A Bit On The Side
Bit 99 Polysynth
The very latest from Chase has a lot to live up to in following the Bit One synth and Bit 01 expander. Can it cut it? Tim Goodyer thinks it can.
The Bit One analogue polysynth was impressive enough, but now its facilities have been improved, and its price reduced dramatically.
First there was the Bit One, a fabulous-sounding analogue polysynth designed and made by a revitalised Crumar factory in Italy, and sold in the UK by an equally revitalised Chase music shop chain. Then there was the Bit 01, a 'Bit One in a rack' synth module that did without the dedicated instrument's keyboard but added a number of useful synthetic and MIDI facilities to the original spec.
Bearing that history in mind (it's all taken place in the last year, give or take), the Bit 99 can be viewed as a Bit 01 plus a five-octave C-to-C keyboard, and the performance controls relevant to use of the machine as an instrument in its own right.
Facility-wise, the 99 has two DCOs, a VCF, a VCA, two LFOs, velocity-sensitivity and an extensive implementation of MIDI. In other words, the Bit 99 is the best of the Bit One plus the best of the Bit 01, if you see what I mean.
Relative to what the original synth offered in the way of MIDI options (there weren't many), the 99 gives you a variety of choices regarding transmitting or suppressing pitchbend, modulation, release pedal information and program changes, as well as control over omni/poly modes, transmit and receive channels (1-16) and keyboard modes. These differ from what the expander can do, too, since seeing as it has no keyboard, it doesn't have much use for all those transmission facilities.
Looking briefly at the rear panel, we find separate Upper and Lower Outputs, a Phones socket (which mutes the main outputs when used), MIDI In, Out and Thru, Release and Program Advance footswitch jacks, Tape In and Out (on quarter-inch jacks) and a tuning pot effective over a total of two whole tones.
The two outputs output the same signal unless you enable the 99's Stereo facility, in which case upper and lower signals appear at the relevant output. Interesting, but a little disorientating, is the way the path of the synth's output alternates from left to right every three notes, if you're in Normal and Stereo modes at the same time.
Parameter control is accomplished in the now more than familiar manner of digital access. Depending on your point of view, you'll see this as either the most ergonomically elegant layout ever seen on a musical instrument, or the death of synthesiser programming as we know (knew?) it. The Bit 99 has incrementation and decrementation switches, and a pair of two-digit displays to show the parameter number under consideration and its current value simultaneously, which is more than you get from some. In fact, these displays are kept company by a further pair marked Upper Program and Lower Program. No prizes for guessing, then, that the Bit 99 works in the same normal, dual and split configurations as both its predecessors. And all these modes of operation are fully programmable, including the split point, which has to be good news for the performance-minded.
There are a total of 99 memory locations in all, which might give us some clue as to why the Bit 99 has the name it has. Of these, numbers 1 to 75 hold conventional patch information, while 76 to 99 hold split or layered arrangements of these patches. You needn't confine yourself to this internal memory, as a whole synth's worth of voices can be dumped to cassette tape at the flick of a couple of buttons; no such hi-tech luxuries as disk or cartridge storage here, I'm afraid.
The 99 has the same pitch and mod wheels that graced the Bit One, but sadly, these are in the same place they were on the earlier synth, too. Maybe I'm further down the evolutionary ladder than the design team at Crumar, but my fingers run in a vaguely straight line across the end of my hand, something that makes using such controls rather easy when they're placed side by side. Strange, then, that these same wheels are positioned one behind the other on the Bit 99.
Still on the subject of performance, the front panel is also possessed of a small rotary pot designated Keyboard Sensitivity; this allows you to set the sensitivity to suit your own touch and consequent control over oscillator pulse widths, LFO rates, filter envelope and attack and VCA attack and amount. This isn't in itself a programmable function, even though the limits within which it operates are.
One of the Bit 99's most useful features is program chaining. I know it's not unique to this synth, but the ability to string together up to three blocks of 33 programs and be able to step through them can be a real asset, especially during live performance.
Time to actually listen to the synth, I suppose. Again, the similarities to the 99's predecessors are inescapable. The pre-programmed sounds really don't do the instrument full justice, but that's hardly an unusual situation for a modern polysynth, in any price range. String sounds are rich and even richer when layered, percussion is clear and well-defined until you start getting into the realms of attempts at Simmons snares, organs are full and meaty, and there are even a few fashionably nasty piano sounds, too, so no worries there.
Unusually for what is basically an analogue synth, the Bit 99 is also capable of producing very bright, FM-like sounds, and as with everything else the synth can come up with, these can be beefed up nicely using the split/layer facilities.
Usually, 'performance' instruments sacrifice programming versatility in the interests of being easy to play, while those with complex synthetic possibilities are almost impossible to use live. The Bit 99 strikes a neat and very welcome balance between the two - and at its newly-reduced price, it makes some of the competition look very silly.
Review by Tim Goodyer
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