Arturia have taken their Origin concept further with the addition of a keyboard and new modules. So is it now the only synthesizer you'll ever need?
When Arturia announced the idea of a synthesizer that would allow owners to build new synthesizers by mixing and matching virtual oscillators, filters and whatnot from instruments such as Minimoogs, ARP 2600s, Jupiter 8s, CS80s and Prophets, the world responded with a resounding... well, not much at all. I found this surprising, not least because I was rather excited when, in 2009, I was given the opportunity to review the Origin desktop module. However, despite being impressed by it, I was really waiting for the keyboard version, which promised to emulate many of my heavy vintage synths, as well as allow me to design new instruments that had never existed in physical form. This took somewhat longer to appear than I had hoped, but finally, it's here, and it looks gorgeous. I have to admit, I've been looking forward to this one!
There's no space here to recap the concepts that underlie the Origin's architecture, nor to describe all the modules and facilities that existed in previous versions. So, if you want to know about 2D Envelopes, Galaxy modules, three‑row graphic sequencers and all the rest, you may like to read my original review in Sound On Sound June 2009 before going further.
Setting up the Origin Keyboard (which henceforth I'll just call 'the Keyboard') couldn't be simpler. You just flip up the control section (which is almost identical to that of the original Origin module) to reveal the whole of what turns out to be a nicely weighted and very playable velocity‑ and pressure‑sensitive keyboard. Then plug in the power supply, connect the Keyboard to your mixer, and switch on. While around at the back, I noted that, as well as the expected stereo outputs, headphones output, MIDI In/Out/Thru, dual pedal inputs and USB 2 socket, the Origin Keyboard also offers no fewer than eight auxiliary outputs. These allow you to direct up to four stereo synths within a Multi to the outside world, totally independent of one another. There's also an S/PDIF output that echoes the main stereo pair, and two inputs that allow you to process external audio through the Keyboard. This is all good stuff. However, the use of a wall‑wart on a flagship product is not so good, and the use of an unusual 6.5V DC device is even worse. The Origin could accommodate a built‑in PSU, and in my opinion should. This became doubly clear to me when I tried an alternative AC/DC converter and the screen flickered. I'm surprised that it worked at all; the Origin draws 3.85A, whereas a typical wall‑wart delivers a few hundred milliamps. Come on mes amis, your flagship product deserves an IEC socket!
Having switched on the first time, I found that the review unit had been shipped with firmware v.1.2.5, but Arturia then provided me with the first beta of v1.3, which included many of the new modules and other goodies that I wanted to review. Over the ensuing weeks, I upgraded many more times, finally reaching v1.3.11, which was the version installed when I submitted this article.
Let's start by considering the modules and effects that Arturia have introduced since the Origin appeared, and which are common to both the desktop version and the Keyboard. There are eight of these: three synthesis modules and five new effects.
The Tonewheel Oscillator imitates the voicing of a large-format Hammond organ. Its capabilities are as you would expect, and include controls for key‑click and percussion. There's also a knob for a function that Arturia calls Hardness. This changes the waveform of each drawbar from something akin to a sine wave to one with all the overtones present at significant amplitudes. When this is fully anti‑clockwise, the module imitates the warm, rounded tone of a large Hammond; when fully clockwise, it sounds like a transistor organ. This is an excellent addition, and it extends the range of organ sounds — traditional, electromechanical and combo — way beyond what would otherwise be possible. It also proved to be an excellent 'additive' oscillator for other types of sounds, such as electronic pianos and many delicate and glassy sounds.
Next comes the CS80 Envelope Generator. At first sight, this may seem a strange addition because, for the most part, its five controls — Initial Level, Attack Level, Attack Time, Decay Time and Release Time — produce the same shapes as a conventional ADSR. However, when you set the Initial Level to be higher than the Attack Level you can obtain contours not available elsewhere in the Origin. What's more, like the Origin's own contour generator, it allows you to define the curves of the attack, decay and release stages individually, which is excellent. There's also a Sustain on/off switch that allows you to create curves that move directly from the Decay stage to the Release stage. You might think that this would make it ideal for synthesizing instruments such as plucked strings and pianos, but it's not. With sustain off, every note completes both its decay and release stages, whether you release the key or not. The correct behaviour would be to go immediately to the release stage when you release a key.
The last of the new synth modules is a Sample & Hold based on the ARP 2600. As you can imagine, with so many input, output and clock possibilities, it's very powerful. OK, it's not perfect, and I have an issue with it when it's used polyphonically, but the fault is both too minor and too detailed to describe here, so let's move on.
Organ sounds are nothing without appropriate effects, and this is where the Tonewheel module falls short. While it's possible to generate all manner of tremolos and vibratos using the Origin's global LFOs, there's nothing that imitates the distinctive chorus/vibrato of a Hammond. You can get close, but not as close as on a dedicated Hammond clone. There is, however, a new dual‑rotor Leslie effect. The underlying sound of this is not bad at all, but there are just three controls: speed, rotor/horn mix, and dry/wet mix. In my view, the last of these is pointless — I either want a sound to go through a Leslie or I don't — but I'm more concerned about the omissions: microphone placement and, in particular, acceleration/deceleration rates. Don't misunderstand me; the default values are fine, but they should be editable. The other shortcoming is that the fast/slow speed can only be assigned to one of the eight 'live' knobs on the control panel or to a momentary pedal, and it would be nice if it were a destination for more controllers.
The Bit Crusher allows you to truncate the digital data (thus introducing quantisation distortion) and reduce its sample rate (thereby introducing aliasing). It may seem strange to design a system that is as smooth and accurate as possible and then wreck all of your hard work but, used creatively, the results can be interesting. Next comes a Parametric EQ that offers a low shelf, two parametric 'bell' curves, and a high shelf. It works well, and is a very useful addition for sculpting sounds. Following that, there's a Compressor. I obtained excellent results from this, not in its traditional role as a level controller but as a creative effect. My favourite use saw it placed between the distortion and rotary speaker effects in an organ patch, whereupon it provided extra body and — as on an original valve‑amplified Hammond — applied mild compression as I played more notes or drew out more drawbars. Suddenly, organ patches that I had merely liked before became special.
The last of the new effects is based on the CS80's ring modulator. As on the original, this affects the signal as a whole, rather than applying modulation to each note individually, which is why it's an effect module rather than a synthesis module. Its first four knobs emulate the Attack, Decay, Env Depth and Speed faders on the CS80, while the fifth (Dry/Wet) approximates the Modulation ('depth of effect') fader. As on Arturia's CS80V, the range of effects that you can obtain from it is wider than on the original synth, and even when set up to generate the same result, the sound is similar, rather than identical, to that of the big Yamaha. Nonetheless, I think that you'll like it.
The next big update is the addition of a Jupiter 8 template. Unfortunately, when you invoke this you obtain a default patch that has its filter cutoff frequency controlled by aftertouch. This means that you have to switch things off before it will respond and sound like a Jupiter 8. That's daft. What's more, the JP8 presets supplied in v1.3 also have aftertouch assigned in the same fashion. That's lazy.
There's also a problem with the way that notes are articulated in the template, because the envelopes reinitialise when you re‑press a key, and this can result in a 'sucking' character unlike the smooth response of the original synth. Interestingly, Arturia's Jupiter 8V soft synth responds correctly. In the company's defence, I should point out that there are no dedicated JP8 contour generators in the Origin, but it's still worth noting that the template is not as accurate an imitation as the dedicated soft synth.
So, is the template a waste of time? Not at all; you can obtain some great sounds using it, but it needs to be treated as a work in progress. Likewise, when they develop other templates, Arturia's engineers must take notice of the quirks of the original instruments. For example, the Origin's chorus does not sound the same as a CS80 chorus, and that could make all the difference between an approximation and a really good emulation.
The Origin Keyboard exudes quality, and I found its semi‑weighted action to be a good compromise for the synths and organs it imitates. Given that you can also define your own velocity and aftertouch curves, I was very happy with it. The provision of a huge ribbon controller is also good news, and the pitch‑bend and modulation wheels are positioned correctly and feel positive in use. What's more, offsetting the control panel and ribbon to the left (perhaps to pander to the needs of predominantly right‑handed players) was a good idea. I also appreciated the eight auxiliary outputs that — in conjunction with its multitimbral effects — allowed me to use it as four independent synths. The benefits of this should not be underestimated. What's more, Arturia have added many new performance features in the software to help you to get the best from the new hardware. Perhaps the most obvious of these is Duophonic Aftertouch, which allows you to affect a single note and leave any others played at the same time untouched. You have to define beforehand which note will be modified — the highest, the lowest, or the most recent — but, despite this, I found it useful when playing solos over chords ('highest'), bass lines underneath organs and pianos ('lowest'), and when I wanted to accentuate single notes within chords ('last').
The Origin also offers two new Unison modes: one for monophonic sounds, and one for polyphonic. There are still some limitations when using these in Multi mode, but they are nonetheless excellent additions, allowing you to stack and detune up to eight voices on each note. Not just useful for creating massive lead sounds or voluptuous pads, they allow you to create all manner of sounds that would not otherwise be possible. Indeed, when it comes to creating unexpected sounds, the Origin is perhaps the most serendipitous keyboard I have reviewed for some time. Who could have predicted that, while investigating the Hardness parameter in the Tonewheel oscillator, I would create some of the best RMI Electrapiano patches I have ever heard? Likewise, how could I have imagined that playing around with polyphonic unison would lead to some remarkable Mellotron‑esque patches? Of course, you may have no interest in the classic keyboards of the 1960s and 1970s, but I am convinced that the Origin Keyboard will do something surprising within the realms of your tastes, too.
Nevertheless, there are still a few areas in which the Keyboard falls short. Firstly, the screen has lost the module's contrast control, so it can be rather difficult to see highlights when looking at an angle. Next, I experienced a couple of occasions when pitch was unstable. This turned out to be a consequence of the pitch‑bend wheel not sitting comfortably at zero. A quick flick eliminated the problem, so I got into the habit of doing this every time I switched on. Another problem was the rather loud thump that occurred every time the Keyboard finished booting; this is one instrument where you really should turn your amp on after the synth! However, the thing that really bugged me was the large knob that selects parameters and then changes their values. Turn it clockwise and the selector or value would go up as intended... or maybe down... or up and down like a demented arpeggiator. Turn it anti-clockwise and the value would go down as intended... or maybe up... or down and up. This made editing extremely frustrating, so I used one of the 'live' encoders to change values whenever possible. To be fair, I don't remember this being an issue on the desktop module, so I hope it's a fault specific to this unit. Nevertheless, I have encountered the same behaviour elsewhere, so I recommend that Arturia check their supply of encoders carefully.
Regarding the firmware, there were numerous bugs at the start of the review, but more disappeared with each upgrade until, by the time I had loaded v1.3.11, they were, well... maybe not quite as rare as DX1s at an analogue synth convention, but in danger of extinction nonetheless. Furthermore, the Origin Connection software proved to be completely stable on my MacBook Pro. I don't know whether Arturia plan to develop this further, but if I could make a request, please could they add renaming of patches and re‑ordering of libraries to it? These would be significant bonuses.
Finally, there's the issue of the factory presets. I'm not going to win any fans by writing this, but I don't think that they do the Keyboard justice. Of course, my judgment is influenced by personal taste but, putting that to one side, I still contend that the Origin is better than the factory sounds suggest. So don't judge it by these and, if you get your hands on one, start programming.
The Origin Keyboard is just a bunch of soft synths in a keyboard, right? Wrong. It has myriad other facets, and this review doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what it can do. It's only when you start building and programming your own architectures that you begin to understand what makes the Origin different from a conventional soft synth, or from a Neko or Receptor.
Let me put it like this: Imagine that somebody offered you a wall‑sized, patchable, 32‑voice polysynth in which every voice comprised a bunch of Minimoog and ARP 2600 oscillators plus a couple of Hammond C3 tone generators and the wavetables from the Prophet VS, a pair of Minimoog and Jupiter 8 filters, a couple of the CS80's HP/LP filters, a mixture of HA(D1)H(D2)SR contour generators and the IL/AL/ADR contour generators from a CS80, plus numerous LFOs, S&H modules, CV processors, multi‑timbral effects, three‑step sequencers, and more, all controlled from a high quality velocity‑ and pressure‑sensitive keyboard. Now imagine that somebody offered you an Origin Keyboard for the same price. Do you feel an equal surge of excitement? No, I thought not, and neither do I. But perhaps we should. As well as sounding excellent and being a fraction of the size and weight of the impossible modular, the Keyboard will be more reliable and won't require the output of a small power station to keep it running.
If it has a shortcoming, it's the temptation to throw the kitchen sink into every patch, chuck all manner of effects at the ensuing sound, and then hurl the sequencer at the result to create one of those 'hey, stop and listen to me!' sounds that you hear in music shops. Then, when you fancy something different, there's a temptation to create a new synth architecture, throw all manner of effects at it, sequence it, and so on, every time. But when I look at a Minimoog or Jupiter 8 or ARP 2600 or CS80, I don't feel the need to do anything other than adjust a small number of controls to create some of the greatest keyboard sounds of all time. And therein lies the secret. Once you get over the fact that you can jump through incredible hoops with the Origin Keyboard, you begin to realise that you could create a single, unique synth within it, and then spend the rest of your life obtaining fabulous sounds from it.
There are no direct equivalents to the Origin Keyboard. Modular soft synths do not qualify, nor do the Muse Receptor nor Neko 64 because they are PCs running VSTs, not dedicated instruments that offer the Origin's unique mix 'n' match architecture. The Nord Modular Keyboard probably came closest, but the last of these was discontinued in 2009. What's more, it didn't emulate vintage synths and you still needed a computer to edit it.
Arturia have promised to continue releasing new modules, new templates and new features for the Origin. I'm very pleased, because it's always a huge disappointment when the development of an open‑ended system is concluded. So, what would you add to your Origin wish list? Oberheim modules and an 8‑Voice template? A Memorymoog template? The ability to use it as a 'hard' plug‑in alongside a sequencer or workstation? A touchscreen? A 76‑note keyboard? Once you start thinking of the possibilities, you'll take a while to stop.
Here's a list of the major changes and additions to the Origin since Arturia launched it in 2009.
Oscillators: up to 15 at a time (nine 'analogue' oscillators; four wavetables oscillators; two tone‑wheel oscillators).
Filters: up to four.
Output Modules: up to four.
Mixers: up to five.
LFOs: up to four polyphonic and two global.
Envelope Modules: up to eight.
Galaxy Module: one.
2D Envelope: one.
CV Modulators: eight.
Three effects per program.
10 effects types: chorus, delay, reverb, distortion, dual phaser, CS80 ring modulator, parametric EQ, bit crusher, compressor, rotary speaker.
Three x 32 steps; 256 patterns (128 fixed factory patterns).
Modes: forward, backward, forward and backward, random.
Maximum range: five octaves.
1000 programs (400 fixed factory programs).
256 multis (100 fixed factory multis).
Two quarter‑inch main audio outputs.
Eight quarter‑inch auxiliary outputs.
One S/PDIF digital output.
One stereo headphone output.
Two quarter‑inch audio inputs.
One foot controller.
One footswitch controller.
MIDI In, Out and Thru ports; one USB2 port.
Colour 320 x 236-pixel LCD.