Oberheim/Viscount OB12

Analogue Modelling Synth

Published in SOS September 2000
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Reviews : Keyboard

Legend has it that Sir Alec Guiness's character in Star Wars was named after Oberheim's original OB1 synthesizer; and, like that character, the OB-series has now overcome death to reappear in virtual form. Gordon Reid finds the new OB*12 more powerful than he could possibly have imagined -- at the price, at least...

The market for 'virtual analogue' synths has become somewhat crowded of late, but that doesn't seem to deter manufacturers from pitching new models into the field. The latest of these is the long-awaited Oberheim/Viscount OB*12, which recalls, at least in name, the classic Oberheim OBX and OB8 analogue polysynths. However, the original Oberheim company and design team are long gone, the name serving only to add a little historical authority to products designed and manufactured by Italian company Viscount; and although the new instrument has only just reached the shops, rumours are already flying in analogue anorak circles that, where the original OB-series instruments were 'fat' and 'rich', the OB*12 has been condemned as 'thin' and 'digital-sounding'. But is this really true, or is it just misinformed prejudice? And if it were true, would it stop the OB*12 from being a good synth?

Physically Speaking

The OB*12 is a little larger than you might expect for a four-octave synth, but its pressed steel chassis ensures that it's built like a tank, and even the fake (plastic) wooden end cheeks can't detract from a general air of purpose. With lots of space between its numerous knobs and buttons, a large screen,

OBERHEIM/VISCOUNT OB*12 £799
pros
The controls, screens and menus are well thought out, fast and informative.
It's remarkably bug-free given the early version of the OS, and I experienced no crashes.
I experienced NO crashes (I think this justifies repetition).
Tremendous controller capability.
It offers a different 'quality' of sound, not just more of the same.
The price.
cons
It's limited in the range of sounds it does well.
It has difficulty handling chords in unison or layered patches.
It has limited polyphony.
There are still a handful too many bugs to give it a totally clean bill of health.
The Phrase Recorder needs work to rationalise its operation.
The factory sound set stinks.
summary
The OB*12 offers much more than you might imagine. It doesn't compete with the Access Virus for 'analogue' warmth, and it lacks the sheer programming power of the Novation Supernova. However, it has a character of its own, it's simple to use, and you have to admire the price/performance ratio.

and clear panel graphics, it's also more welcoming than many other synths in its class. Add to this a very playable velocity- and pressure-sensitive keyboard, two large, comfortable, pitch and modulation wheels and a multi-function ribbon controller, and the whole package looks rather appealing. A pleasant surprise on a synth in this price bracket is the inclusion of an S/PDIF digital output alongside the two sets of analogue outs.

Like many other DSP-based synths, the OB*12 provides a large number of controls on its top panel, sufficient to create and tweak a huge range of analogue-esque sounds, and offers many more options in menusassociated with each section. This is where its large display proves so valuable. Whereas the last DSP-based synth I reviewed offered just a pokey 2 x 20-character display, the OB*12 has a 240 x 64-pixel screen that displays its parameters graphically. This means that you can see the positions of the 'virtual' sliders, and view the envelopes (and so on) in their full glory as you edit them. This earns Viscount a fistful of brownie points. Accessing these graphics is simple: provided that you don't instruct it otherwise, the Obie will jump quickly to the appropriate page when you touch a control. Alternatively, you can press the relevant 'Edit' button and select the page you want.

The OB*12 is capable of 12-voice polyphony and four-voice multitimbrality, and provides two sound-generating modes. An OB*12 'Timbre' is what you might normally call a patch, and this offers nine edit pages, most of which are duplicated on the control panel. Viscount have named the level above this a 'Program', although you would more often think of it as a Multi, Combi, or Performance, and this has 10 edit pages. Since the Timbre is the fundamental level of the OB*12, let's start there...

The Oscillators

The sound engine comprises two oscillators, a ring modulator, a noise generator, two filters, an amplifier, and two LFOs. It's all very traditional and analogue-esque but, under the hood, the OB*12 has some impressive extra features. Take Osc1 as an example. In best analogue tradition, this offers sawtooth, triangle and pulse waveforms, the last with PWM controlled by either LFO1 or the oscillators' dedicated three-stage (Attack, Decay1/Break, Decay2) envelope generator. In addition to this, the sawtooth has a waveshaper similar to Roland's 'supersaw' facility. This adds a detuned second sawtooth that creates rich, chorused sounds from a single oscillator. Similarly, the triangle has a waveshaper, although it's a weird one: it increases the amplitude of the triangle so that it 'wraps' around the upper and lower limits, generating complex sounds that are very digital in character. You can mix the outputs of any combination of the three waveforms using the three Wave Mix controls in the Osc1 panel, add modulation from either LFO, and apply FM (cross modulation) from Osc2. It's a powerful package, and I like it very much. From the simplest and most common timbres to complex digital sounds rich in overtones, it's all in there.

Osc2 shares Osc1's waveforms and mixing capabilities, but lacks the waveshaping of the triangle and sawtooth waves. Instead, it offers coarse (±24 semitones) and fine (±50 cents) tuning controls, keyboard tracking on/off (so that you can use it as an audio-frequency modulator) and 'sync'. This means that you can cross-modulate Osc1 from Osc2 while simultaneously synchronising Osc2 to Osc1. The results can be wild: I created one Timbre in which the pitch tracking above middle C was greater than 1:1 while, below that, it was inverted. As you might imagine, this gives the OB*12 considerable 'sound effects' potential.

The oscillator mixer and envelope controls reside in the Oscillator Common section. The mixer is as odd as any I've ever seen. On the left, fader 1 balances Osc1 and Osc2. Fader 2 then balances the mixed oscillator signal with the output from the ring modulator. Fader 3 balances the balanced Osc1/Osc2/RM signal with the output from the noise generator. If this seems straightforward, ask yourself how you would set the faders to mix the outputs from Osc1, Osc2, the ring modulator and the noise generator equally. The answer is: fader 1 at 50 percent, fader 2 at 33 percent, fader 3 at 25 percent. Not so obvious, huh?

The ring modulator itself is excellent. It's very clean with no associated noise or digital artefacts, and it responds correctly when you present complex signals to its input. Unfortunately, some players associate unwanted side-effects and distortion with the modulated sound itself, and those people may find the ring modulator in the OB*12 to be somewhat lacking in character.

On the front panel, the oscillator envelope offers just Attack and Decay controls but, when you delve a little more deeply, it reveals its true nature. It's a four-parameter contour with Attack, Decay1 Time, Decay1 Level and Decay2 Time settings. This produces shapes that are not possible using conventional ADSRs, allowing you to swoop above and below the notional 'zero' line during the course of the contour.

The Filters

The next stage in the signal path is, of course, the filter section. This offers two filters that you can configure in three ways. The first of these is 'Serial', wherein filter 2 follows filter 1. The second is 'Parallel'. In this, the signal is split into two paths; one passes through filter 1, the other passes through filter 2, and the two are recombined after filtering. The third is 'Split', which allows you to determine which oscillator signal is modified by which filter. This is sexy stuff.

The filters themselves can assume four guises: high-pass, low-pass, band-pass and 'flat' (ie. off). All the web sites I could find on the Net describe them as 24dB/octave filters, but I can find no su

  Links  
  'Links' allow you to override the LFO rates of all four Timbres in a Program, the chorus rate, and the delay time controls, independently substituting either the arpeggiator clock, the Phrase Recorder clock, or MIDI clock for each. This allows you to create arpeggios and phrases in which the voicing changes in sync with the pattern. This, too, is first-class.  
pporting evidence for this. All three of the filter types are resonant, and will also self-oscillate provided that you give them a kick up the backside by providing a trigger signal at their audio inputs. This behaviour is identical to that of a true analogue filter, which is stimulated by the unavoidable noise in any electrical circuit.

Filter Modulation comes from four sources. The first two are the LFOs, and there's nothing surprising there. The third modulator is the variable-rate keyboard tracking. Surprisingly, this doesn't track linearly, and there's no setting that allows you to play the self-oscillating filter as an extra oscillator. Authentic? Yes, but a shame nonetheless.

The dedicated filter envelope is the fourth modulation source. Looking at the top panel, you will be misled into believing that this is a simple ADSR. However, touching one of the sliders takes you to two edit pages called 'ADSR' and 'ADV-ENV'. The latter allows you to configure six-stage envelopes with a Hold segment before the Attack, plus two Decay stages separated by a Break Point. It also adds an optional Sustain Time parameter that limits the amount of time that the filter remains at the Sustain Level. I can't recall having seen this parameter elsewhere, and it makes an interesting addition.

You can offset the filters' cutoff frequencies to create profiles with 'knees' (as you can with the filter on the EMS VCS3), configure powerful 'formant' filters, generate 'band-reject' profiles, and more. Unfortunately, there's only one envelope for both filters, no matter which configuration is active. This means that both cutoff frequencies will always follow the same contours.

The Amplifier And Modulators

The amplifier provides an envelope similar to that available to the filters, offers modulation from LFO1 and LFO2, allows you to position the signal in the stereo field, and also adds stereo panning (determined by the rate and waveform of LFO1). Which brings us to the LFOs themselves...

On the top panel, LFO1 offers just three controls. These are Rate, Fade (gradual fade-in of the amplitude), and a button to select between the four available waveforms: sawtooth, triangle, square, and 'random'. Tucked away in the menus there's also a Delay parameter that determines a length of time before the onset of modulation. But the most interesting feature is the dedicated filter that slews the signal from the LFO. The effect is much like applying portamento to an audio signal, and it smoothes the modulations to create subtly different effects. Nice.

LFO2 is similar to LFO1, but with six destinations -- Osc1 frequency, Osc1 PWM, Osc2 frequency, Osc2 PWM, filter cutoff frequency, amplifier amplitude -- instead of seven. (The missing one is Autopan.) However, unlike LFO1, LFO2 allows you to control the depth of the modulating signal using the modulation wheel. Unfortunately, I discovered a strange little bug in LFO2. If you apply the LFO2 triangle waveform to the amplifier to create tremolo (a common requirement), it exhibits a little hiccup between cycles. This does not happen with the other LFO2 waveforms, nor when you apply the LFO2 triangle to other destinations. Weird!

Keyboard Mode

Once you've created a Timbre, the 'Keyboard' panel allows you to tailor it for your performance. This panel includes portamento, voice reserve (for multitimbral use), octave shift for each oscillator, unison, and

  System Pages  
  The System Edit pages allow you to control all the non-sound properties of the OB*12. Like everything else within the synth, these are simple and accessible, reducing otherwise complex functions to no-brainers.

Page 1 allows you to set all the major MIDI parameters. These include Global (ie. monotimbral) and multitimbral modes, and the channels to which these will respond. It also includes MIDI input and MIDI output filters, and lets you create a Map so that any given MIDI patch number will select the Program or Timbre of your choice.

Page 2 lets you set the CC and SysEx messages that will control the 197 (!) slider parameters and 86 switch parameters available. You can use Viscount's predetermined map or create a custom map of your own. This is useful if you wish to control the OB*12 using a keyboard less configurable that the Obie itself.

Page 3 is dedicated to MIDI sync, and you can use this to control how the OB*12 transmits or receives MIDI clock. For example, you can use any of LFO1, LFO2, the phrase recorder or the arpeggiator to generate MIDI clock, and at any rate from 0.1x to 10x the parameter rate (adjustable in 0.1 steps). You can set up and control the transmission of MIDI Start, Stop, Pause and Continue messages, and choose whether MIDI Real Time messages will control the Motion recorder and Auto Morphing. This page also allows you to determine the response of the arpeggiator, the phrase recorder and the auto morph to incoming MIDI Clock.

Page 4 controls bulk dumps, while Page 5 allows you to set global pedal assignments that override those specified in the Programs. (If you set any of these, don't forget about it, or hours of confusion and frustration may ensue.) Page 6 determines whether the S/PDIF output carries the signal from the Main or Aux busses, while Page 7 allows you to set the master tuning, display parameters, and start-up condition.

The final page is 'Tools'. This allows you to initialise Timbres and copy bits and pieces from one Timbre to another. It also contains the memory usage information for the phrase Sets and Motion locations, and displays the CPU and OS revisions of the particular instrument. Given that there are still a number of sonic issues and bugs to sort out, you'll be glad to know that you can update the OB*12 using MIDI files. I would prefer an on-board floppy drive, but at this price, I'm not going to complain too loudly.

 
mono/poly modes.

Unison is interesting. It allocates three voices to each note, thickening the sound, but reducing polyphony to just four notes. The combination of unison and detune then works in a novel way. For example, if you set the coarse detune to one semitone and play a C, the lowest of the three voices will play B, the highest will play C#, and the central one will play the C itself. Fine detune uses the same philosophy, flattening one voice while sharpening another. This creates some extremely lush sounds indeed. The final unison parameter is FINE RND INFL, which stands for Fine Detune Random Influence. This specifies the degree of random variation that occurs in the fine-tuning of each of the voices comprising a unison note, imitating the natural variations that occur when you use a genuine multi-oscillator analogue synthesizer. Bravo! Unfortunately, the OB*12 seems unable to handle four-note chords in unison mode, playing some notes instantaneously, while others follow a fraction of second later. This has all the hallmarks of inadequate processing power, so I hope that it's a software problem!

Mono mode does much more than reduce the available polyphony to one. For example, you can select the note priority, choosing between highest-note, lowest-note, and most recent note priorities. Furthermore, 'Legato' allows you to choose between multi-triggering and single triggering. These six combinations allow you to emulate almost every monosynth, so you can programme the OB*12 to perform like your favourite vintage instruments.

Now we come to the controllers. The OB*12 is well endowed in this department, offering the aforementioned velocity sensitivity, aftertouch, ribbon controller, and pitch and mod wheels. There are nine keyboard velocity response curves, including two 'reversed' responses for special effects, and you can direct these to any one of 19 Timbre parameters. Likewise, there are eight pressure response curves with 15 destinations.

The Ribbon is more powerful than either of these. This is because you can assign two parameters to it simultaneously, determining the minimum and maximum amounts of effect for each. Destinations? No

  Playing With Your Feet  
  It's easy to spot that the OB*12 has two pedal switch inputs and two continuous controller inputs, but it's less easy (ie. impossible from the outside) to see that you can route each of these to a huge selection of destinations. With 30 switch destinations and 49 continuous controller destinations per Timbre (and with independent Min and Max values for any of the continuous controllers), you can program some hugely complex or subtle changes within each Program. Excellent.  
fewer than 50. Moreover, the Ribbon itself has two modes of operation. The normal mode is the common one whereby the centre-point is 'zero'. 'Relative' is much superior to this, because it treats the point of first contact as 'zero'. This is the method employed on the Yamaha CS80, and has always been my favourite mode of ribbon control. There's even a Ribbon Hold function that lets you remove your hand for other duties.

The Programs

Once you have created a Timbre, you can name it and save it in any of 256 memory locations. However, this is only the first stage in creating a complex sound. Each Program (of which there are also 256) offers space for four Timbres, and you can determine whether each of the four slots is enabled or disabled, and choose the Timbres that occupy them. You can set the Level for each Timbre, its transposition, and high-key/low-key ranges for each, allowing you to layer and/or split Timbres across the whole MIDI note range. Having done this, you can determine which Timbre appears at which of the four outputs, either individually, or as stereo signals across the Main L/R or Aux L/R pairs. This is important, because the OB*12 allows you to rearrange its effects to lie on the busses in no fewer than 242 different configurations. Thankfully, the large screen makes this painless, and it's yet another example of the OB*12's well-thought-out user interface.

And what of the effects themselves? Firstly, there are 16 overdrives, with which I wasn't overly impressed. Many dulled the signal considerably and, worse still, a Timbre passed through the overdrive reverts to mono. This, in my view, is a huge cock-up.

The chorus is a stereo unit with pre-delay, rate, depth, feedback, and level controls. This allows you to dig deep into '70s chorus/echo. Great fun! But if the chorus is 1975 revisited, the delay is even more so. It offers the expected controls -- time, feedback, high-frequency damping and level -- but includes modulation with depth and rate controls. The effect is quite unlike chorus, with each delay having a different pitch offset. The results can be radical.

Lastly, the reverb offers two halls, two rooms, a plate, and 'vocal'. Each has pre-delay, high-frequency damping, reverb time, and reverb level controls, and all are perfectly serviceable. Apart from the overdrives, my only real criticism of the effects is that there is no 'mix' control within any of them. A Level control is not as good because you can not replace the original signal with the effected one.

In addition to what Viscount call 'the effects', the OB*12 also boasts an equaliser. This operates as a five-band graphic with bands centred on 60Hz, 200Hz, 600Hz, 2kHz, and 6kHz, or as a three-band parametric with low shelf (60Hz), high shelf (6kHz), and a central EQ with controls for frequency, Q, and gain. Very useful it is too.

Arpeggiator

The OB*12's arpeggiator is, in direct contrast with the Phrase Recorder (see box) nice and simple, with traditional up, down, alternating and (hurrah!) random modes, ranging over one to four octaves. If you are in Program mode you can select which part(s) are affected by the arpeggiator, and/or define a 'Split' key, above which the notes do not contribute to the arpeggio. You can also select the velocity of each note in the arpeggiating pattern, which can be either: as played; fixed at MIDI velocities 40, 64 or 100; or set to the velocity of the hardest note played. Most interestingly, there are two arpeggio modes. Regular encompasses steady tempos from quarter notes to 1/32nd notes and includes triplet beats. Irregular has seven options with all manner of strange dotted this, that, and the other beats. Seriously weird and, in the right context, you'll love it.

  The OB*12's On-board Phrase Recorder  
  The OB*12's Phrase Recorder is almost certainly unlike anything you've come across before. Indeed, it flummoxed me until I started to think of it as being like a Prophet 10 sequencer (or any other of that era). It was only then that things started to fall into place. I'll try to explain...

Let's start with the 'Sets'. There are four of these, and you can allocate one to any Program that you choose. (Of course, there are 256 Programs and only four sets, so this is not a case of having a dedicated Set for each Timbre or Program.) Within each Set you can record up to 49 polyphonic phrases that you allocate to one of the 49 keys on the four-octave keyboard. Once a phrase is allocated to a key, this then becomes the 'pilot' key for that phrase, activating and playing it until you either release it, or press another pilot key.

You can replay phrases in either Timbre mode or Program mode but, in the latter, you can only determine which Timbres will play the phrase -- you cannot have multiple phrases playing multiple Timbres simultaneously. This is a great shame, and I would like to see Viscount implement this. Anyway, if you run a phrase in Program mode, any unused Timbres are available for conventional playing, up to the limit of polyphony. And if you want to loop the phrase, you simply hold the pilot key indefinitely. Ah yes... the manual says that you can also press the 'Hold' button but, since there isn't one, I beg to differ.

With four Sets of 49 phrases, the Recorder can, in theory, hold 196 phrases, but the manual states that there is an absolute limit of 16,000 notes, so you may not be able to reach the total complement. With four Sets distributed over the keyboard, each note can be the pilot for up to four phrases. This gives you two degrees of freedom: you can change phrases by pressing different pilot keys with one Program, or you can press the same pilot key while jumping between Programs.

When you enter the Phrase Recorder via the Program edit menus, you are offered two pages. The first allows you to determine the Set that will be contained within the Program, and its tempo. The latter parameter is only relevant when you're recording, because the control panel has a Tempo knob and a Tap Tempo button, both of which override the initial setting. The second page allows you to determine the Parts (Timbres) that will respond to the phrases, and the area of the keyboard (from C2 upwards) that will hold the pilot keys. Once you have chosen these settings, you press the Rec button on the control panel, and the screen will offer another two options: Record Phrase and Phrase Event Editor.

Selecting Record Phrase allows you to choose the Set into which you're going to record (which need not be the Set allocated to the current Program -- ouch!) and its pilot key. You then set the tempo at which you will record the phrase, the number of measures within it (up to a maximum of 32), and the time signature, which you can choose from an extensive list of simple and complex times. Next, you decide whether you want to overdub as the record cycle loops or replace existing notes in a single, linear process. You also select whether you want to hear a Program or a single Timbre as you record. Finally, you select whether you want to hear the metronome, and how loudly.

You're now in a position to record, so press the Go! button, wait for the phrase to initialise, and then press Start. Afterwards, if you like what you played, press Done and the phrase is stored. Alternatively, press Reset and do it again. If you want to modify your phrase, you use the Phrase Event Editor. This will ask you which phrase and which pilot key you wish to edit, and will then display a traditional MIDI event editor with columns for bar/note/tick, note name, velocity, and duration.

Once everything is hunky-dory, you can leave the Recorder, and use the Phrase On/Off button to choose whether to play phrases or not. If it's on and you press a pilot key, the phrase will play. However, any Parts allocated to the phrase recorder remain unavailable to the keyboard whether a phrase is playing or not.

It's not intuitive, is it? Maybe Viscount should include a handful of demo Sets as part of the factory sounds. They would make things easier to understand, allowing you to play and experiment with the factory Sets, rather than having to record before you can work out exactly what's happening. However, once mastered, the Phrase Recorder is fairly painless. Or it would be, without the bugs. Firstly, it doesn't understand Splits so, if you allocate it multiple Timbres within a Program, those Timbres all play across the whole keyboard range. Secondly, the Event Editor has a nasty bug in which, when you try to edit notes close to 1:1:00, the closest they will get to this value is an offset equal to their durations. Horrid!

 

Morphing And Motions

The Automations section contains the final two major features on the OB*12. The first of these is Morph. No, not the little plasticine man, but the ability to morph one Program or Timbre into another. You can control this in two ways -- manually using the mod wheel, or in Auto mode. The latter offers a Time option (an uncalibrated number between 1 and 100) and a Measure option linked to the arpeggiator or Phrase Recorder tempos.

Morphing, on any synth, is prone to limitations. For example, how do you morph between parameters which are simply off in one patch and on in another, or between filter types? Viscount's answer to this is to limit the morph function to the continuous parameters within the edit structures. Any non-continuous ones are set to those of the destination sound. This means that, once you select Morph, the source sound (which is probably what you will be playing at the time) may change considerably. This becomes especially apparent when parameters such as arpeggio on/off are different on either side of the morph. Indeed, until I understood what was happening, I thought that Morph was buggy. It isn't. In fact, the only way that I could cause anomalous behaviour was to jump rapidly between destination patches while playing and morphing simultaneously. And what happened? A system crash? Smoke billowing from the back? No... the OB*12 placed a 'Temp' patch in the source location, and carried on as before.

I found that I used Morph in two ways. When programming Timbres, I chose wildly differing sounds and morphed between them, discovering new Timbres that I could then save to other memory locations. Alternatively, when soloing, I placed two similar Timbres in the source and destination locations, and used the mod wheel to change the nature of the sound. This is much more expressive than common modulation.

The Motion Recorder is similar to the Phrase Recorder, but allows you to record every knob twiddle, button push, or fader adjustment while you play. There are just two memory locations, but you can use these to store and reproduce complex changes that you can later apply to any sound you're playing. The Motion Editor is also very similar to the Phrase Editor and, since Motion events have no duration, I found it to be bug-free. Indeed, the Motion section is a joy to use and, since I don't have a Roland JP8000 (the only synth I know of with a similar feature built in), I had a lot of childish fun.

Putting It All Together

Due to the late availability of the latest OB*12 operating system, and an unfortunate clash with production deadlines, I feared that I wouldn't have as much time as I wanted to evaluate it. However, most of the OB*12 is so simple and intuitive that, within a couple of days, I was flying around its controls and menus as if I had owned it for years.

Many of the OB*12's best facilities are underused in the factory sound set, and this is perhaps the major reason why the casual punter will be less than impressed with a store demo. Since so many of the factory Timbres were uninspiring, however, I was soon creating banks of my own. With time-honoured tradition (I do this on every synth I review) I patched my favourite ARP Odyssey trumpets and tubas. Gorgeous. I then tried my hand at a range of lush pads and string ensembles. Even without the onboard effects, programming these was trivial, and with the effects... lovely! Digital, PPG-ish sounds? Easy, and that's no mean compliment. Sound effects? Also easy. Brass stabs? Loads of 'em. Electric pianos? Simple. Harsh 'rip yer 'ead off' sounds and effects? Yep, them too. Analogue percussion? No sweat. Driving, punchy basses? Well, taking a lot of care and time over the programming, I managed to get some reasonable results, but it wasn't easy. And when it came to Organ sounds, I'm afraid it was beyond me. I spent a whole evening trying to program a usable rock organ, without success. I got reed organ-like tones without too much trouble, but nothing you really could call Hammond-like. For some unfathomable reason, the OB*12 seems incapable of these. And powerful leads? Sorry, not a chance. When it comes to the crunch, the OB*12 won't perform outside its main strengths. Maybe I shouldn't care -- after all, there are dozens of synths that exist solely to pump out imitations of the Minimoog. But the Obie's limitations may restrict its appeal somewhat.

I then progressed on to designing some multitimbral Programs. It's no secret that I'm a huge admirer of Vangelis (who was not a big user of Moogs and other 'fat' synths) so I decided to create something in the style of his earlier solo work. I wanted a lush, chorused string ensemble under my left hand, layered with an arpeggiated bass. Under my right hand, I wanted a warm ARP-ish brass solo, together with a deep filter sweep. All of this needed to sound like it was coming from a large acoustic space, but without being muddy.

No problem! I chose an empty Program, placed four suitable Timbres into it, and set the upper and lower key ranges for each. I then directed the arpeggiator to just one Timbre

  Aftertouch Exchange And Other Goodies  
  Wherever you look, the OB*12 throws more goodies at you. 'Scope', 'Panel' and 'Aftertouch Exchange' are three further examples of this.

You can access Scope in either Timbre or Program mode. Once active, it offers five graphic pages that depict the filter envelope, the amplifier envelope, the filter and amplifier envelopes displayed on a single page, the combined waveform generated by Osc1, and the combined waveform generated by Osc2. Although Scope is unable to show the effect of LFOs and other modifiers, it is a superb quick reference for the fundamental characteristics of any sound. What's more, you can jump between the Timbres in any Program by pressing the Part buttons on the front panel. This enables you to see (for example) which Timbres are contributing to the attack phase or sustain phase of any composite sound.

Panel is a simpler facility, but no less welcome. It simply sets all the parameters of the current Timbre to the values determined by the top-panel controls. Equivalent to the 'Manual' button on some vintage synths (those with memories, of course), I wish all knobby, digital and VA synthesizers had this facility.

Here's a neat one -- what do you do if you want to transfer control to the modulation wheel of any modulation currently governed by aftertouch? On most synthesizers, the question doesn't even arise because this isn't possible without editing the patch. On the OB*12, you simply press the Aftertouch Exchange button. Now, aftertouch parameters are controlled by the wheel, while LFO2's amplitudes (normally determined by the mod wheel) are controlled by aftertouch. I love it!

 
and linked the delay time in the effects section (see box) to the arpeggio clock. I chorused the strings (but not the others) and then directed the whole shebang through a touch of plate reverb. Result? I was impressed: instant 1976!

So what are the problems? On the sound-creation side, you have to be careful not to overdrive the filter input at maximum resonance. The result is digital distortion, which is always horrid. On the other hand, the filter displays remarkably little digital stepping or glitching, even when tweaked violently by hand, so I'll forgive it any minor indiscretions. More annoying than this, the envelopes always re-trigger from 'zero'. If you program Timbres with slow attacks and releases, this results in an unnatural 'chopping' of the sound, particularly noticeable on string ensembles and other pads.

More deficiencies? Well, I encountered a couple of bugs in the editing, but these appeared rarely, and were never reproducible. Also, there's an uncomfortable mute when jumping between Programs and Timbres. However, you can set any Program to 'Single' mode, and the four Timbres within it then become four instantly accessible patches under the immediate control of the Part Select buttons. Anything missing? I would like to see some patch navigation aids and, of course, there's the limited polyphony. But perhaps the most serious fault is the OB*12's inability to handle chords in Unison mode or when multiple timbres are layered two, three or four deep. Viscount must cure this.

Conclusions

The OB*12 is not going to be everybody's cup of virtual analogue tea. I'm certain that the blippy, bloopy, squelchy dance brigade are not going to be its biggest fans, and, since its greatest strengths are pads, delicate sounds, and effects, it's not a lead synth for the prog-rockers either. As a result, I worry that it could suffer a fate similar to that of the Elka Synthex, a synth which was overlooked by most people, and disappeared without much of a ripple. But with the Synthex, a few years passed, and then you started to hear players mourning its demise. Despite its deficiencies in some important sonic areas, the OB*12 is almost a great synth; and I hope in the space available to me here I've managed to convey a sense of how deep it is. With its parameter-rich VA voicing, assignable busses and effects, arpeggiator, sequencer, motion recorder and morphing, it's similar to much more expensive synths such as the Waldorf Q, so it's a shame that Viscount's marketing gives you little sense of this. And then there's the price: at just £799 the OB*12 is in the same league, price-wise, as a Korg MS2000. That's quite a price/performance ratio! Whether all this depth has enough mass-market appeal to result in a 'hit' synth for Viscount, however, is up to the likes of you.

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