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Jack Hertz

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Synthesizer Reviews posted by Jack Hertz


  1. The K3 is a quirky beast of a synth. It has one of the fattest sounds I have ever heard from an Additive synthesizer. Unforuntately, this creates a lot problems with low end sounds that tend to overdrive the outputs. Additionally, the velocity response and aftertouch are simply horrible. 


  2. The Chroma is as a good as it gets for an analog poly synth. What is doesn't have in synth power, compared to the Matrix 12, it has in sound. To my ears. it is the most responsive and good sounding analog I have ever heard. It will eat your entire mix without remorse. The leads and bass will take out a monitor if you're not careful. At 200+ lbs in the case, this old timer won't be leaving the studio.


  3. When AVID's M-Audio group announced they were releasing a synthesizer. It was met with confusion and skepticism. The makers of pro-recording gear getting into the hardware synthesizer game left everything to be imagined. Slowly the name, details and price of a VA synth engine were revealed. 

    It was at NAMM 2011 that we got to see and hear what the Venom was all about. Venom had a lot of support at NAMM from the designers and artists like the Crystal Method who were there in-person to promote what turned out to be a serious bit of gear with 3 oscillators, real-time control and multi-timberal ability. Making the Venom, arguably, one of the most popular Synths at NAMM this year. Is their first hardware synth up to snuff? M-Audio sent me this Venom to review. So join me as I walk through what this little beast can do and not.

    Virtual Analog

    Billed as a Virtual Analog, the traditional aspects of the synth lay in Venom's subtractive synth engine. It features the customary array of oscillators, filters and amps that generate the sounds with software modeled circuits instead of real ones. Comparisons to an Analog depart from there. Beginning with the look of this machine. The smoothly molded off-white case with orange lettering and a day-glo green LCD is different to say the least. Nothing retro about this puppy. Indeed, as Ken Scott said at NAMM, "It looks like a Storm Trooper." The all plastic case is extremely light weight and incredibly sturdy too. The color annoyed me at first, but it has grown on me. More on that later.

    Performance Gear

    There's much debate over hardware versus software these days. The venom is both and a good bit more with a USB audio interface, MIDI interface and a mixer with stereo RCA and 1/4 inch mic and instrument inputs. All of which are accessible and configurable via the Vyzex editing software.

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    Perform it does. I had the Venom out of the box and was jamming on it inside of 15 minutes. The knobs and buttons are laid out in such a fashion that I could figure out my way around without reading the manual. The modulation knobs seemed scant at first, but I soon found the page access to be quick and easy to use. With 512 single patches and 256 multi-voice patches to choose from. I dialed up a preset with some really nice scratchy drums and big wobbling bass. Using the handy latch option on the Arp. My hands were freed up to press one of the 4 element buttons that will edit that part of the multi-voice in real time. Modding the filters, oscillators and effects was seamless and hiccup free. I then pulled out the iPhone and plugged it into the RCA jacks. The input's audio signal came up in the mix without having to turn anything on. Using the dedicated gain knob to set the level just right, I got to jamming along on the Moog Filtatron app without cracking the Venom manual.

    The Synthesizer

    As mentioned, the Venom is a subtractive synthesizer that utilizes an array of three oscillators to produce sounds that are then shaped by filters, LFOs, envelopes, modulation routing and effect. Pretty straight forwards stuff. The Venom really differentiates itself as synthesizer in their selection of waveforms, filter and modulation routing that I will examine individually below.

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    Waveforms

    The Venom is a completely new engine designed by M-Audio for making a lot of different sounds. The sounds range from the standard German school fare to more contemporary techno and even noise type sounds. This VA has been spiced up with quite a bit of edge giving it a unique feel that that also makes it easy to create glitchy and percussive sounds with the 41 oscillator waves and 53 drum sounds you have available.

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    Starting with the traditional sine, square, triangle and saw they continue with a pretty diverse selection of waves that include drum sounds and samples from other classic synths. When they say classic sounds. These are indeed classic down to the subtle nuances between the square waves. Comparing the MG (Moog), OB (Oberheim) and SH (Roland) waves shows some subtle but definite differences. A slight shift in the wave or accentuated harmonics shows that not all waves are created equal.

    I don't have the experience to vouch for how well they captured the character of the classic hardware. But, I do appreciate being able to access them specifically by brand as well as mix them together. Surely, the community at large will assess how well M-Audio has done their wave homework.

    The future is not lost on the Venom. If you're looking for something to grind your synth ax, create brash analog drums or venture into dark ambient techno grooves. The Venom is ready to rumble. Don't let the color fool you. Living up to it's name, hissing poisonous sounds are this creature's forte. Even with the stock patches. I found it effortless to dial up some percussive grooves, overdrive the filters, and pump the FX for endless variations on dark dank beats and bass lines.

    Capable of replicating classic sounds, Venom shows its fangs on hard bass lines with modulated analog drum tracks. What used to require me processing the hell out of a synth with delay, compression and distortion is all in there. This is clearly intentional with selection of wave forms such as RP Zap 4 and AL FM Inharmonic that make it simple to dial up a nice grinding sounds in seconds by simply switching the waveforms. Another trick Venom lets you do is replace a Wavefrom with a sample. In this way, a sample can be tuned up or down to create a niecly chaotic harmonic mix. The osc sample wave can also be used as a modulation source. Tuning the OSC very low will make it act like an LFO. Tuning it very high will drive the destination more like an oscillator.

    Low Frequency Oscillators

    If you like LFOs, Venom does not dissappoint with three of them. Four if you count the dedicated AMP modulator. Each one's got your choice of the classic geometric options as well as some more obscure shapes with three different sample and holds, exponential and logrithmic squares and saws too. Great stuff for making amporhous kinds of sounds and effects. Each of the LFOs can be tempo driven with it's own tap button. LFOs 1 and 2 have extensive paratmeters to control rate, depth, attach and start phase. The AMP LFO is setup to create temolo and auto panning effects.

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    Filters

    The Venom features a multi-mode filter with 2-pole 12dB and 4-pole 24 dB options for each of the Low Pass, Hi Pass and Band Pass filter modes. Access to the frequency and resonance controls are always there via the hardware controller knobs. Behind the scenes, there's additional control options you can patch into via modulation routing. I cannot put my finger on it, but the Venom filter has a different sound that is more digital than analog sounding to me. The filter frequency that sweeps with 1024 increments, makes for smooth filter changes on the fly. However, the low-end seems to flatten out as you dial it down. Where I am used to getting heavy woofer flexing bass. The Venom seems challenged to reproduce really thick sounds. The resonance parameter was also a bit mysterious for me as it seemed to lack dynamic range. Either it would not oscillate enough or too much with little room in-between. I found playing around the with Mod levels helped somewhat.

    Modulation Matrix

    The Venom serves up a hearty number of options for modulating the synthesizer with up to sixteen modulation patches. Each patch includes a source, modulation amount and destination. Source elements can chose between any of the 3 envelopes, 3 LFOs with polar and fine / wide options, velocity, key track, pitch bend, channel touch, expression, sustain and mod wheel. Many with positive (+) and negative (-) modulation choices which allow patches to remove modulation as well as add it.

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    For destinations you can choose between Filter Cutoff, Pitch, Osc 1 Pitch, Osc 2 Pitch, Osc 3 Pitch, Amplitude, Filter Resonance, Ring Mod, External Input Level, FM Amount, Osc 1 Waveshaper, LFO 1 Rate, LFO 2 Rate, Osc Detune, Osc 1 Level, Osc 2 Level, and Osc 3 Level. With this many sources and destinations, you can see and hear how the Venom synth is able to produce highly active sounds that morph and evolve over time. In this regard, the matrix is quite effective for turning an arppegiated chord into a warped grinding bass sound or generate some evolving industrial synth percussion. This also applies nicely to pad type sounds when that ever evolving effect is desired. One thing that is really sweet is the inclusion of the External Input Level as a modulation destination. This lets you modulate the audio inputs with an envelope, LFO or any of the other sources.

    Effects Processing

    The Venom includes some pretty serious on-board effects processing with two separate effect global effects buses that can configure run two processors at once. On the Aux FX 1 bus, choose between Plate Reverb, Room Reverb, Hall Reverb, Mono Echo, Stereo Echo, Mono 3/4 Echo, Stereo 3/4 Echo, Mono 4/4 Echo, Stereo 4/4 Echo, Mono Triplet, Stereo Triplet, Long Mono Delay, and Long Ping Pong Delay to use. The Aux FX 2 bus allows you two choose from the following Chorus, Flanger, Phaser or Delay. There is plenty of variety here between reverbs and delay effects. The delays are also enabled with extensive tempo sync options. They can be locked at various time signatures, set by tapping a tempo or switched to manual data entry with a range of 0 to 127, it is not entirely clear how many seconds of delay are available.

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    Additionally, each Venom patch can be processed using the local inserts that can assign any one of the EQ Bandpass, Compressor, Auto Wah, Distortion, or Reducer effects. Each effect has a fairly detailed set of controls for tweaking it to your needs. For example, envelop controls are available for the compression and auto wah effects. As well as depth and and frequency parameters for bandpass, distortion and reducer processing.

    To top it all off the Venom also includes a 3-band parametric equalizer that is applied to the master section. You can boost or cut 12 dB between 20 Hz and 1 kHz for the low band, 300 Hz to 10 kHz for the mid band and 500 Hz–10 kHz at the high band. Very handy stuff for keeping the final mix in control.

    Arps and Patterns

    The Venom's arpeggiator is decent, offering the classic up and down functions as well as some interesting options. There is a Standard Mode that works like you might expect. Holding one or more notes will cycles arpeggiated up, down, up and down, down and up, or played as a repeated chord at the rate of the current tempo setting. The Phrase Mode allows you to play and transpose one of a collection of pre-set phrase patterns. Third Arp option is a Drum Mode that appears to be the Phrase Mode applied to the drum kits patches for triggering any of 51 pre-set patterns.

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    Sadly the pre-set patterns cannot be altered. The editor pattern page does have a section blocked out that says "RESEVED FOR FUTURE EXPANSION" that I hope and suspect will be a pattern editor. There are two buttons dedicated to the Arp control. One to turn the pattern on and off. This button also works with in combination with the tempo button as a latch when both are pressed at the same time. The Venom Arps will also send the pattern notes to the MIDI OUT port. You will need the Venom Editor Software to change it via in the MIDI section of the Global Settings Page.

    pattern.jpg

    Controller and MIDI

    As mentioned earlier in the review, I would come back to the Venom's color. Let me be candid here. M-Audio choice of colors is different with a vengeance. In fact, I hated it at first. However as I got to know the Venom. I found the look suits it's character well. The all plastic case is super light and feels quite sturdy. As a controller. The Venom was not designed to replace your master keyboard. The smaller format favors portability with easy access to the most essential performance elements. With keyboard, internal synth engine, interface, mixer, MIDI and USB. Venom offers most everything you need in one box by limiting the controller to just the essentials.

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    The keyboard sadly is probably one of the more lacking aspects of the Venom. While the keys are solid and hold up well under the hard banging I had to inflict on them to get some response. I felt there was kind of stiffness to the velocity response. If not what felt like just a bit of latency. Lead sounds were not as snappy and responsive as I wanted them to be. Feeling more like an older analog than I wanted it to. The pitch and modulation wheels are also smaller than I am used to. This generally didn’t both me, but on occasion I found it hard to move the mod wheel as gradually as I would have liked to due to the smaller radius of the wheel.

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    The Venom's knobs are also something else. They appear to be have some sort of acceleration sensing built into them that can sense how fast you are turning them. Changing the data values, Venom increments in small steps when you move the knob slowly. Conversely, moving the knob faster will step across more data in the same distance. This feature seemed a bit wonky at first, but it was really quite handy once I got the hang of it. Allowing me to skip to values I wanted to hit up or down with fewer turns.

    Inputs and Outputs

    Initially, I thought the audio inputs were a redundant when I already have an interface for my DAW. Later, I found them quite nice for inserting another synth or my iPhone to process and play along with the Venom. Features like the tap tempo button make it easy to get Venom playing along with other devices.

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    There are four audio inputs set up as three sources. A pair of RCA jacks set up at the Aux inputs. A 1/4 inch input labeled for instruments. A second 1/4 inch input labeled for microphone. The pre-amps on these inputs are pretty good actually. I noticed right off that the iPhone and my MFOS synth had a nice hot signal that match -10db line levels better than my DAW's interface. You also get a MIDI IN and OUT port for direct connections to other MIDI devices. It is worth noting that MIDI data is sent over the USB connection as well. So I was able to use the keyboard and arpeggiator to drive other synths in my rack via my MOTU MIDI router.

    Vyzex Venom Editor

    By now, you'll have looked many Venom editor screens in this review. If you have not gathered already. Most of the Venom’s features are accessible only with the Vyzex editor that needs to be run over USB connection from your Mac or PC. I am a big fan of this combination. Editing patches is a breeze with everything on the screen. Changes to the interface echo to the keyboard so you can hear what you are changing in real time. It is also easy to manage and organize the 100s patches you can store. There's even a handy MIDI activity monitor for helping you set up continuous controllers and other stuff.

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    However, what has been most annoying is the Vyzex editor application itself. I had quite a bit of trouble getting it to work. After a full install of the USB driver and Editor software I would get repeated errors of various sorts. Missing default files and worst of all was a blue screen level operating system crash. That happened a few times before I hit the support pages. Finally, after a reloading of all the applications and a performing a factory reset of the Venom hardware. I was able to get rid of the blue screen crashes. However, the warnings about default files no found at start up cannot be resolved with no manner of saving or file renaming I have tried. Not the end of the world.

    Overall

    The Venom is a great little synthesizer. It is a mistake to try to compare this to other BIG keyboards because that is not what this creature is all about. What you get is all the the essentials of hardware and software in a portable package at a super affordable price. I did some price checking and it seems AVID have even under cut themselves. The Venom is selling for $499 MSRP compared with their 49-key Axiom controllers at $439 MSRP for the Mk I and $599 MSRP for the PRO version. That's not a big price difference for such a huge difference in functionality.

    Like with any synthesizer, the style of music you are making determines how you will like the Venom's sound. The Venom may not work for all styles of music. Especially those where highly sensitive real instrument type sounds are desired. Likewise, you're not going to replace your ARP 2600 with a Venom. For those looking for a different set of colors to add to their sound pallet the Venom may fit right in.

    The Good

    As I just pointed out. The price of the Venom is just unbeatable. The only thing that comes close to the features and functions at this level is the Ultra Nova that sells for $699 MSRP. I also really like Venom synth engine. A gnarly little beast that has a character all its own. Creating dark drones and grainy industrial beats is the Venom’s forte. The audio inputs turned out to be feature I didn’t know I wanted. Plugging stuff in with the on-board mixer makes it easy to bring other sounds into the Venom.

    The Bad

    Ironically, as much as I like the synthesizer. There's some aspects of the synth's character such as the weak sounding bottom end and resonance that makes the Venom sound a bit on thin side. Even in multi-mode with up to four sounds going at once. The Venom has a compact sound that may not be good enough for the production of entire tracks. Depending on your style of music, this may be a good or a bad thing. The spongy keyboard also takes points off this synth's otherwise great offering.

    Check out the official M-Audio Venom product page for all the details and updates on the synthesizer at http://www.m-audio.com/products/en_us/Venom.html


  4. Make Noise say they called it the "No-Coast" because it is supposedly neither East or West. The truth is, this is totally a West Coast synth. Exactly why I love it so much. That said, this little synth has a rich, fast sound that I just love. Lots of character with bright highs and thick low-end. The small case that is packed with controls to encourage creativity. Is somewhat complicated with normalized and patched routing. It actually has an extremely versatile interface that talks well in MIDI and CV with other gears.


  5. I love this synth. Those who are familiar with PD, Nord Modulars, and any number of digital modulars, will be up and patching in just 10 minutes.

    Don't be fooled by that little board. It has been very well thought out with many of the things people have wanted in a DSP hardware synthesizer. While a circuit board seems a bit cumbersome, it has allowed the designer, Johannes Taelman, to focus on functionality and development of the Core system, while leaving choices for DIY and or aftermarket cases to the community and its users. In this regard, Axoloti has done a great job of using the open source model to create something that truly is by everyone, for everyone, and at a low price. This never happens, thus I have given the Axoloti the coveted 5th star for doing it right.

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    The Axoloti is especially nice with the MusicThing case and controller kit now available. The easy to assemble kit, transforms your naked Axoloti board into the most delicious little sound sandwich you ever heard. The very clever design takes advantage of the harness on the PCB to add real controls including: 5 knobs, 3 buttons, and a tiny joystick. All on the same footprint as the Axoloti board. The nicely priced kit is about $60 USD without board, $120 with (when in stock), shipped.

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    The board features an amazing number of module choices, that needs some knowledge of modular synthesis and working with summed modulation routing. The Patcher has no normalization, not a bad thing. You will need to work in some gain stage controls and filtering of modulation lines as things can easily go out of bounds.

    The Patcher environment shown below demonstrates the Axoloti can be used for some very large patches. There are all the traditional modules like Oscillators, Envelopes, Filters, LFOs, Mixers and Sequencers. Some in different types, such as stepped and matrix sequencers. Additionally, the Patcher includes logic Tables modeled on PD, as well as Math functions for comparisons and decision making.

    What's even more interesting, is the ability to call other Patches as objects from within a patch. This is an extremely powerful feature that enables the sound maker to build a library of objects they can continue to work on and improve, without having to rebuild the old patches. This option also opens an opportunity for people to share objects as well as patches with each other.

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    With so much on hand, there is the opportunity here to create whatever you need in a synthesizer. In the digital realm, when you need one more OSC or other module to do things one better, it is always there for you to add. Within reason, of course. Already, there is a generous library of patches available including ARP 2600 emulations, FM synthesizers, MIDI Sequencers, Poly Synths, Drum Machines, Digital Effects, and you name it. That is the whole idea of the Axoloti.

    One of the features that is easy to overlook are the physical MIDI IN and OUT ports. This effectively offers a full modular MIDI environment that should be able to talk with anything that has a MIDI port. With this, we can go wild with all manner of sequencers, random data generators, and generative patches that can send note, velocity, aftertouch, pitchbend and even dynamic patch changes, with a bit of ingenuity.

    How does it sound? With 24-bit audio, in and out. This is a great sounding full spectrum audio synthesizer. It can create lush pads, horrific noise and everything in-between. As mentioned before, the lack of normalization between modules means you can take things to the extreme, if you want to. Still, the Axoloti is reference quality for working with FM and things that need precision. Using the Patcher for downloading sounds to the synth can be a little tricky, but it works with practice. With a MicroSD for storage, you can load 1000s of patches and even stream audio files from a card as large 64 GB, for nearly infinite storage.

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    For the €65 / $70 USD price, this is an amazing bargain for a super-powerful self-contained synthesizer - Even with having to make your own case. Which, is not so hard to do via a generous harness ready to connect knobs, buttons, and anything else you can dream of. Don't be afraid of the board, get the MusicThing kit or roll your own.

    Those looking for an affordable modular system, the ability to work with huge patches, a core system to design a custom synth, or a way to experiment with sound design and MIDI, will find the Axoloti Core to be a great starting point to realize their ideas.


  6. Hands Down, is the best bang for your buck synthesizer. A great engine, with serious power and expanded performance options. A few of them used together could be dangerous. I gave mine up when I started using the Nord Modulars, but really miss it, especially for live jams.

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