Gear Description & Review, Nov 2017

I have a lot of gear configured in a very specific setup that has been that way for going on 2 years now. We can call this "configuration 2". Before configuration 2, I used a Kaoss Pad KP3+, plus the MS-20 and the ESX1 sampler for the setup, this I eventually found limiting because of the sequencing capabilities of the sampler. You can arrange songs and record effect sequences, but triggering chords on the synth is very limited, and getting seamless looping of chords for sampled pads is nigh-on impossible using the ESX1.

The current setup is:

  • Output: Behringer Xenyx ZB319 mixer
  • Path 1: Juno 106 → Eventide Space → mixer ch1
  • Path 2: MS-20 mini → Tonebone Hot British tube distortion → Moog Clusterflux → mixer ch2
  • Path 3: Nord Lead → Mojo Hand Colossus fuzz → Strymon Timeline → mixer ch3
  • Path 4: Korg ESX1 with replacement JJ ECC803 vacuum tubes (IIRC)

All driven by Sequentix Cirklon. Space & Timeline have MIDI inputs which can be driven from the Cirklon as well. The ESX1 has an audio in port which enables its use as an effects unit. It can receive a pre-mixed copy and apply effects using the Audio In part on the step sequencer. (Although this can easily create a feedback loop, leading to some fairly painful squealing.)

All gear is plugged into surge protected adapters and uses shielded cables for connection, this is key, a lot of noise happened before I did this. It's worth noting that there's still a lot of noise with this setup.

  1. The MS-20 is noisy, not insanely so, but noticably.
  2. The Juno chorus is noisy. The rest is fine.
  3. The Tonebone & Colossus are insanely noisy, but you'd expect that given that they are fuzz pedals.
  4. The ESX1 is noisy (although less noisy than before the tube replacement.)

The expensive pedals, Space, Timeline and Clusterflux are very clean-sounding.

Path 1: 106 → Space

The Space is a bit of an enigma. It seems to be capable of a huge variety of sounds, but it's a pain in the arse to use. The BlackHole and Shimmer algorithms sounds huge and are perfect for the type of music that I do. ModEchoVerb is also extremely useful. The trouble is that I tend to use the 106 for pad sounds and in this case the 106's legendary chorus is somewhat disrupted by the Space. It's difficult to get sounds that are "in the middle": either the effects from the Space are barely noticable (although I don't use headphones), or they are completely swamping the character of the input (for instance, when using Shimmer and BlackHole, the 106's setting is nigh-on irrelevant).

I am speculating on moving the Space to MS-20.

Path 2: MS-20 → Hot British → Clusterflux

The original goal of this setup was because I know from experience that the MS-20 excels at raw and cutting sounds, it's quite an aggressive sounding synth. The Hot British combination is definitely great, to be honest it would probably sound great through nearly any distortion, so I'm not totally sure that this is taking advantage of the high-end quality of the HB. And because the MS-20 is a monosynth I tend to use it less -- given that this is basically an amp in a box, as I understand it, it would probably be more suited to a polysynth, where you can imagine dialing in giant stoner chords. Regardless, if you feed an arpeggio into the MS-20 and crank the resonance/cutoff you're in acid heaven. I might replace it with some type of MIDI-controllable distortion. What I really want for this is a really quiet digital distortion (or a noise gate, I guess).

The ClusterFlux -- I just don't get on with it, I'm not sure why, because I love chorus and phasing. It would be very neat for some nice phased acid lead, but I don't find that it gives that much use for what I do. It does give a fatter chorus sounds that goes nicely with the MS-20's dual-VCO mode (one of the most notorious "basic settings" I've heard). The phasing sounds really great but I hardly ever use it. It's just too extreme a sound.

Incidentally I've found that the best route with the MS-20 is to take the time initially to find a nice sound and design the rest of the piece around it. It doesn't work very well the other way around. It's very difficult to find a matching sound to an existing composition. You don't even need to use it for melody, what can be nice is to just design little "hits" and articulations on the beat.

Path 3: Nord → Colossus → Timeline

This works the best out of the paths. The Nord is designed for leads, hence the name and is a treble-heavy synth. The Colossus transforms everything into trancy acid and the Timeline -- well, I barely know how to program the Timeline, I just use presets and they sound gorgeous. Some of the Timeline's presets are a touch subtle, you need to have "space" in the sound to be able to detect them. Just the initial preset, Melt Away, will blow you away when you hear it, it makes everything sound gorgeous. All the other presets sound gorgeous and there's a looping feature which I never use but it's nice to know it's there. Basically everything that comes out of this path sounds good. The Colossus is pretty tweakable as well -- perhaps a more restricted range of tones than the HB but a much more practical range.

Future directions: I'd like to integrate the KP3 back into the setup. The ESX1 I'd like to replace with another, more basic sampler -- it's got too much functionality for what I use it for now. Search for "super basic sampler" for some suggestions. Reverb and delay on drums can sound nice, but I don't want to use the Eventide for those moments. I think the reverb could sound good on the MS-20. The problem with the MS-20 is that the sound can be a little bit sparse. I also want to replace the MS-20 with a module. But the distorted MS-20 is a key sound so maybe put a nova drive on there? And put the Hot British onto the 106. This can sharpen up the tones of the 106 and stop it sounding so 80s. Plus we can get a low level output signal from the 106 to stop the HB blowing up.

The Clusterflux -- well, the 106 doesn't need it. The MS-20 wouldn't need it after you added the Space. All in all I may just sell it. Possibly if I saved some space I could add another synth and put it through that -- that would be a Waldorf FM synth -- but then we are starting to run out of connections for the Cirklon. I'd say that the Clusterflux is focused on a sort of guitar-specific sound, a kind of funky syncopated sound which we don't really use with the MS-20. It probably sounds better on something that's being played "live", where you're manually varying the note gate times to sync with the FX. I also want to replace the 106 with a 106 module and the MS-20 with an MS-20 module. I rarely play the MS-20 keyboard because the keyboard is too small. Full size keyboards are quite underrated. But it is kind of useful having two keyboards when you are working with someone else. Probably it's worth trying the Clusterflux on both the 106 and the Lead to see what sounds better.