We all learn from experience, and talking to Glen Darcey, formerly Head of Product Development at Arturia and now occupying the same role at new synth company Ashun Sound Machines (ASM), it's clear that a full career's worth lies behind the new Hydrasynth keyboard and module — right down to the unexpected way in which the details of the synth were announced in full, out of the blue in early autumn. "I never wanted to have a launch where we announced something, and then disappeared for a year to finish designing it, or came out with something that was still unfinished," explains Darcey. "And because we are a new company, we were able to wait until the synth was pretty much done before letting everyone know. So we did!"
ASM was founded by Fanny Cheng, President of the large and successful Chinese home and stage keyboard manufacturer Medeli, because she wanted to create a dedicated high-end synth company that could draw on some of the technology her company had been developing for its own products. She assembled a team with many years' experience of synth development, design and marketing, including DSP engineer Chen Jiejun from her own company, Domenic Au from Novation, Daniel Troberg from Elektron — and Glen Darcey, whose career has encompassed spells at Roland and Akai as well as Arturia. And together, they all created Hydrasynth.
According to Darcey, Cheng has been every product designer's dream President, providing plenty of resources and time for development — from the first ideas for the specification to the finished instrument has taken the best part of two years — and allowing the team free rein to be as creative as possible with the specs and capabilities of what has now been announced as the Hydrasynth. "And so, we were able to put in things we'd wanted to see in synths for years — in my case, 35 years," he explains. "I was able to ask for and help to realise aspects inspired by some of my favourite instruments and their capabilities — the Prophet T8, the Oberheim Xpander, unusual filter types... things I've admired from all over the place."
This is undoubtedly why the launch of the Hydrasynth has caused such a stir amongst synth aficionados — it's like a wishlist of all the best features in all of the best instruments has come to life. The $1599 eight-voice, three-oscillator-per-voice digital wavemorphing synth has a deep feature-set, including 219 built-in waveforms, user-definable wavetables, super-flexible modulation via a 32-slot mod matrix, five envelope generators and LFOs, a built-in arpeggiator and effects engine, and comprehensive MIDI and CV/Gate interfacing (for more details, see Glen Darcey's on-line video product introduction at https://youtu.be/i6mKVMRdfCc). But for all the potential complexity, Darcey explains that the primary aim was to make Hydrasynth an accessible and playable instrument. "We wanted it to be deep but easy to use," explains Glen Darcey, "like a software plug-in in terms of its flexibility, but with the easy-to-use approachability of a classic hardware synth".
Hydrasynth certainly looks that way at first glance, with its knob-and controller-heavy user interface, real-time output waveform display, and design touches like the assignable ribbon controller that runs the length of the four-octave, polyphonic aftertouch-enabled keyboard (created by Medeli's engineers especially for ASM). If you don't want another keyboard synth in your rig, or want to add another eight Hydrasynth voices without buying a second keyboard, a more affordable ($999) module version (above) is also available, which still includes 24 velocity-sensitive, poly aftertouch-enabled note trigger pads. "That can be a drawback with modules," explains Glen Darcey. "If you have an idea and want to get it down fast, you don't want to have to hook up a keyboard first."
Both versions of Hydrasynth are due to ship in November. UK pricing hadn't been set at the time of writing, but is expected soon and will be published here when announced. We'll bring you a detailed review as soon as possible.