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Oberheim Matrix 12 & XK Controller


Article from International Musician & Recording World, May 1985

An expansion on the Expander with a free (£1200) keyboard! Paul Fishman goes upmarket

The ultimate analogue synth?

Some of you might remember a review I did of the Oberheim Expander which appeared in these very pages about nine months ago. I dare say that as an article it will not go down in the anals of reviewing history or rank alongside the literary works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Karl Marx, Groucho Marx, Playboy, or even the Beano, but to tell the truth, what do I care? Anyway, Shakespeare was a lousy keyboard reviewer, and for that matter, name me one good article Dickens wrote about a synthesizer. The Communist manifesto says bugger all about MIDI and Playboy might be big on tits but what does it say about knobs, particularly the multiparameter ones? The point I am trying to make is that despite the review, the Oberheim Expander still remains the most comprehensive and advanced analogue synthesizer. For those of you who have actually seen the instrument, some may have been a little disturbed by the fact that it doesn't have a keyboard. Was this a design fault? Had the manufacturers forgotten to include one? The answer is thankfully, no. Oberheim were pioneering the development of synthesizer voice instruments that could be controlled from another existing keyboard via MIDI or the CVs and gates. These days you don't need to have loads of keyboard manuals, you can control everything from a single instrument providing they are willing to speak to each other. Nevertheless I am sure that some people have definitely been put off simply because of the lack of the old black and whites, especially when the cost of the Expander is by no means low.

The Expander marked the return to a far more old fashioned method of design, being constructed on a modular basis, but instead of using patch cords, one of the three on board computers can connect virtually anything into anything else and store this information as part of a patch. The advantages of this sort of system are numerous, as the user is not restricted to working purely in one predefined signal path determined by the manufacturer, which can be extremely limiting. The other relevant point about the Expander, is that each of its six voices can be independently programmed to have completely different sounds and then combined under a multi patch.

The Matrix-12 — the Logical Step

Having established that the Expander is a pretty stunning and unique instrument, what else could Oberheim do apart from expand upon it. That's exactly what they've done. (Oh goody!)

They claim in the advertising blurb that 'this is the ultimate analogue synthesizer', which is a fairly heavy cross to bear — but at least up to the point of writing this review, you know I think I would agree with them. I have great problems thinking what else anybody can do with analogue synthesis — mind you, some smart arse is probably bound to prove me wrong.

To describe the Matrix-12 as a 12 voice Expander with a velocity/pressure senstitive keyboard would be an extremely fair observation. It even looks exactly like its predecessor, having the same display and front panel layouts. It can be used to replace several more conventional synthesizers as the keyboard may be split into six overlapping sections, combining together various textures of sound. Each of the 12 voices can have a separate sound and are assignable to the keyboard or accessed via MIDI by other keyboards or sequencers.

Voice Construction — What else can you do with an analogue synth?

Each voice of the Matrix-12 contains:

Two oscillators, each with sawtooth, triangle and variable pulse waveforms

15 different filter modes, eg four pole low pass, two pole low pass, bandpass, notch, phase, and all manner of combinations of these.

Two output amplifiers in series with programmable stereo panning.

Five envelope generators, each with delay, attack, decay, sustain, release, and an output amplifier, plus various programmable triggering modes.

Five Low Frequency Oscillators, with separate output amplifiers. Each LFO has triangle, square, up and down sawtooths, random, and noise waveforms, sampling of any modulation source, plus various triggering modes.

Three tracking generators that can change the sealing or the shape of any modulation source.

Lag processor for portamento effects between any modulation source and destination.

FM VCA for dynamic linear frequency modulation of VCO1 or the filter by VCO2.

Returning to the point that I made before about manufacturers defining a single signal path, therefore patching, what is taken away from the user is the choice to patch any particular source into any particular destination. The end result of this is to severely limit experimentation with whatever forms of modulation — hence the reason why most analogue synths can get a bit boring and predictable after a while. Oberheim have developed an incredible routing system that goes way beyond what its competitors have to offer. There are 27 modulation sources within every voice, with each source having a choice of 47 modulation destinations. Any source can be sent to many destinations at the same time with independent positive or negative control. You have to admit that it kinda blows the pants off 'to vibrato or not to vibrato — that is the modulation'.

Patch Programming and Displays

There are two types of storage of information, single patches and multi patches.

The first is where all 12 voices have the same sound and therefore editing the vast array of available parameters affects all voices equally. The second type is the organising of the various stored single patches into combination patches, by individually assigning them to the 12 voices. So a multi patch contains what sound is on each voice, as well as MIDI channel selection, panning, volume transposition and detune of each voice. The 12 voices can then be organised into six keyboard sections called 'Zones' which may be assigned to the internal keyboard or an external MIDI channel or both. Zones allow keyboard splits, doubling, tripling, quadrupling and a whole variety of other words that end with 'ing'. They can also be set to overlap each other.

A total of 100 single patches and 100 multi patches may be stored in the Matrix 12 at any one time. Of course these may be off loaded onto cassette via an extremely well thought out storage system, although it does take about two minutes to dump your programmes, the system rarely fails, and if it does it gives information about what was wrong and which pieces of information failed to be correctly loaded. The user may also choose whether he wants to load just certain aspects of the entire programme, eg various selected patches.

Oberheim have kept the excellent displays and front panel layout that they used on the Expander — a lot of other major manufacturers could learn from this type of 'user-friendly' layout. Information is displayed in the 120 characters of fluorescent-alphanumeric display, with patch editing controls divided into sections, called 'pages'. The status of all the controls in any page can be seen and edited at once. This makes working with the instrument so much more enjoyable, as you don't have to go through the painful task of calling up one parameter at a time and then editing it. Why haven't other people cottoned on to the fact that this gets in the way of making music and exploring synthesis?

The Keyboard

As I have already mentioned that the main difference between the Expander and the Matrix-12 (apart from the additional six voices) is that the '12' has got a keyboard, one might actually say that the keyboard comes free with the instrument. Although they haven't gone the whole hog and put in a weighted-action job, made from pure Scandinavian Yak Beech, covered in the finest Ivory from the Mongolian left-footed elephant, I personally am not that distressed as some of you wiser people might have realised that it makes sweet FA difference to the tone of the instrument. But they have included a rather good 'old fashioned' plastic keyboard which does feel comfortable to play. It is a five octave, long throw velocity keyboard (whatever that is), which will respond to 'aftertouch'. The velocity response can be selected to suit your own playing style and requirements of the patch. The velocity responds to attack and release pressure for each voice and these may be set to respond to any parameter — volume, filter frequency, resonance, envelope times, FM amount, vibrato, detune, LFO speed, lag, etc — all this allows far greater playing expression.

As daunting as it might sound, some of us people who write these reviews do actually get to take a few of these instruments out on the road or into studios; mind you this is generally after the review has gone to press. Sometimes this can be a little bit disturbing as you suddenly find out that the article that is now in print contains those charming inaccuracies purely because of your lack of physical experience with the instrument and your incompetence to write cohesive English. Mind you this is sometimes assisted by the printers and typesetters who add their own artistic/surrealistic input to your work — only kidding, lads (and lasses), and I do think you should get paid a lot more money (please note journalistic crawling).

Anyway, I was fortunate with the Expander to take it on the road last October, where it really did shine (must have been the lighting), and enhanced a lot of the sequencing dramatically. It was so good to have a multi timbral keyboard (nice word) to work with. Being able to clearly see the name of each patch was an immense help. The panning functions saved a lot of messing about that would normally be dumped on the lap of 'our out-front guy (?)' Steve—mate—mate—mate—Botting, with each song having its own instantly recallable stereo set up. Another function that was pure bliss as far as I was concerned, was being able to put whatever programmes I required and store them in a 'chain'. This means that sounds can be called up by just pressing '+' in the relative required order, no more scribbling of patch numbers on set lists.

But apart from all of this, the most important thing is that it sounds good. The Matrix-12 is unfortunately one of the most expensive analogue keyboards on the market (particularly with the pathetic state of the pound — bla bla bla.) It has been described by its manufacturers as two Expanders in one with a keyboard, and as cheaper than buying the individual components. That's one way of looking at it and justifying the price, all that I'll say is that it is a stunning instrument and totally leads the field in analogue synthesizers.

Can control up to six MIDI synths

The XK Programmable MIDI Keyboard Controller

Various manufacturers have brought out MIDI-Keyboard controllers, which are purely designed to control external synthesizers and voicing units but internally have no sound generating capability of their own. MIDI has introduced a sort of 'component' concept, (similar to hi-fi — eg separate amp, deck, tape recorder, etc) where many items can be controlled from a single keyboard.

The XK has a five octave long throw keyboard (him again) and is after-touch and velocity responsive. It can control up to six MIDI synthesizers via its six MIDI channels and if desired change the configuration of your entire set-up at the touch of a button.

The velocity and aftertouch may be set to various degrees of sensitivity (I'm glad to see that somebody thinks that 'on-off' is not enough) and can be stored for each programme. It may be used to start and stop MIDI sequencers and select songs on MIDI drum machines.

The XK keyboard can be divided into three separate zones and are used to either split the keyboard, overlap, double or triple voices.

It has 99 master programmes, which will remember the settings of the Zones, the MIDI channel and patch number of each zone, MIDI pressure, lever, mono mode, enables, transpositions and the number of notes to be played within each Zone. All of these can instantly be recalled by typing in a master programme number, which has got to be brilliant for live use.

A unique voice spillover feature sends extra notes to the next MIDI channel, eg enabling two six voice Expanders to play as a single 12 voice synthesizer.

The manufacturers claim that the internal arpeggiator is the most sophisticated ever made in the entire history of mankind and the universe itself. It is assignable to any combination of Zones, can play them sequentially or simultaneously, has programmable transpositions and can be controlled from an external clock.

The XK also features the Oberheim chord and hold functions, allowing infinite sustain and the transposition of any size chord by a single note.

It also has two levers and a footswitch control which may be assigned to any function on any of the controllers.

There is not a lot one can say about the XK, except that it does the job excellently and acts as a very comprehensive MIDI controller — what more do you want?

I am glad to see Oberheim getting on with making sensible MIDI instruments. It occurred to me recently that although MIDI was intended to be a universal language there seems to be a lot of different manufacturers trying to inject their own personal accents, which to my mind is a complete and utter pain in the terminals! One nation under a groove — oops, I'm ranting again.


Also featuring gear in this article

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Pearl DRX-1 Electronic Kit

Next article in this issue

Vesta Fire Effects Pedals

Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - May 1985

Donated by: Neill Jongman

Review by Paul Fishman

Previous article in this issue:

> Pearl DRX-1 Electronic Kit

Next article in this issue:

> Vesta Fire Effects Pedals

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