Today I’m reviewing the Nymphes six-voice analogue polyphonic synthesizer from Dreadbox. The review is an edited transcript from my video review (below) for people who prefer to read.
What you immediately notice is that it’s very small, adorably small. It’s made completely of metal, it feels as rigid as you could possibly imagine and it’s beautiful in its blue and pink. The next thing you notice when you plug it in and start to play it is the absence of effects. There’s a reverb in there which we’ll come to but what you normally expect when plugging in a new synthesizer, particularly a polyphonic synthesizer, is big huge sounds washing in chorus, drowning in reverb and ping-ponging all over the place. Those big dramatic cinematic swells going on, whether it’s hardware whether it’s software there’s just a ton of effects. In fact, we tend to find that when we use effects we can pretty much make anything sound fantastic. Not with the Nymphes.
Buy the Nymphes from Perfect Circuit – https://tinyurl.com/molten-dreadbox-nymphes
There is a reverb in there which is a slightly odd characterful reverb, but otherwise, it’s very raw, it’s very much saying this is an analogue synthesizer with just a couple of waveforms and six voices and this is the place where you’re gonna have to play. That pushes you into a slightly different approach. You’re not just preset surfing going wow this is a lovely sound, I’m going to tweak that filter a little bit, no, you’re going oh this sounds a bit kind of naked like it’s not complete as it’s not yet been thoroughly infused with all that reverb and delay and chorus that I’d generally put on to absolutely everything to sound like the synth god that I know that I am. So what it throws up to you is this very in-your-face sound which you then have to get to work on. So you’re talking about crafting the filter, the pulse width, things like glide, the envelope, the LFO, simple modulations and very quickly it takes you to these wonderfully analogue creative little spaces that perhaps you wouldn’t have bothered with.
Smash the patriarchy
I wonder whether there’s something about that rawness, something about the design of that which feeds into what the marketing and the box have been telling us about the intention behind this synthesizer. Because this synthesizer, as it says on the box, is dedicated to all abused and oppressed women. It says that may our voices unite and bring joy, light and happiness to this world of injustice and inequality. And each time you play a note on this synthesizer imagine that you soothe their pain away and you’ll become a better human being and a synth player. Fascinating. Now I have no illusions that playing the synthesizer will somehow smash the patriarchy any more than I believe that playing with other machines will kill fascists but it’s a wonderful, interesting and heartfelt sentiment that I think is fantastic.
What I found was slightly odd when looking online at all of the reviews and video demos about the Nymphes is that they’re all done by blokes like me and that seems somehow a missed opportunity so what I would like to say to any woman out there who has a youtube channel and is interested in reviewing the nymphs that I will very happily send this to you for review – just get in touch and I will happily send it out to you in order to get a different vibe, a wider vibe, a smoother vibe from more people than just us blokes sitting around in sheds fiddling about with synthesizers.
I’m a little late to this party but it’s been interesting to look at other people’s reviews and see what it is that they’ve pulled out of this thing. I think there are a couple of key points that come up time and again the first one is that lack of effects, and so everyone seems to put it through a chorus and a delay and a bigger reverb which is nice and lovely and the second thing is that people like to put in MIDI controllers in order to access the second control layer, which is quite interesting. The other thing is the price; it’s only 450 quid which is extraordinary for a polyphonic analogue synthesizer. I mean the only thing close to it would be the DeepMind 6 from Behringer and that’s a big keyboard thing, so it’s a bit of a different vibe. The Korg Minilogue XD is another contender but that’s only four-voice whereas this is six-voice but they’re very different machines and this is coming from Dreadbox which is very much a boutique manufacturer and has managed to squeeze a flipping awesome little polysynth into a tiny box that’s beautiful and controllable.
I think what I’m getting from it more than anything else is that it wants to integrate, it wants to be part of a larger setup. It’s not that interested in being all by itself, although it can be, it wants you to plug it into effects it wants you to MIDI control it, it wants you to put it into your DAW and integrate it that way. Because it’s quite simple in of itself and lacks things like cv control and so MIDI is really your only way of unlocking its full potential. It’s not trying to be a big all-encompassing mega synth, it wants to sit on your desktop amongst all your other gear and you’re going to run it through your chorus effects pedal you’re going to run it through some kind of delay you might add plugins in your DAW because that’s what we do. Are we finding that a lot of synthesizers have superfluous effects on them the same as they often have superfluous keyboards? interesting isn’t it? So it feels very much like there’s a lot of thought gone into this. They wanted, so it seems, to make a fantastic and compact little polysynth and so to do that they’ve had to compromise and find ways around things. I think the fact that you can get into it via MIDI and that we do already have effects knocking around really plays into what this is about.
Right, so, on the front panel you get these sliders, you get a couple of knobs, and a couple of buttons and everything is accessible within this structure. You don’t need to plug in a separate MIDI interface or MIDI controller it is all here with a little bit of Shift button action. So the basic idea is that parameters labelled along the bottom are available straight away, whereas the things labelled along the top are accessible via the Shift button. You can either hold it and move things momentarily or even double-tap it to leave it on and access it that way. For the menu, which takes us into interesting places, you have this knob which acts as everything; it does the bloody lot. Whether it’s selecting presets, selecting reverb modes or bits and pieces. It’s all done by the twisting of the big knob in quite a clever compact, and slightly mystifying fashion.
So, following the bottom text you have three different waveforms; sawtooth through the square and onto triangle. You have control over the level of the waveform and also a sub-oscillator which gives it a lovely juiciness. You can introduce noise and then you have an LFO amount which refers to LFO number one, which is over on the right.
The LFO can be stuck into the pitch or you can also be stuck into the filter via the shift mode, which we’ll come on to in a moment,
Then we have the filter section which by default controls the low pass filter. There’s some juicy resonance here although you do get quite a lot of roll-off as you push it to the top.
Next to that is the ADSR which envelope which is controlling the filter by default. I find that quite an interesting decision because they have this two-level thing going on under the shift button and the envelope for the VCA is in the shift mode whereas the envelope for the filter is in the non-shift mode. I wonder about that priority, I wonder whether you’re fiddling more with the filter envelope or the amplifier envelope?
So, to switch to controlling the envelope for the VCA you press Shift. While holding Shift you can access all of the pink controls across the top, or you can double-tap it to leave it enabled. So I can now move to controlling the ADSR over the amplifier.
What you may have noticed in switching between the two is that you lose all track of what the other ones were set to, and this is the biggest problem with the Shift system. While it’s not difficult to press the button in order for you to move the sliders, what happens is that I’ve completely lost the visualization of that envelope because what I’ve set for the VCA is not the same as what I’ve set for the filter. So, there is absolutely a disconnect between those two pages between what you see on the faders and what’s actually happening. I do in hardware in particular like to be able to see my patch and anything which compromises that is a definitely a compromise that you feel.
Coming back to the LFO it has a very interesting delay and fade control under Shift which is not something I’ve come across a great deal on synthesizers. It adds a delay to the coming in of that LFO and it fades it out as well which both which are very interesting. It’s a brilliant effect I just absolutely love how what that does.
Meanwhile, back in the filter section we find there’s a high-pass filter available under the Shift button along with keyboard tracking and LFO1 depth.
And then lastly, using Shift across the top of the oscillator you’ve got the pitch envelope generator to send the envelope to the pitch, you’ve got Chord Mode we’ll come to, detuning, and glide.
With this simple range of controls, there’s so much scope for sound. Every time i sit down with it and just play around I’m finding new and exciting bits and pieces, and it’s all within this simple waveform analogue context. I’m not having to load wavetables, I’m not searching through a thousand different cross-referenced and cross-modulated waveforms and samples in order to find a sound, I’ve just got triangle, square or sawtooth, bit of a filter, bit of modulation.
Right, let’s move into Monophonic Mode to use some of the extra features that are within here. So I’m going to load a preset which I do by pressing the Load button and then going to hold Shift in order to select the Bank (as the Bank is in pink) with the knob. After selecting the Bank I then release Shift to turn the knob to select Preset number seven.
We get into the Modes via the Menu, which is really exciting stuff. So I press Menu and I can choose using my knob at the top. For Mode I dial the knob to 1. Mode can either be Poly, UNI A, UNI B, TRI, DUO or Mono and then there’s a chord thing. To select the Mode I press the Menu button again and I can now choose from the 7 options. i can now select one to seven to select what i want so one is poly mode
Poly Mode gives you all 6-voices. UNI A gives you a 6-voice unison stack, UNI B drops to 4 voices, TRI is 3, DUO 2 and Mono is just the one. TRI is particularly interesting because it gives you three lots of two oscillators, so a 3-voice, 2-oscillator synth. DUO does the opposite. These modes are fantastic.
It’s very easy to lose yourself just by playing around. Shifting between these two panels is not difficult although it can create unexpected errors and interesting accidentals. You’re also trying to find where that value is when you switch between one and the other. But in performance, in the idea of creating and messing about with sound, it doesn’t really become a problem because you’re finding your way through and you’re discovering things and you’re reacting to the changes that happen. And that is perhaps an unintentional result of this kind of interface so there are definite cons to it but there are also pros as well.
Chord mode is really quite nice in fact it reminds me a lot of the Knobular PolyCinematic Eurorack module. MIDI keyboards often have this where you can pump chords into different synths but this has a chord mode within itself which is an interesting way to use the unison modes.
So, under the Modes section of the Menu you can select Chord Mode and that’s where you enter the chords you want the Nymphes to remember. Those chords then become available on the Chord fader over in the oscillator section and play in response to you pressing a key.
It gets quite interesting when you introduce some modulation. There’s a second LFO available within the menu which is a global LFO that you can just stuff into whatever sliders you want it to. So if we go into the menu, go down to LFO2 on number two, the destinations will be whatever it is that I move. So press Shift and move the Chord slider and off we go. It’s just really good fun.
It doesn’t always feel particularly expressive. It feels very much like an analogue monosynth with a built-in keyboard that doesn’t necessarily have velocity. The Nymphes however does have velocity, but it uses it in a broader sense as opposed to an automatic sense by which I mean velocity and after-touch are both within the menu and can be used as a modulator for anything you like. So velocity doesn’t have to mean “velocity” it can be tied to anything you like.
Aftertouch is very similar. It is monophonic or rather global aftertouch you’re not going to get aftertouch for individual notes. But it’s quite fun to map it to the chord selection.
The knob/menu control system takes some getting used to but you do get this rather nice blue and pink paper guide in how to do the things you are most likely to want to do. I haven’t found a need to delve into the online manual at all. And then there’s a little card as well which gets you around the navigation of the menu and exactly what it is you have to do. This also reveals some useful little additional bits, for instance; Jump Catch is one because when I move a slider because of its two-page nature the slider doesn’t always necessarily represent the thing you are moving or the value of the thing you are moving and it will jump to catch up. But you can switch it to catch so that it doesn’t jump you just have to move the slider until it hits the point at which that parameter is and then it picks it up nice and smoothly.
there are a couple of other deeper level bits and pieces and tweaks that you can use which are very well displayed on this little card. It kind of fits about the size of the synth so you could leave it sitting underneath just for reference. They are extraordinarily useful and something that every synth manufacturer should do. Dreadbox and Moog both make beautiful manuals and more people should do it.
So one more thing to look at, is the reverb. To access the reverb controls that appear on the envelope sliders I need to go around to number three on the Menu and now the ADSR controls apply to the reverb. You’ve got Size, Mix, Decay and Filter.
The mix doesn’t go all the way it’s still fairly a 50/50 so the sound doesn’t disappear into the room. The filter does take out pretty much all of the top end. The decay is interesting, particularly when you pump it right up to the top because it starts to linger, starts to build on itself, and you end up with this ringing feedback kind of feeling which is nice, and as you move the size about it sounds like this reverb has somehow got a monster inside which is moving about and feels like it’s being gobbled up.
To me it sounds a lot like a spring reverb it has that kind of vibe going on there’s definitely an analoguey low-fi crunchiness. This is a reverb designed by Dreadbox and in some ways it’s almost too characterful. It has a certain sound to it that makes it perhaps not sit well with other things that are also running their own reverbs. It’s almost like you need a mix input so you can use that reverb on the larger stuff that you’re doing but because it’s individual to the nymph it can perhaps be a little bit too sticky-outy.
But it is lovely by itself and once you introduce some other external effects like some chorus or maybe a delay and perhaps a lusher reverb then it does take on a whole other life. Now Nymphus is starting to sound like some of those other big polysynths.
As I mentioned at the top a popular thing to do is add a MIDI controller that’s mapped to the second level of control. This is not difficult to do from the menu and does open you up to a more organic exploration experience. You can of course automate it all from your DAW if you wish.
I hope that gives you some kind of idea about it my thoughts on the Nymphes. I think ultimately what Dreadbox has done is packed an awful lot of fantastic-sounding analogue synthesis into a 400 quid desktop box. The price of it is quite extraordinary. It’s only really competing with something like the Deep Mind 6 from Behringer which is a completely different thing, although oddly they both have a little bit of Juno-ness about them. You can definitely hear it when you introduce it to chorus and delay and reverb like you would normally process a Juno. But it’s also not that because it’s not pretending to be a massive instrument, it’s small, compact, it wears its compromises on its sleeve. So yeah I don’t have every slider, you can’t access everything immediately, yes there’s a little bit of fudging going on but just look at how cute I am on your desk and how easily I fit into your workflow. I’m not trying to overwhelm you with all my internal gadgetry and digital DSP whatnots no, you just route me straight through all that stuff you’re already using and I’m going to sit there perfectly. And that’s what it does, it sits there just doing its job sounding like a flipping analogue polysynth. You can’t really ask for more than that.
I really like it, more so than I thought because as I said at the beginning when I got it out of the box and there were no effects it felt very raw. I’m used to the rawness of eurorack I suppose but I tend to expect a synthesizer to dazzle me with the first preset because synthesizers are supposed to do that and Nymphes didn’t do. But what it has done is it’s climbed and sort of stepped its way into my heart as I’ve been playing with it more and more and that sound is excellent. It is everything that you expect a polysynth to be once you’ve got over the fact that it’s not a wavetable synth that it doesn’t have umpteen different waveforms in it or different samples or different morphs between 16 different waveform type things. Once your brain has got around the fact it’s just simple oscillators in there, six of them, doing the job then it’s an absolute joy to use.
Dreadbox website – NYMPHES – Dreadbox Synthesizers (dreadbox-fx.com).
Buy the Nymphes from Perfect Circuit – https://tinyurl.com/molten-dreadbox-nymphes