Oberheim Matrix 1000
The latest addition to Oberheim's classic Matrix range offers 1000 analogue-style synth sounds for under £500. Simon Trask investigates the attraction of analogue in '88.
With digital synths now dominating the ears and the wallets of keyboard players, is there still a place for the analogue synth?
ITS NOW BEEN some two years since Oberheim brought out the Matrix 6 synthesiser and the cheaper Matrix 6R rack-mount expander. Those instruments made the state-of-the-art analogue synthesis capabilities of Oberheim's Matrix 12 and Xpander synths available at a relatively affordable price - a move which many musicians thanked Oberheim for, no doubt. But were the 6 and 6R to be the end of the Matrix line? As the company moved into the sampling arena with the DPX1 sample replay unit, it seemed that was the case.
But the success Oberheim enjoyed with the DPX1 presumably set them thinking about adopting a similar approach with Matrix synthesis. Here was a method of synthesis which offered probably more parameters and modulation possibilities than just about any other system, yet that very flexibility required a great deal of programming effort to get the very best out of it. So, just as the DPX1 was able to draw on a large library of samples but couldn't itself sample, why not a synth which offered a large number of patches but didn't itself have editing facilities? Cue the Matrix 1000.
Essentially what Oberheim have done is take the circuitry of the Matrix 6 synth and 6R expander and, through making use of advances in technology, packaged 1000 sounds in a 1U-high 19" casing for half the original retail price of the 2U-high 19" Matrix 6R. Now that's what I call progress.
However, there have been compromises along the way. Along with the absence of programming facilities, the Matrix 1000 forgoes the bi-timbral capabilities of the 6/6R and sports only a monophonic audio output. But you've still got six voices, and then there are those 1000 sounds... Now, you may be thinking that Oberheim's programmers must have been extremely busy, and in a sense you'd be right: the expander's sounds have been compiled from patches submitted by Matrix owners worldwide, Oberheim's task being to pick the cream of the crop. Matrix 6/6R owners needn't feel left out, as they can obtain a cassette data tape of all 1000 sounds to load into their own instrument.
OBERHEIM HAVE TRIED to come up with an effective balance between a preset and a programmable instrument, and to this end the 1000 has 800 patches in ROM and 200 in RAM. While there are no onboard editing facilities, new sounds can be loaded into the 1000's RAM memory via MIDI SysEx dumps from a Matrix 6/6R or appropriate patch editor/librarian software (Dr Ts, for example). What's more, any of the 1000 patches which come with the expander can be transmitted via MIDI for external editing, and then loaded back into the RAM memory (obviously not into the ROM). You can transmit the current patch, all patches in the currently-selected bank (the Matrix 1000 divides its patches into 10 banks of 100 patches each) or all 200 patches of the RAM memory (000-199). The 1000 will receive individual patches and patch banks in the same way at any time, if memory protect is off (of course you can't load sounds into the ROM memory locations).
OBERHEIM HAVE KEPT the 1000's front panel admirably straightforward and uncluttered. A central three-character LED window takes care of the patch-number and parameter displays, while a Select button allows you to cycle around the six Function LEDS and parameter editing is taken care of by number and +/- buttons. The rear panel is even simpler: MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets plus a monophonic audio out jack socket.
Unfortunately, the limited display capability of the 1000's LED window means that none of the patches have or can be given names. Who knows what wonderfully inventive names have been lost in the transfer from 6/6R to 1000? Considerably more importantly, remembering where your favourite patches are becomes more difficult if you're not able to associate names with the numbers. With one thousand patches it an be like trying to find a needle in a haystack, particularly as Oberheim seem to have thrown their patches into the 1000 with no thought for grouping.
Fortunately you can organise up to 200 patches yourself in the RAM memory, as a Copy function allows any of the 1000 patches to be copied to any RAM patch location (obviously you'll need to be able to store off the existing RAM sounds first).
OBERHEIM'S INTENTION IS to provide as many variations on various types of sound as possible, so that instead of having to tweak a sound yourself you can probably find an existing variation to suit. As mentioned earlier, the sounds aren't grouped in any particular fashion, though in general the 600s are given over to string sounds, the 700s to bass sounds, and the 800s to effects. Perhaps Oberheim want to make the scope of the 1000's sounds as apparent as possible to the casual punter flicking through the patches.
One disconcerting feature of the 1000 is the many and sometimes extreme variations in volume level between different patches.
As I said, the only identification each of these 1000 sounds has is a three-digit number, so the first thing you'll need to do is get out pen and paper and start jotting down descriptions of the sounds which take your fancy. Not very hi-tech.
As with its predecessors, the Matrix 1000's forte lies with rich, smooth ensemble string sounds, fat brass sounds, a wide range of gut-wrenchingly powerful synthbass sounds, and numerous special effects and background atmospheric sounds.
Patch 50 is the sort of sound I love Oberheim synths for: warm, smooth strings as plush as velvet. Patch 78 serves up eerie floating strings, while patch 221 offers slow-motion "cosmic" strings (I never thought I'd use that word again). As we've already seen, there are numerous variations of the Oberheim string sound to be found in the 600s.
Patch 06 is a raspy, filter-swept brassy sound that goes "pssshoooooh" and sounds like it might have come from an early Tangerine Dream album. In a similar vein, check out (if you must) patch 311.
"Group mode is a means of increasing polyphony through chaining up to six Matrix 1000s together - to a maximum of 36-voice polyphony at a cost of Â£3000."
Patch 72 is the archetypal mega-fat Oberheim brass sound, but the 1000 is also capable of more delicate sounds such as patch 62, a prepared piano-like mixture of metallic bell chime and plucked piano strings, the penny whistle of patch 491, the calliope of patch 502, and the tinkling bells of patch 887. You can also find "pure and natural" sounds on the 1000, such as the clean French-horn sound of patch 512 and the piercing strings of patch 184.
Keyboard sounds are less in evidence, but there are some effective sounds such as the gentle electric piano of patch 57, the warm tremoloed electric piano with bright tine attack of patch 63, and the harsh metallic-edged acoustic piano of patch 100. On the organ front, the rich Hammond-style organ of patch 61 and the flutey church organ of patch 564 are well worth a listen.
The 1000's collection of synth bass sounds vary from the dark and deeply resonant to rasping staccato (less refined people than myself might say "farting") sounds which provide a timely reminder that the slap-and-pull style of bass playing doesn't have the monopoly on funkiness. My particular favourite in the latter department is patch 146, a dead ringer for the synth bass on Herbie Hancock's classic 1973 track 'Chameleon' (now that's funky).
Sound effects reside in the higher reaches of the 1000's memory, although not exclusively, due to the lack of programming structure. There are explosions (845), heartbeat (842), gusting wind (869), thunderstorm (56), massed air-raid sirens (216), jet flying past (848), together with various atmospheric background rumbling noises (850 and 868) which would fit well into a sci-fi context (dare I mention Bladerunner here).
Patch 52 is one of those famed Matrix sounds which plays with itself for ages (well, 45 seconds) in an orgy of self-modulation; not recommended for uptempo music. An even more impressive version is patch 899: one keypress sends the 1000 off into fits of violent filter-cutoff modulation on a big brassy sound.
Sounds can be further fattened up by selecting Unison mode, which layers all six voices on a single key (obviously best for monophonic bass or lead sounds). Some of the 1000's patches are pre-programmed to be in Unison mode, but you can easily override this, or set non-unison patches to unison, by setting Extended Function one on/off appropriately.
Inevitably I've only described selected sounds, but in many cases you will find numerous variations on them.
THE 1000 CAN be set to send and receive on a single MIDI channel (1-16), receive on all 16 channels and send on channel one (Omni on) or receive on six consecutive MIDI channels (Mono mode four).
The latter option does not turn the Matrix 1000 into a multitimbral instrument. What it does do is assign each of the synth's six voices to a consecutive MIDI channel (the basic channel can be any one of channels 1-9) and allow them to respond independently to note, pitchbend, volume and aftertouch information (modulation and sustain-pedal information are still received on the basic channel only, and applied to all six voices alike).
Other front-panel features include global transpose (+/- three octaves in semitone steps), global fine-tuning (+/- a quarter-tone in 31 steps), memory protect on/off, invert MIDI volume (useful for crossfades with other instruments) and a test mode which can, among other things, be used to auto-calibrate the 1000's audio circuits. Additionally, a simple reinitialisation routine can be activated if the 1000 starts behaving strangely (not that it ever gave me any problems); the stored patches won't be affected, but all the other parameters will be reset to default values.
In addition to velocity and channel aftertouch, the 1000 responds to pitch-bend, mod wheel, breath control, volume, sustain pedal and Pedal One. The latter function has been included to provide compatibility with the 6/6R, on which it an be programmed to control a wide variety of patch parameters. On the 1000 it can be assigned to any MIDI controller from 0-121.
"The Matrix 1000 may include some dated sounds, but to my mind the unique rich, warm and fat quality of the Oberheim Matrix sound simply doesn't date. "
PATCH SELECTION FROM the 1000's front panel is a straightforward affair (made even easier by the Bank Lock feature, which allows you to punch in two instead of three digits), but selection via MIDI is a bit more problematic.
Those of you who are good at arithmetic will have realised that 1000 patches into 128 MIDI patch changes just doesn't go - Oberheim's solution is as follows: pushing the mod wheel on your master keyboard beyond halfway tells the 1000 that the next patch number (0-9) should be used to change banks. Enter the appropriate bank number, reset the mod wheel and then enter a two-digit patch number (00-99). Hopefully you won't be using lots of modulation when you try to change patches within a bank. As an alternative, you can use MIDI controller 31 to fulfil the same function.
A further function available from the 1000's front panel is MIDI Echo on/off, which isn't a MIDI alternative to a delay line but a means of passing on (echoing) received MIDI data via MIDI Out - for instance if you want to layer more than one Matrix 1000. All data apart from active sensing is echoed, though Oberheim advise that it's best not to echo MIDI Real Time clocking information.
THE MATRIX 1000 introduces a new feature known as Group mode to the Matrix series. Essentially this is a means of increasing polyphony through chaining up to six 1000s together (to a maximum 36-voice polyphony at a cost of £3000). Whereas MIDI Echo would still give you six-note polyphony, but with six layered sounds, Group mode cleverly "rotates" notes around the six (or however many) 1000s you have. You define the number of units and a unit number of zero on the master 1000, and consecutive unit numbers on the slave 1000s. The master 1000 plays one note itself and then (re)transmits the next five notes (for a six-unit Group) on consecutive MIDI channels 2-6 (unit numbers 2-6). Bank and patch changes on the master are automatically transmitted to the slaves. You can set Group mode on or off for each of the 1000 patches, and as Group mode overrides MIDI Echo it's an easy matter to switch between layered sounds and many-voiced sounds.
Although Group mode is similar in effect to the Overflow mode found on some other instruments, it's a lot more flexible. You can produce controlled panning effects, step through a controlled sequence of patches or patch variations, and decide whether you want to layer some patches and not others.
Matrix 6/6R owners will be glad to know that Group mode will give them 12-voice polyphony if they slave a Matrix 1000 to their instrument (page 32 of the 1000's manual explains the rather tortuous procedure involved).
JUST AS TOP studios are looking around for old valve components to "warm up" their increasingly digital world, so musicians faced with today's extremely competent digital synths are asking what's available as an analogue complement. In our experience here at MT the question usually takes the form of "Now that I've spent most of my money on digital gear, what can I get for under £500 that's analogue?".
Though it nears the top mark of that range, the Matrix 1000 is an ideal choice. Many of the its sounds are not what you'd call "realistic" in the sense that they sound like imitations of or variations on acoustic instruments, but as a result they complement perfectly the direction taken by so many of today's digital synths. The 1000 may include some dated sounds, but to my mind the unique rich, warm and fat quality of the Oberheim Matrix sound simply doesn't date.
Beyond the sounds, it's good to see that Oberheim have put some thought into how their latest expander should relate to the outside world. Consequently they've included a programming "window" via MIDI, and added such features as Group mode and Mono mode. The wealthy musician can contemplate the delights of using several Matrix 1000s Grouped together, while existing Matrix 6/6R owners might find the 1000 a very useful addition to their setup.
Finally, don't let the 1000's modest number of voices and lack of multitimbral capability lead you into feeling short-changed. It's the sounds themselves that are the real wealth of this instrument.
To my mind, a whole new generation of musicians will be thanking Oberheim for bringing out the Matrix 1000.
Price £449 including VAT
Related reviews: Matrix 6 (January 1986), Matrix 6R (July 1986).