The Casio CZ is a huge highlight of Arturia’s V Collection 7

Arturia’s V Collection 7 continues to expand as the go-to software library of every vintage synth you would ever want. But let’s focus on one new gem: the brilliant CZ-101 remake.

First off, V Collection 7 is worth a look. Arturia keep making their mega-bundle software instrument bundle better. That means both reworking the modeling inside these tools, and adding new features, as well as – of course – continuing to expand the library of available instruments. As modeling has improved, these instruments have gotten more and more like the originals in sound and not just in function and look. At the same time, Arturia keeps beefing up those originals with new features – so the authentic sound engines get new sound design features atop them.

The EMS Synthi V makes an appearance in the new V Collection, too – if your tastes go more 70s than 80s. And it’s a big deal.

Version 7 continues to balance the desires of the casual keyboardist and the obsessive synth sound designer – and everything in between. So if you just want to add a convincing Mellotron or B-3, you’re covered – with an all-new Mellotron and a total ground-up sound engine overhaul for the B-3 V2. Jimmy Smith Strawberry Fields Forever, check and mate.

If the idea of a whole bunch of unfamiliar keyboards and control layouts is unappealing, V Collection 7 also includes the new Analog Lab 4, which consolidates all these things into easy presets and macro controls, and hundreds of new presets in their “Synthopedia.” That way if you do want to look up the way a familiar sound was produced – then tweak it yourself – you can.

Of course, if you read CDM, your favorite preset may be “default template,” and the idea of getting lost for hours in a vintage synth control layout may be the whole selling point. For that crowd, the V Collection 7 adds the EMI Synthi V and the CZ-101 from Casio, circa 1985.

Photo (CC-BY-SA) Neil Vance, via WikiCommons.

The ability to just dial up a menu and say, “do I want an Oberheim SEM or a CS-80” is already pretty crazy, and the number of choices continues to grow. So my approach to V Collection is actually to ignore all those presets – apologies, dear sound designer friends – and try to focus on one instrument. It’s a bit like what you do in a packed studio – you pull out one piece of gear, and say, hey, tonight is going to be about me and this instrument and very little else.

I want to talk about the CZ-101 because it’s long been one of my favorite instruments, and it’s a fairly unsung one. The CZ is somehow too easy, too friendly, too compact, too inexpensive to have the kind of adoration of some of the other 80s and 70s throwbacks. It’s not a collectors’ item. You can still find them at flea makrets. So yeah, Arturia are quick to drop names who have used it, like Salt-N-Pepa and Vince Clarke. But to me the whole appeal of the CZ-101 is that it’s for people who love synths, not people trying to emulate their heroes.

Of course, you could for these reasons go get an actual CZ-101. That means Arturia has to sweeten the deal a bit so the software can compete. They did just that. Let’s dive in.

CZ V reproduces the simple hardware interface (at bottom) but also expands to this view with lots of additional visual feedback and features, at top.

Phase Distortion lovers, rejoice

The original CZ-101 is about two things: a simple front panel layout, and phase distortion. If you just want to drop the CZ into a session as-is, CZ V does that.

Phase distortion synthesis isn’t so much a different synthesis method as it is a compelling way of mucking about with two digital oscillators. It’s easy enough to dismiss PD as Casio’s cheaper, non-patented answer to Yamaha’s DX7 and frequency modulation (FM). But now as we grow more accustomed to digital, non-harmonic timbres, PD is better appreciated on its own terms – as a way of producing unique digital color.

In short, what phase distortion does for you is to add rich harmonic content to sound. It can be a distortion. It can sound something like a resonant filter – in its own way. And because it’s normally using synced oscillators – here’s the important bit – it’s way easier to control than FM generally is.

On the Casio, this allows some unique filtering and sound shaping and distortion sounds that can easily be controlled by macros. And on the Arturia remake, graphical access to envelopes and expanded power means that you can use that shaping creatively.

The CZ V kind of goes a bit nuts versus what an original CZ-101 would give you. Let’s compare 1985 and 2019.

Arturia’s effects mean you don’t have to listen to the CZ dry.

The modulation matrix makes this feel as much modern soft synth as 1980s hardware.

The original oscillators are there – sine, saw, square, pulse, resonance, double-sine, saw-pulse – as are the 8-stage envelope generators and vibrato and LFOs. You can even import SysEx from the original. But being able to program these features on a display makes sound design accessible.

In addition to making hidden CZ features more visible, Arturia have expanded what’s possible:

  • 32-voice polyphony (the original had just 8).
  • A modulation matrix – no, really.
  • More modulation: a Sample and Hold module, 2 LFOs with 6 waveforms, 3 sources combinators and an Arpeggiator
  • New effects – while an authentic approach to the CZ might leave it dry, now you get all the Arturia multi-effects (adding things like chorus and reverb sound especially nice, for instance)

There’s visual feedback for everything, too.

Where the CZ fits in

In some ways, the CZ-101 is weirdly going from dated 80s thrift store find to … ahead of its time? After all, we’re seeing modular makers embrace these kinds of digital oscillator effects, and phase and phase distortion even inspired the upcoming sequel to Native Instruments’ Massive, the new Massive X.

Envelope editing is powerful – and includes animated visual feedback.

The CZ architecture is uniquely suited to making a lot of different sounds – including percussion and modulating timbres and edgy digital business – with a minimum of resources. So there’s a noise source built-in. You can modulate with the noise source. There’s ring modulation.

Using the CZ, DADSR, and multi-segment envelopes, you can them sculpt those percussive and metallic timbres over time – including using the DCW (Digitally Controlled Waveform) envelope that morphs between a sine wave and distorted wave.

The reason I’m using the CZ V to talk about the new V Collection edition, though, is that it’s an instrument where it feels like Arturia’s authentic side matches up with the “vintage on steroids” additions. So, by the time you have something like the new Synthi, you’re already presented with tons of sound design possibilities. Arturia has added some amazing ideas there – a step sequencer, a beat-synced LFO, plus onboard effects, atop all the new graphical options for working with envelopes and modulation.

The thing is, on a Synthi, that starts to feel like too much. I almost was tempted with the Synthi to force myself not to expand the tab full of new stuff. If I want an open-ended sound environment on a computer, I can use Reaktor, not try to recreate a 1970s take on the idea.

On the Arturia edition of the Casio, though, all these additions help the CZ graduate from fun toy to serious sound design tool. The visual envelopes make more sense. Effects are something most CZ owners invested in anyway. And more polyphony means you can run one instance and do a lot with it. Heck, even the matrix is easier to follow than on the original EMS Synthi because the architecture of the CZ-101 is so straightforward. In other words, because the original did less, it’s both a good match for software remake and for some thoughtful additions – which Arturia delivers.

Check these templates for an easy way to get started making your own sounds.

Here’s a little sketch I made with this. This is all one patch – noise and ring modulation and layering the ring source, plus some DCW and pitch envelope use, are what generate all those sounds. I added Arturia’s Trid-A Pre and some reverb from Softube’s TSAR-1 Reverb and … that was it.

More on the products:

V Collection 7


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Beneath Polyend Medusa grid and knobs, a wealth of possibilities

It’s an analog-wavetable polysynth with an expressive grid – but that only begins to describe what makes the Polyend Medusa such a unique instrument. Here’s a deep dive into this hybrid synthesizer and what it means musically.

A year after its public debut, the Polyend-Dreadbox collaboration Medusa hybrid synth has gotten a flurry of updates expanding its capabilities. The Medusa caught my eye when it was previewed at last year’s Superbooth extravaganza in Berlin – and has since reappeared full of refined functionality at this year’s edition. The instrument combines Polyend’s expressive grid with a gnarly synthesizer made in collaboration with Dreadbox. So you get a hybrid analog-digital sound engine, which you can use in monophonic or one of two polyphonic modes, and a grid you can use for performance or sequencing.

That description seems obvious and straightforward, but it also doesn’t really fully describe what this thing is. It’s really about the combination of elements. The synth engine gets delightfully grimy – the Dreadbox filter can really scream, especially paired with frequency modulation. And the digital oscillators (from Polyend) stack to give you metallic edge and wavetable madness atop a thick 3-oscillator analog beast. The copious modulation and multiple envelopes provide loads of sound design possibilities, too – you can really go deep with this, since basically everything is assignable to LFOs or envelopes. (That’d be a lot of rack space to get this many oscillators and modulation sources in a Eurorack form.) Combining digital control and wavetables with Dreadbox-supplied analog grunge make this as much an all-in-one studio as a polysynth.

What really binds this together for me, though, is using the grid to make this more like an instrument. You can lock parameters and scales to steps in the sequencer, and then use elaborate scale mappings and expression options to put sounds beneath your fingertips. This isn’t about menus, but it’s also unlike conventional keyboard synths. The grid and one-press modulation and envelope assignment make the Medusa a portal to sound design, composition, and performance.

The workflow then fits spatially. On your right, you can sculpt sounds and (thanks to a recent update) make on-the-fly assignments of modulation and envelopes with just one press. On your left, the grid can be configured for sequencing and playing. Mix oscillators and shape envelopes and dial modulation live atop that. You can also use the sequencer as a kind of sketchpad for ideas, since sequences are saved with presets.

All of this comes in a long, metal case with MIDI I/O and external audio input. Even the form factor suggests this is an instrument you focus on directly. So whatever you do in sound design should naturally translate to sequencing and playing live.

Here’s the basic approach to sound design workflow – dialing in and layering different analog and digital oscillators, playing with wavetables, shaping envelopes and filter, adding FM (including on the filter), and assigning modulation. Improvised / no talking:

Let’s look at those components individually (now with some of the recent firmware updates in place):

The synth

On the synth side, the Medusa has a hybrid 3+3 structure – three analog oscillators, plus three digital oscillators, for a total of six. (There’s an additional noise source, as well, with adjustable color.) To that, you add a filter derived from the Dreadbox Erebus (highpass, 2-pole lowpass, and 4-pole lowpass). There are two fixed envelopes (filter and amplitude), plus three more assignable envelopes. You also get five (!) assignable LFOs. That’s just enough to be readily accessible, but also focused enough that it neatly structures your use of the onboard controls and assignable modulation and sequencing.

The idea is to mix analog + digital + noise in different combinations, which you can layer as monophonic lines or chords, or trigger in turn, with always-accessible mixer controls for each voice + noise.

Oscillator controls. The oscillator section does double duty as analog and digital, so you’ll need to understand how those relate. To save space, there’s a button in the oscillator section labeled DIGITAL.

With digital mode off (analog mode), you get control over the three analog oscillators, plus a pulse width control, and a frequency modulation control for FM between oscillators 1 and 2. You can select ramp, PWM, triangle, and sine waves for each oscillator. You can also hard sync oscillators – 1+2 (sync 2) and 2+3 (sync 3). Note that you will need to give the Medusa some warmup time for these analog oscillators to be in tune; there’s also automated calibration to tune up.

With the digital mode on, you control the three digital oscillators, and get a wavetable shape in addition to the four wave shapes, plus a wavetable control that modulates between different wavetables. (There’s no FM between oscillators 1 and 2, and you don’t get the pulse width control for the digital oscillators – which in the end doesn’t matter much given all the wavetable options.)

The other controls are doubled up to save space, as well. Instead of dedicated macro and fine tuning, there’s a FINETUNE switch. The FM knob has two functions, also via switches.

Modulation. There’s more modulation than you’ll likely ever need, between the sequencer steps, five envelopes, and five LFOs. Since there’s only one set of encoders and sliders, you choose which envelope or LFO you want to target. You can toggle that modulation on and off by double-pressing the controls for each.

The latest firmware adds on-the-fly parameter assignment, so you can simply hold down an envelope or LFO, then twist the parameter you want to target. That’s much more fun than scrolling through menus.

Sound design is a blast, but there’s some room for growth, too. LFO shapes morph between square, sine, ramp, and triangle, but there’s no random or sample & hold option, which seems an obvious future addition. Also, it could be nice, I think, to have different wavetables on different oscillators, or separate wavetable position controls. (At least for now, you can set LFOs to target all wavetables or just one wavetable when modulating position, so you can separately modulate the three digital oscillators if you wish.)

Now, you can assign both modulation and envelopes with just one tap, on the fly. With multiple envelopes and LFOs, combined with the sequencer, there’s plenty of choice for composition and sound design.

FM can be applied to the filter and between analog oscillators 1+2.

Musical ideas: synth

Use envelopes and modulation. Envelopes have free-flowing timing, but can each be (independently) looped, creating subtle or rhythmic modulation. And LFOs can be either free or clock-synced. With these two features in concert, you can create both shifting timbres and rhythmic patterns – while assigning them hands-on, rather than diving into menus. (That can be even faster than working with patch cords.)

Work with the different polyphonic modes. Mono play mode stacks all six oscillators onto a single voice, which is great for thick sounds. But the two polyphonic modes offer some unique features. P1 is three-voice polyphonic, with two oscillators per voice. P2 is six-voice polyphonic, and has one amp envelope for each of the six voices.

Change voice priority. In CONFIG > Voice Priority, you can set P1 and P2 from “First” to “Next,” and each trigger will rotate through each of the available oscillators. Remember with P2, that means you have separate envelopes. So you can retrigger the same pitch, or “strum” or roll a chord, or create rhythmic variations… it all makes for some lively variations.

Self-oscillate the filter with tracking. If you turn up resonance and crank TRACK on the filter, you’ll get self-oscillation that’s mapped to the pitch range. (You’ll probably want to turn down master volume here; I don’t yet have a trick for that, but you could also save lower oscillator mixer values with a preset.)

Go mad with FM. Frequency modulating the OSC 1+2 combination can create some wild ring mod-style effects as you play with different octave ranges and tunings.

The sequencer

I think one confusion about the Medusa is, because people see an 8×8 grid of pads, they assume the main function is sequencing. That’s really not how to think of the Medusa pad matrix – it’s better to imagine it as a performance and editing interface as much as a sequencer, and to see ambient/drone/non-metric possibilities along with the usual things you’d expect of an 8×8 layout.

Sequences themselves have a length from 1 and 64 steps. (Yes, with a 1-step sequence, you get basically a repeat function, and with a few steps, a sort of fixed phrase arpeggiator – more on how you’d play that live below.) Steps are fixed rhythm, with no sub-steps – I do wish there were a way to clock divide step length from the master tempo, or add subdivisions of a step, or even control step timing individually. For now, if you want that, you’ll need to do it externally, via MIDI.

You can set tempo from 10-300 bpm or use an external clock source. And you get control for swing, plus different sequence playback directions (forward, backward, ping pong, and random).

In NOTES mode, you enter pitch. With REC enabled but not PLAY, you can enter and edit steps one at a time. (Pressing a pad creates a pitch, rather than sets a step, so you’d use the big menu encoder to the right of the pads to dial through steps.) With PLAY enabled, you can live record, though everything is still quantized to the step.

The pitch and rhythm stuff is a bit basic, but it’s the GRID mode where the Medusa shines. There, you can set specific steps to contain parameter data. Again, this works in both step and live modes – in live modes, you’ll overwrite parameter data as you move a control. This is what some sequencers call “p-locks” / parameter locks, but here the workflow is different. You can stop the transport, and manually tweak parameters while holding a pad to modify parameters for that step. This means an individual step may contain a whole bunch of layered information.

At first, it may seem counter-intuitive to separate notes and parameter data on two different screens, but it opens up some new possibilities. You can step-sequence really elaborate sequences of timbral changes. Or – here’s the interesting one – you can trigger different presets as your sequence plays. That lets you ‘perform’ the presets – play with the timbres – the way you normally would with notes.

Not only do you have a powerful step sequencer page dedicated to parameter control, you can think of presets as something you can play live. I don’t know of another sequencer that works quite like this.

Musical ideas: sequencer

Trigger play modes, voice priority, sequence length live: With a sequence playing, it’s possible to toggle play modes (between unison and polyphony), and the Voice Priority setting (first or last, in either of the polyphonic modes), and sequence length, all live without impact sequenced playback. So you can have some fun messing about with these settings.

Use GRID for variation. The sequencer only triggers preset changes when the GRID mode is enabled. So you can start a sequence, then toggle your sequenced parameters on and off by switching GRID mode on and off. (You can combine this with live-triggered parameters – more on that below.)

Glide! Combining glide with the polyphonic modes (and adjusting the amplitude envelope, particularly Release as needed) will create some lovely, overlapping portamento effects.

Arpeggiate/transpose. You can now press HOLD + a pad to transpose a sequence live as it plays. With short sequences, this can be a bit like running an arpeggiator or phrase sequencer.

Performance pads

If you just use the pads as a sequencer, you’re really missing half the power of the instrument. The pads also work for playing live, with the option of up to three axis additional expression (z-axis pressure, and x- and y- position). The pads are also low-profile, so you can easily strum your fingers across pads.

Three-axis control can be a little confusing. Only the last pad adds modulation, and it takes a bit of muscle memory to get used to modulating with just the last finger press if you’re playing in a polyphonic context. But the pads are nicely sensitive; I hope there’s the possibility of polyphonic expression internally in future.

As an external controller, Medusa does support an MPE mode, so you can use this – like the Roger Linn Linnstrument – as an MPE controller with compatible devices.

The grid in general is expressive and inspiring. In particular, you might try one of the 40 included scales, which include various exotic options apart from the usual church modes. I especially like the Japanese and Engimatic options. You can also change not only the scale but the layout (the relationship of notes on the pads).

Musical ideas: pads

Drone mode. Use HOLD to trigger multiple up to six at a time and drone away (press HOLD, then toggle on and off individual notes). And again, this is also interesting with different polyphonic modes and glide. You can also use, for instance, the Z-axis pressure to add additional modulation as you drone. (One confusing thing about X/Y/Z and HOLD – since only the last trigger uses the X/Y/Z modulation, it can get a bit strange additionally toggling off that step as you hold. I’m working on whether there’s a better solution there.)

Use GRID for triggering: With GRID instead of notes, you can use individual pads to trigger different sounds, or even map an ensemble of sounds (setting up particular pads for percussion, and others for melody, for instance). This also opens up other features, like:

DIY scales. A new feature of the Medusa firmware adds the ability to store pitch in pads, and thus make custom scales. Turn GRID on, and REC, then with FINETUNE on, you can use the oscillator to tune a custom scale, including with microtuning. I’d love to see custom scale modes or Scala support, but this in the meantime has a beautiful analog feel to it.

Bend it: You can bend between notes by targeting Pitch with the x-axis. To keep that range manageable and slide between notes, I suggest a value of just 1 or 2 (instead of the full 100, which will slide over the whole pitch range as you wiggle your finger). You might also consider adding the same on the y-axis, since it is a grid.

Trigger expression. Not only can you trigger modulation live over a sequence in GRID mode, you can also use those triggers to modulate X, Y, and Z targets of your choice as a sequence plays. You can also try modulating expression in NOTES mode over a playing sequence.

Use external control. You can also map to external MIDI aftertouch, pitch, and mod, which opens up novel external or even DIY controllers. (You could connect a LEAP Motion or something if you want to get creative. Or combine a keyboard and the grid, for some wild possibilities)


Medusa takes a little time to get into, as you start to feel comfortable with the sound engine, and adapting to a new way of thinking about the pads – as performance controller plus separate note and parameter sequencer. Once you do, though, I think you begin to get into this as an instrument – one with rich and sometimes wild sound capabilities, always beneath your fingertips.

The result is something that’s really unique and creative. The combination of that edgy, deep digital+analog sound engine with the superb Dreadbox filter, plus all this modulation and sequencing and performance possibility makes the whole feel like a particular instrument – something you want to learn to play.

I really have fallen in love with it as a special instrument in that way. And I find I am really wanting to practice it, both as sound designer and instrumentalist.

At 999EUR, it also holds up against some other fine polysynth choices from Dave Smith, Novation, KORG, and most recently, Elektron. Most importantly, it’s unlike any of those tools, both with its unique and expressive controller and its copious controls and access to sound.

The presence of an instrument like this from a boutique maker, charting some new territory and in a desktop form factor and not only a set of modules, seems a promising sign for synth innovation.

The post Beneath Polyend Medusa grid and knobs, a wealth of possibilities appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Akai Force: hands-on preview of the post-PC live-in-a-box music tool

The leak was real. Akai have a standalone box that can free you from a laptop, when you want that freedom. It works with your computer and gear, but it also does all the arranging and performance (and some monster sounds and sequencing) on its own. It’s what a lot of folks were waiting for – and we’ve just gotten our hands on it.

Akai have already had a bit of a hit with the latest MPCs, which work as a controller/software combo if you want, but also stand on their own.

The Akai Force (it’s not an MPC or APC in the end) is more than that. It’s a single musical device with computer-like power under the hood, but standalone stability. It’s a powerful enough sequencer (for MIDI and CV) that you some people might just buy it on those merits.

But it also performs all the Ableton Live-style workflows you know. So there’s an APC/Push style interface, clip launching and editing, grids for playing drums and instruments, and sampling capability. There’s also a huge selection of synths and effects (courtesy AIR Music Technology), so while it can’t run third-party VST plug-ins, you should feel comfortable using it on its own. And it integrates with your computer when you’re in your studio – in both directions, though more on that in a bit.

And it’s US$1499 – so it’s reasonable affordable, at least in that it’s possibly cheaper than upgrading your laptop, or buying a new controller and a full DAW license.

First – the specs:

• Standalone – no computer required
• 8×8 clip launch matrix with RGB LEDs
• 7″ color capacitive multitouch display
• Mic/Instrument/Line Inputs, 4 outputs
• MIDI In/Out/Thru via 1/8″ TRS inputs (5-pin DIN adapters included)
• (4) configurable CV/Gate Outputs to integrate your modular setup
• (8) touch-sensitive knobs with graphical OLED displays
• Time stretch/pitch shift in real time
• Comprehensive set of AIR effects and Hype, TubeSynth, Bassline and Electric synth engines
• Ability to record 8 stereo tracks
• 16GB of on-board storage (over 10 gigs of sound content included)
• 2 GB of RAM
• Full-Size SD card Slot
• User-expandable 2.5″ SATA drive connector (SATA or HDD)
• (2) USB 3.0 slots for thumb drives or MIDI controllers

Clarification: about those eight tracks. You can have eight stereo tracks of audio, but up to 128 tracks total.

And there’s a powerful and clever scheme here that lets the Force adapt to different combinations of onboard synths and effects. Akai tells us the synths use a “weighted voice management” scheme so you can maximize simultaneous voices. Effects are unlimited, until you run out of CPU power. Since this is integrated hardware and software, though, you don’t fail catastrophically when you run out of juice, as you do on a conventional computer. (Ahem.)

All that I/O – USB connectivity, USB host (for other USB gear), CV (for analog gear), MIDI (via standard minijacks), plus audio input / mic and separate out and cue outs.

US$1499 (confirming European pricing), shipping on 5 February to the USA and later in the month to other markets.

I’ve had a hands-on with AKAI Professional’s product managers. The software was still pre-release – this was literally built last night – but it was very close to final form, and we should have a detailed review once we get hardware next month.

The specs don’t really tell the whole story, so let’s go through what this thing is about.

In person, the arrangement turns out to be logical and tidy.

Form factor

The images leaked via an FCC filing of a prototype did make this thing look a bit homely. In person with the final hardware, it seems totally logical.

On the bottom of the unit is a grid with shortcut triggers, looking very much like a Push 2. On the top is a touch display and more shortcut keys that resemble the MPC Live. You also get a row of endless encoders, which now Akai call just “knobs.”

The “hump” that contains the touch display enables a ton of I/O crammed onto the back – even with minijacks for MIDI, the space is needed. And it means the displays for the knobs are tilted at an angle, so they’re easier to read as you play, from either sitting or standing position.

There are also some touches that tell you this is Akai hardware. Everything is labeled. Triggers most often do just one thing, rather than changing modes as on Ableton Push. And there are features like obvious, dedicated navigation, and a crossfader.

In short, you can tell this is from the folks who built the APC40. Whereas sometimes functions on Ableton Push can be maddeningly opaque, the Akai hardware makes things obvious. I’ll talk more about that in the review, of course, but it’s obvious even when looking at the unit what everything does and how to navigate.

Oh and – while this unit is big, it still looks like it’d fit snugly onto a table at a venue or DJ booth. Plus you don’t need a computer. And yeah, the lads from Akai brought it to Berlin on Ryanair. You can absolutely fit it in a backpack.


What impresses me about this effort from Akai is that it takes into account a whole range of use cases. Rather than describe what it does, maybe I should jump straight into what I think it means for those use cases, based on what I’ve seen.

It runs live sets. Well, here this is clearly a winner. You get clip launching just like you do with Ableton Live, without a laptop. And so even if you still stick to Live for production (or Maschine, or Reason, or FL Studio, or whatever DAW), you can easily load up stems and clips on this and free yourself from the laptop later.

You get consistent color coding and near-constant feedback on the grid and heads-up display / touch display about where you are, what’s muted, what’s record-enabled, and what’s playing. My impression is that it’s far clearer than on other devices, thanks to the software being built around the hardware. (Maschine got further than some of its rivals, but it lacks this many controls, lights, and display.)

That feedback seemed like it’s also not overwhelming, either, because it’s spread out over this larger footprint. There’s also a handy overview of your whole clip layout on the touch display, so you can page through more clip slots easily.

Logical, dedicated triggers and loads of feedback so you don’t get lost.

Full-featured clip launching and mixing.

It’s a playable instrument – finger-drummer friendly. Of course, now that you can do all that stuff with clips, as with Push, you can also play instruments. There are onboard synths from AIR – Electric, Bassline, TubeSynth, and the new multifunctional FM + additive + wavetable hybid Hype. And there are a huge number of effects from lo-fi stuff to reverbs to delays, meaning you can get away without packing effects pedals. It’s literally the full range of AIR stuff – so like having a full Pro Tools plug-in folder on dedicated hardware.

That may or may not be enough for everyone, but you can also use MIDI and CV and USB to control external gear (or a computer).

The grid setup features are also easy to get into and powerful. There are a range of pitch-to-grid mappings, from guitar fret-style arrangements to a Tonnetz layout (5th on one axis, 3rd on another) to piano and chromatic layouts. There are of course scale and chord options – though no microtuning onboard, yet. (Wait until Aphex Twin gets his, I think.)

And there are drum layouts, too, or step sequencers if you want them.

Two major, major deviations from Push, though. You know how easy it is to accidentally change parts on Push when you’re trying to navigate clips and wind up playing the wrong instrument? Or how easy it is to get lost when recording clips? Or how suddenly a step sequencer turns up when you just want to finger drum a pad? Or…

Yeah, okay well – you have none of those problems here. Force makes it easy to select parts, easy to select tracks, easy to mute tracks, and lets you choose the layout you want when you want it without all that confusion.

Again, more on this in the review, but I’m thoroughly relieved that Akai seems to understand the need for dedicated triggers and less cognitive overhead when you play live.

Tons of playing options.

It can replace a computer for production, if you want. There’s deep clip editing and sampling and arrangement and mixing functionality here. Clips even borrow one of the best features from Bitwig Studio – you can edit and move and duplicate audio inside a clip, which you can’t do in Live without bringing that audio out into the Arrangement. So you could use this to start and even finish tracks.

The Force doesn’t have the same horsepower as a laptop, of course. So you’re limited to eight stereo tracks. Then again, back in the days of tape that bouncing process was also creatively useful – and the sampling capabilities here make it easy to resample work.

Powerful clip editing combines with sampling – and you can use both the touchscreen and dedicated hardware controls.

Or you can use it as a companion to a computer. You can also use Force as a sketchpad – much like some iPad tools now, but of course with physical controls. There’s even an export to ALS feature coming, so you could start tracks on Force and finish them in Ableton Live – with your full range of mixing an mastering tools and plug-ins. (I believe that doesn’t ship at launch, but is due soon.)

Also coming in the first part of this year, Akai are working on a controller mode so you can use Force as an Ableton Live controller when you are at your computer.

There’s wired connectivity. You can set up MIDI tracks, you can set up CV tracks. There’s also USB host mode. Like the grid, but wish you had some MPC-style velocity-sensitive pads? Or want some faders? Plug in inexpensive controllers via USB, just as you would on your computer. You only get two audio ins, but that’s of course still enough to do sampling – and you get the sorts of sampling and live time stretching capabilities you’d expect of the company that makes the MPC.

For audio output, there’s a dedicated cue out as well as the stereo audio output.

On the front – SD card loading (there’s also USB support and internal drive upgradeability), plus a dedicated cue output for your headphones.

The full range of AIR effects is onboard.

Powerful audio effects should help you grow with this one.

And there’s wireless connectivity, too. You can sync sample content via – which includes your own samples, by the way. (Wow, do I wish Roland did this with Roland Cloud and the TR-8S – yeah, being able to have all my own kits and sample sets and sync them with a WiFi connection is huge to me, even just for the sounds I created myself.)

There’s Ableton Link support, so you can wirelessly sync up to your computer, iPad, and other tools – clocking the Force without wires.

There’s even wireless support for control and sound, meaning that Force is going to be useful even before you plug in cables.

Yeah, it’s a standalone instrument, but it’s also a monster sequencer / hub.

Bottom line. It replaces Ableton Live. It works with Ableton Live. It replaces your computer. It works with your computer. It’s a monster standalone instrument. It’s a monster sequencer for your other instruments. It does a bunch of stuff. It doesn’t try to do too much (manageable controls, clear menus).

Basically, this already looks like the post-PC device a lot of us were waiting for. Can’t wait to get one for review.

The post Akai Force: hands-on preview of the post-PC live-in-a-box music tool appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Hands-on: Complex-1 puts West Coast-inspired modular in Reason

Propellerhead has unveiled a modular instrument add-on for Reason, Complex-1. It puts a patchable, West Coast-inspired synth inside the already patchable Reason environment – and it sounds fabulous.

Complex-1 is a monophonic modular synth delivered as a Rack Extension, available now. What you get is a selection of modules, with a combination of Buchla- and Moog-inspired synths, and some twists from Propellerhead. You can patch these right on the front panel – not the back panel as you normally would in Reason – and combine the results with your existing Reason rack. The ensemble is very West Coast-ish, as in Buchla-inspired, but also with some unique character of its own and modern twists and amenities you would expect now.

Propellerhead have also a lot of design decisions that allow you to easily patch anything to anything, which is great for happy mistakes and unusual sounds – for beginners or advanced users alike. The three oscillators each have ranges large enough to act as modulation sources, and to tune paraphonic setups if you so wish.

Prepare to get lost in this: the recent Quad Note Generator is a perfect pairing with Complex-1.

What’s inside:
Complex Osc This is the most directly Buchla-like module – subsonic to ultrasonic range, FM & AM, and lots of choices for shaping its dual oscillators.

Noise source, OSC 3 Noise sources including red, plus an additional oscillator (OSC 3) with a range large enough to double as a modulation source.

Comb delay If the Complex Osc didn’t get you, the comb delay should – you can use this for string models by tuning the delay with feedback, as well as all the usual comb delay business.

Filter Here’s the East Coast ingredient – a Moog-style ladder filter with drive, plus both high pass and low pass outputs you can use simultaneously.

Low Pass Gates Two LPGs (envelope + filter you can trigger) give you more West Coast-style options, including envelope follower functions.

Shaper Distortion, wavefolding, and whatnot.

More modules: LFO, ADSR envelope, output mixer, plus a really handy Mix unit, Lag, Scale & amp, Clock & LFO + Clock 2. There’s also a useful oscilloscope.

Sequencer plus Quant: You can easily use step sequencers from around Reason, but there’s also a step sequencer in Complex-1 itself, useful for storing integrated patches. Quant also lets you tune to a range of scales.

Function: A lot of the hidden power of Complex-1 is here – there’s a function module with various algorithms.

Yes, you can make complex patches with Complex-1.

The dual advantages of Complex-1: one, it’s an integrated instrument all its own, but two, it can live inside the existing Reason environment.

I’ve had my hands on Complex-1 since I visited Propellerhead HQ last week and walked through a late build last week. Full disclosure: I was not immediately convinced this was something I needed personally. The thing is, we’re spoiled for choice, and software lovers are budget-minded. So while a hundred bucks barely buys you one module in the hardware world, in software, it buys a heck of a lot. That’s the entry price for Softube Modular, for VCV Rack and a couple of nice add-ons, and for Cherry Audio’s Voltage Modular (at least at its current sale price, with a big bundle of extras).

Not to mention, Reason itself is a modular environment.

But there are a few things that make Complex-1 really special.

It’s a complete, integrated modular rig. This is important – VCV Rack, Softube Modular, Voltage Modular, and Reason itself are all fun because you can mix and match modules.

But it’s creatively inspiring to work with Complex-1 for the opposite reason. You have a fixed selection of modules, with some basic workflows already in mind. It immediately takes me back to the first vintage Buchla system I worked on for that reason. You still have expansive possibilities, but within something that feels like an instrument – modular patching, but not the added step of choosing which modules. The team at Propellerhead talked about their admiration for the Buchla Music Easel. This isn’t an emulation of that – Arturia have a nice Music Easel in software if that’s what you want – but rather takes that same feeling of focusing on a toolkit and provides a modern, Propellerhead-style take on the concept.

It sounds fantastic. This one’s hard to overstate, so it’s better to just go give the trial a spin. In terms of specs, Propellerhead points to their own DSP and 4X oversampling everywhere. In practice, it means even just a stupidly-simple patch with raw oscillators sounds gorgeous and lush. I love digital sounds and aliasing and so on, but… it’s nice to have this end of the spectrum, too. You get a weird, uncanny feeling of lying in bed with a laptop and some studio headphones and hearing your own music as if it’s a long-lost 1970s electronic classic. It’s almost too easy to sound good. Tell your friends you’ll see them in the spring because for now you want to spend some time along pretending you’re Laurie Spiegel.

It lives inside Reason. The other reality is, it’s really fun having this inside Reason, where you can combine your patches into Combinators and work with all the other pattern sequencers and effects and whatnot. You can also make elaborate polysynths by stacking instances of Complex-1.

There’s basic CV and audio interconnectivity with your rack. This may look meager at first, but I found this in addition to the Combinator opens a lot of possibilities, especially for playing live/improvising.

You get loads of presets, of course, which will appeal to those not wanting to get lost in patching. But I also welcome that Propellerhead included a set of basic templates as starting points for those who do want to explore.

Patching is also really easy, though I miss being able to re-patch from both sides of a cable as in a lot of software modulars. Better is the hide/unhide cables functionality, so you can make the patch cables disappear for easier control of the front panel. (Why don’t all software modulars have this feature, actually?)

You don’t get unlimited patchability between Complex-1 and the rest of Reason. For simplicity, you’re limited to note/MIDI input (from other devices as well as externally), basic CV input and output, and input to the sequencer. There’s also a very useful audio input. That may disappoint some people who wanted more options, though it still provides a lot of power.

Mostly I want to buy a really big touch display for Windows and use that. And with this kind of software out there, I may not be looking at hardware so much. I even expect to use this live.

Some sounds for you (while I work on sharing some of my own):

Complex-1 Rack Extension

Complex-1 in the shop

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Hands-on: Roland’s #808day upgrade for the TR-8S is a blast to play

It’s a little thing, but it adds a lot when you’re playing live: STEP LOOP lets you repeat steps in a sequence as they play, without losing time. Here’s how it works, along with other updates to Roland’s TR-8S drum machine.

Roland’s version 1.10 firmware is out today, and the big new feature is called STEP LOOP. The basic idea:

Hold down a step to make it repeat.

Hold down multiple steps, and they repeat in order.

Release that step or steps, and the sequence continues in time. (LED feedback shows you that the sequence position advances even as you have steps triggered.)

STEP LOOP impacts the whole sequence, not just one part. To activate it, hold down SHIFT and INST PLAY. To exit the mode, just trigger any other sequence mode. Here is in action. Notice the visual feedback as I enter the mode, and what happens when I trigger one or more steps.

It’s hugely useful, because it lets you make fills and variations out of the existing material of a sequence – and you don’t ever drop out of time. It’s not the first drum machine to do this (the ElecTribe ES2 from KORG springs to mind, among others), but it’s hugely useful in this context. The TR-8S is already a great live performance feature, thanks to its flexible routing and I/O, ample controls, faders for volume, and the ability to load custom samples. STEP LOOP is then a perfect addition for live jamming, because it’s intuitive and rhythmic.

The TR-8S has been getting a steady stream of updates – the other huge one in 1.10 is the ability to preview samples. Here’s a reverse-chronological timeline of some of the highlights.

1.10, August 2018
Preview sound samples when you import

1.03 April 2018
Improved performance

1.02 March 2018
Batch import kits
Import and export patterns and kits
Write direct to an SD card from the computer (“Storage Mode”)

All of this fits nicely together. It’s now really quick to chop up some samples and load them onto an SD card, then import them into custom kits. That makes the TR-8S’ own onboard hardware a useful way to build your own custom kits – even preferable in some way to working with software. And the combination of STEP LOOP with other features for making custom rhythms adds tons of variety. (Use LAST to make different length parts, add sub-step rhythms for more complex patterns, and use “auto fill” to mix things up even if your hands aren’t free.)

Oh, and you can sidechain external inputs. So I’ve used the TR-8S with my laptop and Native Instruments Maschine. I use MIDI out from Maschine to keep things in sync, and route audio from the computer into the TR-8S so I can sidechain that audio with the drum machine. I’ve also played with Roland’s own AIRA VT-3 vocal transformer, which also lends itself to sidechaining. But it’s an ideal live performance box.

For more resources on the TR-8S, check out Francis Preve’s blog – he’s done a great Master Class on the instrument for Electronic Musician, plus a custom kit for you to download:

Master Class: Roland TR-8S


Roland TR-8S hands-on: a more playable, powerful drum machine

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Arturia DrumBrute Impact: smaller size, bigger sound, $349

Talk about less is more. The Arturia DrumBrute impact is sure to be a hit at US$349 for a packed analog drum machine – but its newfound focus and re-built sounds also make it more fun to play.

Fitting a drum machine into a smaller size and cutting the price this low does mean taking some things out. But it’s what’s left in that may make people find the DrumBrute Impact appealing.

Arturia has been trying their hand at drum machines for a while. It began on the software side, with the Spark series, but the workflow and functionality of that line never seemed to grab users quite like with Native Instruments’ Maschine or Ableton Live combined with Push, to say nothing of people who want to get away from the computer and use some hardware. The DrumBrute was promising, packing some novel analog sound circuitry together with workflow features from Spark and BeatStep Pro, but its sound felt like a work in progress. (Case in point: my studio neighbor has one and loves it, but he mutes the kick and replaces it with something else. Making drum machines is hard.)

So, that’s the surprise of DrumBrute Impact. The “impact” which I thought was just smart marketing for it being small and cheap actually is a clue to the fact that the Impact has all new circuitry inside. It’s the Arturia brain here, but the soul has been upgraded.

Finally, Arturia have made something that doesn’t just feel like another Roland TR drum machine. And that’s good, because much as I love the TR, having only that color is a bit like having a Wurlitzer but no Rhodes. But simultaneously, it also sounds like a new set of sounds you want to use, without requiring you to invest a huge amount of money in those sounds.

The result: this thing hits really hard. That matters. We’re humans. We like things that go thud. We can feel it. This isn’t theory; it’s visceral.

The sound engine:

You get a full complement of parts, each analog and with controllable parts. “Analog” remains something of a marketing hook, but the important thing about these parts is you get a set of sounds you can manipulate directly. That means:

KICK: pitch and decay
SNARE 1: snap and decay.
SNARE 2: tone and decay.
TOM: pitch, switch between high/low.
CYMBAL: decay.
OPEN HAT: decay (mute linked to the open hat)
FM DRUM: carrier pitch, decay, FM amount, and mod pitch.

I’ll work on some videos and music in the coming days. Drum machines are all about taste, so you may differ, but I liked each one of these sounds – which is really hard to get on a new machine. (The TR has a huge advantage based on familiarity, too. None of us can really say what we’d think of it if someone brainwiped us and we hadn’t heard any the music made with Rolands over the years.)

More importantly, you get a huge range as you twist the encoders on these, with a sense of power across that range rather than that usual feeling of … okay, this is the sweet spot and the rest is shite.

Snare 2, for instance, can sound like a rimshot or a clap, even, depending on where you adjust it, and lots of things in between. Tom Low easily doubles as a kick with a darker color. The cowbell is an exception, but it’s a nice grown-up homage to Roland.

It’s really the FM voice that’s the big winner, though. And it’s clear you could not only cook up some unexpected percussion with it, but also hack it into a usable, potentially weird if you want, FM bass synth.


If you want lots of I/O, well… come on, this thing is $349. But you still do manage a mono mix out, four separate outs for parts, and dedicated clock in/out, MIDI in/out, and USB.

Arturia could have made this a fairly dumb box that’s just a sound engine, but they crammed a whole lot of powerful features for playing into it, as you might expect from some of their past outings. So you get:

Step sequencing with 64 patterns (64 steps each)
Song mode for chaining patterns
Polyrhythms (set each track to its own length)
Swing, either global or per-instrument
Random pattern variations
Pattern looper, beat repeat
Real-time rolls (with that touch strip again)
Multiple sync options: Internal / MIDI / Clock, including 1PPS, 2PPQ, DIN24, and DIN48
Per-drum accents

There’s even a metronome that automatically overrides itself on the main out when you plug in headphones.

You don’t have easy MPC-style note repeat, which I personally prefer to those touch rolls, and the drum pads are basic (though you get one for each part, unlike the more expensive Roland TR-8S). Other than that, it’s hard to complain.

One surprise is the distortion circuit. It’s nice, and adds some dirt, but I almost expected something raunchier. Anyway, it’s useful to have, and you can always run those outs through some distortion pedals and really go nuts. I did run it through some light effects and delays, and it sounds unreal.

I mean, what’s to say? This thing is going to sell like crazy. $349 / 299 €. Preorder now, full availability in August.

It’s turning out to be quite a summer for hardware drum machines, with the ongoing success of the Elektrons (and some updates), the breakout hit Roland TR-8S, the coming boutique MFB TanzBar II, and now this as your cost-effective choice. If you’re still failing to play drum machines live or writing dull drum parts, you have no excuse.

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Your smartphone needs a pocket mixer: Roland Go:Mixer Pro review

The Roland Go:Mixer Pro packs a complete mixer into a handheld device, and it interfaces with your iPhone, Android phone – or anything else. We got one of the first units to test.

Compact enough to make the compact TR-09 behind it look huge. From left: inputs for guitar/bass (high impedance), plug-in mic (like a lapel mic), phantom power switch (needed for some microphones to function), and a full XLR-1/4″ combo jack for a mic – that last one is why it’s got the big bulge.

Your phone is missing a mixer

Smartphones at least ought to mean that we don’t carry around dedicated recorders (and their batteries and SD cards) as often. Your iPhone or Android phone or other mobile device also boasts apps for editing and managing recordings, even before you get into more creative production and live effects tools. And most importantly, they’re connected for live streaming or uploading the results.

Various products will let you connect and record instruments, or serve as more practical sound recording solutions for video shoots.

But what about the scenarios where you have a send of sound toys, synths and drum machines, instruments and microphone, or even different gadgets (like a jam session with a couple of iPads or a couple of fun phone apps)?

That’s where the Go:Mixer Pro comes in. It’s a stereo in/stereo out interface to phones and smartphones and computers, but it’s also a mixer. (It’s a standalone mixer, too, and you might even wind up using it just as much as that.)

You can connect and mix multiple inputs (9 channels in, 2 channels out):

  • Two 1/8″ stereo line inputs (for other mobile gadgets, a drum machine, a synth, whatever)
  • Two 1/4″ instrument inputs (two mono or one stereo pair)
  • Guitar/bass instrument 1/4″ jack input
  • Minijack plug-in mic (for a lapel mic, etc.)
  • One XLR/jack combo mic connection with phantom power

That’s the domain normally of ultra-small Behringer mixers and … not much else beyond that. Depending on the gear you’re using and whether you want mono and stereo connections, that’s somewhere between four and six independent sources.

There’s no line-level output – just a monitor output, though I did connect it to my studio mixer.

But there’s also a USB connection round the back. So the Go:Mixer Pro is also a 48K/16-bit stereo audio interface – you get two channels of input and two channels of output.

Front jacks – those are actually two separate inputs (each stereo) on the right.

USB means out-of-the-box support for computers and Android (OTG) phones and so on, a well as Raspberry Pi and other goodies. For iOS, Roland also supports “Made for iPhone” and includes a Lightning cable, so you get seamless operation with iPhones and iPads.

This isn’t a multichannel audio interface, only stereo, but that still fits many use cases – like recording gigs and jam sessions.

While it’s billed as a phone accessory, the mixer also works standalone – so you can just use that USB jack for power, via the dongle you already have for your phone or other gadget.

Three cables are included, for each possible device.

Form factor

Roland has packed this mixer/interface into a tiny form factor. The footprint is only about as deep as the iPhone 6 is tall. And it’s fairly slim, apart from a big bulge at the back to house the XLR combo jack and a battery compartment.

The batteries come in handy – you’ll need them to use the mixer standalone without USB power plugged in, if you want to avoid drawing power from your phone, or if you want to use a mic with phantom power with your iPhone. (Android phones will let you draw battery from the phone for phantom power; Apple are … more protective.)

Roland has included all the necessary cables in the box – USB-C, Micro USB, and Apple Lightning connections. That covers just about any computer or external power or Android or Apple phone.

But that cute little tabletop format is awfully useful. Yes, it’s marketed for smartphones, but you could also connect a Roland TR-8S, TB-03, and SH-01A to this little gadget for some on-the-go acid techno.

One constructive criticism to Roland on out-of-box experience: since this is geared for beginners, it’s a shame the box comes with no batteries and only a sheet pointing to a website in place of a copy of the (very friendly) short manual. Also a bit puzzling as they try to reach newbies: there are graphical icons on the top panel (a keyboard! a guitar!), but text labels on the connections (“instrument?”).

How it works

Operation is really plug-and-play. There’s not much feedback on level apart from a tiny “PEAK” light, but that’s okay — there are big, easy-to-see knobs.

Routing is rudimentary, but there’s a useful LOOP BACK switch – this records video while looping audio from your phone back into the device. Roland suggests doing this when you want to “play back music” while shooting video, but obviously it’s useful for production applications, as well.

And in case you forgot Roland is a Japanese company, there’s a karaoke mode. A center cancel feature is designed to remove vocals so you can host your own karaoke night.

Roland also makes Android and iOS devices intended for shooting video, though any audio device-aware application will also make good use of the hardware.

Here’s what’s really important: the thing sounds good. The mic pre and mix circuitry is transparent – I tried it with a couple of higher-end condenser mics and had no qualms inserting the mixer in my studio signal chain.

And that’s what sets this and some other recent mobile gear apart. It’s consumer-friendly, yes — but there’s no reason you can’t use this as a serious studio tool, as well. And that’s how it should be.

Key specs:
Runs on USB or 4xAAA batteries or your phone
170 mA power draw
Size: 104 x 155 x 41 mm, 220 g (that’s 8 oz)

Street price: USD$169.99 – okay, that’ll turn some people off, but frankly I’m glad to have a quality, quiet mixer

Battery case, and the two instrument jacks – you can use those as two mono inputs, or a stereo pair.

The competition

Anyone who’s been to a Berlin flea market in the past half decade will no doubt be reminded of the locally made POKKETMIXER. But that device, while a cute and cool proof of concept, is entirely unpowered, so it only mixes headphone outputs. It’s useful for crossfading between two smartphones, and that’s about it.

IK have so many devices that it’s possible one of theirs is more what you need than the Go:Mixer Pro. If it’s mainly an interface you want, for a guitar, for a mic, or for line recordings, IK Multimedia has an array of options. Apart from specialized guitar, stompbox/pedalboard, and AV options, the iRIG Pro DUO is most capable with dual preamps and balanced outputs. That interface also, crucially, has MIDI. (IK also makes standalone MIDI interfaces.)

And then there are devices that are just mixers, though for the moment few are challenging Behringer’s offerings in the subcompact mixer space. Some of those additionally have USB audio interface capability ,but that’s not the same as native iOS support, and they tend to be bulkier than this.

So to me, the Go:Mixer Pro just solved a major need for quick recordings and jam sessions. The fact that it’s a mixer as well as an interface makes it doubly convenient, and easy access to those input levels is also a big plus.

I just wish the interface with the Roland brand on it had MIDI, too – this is just shy of being an ideal ultra-compact mixer for, say, the Boutique Series. But I plan to make this a permanent part of my carry-on, and I bet I’m not alone.

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A new, powerful synth finds its soul in a cheap plastic FM past

Imagine starting with a painstaking emulation of the lofi sound of instruments like Yamaha’s SHS-10 keytar – but then modulating those quirks in powerful ways. Now you’re getting the mission of the new plug-in from Plogue – PortaFM.

If you lived through the mid-80s – or inherited (or coveted) one of the instruments of the time – you may already know the peculiar sound of Yamaha’s FM PortaSound keyboards. Of course, what was once considered perhaps low quality might seem to our ears now as something else: a unique, complex timbre with interesting, edgy nonlinearities.

And as musical tastes have gradually accommodated a wider range of timbres, recreating such things isn’t necessarily about nostalgia. In a sea of music, people are looking for sounds with edge.

So, with that in mind, meet the OPLL – aka the YM2413 chip core. Tasked with recreating Yamaha’s patented Frequency Modulation (FM) synthesis, the technique first pioneered by John Chowning in the 60s, that chip produced a sound that was different than the best-known Yamaha, the DX7. So while the instruments looked cheesy – and provided the user with little control over sounds apart from calling up presets – they had at their heart a chip capable of creating sounds that may be weirdly more relevant today than when these tools were on the market.

This 1983 ad will give you a sense of where Yamaha positioned its PortaSound line:

But here, we’re talking models like the more advanced Yamaha SHS-10 “Sholky” keytar [1987], plus keyboards like the PSS-140 and PSS-270 [1986].

Mid 80s chic. But don’t call it a keytar – for Japanese accuracy, call it “Sholky.”

Montreal-based developer Plogue, for their part, have decided not to hide that power from the user. Apart from spending loads of time accurately modeling the chip, they’ve exposed all the parameters of the synthesis engine and drum sounds. (There are still some cues from the originals – note the polygons representing the drum pads, borrowed from the original PSR keyboards, but looking way more futuristic here.)

The work they’ve done on modeling pays off, too. Even just dialing through the presets, you’ll find loads of patches that sound simply alive. It’s not just about being lo-fi; the peculiarities of this particular FM chip give a weirdly acoustic – if alien – quality to some of the sounds. Instead of trying to smooth the edges of FM synthesis, you get more of that unpredictability in ways that can become surprisingly musical.

Transposed from the cheesy toy shells of Yamaha’s original products, you might easily confuse this for some new instrument. But to get there, Plogue were in fact obsessive about reproducing what had been consigned to yard sales and thrift stores. In a video premiering exclusively on CDM, Plogue’s David Viens compares the recreation to the original and explains the emulation.

Yes, kids, now you get to explore the joys of the time-division multiplexed 9-bit DAC on your powerful PC or Mac. Because 9-bit is the future?

The one and only Cuckoo also has visited this new Plogue creation:

I’ve only had the plug-in to play with for a short while, but there’s plenty to enjoy here. Deep under the hood, you can obsess about tiny variations in modeling, but just as fun is playing those lo-fi drum pads or messing about with playing different sounds.

Directly from the main screen, you can get hands on with the FM synthesis approach and percussion.

Mid 80s chic. But don’t call it a keytar – for Japanese accuracy, call it “Sholky.”

Programmers will find plenty of sophisticated options – for instance, you can automate sequences of parameters of your choice. But anyone will find the depth interesting. For instance, layering the percussion atop the FM sounds, under the ‘play’ tab, works exceptionally well.

Stacking percussion on top of your sounds is like adding a delicious, buttery layer of icing. Seriously, I about licked my screen.

You’ll find a range of effects, too:

Plogue are planning more instruments in the chipsynth series, as their models continue to improve and as they collect more data.

But you could argue this is a new direction – even relative to reboots like Roland’s new TR machines taking on the TR-808 and 909. Here, obsessive modeling of digital instruments is meant to create something both historically accurate and simultaneously new. To get topical, it’s the synth equivalent of Donald Glover’s Lando.

Okay, I’m not going to stretch that any further. i will say – PortaFM, you look absolutely beautiful. You truly belong here with us among the clouds.


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Valkyrie is a 1200-oscillator synth you’ll want to play with your forearm

With some 128 voices, the Valkyrie packs dense sound and effects that never let up. The all new UK-built synth was available to try in prototype form at Musikmesse – and it’s seriously impressive.

When I say “play with your forearm,” I’m not kidding. I got my hands on the prototype. Glancing around, I noticed people were cautiously plucking a note or two there and noodling some melodic lines.


With that much polyphony, I wanted to hear a cloud – a doomsday-sized swarm – of oscillations. And this literally involved cranking up various parameters, dialing up portamento, and then playing the keys with… my fist… my arm… I decided sticking a leg up there might upset someone, but we’re talking a serious amount of sound.

The heart of this machine is an FPGA. You don’t need to care about that if you’re not an engineer, but suffice to say the idea of the thing is hardware that can be “re-wired” on the fly. So you get the power of dedicated hardware, without the enormous investment of time and money to create something so inflexible. That means the Valkyrie has horsepower DSP chips – or your high-end laptop – can’t reliably deliver.

And it’s not just about having a bunch of voices, though that’s already formidable. The Valkyrie drives 10 oscillators for each voice

It probably really is the synth Richard Wagner would have bought, were he alive today, so… nice brand name. Now, ride:

Multiple synthesis methods: FM, dual wavetable, hard sync
4096 different waveshapes, ring mod, hypersaw
Dual 2- and 4-pole ladder filters
128 voices
10 oscillators per voice (double to 20 by combining voices)
8-part polytimbral
Dedicated outs: four balanced outputs, 32-bit/96kHz each, or separate parts streamed over USB2 at 24/96
32x oversampling
9-unit dedicated effects, with shelving EQ on each part

The interface for all of this is a lovely high-res OLED. There are quick, slick animations to help you navigate. With that many parts/voices, of course, some menu dialing is a necessity – otherwise, the thing would take up a city block. But that navigation is quick and effortless, so you feel like you can dial up hands-on control easily. The menus were pretty logical, too, once you understand the structure of parts navigation. And everything is kept reasonably flat, which is stunning for an instrument of this complexity.

And the key is that you turn on this firehouse of sound and it never skips or steps – including with all the effects running. It’s a bit like having a Vangelis/Hans Zimmer-sized electronic studio, in a compact unit. It sounds utterly epic.

Pricing: expected under two grand (Exodus said that was their main purpose at Messe, to talk to dealers and figure that out)
Availability: Expected at volume early Q3 2018

And do have a listen:

I have to say, if you’re going to spend nearly two-grand on some hardware and want it to sound futuristic, this could be the one. It seems to be just the right kind of crazy for the job. Hope we get to try one more.

No Website yet …

The post Valkyrie is a 1200-oscillator synth you’ll want to play with your forearm appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Roland TR-8S hands-on: a more playable, powerful drum machine

Roland today unveils the TR-8S, an updated take on the AIRA TR-8 drum machine. We’ve been testing it – and it looks like exactly the sequel we all wanted.

Basically, if you threw out the limitations of the original TR-8, put it in a more attractive case, and expanded the sound and performance powers of the box, of course you’d make us happy.

So the TR-8S loads your own samples, atop a wider, updated range of built-in models of classic Roland gear and preloaded sonds. It’s more playable and immediate, thanks to expanded controls and functions. It has effects sends for each part, plus a bunch of new effects to choose from. It lets you record automation, so you can make the sound shift along with your drum patterns. It integrates more easily with other gear, thanks to separate audio outs, and with your computer, thanks to a multichannel USB connection that also lets you use the onboard effects.

To put it even more simply: the TR-8S makes more sounds, and it’s more fun to play. Oh yeah, and it looks pretty instead of fugly.

It’s still not a sampler – you only get sample playback. And it’s not a new drum synth – while it models the original Roland machines, there are only emulations of old circuitry, not any new models.

But instead of just feeling like an 808/909 rehash, the new TR-8S really feels like a new hub for sequencing and drum parts, one that is equally at home with gear or a computer.

At a glance

Price – US$699 (EUR699 with VAT), available this month.

Overview of what I found essential in the update as far as workflow – basically, a totally killer live machine:

  • Analog Circuit Behavior models of the 808, 909, 707, 727, and 606 (with some variants), plus sampled sounds
  • Load your own stereo + mono samples from SD card
  • Stereo + six assignable audio outputs – or configure up to those six as trigger outputs
  • Dedicated trigger output and trigger track
  • Stereo audio input (with routing through effects from input or round-trip from computer via USB)
  • Master effects, plus configurable per-part send effects, and new effects options
  • 128 patterns storing 8 variations + 3 fills
  • Program sub-steps, change the length of each part (for polyrhythms), chain patterns together
  • Auto-Fill for automating rhythmic variations
  • Lock parameters to steps (yep, p-locks!), or record automation
  • Works as multichannel audio + MIDI interface when connected via USB to a computer
  • Tune, decay, and assignable control for each part
  • Record accent, flam, and velocity via dedicated pad
  • Save tempo, kit, and knob positions and effect assignments in patterns – and back up your whole set to SD

And in place of the reverb and delay on the first model, Roland quietly made the “S” into an effects beast, with 43 effects in total (want to complain again about how this should have been analog?). That includes some sidechaining powers, and the ability to add these effects to external gear or your computer via USB. From Roland:

INST FX – 1 per instrument
Compressor, Drive, Isolator, Transient, Bit crusher, Comp + Drive, Crusher, HPF, LPF, LPF/HPF, L/H Boost, L Boost, H Boost

Ambience, Room, Hall1, Hall2, Plate, Mod

Delay, Pan, Tape Echo

Compressor, Drive, Over Drive, Distortion, Fuzz, Crusher, Phaser, Flanger, Env.Amp, Env.Filter, LPF, HPF, LPF/HPF, L Boost, H Boost, L/H Boost, SBF, Noise, Isolator, Transient, Transient2,

SCATTER (as one of Fill-In function)
Sample reverse
LFO – 1 LFO per kit with instrument settings of parameter and depth

Breaking down the new features

After some time with the machine, there’s a whole lot of different dimensions here that add up to a box you really want to use live.

Let’s not forget the reasons the TR-8 became a hit, shortcomings or no. It pretty well nailed widely-used 808 and 909 sounds and behaviors. But that alone wouldn’t be enough – to become a live gigging favorite, the TR-8 had to also add hands-on controls. And that seems to be why so many people adopted it. The faders alone make it instantly more appealing than a whole host of competing drum machines. It means you can actually play the thing, as if it’s an instrument. So any number of fancy, expensive drum machines are useless as live instruments if you’re navigating those features by diving through menus rather than playing them.

The problem with the original was, the box wasn’t much more than a nice interface to those sound models. Even adding 727 sounds was a paid add-on. And the available effects were limited. Plus there was the weird “scatter” function, which scrambled patterns rhythmic variations and effects in a way that seemed to cater to EDM fans, but afforded very little control. And let’s not get started on the toy-like green case and blinding lights.

The “S” revision does more than just address some shortcomings. It manages to present a much more capable device, all round.

More sounds. The TR-8S has a host of sounds included right out of the box: 808, 606, 909, 707, and (Latin!) 727. (Let’s assume they’re saving the Roland CR-78 for a small Boutique Series remake?) Roland also says these now incorporate new modeling tech running on a new processor, though I haven’t yet been able to evaluate how that compares to their other recent gear.

Note again that this means they’ve modeled the analog circuitry of their original analog drum machines, not simply included samples of the sounds those make. That’s the Analog Circuit Behavior (ACB) technology they like to tout.

The unique ploy here is being able to mix up that engine with other sample-based sounds, including your own.

Sample loading. That “S” in the name is obviously for sample playback. There are a bunch of new built-in samples, plus an SD card slot round the back of the unit. Load your own samples there, and adjust basic parameters (speed, start point, direction).

You can’t load big one-shots, so this is about custom kits, not playing stems or backing tracks. There’s no live sampling capability, either.

But you do get to build kits up from your own sounds or mix and match with the TR’s circuit models.

Smarter, more fluid rhythms and expression. The step sequencer is of course part of the draw of the TR line. But now you can break up some of the potential monotony of that interface. Sub-steps and fills let you program in more complex rhythms. (The original TR-8 let you do basic fills and variations, but now you can hit one button and program in exact sub-steps.)

You can also automate fills and variations. You can add 8 variations and chain up to 128 steps. (The previous model lacked chaining and additional variations.)

In addition to step-programming accent, you can also use a single, velocity-sensitive pad for adding more levels of velocity live. This isn’t an MPC by any means, but it fits the workflow of the Roland, while allowing more nuanced performances. You can add flam, too, via the step sequencer. And all of this is just as easy as toggling steps normally is – so complex rhythms become easily accessible.

This unassuming green pad lets you add velocity and not just push-button steps and accents.

The other reason all of this matters: think of the TR-8S as a powerful rhythm programmer. Because it has trigger outs, you can use this power with synths and other drum machines, not just the internal TR sound engine.

More patterns and automatic chaining mean the TR-8S lets you make more complicated rhythms – but while retaining the simplicity of the original. The same is true of adding subdivisions to a rhythm. Tap “sub” and you can add more complex rhythms on an individual step.

For automating variations, you can now use sophisticated fill controls.

Powerful effects. The first TR-8 had some basic effects, but the TR-8S has effects that work both on individual parts and on the master, with more complete control over each. There are independent stereo reverb and delay sends for each instrument.

You simply dial in the effect you want, and then it’s always there for use from the CTRL knob on each part.

Above those signature faders, a new third “control” knob is assignable and lets you tweak parameters and effects sends for each part.

Everything is tweakable. Each sound gets its own tune and decay parameter, plus an assignable controller (the additional knob) which you can use to gain access to more parameters or to the effects sends. This means you can take those TR sounds and warp them, or work with your own samples in new ways. And those three knobs let you shape sounds as you play.

You can also record motion automation and add it to patterns. That was definitely an oversight on the original TR-8, but now that it’s here, it pairs nicely with the new rhythmic features and assignable controllers.

Multichannel connections with gear and computers. Separate outputs – at last!

For use with gear, you get eight separate outputs, plus a stereo external audio input. This means you could trigger external gear, use external effects, add internal effects to external gear, and use external mixing and recording. (You don’t get melodic sequencing – you’ll have to do that externally – but the interface of the TR-8 isn’t really built around that anyway.)

Connect via USB, and you get not only MIDI I/O, but multichannel I/O with all those audio ports. You can use just a USB cable to connect to the Roland MX-1 mixer, too, via what they call AIRA Link. You can also even route round-trip to the TR-8S’ effects from a computer. (Why would you do that? Simple – still more controls, all in the same interface.)

Loads of I/O – input plus separate outputs/triggers. Connect to a computer, and all of this is also an audio/MIDI interface.

Flexible lighting. It’s not just the green trim that’s gone. The LEDs now seem designed for users and not just to look flashy in music retailers. So in addition to dimming the lights, you can set color and glow options to keep track of what you’re using.

What it’s like to use

The important thing to me about the TR-8S isn’t really its power on paper, but the fact that you get all of this as something you can play and improvise with.

There’s some light menu navigation required to get things working the way you want – deciding what the CTRL knob for each part does, adjusting a particular parameter, selecting your kit.

But then once that’s done, everything is accessible without menus or complexity of any kind, in a spacious, obvious control layout. That frees you up to focus on rhythm and sound, directly through physical interaction – not through a bunch of programming and editing.

I spent an afternoon with Nick de Friez from Roland here in Berlin, combining the TR-8S with a MakeNoise 0-Coast semi-modular synth and an original Roland SH-101. (A newer SH-01A would be an obvious substitute.)

We actually had two TR-8S units on hand, so … we used both of them.

And here’s some extended audio of the four instruments together. Some of those crazy sounds are the new effects on the TR-8S:

What I learned here was: this is a heck of a lot of pure, unadulterated fun. And it’s fun that’s uniquely easy to share with others, because the front panel is roomy and easy to understand.

I’ve also uploaded audio – not so much to try to document the sound of the box, so much as the expanded range of rhythms and sounds that come from its new functionality, and how freeing that might be in a real-world live improv.

Bottom Line?

Roland’s own moniker for the first TR-8 was “rhythm performer.” What’s cool about the TR-8S is that it actually delivers on that idea.

It was easy to see the first round of AIRA as just an inexpensive reboot of stuff from the past. But I think it’d be unfair to characterize the TR-8S that way. It now presents a really complete sequencing workflow, and a set of use cases for outboard gear (both analog and digital), and for combination with a computer.

Do you still need to be an 808/909/vintage Roland fan to apply? Yeah, probably. But that no longer has to be the end of the story.

What already promises to set the TR-8S apart is, it has an unparalleled amount of sequencing power right on the front power, coupled with those sounds.

Consider the main competitors in this price bracket. MFB’s boxes are cool, but they’re mainly about sound. Elektron’s Digitakt is cute and compact and powerful, but that power isn’t nearly as accessible under your fingertips – and it lacks separate outs for instruments and triggers. Arturia’s DrumBrute has full analog synthesis for each part coupled with dedicated controls specific to them, and 12 separate outputs. It’s arguably more focused as an instrument, to be sure – but it’s more limited in sound (synth only, no samples) and sequencing (roll your finger along a touch strip for live rolls, but none of the sub-step and more powerful variation and fill features of the TR-8S).

Here’s the funny thing: each of these boxes becomes a nice pairing with the TR-8S.

The first AIRA was middle-of-the-road thanks to a friendly interface and known sounds. But this one does that and then also can literally sit at the center of the other gear you might like to use. It removes the kind of limitations that might make you make boring sounds or boring music, but keeps the simplicity so that people can feel free to jam.

Really, if there’s anything bad to say about the TR-8S, it’s that Roland aren’t using their circuit modeling techniques to open up this box to new sounds. We have software with great drum synths (including recent releases of Ableton Live and Maschine), and new hardware with new synthesized drum (Moog DFAM, Arturia DrumBrute), and modular, and so on. And we have a ton of music that already uses those sounds. The absence of solo and undo – plus MIDI transmit options – cry out for a firmware update already, too.

But apart from those criticisms, everything about this box – the balance of the design, its capabilities – represents the best of what we’d hope for from Roland. And I think the combined utility of this box will make it wildly popular onstage.

Expect this to be one of the devices that helps lead the charge toward spreading more live sets.

There’s more to say about the specifics of how MIDI and performance options work (and some room for improvement in some of these details for future firmware updates). So expect more on this topic soon, plus some videos Roland is producing on how the gear is used.

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