It’s October, the nights are drawing in, and it’s feeling suspiciously warm. But maybe that’s the fever from my unbreakable cold. However, we have another month of marvellous music technology to get through with a little less modular and a little more tech. Unlike previous written Monthly’s where I reworked a transcription of the video, from now on, I’m just going to write them as an independent article. Same subjects, a different flow of thoughts. So that’s nice and hopefully a bit snappier and not as time-consuming.
For the video version, please head over to my YouTube channel. Also, I have affiliate accounts with Thomann, Perfect Circuit, Sweetwater, Reverb and Clockface Modular, so if you go to buy something via my links, I get a little kickback – it doesn’t matter what the product is, and it’s always appreciated.
Avid does the right thing with Pro Tools Free and goes mad with the Mbox.
Presonus brings karaoke to Studio One.
Bastl upgrades Softpop and Monoliths your Microgranny.
Cherry Audio sees the Sines.
Moog listens to me about cases.
Modbap brings the colour.
Nanobox brings the Razzmatazz.
Bitwig makes amends.
Future Retro returns.
Centrance has the best worst-looking mixer.
GPU Audio runs a plugin on your video card.
Exquis brings the button accordion to MPE.
Korg listens to me about the SQ-64.
Arturia has a synth, a controller, an audio interface and a piano.
4ms has been busy.
Erica Synths completes the EDU DIY System.
Akai adds CV to the MPK Mini.
Moogerfooger pedals become VST plugins.
But first, Synthfest. Oh yes, we gathered back up in Sheffield after the Covid gap to gawp at synths, noodle on modular and chat to fellow synth nerds about oscillations and modulations – it was awesome.
I got a chance to play on the Oberheim OB-X8, which was pretty darn fabulous. I also got to play on the Rhodes Mk8, which was an absolute joy to spend some time on. On the Knobula booth, I was treated to a preview of a top-secret module, and I met Yiannis from Dreadbox, who is one cool dude. Otherwise, there were no big releases I was aware of, just good solid stuff to poke at and load of people to talk to – and talk I did.
Thanks to everyone who came and said hello. I was particularly impressed seeing a few of my t-shirts out there – that is fabulous. My lasting impression was that it felt very upbeat, and very positive, even in these times of struggle and component shortages.
This brings me to mention another forthcoming show, one that I’m running next year in Norwich. It’s called Synth East, and I’m terribly excited about it. Not quite ready to announce everything yet but it should be the 4th of March, at the Norwich Arts Centre and we’re going to have a mix of manufacturers, artists, local celebrities, synth clubs, and EMOM during the day and a big performance by proper people in the evening. I’ll tell you more once we’ve worked out the details
Avid Pro Tools Intro and MBox Studio
Avid have tried offering a free version of Pro Tools in the past and it never seems to go very well. While you do have the interface and it can be an introduction to the real deal it was hampered by a lack of tracks, lack of plugins and weird ways of saving projects. Not any more. With the latest 2022 version of Pro Tools there is now a fully compatible and reasonably versatile free version of Pro Tools called Pro Tools Intro.
The important things are that it can handle 8 tracks of audio, 8 tracks of MIDI and 8 tracks of software instruments. You can record 4 tracks simultaneously and at decent sample rates. It is project compatible with the full version of Pro Tools. But probably the key feature is that it now supports third-party AAX plugins. It still comes with the Xpand!2 virtual instrument and a bunch of stock plugins, but now you can add more and expand it into something half-decent.
- Pro Tools Intro webpage.
The MBox was Avids first truly compatible and affordable audio interface. It worked on regular computers like regular audio interfaces, which was an unusual step towards normalcy for Pro Tools users. It was driven by their acquisition of M-Audio in 2004 who moved on in 2012, and eventually, the MBox faded away. But it’s back as the Mbox Studio, and it looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
This is a crazy box! The Mboxes of the past were simple devices with a couple of regular ins and outs. This looks like it fell off a spaceship. What is with the two huge knobs on the weird console-shaped machine? It’s probably awesome, but it’s quite difficult to get past the glowing purple backlight and bizarre controls. I love a bit of desktop control, but this a strange decision for the usually very sober Avid.
But hey, 21 inputs, 22 outputs, ADAT, mics, instruments, metering and two whacking great big knobs. What’s not to like?
- Avid website.
Buy Mbox Studio from:
- Thomann – https://thmn.to/thoprod/553836?offid=1&affid=1460
- Sweetwater – https://imp.i114863.net/QOkgPa
PreSonus Studio One 6
A brand-new DAW version is always a bit thrilling. I’m writing a review for Sound On Sound magazine so you can read all my deepest thoughts there when it comes out. But to summarise Studio One 6 brings a new lyrics engine, adds a Vocoder and De-esser, introduces some nice templates, improves the channel overview window and tidies up the interface. That’s about it.
The lyrics thing is very cool. Sure it can be a karaoke machine which feeds nicely into the Show Page. But it’s also a navigation device and can ride syllables in the piano roll and score edit. The Channel Overview is nice, with track icons, a better display of the loaded plugins and you can now have micro-control over 3rd party plugins too.
The tidying is all about customising the interface so it only shows the tools you need. You can declutter to the point that it all looks a bit like Garage Band – which is no bad thing.
Overall the improvements are great but a little thin on the ground.
- PreSonus website.
Buy Studio One 6 from:
- Thomann – https://thmn.to/thoprod/552366?offid=1&affid=1460
- Sweetwater – https://imp.i114863.net/Ao4Doa
Bastl Softpop SP2 update and Microgranny Monolith
Somehow Bastl has added a new oscillator to the Softpop SP2 by the cunning use of a firmware update. It’s a weird beast with a bunch of faders for fiddling and far too many patch points. The original analogue oscillator is now backed up with a digital oscillator with several waveforms and waveshaping which massively increases the sound possibilities. The update is free to everyone.
The Microgranny is another weird box (aren’t they all?) that’s sort of a 6-channel sampler and granular synth that you hum into and then do zany things with. This has been knocking around for years in various forms and now Bastl has developed the final and last work on the thing. It’s called Monolith and comes in a properly serious case like their other recent instruments. It also comes with a bunch of new library to get you going. It’s a portable party of a granular sampler for field work and messing about.
- Bastl website.
- Perfect Circuit – https://tinyurl.com/perfect-bastl
Cherry Audio Sines
A wonderfully wobbly synthesizer that starts life as four sine wave oscillators and then takes you wherever you want to go. While Cherry Audio interfaces do tend to look a bit dated, I’m enjoying how this one flows across the screen. It has an organ-like quality where you can set up the 4 oscillators in octaves and intervals like a pipe organ. There’s some delicious detuning going on as you blend these things together.
But that’s just the start of the story. Each oscillator gets its own wavefolder, shaping tool, pulse width and phase controls. If you start routing things right, it can turn into a 4-operator FM synth with individual Feedback controls. They also have overdrive and a sub-oscillator right in the same pathway. It sounds brilliant before you even get to the filter and modulation.
It’s an interesting synthesizer that you can toy with and blend sounds with that moves you to work it in ways you normally wouldn’t. And that really appeals to me. For $39, that’s a steal.
- Cherry Audio website.
- Thomann – https://thmn.to/thoprod/552729?offid=1&affid=1460
- Sweetwater – https://imp.i114863.net/KeQAje
Moog Powered Eurorack Cases
In my review of the Moog Mavis I mentioned how it was strange that the patch points were on the opposite side to their other 60HP synths. Many people assumed this was so the 44HP Mavis would fit in the 104HP Moog Eurorack cases side by side with a Mother-32. They were wrong because the Moog cases don’t have power which means you have to waste 4HP for a power module.
I pointed this out, and now Moog has answered by releasing the same cases but with integrated power. So now you can fit your Mavis and Mother-32 together in the one row of 104HP modular. This is excellent.
- Moog website.
This is all about adding colour and character to your patch. The Hue module adds a choice of tape saturation, Lo-Fi, Drive, Filter and Compression in one simple, straightforward module.
This is a perfect module for Modbap who are all about that Lo-Fi vibe and saturation the heck out of things. Just dial in the sort of sound you want. You can even do it with CV if you can’t be bothered to move the knobs yourself.
- Modbap website.
- Perfect Circuit – https://tinyurl.com/perfectcircuit-modbap-hue
- Sweetwater – https://imp.i114863.net/Ao4DWa
1010Music Nanobox Razzmatazz
It’s pink, it’s groovy, and it’s the latest little Nanobox from 1010Music. This time it’s a drum machine and groove box featuring 8 tracks of sequencing fun, all on a natty little touch screen. It has a bunch of drum samples along with an FM Synthesis engine for added spice.
You can sample straight in to create kits and allocate sounds to any of the 8 touch-screen pads. These are not going to be great for playing drums, but they’ll do until you connect a decent MIDI controller. But programming is easy enough.
There’s plenty of editing, synth tweaking, filters and effects to play with just like on the Lemondrop and Fireball Nanoboxes. It’s the perfect companion to the granular and wavetable machines. It’s still a bit pricey, and while it looks very toy-like, 1010music do make good gear.
- 1010music website.
- Sweetwater – https://imp.i114863.net/1543rz
- Perfect Circuit – https://tinyurl.com/perfectcircuit-razzmatazz
- Thomann – https://thmn.to/thoprod/553030?offid=1&affid=1460
When Bitwig released the 4.4 Bitwig Studio update they also released a new and separate product called Spectral Suite. It was a specialised bunch of Bitwig devices that was available for an additional cost. The community of Bitwig users didn’t think this was quite right because they had all signed on to a perpetual updating license that entitled them to every update. Bitwig seemed to be changing the terms and conditions of their product.
This issue blew up rather unexpectedly with a couple of well-known YouTubers somehow stuck in the middle of it all, trying to understand what was happening while Bitwig remained silent.
After a little bit of soul-searching, Bitwig apologised for trying to change the game, and now the Spectral Suite is a standard part of Bitwig Studio 4.4. It always should have been, really. If the Spectral Suite had been a VST plugin that anyone could use in any DAW, then it could have been seen as something different to Bitwig Studio. But it can only run in Bitwig, and so it should have always been there.
I’m a Bitwig user, and honestly, I’m never going to use the Spectral Suite – it’s not my thing. But I totally understand the frustration that the community felt. Bitwig handled it poorly but got there in the end. Hopefully, we can all move on.
- Bitwig website.
Future Retro returns
I mentioned in a previous post that Future Retro, maker of the Vectra synth and many other cool things, was closing down. Fortunately, a bunch of people got together and bought the whole business. The original creator of Future Retro, Jered Flickinger, will be acting as as consultant in helping the new team get his designs up and running again.
It’s really exciting to see a flailing company picked up and put back on its feet by enthusiasts. We hear so many sad stories of little synth companies going to the wall that it’s awesome to hear of a happier outcome.
- Future Retro website.
This looks like a tough DI box that’s going to survive if it falls off your desk or gets trampled in a live performance. Bouncer is a remarkable 10-channel analog summing mixer and it’s just the thing for your DAWless jamming. It’s got 10 channels on minijack, a headphone output, big meters on the top and a handful of knobs – off you go!
To me it looks like the perfect desktop companion. I’ve never wanted a console mixer with all that stuff above the faders that does nothing for me. They take up a huge amount of room when really all you want to be able to do is hear a handful of synths. Bouncer is perfect for that.
The icing on the cake is that it also has an SD card slot and will capture a stereo output of your jamming. There’s no fiddling with multitrack on the computer or USB connections – you jam, you record, job done. Love it.
- Centrance website.
GPU Audio Major
GPU Audio has been trying to convince us to run plugins on our video cards for quite some time. They’ve had some effects running in beta, and now they have a virtual instrument. I don’t know if CPU power is still that much of an issue these days, but heck if you’ve got spare DSP sitting around waiting for you to play a game or mine for Bitcoin, then you may as well use it.
The synth is called Major, and it looks pretty awesome. It has multiple layers and extensive controls, mixing sampling and FM synthesis in all the usually exciting ways.
I don’t know much about it, but it feels like it’s been a long road, and I wonder whether it will be worth it.
- GPU Audio website.
It feels like every week someone comes up with another new way to control notes and dumps it on Kickstarter. Each is slightly different to the ones that come before but all of them convinced that the piano keyboard is rubbish and it’s time to move on.
Exquis is one such controller that’s full of expressive hexagons in an isomorphic light-up fashion. It follows the idea of a button accordion which is something the company has already produced. Exquis aims to take the innovative layout and make it more widely accessible.
It has all the usual MPE pressure and wobbly characteristics, with lights that show you what to play within the chosen scales. It’s certainly bright and engaging and probably bigger than you’d think. The clever stuff is in the companion App that runs the sounds, configuration, tutorials, scales and sequencing. And there lies the problem. Exquis is crying out to be self-sufficient but to sequence and play sounds you need to have your phone or computer attached. I guess, like any other controller, you need something to control. It’s just that the form lends itself to being an instrument that should be untethered from any other device.
But otherwise, it looks great, well made and now fully funded on Kickstarter.
- Exquis website.
Korg SQ-64 2.02 Update
I reviewed the SQ-64 when it first came out, and it’s a very capable slab of MIDI and CV sequencing. It’s a good size, has great movement in lighting and has a few nice performance features. It also had a few holes in unexpected places that made it clunkier to use than it needed to be. Korg asked me about 6 months what I’d like to see in an update, and they pretty much implemented everything I asked for – such is the power of my influence!
While there are plenty of improvements, the important one for me is the ability to step-program a sequence. I know, you can’t believe you couldn’t do that already? You can go through step-by-step dialling in pitch and gate settings, but there was no way to just tap pads and create a sequence without recording live. Now you can in a simple and effective SH-101 style. That’s fabulous – a game-changer, you could almost say.
The other key update is that you can now latch the Shift button. This means you can access all the performance functions without having one hand tied up holding the button down. There’s also better quantising, you can play drums on the pads and other bits and pieces. For me, it makes it worth pulling the SQ-64 out and giving it another go. While it’s a great sequencer for focused music-making, I need something quick and easy, and I think it might be better at that now.
- SQ-64 Update page.
- Thomann – https://thmn.to/thoprod/507708?offid=1&affid=1460
- Sweetwater – https://imp.i114863.net/do6Aa2
- Perfect Circuit – https://tinyurl.com/perfectcircuit-sq64
Arturia MiniFreak, MiniLab 3, MiniFuse 4 and an Augmented Grand Piano
A bunch of new shiny things from Arturia, but the MiniFreak is undoubtedly the star. It’s the solid evolution of the quirky MicroFreak that takes it from experimental fun box into being and feeling like a proper synthesizer.
MiniFreak has a small but decent keyboard that feeds into this interestingly blocky form. It’s kinda weird looking but I like it. We now have two oscillators which give you a range of over 20 sound sources to choose from. Originally the MicroFreak contained the algorithms from the Mutable Instruments Plaits, a fabulously eclectic collection of waveforms, noises, formats, chords, strings and more which have since been augmented by Arturia and Noise Engineering. MicroFreak felt like a vaguely polyphonic Plaits, whereas MiniFreak pulls those algorithms into a dual oscillator, polyphonic synthesizer.
You have 6 voices to play with, Each oscillator can have its own algorithm, and you have the same controls over varied parameters to shape the sound. The filter is the same as the original, as are the modulators. There’s lots of fun to be had with the sequencer and arpeggiator. In particular, I appreciate the inclusion of the Pattern mode from the Keystep 37 that produces great loops every time.
There’s lots more to get into with the MiniFreak, and I will write a full review in time. But on first impressions, it’s a fun, unique and exciting little synth.
The Minilab 3 is an updated version of their little MIDI controller. It hooks into the Analog Lab software and gives you animated control over everything. The MiniFuse 4 builds on the 1 and 2 to offer a few more ins and outs. And finally, Arturia has added a Grand Piano to its range of augmented instruments. It’s kind of like taking a piano and dumping a load of effects on it – which is precisely what I like to do.
- Arturia website.
- Thomann – https://thmn.to/thoprod/553604?offid=1&affid=1460
- Sweetwater – https://imp.i114863.net/0JVqJE
- Perfect Circuit – https://tinyurl.com/perfectcircuit-minifreak
It’s great to have good news from a long-serving modular firm. Rather than going to the wall or struggling with chip shortages, 4MS has a bunch of new modules coming along. The first couple are an improved and expanded version of the SCM and a shortened version of the PEG.
The Shuffling Clock Multiplier Plus (SCM+) combines 4MS’s weird clock module with the expander that opens up all the weirdness to CV control. So in one unit you have shuffle, groove, slip, skip and rotate along with every clock division and multiplier you can think of. In the right hands it can be a complete percussion machine, or simply a place to send out different clocks for different and quirky purposes.
The Mini PEG is a single-channel version of their classic Pingable Envelope Generator. You dial in a shape, choose a click division and ping it into being. You can morph between shapes, push it into being an LFO and generally have a good old modulation time with it.
For new stuff, they have three Envelope-VCAs called the EnvVCA, Dual EnvVCA and Dual Shaped EnvVCA. It looks like they had a good idea and decided to play with it a little. Essentially it’s a Rise/Fall envelope and LFO with a built-in VCA, making it a very useful module in your system. Then it seemed like an interesting idea to have two that sort of cross-modulate and combine their signals into more modulations. The Shaping involves adding some sloping to the Rise and Fall.
Solid and unpretentious modules I think.
- 4MS website.
Erica Synths mki x es.EDU DIY System
It was 10 months ago that I built my first Erica Synths mki x es.EDU DIY module (geez that’s a mouthful), and I’ve built another one every month since then. You may have seen my live streams! Altogether there are 9 modules and a powered case to build into a fabulous little modular system.
The purpose of the system is to teach you about circuit design and the guts behind synthesis. Erica Synths provided the hardware, while Moritz Klein provided the documentation. And the manuals are excellent. They take you through every step and every concept. Showing you how to build out the circuit on a breadboard before soldering the kit together.
It’s been a brilliant journey. Well, now you buy the whole system in one go and spend, probably about a week, putting the whole thing together. I’d recommend taking your time, reading the materials, going through the breadboard builds and let yourself learn about this modular stuff. It’s very inspiring and at the end, you’ll have a completely wonderful little modular system complete with patch cables for around £600. Totally worth it.
- Erica Synths website.
Akai MPK Mini Plus
A tidy update to the MPK Mini from Akai. They squeezed on a slightly larger keyboard, put in a polyphonic step sequencer and added CV/Gate out the back. Exciting stuff.
For MIDI control, you get the 8 MPC pads, the weird joystick thing and 8 assignable knobs. It does all the scale and chord type things that we’ve come to expect, and it will do a fine job of being your all-purpose DAW MIDI controller if that’s what you want.
However, what makes it interesting is that it now has its own sequencer on board which means it becomes more useful away from the computer. There are two polyphonic sequencer tracks, one for melody and one for drums, which is great for running MIDI synths. The CV/Gate outputs are going to want something a bit more monophonic, but it can do that too. There’s also an arpeggiator.
Now, the arpeggiator on the Keystep 37 is a thing of beauty, and there’s lots of talk of the MPK Mini Plus giving that Arturia keyboard a run for its money. I think it will have to work quite hard to accomplish that. However, CV/Gate should be compulsory on controller keyboards these days, and so it’s good to see Akai keeping up.
- Akai website.
- Perfect Circuit – https://tinyurl.com/perfectcircuit-akaimpkminiplus
- Sweetwater – https://imp.i114863.net/ZdgD6g
- Thomann – https://thmn.to/thoprod/552530?offid=1&affid=1460
Moogerfooger VST Effects
These are very cool. The Moogerfooger effects pedals are these classic chunky floor-based effects that would look right at home sitting beneath an old organ or behemoth of a synthesizer. They were designed to run with Moog synths but very quickly got taken up by guitarists and all sorts of keyboard players. They offer classic, vintage effects that are not particularly sophisticated but do the job nicely. And unlike other pedals they had CV inputs and outputs so you could control them from each other and get a bit modular with it.
The Moogerfooger VST effects take 7 of the best pedals and craft them into fabulous-sounding, authentic-looking plugins.
You get the Lowpass filter, the Ring Modulator, 12-Stage Phaser, Analog Delay, MuRF – a kind of animateable filter array, FreqBox oscillator and Clusterflux modulation. They look perfect, sound perfect and bring a whole load of cool to your boring projects. And there’s a bit of an unexpected innovation in that these plugins can talk to each other. There’s a row of CV connections at the top of each plugin and when you load another pedal, the modulation outputs of that become available as inputs. So you can cross-control them just like the originals.
They are not complicated or refined, but by golly, are they fun.
- Moog website.
- Thomann – https://thmn.to/thoprod/553487?offid=1&affid=1460
- Sweetwater – https://imp.i114863.net/RyeX0R
Lots of exciting things sitting in my shed waiting for attention at the moment. I am trying to put all my energy into videos and reviews over the next few weeks, and I’ve got things like the Minifreak, the Malevolent, a Multi-Burst Envelope, ASQ-1 sequencer, Nautilus and Aurora, Dreadbox synths and a whole bunch of DIY. In fact, I’m hoping to devote a week to purely building modules and a bit of the Deckard’s Dream.
One particularly special module is going to be released this month. This is my very first, personally designed module, developed with Befaco and ready to be released in the next couple of weeks. I’ll post a link to the live-stream presentation as soon as we’re ready to go.
In the meantime, go and make some tunes.