Zynthian raport

As promised in Exercises in absurdity, or ... M-Audio Code controller, starting what’s probably going to be an on-going raport about my Zynthian journey. In short, Zynthian is an open source, open hardware Raspberry Pi -based multiengine, multi-timbral synth/sampler with benefits. Such as also being a MIDI processor and an USB host, which should make it a nice pair with Pyramid. Some assembly is required, but if you can handle tiny screws and follow simple instructions, this is not hard at all.

The box arrived on Thursday, less than a week from ordering. Assembling the official V3 kit took something like two hours total, including interruptions to take plenty of photos, preparing and participating on family dinner. And then another two hours to go out to buy a microSD card for it (the kit doesn’t come with one and I’d kinda missed or dismissed that with “oh I have SD cards in the house”), prepare it with the image (not hard, but downloading and then writing down 10+ gigabytes of stuff on the card takes some time). And then chase around the house for a suitable USB power supply: another “oh I have those in the house” item, but those things truly are not all made equal: even if the supply itself says a thing, the cable might not deliver: Pi 3 will boot and run on with very little power but it’ll limp along in a survival mode, which made me think this is so not going to handle audio processing … before realizing that tiny red lightning symbol is an under-voltage warning, not a “running on AC power” symbol as it is on many devices. :smile: Once properly powered it feels quite snappy. So it took me an evening to get it up and running but most of that was just me not being prepared (and also not wanting to rush it).

With all that aside, it seems remarkably polished for this kind of a project that’s also being very actively developed. From what I briefly tried with the synth/sampler stuff, it “just works” and indeed seems like a nice pair with the Pyramid - in my case I’d been looking for a sampler and an USB MIDI host, and this comes with both. On top of multitude of synth engines and audio effects that is.

As mentioned in the M-audio thread, I only have a laptop in my studio for mixdown/master recording, and getting rid of it entirely has been a long-term plan. Zynthian can record and play audio, and these can be routed through an effect stack (arbitrarily large collection of LV2 plugins etc available) so it should work for that too. Tried this out yesterday and wasted good many hours on it, partly due to missing documentation and partly due to my own newbie mistakes / not really thinking it through: there actually two audio inputs on the box - one 6.3mm TRS jack for balanced mono input, and a 3.5mm TRS jack for unbalanced stereo input. The 3.5mm jack seems to be entirely undocumented - the Zynthian docs don’t seem to mention it at all, and even the card manufacturer docs just say “analogue input, 3.5mm phone jack” and nothing more. This combined with not really internalizing what I’d read on the build guide about the larger input jack which you do connect by yourself, coming from a software background I first suspected software bugs and chased a lot of ghosts before really realizing the 6.3mm TRS jack is wired as balanced mono. Says so right there in the building guide. Getting from there to having it actually accept and record input on the 3.5mm jack was a bit of a journey, probably largely self-inflicted due to messing with input selectors in the Zynthian mixer before recognizing them for what they really are. Still, the part about stereo input seems undocumented. Might have to do with this not being the most common of tasks for the box. Might also have to do with just me being a little too tired for the task. Tired as in “wondering for several minutes why there’s no sound coming out of anything when the mixing console is not turned on” -tired. :joy:

Anyway, it does indeed record stereo audio in a manner that seems perfectly sufficient for my purposes, so my studio is now entirely laptop free! :partying_face: That is, at least preliminarily so. Time will tell.

Next stop on the road is probably to mess around with the MIDI router, that I haven’t touched at all yet. Other than noting that yes it does see all the junk attached to an USB hub like it should: it is a proper computer inside, so there are no arbitrary limitations on how many ports you can have on a hub etc. From what I looked, the typical USB MIDI host standalone box either doesn’t support USB hubs, or is limited (eg Kenton says to support four ports on a hub).


I was by the Zynthian pages again today and wondering how you’ve been getting on with yours. Any updates/insights/aha moments?

Been intending to make an update here but just haven’t gotten around, so thanks for asking.

I’ve somewhat mixed feelings, it’s a fun thing in its own right with a lively and nice community, but instead of solutions I’m just deeper in the rabbithole.

It’s certainly been a bit of a learning experience with Rasperry Pi - not knowing what to expect, I was approaching it like any old general purpose computer, but there are weird and unexpected gotchas. Like not having a power switch of its own, and having issues with powered USB hubs, and crashes on disconnect/poweroff of connected devices (powering down the M-Audio Code controller regularly crashes it, some code of death…). Audio recording would start glitching and then die soon after 2min mark, which apparently is related to the USB stick, not Zynthian/Raspi as such. Some of the issues might well be power issues still, I’m not convinced I have that all sorted out. Enough instability (both hardware and software) to scare me away from the idea of using this as a “master” recorder though. With an all manual analog mixing console, you really don’t want to find out that the near-perfect mixdown from the 11th attempt is trash because your recorder hickuped in the middle (what a wonderful excuse to order more gear to the rack :smile: )

Another surprise was total lack of SysEx support due to the serial interface MIDI software (mod-ttymidi) not supporting it, and thus its disabled/ignored entirely in the entire Zynthian software stack. Nothing unfixable but ran out of steam for the moment after creating a development/test serial MIDI board from Arduino for the purpose and then realizing mod-ttymidi has more fundamental issues needing to be fixed first in (since then kinda fixed by someone else though).

Kinda related to that, it soon became clear that if you expect to use a device in a semi-central role in your studio, you certainly can’t develop and test on the same device. And while you can certainly build a devel board much cheaper than the official kit, it’s not free either, at which point I started looking again into the more light-weight (and cheaper) options, ie special purpose Arduino/Teensy based board to do just what I want, which would power up much faster and be kinda easier to work on because it does just that one thing. So a new pile of electronics stuff landed on my desk on Friday, only there’s a million other things demanding attention more urgently. Especially as my MidiHub should be finally arriving one of these days and I need to see how that all works out before diving too much deeper.

If you think there’s something fundamental missing (“so how’s the synth?”) you’d be right: been too busy with other things to make much music recently, and the one song project I have going isn’t synth oriented in the least. So I haven’t actually used it beyond the “blink, blonk, tink, tonk, okay it makes interesting noises” fiddling with presets stage. The audio to midi feature was fun to mess with, hooking a guitar into it. Too much latency and glitches for “serious” playing, but should be good for some crazy effects.


Thank you for the update!

I’m excited where technology can take us now that we’re finding hybrid places to exist & create between Win/Mac/Android computers and purely single task oriented devices. It seems we still have a ways to go, with many thrilling opportunities along the way.

Really appreciate the update!


I just saw this thread and as an owner of both Pyramid and Zynthian, I would like to agree on the report made by pmatilai. I built the Zynthian with a rpi 4, a hifiberry DAC + ADC soundcard and a custom hdmi screen (bigger than the one that comes from the kit), and face the same power supply issues. I will try to power the screen from another source and hope that the 3A power supply I have will be reliable enough to avoid underpower issues. I suspect this to cause some glitches when playing synth engines, and makes the rpi more prone to crashes.

This synth is promoted as a swiss army knife, and it really is. For what it offers, its price is ridiculously cheap when compared to other gear. The possibilities it offers are just everything you can think of and more, and the Pyramid is perfect to take advantage of its midi possibilities. I debuted my music journey into the world of midi and synth with both these devices. I luckily had a background in DIY pedals and analog synths, but I must say the lack of information on the use of the Zynthian makes it quite hard when you’re starting with midi and synths, and a bit of understanding of how a raspberry pi works is also needed to build the unit, in case you encounter some bugs, etc. I join pmatilai here, when it is not the Zynthian itself, a lot of issues can be encountered with external hardware, if not the power supply, the usb or SD card you use, etc., and it can be time consuming, less time spent making music and at the end quite frustrating. However, once you have built the synth and you have a bit of midi/synth knowledge, I find the interface very straightforward (assigning a synth engine to a midi channel, adding effects to that channel, midi learning for parameters, etc.), and it could not be easier to pair with the Pyramid.

Despite of its ease of use, I don’t feel I can rely on the Zynthian as much as I could, and I certainly would not dare to use it for a live performance as for now. I have built a Shruthi from mutable Instruments, and it feels much more reliable (of course they can’t be compared in terms of functionality, but it is also a diy synth). The possibilities the Zynthian offers are so wide, that I will try to focus on using only few functions, and see if it is more reliable this way, along with a good power supply, which I’m sure has a lot of responsibility here. The possibility to update and configure the Zynthian engines and other functions from the Webconf tool on your computer makes it easy to have a “minimal” Zynthian setup, for example with only 2 synth engines and few effects.

All in all, I love my zynthian, even though it has not been as reliable as I expect so far, I hope to fix the power supply easily, and as pmatilai mentioned, the Zynthian community is very active and can help solve issues. I love its minimal design contrasting with its many functionalities keeping a menu diving really shallow. I think it is the perfect tool to use as a sketchpad for making music, draw your ideas there. Apart from being a cheap alternative, it has also a very small footprint for what it can do. Combined with the Pyramid, think of it as a mini Studio you can carry in your bag, having a sampler, multiple synth and effects engines, and the possibility to record your sketches.

I hope this was useful !


A small update here: Blokas recently made the Midihub Editor available for rPi too. It runs just fine on Zynthian and is also fully usable over an ssh-connection from another system. This might be a bit of a game-changer to me, as the usefulness of the Zynthian in the setup just went up several notches.

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A little bump :slight_smile:

Excluding issue with setting up ( sounds like a decent psu is vital - that’s typical of rpi)

What do you think of the software ‘as is’ ?

if someone wanted a simple multi-timbral synth, or sample playback - does it ‘just work’ , or is there still a lot of fiddling about ?!
With included synths do they sound good?
What’s the latency like?

How about the user interface?
is it adequate for creating new synth presets etc?
Or is it mainly focused on using presets and tweaking a bit?

I’m used to a lot of these platforms, and usually their ‘weakness’ is what I’d call ‘polish’ - they are extremely powerful, but involve quite a lot of fiddling with things.

This is not being critical, I think it’s part of the diy culture - your building your instrument on top of a platform.
( eg I love the organelle which is a bit similar)

So, I’m intrigued , where on that spectrum the Zynthian lives … esp as it’s definitely evolving all the time.

I have build one of these and I think it’s really good.
You can either get the official kit or build your own from scratch.
I went the DIY route based on a Raspberry Pi 4 - I had a few technical issues setting things up but I was learning from scratch and building my own circuits.

The kit, which now has just had a V4 released, is very simple to assemble.

If i had to be critical, i’d say a downside can be that it can do too much. Being a mini computer, I’ve seen people trying to use it as a synth, recorder, sequencer, midi host, midi router, you name it… but all at the same time… It’s only a Raspberry Pi, so I think you be a somewhat mindful as to what you want from it.

I use it purely as a multi-timbral Synth and its very good at that, some of the emulation plugins are really good, like the OBX. I don’t get any noticeable latency over MIDI or USB.
Currently I have it connected to my Pyramid via a USB hub so it has all 16 channels available to it
It does soundfont playback which at the moment is my only source of ‘real’ sounding instruments.
It runs Dexed for DX7 emulation as well as Helm and host of other open source modules.
You can run MOD UI on it and a boat load of effects plugins.

There is pretty decent webUI to handle presets and you save the machine state as snapshot for projects. I’ve also had some success in getting the Pyramid to load snapshots via program change.

It terms of the UI, it’s based on 4 rotary encoders and a touchscreen, the parameter pages and logic vary from plugin to plugin. Sometimes there can be far to many pages but as you only have 4 encoders, its a trade off, and i’d prefer that than it just being touch based.

Best thing is to try it out if you have a Raspberry Pi. Flash an SD card, and connect it to a TV and use a qwerty keyboard to navigate. Yes you will miss the encoders, dedicated audio card and touch screen, but you will get a sense of the UI and how it performs. Just plug in a USB MIDI keyboard.

Oh and if you love piano and can afford the cost - it runs Pianoteq

Also take a look at the new website

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I have a question :slight_smile:
How easily can you record parameter automation with the Pyramid? Let’s say I have three instruments running on the Zynthian, on midi channels 1, 2 & 3.
If I change a param with the knobs of the Zynthian, can it send the associated MIDI CCs back so the Pyramid can record them? Does the Pyramid record them on the right tracks?

The Zynthian has midi learn, so you could assign a Pyramid encoder to a CC, then have the Zynth learn that on a specific parameter.

As for the Zynth sending its own CC’s out, many of the parameters I do believe have default CC’s for being controlled, but as for what you are asking… hmmm

You could take a look on the Zynthian forums if you don’t get an answer here.

Lot of questions @thetechnobear :sweat_smile:

Like I said in the initial report, it’s surprisingly polished for a project still under constant development, at least on the more trodden paths things do “just work” from what I’ve seen. The on-device UI is (AFAICS) limited to seleting and tweaking presets, but then you can do/run arbitrary things over ssh or hook up an external monitor + keyboard/mouse to unleash an actual computer-experience.

There are so many things on board that it’s hard to summarize what it sounds like, but for example ZynAddSubFX sounds quite amazing on it (on the stock v3 kit with HifiBerry Pro at least - various different boards are supported so the audio quality depends on that too). The sound might actually be a bit too modern for my taste and typical purposes, but time will tell. Whatever latency there is hasn’t been noticeable to me.

You can certainly run into Raspberry Pi3 limits easily, but OTOH you can run quite a few of the less taxing engines/layers simultaneously. The currently selling v4 kit based on Raspberry Pi4 is obviously much more capable than the Pi3 which I have (Would I have waiting three months to order mine if I’d known v4 is coming? The answer is yes…) Anyway, even Pi3 is easily enough to make music with standalone (there’s even an on-board step sequencer under development), which should make the Z a nice companion when traveling. Haven’t tried that in practice though, yet. For my studio-use the bigger limitation is that there’s only a stereo output available (on the stock kit that is), and I like to put all instruments on their separate audio channels/tracks.

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Haven’t tried it, but apparently yes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-V_6_5Gtrk

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