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Alesis Nanosynth

64-voice Synth Module By Derek Johnson
Published October 1997

The Nanosynth is a pygmy on the outside but a veritable Watutsi on the inside. Derek Johnson cuts a swathe through the undergrowth in search of tiny treasure...

It would be no surprise to learn that Alesis were releasing a version of their QS6 synth as a module. The QS7 and QS8 have already been so repackaged, with the QSR (reviewed back in June) offering the sounds and facilities of those instruments in a 1U rack. The surprise is that, rather than flannel the public with another 1U package and charge accordingly, Alesis have actually squeezed the sounds and patches of the QS6 into the third‑rack family box used by the hyper‑compact Nano series.

The NanoSynth has much in common with its dedicated piano and bass siblings: the size, the external PSU, the five knobs on the front panel. But the similarities pretty well end there, because the NanoSynth is a 64‑voice polyphonic,16‑part multitimbral General MIDI compatible synth, with 8Mb of waveform ROM and a Mac/PC interface. All this in a box so small, I can't even compare it to a paperback book or video tape!

Box Of Delights

To get an idea of what's inside the NanoSynth, check out the QS6 review back in January 1996. The basic waveform set is identical, and the NanoSynth is compatible with any software or sounds that have been designed for the QS6 (QS7 and QS8 sounds are also compatible, as it happens). Obviously, the NanoSynth lacks the display and expansion options of the keyboard. Both instruments have a huge number of patches: the NanoSynth's basic GM Set is joined by three banks of variations, to a total of 512 patches. Add 128 user memory locations, initially full of factory sounds, and you have a comprehensive palette of 640 different sounds to get you started. Actually, there are only 127 user locations, as user patch 128 is reserved as a 'blank' patch, used to silence a particular MIDI channel or channels. This patch can't be overwritten or changed.

If you own a Mac or a PC, you'll be able to check out the QS6 compatibility right away, courtesy of a free CD‑ROM. This disk not only provides several banks of QS6 sounds, but also includes a healthy collection of PC and Mac software, including Steinberg's Cubasis sequencer, Alesis' own FreeLoader System Exclusive dumper for both Mac and PC, and a NanoSynth‑specific version of Mark of the Unicorn's Unisyn editor/librarian (for Mac users only, I'm afraid). The rest of the disk is filled with a variety of demo MIDI files from various sources.

The NanoSynth's audio connections differ from the rest of the Nano family: a pair of audio inputs joins the stereo output pair, and both sets of connectors are phonos, rather than the jacks found on the NanoPiano and NanoBass. This is the configuration favoured by the desktop music world, and allows you to easily mix the output from a PC soundcard (or any other stereo source) with the NanoSynth's audio.

The manual is fun and approachable, but has holes: for example, the printed MIDI spec is bare bones, you're not told which voices use more than one 'element' (up to four, with more elements meaning less polyphony), the discussion of the effects is still minimal, and nowhere are you told the composition and number of General MIDI drum kits (there are 15 GM drum sets, by the way). As a new user, I'd want a lot more info on all these aspects, and as an advanced user, the full MIDI spec would be crucial.


The NanoPiano and NanoBass were fairly inscrutable little boxes, capable of providing a 256‑strong collection of preset sounds, with full editability when sent the relevant MIDI controllers. The same is true of the NanoSynth, except that when it's on its own you'll only ever have access to 256 of its sounds: those contained in the GM bank and the User bank (the remaining three banks of sounds are only accessible over MIDI, using Bank Select commands). The 256 GM and User bank sounds are arranged in 16 categories (Piano, String, Ethnic, and so on) of 16 patches each, and are selected, not surprisingly, using the 16‑way Category and Program select knobs. You'll also find that when you change MIDI channel you can select a different sound for each channel, quite unlike the monotimbral NanoBass and NanoPiano. One foible to remember is that for each Program Category, Programs 1‑8 select GM sounds, while Programs 9‑16 select patches from the User Bank. Note that, when using Bank Select commands to access the full range of NanoSynth patches, some sequencers automatically use Controller 32 (or both Controller 32 and Controller 0) for selecting patch banks. The NanoSynth only responds to Controller 0.

Full editing of the NanoSynth is available over MIDI using continuous controllers, and a comprehensive MIDI spec provides as much editability as a QS6; the user memories, which the NanoBass and NanoPiano lack, mean that edits can be saved. Mac users don't even need extra software, since the Unisyn editor/librarian, once it's been set up, works well. Otherwise, you'll need some way of generating the necessary MIDI controllers in order to edit the NanoSynth; presumably, profiles for other generic editors or sequencer MIDI mixers will arrive, although anything written for the QS6 should work.


While the GM sounds are as much of a mixed bag as on any instrument, in side‑by‑side tests with a Roland SC88 Pro Super Sound Canvas the NanoSynth acquitted itself well. On a wide range of dance, pop and Latin MIDI Files, it was hard to pick a winner, with the NanoSynth sounding simply different rather than better or worse. I fed the pair a few classical MIDI files, and here the SC88 perhaps had a slight edge with its solo strings, a touchy area in GM sound sets, with even the Roland unit's examples not perfect. I was using MIDI FIles of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which contains several passages of rapidly repeating notes; the NanoSynth unfortunately showed some evidence of the 'machine gun' effect during these passages, which surprised me — considering the high‑quality piano sounds of the NanoPiano, I was expecting great things of the NanoSynth. However, while the piano module obviously comes out ahead for depth and realism (it features dedicated stereo samples, after all), the NanoSynth still worked well, and compared favourably with the SC88 Pro. Again, it's a case of different rather than higher or lower quality.

Moving outside the GM straitjacket you'll encounter a range of interesting sounds, and the editing potential is good. Think of the NanoSynth as a real synth rather than a playback module, and it will reward you: just be prepared to spend some time poking around with your computer.

A NanoSynth patch has up to four waveforms, each part having key range, pitch and effects settings, and a full set of synth parameters. These include a pitch envelope with its own LFO, filter (with envelope and LFO) and amplitude (again with EG and LFO). The big collection of percussion and synth noise loops can be used as straight‑ahead rhythm loops or to add unusual textures to your patches. Not quite wave sequencing, à la Korg Wavestation, but quite a bit more than you'd get from the average GM module.


Many potential NanoSynth owners may find it difficult to accept the idea of paying £375 for something so small. But look behind the diminutive package: there aren't many choices that offer 64‑voice polyphony, 8Mb of waveform ROM and well over 640 patches (with 127 User memories) and full GM compatibility in the sub‑£500 market. There are a few modules that cost less than the NanoSynth (for example, the Midiman MIDI GMan at £199, the Akai SG01v at £229 and Yamaha's MU50 at £349), but none offer anywhere near the same feature set. If you bought one of each of the Nano modules, mounting them on a rack tray, they'd only take up 1U of space, yet offer an amazing 192‑voice polyphony, three pairs of stereo outputs, 18‑part multitimbrality and all the advantages of dedicated piano and bass sounds alongside an Alesis Synth with GM capabilities. It'd cost you a little over £900, but what an amazing sonic arsenal!

An Alesis QS‑series synth in such an affordable and tiny box is a great idea, and should suit a broad range of applications, especially where space is limited and the maximum sonic power is desired. The cuteness factor is quite high, but it's the sound that'll sell it.


Unfortunately, a small error crept into last month's review of the NanoBass module: its price should actually be a rather more attractive £249, rather than the £339 printed.

To recap, it's the NanoPiano that costs £339, and the NanoSynth reviewed here is £375.


The same Alesis Q2‑derived multi‑effects used in the other Nano modules are once again found here, with four stereo send busses and a range of chorus, flange, delay and reverb effects. Each effect features limited control over one effect parameter per patch, like the other Nano modules, with detailed editing only possible using MIDI controllers, but, as I said, the manual is all but silent on this point. You can use the front‑panel knob to set a separate effects level for each channel, though.

Note that there's a slight flexibility problem with effects: there isn't a centrally addressable collection of effects for use multitimbrally. The effects used by whatever patch is assigned to MIDI channel 1 are active for the other 15 channels, so if there's a particular configuration of effects that you'd like to use for a multi‑part sequence, you need to make sure that the patch that needs it, whether a preset or new patch created by you, is on MIDI channel 1. Another point to keep in mind when playing back General MIDI‑format MIDI Files is that if they contain GM standard reverb and chorus data, and the sound selected for MIDI channel 1 doesn't, you won't hear a faithful playback.

Brief Specification

  • 8Mb waveform memory.
  • 16‑bit linear 48kHz sample ROM.
  • 512 preset, 127 user programs, 15 GM drum kits.
  • QS Parallel Matrix Effects (four independent multi‑effect processors).
  • Mac/PC MIDI interface.
  • 16‑part multitimbral.
  • 64‑voice polyphonic.


  • Very compact.
  • 64‑voice polyphony.
  • Huge collection of sounds, with plenty of room for user edits.
  • Quality waveforms, good effects.
  • Sophisticated synth hidden inside.


  • No headphone socket.
  • Manual reticent on some points.
  • Effects implementation a little inflexible.
  • Loads of presets hidden unless you can access them using SysEx.
  • No editing without SysEx.


A fully functioning synth (if you're prepared to use MIDI controllers) in an exceptionally compact and affordable box, the NanoSynth is also an ideal source of the kind of basic sounds almost all hi‑tech musicians need.