AF’s Weblog

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

May 22, 2009

LL Electronics – Oddulator

LL Electronics introduces the Oddulator, a scaled down version of their Rozzbox.

To see more exclusive video demos visit Audiofanzine Videos.

April 28, 2009

Video Demo: Doepfer Dark Energy

Doepfer talks about the new Dark Energy, their analog monophonic stand-alone synthesizer that also features a USB and Midi interface.

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

March 16, 2009

Sonic Charge Synplant: The Test

The Secret Sound of Plants
Sonic Charge Synplant: The Test

Since the dawn of synthesizers, there have been many types of synthesis to emerge. But the same can not be said about their approaches to work flow or interfaces. With Synplant, Sonic Charge has taken inspiration from the world of plants and their growth patterns in order to come up with a new way of creating sound. Marketing ploy or innovation?

Overview

Ouverture

The first thing to know about Synplant is that it’s an AU and VST plug-in that’s Mac and PC compatible. So far, so good. But soon we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory. First of all, the interface is quite minimal: a big round dial, referred to as a “bulb” (it kind of looks like Ueberschall’s loopeyes), surrounded by 12 buttons that represent the 12 half-steps of an octave, a patch selector/browser, four buttons and seven sliders, and that’s all (for now). The way it produces sound is as follows: you plant a “seed” in the center of the “bulb” and grow branches out from this seed (yes, really). Pretty original, right?

Let’s try it, then. A click in the middle of the screen, and a seed appears, accompanied by a brief sound (each seed contains its own particular sound). You can also right-click, which opens a menu offering, amongst others, the same function (more on this later). You can always jot down the name of the seed just in case (in order to stay within the botanical theme they’ve chosen some complicated ones), but you can’t choose one directly since new seeds are chosen randomly. One solution: open a Seed and save it as a preset without touching any settings. This can be done in a separate folder. Just as an indication, after generating 215 Seeds (whoa. ..), I only had four duplicates (same name, but not the same sound). Sound production is completely and utterly random.

Then, from out of this seed grows 12 branches, each corresponding to the notes of the octave on the outside of the bulb. When the branches are at there smallest (like when a seed is created), their sound is identical to the Seed. One of Synplant’s main principles of sound creation is to elongate these branches (in real time) to get a different sound.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

Longueur variable

No doubt, originality pays off. First of all, the presets show that you can get all kinds of sounds, from typical FM pluck (with mod wheel effects) to ethereal choirs, a pseudo-Rhodes to an unstable pad, a classic lead to a prog pad, all with the surprising results that using the mod wheel brings.

But where this synth is really interesting is in its sound production, which forces us to rethink our whole approach. It’s more like a voyage rather than thinking in terms of frequency, timbre, pitch, etc.. And, if you accept this premise, you have to admit that the interface is absolutely brilliant. What’s rather reassuring, is that in terms of sound you don’t come across new sounds that are totally unusable (there are some, but not many), which is something you might assume after seeing the interface. There is always a direction to explore in one of the branches.

A few small drawbacks, like the unnecessary “complexity” of the envelope or the lack of clarity in the filtering, do not spoil the pleasure of working with Synplant, which generates as many new sounds as it does new compositional ideas. So, marketing gimmick or innovation? Innovation, kudos to Sonic Charge.

AudioFanzine décerne au Synplant de Sonic Charge l'Award de l'innovation.

In light of this test, AudioFanzine gives the Award for Innovation to Sonic Charge’s Synplant..

Concept
Originality of the interface
Quality of the interface
Inventiveness
Sound Quality
Oscillator Quality
Seed creation due to complete chance
Richness and diversity of tones
The ability to refine sounds
Numerous modulations
Many presets
Midi Learn
CPU friendly
Interactive help included
The price

Manipulate Genes interface sometimes unclear
Only one envelope
Why not include a simple ADSR?
Filtering and envelope need getting used to
No aftertouch

To read the full detailed article see:  Sonic Charge Synplant Review

March 2, 2009

Test: Clavia Nord Wave Synthesis Review

Filed under: Synthesizers — Tags: , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 10:09 am
Multifaceted Synthesis
Clavia Nord Wave: The Test

Integrating analog modeling, FM synthesis, digital waveforms, and sample reading, the Nord Wave positions itself as a versatile multi-synthesis specialist. Focusing on immediate programming as opposed to navigating through endless menu pages, does it have what it takes to stand out from the rest?

In 1995, Clavia introduced the Nord Lead, a small red bomb modeling polyphonic analog synths of yesteryear. The machine also came with a sound bank from the original Prophet-5. In the following 10 years, it gave birth to gifted offspring, exploring FM synthesis on the way, with the Nord Lead 3 and its fancy luminous interface. The Swedish manufacturer was quick to explore the world of virtual modular synths, with a family just as gifted that allowed it to model many signal processing tools. The only thing missing was sample reading, something which Clavia was soon to develop in order to generate some of the sounds of its keyboards destined for playing live. The Nord Wave therefore has profited form the know-how of the brand. Now at maturity, with a stable OS (1.08) and coming with an additional bank of 250 MB of Mellotron samples, a test was called for …

Getting Started

Clavia Nord Wave

True to Clavia tradition, the Nord Wave synth is both lightweight and solidly built. Weighing in at 6 kg on the scale in a red and black frame all in metal the machine was made for live gigs. Controls (33 knobs, 3 notched endless encoders, 33 buttons) are firmly attached to the front panel (they won’t be going anywhere!). As usual, they’re all grouped together on the left half of the machine. You either like it or you don’t. In any event, the controls are too crowded and too small for tired eyes and trembling hands. In addition, the screen is on the extreme left, which isn’t practical for reading. All parameters except for global/Midi settings are accessible directly from the front panel. Some buttons have an alternate function which is accessible by pressing “Shift”. The sections are pretty clear, with (from left to right): modulations (portamento, LFO, assignable envelope), 2 oscillators, a filter with its envelope, the volume with its envelope and its effects. Work flow and ease of use are strong points of this machine. The LCD screen (2 x 16 characters) completes the picture: in addition to the names of programs, the LCD screen shows the value of all parameters while editing, especially the names of multi-samples and digital waveforms. Note that the value of certain parameters is shown in its true unit of measurement: frequency in Hz, time in seconds, intervals in semitones … nice! A dedicated “Panic” button can cut all notes and is ideal for gigs. Some small shortcomings: there’s no “compare” button and rotary knobs only function in “jump” mode.

Connectique dépouillée

As for its keyboard action, the Nord Wave offers a lightweight 4-octave keyboard (49 keys) that’s sensitive to both velocity and pressure. Its feel and dynamic response are comfortable and responsive to nuances, however, the pressure control is very abrupt and not very expressive. It’s a shame that Clavia hasn’t switched to the standard 5 octaves, especially to play multi-samples. To overcome the lack of octaves, there are buttons that quickly transpose, plus or minus 2 octaves, near the cool pitch stick without a central position and the modulation wheel. On closer examination, the back panel proves to be a disappointment (picture on the left): one pair of audio outputs, a headphone jack, a duo Midi, 2 Pedal outputs, and a USB socket (see box on sample management). So goodbye multiple outputs, digital audio, MIDI Through … There’s only internal power to console us, which is surprising from a machine of this level and price.

Now let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

In the end, the Nord Wave is a concentration of synthesis types with excellent musicality. User friendly, robust, and lightweight, it’s made for live situations, like all Clavia products. Its range of sounds is surprising, with very different and perfectly complementary timbres within easy reach. If you add to that the intermodulation of oscillators, the excellent library of Mellotron samples, you should be satisfied… except, that for this level, some aspects just barely cut it, especially the keyboard, multi-timbrality, connections, computer dependence for sample management, and certain sections that aren’t sufficiently developed. In any event, for those who put sound quality at the top of their priority list, as well as the variety of sounds and ease of use, it’s hard to beat the Nord Wave at the moment.

Both solid and light, ideal for using live
Easy to use and quick results
Wide and excellent sound range
Beautiful 250 MB Mellotron bank
Quality effects, especially the chorus
Oscillator inter-modulation
Filters are varied and musical
Envelopes very responsive
Morphing between 2 sounds
A lot of FlashRam to load samples

Only bi-timbral
No Split or dynamic layers
Keyboard only 4 octaves
Aftertouch limited to vibrato and difficult to control
Knobs, dials, and buttons are small and crowded
Limited effects section
No Midi sync for the LFOs/delays
No arpeggiator
Not autonomous in the management of samples
No multi-layered samples
No audio input
No Midi Through

To read the full, detailed article see:  Clavia Nord Wave review

February 17, 2009

NAMM 2009: Video Demo Radikal Technologies Spectralis 2

Joerg Schaff presents the Spectralis 2 from Radikal Technologies.

To watch all NAMM 2009 video demos visit us on Audiofanzine NAMM 2009.

January 30, 2009

NAMM 2009: Video Demo CME Neosynth Expansion Board

Mel Morley from Kaysound shows us the new CME Neosynth expansion board for VX and UF series keyboards.

To watch all NAMM 2009 video demos visit us on Audiofanzine NAMM 2009.

January 29, 2009

NAMM 2009: Video Demp Micro Korg XL

Filed under: keyboards, namm 2009, Synthesizers — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — audiofanzine @ 2:45 pm

Rich Formidoni from Korg USA presents us the new micro Korg XL.

To watch all NAMM 2009 video demos visit us on Audiofanzine NAMM 2009.

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