Vermona Retroverb Lancet

Much of the time, effects are sprinkled over the top of a song or recording that add depth, texture, or movement. On more seldom occasions, effects are used more like extensions of the instruments being played in order to reach the desired outcome. The latter is the case with the Retroverb Lancet.

This is a one-hundred-percent analog effects unit with a multi-mode filter (we are given the option of high, band, and low pass settings); a real spring reverberator (which can be set in the unit’s signal flow either before or after the filter; a low-frequency oscillator with a variety of modulation wave forms and routings; envelope generator; and a voltage controlled amplifier which can respond to the LFO or envelope generator, and can even be driven to distortion. Each of these functions seem a bit random to have been grafted together in one box, but in practice they work together to create some serious magic.

A few years ago I began doing sound design for a scary Halloween themed installation, and I experimented with recording found objects being struck and scraped by miscellaneous other found objects. This was taken a step further when I decided to loop these recordings into rhythmic patterns, and route them through the voltage-controlled filter on one of my analog synthesizers. That was great fun, but there were a few hiccups along the way: the MicroBrute has a 1/8th inch input socket for incoming audio, and in my experience those cords don’t last long before they start hissing. Also, the MicroBrute does not have a “gate latch” or similar function to let the envelope hang open, so a key must be depressed in order to hear the affected sound coming out the other side of the filter. I remedied this by strapping one of the keys down with a length of Scotch tape. Another issue was the fact that the amp in the MicroBrute does not sound good when it’s overdriven, which makes feeding external audio into it a laborious task of tweaking levels until everything sounds decent enough to record (forget live performance). None of these problems were major enough to dissuade me from using the MicroBrute as an effect; though the experience did get me thinking: what if I had an effect pedal that gave me the joyous sound of an analog filter, without the limitations and frustrations of being hard-wired to a budget keyboard? Thus, my quest began.

I did a hefty bit of internet research: watching demo videos and reading reviews of several of these “filter-in-a-stompbox” thingies, and I was dismayed by the number of “filter envelope” pedals in existence that force musicians to satisfy themselves with a semi-adjustable automatic “wah” effect. There were only a select few devices which provided the programmability that I craved. The cheapest one I came across was the Waldorf 2-Pole, though I much preferred the depth of a four-pole, Moog-style ladder filter. Not to mention, I never liked the look of those little plastic Waldorf boxes.  I waited. The Moogerfooger Ladder Filter was an obvious option, but I thought the omission of an LFO was a bit of a deal breaker. I finally discovered the Filter Lancet from Vermona, and, though it was the most expensive one apart from the possibly-overpowered Sherman Filterbank, I felt myself drawn to its compact, rugged look and smooth, juicy, Moog-like sound. I talked with some people who had used it, and they told me to spend the extra money and get the Retroverb: “It will change the way you write music”, they said. So, I did. And it did.

I had never really considered myself a spring-reverb-kind-of-guy, personally harboring a fondness for pristine digital reverb units like the Boss RV-2 or the Alesis Midiverb. However: I have been won over by the little metal springs inside the Retroverb. They sound fantastically gritty when cranked, and provide a subdued, roomy texture when used in moderation. The “tone” control gives us the option to roll off the top-end frequencies in a kind of basic high-pass filter, leaving behind a low rumble which can be a bit much if you’re cranking the resonance on the lowpass filter in conjuction with the “balls” knob being set past fifty percent. It would have been nice to see a simple “high” and “low” EQ section for the reverb letting us dial in the precise tone of the springs’ output pre-filter. Nevertheless, I find the spring reverb here to be wonderfully suited to giving a little headroom to damn near anything with a quarter-inch output (especially drum machines).

As stated before, the filter section is sweet and musical, with a real Moog-esque character. I assume this is the same filter present in the Mono Lancet (Vermona’s monophonic synthesizer desktop box), which I owned years ago and thoroughly enjoyed for the most part. Setting the resonance above fifty percent and sweeping the cutoff provides that “singing filter” phenomenon where it grabs on to frequencies in harmony with the frequency of the input audio. It is much more kind to the ears than the Steiner-Parker filter in the MicroBrute, which I believe is a twelve-decibel-per-octave design. It could have something to do with that; as far as I know, twenty-four-decibel-per-octave filter designs have a wider frequency range and must therefore have a “deeper” sound. Correct me if I’m wrong.

My final statement on the Retroverb Lancet is that it has transformed me from being the kind of person who prefers a pristine, clean sound to a person who thoroughly enjoys a saturated, grainy, overdriven, and slightly dirty sonic character. The amp sounds  great when driven to distortion; the reverb, despite its obvious limitations, provides a kind of physically aggressive reflection that could be described as intimidating, and even menacing at times. The Retroverb has absolutely changed my sound as I find myself using it on everything. It has a magical, gritty crunch that I simply cannot get enough of, as it has the uncanny ability to make polite electronic devices sound instantly “rock ‘n’ roll”, if you follow me.

 

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Yamaha AN1x

A while ago I posted a spreadsheet in which I converted my personal opinions toward several different synthesizer models into statistics. As the numbers make it easier to see where different synths triumph over others, and in what areas they fall short, it may be difficult to determine my emotional response to each one. I wanted to write a few paragraphs here to make it known that the Yamaha AN1x is my favorite synthesizer on that list, and in the lines below I will tell you why.

First it seems necessary to note that, in another life, I was an analog purist. I believed that there could be no purer a musical experience than placing my fingers on a vintage Moog and letting the thick, meaty, discreet circuits wash over me in all their juicy thickness. I still appreciate the immediacy of playing an analog instrument, but am now able to appreciate that “warm” and “cold”, “analog” and “digital” are not synonymous with “good” and “bad” respectively. Rather, they are different methods of creating an electronic sound, much of the time having vastly opposite sonic characteristics, though more often than expected the two overlap. Thus, I have been converted to another philosophy: “if it sounds good, use it”. I realized, through many YouTube videos and websites documenting the capabilities and personalities of various bits of electronic music-making gear, that digital equipment can offer musicians a broader palette of sonic possibilities, and, once this fact revealed itself to me (or when I was finally able to bury my emotions beneath a heaping pile of reason), I got excited.

My foray into digital synthesis began about five years ago, with acquisitions like the Alesis Ion, Korg DW-8000 (not strictly digital, but a hybrid with digital oscillators and analog filters), Roland JP-8000, and Yamaha DX-7. While I never fell completely in love with any of these instruments, I enjoyed the time I spent with each of them; they showed me that I had been missing out on a world (or perhaps several worlds) of sound that is not accessible to those whose feet are planted firmly in the analog camp. The Ion and the JP-8000 provided to me the joy of knob-per-function editing and lucid, modern sounds that my analog mono-synths were not capable of. The DW-8000 and DX-7, while offering up slightly infuriating user interfaces, gave me the ability to produce futuristic, otherworldly textures and wave-forms that, with no prior experience outside the analog world, were bizarre and wondrous to behold.

By way of synthesizer demonstrator / audiovisual master WC Olo Garb (otherwise known as “Jexus”) and his syntezatory.net.pl, I was then subjected to a 43-minute-long demo of a curiously angular, blue plastic synth from the 90s called the Yamaha AN1x. The sounds achieved by Garb were mind-numbing. I had never heard such things. Screams, shrieks and growls that were both hideous and beautiful. Cavernous howls, swarms of buzzing dissonance that were frightening yet mysterious and wonderful. I sat through every minute, and by the end of it, knew I had to have this instrument.

I bought one from someone on eBay later that week. When it arrived, I unpacked it, and took in the shameless mid-nineties design. It was tacky, and adorable. Though I felt a little lost during the first few moments spent clicking through patches, I could hear its character and sonic vitality shining through in even the most bland of its factory presets. The user interface is, admittedly, not the most immediate in the synth-world, but it isn’t cryptic, and I knew the initial stage of clumsiness would pass. Everything was clearly laid out, so I knew it would take only a bit of muscle memory kicking in to allow me to reach for things without thinking about them too long.  I would soon be able to create sounds without taking my head out of the space it needed to be in for fully-fledged sonic experimentation.

One of the first things I noticed about the AN1x (and how it sets itself apart from other virtual analog synthesizers) is the stability, strength, and clarity of its sound: there is scarcely a time when you will hear aliasing or glitching . To illustrate, I had the JP-8000 for a while and liked it for its strengths, but didn’t like that it wasn’t able to produce extreme modulations in a convincing way. If its LFO was set to modulate the filter cutoff, and subsequently had its depth and rate sliders pushed all the way up, one would be subjected to a garbled, static sound that didn’t remotely sound like filter modulation. That’s not unusual for a virtual analog synth from the nineties, but I am happy to report that the AN1x is happy to allow fast, extreme filter modulation (or any modulation) without any glitching. In fact, its LFOs can extend quite a ways into audio-rate territory, retaining a pleasant, musical quality all the while.

Weeks passed. I started to feel comfortable in the synth’s surprisingly shallow menu system. I learned how to do things like setting up the free envelope generator, which is more of an envelope-controlled phrase recorder that plays back parameter changes instead of notes. This free envelope can be set to “loop”, can be synced to MIDI clock, and can affect four parameters per patch. I also began to wrap my brain around the synth’s ability to “morph” between “scenes” (a “scene” is a patch. The AN1x allows two patches to be saved to each program, and selecting both “scenes” at once configures the mod wheel to act as a cross-fader between the two. You can get some interesting timbres by setting it somewhere in limbo between 1 and 2, though as the mod wheel has only 127 steps, sweeping between scenes results in some serious digital zippering). While I’m here: I feel compelled to make apparent that each of its controllers (eight knobs, pitch/mod wheels, ribbon, velocity, aftertouch) are limited to 127 values, meaning that there will be some audible stepping depending on what you have assigned a controller to affect. Setting a highly resonant filter to be swept by the mod wheel or ribbon will absolutely result in this, but setting that filter cutoff amount to the envelope or LFO will give you liquid-smooth modulation. You don’t always get everything you want with one synth.

Something that most people don’t know about the AN1x is that, while being primarily marketed as a “virtual analog” synth, it is also capable of some complex sounds not possible with its contemporaries. I recently made a patch that employs its “ring-mod” function with the two oscillators slightly de-tuned, and their “edge” parameters set quite low so that they sound like triangle waves with an ever-so-subtle top-end sizzle. The patch has that recognizable “de-tuned oscillator beating”, but the ring mod transforms it from something subtle into a pulsating, rhythmic, breaking-apart texture that could be a kind of organic, alien instrument. Features on the synth that lend it programming deeper sounds like this include that “ring modulator”, which is more similar to oscillator cross-modulation in practice; control over an oscillator parameter called “edge”, which is a kind of wave-shaping tool something like what can be found on Casio’s CZ line of phase distortion synthesizers; oscillator sync, which isn’t that unheard of in other virtual analog synths, but opens up quite a few more doors when used in tandem with the last feature I’ll mention here: FM.

FM, or “frequency modulation” is the result of one oscillator modulating another. This can be compared to the basic synthesis technique of applying LFO modulation to an oscillator to create a vibrato effect. This is different from what is widely thought of as FM in that an LFO (which stands for Low Frequency Oscillator) typically cannot be taken into audible frequencies, or be scaled to a keyboard. FM is typically used to generate tonal harmonics that are not already present in the base waveform (early commercial FM synthesizers usually offered sine waves, but modern ones [including the AN1x] allow users to apply saw or square-shaped frequency modulations to saw or square-shaped oscillators). An FM synthesizer features what are called, in FM terminology, “operators”. An operator is synonymous with “voice”: it is essentially an oscillator paired with a set of multi-stage envelopes to control the amplitude and frequency of the oscillator. These “operators” are routed through each other or fed back into themselves in a series of algorithms that can be chosen by the user; each operator acting as either a “modulator” (modulating another operator) or a “carrier” (an audio oscillator). The quintessential FM synthesizer is the Yamaha DX-7, which offers six operators and thirty-two algorithms for routing these operators in different configurations to achieve a wide variety of sounds. The AN1x’s FM implementation offers four algorithms, and only two operators. However, its FM functionality can be used alongside oscillator sync and ring modulation to produce some truly otherworldly sounds that eluded me during my time with the DX-7.

Being the synthesizer freak that I am, something that is difficult to avoid doing is comparing different models with one another to see how they stack up against each other: which one excels at punchy bass lines; which one can produce the juiciest electronic fart sounds; which one is best for creating sublime, abstract textures. In fact, I might say that watching videos of people demonstrating various models and comparing them has become something of an addiction for me (I’m certain there is a support group for this). Because of my addiction, it had become customary for me to keep a synth long enough for me to record a few pieces of music with it, and then sell it when I found something that was more exotic, or would be better suited for whatever task or sound I thought was important at the time. The AN1x seems to have cured me of this illness. I have created hundreds of patches, recorded many pieces of music with the AN1x, and it still feels like there are mountains of possibilities hidden inside, waiting to be discovered.

A year has passed since I bought the AN1x; I have been utterly satisfied by my interactions with it, and that feeling has not subsided over time. In his review of the synth, Jexus said that the AN1x has a “sublime” sound; I cannot think of a better word to describe its sonic character. It is difficult to make the synth sound unpleasant: even if you don’t know what you’re doing and accidentally stumble into some kind of atonal, cacophonous sound, it still has this interesting, mysteriously cool vibe emanating from its stereo line outputs. To be sure, there is an X-factor behind the scenes doing something intangible yet all-encompassing to the sound, giving the AN1x a voice and character that are entirely its own. It has opened my heart and mind to another breed of synthesis, and presented to me an open door through which many sounds are now possible which were previously not, due to my own unwillingness to embrace a digital machine. I will always hold the thick, meaty textures of voltage controlled oscillators close to my heart, but that love has been asked to move aside to make room for another.

This is the video that sparked my lust for this synthesizer: