Striking It Rich
Jez Ford wallows through the vast myriad of analogue sounds from Oberheim's budget-priced expander
Analogue sounds - ah yes, those were the days. Wiring up your oscillators, twisting your dials, setting those pots and then sitting back as a mist of pure texture wafted across your lugholes.
Of course in these enlightened days, digital synthesis has taken over. The convenience and versatility of ever more silicon power at ever less frightening prices has pushed analogue synthesis deeper and deeper into the binliner.
Many of us were about to tie the plastic twist and put our analogue pasts out on the doorstep to be carted away for keeps. But in the nick of time Oberheim has released the Matrix 1000 - a rack-mounted analogue sound module with 800 preset patches plus 200 user-programmable patches (800+200=1000. Geddit?).
The price is designed to put the Matrix 1000 in the market as a direct competitor to the blossoming range of rack-mount digital sound modules - Kawai's K-1r, Roland's U-110 and the like. Yes folks, analogue synthesis is back in the ring with its boots on. So let the bout begin!
The Matrix 1000 has been developed by Oberheim from the larger and rather more costly Matrix 6 beloved by analogue enthusiasts wherever they may congregate these days.
The popularity of this bigger brother has spawned a Matrix user group operating in America and beyond, exchanging new patches and competing to come up with the best results.
On the new unit the process of sound generation is the same but nearly all the panel controls have been removed. This makes programming of new patches impossible without either computer software or a Matrix 6 to dump information to and from the Matrix 1000. Happily software is easily available and Oberheim includes details of Dr T's Atari ST editor/librarian and Opcode's version for the Apple Mac.
Selecting a sound is simple enough by bashing the buttons marked 0-9 on the front panel to pick your patch from 000-999. To save time you can bank lock the first digit and select by indicating just the last two digits. There are also + and - keys to go to adjacent patches. A complete list of all 1000 supplied patches comes with unit.
Patch changing via MIDI is most ingenious. The universal MIDI spec only caters for 128 possible patches (a single data byte) so you can select the first digit by turning up the modulation wheel on your master keyboard. With modulation off, the next two digits are selected. With such a well thought out system it is all the more remarkable that there appears to be no way of disabling the Matrix's response to MIDI patch changes. So let's take a look at the 1000 sounds supplied by Oberheim.
These were chosen as the result of a three year operation by the aforementioned user group to compile the 'Top 1000' patches. But the first thing to note is that 200 of the sounds - the ones that are reprogrammable under software control - are just a selection from the remaining 800 ROM sounds. This minor deception means you only really get 800 sounds for your money, not 1000.
Are the sounds everything the analogue freaks claim of them? Do your carpet fibres stand on end at the deep timbre and vibrant quality? Well, yes and no. There are some crackers, particularly chunky or harsh solo sounds and various sweeping string sounds. But the champagne corks don't fly too often. For instance, from the first 100 sounds (supposedly the top 100 overall sounds) I marked only 23 as worthy of use. There are a great many sounds with just small faults. The most common mistake is an absurdly long release time, not just on ethereal sounds but on brass, vibes, strings - sounds where rapid chord changes may be required. If I want uncontrollable sustain then I'll put a brick on my sustain pedal or set my reverb unit to 'humungous great cathedral'.
If you haven't got a computer or the Matrix software, these patches are pretty much useless for day-to-day performance. The other ditch into which programmers have tended to stumble is the 'awfully clever' syndrome. The tendency for punters to submit silly-but-impressive patches has led to the inclusion of novelty sounds and FX. Yes they prove how very versatile the Matrix analogue generators are, but will you ever actually use them? Doubtful.
All these would be far better as extras supplied on a library package keeping the permanent ROM memory for good solid useful sounds.
While you are unable to reprogram from the front panel of the Matrix 1000, you are able to rearrange the first 200 patches to wipe the useless ones with your faves from the other ROM patches. This is a simple operation and Oberheim sensibly includes a memory protect to be disabled before you start.
There are some other excellent features available from the front panel. First is unison mode where all six of the Matrix 1000's voices are layered under a single key. This fattens already impressive solo patches into sounds so thick you could insulate the loft with them!
Secondly is a handy MIDI echo facility. This repeats any MIDI IN data received to the MIDI OUT socket as well as the MIDI THRU. The main advantage of this is that it gives you control over your MIDI chain using the front panel rather than physically unplugging. The problems could come when under software control with the Matrix 1000 sending back data it has just received. But then you can always turn the option off.
Group mode cascades the Matrix 1000 into other Matrix 1000's so that you can have more than the single unit's inherent 6-voice polyphony - two gives you 12-note and three gives you 18-note. Each patch can be programmed from the front panel to use or ignore group mode.
I was somewhat confused by Oberheim's inclusion of an option to invert MIDI volume so that if you tell it to play quieter it actually plays louder and vice versa. Er... yes. How useful. In actual fact this shows a devotion to detail that does Oberheim credit.
On MIDI guitars, says Oberheim, the whammy bar commonly acts as a MIDI controller transmitting zero in rest position. Without volume invert the synth would only sound if the whammy was bent. Now it can be used to fade from maximum volume. So there.
Finally a note to praise the manual which is not only detailed, informative and trusting (how many manufacturers tell you how to access the internal software service tests?), it also exudes a feeling of enthusiasm and entry to a global family of Matrix fans.
Coupled with a software librarian/editor package, the Matrix 1000 will not disappoint anyone searching for something outside the realm of FM, LA and PCM synthesis. Any product offering 1000 memories at this price must be worth a good look. Taking the unit as it stands however, you are stuck with a great many patches that are 'not quite right', a situation that is both wasteful and aggravating. When put in direct comparison with, say, a mid-range DX keyboard, the crispness of digital synthesis to which we have become accustomed almost makes the Oberheim seem muffled. Although it makes a worthwhile and well priced addition to any existing system, it would not be my choice as a first expander. Check it out but take it slow.
Product: Oberheim Matrix 1000
Supplier: Price £499 inc VAT
Sound Technology Ltd, (Contact Details)
Review by Jez Ford