Oberheim Matrix 6
Mills and Boon. Tony Mills finds a love to last a lifetime
Just what da world needs — anudder analogue polysynth from da States.
What's Oberheim's big difference? Basically, that they've taken the two-oscillator analogue voice about as far as it can go, providing modulation and effects options far beyond the capability of the Rolands, SIELs and Sequentials of this world.
The Matrix 6 uses a simplified version of Matrix Modulation, a system introduced on the Oberheim Xpander. The Xpander, a large keyboardless unit liberally sprinkled with knobs, dials and LED displays, offered scores of modulation routing options which could be called up on one of three lengthy LED displays. The Xpander had gate and CV inputs as well as MIDI, individual outputs and a hefty price tag.
Next up was the Matrix 12, a combination of two Xpanders in a box without CV control but with a velocity and pressure responsive keyboard. The price tag was even more stratospheric, although both machines were and are quite wonderful and have seen heavy professional use. They are both capable of producing the most lifelike analogue choir sound I've ever heard, for a start.
Now Oberheim are coming downmarket a little with a relatively affordable synth which squeezes in as many of the Xpander/Matrix 12 features as possible. The Matrix 6 has a five-octave velocity and pressure sensitive keyboard, six voices of two oscillators each, digital access control (no knobs!) and full MIDI.
In fact the lack of knobs and the massive parameter list printed on the top panel make the Matrix 6 look quite intimidating at first. It's only when you realise that all those printed details represent options rather than compulsory settings that the machine becomes a little more approachable. You'll still have to get used to the idea of a 16-button membrane keypad though; it's used to call up all the sounds as well as to make changes in the Edit mode.
The Keypad functions are 0-9, Store, +/-, and four parameter change controls labelled as follows:
These allow you to change variable parameters quickly or slowly (in units of one or 10) or to change On/Off parameters from... you guessed it, On to Off.
Next to this keypad on the left is a good old mechanical sliding analogue Volume control, and to the right is a small 4x3 matrix of controls. (See figure one).
Sounds complicated, but it doesn't take long to get into. For instance, hit one of the column of three membrane switches marked Master, and the four horizontal switches give you a choice of Tune (to tune the synth correctly), for Parameter (to select a new parameter for alteration) or Value (to enter the new value of the parameter). The third switch doesn't do anything in Master Mode; but in Split Edit (which alternates with Split Select as you push the Splits button) you'll find it offers a Compare function to see what you'd originally programmed. We'll look at the split function in a moment.
Hitting the Patches button will cycle you around Patch Select, Patch Edit and Matrix Mod, with the horizontal buttons deciding whether you're calling up new patches in these modes, comparing with an original program, protecting memories and so on. Again, we'll look at Matrix Mod in a moment.
To sum up, the Mode Select section decides what you're doing with the synth at any given time; playing Patches or Split Patches, or changing parameters, values or modulation patches. It can be a pain to go from one mode to another, for instance in calling up Splits and finding you're on Split Edit rather than Split Select and having to punch the button again until you get it right. But all this will certainly come right with increased familiarity.
Let's assume that you go into Patch Edit mode, because that lets us make things really complicated (you think I do this sort of thing for the money? It's for the challenge, I tell you!).
There are lots and lots and lots of parameters to edit on the Matrix 6. Oberheim are much taken with quoting figures like 1,073,745,824 with relation to the number of patch combinations possible, but don't let that put you off. About 80 per cent of the time you can manage with a few basic parameters, and the rest of the time Oberheim's software writers do tend to help out with sets of 'most useful combinations' ready at hand.
Suppose you're not happy with the sound of DCO1 in a patch. The associated parameters you can change are as follows:
01 FREQ MOD BY LFO1
03 PULSE WIDTH
04 PW MOD BY LFO2
05 WAVE SHAPE
06 WAVE SELECT
09 KEY CLICK
As we mentioned, although the Matrix 6 has billions of modulation options, the most useful ones (such as Freq Mod by LFO1 for vibrato, and Pulse Width Mod by LFO2 for 'phasing') are 'hardwired' for you ready to use. All the other parameters should be fairly familiar, except for Key Click which adds a fixed amount of an acoustic piano-like click to the attack portion of each note, and Levers, which refers to Oberheim's unusual control system. For those not familiar with it, Oberheim usually provide two sprung levers with programmable functions, so either one can be assigned to vibrato, pitch bend, modulation, filter control or whatever on each patch. It's an expressive and powerful system and doesn't take too long to get used to.
DCO2 very much resembles DCO1, and there are three envelopes each with five stages (Delay/Attack/Decay/Sustain/Release). The VCF and VCA can be controlled by levers, velocity, release velocity, after pressure, keyboard note position and so on, and there are two LFOs which have lag, pressure modulation, waveform and many other parameters.
Two unusual sections are FM/Track and Ramp/Portamento. The FM provided is a greatly simplified version of Yamaha's method, creating complex sounds with very fast modulation of the filter, while the Track function re-shapes any modulation input according to the values of five Track Points forming a 'response curve'.
Ramps allow you to smooth out the onset of a modulation source and generally make your sound generation more flexible. By this time you'll have guessed that modulation is what the Matrix 6 is all about, so it's time to look at the Matrix section.
Here you have 20 possible sources (from Envelopes 1-3, the LFOs and the Levers to the Pedals, Ramps and Pressure options) and 32 possible destinations (from DCO1/2 Frequency and Pulse Width to DCO1/2 mix, VCF Resonance and even LFO1/2 speed). This section simulates the even more complex matrix system on the Xpander and Matrix 12, provides 10 complete modulation patches, and is more than sufficient to create some of the most amazing sounds you've ever heard.
Once you've tried out all the possibilities of Matrix Modulation (trying one patch per second you may go through them all before the sun burns out), all that's left is the Master Edit Section and the Split Edit section. Master Edit offers MIDI control (Omni and Poly modes, pedal functions, patch transfer functions and so on), Cassette Dump (for all patches or single patches), Vibrato Speed and Source, Keyboard Velocity scaling (to adjust the playing sensitivity) and a few odds and sods such as Edit Recall, Display Brightness, Software Version display and Master Tune.
Split Edit allows you to set up split patches for playing two sounds at once. Rather than just having a split point, the Matrix 6 offers two 'zones' which can overlap around the middle of the keyboard if desired, so you effectively have a Layer mode as well. It's possible to transpose either sound, balance the volumes of the sounds, and assign different MIDI output channels so that the Matrix 6 becomes much more versatile as a MIDI Mother keyboard. But the split itself is odd — you can have 0/6,2/4,4/2, or 6/0 voice assignment (the 0 options being for control of other synths without the Matrix itself doing anything), but of the more obvious 3/3 split there is no sign.
Let's finally get around to what the Matrix 6 sounds like. There are 100 sounds, and on the 50 split patches the two keyboard 'zones' play from separate outputs. The single patches are a varied lot; brass sounds are typical Oberheim, rich and blary, while there are many metallic digital-like effects such as 'Synclock', 'Tingle' and 'Wavaura'.
The string patches are fractionally disappointing, perhaps in imitation of the thinner DX7 version of strings, but 10 minutes' work is enough to put this right. Organs, Clavinets and twangy synth sounds are good, although the modulation types chosen and the way they're assigned to the levers aren't always very appropriate.
There are large numbers of very eccentric sounds such as 'Aw Why?' (which somehow contrives to recreate the cry of a whinging 10-year-old), and 'Wet One', which is best left to the imagination. Also there are many 'film effects'-type sounds, such as Suspense (a slowly-developing doomy sonic texture) and Copolips (a variation on the well-known helicopter sound which every synth programmer has a go at).
On the whole though, the presets don't do the Matrix 6 justice. That can be said of most synths, but in this case it's a shame because the potential purchaser won't find it easy to tweak up the sounds quickly in a shop environment. Once you've got the machine home you can do amazing things with it; but on the evidence of these presets a lot of people won't get that far.
The Split patches include some very usable effects though, often with a left-hand bass and better use of the keyboard pressure functions (which you'll need to give expression if you're playing with both hands).
Although the Matrix 6 is very much a cut-down version of earlier Oberheims it has one thing in common with them; quality just drips from it. Since being bought out, Oberheim are apparently manufacturing in Japan, but the Matrix retains a distinctly tough American feel.
Overall, the Matrix 6 will take some getting into. But the general impression given is that anyone who has the faith to buy one and the patience to invest a couple of weeks in becoming comfortable with the machine will have found a powerful and versatile friend for life.
Enquiries: Sound Technology, (Contact Details).
Review by Mark Jenkins writing as Tony Mills
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