Dave Crombie tinkles the gleaming white keys of the J. Lord machine. Luxury you can afford? Find out on page 65.
I first heard of the Skywave back in July '77, when Jeremy Lord was putting the finishing touches to the prototype model. This instrument was exhibited at the British trade show that year and I must admit I wasn't terribly impressed with the synthesiser.
A full year has elapsed and during that time the Skywave has undergone a few changes, most notably in the casework, and the instrument has only recently started to appear in one or two music shops. This lag between the product's launch and its appearance on the retail market does seem rather long, however I understand that the instrument underwent considerable field tests with several bands during that period, to make sure everything was 'right' for the musician.
The Skywave is 'Made in England', a label that can't be applied to many synthesisers these days, and is a monophonic performance/studio instrument. When first confronted with the Skywave, one is taken aback by the size of the thing. It is big! The instrument is built into a flight-case, quite a good idea, but the size and weight... The layout is very loosely based on that of the Minimoog; the normal synthesiser features roughly correspond in position, and the Skywave even has a hinged control panel, but this must be nearly four times the size of the Minimoog's panel, and it incorporates only a few extra controls.
Anyway, down to the nitty gritty. There are two identical voltage controlled oscillators (VCOs), that can be driven from the keyboard or put into 'free-run' mode. These oscillators generate sine, triangle, sawtooth and square waveshapes which can be mixed using the four corresponding sliders. The square waveshape can be width-modulated either manually, by the envelope shaper, or by the modulation oscillator; however the controls governing this work simultaneously for both oscillators. Pitching the VCOs is achieved using 6-position rotary controls each labelled — PS8, 2', 4', 8', 16', 32'. The 2' setting is the highest pitch and (as usual) the 4' is an octave lower, down to the lowest — 32'. On most instruments, turning the control clockwise raises the pitching, on the Skywave it's the other way round; strange. The PS8 setting stands (I think) for pre-set 8'. On the side of the instrument are two control spindles, one for each oscillator, enabling a certain interval in the 8' range (eg a fifth) to be preset. This is a very useful facility and in fact several musicians have had a similar modification done to their own synthesisers.
Overall these oscillators are very good and they also seem to be extremely stable. A slider balances the amount of each oscillator and also there are two associated switches to bring in pink noise/external signal, and an 'A 440' tuning tone/white noise. This mixer section is confusing and could be simplified.
The mixed signal is then routed to various other functions by means of the programme section. This consists of four pairs of illuminating (red and green) touch switches, that direct the mixed signal to any or all of the following — ring modulator, voltage controlled filter, phaser and voltage controlled amplifier. The red light indicates that a section is switched out, the green that it is in. This whole section could easily be replaced with four rocker switches and seems to me to be rather gimmicky.
The voltage controlled filter (VCF) appears at first to be somewhat unusual, having four controls — Tune, Sweep, Time and Gain, and a switch for band or low-pass mode. The tune and gain controls, however, correspond to frequency and emphasis (or resonance, or 'Q'). The sweep control is centre-zeroed and sweeps the filter frequency up when in a positive position and down when negative, the rate of sweep being determined by the time control. An unusual way of modulating the filter, and not very versatile. The filter itself is quite good, enabling a rich and mellow sound to be obtained.
The voltage controlled amplifier is slightly unusual too. It has a normal attack, decay, sustain, release (ADSR) envelope generator, but with a time control. This determines how long the note is sustained at the sustain level, ie when at zero the note will sustain as long as the key is held; if the time is increased the note will sustain for that period of time only.
There are also the ring modulator (null and modulation source switch), phaser speed, and output tone (bass and treble) controls, housed on this hinged panel. Situated beneath this is a 49 note C-C keyboard which has a reasonable action, and to the left of this is the performance control panel. Whereas the front panel is sparsely laid out, there being large spaces between groups of knobs, this panel is rather too tightly packed, there being seven knobs, 13 switches, and a joystick all in a fairly small space; the keyboard controls, sample and hold, output switch, low frequency oscillator, and modulation and expression controls are all here.
The keyboard controls consist of master tune, span and accompanying switch to revert to normal scaling, glide rate and glide on switch — all self explanatory. The sample and hold section samples either noise or an external input at a variable rate and holds the voltage between a variable level. The voltages can then be routed to VCO!, VCO2, VCF, or the phaser - the latter being most interesting, an effect I've not come across before. There is an output 'on' switch with LED, which can be used in conjunction with headphones to enable the setting up of sounds without going through the main amplifier.
The remaining low frequency oscillator and modulation system — the expression controller — is in my opinion the best feature of the Skywave, as it all revolves around a 3-axis joystick. Sideways movement of the stick gives pitchbend, this axis being sprung to return the joystick to the centre position. Upwards movement causes an increase in modulation (sawtooth up, sawtooth down, square or triangle waveshapes) of the VCOs/VCF/VCA. And rotation of the stick determines either the overall volume or the speed of modulation. So all these parameters can be controlled easily and quickly with one hand, and after a bit of practice one can really feel confident with the joystick and get a lot of feel into the sounds being produced. The only criticism I have with the expression controller is that the low frequency oscillator speed control works the wrong way round — clockwise slows it down, a bit disconcerting.
The rear panel, which is in fact on the right hand side of the instrument, houses control voltage inputs and external signal inputs, high and low level signal outputs, a headphone output, and a mains inlet. However, when the instrument is operated with hinged panel flat, all these sockets are obscured and if one is not careful all the cables can be cut between the sharp protruding hinged front panel and the flightcase work.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: I think that this heading can be aptly used for the conclusion to this review. The Good: this instrument does have a lot of good little features — the joystick; the pitch presets; clear graphics. It does give a nice sound and is very versatile, if somewhat difficult to set up, and for the price offers good value for money. The Bad: the size of the instrument is ridiculously large; one can see from the photograph of the machine's insides that there is masses of room, so why make it so big? The layout — cramped in some places, spartan in others; the controls - the amount of effect certain controls have varies considerably over the range of the potentiometer: a lot can happen over say the first quarter of a turn of a knob, and next to nothing over the rest of the turn; the knobs — these are plastic and not very easy to read especially under low lighting conditions.
There are a few other things that I didn't like, but one must remember that this instrument gives one a large number of facilities at a very good price and one can't expect everything to be 'state of the art'. The Ugly: it's ugly!
rrp: £694.44/$ not available in US
Dave Crombie is resident electronic design engineer at Rod Argent's professional keyboard store in central London.
Review by Dave Crombie
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