Vermona have beefed up their four-voice synth and the result is an analogue monster with the emphasis firmly on performance.
Vermona's 2003 release, the Perfourmer, put four analogue synthesizers in a single rack unit, with the added twist that how they worked together was determined by the user. I fell in love with the fat, creamy, Moog-like tones, even as I pined for more advanced synthesis and gr-mbled about some of the design choices (none of which prevented me from buying one). For most synthesizer builders, a model nearly a decade old would be consigned to the 'legacy' area of the web site, but for Vermona it simply means the time is ripe for a revisit. Enter the Perfourmer 2...
The first thing you notice is that the Perfourmer 2 is big! It has swollen to a domineering seven rack units, its knobs and switches spread across the available space and creating an ergonomic delight. Gone is the uniform layout of the original. All controls are laid out meaningfully according to function, with knobs in two sizes and colours, plus great-feeling switches dotted about. I particularly liked the oatmeal colour of the knobs, as it brought back fond memories of old Roland keyboards.
In developing a new product, all companies make decisions about the quality of components to use, whether to slap on an external adaptor or print the panel separately and attach it later. Vermona are relatively rare, opting for home rather than Chinese manufacture and putting high quality and performance accessibility before other considerations. You realise at once how the large form factor and welcoming panel will make a genuine difference when playing this synth for hours. With the lights turned down, it's no less of a treat. Green LEDs change intensity to illustrate the LFO and envelope outputs and red LEDs indicate the triggering of each voice.
Front-panel connectivity is carried over unchanged from the Mk1. It offers direct access to individual VCO outputs, accepts external signals on a per-voice basis and even encourages independent effect processing for any or all voices requiring it. If the weight of four distinctly Moogy low-pass filters is more than your speakers can bear, dig out an insert lead or two and apply some external multi-mode filtering or EQ.
As I have insufficient free desk space for anything this large, I attached the rack ears and discovered that the rear panel was recessed, by just enough to make power, MIDI and stereo audio connections. Depending on your rack, you might need right-angled versions of the various leads, as the fit is quite tight. In keeping with the quality first approach, there's an internal power supply and a MIDI Thru port; features that so often go astray in the battle against the bottom line. As optional extras, you can also choose to have CV and Gate jacks fitted and drive each voice from analogue sequencers or keyboards.
Before plunging in, it's worth a browse through the original SOS review from March 2003, as the essence of a Perfourmer voice is pretty much unchanged. There have been several important gains (and even a few losses), but if you're familiar with the first Perfourmer, its successor should be elementary. In the Mk2, a synthesizer voice consists of a single VCO with four waveforms plus noise. There's a resonant low-pass filter that behaves uncannily like a classic Moog, plus an LFO and a single, snappy envelope. The VCA features an 'on' position to make the filtering of external signals hassle-free, and there's a pan control so that each voice can be positioned freely in the stereo spectrum.
To get more mileage from this fairly simple architecture, the Perfourmer 2 has various 'Playmodes', starting with operation as a stacked four-oscillator monosynth and moving on to divide up the voices for duophonic or polyphonic performance. For multitimbral use, each voice can be assigned a unique MIDI channel and act independently. Therefore, before you start to play, the first decision to make is: what kind of synth would you like today?
The act of swapping Playmodes is much improved over the slightly kludgy method seen before. No fewer than six options are ready at the turn of a switch. These are mono 1&2, duo 1&2 and poly 1&2, and we'll look at the differences between them in a moment. First, it's worth testing how easy it is to change mode or MIDI channel. Easy, after all, means you'll do it more often. Taking MIDI first, it requires just the push of a button and a turn of a knob to select the channel. Any voices set to the same channel are highlighted by a trigger LED, and voices are added or subtracted by pushing their trigger buttons. Conveniently, the changes you make are not activated until you press the MIDI button a second time — so you can smoothly swap multiple voices around without fear of glitches.
Returning to the Playmodes, the first of these, Mono 1, is a stacked unison mode for all voices, providing they're set to the same MIDI channel. Here be dragons — or if not actual dragons, then huge, bloated solo patches and bass monsters! Of all the modes, this is the one that's most representative of the Perfourmer 2's size, but it's also handy when trying out a spot of analogue FM, as we'll see later. In Mono 2 mode, the voices are cycled one after the other for each note played. This is nothing less than brilliant when the synth is driven by a sequencer or arpeggiator, and is sure to raise a smile, whether each voice is subtly different — or very different. Being analogue, identical isn't an option.
For ease of use, the two duophonic modes ignore MIDI channel assignments in favour of the first voice's channel. The available voices are divided into pairs, with Duo 1 misnamed slightly: it behaves like a mono mode except that it alternates the paired voices with each incoming note. Duo 2 is for regular duophonic performance and brought back wistful memories of my Oberheim Two Voice synth.
The last two Playmodes are polyphonic, and for the maximum benefit you need to set all four voices to the same MIDI channel. In the first of these, Poly 1, the order of held notes is stored, with the oldest notes dropped when polyphony is exceeded. Poly 2 is blissfully ignorant of note order, and so its voice stealing is less predictable.
Having grasped voice assignment, there are a number of Edit modes to check out too, although there's no urgency to do this, as the default settings are just fine. All Edit functions are printed on the panel; edits only become live when you exit Edit mode. This makes the manual all but superfluous and perhaps because this is so damn slick, there's no option to reconfigure the synth via MIDI — it's hands-on all the way!
Press the Edit button and a number of voice-related features can be viewed or changed. For example, each LFO may be sync'ed to MIDI clock — the original Perfourmer looks on in envy! With MIDI sync engaged, the rate knob is divided into clock divisions, starting at a whole note and progressing to 32nd notes. There are a couple of triplet values included, but no dotted notes; whenever sync is active, the green MIDI LED flashes as a reminder. In another helpful move, if you switch from one timing value to another, the change only kicks in when the current LFO cycle completes, rendering transitions smooth and musical. For gate fetishists, any LFO's sawtooth wave can be optionally swapped for square.
Continuing through the Edit options, every voice's response to velocity can be individually enabled. However, this is for VCA level only. Similarly, MIDI control of the filter cutoff is yours to command, providing you don't mind the fixed tie-in with aftertouch. Lastly, you can set whether glide should only be active when playing legato, and whether the envelopes should be single- or multi-triggered.
There are two global Edit options related to sync'ing the LFOs to an internal clock, with those ever-popular Trig buttons used to tap in the tempo. Suddenly it's feasible to sync Perfourmer 2 modulation manually — for example, to a live drummer. I should also mention that Vermona have once again included a selection of built-in sequences. I doubt many people will use them, except occasionally to check audio connections, so it's fortunate that there's a 'Trig Lock' switch to prevent firing any off accidentally.
How often have you encountered a synthesizer where each voice is unique and designed to be subtly — or substantially — modified as you play? The sonic rewards soon become obvious, but I'm surprised that the idea hasn't been taken up by more virtual analogues — or any! With no memories to call on, working at speed dictates that the number of parameters be kept in check, so let's look more closely at Vermona's voice essentials.
Each VCO has gained triangle and sine waves to add to its existing sawtooth, square and noise. Plus, there's a low or high pitch setting where the oscillator is disconnected from the keyboard to serve as a modulation source. As before, there are individual glide amounts for every voice, and now there's a two-way LFO modulation knob. This provides pitch modulation in one direction, PWM in the other. As you start to modulate pulse width towards its maximum, the pulse becomes so thin it disappears; a worthwhile effect by itself. One trick missing is ADSR modulation of pulse width, but perhaps it's understandable, given the envelope's current workload. Not only does it modulate the filter and amplifier but it has gained control over oscillator pitch too, in either positive or negative directions. This was required to exploit another feature new to the Mk2: oscillator sync.
Vermona's implementation of sync is rather unusual. Apart from the first, each voice has a switch to select either VCO or LFO synchronisation. If you pick VCO sync, the voice immediately above it becomes the master. Even with just LFO or envelope control of the slaved oscillator's pitch, the results are wild, tearing and wonderful. When you assign voices to different MIDI channels or drive them independently via CV/Gate, sync adds an extra dimension of unpredictability, each voice locking to the preceding one, which in turn does the same, as far back up the chain as it goes. It's way harder to describe the effect of this than experience it, but multi-voice sync is easily the Perfourmer 2's most distinctive and welcome new attribute. For more conventional sync, the monophonic and duophonic modes serve well, the one omission being the lack of mod wheel-based pitch control for those Prodigy-esque sweeps. I guess you can't have everything.
Switching the sync to LFO enables multiple LFOs to lock together. Do this for all voices and only the top LFO's rate control is active; the rest merely change the phase of the slaves. At the maximum displacement of 180 degrees, the slaved LFO will be out by exactly half a cycle — ideal for making pulse-width modulation even swooshier. The LFO range is healthy enough: from about 0.05Hz up to 250Hz, the slowest rate approximately one cycle every 20 seconds, which is just the ticket for slowly evolving drones.
The synth responds to five octaves of incoming notes (upwards from C3) and the oscillators' range of 4' down to 32' ensures that no sonic ground is out of reach. In a further step forwards, each voice's tune control has been reduced to a more manageable plus or minus seven semitones. Bundle in a very handy A440 signal generator, plus a large master tune knob, and the Perfourmer 2 is easier to tune than ever. Based on the time I've spent with it so far, it also stays that way far more reliably.
FM is only slightly different in the Mk2. Previously, LFO modulation depths became FM amounts at the press of a button. Troglodytes will be relieved that the dazzling blue LED indicating that FM is alive has been banished. The controls are now positioned down the left-hand side, reduced to a single knob with a choice of VCO or VCF modulation.
The inclusion of sine waves makes FM into a more workable proposition from the start, although you can still self-oscillate the filter to obtain a sine if you prefer. Turn the FM amount knob to the left and the VCO is frequency modulated by the preceding voice. Stack all four and, using a combination of FM amount, the octave switches and the tuning controls, the most unruly FM you ever heard smashes into your monitors and your fillings. Forget the precision of Yamaha's perfectly-tuned digital sine waves: Vermona are less 'Lately Bass' and more 'off your face'. This variant of FM is one of the few aspects of the Perfourmer 2's nature where tonal craziness reigns. For more musical FM, I found two or sometimes three stacked voices delivered the sought-after percussive patches and plucked basses. With a clockwise turn, you obtain fizzy, spiky filter FM. And since FM is sourced from the complete voice output, extra freak points are yours by using the external inputs or noise.
The review model had been fitted with the optional CV/Gate inputs, meaning that MIDI can be bypassed entirely, should you so wish. Why would anyone need that? Well, super-tight sequencing is one possible answer. If you ever aspired to play four notes simultaneously via MIDI, sorry but you're out of luck, it can't be done — via a single MIDI port, anyway. Shock, horror, I hear you cry, but it's true! MIDI is a serial interface and therefore everything that happens happens sequentially, one event after another. This review isn't the place to muse over the subtleties involved in perceiving a few milliseconds between fast, percussive hits, but if you've ever thought simultaneous voices played by a drum machine sounded different when replayed via MIDI, then perhaps these optional jacks are aimed at you.
Lara Croft is a stunning-looking babe who can do incredible things on your Playstation, yet, compared to a real girlfriend, she lacks a certain something. Virtual analogue synthesizers, like Lara, can perform amazing feats, but as we've seen quite a lot of the real deal lately, perhaps the girlfriend experience is relevant? The Perfourmer 2 is an imposing analogue synthesizer and it sounds like it, especially in stacked monophonic mode. For multitimbral analogue sequencing, I can't think of any single synth that comes close, and even though it isn't the most full-featured polysynth ever conceived, it certainly outshines the original model, mostly due to the addition of pulse-width modulation. A single-oscillator-per-voice polyphonic synth without even a sub-oscillator to beef it up should not sound this lush!
I mentioned previously — and in the Mono Lancet review — that the filter is superb. Combined with regular synth waveforms and the new and slightly rakish sync implementation, you won't go far wrong for solo patches, basses, or even pads. Apart from its FM strangeness, you're unlikely to stray too far from familiar but classic analogue; the Perfourmer 2 is not a synth you'd associate with experimental music.
Only a few quibbles remain, all of them minor. It would have benefited from a more extensive MIDI spec, even if this only permitted velocity control of the filter envelope amount or connected oscillator pitch to the mod wheel. But the gains in the Mk2 are significant, the losses negligible. The price has gone up, but this is consistent with the quality of construction, increased size and accessibility.
Some of you might take the view that synthesis should constantly move forward and feel that Moog-style low-pass filters and standard waveforms have had their day. Fortunately, this is a philosophy that hasn't troubled other instruments, allowing them to mature slowly and become stable enough for musicians to bond with. Vermona are firmly rooted in classic soil, and when you already have a model that sounds fab, taking extra steps to refine it seems way more sensible than starting over. There are so many electronic instruments that could be awesome if only their makers returned to finish them off, so full marks to Vermona for doing just that!
There is no analogue I can think of that can take on so many different roles so easily. The tiny and chainable Tetra from Dave Smith instruments is one menu-based take on the theme, but for a more tweakable alternative, you'd need to assemble several Moog Minitaurs, Vermona Mono Lancets or MacBeth Micromacs. Even then, you'd be unable to use them duophonically or polyphonically without calling on clever assignment tricks from your controller keyboard or software. We might have to wait until Tom Oberheim's SO4V (Son Of 4-Voice) appears before there's another synth that marries independent analogue voices and polyphony.
Some of the Mk1 Perfourmer's features didn't make it through to its successor. The filter has lost fully variable key tracking; in its place is a switch offering fixed settings of zero, 50 and 100 percent. The LFO no longer has that useful reverse sawtooth but gains sample and hold instead — a reasonable swap. The oscillators have mostly picked up extra features, but you can't now select different pulse widths directly from the panel. As on the Mono Lancet synth, this is the exclusive and slightly odd province of the mod wheel. Last, and probably least, the VCA's LFO modulation is no more. This was never a favourite feature of mine, but it might have been fun trying it with the extended LFO sync options.