1010music’s diminutive Nanobox range has got it where it counts.
We’re living in an era of ‘kitchen‑table production’. Whether it’s iOS apps paired with OP‑1s or scaled‑down semi‑modular synths with multi‑effects pedals, many are favouring light‑on‑its‑feet gear under natural light over the analogue beasts lurking in dimly lit studios. It’s also much more Instagrammable, of course — add a plant to the former, arrange everything geometrically and take a top‑down photograph, and let the likes roll in! I’m being facetious, of course. But it’s true that DAWless music making has never looked sleeker, with new workflows being opened up at an astonishing rate. It’s therefore down to developers of desktop gear to keep up by releasing designs that still feel fresh and relevant; powerful and limited in all the right ways so as not to simply end up resembling a less functional iPad.
1010music are one company riding the wave in style. Purveyors of compact, powerful desktop units (as well as Eurorack modules), their products fit perfectly into the kitchen‑table paradigm: they’re multifunctional, nicely designed, well built, they have touchscreens and my goodness do they sound good. After the success of the Blackbox sampler and Bluebox digital recorder and mixer, 1010music have now launched the Nanobox range to branch into standalone synthesis, where the competition is stiff and the marketplace is, at least for one of them, crowded. Will the formula continue to deliver?
The Fireball, Lemondrop and Razzmatazz are three compact digital noise boxes, each not much bigger than a deck of cards. A wavetable synth, granular synth and sampling drum sequencer respectively, the Fireball and Lemondrop present their various engines within near‑identical architecture, while the Razzmatazz departs somewhat to serve its noise generation, sampling and sequencing capabilities. Their bright red, yellow and purple finishes, as well as their candy‑inspired names, denote a playfulness that on first impression works very well and doesn’t overpromise.
The three units’ interfaces are based around a touchscreen, with two encoders on the right and a row of four physical buttons along the bottom. All three deliver an impressively in‑depth GUI in a very small space, with easy access to a range of information about any active preset, stored on a micro SD card inserted into the back panel. The rear of all three also presents a USB‑C port, TRS line in and out, MIDI in and out and an analogue clock input.
The home screens of the Fireball and Lemondrop present visual readouts of the two currently selected wavetables or audio samples, and a compact dashboard display with moving metres to represent the behaviour of filtering, enveloping, modulation and effects. A moving indicator on the top right of the screen shows the clock tempo (though not its bpm), while the position of the X and Y modulators, which I’ll come to shortly, are shown down the right hand side. The Razzmatazz, meanwhile, defaults to a simple, playable grid display of its eight audio tracks and their selected sounds, with readouts for effects, panning, mix and more all a button‑push away.
From here it’s a case of using the touchscreen or the buttons to navigate around the Nanoboxes. The buttons’ assignments did take some getting used to, and even then they could be confusing at points; broadly speaking the arrow buttons move through levels of detail for currently selected functions, the Home button accesses the home screen and the Layer button cycles between layers in any feature set — different envelopes in the envelope section, for example, or different effects in the effects section. Despite the fact that most of what you need is generally one or two button pushes away, more than a few times I found myself reaching my destination only after at least one wrong instinctive guess at which button would get me there — usually hitting an arrow button instead of the Layer button.
The touchscreen is employed for various functions to good effect, although as with the buttons it isn’t always intuitively clear which functions these are. I accept, though, that this may say more about me and my deeply engrained familiarity with Apple touchscreens. It’s good for scrolling and selection when it comes to menus, for example, but so too are the encoders. On the Razzmatazz, the auditioning of sounds is simple in the first instance, but soon becomes awkward as parameters are tweaked; generally possible via a tiny ‘play’ symbol at the top of the screen that’s easily missed. Things can feel a little random in parts, but in fairness these idiosyncrasies are of no substantial loss to the overall workflow, and things got easier as familiarity grew. 1010music have sought to maintain a clear workflow and keep information accessible here, and while a few things layout‑wise puzzled me, for the most part that effort has paid off.
The screens are crucially sharp, bright, nicely touch‑responsive and work with beautifully smooth frame rates, displaying movement with impressive accuracy. This is particularly important when it comes to granular and wavetable synthesis, which rely heavily on modulation and envelope‑based tone shaping for a vast majority of their character. Here (at least, in the Fireball and Lemondrop’s cases), being able to pinpoint a certain modulation source or clearly visualise how a wave shape is behaving is vital, and thankfully it’s an area where the Nanoboxes’ screens perform brilliantly. Sure, you won’t find a lush, full‑colour display to rival the likes of the Waldorf’s Iridium here, but the screens hardly leave you wanting — and besides, too much information in this tiny space would simply get confusing. The Razzmatazz is faced with a challenge in this respect, with various parameters, often modulating, across eight different tracks of audio. It solves this by becoming much more page‑based, and thankfully each page is laid out very well for quick navigation and editing. A page comparable to the home screens of the Fireball and Lemondrop is accessible for each individual audio track on the Razzmatazz, and it’s also possible to cycle through the eight tracks without having to leave the flow of a particular editing page. A new firmware update has also added a so‑called Teleporter screen, which essentially maps out the screens of the Razzmatazz and allows you to jump immediately to any one of them. Handy.
The Nanoboxes’ balance between graphical and textual displays is particularly essential when it comes to modulation. The filter screen is a good example: it consists of a graphical, touch‑responsive EQ, replete with clearly displayed values and indications of their modulation status. This is shown with three box‑like slots next to each parameter: a filled box indicates that that parameter is being modulated by something. Press the right arrow to see what all a parameter’s modulators are; these could be anything from the onboard sequencer to key velocity to a MIDI CC of your choice (there’s even a MIDI Learn button at the foot of the Fireball and Lemondrop’s modulator page for quick and easy mapping). These boxes offer a litany of parameters, from the filtering on a delay effect to envelope attack time, which should give you an idea of just how powerful the modulation matrix is here.
If you do require something — or two things, rather — to be in easy reach, the Fireball and Lemondrop offer a rather brilliant function in the form of an X/Y control that can each be assigned to any number of parameters. Use the encoders to set the ‘zero’ point of the control (which is then indicated on the right of the home screen) and then move around the touchscreen to modulate this way and that. It’s an excellent use of the screen, essentially turning it into a type of Korg Kaoss Pad. This is not only helpful for sculpting sounds on the fly but also works as a brilliant expression tool, perhaps to go next to a MIDI keyboard. Position the synth where the mod and pitch wheels would be and somehow, despite their tiny footprint, they can very much enhance playing in a live situation.
The Razzmatazz does away with the X/Y control, which is probably a good thing considering the sheer amount of editability it offers. If there’s a screen for live use it’s probably either the track mutes screen for bringing parts in and out, the macro controls screen — allowing quick, encoder‑based edits to filtering, distortion, pitch and more — or the sequencer screen, which is one area where 1010music have really excelled in terms of maximising the Nanobox display. This page not only allows for very slick, touchscreen‑enabled programming of individual parts (displaying the positions of various triggers simultaneously), it also offers exceedingly easy pattern chaining and recall for dynamic variation across patterns or movement through different sections. Or both. This is all in the absence of an external MIDI controller, of course: something the Razzmatazz is primed to work with.
The Nanoboxes’ plasticky finishes and bright colours would doubtless count against them were it not for their overall excellent build quality. This is a well‑proven principle straight from the playbook of the aforementioned OP‑1: for a pocket‑sized instrument to assert its place as a respectable professional tool, the build quality must be good. And a sense of humour is never unwelcome. Here 1010music have certainly succeeded: with smooth and firm encoders as well as pleasantly stiff buttons, the Nanoboxes feel lightweight but solidly built. Good‑sized pads on the bottom hold them firmly in place on any surface, so overall the experience of using the Fireball, Lemondrop and Razzmatazz is that of using a quality instrument, one that you expect to sound good.
So do they live up to that expectation? Answer: yes. Staggeringly so. The Fireball’s factory wavetables offer a wide range of options, but it’s also possible to load and even record your own to the micro SD card. Whether at the bottom or the top of the keyboard, crystalline leads or filtered‑down bass tones, its voices held their own with cleanliness, clarity and punch, combining across its stereo output for an altogether high‑punching synth voice.
Where the Fireball’s sounds impressed me, the Lemondrop rather stunned me. Its granular synth engine is finely tuned and incredibly wide‑ranging, responding smoothly to adjustments of grain size, density, jitter position and more with any source audio. If all of this wasn’t enough, it also has the capacity to receive live audio and granulate it in real time, meaning that its potential studio applications are, essentially, limitless. I tried this function out with a live piano sound in my DAW, paralleling it to the original signal, and it delivered phenomenally to add glitching and odd countermelodies as I noodled away on my MIDI keyboard. The sharpness and smoothness of the Nanobox screens is useful on the Fireball but essential on the Lemondrop, with the grains clearly and accurately displayed moving through a waveform according to their settings.
The Razzmatazz presents similar sonic power. Each audio track offers space for two oscillators and a WAV, so not only can its powerful FM synthesis engine be used to malleably create sounds from scratch, it can then endow that creation with any sample. It’s a simple and elegant workflow. Samples can be augmented with synth sounds, synth sounds can be grounded with samples; perhaps fly in an acoustic bass drum to add that extra dimension to your 808‑style kick, or trigger an old‑school ‘woah!’ with your woodblock (who am I to judge?). On top of this, like the Lemondrop and Fireball, the Razzmatazz can natively record samples via its line inputs, so the sky’s the limit. It’s quite a joy to behold.
The added inclusion of more traditional oscillators on all of these synths is a very nice touch indeed, considering that 1010music could well have left them out and warranted little complaint. Adding that extra portion of functionality should you need it — a sub‑frequency to ground a kick or bass voice, or noise to add some air to a pad — is nothing short of generous. Forgetting the price for a moment, if these instruments could only handle one piece of source audio at a time I would still consider them powerful for their size and footprint. The fact that they can not only handle two, but also add additional oscillators and sampling (in the Razzmatazz’s case) to that equation is immensely impressive. And this is all before you get to the effects.
1010music may be new(ish) at the standalone synth game, but when it comes to effects they are seasoned pros. Including onboard effects into compact instruments is a tricky business: too few and it doesn’t feel worth it, too many and it feels disproportionate, often sacrificing quality for quantity and ultimately adding little more than cost. There is a happy middle, though, where an effects section can be both brilliant‑sounding and streamlined in its range. I had high expectations for the effects section of these synths — what with the precedent set by the likes of the Bluebox mixer — and the Nanoboxes did not disappoint. On the Lemondrop and Fireball a total of six digital effects are available, arranged across two effects busses. FX1 offers chorus, phaser or a combined flanger and distortion, while FX2 offers delay or reverb. All of these effects, it must be said, sound truly excellent. While they won’t ever threaten any analogue wildness, even at extreme settings, they add just the right amount of depth and character to genuinely contribute to the sound‑sculpting process. The distortion was gritty and harmonically rich, the reverb was lush and flexible, and the chorus was wide and warm. There’s a lot of room for modulation, too. While initially wondering if its two‑bus configuration would feel limiting, it somehow never did, and with the capacity to feed external signals through the Nanoboxes as standalone effects units, I’m not sure one could ask for much more.
The Razzmatazz’s effects are similarly impressive, but much more integrated into its core sound design. The aforementioned two busses are still present and can be dialled in as sends for any of the audio tracks from one screen, but here are set to delay and reverb respectively. A third effect section, Cabinet Distortion, occupies a separate page (as it’s essentially an insert) and offers finely tuned multimode distortion; namely Solid State, Tube and even Artificial amp models. Each track can be further effected from elsewhere in the workflow with effects like a bit‑crusher and resonator.
Considering the sheer amount of functionality they cram into their tiny footprint, not to mention their astounding depth and range of sound, the Nanobox range is more than worth it.
Despite this trio’s similarities, they enter three very different marketplaces. Wavetable synths are in no short supply, with the Fireball’s competitors including instruments like the Modal Argon 8M and Korg Modwave, while hardware granular instruments are much scarcer, with synths like the Tasty Chips GR‑1 operating in a less crowded domain. When it comes to drum and sample sequencers, the Razzmatazz is likely to find itself up against the likes of Korg’s Volca series or Roland’s AIRA Compact range, and it sure throws down the gauntlet. Their prices may seem steep considering their physical sizes, but they certainly remain competitive with all of the above — and in many instances come out cheaper. Their interfaces can be a touch confusing at points, but considering the sheer amount of functionality they cram into their tiny footprint, not to mention their astounding depth and range of sound, the Nanobox range is more than worth it. Of the three, the Lemondrop was the standout for me, but that’s by no means to diminish the quality of the Fireball or Razzmatazz. I would actually go as far as to say that its ability to granulate and apply effects to live audio alone is enough to sell the Lemondrop, so good did it sound with anything I threw at it. Whether it’s at the kitchen table or rubbing shoulders with a larger setup, all three Nanoboxes stand up proudly. At points it was as if these coaster‑sized toys were overachieving; to create such a sound and then be able to pop them in the front pocket of a rucksack just felt like cheating.
- Excellent‑sounding instruments across the board.
- Premium effects engines.
- Ample preset storage.
- Well‑built, with quality touchscreens to boot.
- Occasionally difficult to navigate.
Don’t let their size fool you: these are three excellent little units, worthy of any studio setup large or small.