Inspired by Buchla magic the West Pest embraces wave folding and dynamics to offer a left-field synthesizer experience.
The West Pest is of course Cre8audio’s counterpart to the East Beast, a synthesizer I’ve already reviewed which is butchery smooth with that fantastic filter. So what is it that the West Pest offers that the East Beast does not? Well, the clue is in the name and we shouldn’t get distracted by the “beast” and “pest” side of things because the East Beast is far from beastly and the West Pest is nowhere near any kind of pest. But the first part of the name refers to east-coast synthesis and west-coast synthesis. Does it matter what that is? No, we don’t really care anymore because we mix these things together but it does give you some insight into the sort of stuff that’s going to be involved in that synthesizer. So with east coast you’re looking at filters, VCAs, you’re looking at subtractive synthesis from Moog and ARP, that kind of traditional musical form of synthesizer. On the west coast we have Buchla and Serge who are into a more esoteric, fanciful and slightly bizarre way of synthesis and that’s what we find in the West Pest.
This review is an edited transcript taken from my video review (below) for people who prefer to read.
In reality, all we’re really talking about is wave folding. So folding waves to generate harmonics and more sound rather than filtering and taking away harmonics as you do on the east coast. But there are other differences too in that you don’t really have envelopes in the same way on the West Pest as you do on the East Beast and instead we have this really fascinating dynamics controller which is a take on the low pass gate; fundamental to the Buchla sound. It will be the combination of wave folding on the nice big knob and the dynamics controller which is going to give the West Pest its quite individual and unique sound.
While there are similarities between all forms of synthesis this has a different edge to it. It has a feeling that it’s about to roll off and explode into other places. It has a grittiness, an edginess, a boldness perhaps that brightly penetrates through the sound it’s not that covered in butter or getting oiled up like you were on the East Beast.
This is slightly more dangerous, slightly more adventurous perhaps, and the interesting thing I find is that it takes me away from doing the same stuff that I would normally do on any other synthesizer. Because I’m looking for difference, I’m looking for odd ways of doing things, and new sorts of sounds I haven’t fully explored before. On the East Beast I kind of spend my time doing the same thing, the familiar thing the thing that I like. I can instantly find things to hook into. I can create an awesome bass line, get super in on that filter and go yeah, yeah this is it man, this is techno I’m doing, I’m doing it, I’m making music. With the West Pest it’s a slightly different journey and you start to explore things differently. The knobs that are labelled as things that you think they are labelled as, aren’t necessarily doing the thing that you thought the label implied, and the thing that they would be doing is not actually what they’re doing and that’s always exciting.
At the same time it’s not radical and out there man, it’s not going to take you on some kind of weird trip into psychedelic heaven, well you could do that but it’s not going to be the fault of the synthesizer, and so there’s plenty of familiar territory within here and sounds that are easily within your grasp. You could fit it into any system in any place and it’s certainly very interesting to run the two together but for the moment let’s pull you inside the West Pest
As you can see there are kind of three sections. There’s the Oscillator Waveform, Contour Dynamics Controller, there’s also an LFO, you’ve got the keyboard at the bottom which has a sequencer and arpeggiator built-in, and there is the multi-function sort of weirdo modulator which comes from the East Beast. You’ve got all of this patching potential over here which you can get into if you wish. That sounds a like a lot more than three sections but it makes sense if you look at it.
If you’re unfamiliar with west coast synthesis then it will seem odd because there’s always something going on and it’s not running a straightforward oscillator through a filter through a VCA. With this it’s messing stuff about at every stage and it’s in fact quite difficult to get a simple waveform out. Everything is always being contoured and changed and controlled and that gives it this sound which is instantly west coast as opposed to sounding like any other sort of synthesizer
It has a woodiness to it, an organic nature, it has a slap almost like there’s a like a skin or a slap that’s going on in some kind of percussive skin element on a drum.
But that of course changes depending on your waveform, depending on the amount of folding, and the sort of thing you’re doing with the dynamics control. But no matter if you’ve got the resonance up or down and how much modulation is going in, the synth always feels like it’s under stress. It’s always being pushed and manipulated, outputting a slightly strange yet familiar and graspable tone.
So over on the oscillator it’s the same oscillator as you found in the East Beast but in this one, you won’t find a square wave and that’s because the next stage is wave folding and you can’t fold a square – no, really it just remains a square. But with sine waves, triangle waves, and sawtooth waves as you fold one bit on top of another it generates these harmonics which are very very interesting.
So, starting with a sine wave as we turn the fold knob it very quickly gets interesting If we lean on the Sustain knob a bit we find that it does more than extend the sound it also sort of pushes and adds in some nice modulation. If we dial in some resonance you can hear how that’s starting to emphasize some of the harmonics as it goes through. You can go from something really soft to something quite bitey.
You’ve got different waveforms you can select via this keyboard panel down at the bottom. You’ve got a yellow button (in brackets here because the button isn’t actually yellow but let’s assume this is a yellow button) and that gives us access to all of the yellow writing. Whereas the white button, (which is white bracketed in white to tell us that it’s white) is what controls the white writing and this gives us a few options like changing the oscillator wave. So, we can step through the different waveforms from sine to a triangle waveform and onto a sawtooth. Then you’ve got combinations; sine and triangle together or with the sawtooth and triangle. And then finally you stick all three together and it generates noise. It’s not because the three of them combined generate noise it’s rather that Cre8audio has decided to extract noise from this combination.
All about dynamics
Well, let’s move our attention to the dynamics controller because this is something a little bit special. Now if you’re familiar with west coast synthesis then you might know all about low pass gates (LPG). Low pass gates are this brilliant idea that uses light in order to open a gate to allow sound through. It uses an LED which lights up a sensor and the decay, the time it takes for the light to vanish gives this very organic feel to a low pass gate. It gives it that “boing,” that slap, that woodenness, that percussive sound that’s very much about an LPG. Now Pittsburgh Modular thought to themselves we’re not going to have any of that in here. Oh no, we’re going to devise our own thing because there are pros and cons of low pass gates. The biggest con is that you have no real control over the release time over the length of that sound. So Pittsburgh working with Cre8audio within the West Pest decided to develop something called the Dynamics Controller. Now I think this was first seen on the Lifeforms Voltage Lab, their experimental thing from a couple of years ago, but they’ve been working on this and the idea is to create a more versatile dynamic system which works as a low pass gate but gives you more. The “more” is the ability to add Release to the sound so you now have this extendable release and it’s also very repeatable. Often in low pass gates, they have their own character from synthesizer to synthesizer, from module to module from low pass gate to low pass gate and that could give you a sense of individuality but it also doesn’t help if you’re trying to repeat something. With the Dynamics Controller it’s much more under your control. It’s predictable and this also brings us into our Sustain because we can use sustain here to hold a note; to hold that gate open before you hit that release whereas typically a low pass gate is a triggerable event. It happens and then you’ve got a small amount of release as that light disappears and that’s your lot. But within the Dynamics Controller you have the ability to hold notes and you have that control over release at the end.
Now, something you might notice is that there’s no defined envelope. You have Sustain and Release which seems very familiar from regular ADSR envelopes but there’s no attack there’s no decay stage. It’s interesting; you always have this front end which has this bite to it, this slap to it (as I keep going on about) and you may be thinking but hang on where’s my attack? Well then in that case you need a different synthesizer because this is all about those transients at the front. I love the way it digs into that sound particularly lower down. Then you can just push that release out there. But somehow it still retains that natural sound, that organic nature, that bang that’s going on. It feels like somebody’s playing an instrument even though it’s electronic. You do have some control over the gate length which brings in more of that sustain.
It’s really interesting how this sustain does more than hold the sound. It also seems to saturate and push. There are some really interesting timbre changes going on in there as you pull that sustain back from the edge so then of course you can start introducing an LFO.
So you’ve got an LFO here which goes from very very very slow up to a kind of a medium speed but then you’ve got another range that you can switch it to where it goes up to audio rate and back down again. So we make that relatively slow-moving and we could push that into the folding just to get that moving which sounds totally delicious. You can also introduce our LFO to the pitch of the oscillator. You can make some strangely FM noises when you’re up at audio rate.
So one of my favourite features of both these synths is the ability to randomize the waveform. On every step you can get a different randomly selected waveform; it adds this fabulous sense of change.
Sequencer and Arpeggiator
So the sequencer and arpeggiator are very simple and do the job nicely but they have a wonderfully interactive quality. I can just stick a note in and I can add another and keep going until that’s what I want it to be. I can transpose and I can then morph that into an arpeggiator, then actually swap that back into a sequencer and then turn on transpose again, or add more notes to it.
So it’s remarkably versatile even though it’s quite simple. You have to get the hang of this row of lights that tell you things about what’s going on. Let’s put in a couple of notes because it has this other weird function which is the ability to self-generate. I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it but you just set that going and it will start generating its own things just based on who knows what and it does something for a little while and then it changes. It’s just really nice.
You can also save patterns, and load patterns, on the fly. You’ve got choices of clock source, you’ve got pitch bend range and the ability to affect change via the patchbay over here.
Let’s have a look at the multi-engine. Now the multi modulation thing is another way of adding further modulation to the system from this kind of digital whizziness they’ve got in the background. It offers you four different things: You can patch in MIDI control, it has a secondary LFO, it has randomization and it also does actually have an envelope. Now the envelope is for modulating things rather than controlling the dynamics.
You select the function with the yellow button and it shows you on the LED display what that function is in the bracketed text underneath and that function emerges out of the Multi socket in the patch bay. So with MIDI, I can use a CC# or the mod wheel and that is converted to CV which turns this into a MIDI-to-CV converter. The next option is an LFO and I plug it into the fold modulation. The LFO’s timing is set to the clock and using the white button you can set multiples or divisions of that. I can then move it on to random which has the same ability to change its timing. And then finally you’ve got an envelope and again I can change the length of that.
So the West Pass then. What’d you think of that? Interesting yes, different. It doesn’t make you fall into that usual trap of techno and standard filter low-pass filter sounds that become our default setting whenever we’re dealing with synthesis. No, this invites something else. It’s pulling at you in different ways. It’s more bingy, more boingy at the same time as being slightly more clangy, but that’s because it’s bringing out these different tones, these slaps, although utilizing the envelope, like you can from the multi, it does offer up a filteresque type of experience. The thing with it is that I keep finding new tones, new ways of looking at it. With a subtractive synthesizer I can dial it in to be exactly what I think and know it will be and enjoy that very much. With West Pest I’m starting to learn its deliberate nature. I’m starting to learn its intention but it’s not automatic to me so I’m having to experiment having to explore a bit more which is both interesting and slightly bewildering I suppose.
But it does make you want to play. You want to keep folding. You’re never quite happy with where it is you folded it to and you just want that to change. There’s such a wide variety of sounds that you can pull out of it and in ways that you don’t expect.
I think overall Cre8audio and Pittsburgh Modular have put together a couple of fantastic little synthesizers. They have distinct flavours, distinct differences. Should you get the West Pest or the East Beast? That’s not an easy question to answer because they are different fundamentally. So if you want that filtered techno sound that baseline sound then the East Beast is where you need to be fishing whereas if you want something boingier, more fascinating but potentially harder to bend to your will then give the West Pest a go. There’s no doubt that Pittsburgh Modular has brought a lot to the table in its contribution to this. If you’re wondering what the relationship is, well they’re just a bunch of mates having a bit of a laugh together and enjoying putting together synthesizers. Pittsburgh Modular have been working in this business for a long time and has honed things like this. Their oscillators are superb, the dynamics controller on this is excellent through years of working that out and the filter on the East Beast is just sublime. So it’s that level of quality that Pittsburgh Modular have brought to this situation.
Cre8audio bring in their production side, the size and reach, and is enabling Pittsburgh Modular to do its best work. That’s ultimately how these two things come together and for street prices of around £249 on both of these, they’re pretty affordable. I mean they’re worth the money. You know they’re a little bit extra perhaps on other competitors but you are getting a superb level of engineering within here. It’s a plastic case yet but you can also pull it out and drop it into your eurorack which is always a nice thing. And that brings you this keyboard to the patchbay to then patching into other things and could become a controller within your eurorack. I probably feel more comfortable with the East Beast because that’s more of the place which I’m familiar with, the place that I play most often, but this has really opened my eyes and my ears to the sort of difference you can get through this. It can bring a whole other flavour which of course makes you want to run the two together. Should you do that? Oh yeah, I think you probably should…