The peculiarly named Mono Lancet is an analogue synth of the old school, boasting two oscillators, a filter with a debilitating debt to Moog, and knobs galore!
In the spring of 2003, I met and fell for the Vermona Perfourmer — an analogue synthesizer capable of being four independent monophonic synths, a four‑voice polyphonic, or every combination in between. Each voice had a fairly basic single-VCO architecture, but the limitations paled into insignificance if measured against the quality of its output.
The Perfourmer is heavy for its size, and I eventually stopped gigging it due to age and feebleness (mine, that is). But I always hoped for a more portable example, ideally in a 1U rack space. Well, I've got some of my wish in Vermona's latest offering, the Mono Lancet. It's a desktop unit rather than a rack, but its single voice has two oscillators, which is a bonus.
If you're wondering how a famous medical journal relates to music technology or synthesis, then you probably aren't (as I wasn't) conversant with late-'60s German sci‑fi. Lancet's origins can be traced back to the TV series Raumpatrouille (or International Space Patrol); apparently it was the shuttlecraft of the spaceship Orion. So now you know! If you have an urge to learn more, I recommend a search on YouTube or on the Vermona Facebook site. Only time will tell whether musicians can rewire the medical associations and accept Lancet as they did 'virus'.
The Lancet range currently comprises the Kick Lancet and the Mono Lancet, the former a module devoted to that vital percussive backbone, the kick drum. It's the Mono Lancet we're exploring today — a monophonic synthesizer about the size and weight of a typical hardback novel. The Mono Lancet (which I'll refer to as simply the Lancet from now on), with its curved metal case and shiny switches, emits an palpable field of 'rightness'. The knobs are smooth and weighty, their off‑white pallor recalling days of gently fading ivory (rest assured that no elephants were harmed in the Lancet's creation). The rocker switches look great too, reminding me of those on Roland's System 100, while the old‑style Vermona legend wouldn't look out of place on vintage radio gear, or test equipment from a bygone age.
In keeping with its monophonic status, a single audio output is present, along with the expected MIDI In and Thru ports. Traditional analogue connectivity isn't immediately accessible but, thanks to a 25‑pin extension socket, full modular interaction is an option. Power is supplied by an external 12V AC adaptor, but the intriguingly‑named Overkill button turned out to be rather a damp squib: it's the power switch. The manual helpfully reminds you that this switch doesn't remove any load from the adaptor and that to be really 'off', the Mono Lancet should be disconnected at the mains.
There's a plentiful supply of controls for such a small synth, with only a few compromises evident. That the Lancet is a genuine analogue synthesizer is obvious within a few moments — and not just because it takes those few moments to stabilise. When you play your first note and tweak the controls, the warm, plummy textures that gush forth tell you everything that matters. Does it sound as deep and fat and zappy as the Perfourmer? Definitely.
The Lancet's two oscillators sport square and sawtooth waveforms, with oscillator one adding a triangle and oscillator two a white noise source. (The centre‑notched mix knob determines the relative balance of the oscillators before they hit the Moog‑style filter.) One of the Perfourmer's less desirable traits was the linking of waveform and octave selection, so I was relieved to see individual rocker switches here. The choices are 8', 16' and 32' for oscillator one, with oscillator two's options pitched an octave higher. The synth responds to incoming MIDI notes over a five-octave range starting at C2.
The main tuning knob is in the bottom left-hand corner, next to the all‑important cutoff frequency. These are two of the three larger Lancet knobs, and if there are two less suitable to be neighbours, I can't think of them. However, your fingers quickly learn the route to the right one as you adjust to a world of direct, organic interaction. The larger knobs are superb for precise adjustment and in the case of Tune, it could be argued (not by me) that this could even serve as a compact pitch‑bender, its range being plus or minus a whole tone.
Speaking of performance controls, don't reach for your keyboard's modulation wheel and expect to hear vibrato. For that particular delight, you have to be content with an LFO depth knob whose function is not accessible via MIDI. Surviving prog rockers take note: the mod wheel's role is confined to setting the pulse width of both oscillators' square waves. Which is fine and dandy, unless your main MIDI keyboard is fitted with one of those sprung Roland or Korg sticks, in which case pulse-width adjustment isn't especially convenient. If you have a Nord G2 modular, Sequentix Cirklon or another generator of cyclic MIDI controller events, you can source your pulse‑width modulation automatically. Otherwise it's down to wheel waggling, I'm afraid.
There are a few other quirky design choices, but none of catastrophic proportions. The main one is the inclusion of a bi-polar control for envelope‑driven pitch sweeps. EG Depth is a highly desirable feature when aimed at a hard‑synced VCO. However, the Lancet doesn't have oscillator sync, so I don't see this as being the most popular inclusion. Still, in a synth optimised for 'normal' solo or bass duties, this is a rare diversion into freakiness. Plus you never know when disco toms are going to make a comeback.
Glide, the smooth transition between notes, earns a knob that's likely to see a little more action. Adding glide becomes more expressive when a little MIDI trickery is employed to activate the 'legato‑only' mode. Then you can control whether your notes blur into each other by how you articulate them. A simple trick, maybe, but where would classic acid bass lines be without it?
The last knob in the oscillator row acts as a detune for oscillator 2, with a range of about seven semitones up or down. As it's an inexact science to get the two VCOs tuned perfectly together, I'd have loved this to be one of the larger controls — but don't forget that the Minimoog's oscillators never quite locked together either. Therefore, and in common with the venerable Mini, some of the Lancet's best bass lines come from a single saw or square wave, achieved by turning the mix knob fully to the left or right. Either of these waveforms are beefy enough to stand alone, kick ass and chew gum at the same time. Oscillator one's triangle wave doesn't quite have the same sonic power as either of these, but it can add extra depth when needed, or provide smooth, melodic subs that roll around like a contented whale.
You'll notice I mentioned the Minimoog just now — a seemingly throwaway reference. However, if you set the Lancet's oscillators an octave apart and turn the cutoff knob over its full range, I don't see how the thought won't arise. Especially when resonance comes into play and you hear its smooth, sweet and slightly bass‑robbing effect as the filter heads towards self‑oscillation. The resemblance to a classic Moog is uncanny, and it means that the Lancet's solos and basses have a presence rarely heard on modern instruments. Occasionally, I would have liked to push the filter harder than permitted, but with no external input and the single-oscillator mix arrangement, the tones are always pure, warm and undistorted. A switch selects keyboard tracking of the filter, from zero, 50 percent and 100 percent options.
No analogue synth, no matter how compact, would be complete without an LFO. This one features triangle, square and random waveforms, but since the rocker switches have a maximum of three options, there was no room left for a sawtooth. My personal taste doesn't extend to square waves as modulation sources. Perhaps this is because police sirens always cause my heart to flutter, and that's pretty much what square waves are best at. OK, there's gating too, but even there I'd argue that a sawtooth is more versatile. Still, the LFO's range is from about 0.05Hz to 250Hz, and so creeps into the lower audio spectrum.
Envelope control of the filter is bi‑polar, and as you turn clockwise from the centre point, the impression is, again, of classic Moog. Having only one envelope is a slight drawback, but fortunately it's fast and snappy, with just the right exponential decay curve for Tangerine Dream‑style sequencing. Vermona have also added Trig and Seq buttons, used to trigger individual notes or preset sequences without a keyboard attached. There's little to say about these, except that I tried them and they worked (the Perfourmer has a similar feature, but not one I've needed much over the years).
The last of the Lancet's three‑way switches determines whether the VCA is under ADSR control, whether it operates as a simple gated envelope (on/off), or whether it is 'on'. In the last case, the signal passes straight through the VCA without requiring the envelope to be triggered. This is ideal for drones and wind noises, but would be of the greatest value if external audio could be part of the picture. Fortunately, courtesy of an optional extra, it can be.
Remember that Extension connector at the rear? This is primed for an accessory in the form of the Modular Dock, a 22HP Eurorack module suitable for use with Analogue Systems, Analogue Solutions and Doepfer modulars. Although this wasn't available at the time of writing, Vermona's web site informs us that it will enable full interfacing with other modulars while also serving as a MIDI/CV interface (1V/Octave), courtesy of its CV & Gate outputs, and will cost 160 Euros$239.
Analogue sequencer aficionados will be pleased to learn of the CV & Gate inputs, plus independent pitch and pulse-width inputs for each oscillator. There's CV control of the filter and of the VCA level, and — showing a welcome attention to detail — most of the CV inputs have attenuators. Also present and correct are the oscillator's raw signal outputs and that much‑prized audio input. It seems the Modular Dock will tick off almost every item on my wish list.
With the emphasis on opening up the Lancet's inputs, some internal signals didn't get a place on the panel. Presumably, if you already have a modular system you won't have a desperate need for the Lancet's LFO and envelope outputs, but Vermona aren't ruling out their appearance on future modules if the demand is there.
I already own way too many small monophonic synths to ever justify another. Nevertheless, it took all of five minutes before I was humming the Knack's 1979 hit, mangling the words with sad predictability. Sonically, we're firmly in the Perfourmer ballpark, itself not a million miles from the classic Moog designs I yearned for in my youth. The rich waveforms, punchy envelope and creamy filter are powerful bedfellows, and more than sufficient reasons to herald the Lancet as a welcome arrival — even in this world of modelled analogues brimming with effects, memories and polyphony.
The Lancet doesn't try to compete in Feature Wars and, although it notably lacks oscillator sync and pulse-width modulation, its functions are generally well‑chosen for typical monosynth roles. If the experimentally minded are feeling left out, the Modular Dock should prove an essential extra purchase, although bear in mind that you'll also need a modular case capable of housing it. The Modular Dock is the gateway to processing external signals through the filter, using the VCOs as modulation sources and accessing the pulse widths and pitches of each oscillator.
This isn't a budget synth, but considering its epic tones and rugged construction, it seems bang in the middle of 'reasonable'. Some modern instruments are complex and require hours of experimentation before you can exploit their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. Others, by luck or design, have the advantage that almost every combination of controls yields the inspiringly wonderful. I'm happy to report that the Lancet falls firmly in the second camp. To cut a long story short, this Vermona's mine!
The Doepfer Dark Energy springs to mind as a possible alternative. Its single-oscillator 'synth on a chip' design is augmented by built-in patchability and a potential for mad filter FM right out of the box. The Mono Lancet is only very slightly more expensive than the Dark Energy, so it's a straight contest between instant patchability and raw sound, the Lancet coming out on top for sheer guts.
There are more small synths — from German company MFB and others, plus various compact modulars springing up, too — but if it's a realistic impression of transatlantic ballsiness you're looking for, nothing comes closer at this price point than the Mono Lancet.
The Mono Lancet has a superior MIDI implementation to the Perfourmer — primarily because it offers velocity control. When enabled, the default action is to drive the VCA but you can optionally drive the filter's envelope depth via velocity too. What you don't have (and, by a sad coincidence, this was the one velocity‑related feature I wanted) is velocity control of the filter without affecting the VCA — except by switching the VCA to its gated envelope mode. In that mode, the VCA hits the maximum level the moment you play each note.
As I mentioned elsewhere, the modulation wheel is hard‑wired to the square waves' common pulse width. If you feel the need, you can turn off the response to either pitch bend or mod wheel and turn on aftertouch control of the filter cutoff frequency. Lastly, there are on/off MIDI controller values defined that activate legato glide and swap envelope triggering from single to multi. Multi triggering (in which every note triggers the envelope, even when you play legato), puts ARP‑style rapid articulation at your command.
Setting the Lancet's MIDI channel involves the one‑time operation of holding the Trig button on power‑up and playing a note.