As promised in last month's ish, we've laid our mitts on one of the new Crumar Spirit mono synths, and already it's a different story. The British distributors of this keyboard, spawned in the land of spaghetti and hair oil, have knocked a ton off the recommended retail price, so it's now £399 instead of £499.
If you're used to gazing at Moogs, Pro-Ones and Rolands, one of your first thoughts with the Spirit is likely to be, where the hell do I start? It's outwardly far more complex than, say, an SH101 — of course that may not necessarily mean it sounds better. The lug'ole — as Confucius once said — cares not for knobs... or something like that.
Let's first attend to the 36 keys (3 octaves C to C), 10 rocker switches, 15 sliders, three modulation wheels and 24 knobs. No, on second thoughts, let's gander at the cardboard box they come in. Because inside not only do you find a black and grey Spirit held together by classy pine woodwork, but a zip-up plastic carrying case as part of the deal. A favourable start in anyone's diary.
The Spirit is a two oscillator synth (VCOs, not the increasingly popular DCOs), and both feature triangle, ramp and square waveforms. Many synths have a second control that allows you to vary the pulse width of the square wave, alternatively known as the mark/space ratio. Depending on how much of the square wave is up (mark) and how much down (space), there'll be a difference in tone. A 50/50 mark space will sound fat and flutey; a 10/90 ratio (or for that matter, a 90/10), will be thin and hollow (useful for Clav settings). The Spirit lacks this control, but does have preset ratios as click stops on the waveform pot — 50, 30, 15 and six for osc A — 40, 20, 10 and three for osc B.
A master octave control chooses 32, 16, eight or four footages for both VCOs, and oscillator B can be separate from oscillator A via a switch that sends it down an octave, up an octave and up two octaves. A fine tune allows interval or off-centre tuning for beating effects.
So far so good. The envelope generator provides a hint of the complexities to come — not one ADSR unit, but two for the filter and the loudness. This always gives rise to more sound textures, and is a worthwhile addition.
At the filter stage it looks as if the circuits have been breeding. It's divided into two levels upper and lower. The upper is what you'd normally expect, with a set of resonance and cut-off controls.
As a bonus, you can convert it from band pass to low pass, and from 12dB per octave to 24dB. A band pass filter allows through only a narrow range of frequencies, but it moves that 'band' up and down the scale, producing the classic 'wang' sound. A low pass variety just allows through all the lower frequencies. The dB scale is a measure of how strongly the filter affects the signal.
The other half of the Spirit's tone shaper can be switched to high pass (only transmitting the upper frequencies), band pass, overdrive, or be switched out altogether.
The net result of this two tier attack is gluttony for the ears. It produces many, many different varieties of 'wang' — mellow ones, sharp ones, fizzy ones, ones that sound like you're running your fingers down the teeth of a comb. You're almost spoilt for choice.
At this point, we sail into the zone of personal preference, which is always dodgy ground in music, since one man's bass line can be another man's disaster area. I've never liked high pass filters, or double filter systems. They remind me of the original, all plastic Wasp synth, which had two or three good basic tones, and the rest were thin, whiney and fully lived up to the irritating buzz of their namesake.
Of course, I can't criticise variety, and the scope of the Spirit is excellent. But if you prefer basic, full bodied and traditional synth sounds, then the Crumar actually handles those no better than some synths half the price.
When we get to the modulation section, the Crumar finally overdoses. The potential here is enormous. Essentially, there are two LFO departments. Mod X includes triangle, square and sample and hold waveforms, and takes a modulation source signal from oscillator B, red noise (a heavily filtered white noises source) and the second mod section, Shaper Y.
Shaper Y has a more simple LFO which can be swept in profile from ramp to inverted ramp, passing through triangle on the way. It will trigger in one of three ways — like a normal LFO in a continuing cycle, or it will rise to the top of its sweep and stay there not moving until you take your finger off the key. Alternatively, it will run through the up-down cycle once, then stay put until you push a new key and repeat the process.
Mod X can be directed to the pitch of oscillator A; oscillators A and B, oscillator A pulse width, the upper and lower filters or just the upper filter. Shaper Y can find its way to the pitch of oscillator B, oscillators A and B, oscillator A pusle width, the LFO rate, or the lower filter only.
The depth of each mod department is determined by two, smooth black wheels to the left of the keys, next to the centre-clicked pitch bend and below the controls for the portamento.
Just a few examples of the effectiveness of this set up would be — different speeds for pusle width modulation on each of the oscillators, plus a slight detuning between the two (a massive, chorusey effect); vibrato depth of Mod X introduced, controlled, then faded by shaper Y plus growling sync effects still with vibrato and a few other hesitant lurches thrown in.
And Mod X also incorporates an arpeggiator. Since it's independent, that means you can arpeggiate your pulse width or vibrato sounds, and not have to sacrifice them because there's only one LFO on board — as on an SH101.
Add to that a ring mod (though not, it's true, a very effective one), a noise source, a drone option on oscillator B, the choice of single or multiple triggering for the filter and a comprehensive section of sliders for the audio mixer, and you'll see that 'well equipped' is hardly the phrase.
The only major disappointment is the Spirit's envelope generators. I found these very touchy. They were either off completely, so that the filter and oscillators were reduced to a percussive slick, or, a fraction of an inch further along the control, they would jump to a fairly high level. There was no graduation between the two that would result in a tight attack and decay. They were badly lacking in aggression.
Apart from that, the Spirit is a lot of machine for the money and someone who has exhausted the possibilities of their existing £200 synth could consider it an intriguing upgrade. You then have to ask the question — when is a weird sound a good sound? But that's down to you.
One final moan. There's a hole on the back panel marked MIDI. It's empty. On this sample, at least, Crumar have yet to fit that all important universal link with the rest of the synthesiser world.