiency of the sampling engine itself. Everything certainly sounds way better than I would expect from a bunch of 12-bit samples loaded into a 1988 sampler infamous for its bad sound quality.


Now as for actually working with Cyclone… here’s where things get more involved. Let me put it this way: Cyclone is not for the impatient. The emulated CPU runs at 8MHz for compatibility reasons and loading samples — even though a disk image is only 720kB — takes a while. Using the Typhoon OS itself is a little bit like painting the hallway through the mail slot. The 16 character display can only show so much information on one screen and the only way to navigate between Cyclone’s plethora of options and parameters is by clicking the virtual cursor and +/- buttons. Personally I have enough past experience with programming hardware synths, FX units and guitar preamps to be able to grasp this workflow fairly quickly, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy it and I suspect this is the major stumbling block for most people trying Cyclone out. It’s not rocket science, but it takes time and a willingness to both experiment and RTFM.

Summing it up, Cyclone is fun but also frustrating to use. While I can appreciate the developers’ desire to create something that is a window through time, giving people a taste of what it was like to work with samples in decades past, I can’t help but feel that that hardcore approach detracts from its usefulness as an actual instrument. It becomes more of a curiosity piece. Nonetheless, I would say that learning Cyclone is absolutely worth it as it gives you access to those lovely ancient Yamaha sample disks. Just exploring them and not knowing what to expect gave me a sense of wonder I rarely feel with modern virtual instruments.

Watch out for that 16-note (!) polyphony though. If you’re going to attempt some bigger arrangements with Cyclone it’s best to use multiple instances, e.g. one for each instrument family.

Next: Part 4. E-MU Proteus VX
Previous: Part 2. Yamaha S-YXG50

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