AF’s Weblog

July 8, 2011

Moog Music Slim Phatty Review

Five years after having introduced the Little Phatty, Moog decided to launch the compact synth in module version. Did the Slim Phatty succeed in making the famous Moog sound available to anyone?

The Little Phatty is the last project of the late Bob Moog who passed away in August 2005. A few months before passing way, he recruited Cyril Lance who finished the work of his master. The first Little Phatty saw the daylight for the first time at the Frankfurt Musikmesse in March 2006. The unit is a mix between a Prodigy and a Source, two synths based on the Minimoog D and developed in the early 80’s. In fact, the Little Phatty resembles the Prodigy in its looks and the use of two VCOs, but it takes advantage of the memories and programming method of the Source. In late 2010, Moog Music announced an affordable Little Phatty module. Don’t be fooled — affordable Moog means under $1000. Is the Slim Phatty the small synth everyone was waiting for?

Lightweight

Moog Music Slim Phatty

The Slim Phatty is Moog’s “feather-light” analog synth, considering that it weights less than 6.6 lb. and is 20″ width. Its fully metallic construction is very solid and even if the metal sheets are slim, they don’t bend easily. Like all Moog products, the housing was not screen printed but coated with Lexan instead. The front panel features not less than 34 switches with LEDs (some of them are two-colored, red/orange, depending on the status of the device), four big controls surrounded by 15 red diodes (which show the value of the parameters assigned), two standard controls (a bit too responsive) for tuning and volume setting, one push-encoder for value setting, program selection and browsing), and 18 LEDs. The controls and encoders are a bit loose, so they don’t feel as solid as the ones on the Voyager. A 2×16 light blue LCD display shows additional parameters while editing or playing.

The connections on the rear panel are a bit recessed, which allows you to mount the unit on a standard 19″ rack without any cable problems. The unit requires 3U in a 19″ rack. As it is always the case with Moog, the device is equipped with high-quality connections firmly screwed to the housing. You get one USB connector, one phones out, one mono audio out, one audio input, four CV/Gate ins, MIDI in/out/thru, a power switch, and a power connector (universal internal power supply… thank you!). The type-B USB connector only transfers MIDI signals. The CV/Gate inputs allow you to control the Slim Phatty with an external analog controller (foot controller, modular synth, sequencer, Theremin, etc.): they are connected to the pitch (CV), filter (CV), volume (CV) and keyboard (Gate). It’s a pity that Moog didn’t provide optional CV/Gate outs like on the Little Phatty: they would make the Slim Phatty the perfect USB–Midi–CV/Gate converter. It’s also a pity that Moog placed the phones out on the rear panel while it was conveniently placed on the front panel of the Little Phatty…

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

The Slim Phatty is the most affordable Moog synth ever. Described and marketed as the antithesis of the luxurious Voyager XL, it still provides the typical Moog sound without making you go bankrupt. It is well thought-out, very simple to use and easy to transport. However, there are sacrifices to be made: it has no directly accessible noise generator nor a comprehensive set of modulations. Nevertheless, for studio or live musicians who want to add the typical Moog sound to their setup without mortgaging their house or having to stack modules in order to build an analog polyphonic Moog, the Slim Phatty is a very nice solution that combines a real analog sound with an affordable price.

Advantages:

  • Typical fat and punchy Moog sound
  • Oscillators with continuous waveforms
  • 1 to 4-pole filter with overdrive
  • Very fast envelopes
  • Integrated arpeggiator
  • Microtonal scales
  • MIDI CCs can be sent and received
  • Responsiveness of the controls
  • Well thought-out design
  • Compact size
  • Affordable price

Drawbacks:

  • Very limited modulations
  • Noise generator only for modulations
  • No ring modulation
  • No additional effects

To read the full detailed article see:  Moog Music Slim Phatty Review

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September 24, 2010

Roland SH-01 Gaia Review

The SH-01 is Roland’s answer to the analog modeling synths market where low budget and ergonomics are not compatible. Let’s see what tradeoffs were made to combine ease of use and a competitive price.

Since the SH-1000 was launched in 1973, the SH series is without a doubt the most comprehensive among the whole product range of the Japanese manufacturer. Modern SH models are very different from their ancestors: they are programmable, digital, polyphonic, incorporate Midi, etc. Their name has more to do with a marketing concept than a sound concept. However, they focus mainly on direct-access controls and are meant to be immediate and easy-to-use instruments. Since the Nord Lead from 1995, the glorious times of modeling synths are way behind us. Japanese heavyweights have partially withdrawn into themselves while Americans don’t move forward anymore and Europeans try to amortize their R&D costs. The market became bipolar: at the top, the quiet kingdom of the Nord Lead, Virus, Origin, Accelerator, and Solaris that changes very slowly; at the bottom, the merciless world of cost killers like the Korg Micro & R3, Blofeld, SH-201, Miniak, etc. These instruments are often affordable but don’t provide the best ergonomics and manufacturing quality. With the SH-01 “Gaia,” Roland wants to enhance the ergonomics absent in budget products. Compromises had to be made. Were they wise decisions?

Easy Handling

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The SH-01 is a compact synth with a standard, velocity-sensitive, 37-note keyboard (three octaves). It is easy to transport and it runs on a power supply or batteries (the manufacturer says battery life is 4-5 hours). This summer, we took it along with a notebook to the sunny French beaches to test it while getting tanned. The black and white plastic housing isn’t as cheap as it seems. It seems to have some sort of reinforcement and it endured rough handling pretty well. The instrument is an invitation to tweaking. Its front panel is packed with clear, ergonomic and logically implemented control elements. Handling is easy with any synthesis form because you can understand the signal and modulation paths right away: D-Beam controller, LFO, oscillator, filter, amp, effects, etc. The 18 envelope sliders and 11 rotary controls recall the design of the prestigious Jupiter-8 or JP-8000. The rotary controls are not screwed down but they are well secured anyway. On the contrary, the sliders with plastic heads are fragile. It is very disappointing that in today’s modern digital era, controls only seem to to “jump,” because this limits their use in live performances.

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

A “Bank” key plus eight dedicated keys allow you to select the 2 x 64 ROM and RAM programs (RAM is for user presets). Editing arpeggios and sequences is harder because controls are reduced to their simplest expression. Many commands use key combinations using the shift button, and many functions are not written on the front panel, which is a serious design flaw in our eyes… To use the SH-01 in real time, you get an optical D-Bean controller you can assign to many synthesis parameters, a pitch+modulation joystick (typical of the manufacturer) and an assignable port for a foot controller. The unit offers some valuable direct performance controls: tap tempo, octave transpose and V-link for image/slide-show control with compatible devices. A “Manual” control allows reckless sound designers to start programming from the position of the physical control itself, or they can start by reseting all parameters all at once.

USB Gets the Place of Honor

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The rear panel makes a very good impression (except for the usual external power supply): stereo audio output and phones output on 1/4″ jacks, versatile assignable 1/4″ TRS input for a foot controller, Midi in/out, and a dual USB port. The USB ports allow you to connect the SH-01 to computers and storage devices, which is rather unusual for a device in this price range. Even better: the “Host” USB port allows bidirectional Midi and audio data transfer with a computer (drivers are provided on the CD-ROM) for direct audio recording into a host application without quality loss. It also allows you to route the audio mix of the host application to the SH-01 analog outputs. We chose this solution for the sound samples in this review… The device can also send the computer the audio signal feeding the stereo minijack on the front panel. This signal can be processed within the SH-01. You can mute it, attenuate it and cut frequencies according to three modes: high/mid frequencies (to suppress vocals and solo parts of a song, for example), low frequencies and full range. On the contrary, it is not possible to route the input signal to the internal filters and effects. (We are still wondering why the device has this frustrating limitation.)

Roland SH-01 "Gaia"

The other “Media” USB port is conceived for connecting external storage units, (like a USB key) to save and exchange user data (programs, patterns). But there is a fly in the ointment: on the one hand, the USB key can only hold 64 programs + 8 patterns (i.e. some kilobytes) regardless of the memory size of the key. What a waste! On the other hand, a “hot connection” is not possible, which means that you have to power off the device before disconnecting/connecting. No comments… Finally, we have to mention that the SH-01 cannot be USB powered, in spite of its minimum power requirements (9 V – 600 mA), which could be perfectly supplied through the USB port.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Mixed Impressions

In the end, the SH-01 left us with mixed impressions. This affordable standalone instrument is easy to use, includes a real dynamic keyboard and is more sturdy than it seems. With its numerous controls and not very versatile signal path, it was clearly conceived for beginners. However we don’t quite understand why so much DSP power is wasted with three fully independent signals instead of letting them interact. The same applies to the very generous polyphony in detriment of multimbrality for the VA section, and to the three multimode filters and five effect DSPs which can’t be assigned to the external signal source. USB provides you deluxe bidirectional audio transfer but a lousy management of mass storage units. The sound is less controlled than on the 1997 JP-8000. It shows an overall lack of consistency and punch, and tends to become aggressive as soon as high frequencies are not cut. Its very attractive price makes the SH-01 a great instrument to discover subtractive sound synthesis without risks.

Advantages:

  • Attractive price
  • Battery operation
  • Compact size
  • Easy handling
  • Audio & Midi over USB
  • Full-size dynamic keys
  • Generous polyphony
  • Effects section

Drawbacks:

  • Sound is not very consistent and it tends to be aggressive
  • VA section is monotimbral
  • Mono in sync mode
  • Very limited modulation possibilities
  • Very basic arpeggiator/sequencer
  • No external audio signal processing
  • Silkscreen does not mention shift functions
  • USB storage unit management
  • OS could be greatly improved
  • Rather toyish PCM

To read the full detailed article with sound samples see:  Roland Gaia Review

August 24, 2010

Dave Smith Instruments Tetra Review

The Tetra hosts four Mopho voices in an extremely compact housing, meaning you get an analog polyphonic, programmable and a very affordable synth. A closer look…

In 2002, Dave Smith decided to embark on a new hardware synth adventure in order to create instruments that would be pleasant to touch, program, play and hear… In those early days, he launched the Evolver: a small hybrid module that included digital waveforms from the Prophet-VS, as well as analog oscillators and low-pass filters. When it came out, nobody payed attention to a small integrated circuit in the unit: the DSI-120, which was developed together with Curtis — well-known for the VCOs, VCAs, VCFs, envelopes, and other integrated circuits he developed from the late 70’s to the late 80’s, and which glorified analog synths, transforming them into polyphonic and giving them more stability. It was this same DSI-120 that was used for every voice of the Prophet-08 in 2007, making “modern” analog polyphonic synths affordable back then. In 2008, the Mopho extended the already long career of the integrated circuit that provides no less than two DCOs, a low-pass VCF and a stereo VCA. By the end of 2009, DSI presented the Tetra — a Mopho on steroids including four DSI-120 circuits!

First Inspection

Dave Smith Instruments - Tetra

The Tetra is a bluish-gray compact module made out of rugged metal and fitted in the same housing as the Mopho. The housing is covered with a layer of Lexan (a printed, soft PVC sheet): the manufacturer says this solution is more expensive than standard silkscreen but adds features like higher printing definition, waterproof LCD and longer durability. The rotary controls have black “deluxe” knobs with chrome binding that remind us of the Prophet-5, but smaller. The Tetra features eight incremental encoders (pitch, attack, decay/release, select + four freely assignable encoders) as well as three potentiometers (volume, cutoff, resonance). All encoders have plastic axes, while all potentiometers are top quality and firmly mounted on the device. The choice of encoders or potentiometers for filter parameter control could certainly be discussed; some will prefer to edit signals accurately and without value drops or threshold effects, while others will prefer to get an immediate response over a short editing range. Dave Smith explains that customer feedback shows that most users choose the second option. Anyway, the potentiometers have three different responses: Jump (the edited parameter jumps to the value matching the physical position of the potentiometer as soon as you turn it), relative (the parameter changes smoothly according to the physical range still available) and passthru (the parameter changes only when the physical position of the potentiometer passes through the stored value). In the middle of the front panel you’ll find an easily readable, blue backlit LCD with 2 x 16 digits. The rest of the front panel is scattered with small selectors: playing mode, navigation (programs/banks), memory save, encoders’ assignment mode, editing layer, and note triggering (“Push It!” with activated LEDs when the Tetra plays back tones).

Handling

Dave Smith Instruments - Tetra

Ergonomics were no highlight of the Mopho… and given the number of parameters of the Tetra, they didn’t really improve that much considering that editing possibilities are now fourfold! cTo edit a sound, you can use either the row of five encoders/pots with hard assignment or the four freely assignable encoders. To assign a parameter, press the “Assign” button and turn one of the four encoders until you reach the desired parameter. Afterwards, push the “Assign” button again to exit assignment mode and go back to sound editing. Luckily, the assignment is saved with each program! When a program has two layers, push the Edit B / Combo button to access the second layer. In Combo mode, editing can be quite exasperating: it is impossible to access the four sound layers because each assignable encoder is dedicated to one of the voices (so you don’t have direct access to the three other parameters anymore) and the other pots/encoders control all layers simultaneously. Some of the first users have already asked for an OS update. Until then, you’ll have to use Sound Tower’s editor for Mac/PC (either the free “lite” version or the commercial “pro” version)…

Dave Smith Instruments - Tetra

Now, let’s take a look at the rear connection panel: separate phones output, four unbalanced audio outputs (including one stereo pair), Midi in + out + polychain connector (to chain up to four Tetras, or two Tetras and a Prophet-08), USB2 port (Midi over USB but no audio), external power supply (standard power supply with auto voltage detection and exchangeable connector). And that’s it? Yes, that’s it! No on/off power switch and, most importantly, no audio input to process external signals! An excellent solution to protect the Mopho… The Tetra holds two small PCBs: an analog board (for the four voices) connected to the motherboard that includes the digital circuitry (processor) and connections. Several remarks: the layout of the surface mounted components (SMC) and the assembly quality of the product are impressive (see picture). From the connection design between the boards we can easily envision several possibilities in other configurations. To be continued…

Dave Smith Instruments - TetraDave Smith Instruments - Tetra

Now let’s get in deeper into the machine…

Live Addiction

As a summary, the Tetra is a powerful polyphonic, multitimbral analog synth. Its price is very reasonable considering that this compact unit hosts a real sound synthesis monster with only a few direct controls. This, however, is also its main limitation because the design doesn’t allow direct and easy editing. Thus, the Sound Tower editor is indispensable. If you consider the Tetra’s outstanding sound quality and the lack of serious competitors, it ought to take you no time to understand that it is the perfect live instrument to complement digital synths and other cold-sounding workstations. So, when is the keyboard version coming out?

Advantages:

  • Value for money
  • Sound quality
  • Compact and rugged housing
  • Polyphony and multitimbrality
  • Modulation possibilities
  • Arpeggiators and sequencers
  • Separate outputs
  • USB2 interface

Drawbacks:

  • Editing ease
  • Limited Combo mode
  • No audio input
  • No on/off power switch
  • External power supply

To read the full detailed article with sound samples please see:  Tetra Review

August 5, 2010

Akai Miniak Review

After having repositioned Alesis on the market, Numark seems to have entrusted Akai with the fate of the synth/drum machine product range. The Miniak is the first Akai synth “in the modern era”.

Late after the extinction of analog dinosaurs, musicians started to rediscover and revere these fat monsters. Manufacturers, which were developing preset-based digital workstations, decided to digitally model the behavior of analog circuitries. The last step was to conceive ergonomic user interfaces that included direct controls for a more authentic playing feel (to make the illusion more real, say analog fundamentalists). Very few manufacturers started to develop real programmable, polyphonic analog synths… One of the exceptions was Alesis who, against all odds, launched ten years ago the most powerful analog synth in history: Andromeda. This was a masterly achievement but also their deathblow: Numark bought the manufacturer in 2001, drastically reduced the Andromeda market price and launched a very successful range of analog modeling synths.

In 2003, the Ion provided eight voices of pure happiness with three powerful oscillators, two full-featured filters and a front panel fully packed with control elements. More affordable versions came out pretty fast: born in 2004, the Micron used the same sound synthesis as the Ion and even added effects to the rig, but it was hosted in a compact housing with reduced space for controls — not very ergonomic. Numark bought Akai Professional the same year and immediately redeployed the MPC product range. Now, they have introduced the Miniak: a Micron synth repacked under the Akai brand. So, the key question is: do they need cash and have relied on a tried and tested technology already amortized, or is it a strategic move to try to reposition the two brands? Anyway, people under 20 will think the Miniak is the first Akai analog synth. With a bit of luck, the rest of us might remember that their first analog synth was the AX80. In 1985!

New Look

Akai Miniak

Repacking means getting a new outfit. With its strong black PVC housing mounted on a rugged metal bottom side, the Miniak is no exception to the rule. The unit is manufactured in Taiwan and has a remarkable construction quality. The impression of sturdiness is reinforced by the weight of the unit: 11 lb. are quite a lot for such a compact device. It’s actually a big difference in comparison to the Micron’s aluminum lightness! The finish is perfect, be it the silkscreen or the encoders that use a metal axis screwed on the housing for a longer life. The three XYZ encoders are absolute encoders: they can be assigned to sound synthesis parameters and they have 12-bit resolution, which translates into 4,096 possible values. The fourth encoder is labeled Data. This incremental control with push function allows you to switch between menus and parameter edition.

Akai Miniak

Besides the play mode, sequence triggering and volume controls, you’ll find three quality wheels (pitch plus two freely assignable modulation wheels) that light up orange. The 37 half-weighted keys are velocity and aftertouch but not pressure sensitive. The response of these standard sized keys is quite good and make playing easier. There is an XLR input for dynamic microphones, like the gooseneck mic included. All other connections — firmly screwed on the housing — are on the rear panel: a socket for the external power supply, power on/off switch, stereo inputs and outputs on balanced TRS connectors, phones out, two footswitch inputs, MIDI in/out/thru, and a connector for a notebook-type anti-theft device. Just like on the Micron, we miss a USB port on this synth…

Arduous Editing

Akai Miniak

Getting started is pretty straightforward: just look at the silkscreen and push, simultaneously, the “program” button and a key to select a bank; then simply browse the programs with the incremental knob. Now, you can play the keyboard, trigger rhythm patterns and arpeggios, depending on the note you play; adjust the tempo with the “Tap tempo” button; and edit three sound parameters using the assignable XYZ encoders or the three wheels. Dedicated buttons allow you to transpose the keyboard up to three octaves up and down, considering that the Miniak can handle all 128 MIDI notes. It’s ideal for live performances!

Akai Miniak

On the other hand, editing possibilities are very frustrating because, excluding the three assignable encoders, all other settings must be made via menu pages. Once again, push the “Programs” button and a key to access the section you wish to edit (oscillators, pre-mix, filters, outputs, envelopes, etc.). Afterwards, you’ll have to browse the menu pages using the “Data” selector: push it to edit a parameter and push it again to toggle back to navigation mode… Considering the large number of editable parameters, you’ll beg for a dedicated editor. But it’s no use: Akai doesn’t provide anything! However, you’ll find a VST/standalone editor for Windows from HyperSynth: http://www.hypersynth.com/miniak-editor.html (which we haven’t tried out). By the way, we would also like to criticize something else: the backlit LCD display has only 2×16 digits and is much too small to manage the countless parameters. It is hardly readable in spite of its adjustable contrast (blue characters on blue background) and it is too recessed into the panel (the readability decreases when you don’t stand directly above the display).

Now let’s dig into the sound!….

Born to Run

Finally, the Miniak is a very compact, rugged and clever instrument that produces vintage synth emulations as well as modern techno sounds. Compared with the Micron, the biggest change is only aesthetic. However, the Miniak does bring some improvements in the control layout, which enhances operation. The Miniak is a stage monster conceived to be transported all over the world to play live on stage. On the other hand, it is not so powerful for direct editing. That’s the other side of the coin: with such a small size and price, it offers a very limited number of direct controls. This is when we start dreaming about a Maxiak fully packed with knobs and buttons!

Advantages:

  • Sound quality and versatility
  • Powerful sound synthesis
  • Control resolution
  • Construction quality
  • Compact and easily transportable
  • Integrated effects
  • Included gooseneck mic
  • Pattern generator
  • Real dynamic keyboard

Drawbacks:

  • Complex direct editing
  • No USB port
  • No dedicated editor
  • Vocoder’s intelligibility

To read the full (this is just the beginning) detailed article with sound samples see:  Akai Miniak Review

April 29, 2009

Video Demo: Modules for Doepfer A-100

An overview of different modules compatible with Doepfer’s A-100 modular system.

To see more exclusive video demos visit Audiofanzine Videos.

April 12, 2009

Musikmesse: Akai Miniak Synth

Akai presents their new Miniak analog modeling synthesizer.

akai-miniak

For more Musikmesse videos and news visit Audiofanzine Musikmesse

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