We are living in an immaterial world. Muse Blocks, tiles with embedded NFC chips, are one idea, and now team up with a popular electronic music label.
Berlin-based Senic, a hardware startup focused on smart home solutions, devised the tangible product Muse Blocks. And they’ve recruited underground tech house label Katermukke, Dirty Doering’s label, which has its own grungy Berlin afterhours vibes – fitting to its home base of the Kater Blau nightclub.
Launch video (German with English subtitles):
Basically, you can think of these tiles as connected art objects. Tap them to your phone (provided you have an NFC-capable smartphone), and up pops a streamed album or playlist. You can program the tiles yourself, meaning that you can have a physical object to go with your mixes – so it’s the 21st-century streaming equivalent of a mixtape, in theory.
The pricing mirrors what we used to pay for CDs – 15EUR is the “special introductory price.” If you want them to look smart in your living room, you can buy a set that includes a bar to mount to a wall, and 7 Muse Blocks to put up on it, for a 69EUR bundle price. That of course makes them expensive for the promo use case.
Since the music is streamed, these are purely decorative, but then I suppose we buy all sorts of objects that are indeed purely decorative. It changes the streaming experience, at least, in that the ephemeral experience of streamed music gets its own object permanence and spatial location. By default, there’s support for Spotify, Apple Music, SoundCloud, and Tidal, but they also suggest Netflix, YouTube, and more interesting stuff like Apple Homekit and IFTTT.
Uh, so then you can do this. Yes, I see that she’s also tapping her phone almost from the first interaction. Shhh. The design objects still look very cool.
I don’t know if this solves any problems here, but it does at least reframe the ongoing lack of tangibility in streamed music. And so that was obviously the appeal to Katermukke.
Now, if you’re wondering if you could DIY something like this – like maybe you want to release your next streamed album or mix inside a furry toy rabbit or a potted cactus – you can, of course. There are kits available from Identiv, tons of NFC and RFID stuff from Adafruit, and more. The mind boggles, actually, given the amount of stuff in our world constantly transmitting data.
Even on Senic’s devices, you can use a free app to write your own data. It’s certainly more fun, if a lot more expensive, than a cut up paper giveaway, so – yeah, you could absolutely use this for a Bandcamp code if you wanted.
Here’s an example of the write process:
The problem with all of this remains that there’s no actual data on the object, so it is effectively, well, useless. I still wonder what delivery medium makes sense for digital downloads. Most easily-bought USB keys and SD cards are pretty unattractive, and arguably they don’t offer anything that a download link can’t do. CDs are at this point about as dead as a format as cassette tapes and vinyl, but lack the collectability of either of those.
And so… oh, actually, I have nothing to say beyond that. If I come up with a conclusion, maybe I can embed it on an NFC object, and then… uh, never mind.
Let me just go dig up what NFC powers my Huawei phone has. See you.
The US musical instrument show NAMM dropped the usual amount of gear news on us – now here’s the highlights reel.
The trend lines are pretty easy to spot. Component prices are coming down, and that’s shifting what’s on the market. Modular gear does more. Polysynths and wavetable synths are suddenly in. Audio interfaces with studio-grade specs are now weirdly cheap.
The historic remake trend is showing no signs of abating – not at the high end (KORG’s ARP 2600) nor the low end (Behringer).
If you wanted some big breakthrough in music-making, probably this isn’t your year. Yes, MIDI 2.0 is here, but it’s too young to see any compelling real-world use yet. Yes, Akai has another MPC that runs standalone as well as with a computer, but we’re still mostly dependent on Windows and macOS. These might be the areas to watch in the coming years, since there’s a limit to how much wavetable synthesis and polyphony you can cram into a keyboard and make a usable product.
That’s not to complain, though. Sure, music gear has a lot of 70s and 80s flashbacks, but we’re also spoiled for choice in a business that has loads of offerings that are accessible to a wide range of people.
So let’s have a look – since there’s way too much to watch, a selection of the best videos.
Software doesn’t really demo well and doesn’t need physical distribution, so it makes sense that software news generally spreads year round. But the big software news that did debut was Universal Audio’s Luna recording solution – free software, integrated of course with their hardware. I’ll explain this in a separate article, but here’s a demo:
This NAMM for electronic musicians was dominated by KORG – the first out of the gate with news, the most news, the most different kind of synth products … enough so that it would be easy to even forget their rich-sounding Wavestate synth, even though it was really the flagship new synth product from them. Here’s what it sounds like:
Here’s Cuckoo looking at sound design:
And yeah, of course there’s also Korg’s remake of the ARP 2600 (also labeled “FS” here, meaning maybe there really is a mini version coming):
Sequential’s Pro 3 oddly has some of the toughest competition from Sequential, but as I wrote previously, it is one of the more compelling new instruments out there. Cuckoo got an early look- and you can hear from none other than creator Dave Smith showing it off:
The MPC One is the hybrid computer/standalone MPC you might actually buy – more compact size, lower price, and some of the early kinks worked out from AKAI’s move into a new direction. I’m a little concerned about whether its horsepower will make it worth jumping from using a PC + controller, but someone will eventually nail this sort of hybrid. Synth Anatomy talked to Akai’s Andy Mac; see also how plug-ins work in an official video:
And audio tracks:
If it’s really a controller you want – or a standalone “hub” – Nektar have their new Aura.
The Udo Super 6 I missed in my underground synth round-up – and it’s definitely something new. FPGA-based, it’s an analog/digital hybrid, wrapped in a body that looks like it escaped from another decade, but in an alternative universe. Cuckoo gushes about the sound:
How do you top the mechanical-optical Gamechanger Audio pedal, or their rack-mounted high voltage plasma coil? Why, you need an optical-sensing spring-based reverb pedal, the Light Pedal. I’m sorry, this maker is just damned cool – making stuff you’d expect out of 1960s pulp scifi.
The Moog Subsequent 25 has a lot of the sound powers of the 37, but in a Sub Phatty form factor. Here’s Perfect Circuit with a sound demo:
I didn’t get talk about the Modal Electronics Argon8, but amidst a flurry of new polysynths, this might be the one to beat. Hammering home that point, Modal are now offering three versions, so you can find one that fits your fancy and budget – the 8M and 8X rounding out the line. If comments on this site are to be believed, a lot of you wish synths came in variants with different keybeds and sizes or a keyless version, so here you go. Synthtopia has a nice demo:
Wavetable is everywhere, but Nord are ahead of the curve by moving on to what may be the next returning trend, FM. And the FM engine in their Nordwave 2 looks really powerful, welcome news to fans of their performance synths:
The ASM Hydrasynth is a stupidly powerful new instrument and features the designer/product manager behind some ground-breaking gear from Akai and Arturia (Glen Darcey). I talked about it in September, but this month’s NAMM was its big public showcase, so here are just some sounds:
The Blad Kremier-created PULSAR-23 is also now on sale, which might just be the most interesting drum machine offering of 2020. There’s a big waiting list, and I think (?) it was at NAMM, so I’m counting it here. Honestly, fire your current booking, get some high paid techno gigs, use the cash to buy this. Wait, why am I telling you this? I should just go do that.
Doepfer are back with a joystick module – actually a pleasant surprise, as these sorts of components are not easy to come by these days:
I covered these instruments before, but here are deeper looks at the indie synths debuting this month.
The Liven 8bit Warps looks nicely mental:
Erica Synth’s own Girts debuts the DB-01 bassline in a jam.
Verbos have a full line of new modules:
4ms have a massive creation called the Ensemble Oscillators – 16 complex oscillators in a single unit:
Pittsburgh Modular, for their part, are doing loads of delays instead of loads of oscillators. Meet the Cascading Delay Network:
High-end audio interfaces are no longer an expensive proposition, it seems – but USB is here to stay.
Take the new SSL interfaces, which even include the companies’ 4000 series EQ and saturation. There’s something trippy about seeing a giant SSL knob, but then no one will mistake who these came from. Street price for this thing is just above a couple hundred bucks for the basic model, and comes with SSL software, too.
MOTU’s M Series are also out in the wild, and worth consideration:
There’s also a race to make audio interfaces that are less intimidating to new users. iZotope have tried that with their Spire interface; somewhere in between that kind of radical solution and a bread-and-butter box is the Audient Evo – a stylish box that still does mostly what the other boxes do, but with a “smart gain” feature and more modern looks. Now whether that’s really the biggest problem everyone faces or not, I don’t know. (Not to dismiss this, but I think the issues with desktop OSes and reliability are more daunting than how to set gain properly. Still, this could be a part of a larger puzzle.)
It’s not all USB interfaces, though. Presonus also have a full range of new gear, which SonicState details – including Thunderbolt and lots more IO. But prices of thesefeatures are also coming down.
And from left field…
The dream of alternative keyboard layouts never dies. Now there’s the Lumatone CORTEX, with a whopping 275 keys and RGB. So if you think it’s outrageous to spend four grand on a remake of the ARP 2600 and want something more forward-looking – well, clearly you have to spend your four grand on a microtonal keyboard instead, or you’re a damned hypocrite!
And yes, by far the weirdest new invention: a MIDI harmonica, from Sweden’s Father and Son.
If you dream of playing music on a hockey puck rather than a hamonica, then I suggest instead the Ariphon Orba. (Okay, they say “half an orange” and a gaming controller.) There is actual onboard sound capability, but it’s also a wireless MIDI controller. Like I said, some ideas just don’t go away.
Nothing new under the sun? Think again. Independent manufacturers are still creating novel designs for music making – and last week brought a lot of news.
Just as acoustic instruments often start with simple building blocks – blow on something, hit something, pluck something – these creations do work with existing known synth methods. (Think FM, wavetable, whatever.) But let’s dump the notion that “everything” is a clone now, just because one manufacturer starting with the letter B has been pulling its product news from a 1981 Roland product catalog.
In fact, there’s so much new stuff, it’s easy to get lost. So here’s your quick guide.
The pitch: It’s a powerful synth with the heart of a SEGA. Imagine a hands-on, polyphonic instrument built around the same chip that powered the SEGA Megadrive and Genesis game consoles.
Specs in a nutshell: 12 voice polyphony (and various voicing modes), two of the YM2612FM chips already onboard, 8 algorithms, presets, tons and tons of controls, 3 LFOs, full MIDI I/O, and an arpeggiator and sequencer, all in an aluminum case.
How much, and when: 474EUR before VAT, apparently available now.
Buzz factor: This thing looks like a beast – an all-in-one, deep polyphonic chip music composition machine in a box, either with that onboard sequencer/arp or if you prefer using MIDI from the outside.
And oh yeah, prediction for 2020: the world will have a collective realization that we don’t always want to hear someone playing on a modular synth who sent over a four page rider and needs a three hour sound check, and chip music will come back. Nintendo Switch battles backstage, go!
Erica Synths Bassline DB-01
The pitch: This is the bass from the luxury-priced Techno System, in a desktop box the rest of us can afford. So you get the distinctive Erica BBD delay-based detune on the oscillators, a swarming delicious sound, plus an aggressive Acidbox-derived filter, extras for modulation and dirt and noise, and an onboard sequencer.
Who makes it: Erica Synths, the Riga-based boutique superbrand who have turned ex-Soviet spaces and manufacturing into an assembly line for Latvian awesomeness – enough so that they hold their own festival every year. Look out, Ableton Loop.
Specs in a nutshell: DRIVE and DETUNE knob on the left. CUTOFF and RESONANCE on the right. There’s a reason the knobs are oversized for those. So it’s a transistor-based sub oscillator + overdrive + BBD-based detuned oscillators + noise source + syncable LFO + FM and VCF modulation + independent envelopes… well, you know that dessert menu item called “Chocolate Overload Deathwish”? This is what happens when that person specs out a bassline synth. Then add in CV + MIDI I/O, aluminum case, presets, and play either externally from analog or MIDI or with a simple onboard sequencer / arpeggiator.
How much, and when: Spring, 460 EUR.
Buzz factor: Sorry, 303. This thing is thicker / dirtier / nastier. I love the 303, but it’ll give you a daily fix of “wow, acid is my favorite thing ever,” before you get bored a few minutes later and switch it off. A DB-01, if you fall for it, will make you run away from home, assume a new identity, and live in a warehouse you squat in rural Latvia where you go feral and make nothing but experimental industrial music all day. Yes, Erica, you can quote me on that – if for no other reason than to warn the unwise.
Sonicware LIVEN 8bit warps [Kickstarter]
The pitch: A lo-fi, grungy 8-bit synth with loads of voices plus onboard audio looping and lots of performance features (and warping) around the keyboard.
Who makes it: Sonicware, who created the portable ELZ_1 via Kickstarter – and which also shared a candy-bar keyboard design that recalls instruments from Casio and Teenage Engineering. It’s all the work of Yu Endo from Tokyo – part of a new generation of innovation in Tokyo’s synth scene.
Specs in a nutshell: Sequencer with chaining and real-time and step recordings and parameter locks per-step, sync and MIDI I/O, runs on batteries and has an internal speaker. Multiple synth engines (WARP, ATTACK, MORPH, FM) meet powerful envelopes and modulation and filtering, plus a bunch of FX (chorus, flanger, delay, hall, plate).
How much, and when: Well, delayed gratification as it’s Kickstarter, but estimated for June 2020. But amazingly, early bird starts at … EUR148.
Buzz factor: Come on, at this price, how can you say no to this 4-engine synth + looper + sequencer? One indie Japanese developer might just outdo the fun factor of a KORG volca for the same price, with a more flexible housing and more powerful features. Sure, a 16-bit engine might have made the different modes more varied, but – sounds like Yu-san has programmed this so you can exploit the 8-bit grime.
Honestly, I think any of one these three tops the other product reveals from this month. Sure, the KORG Wavestate looks powerful, but … the freak factor of that new Twisted box might well outdo the KORG offerings. It promises to build on everything designer Alex from Twisted has been working toward over the years.
The DB-01 meanwhile might quietly be the most indispensable thing Erica have done yet – it’s got some of the best bits of the Techno System, but in a form factor you can both a) actually afford and b) carry with you in an airBaltic carry-on allowance. Now if Erica just does a TR-01 drum machine to go with it, I’m completely sold.
And Sonicware have nailed the amount where you’d impulse-buy yourself a Kickstarter present for June.
So, dear Santa Claus… uh, wait, it’s the end of January… dear Saint Patrick, are you listening?
And with each of these priced under 500 bucks, can we collectively admit that the idea that independent synths are expensive or everything has to be a clone is just objectively not true? Thanks.
Its expanded mixing and EQ section have already inspired memes, but live acts will sure be happy to see it in the booth.
Pioneer, of course, faces an ongoing problem. Having taken over the world, there’s not much left to conquer. At the entry level, the strategy isn’t hard – there’s an expanding market of first-time DJs, and the company’s combination of Rekordbox-for-computers with Rekordox-for-USB-stick-prep seems a winner. But at the high end, the product stury is murkier. What do people want? Samplers? Synths? Decks that work like samplers? Giant touchscreens?
The DJM-V10 makes more sense – and it helps build a platform in the booth for plugging in those other Pioneer toys.
More quality: Thanks to the onboard sound engine and ESS9016 chip, they deliver 64-bit mixing and 32-bit A/D and D/A, respectively. Oddly, they say this gives it more “warmth,” which is not what warmth means, but it should provide more transparent mixing.
New EQ, new compressor: You now get a new 4-band EQ – an extra shot across the bow of Allen & Heath – and a built-in compressor. I have no earthly idea why anyone would run today’s over-compressed tracks through another layer of compression (gah!), but that should come in very handy with live inputs, where you really do miss it.
Expanded FX: They’ve grown the send/return section so you can use your own external effects – which I also suspect means we’ll see new effects boxes from Pioneer soon.
3-band master isolator: The good thing about this – it’s got dedicated controls for high, mid, and low, rather than making you flick a switch like on most DJ mixers.
More I/O: 6-channel digital mixer design, which doubles as a USB sound card. They advertise a range of inputs, but it’s still unbalanced phono plugs – 6 line + 4 phono.
What they have done is add digital ins, so in addition to the USB interface acting as multichannel audio interface to your computer, there are also 6 digital coax ins.
2 USB B ports, 1 USB a port. Seems it’s odd to release in 2020 without USB-C, but that’s what they’ve done.
Oh, yeah, and they win me over with this alone – the inputs are aligned with the channel strips. Finally, no more hunting around the back of the mixer to find the right input.
MIDI out: Maybe this is really the lede. Pioneer continues pushing Pro DJ Link for sync, but each gadget they ship with MIDI DIN out proves the company might be open to connecting non-Pioneer gear. (It’s not the first Pioneer mixer to do this – and there’s still not a deck with MIDI out – but it’s something.)
DJ-friendly monitoring: Dual headphone outs mean you finally don’t have to fight the DJ/performer before or after you for the headphone jack as you switch over. And booth EQ helps prevent destroying your ears on the booth monitors – finally.
There are a lot of other nice touches – built-in iPhone/iPad mix recording (via DJM-REC), a lockable power cable, DVS integration with Rekordbox and TRAKTOR and Serato, and even visual ShowKontrol integration for AV and lighting.
Plus, it’s a DJM, so you can count on a lot of onboard effects – and then it’s up to you to use them tastefully. At least they’re more tasteful, as I see dedicated buttons for “short” and “long” delays, dub echo, and reverb – like the stuff you actually would want to use.
I would stand by the DJM line. I think they’re more usable and friendly than the competition, and I think having built-in effects is a good thing – it’s a show with an audience, not a studio.
The rest of this we have to actually test, in that Pioneer says a lot about how they’ve adjusted fader feel and EQ.
So sure, this is funny —
— but no mind. I’d sure like to have this mixer in the booth. And I could imagine it doing double duty in some home studios, too, depending on price – at least for people who have DJ rigs at home that double for production.
Do most DJs need it? Probably not. Will it make plugging in for the rest of easier? Absolutely so.
Now we just need to know the price (gulp). But hey, the club will buy theirs.
I’m not sure if calling it a “new DX7” is quite fair, as we just don’t know about it enough. But certainly KORG have copped the look and feel of the original – curious how Yamaha will react there – and added additional controls. Whether there are other KORG touches, it’s hard to say, though you’re welcome to squint at this image:
It’s not unheard of for manufacturers to show up with synthesizers hidden under glass. (I hear if a certain Prince Charming comes along and gets into the glass coffin and kisses the prototype, the enchantment will be lifted and it will magically wake up with complete firmware. But maybe that only works in Disney movies.)
FM synthesis remains a tough nut to crack from a usability standpoint, so I’m not sure about this one. It at least adds to the pile of retro-themed synths this year.
It seems likely that this came from the Japanese engineering team at KORG, given their past with FM on the volca series – and it seems equally likely that they were busy on other products, too. But KORG are proving themselves to be still prolific and provocative.
Also new in 2020 – a remake of the legendary 1987 E-mu SP-1200. Just get ready for some sticker shock, because it’s not just a clone, it’s an actual SP-1200, rebuilt.
This one is an extremely, extremely limited edition because it starts with an original working SP-1200. So the price tag is similar to a top-condition refurbished 1200 because that is literally what it is. The new SP-1200 undertaking comes from E-mu Systems co-founder Dave Rossum, so we can think of this as passion project more than anything.
Rossum Electro-Music calls it “better-than-new.”
Starting with an original SP-1200 and upgrading and calibrating it, you get (copy-pasting here):
A new 3.5″ disk drive (seriously), plus an SD card floppy emulator integrated with the software (by Dave himself, no less).
Manual filter cutoff frequency control sliders for the SSM 2044 analog filters for channels 1 and 2 added to the rear panel
A new metal chassis
A new panel overlay
The top shell restored and painted “SP Grey.”
A new power supply with locking connector (and cool operation)
A new LCD display with adjustable brightness and a selectable red, blue, or green color LED backlight
All new play buttons
All new programming buttons
All new 1/4” and MIDI jacks
All electrolytic and tantalum capacitors replaced with high-reliability ceramic or aluminum-poly caps
All rotary potentiometers replaced with million cycle lifetime pots and installed with new knurled black metal knobs
All slide potentiometers replaced with 200,000 cycle lifetime sliders and installed with new slider knobs
All original trimmers replaced with 20-turn versions and precisely calibrated
New rubber feet
An individualized Dave Rossum signature plaque
A dust-proof, crush-proof, lockable Pelican™ brand case with press-and pull latches, wheels, and an extendable handle.
Full testing and calibration by Rossum Electro-Music
Yes, there’s a wait list. So Dr. Dre, if you’re reading, go get on it.
I’m lost, to be honest, so coming soon to CDM, I’m proud to launch a new feature: a round-up of what legendary classic gear isn’t being cloned/remade/rebooted.
Actually, if I wait a few days even that story may be unnecessary.
Also, anyone want to take bets on when we get a Behringer BS-1200? (for “Behringer Sampler,” you know…)
For all Moog’s synths, it’s been a while since there was a sweet spot that said – oh, if I want a Moog, I should start here. The Subsequent 25 could be that instrument.
Okay, “subsequent” feels a little too much like an SAT word, compared to the endearing “Little Phatty” and “Sub Phatty.” But you could call this thing practically anything – it’s a cute little Moog, and about as Moog-y looking as anything since the 1970 Minimoog.
It’s just … adorable. I mean, someone should say that, because I fully expect this Moog will trigger some serious consumer instincts.
And appreciating that synths for a lot of musicians are about feelings and fantasy, Moog are repeating their collaboration with Flying Lotus to make an animated short film. (Scoff all you like – if you had a marketing budget, wouldn’t you want to spend it like this?) The inimitable Brainfeeder maestro FlyLo teams up with designer-musician Julian House. You might have heard House’s own music as The Focus Group and Ghost Box label, but you almost certainly know his album covers for the likes of Oasis and The Prodigy.
Anyway, this is all good fun. Here:
Okay, but you probably do want specs, too. In the year of polysynths, this isn’t that – it’s a massive bass synth that also happens to have a new Duo Mode to split osc 1 + osc 2.
So you have three oscillators – including one sub oscillator – and additionally a noise source
Four CV inputs, which is a decent-sized complement for a mid-range analog synth.
Multidrive, which combines two types of distortion to color the sound (and really makes all of this dirty and interesting).
It’s a Moog, so yes, there’s a Ladder Filter, but with 6, 12, 18, and 24 dB/octave slopes.
Audio input as well as (mono) output
USB and MIDI and full MIDI implementation – that’s actually a bigger deal than it seems, as there’s MIDI control of everything, including things like gate reset. Paired with the right sequencer, this could be a total beast.
Flexible LFO, with tri, square, saw, ramp, S&H shapes
It’s heavy – 16 lbs – over 7 kg. But you probably like that if you want a Moog.
Proper pitch and mod wheels
Now that the rational part of your brain is engaged, it’s also worth saying that you might want to save up for the powerful Subsequent 37, the Sub 25’s bigger sibling. It’s a significant price difference (though there is the used market). But in addition to more keys, the big draw of the Sub 37 is – more hands-on controls, more envelopes and modulation, and a built-in arp/step sequencer.
(Writing synth press releases is hard. Duophonic synths require you to sound like you’re an over-excited Leonin or Perotin attending NAMM – “opening new doors of musicality by playing two different notes at once.” Wait ’til the monks and sisters catch THIS bad boy!)
There’s also editor/librarian software included free, so the notion is you can extend the 16 x 16 (256) onboard patches with more stuff on the computer. And that’s what makes this somewhat unique: it is an analog synth, but it’s one that you might go deep into editing or sequencing. It’s obviously a performance-oriented, jam- and improv-focused keyboard axe, but it’s got enough CV that you could still devise some detailed patches with modular or semi-modular gear.
Moog have staked out this territory as the premium synth makers, and that’s what this looks like. It’s a pretty middle-of-the-road synth, but with tons of detail – and that Multidrive thing makes sure it isn’t too tame.
And for all the creativity of the Moog line lately, I fully expect the Subsequent 25 will get people past the hump of trying to decide what to buy. I’d say shame about the name, but I bet a lot of people just call it Moog.
For more Moog film watching, check this behind-the-scenes with Uncut Gems composer Daniel Lopatin:
As an addendum, and part of why I think this appeals to the frontal lobes (even as the design triggers some irrational emotional appeal), here’s the amount of stuff you can control with MIDI – including high-resolution output. Even if you don’t use this via MIDI, it’s an interesting window into the architecture:
Duo Osc 2 Priority
Filter Velocity Sensitivity
Volume Velocity Sensitivity
Ext. Audio Level
Osc 2 Beat Frequency
VCO Gate Reset
LFO Gate Reset
Pitch Bend Up Amount
Pitch Bend Down Amount
Wave Mod. Destination
LFO KB Tracking
Filter EG Reset
Amp EG Reset
MIDI Ch. In
MIDI Ch. Out
14-Bit MIDI Output
MIDI Path In
MIDI Path Out
MIDI Merge DIN
MIDI Merge USB
Sound Engine Type(s): Analog (2 x Oscillators, 1 x Sub Oscillator, 1 x Noise Generator)
Number of Keys: 25
Type of Keys: Semi-weighted, Velocity-Sensitive
Other Controllers: Pitchbend, Mod Wheel
Polyphony: Monophonic, 2-Note Paraphonic
LFO: Triangle, Square, Sawtooth, Ramp, Sample & Hold
Filter: Moog Ladder Filter with 6/12/18/24 dB per Octave Slopes
Number of Presets: 16 (4 Banks of 4)
Effects Types: Multidrive
Audio Inputs: 1 x 1/4″ (ext in)
Audio Outputs: 1 x 1/4″
USB: 1 x Type B
MIDI I/O: In/Out/USB
Other I/O: Filter CV in, Pitch CV in, Volume CV in, KB Gate in
Software: Plug-in and standalone editor and librarian for Mac/PC
One thing Eurorack modular doesn’t normally make you say is, “awwwww… cute!” But here’s a modular synth rig that looks as likely to contain a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as a synth.
Meet the 2hp Lunchbox, which is literally an oldschool lunchbox with handle. It’s 42hp – which isn’t itself a new idea, as the Erica Synths Pico System does the same. The new idea is putting that in an actual lunchbox, which is adorable – and practical, since it comes with a handle.
In order for this to be useful, you need modules that take up as narrow a footprint as possible. 2hp are already deep into that business, focusing exclusively on tiny modules. The fat-fingered or clumsy need not apply, but lovers of kawaii and tiny will be happy. They’ve got loads of stuff in their shop:
Put that together with modules like the Erica Pico line and a handful of other minimalist makers, and you could have something really wonderful. It’s ambitious to say you’d use this on a plane as they claim, but … taking it on a budget short hop flight as carry-on sure as heck gets practical.
They’ve got full-blown systems in mind, in case you’re unsure how to populate your new lunch box. There are four systems coming (guess you can think of this as having mum or dad pack your lunch for you, eh?):
I don’t know what a picnic basket is, but all in all sounds, good.
And the minimalism is inspiring compelling designs – also upcoming from 2hp this spring: a compressor with sidechain, a time-domain pitch shifter with flutter, and a sound on sound looper. That looper should appeal to ambient creators; it’s got a 5-minute (!) loop time.
All of this stuff is economical to buy, meaning you get your fix of a new module for $119-149. And they’re not clones of existing modules (ahem) but new ideas.
Plus the more makers like 2hp join in with this form factor, the more choices tiny modular lovers will have. That sounds great indeed.
One person who isn’t just copying Dave Smith is – Dave Smith. Sequential are back with the new Pro-3, a flagship mono/paraphonic synth instrument.
Okay, to be fair – a Sequential synth (or Dave Smith Instruments synth) is always going to give you certain predictable elements, if in different combinations. But the Pro-3 at least continues the evolution and refinement of that line. And it offers an extraordinary amount of depth as a result – in the sense that you could really just play with this thing a … long … time … happily so …
The Pro 3 is right in line with the Pro line – the Pro 1 and Pro 2 monosynths, that is – but with some new ideas thrown into the mix. With that in mind, let’s first talk about what just went away – the Pro 2, the previous flagship monosynth. And in some ways, the Pro 2 is likely to be missed – for its uniquely accessible oscillators and architecture, and its 4-voice paraphonic mode.
The Pro 3 is pretty irresistible, though, in that it does three things:
Builds a new architecture around three of everything – three oscillators (2 analog + 1 wavetable), three LFOs, and three filters to choose from to keep it fresh.
Acts as a central workstation, with a powerful front panel sequencer (building on the Pro-2) and now CV integration so it fits in with modular.
Costs just US$1599.
And that last one is a big deal. A producer can easily save up for this one instrument and wind up with a massively flexible powerhouse for sound design, with sequencing built in. Sequential’s stuff has managed to get more powerful but less expensive, and yet you still get something that feels luxurious, boutique, and – well, personal, in a way a big mass-produced thing might not.
Dual digital effects – again, you can do a whole lot right on this one keyboard, but without menu diving as you might on a digital workstation
A 32-slot mod matrix for loads of modulation
Analog integration – four CV ins, four outputs, dedicated gate output – all running at audio rate (take that, MIDI!) and all assignable from that powerful mod matrix
Classic Sequential analog oscillators, times two
One wavetable oscillator for the edgy digital spice when you need it, for the third oscillator – 32 tables of 16 waves each, with wave morphing, so a lot of spice
Three vintage filters to choose from – 4-pole low pass (a la Prophet-6), 2-pole state-variable (a la Oberheim OB-6) for continuously moving between low-pass + notch + high-pass,
Analog distortion, Drive control on the filters
And all of this combines with a sequencer, included on the keyboard so the workflow is integrated. That includes ratcheting, input via both real-time and step-input, and works with both MIDI and CV (and analog and MIDI clock, too).
Plus, the sequencer integrates with the mod matrix – noticing the pattern here? That justifies the inclusion of a sequencer on the keyboard, because then integration is already done for you. Instead of spending your time programming, or working to assign your sequencer to your instrument, you can get right into playing and sequencing.
(I say all of this because – I just read some concerns from a colleague, and this is essentially my answer.)
So sure, you get 3-voice paraphonic mode instead of 4, but as deep and wild as the Pro-2 was, the Pro-3 seems deeper and wilder.
Heck, in this giant wave of polysynths, the Pro-3 is a pretty damn good argument for getting back to monosynths again.
And you know the package will be plenty luxe, as per usual Sequential standards. If you want it to be even more so, you can spring for the Special Edition, for US$2099. That includes a tilt-up control panel and “full, premium-grade walnut trim.” I’m sure it’ll be a collectors’ item, but I’m tempted to just buy a stand to tilt this up and then go with a nice bottle of bourbon while I invite friends over for some Pro-3 jams, you know?
A little birdie told me some close friends of CDM might have worked on this beautiful beast, and I know it’ll be at NAMM, so I will send our espionage network out to learn more.
But even in this deluge of synths, the Pro-3 looks really lovely.
More on the somewhat complicated endless stream of DSI/Sequential instruments can be perused in the PDF chart they put together. Basically, if you want a really cheap 4-voice, find a used MOPHO X4. The Pro-2 was all digital oscillators, but you did get more of them – 4x + 1 sub oscillator, meaning a used Pro-2 should still be on your radar if you’re thinking Pro-3. And then there are the very excellent polyphonic Prophets.
More at Sequential (formerly DSI aka Dave Smith Instruments):
It’s like a BeatStep Pro, but with keys, but with KeyStep features, but with extras. And it’s still compact. Sounds like Arturia may have a hit on their hands.
Remember when we were all repeatedly saying that the KeyStep was cool, but it’d be nice if there were a KeyStep Pro? To their credit, Arturia did keep cramming functionality into their compact keyboard, and that means the latest firmware turned it into a little powerhouse – and one you still might want to consider:
But now the KeyStep Pro expands that. If you loved the BeatStep Pro but wish it had keys instead of pads, or if you loved the KeyStep but wish it had extra encoders and polyphonic features, well… mark your calendars for March the 20th. That’s the date this model launches.
And this is still a beat sequencer, so just because it’s a tricked out sequencer keyboard doesn’t mean you need to start making only tripped-out prog rock.
Basically, it’s an ideal performance hub for anyone who likes keyboards. You get loads of compositional flexibility:
4 independent sequencers, which you can route to whatever synths or drum machines or modular or gear you want – just as on the BeatStep Pro
4 tracks have 16 patterns each, and chain 16 patterns into a song
Scenes snapshot all the sequences within a pattern, for swapping between sets of patterns
Projects let you load up different scenes
And then there’s a nicely balanced complement of physical control.
37 keys with velocity and channel aftertouch
LEDs above the keys give you added visual feedback for sequencing
Touch strips give you pitch + mod or other assignable controls
There’s an internal metronome, which you can listen to (to sync humans) or output as audio (to sync analog hardware)
Finally, five encoders with LED ring feedback – that’s an improvement on the BeatStep Pro, at least if you want to swap scenes without having to fiddle with the knobs to get them to pick up the right value
And of course step editing buttons, or this wouldn’t be an Arturia ‘step
It’s less portable than the original, but it’s still reasonable – 5.9 lbs or 2.7 kg, and slightly larger. They’re still slim keys, but that also makes this easier to drop into a backpack.
There’s also a crisp new OLED display – nice.
Price is US$449 / EUR 399 list, so it isn’t cheap – the BeatStep Pro is then a nice bargain buy if you like pads as well as you do keys. But for those of us who wanted exactly this as a hub, it looks like a good investment, rather than building a collection of keyboards that kinda sorta do what we want but not really.
And the video. Now is a good time to announce CDM’s exciting pivot to video features. Stand on one toe… good… oh, okay, stop groaning at me.
(Heh, I just noticed that Arturia’s own mailing list says this was the sequencer that we’ve “been waiting for.” Well, their product people knew that I was waiting and CDM readers were waiting, as I’d talked to them about it! Review coming soon, hopefully!)