Never afraid of a challenge, Arturia have undertaken the first software emulation of the celebrated Oberheim Matrix 12.
You might wonder when software writers will run out of electro–mechanical instruments and analogue synths to emulate in their huge strings of zeros and ones. But, for now, there are still places left to find inspiration. One of these is Oberheim’s product line which, until recently, had been plundered by mainstream hardware and software manufacturers only for the SEM (Synthesizer Expansion Module) that formed the basis of the company’s 4–Voice and 8–Voice polysynths. This is strange because the most sought–after of Oberheim’s products is probably the Matrix 12. Sure, the X–Voices, the OB–series and the later Matrix 6 were all fine synthesizers but, after 30 years, the Matrix 12 remains a remarkable instrument, and its groundbreaking architecture continues to define the basis of many modern synths. So it should be no surprise that the most recent release from Arturia gives the Matrix 12 the ‘V’ treatment.
In essence, a Matrix 12 comprised two slightly enhanced Oberheim Xpanders married to a five–octave velocity– and pressure–sensitive keyboard and the standard Oberheim performance levers. Its control panel echoed that of the Xpander, with just one extra button to select between voices 1–6 and 7–12. This meant that, in 1985, it looked way ahead of its time and, even today, retains a reputation for complexity (which is true) and being hard to understand (which isn’t). Perhaps for this reason, Arturia’s engineers have foregone the usual accuracy with which soft-synth writers design their GUIs, and aimed for something more accessible that nonetheless retains the flavour of the original. The result, cosmetically speaking, is a strange hybrid that will make sense to experienced Matrix 12 programmers, but allow novices to jump in more successfully than may otherwise have been the case.
Although the dual–oscillator architecture of the original synth is conventional, its provision of 15 filter types, dual VCA stages, five five–stage contour generators, five LFOs with noise and S&H as well as cyclic waveforms, a dedicated vibrato generator, three tracking generators that can reshape all manner of other functions, four ramp generators, 2–op oscillator FM, audio rate filter FM, and a lin/exp slew generator took it into realms that no previous analogue polysynth had ever explored before. Happily, all of these are faithfully recreated in the restyled GUI.
Of course, the key to understanding and using the Matrix 12 was the modulation matrix that gave the synth its name. In addition to the hardwired routings in Page2, there were 20 slots within which you could direct your choice of 27 modulation sources to your choice of 47 destinations. While some modern instruments go even further, this was nonetheless a huge amount of sound–bending potential, and it’s recreated within Matrix 12 V, but now with no fewer than 40 slots instead of 20.
Once you’ve programmed a patch (or a ‘Single’ in Matrix 12 parlance) you can assign up to six instances to the six Zones provided in the Singles/Voices page, specifying note range, MIDI channel and your choice from the six mono/poly note allocation modes available to each. You can also select the transposition and tuning, level and pan for each of the 12 voices individually. This allows you to do remarkable things such as play the same sound four–note polyphonically within a certain key range with two detuned instances panned left and right, while another four instances are used as a huge monosynth patch for soloing in a different key range. The results can be stunning, but they would be even better if you could do the same sort of thing with different Singles in the various Voice slots... which brings us neatly to the Matrix 12’s powerful Multi mode, within which each Voice can be treated as a separate synthesizer with its own Single, tuning, level and pan.
On the Matrix 12 itself, you’ll find two large, friendly buttons marked Single Patch and Multi Patch but, strangely, you’ll not find a switch on Matrix 12 V to enter either mode; the only way to do so is to select an existing Single or Multi from the sound list. I don’t know whose daft idea that was, but it’s, well, daft. But once you’re in it, there’s lots you can do within Multi mode, ranging from using it as six separate duophonic synths to conjuring some of the most complex and evolving leads, basses and pads you’ll ever hear. Everything works as it should, and I was pleased to find that it’s simple to edit, rename and re–save the component Singles within a Multi, which means that you can alter a composite sound without destroying the sounds that comprise it, and without damaging any other Multis based upon them. Indeed, trying to save a Multi that contains an edited Single causes Matrix 12 V to ask you to save both, which greatly reduces the chances of you screwing up your sound library.
One thing that the Matrix 12 lacked was effects; there was no analogue chorus, phaser or flanger as on many lower–cost synths of the era, and onboard digital effects (other than delay) would have to wait for another couple of years until the Roland D50 appeared. Nonetheless, Matrix 12 V offers two slots into which you can place modern implementations of all of these, plus reverb, all of which are welcome. Nonetheless, be aware that these are Master effects — only two are available whether you’re programming a Single or a Multi.
The digital–style dual delay offers MIDI Sync and a ping–pong mode, while the stereo, dual–stage phaser also offers MIDI Sync (which suggests some interesting phasing/delay possibilities) and has an unusual ‘noise’ modulating waveform. In addition to these, the analogue delay almost attempts to emulate a BBD echo unit, although the way that the sound is modulated is decidedly non–analogue and, although the flanger emulates a simple stomp box, the dual-stage chorus offers an unusual ‘out of phase’ stereo pitch shifter and three modulation complexities for a far wider range of chorusing effects than would otherwise be possible. Finally, the reverb provides control over pre–delay, diffusion, decay, brightness and damping. All of the effects’ parameters (the switches as well as the knobs and sliders) can be controlled by MIDI CCs, which means that all manner of unusual effects are possible.
However, there’s a significant limitation here. Because the effects are global, and because the Matrix 12 V has just two audio outputs, the soft synth isn’t truly multitimbral and you can’t use it as 12 independent synthesizers. Mind you, that was also true of Matrix 12s without the optional 12–output modification, so you’ll have to decide how important this is to you, especially since you can launch multiple instances of the soft synth within a suitable host.
The proof of any imitative soft synth’s pudding is a direct comparison with the original, so I liberated my Matrix 12 from storage, cursed when I realised that the backup battery was dead, then un–cursed when I realised that this wasn’t an issue because I wanted to reload the factory sounds anyway. Having done so, I compared the Matrix 12’s Singles with the recreations supplied with the soft synth. I found that some were quite close, but others were only vague imitations of the originals.
Take Chillo, for example. On the Matrix 12, this is a lovely, woody cello patch, whereas, on the soft synth, there’s a huge bump at the front of every note that’s nothing like the original, nor, for that matter, like a cello. I burrowed in and soon found the errors. In this case, ENV2 was most at fault, so I corrected this, then found differences in VCO1 (the pulse width was wrong), in LFO1 (the speed was wrong), and other places. Now the two were similar, although not identical. For example, although the parameter values were the same, the vibrato on the soft synth was too fast. So I slowed this down to the correct rate, which meant that the values on the two synths needed to be different to obtain the same result. Whether this is a calibration error within the Matrix 12 used as a reference for programming the Matrix 12 V or an error in the soft synth’s code is anyone’s guess. But the good news was that the two instruments were now starting to sound much more alike — not indistinguishable from one another, but like differently calibrated instances of the same model of analogue synth.
Next, I programmed a simple sound of my own on both synths to see how close I could make them. I started with the Init Single patch provided on the soft synth and played a few notes. To my dismay, I obtained a sound that went ‘da’ for 11 notes, but ‘de’ an octave higher on every 12th note. I had an idea what might be causing this, and tracked it down to phase cancellation between VCO1 and VCO2 in voice 11. Rather than drift gently, the oscillators are initialised and their relative phases locked each time a patch is selected, and what I was hearing was almost perfect phase cancellation on that one voice. I have been criticising this method of imitating drift since I first encountered it when reviewing the Jupiter 8V in 2007, and it should have been discarded by now — not just by Arturia but by all the software writers who use it.
Given what I was hearing, I defeated VCO2 and proceeded to program a simple poly/brass patch, which is one of things at which the Matrix 12 excels. I now had the two synths — hard and soft — sounding all but identical. But how could I create a dual–oscillator patch that worked as well? The answer was to detune VCO2 by the smallest amount and use one of the LFOs to apply a tiny bit of slowly varying noise to its pitch. Although a well–calibrated Matrix 12 doesn’t need tricks like this, the errors were now less perceptible, so I proceeded to program a wider range of Singles on both synths and found that the two are capable of sounding very similar. Naturally, things started to diverge as the patches became more complex, but I was now comfortable that, within sensible limits, the soft synth was doing the job it was designed for. Then, in Multi mode, I was also able to recreate the superb ‘rotating’ and quasi–random voicing effects that were unique to the Matrix 12 in 1985, and which offer anything from subtle variations in voicing to quite extreme effects.
Strangely, Matrix 12 V appears to chew up a fair amount of CPU power when idling — around 30 percent on the test system in stand-alone mode — but this didn’t seem to be increased greatly when I played it, even when using all 12 Voices in a complex Multi. Sure, its thirst increases with increasing sample rate and (slightly) with decreasing buffer size but, at 44.1kHz, I experienced no problems. Nonetheless, I can’t give it a completely clean bill of health. For example, the implementation of Lever 1 is wrong. On the soft synth, its name is ModWheel, its resting position is at the bottom, and it’s not sprung. On the original synth, it’s not a wheel, its resting position is in the centre and it’s sprung. I also found some silly errors in the flanger; although it functions correctly, the modulation rate is calibrated in milliseconds, the delay time is shown in percent, and the depth has no label at all! These are all avoidable errors that should have been identified and corrected before release.
The Matrix 12 was (and still is) a remarkable synthesizer. The flexibility of its filter section is amazing, its modulation capabilities are almost in the realms of a modular synth, and it also has a sound quality that few if any other pure analogue or hybrid polysynths have equalled, let alone surpassed. Therefore, reporting that Matrix 12 V emulates that sound while expanding upon the capabilities of the original synth is a significant compliment. Sure, it’s not perfect, but with the second–hand price of the original heading toward £5000$5000, you’re unlikely to find yourself bemoaning the soft synth’s usability or its value. If Arturia would just fix the oscillator initialisation algorithm and test things a little more thoroughly I would be able to give it a hearty thumbs up.
Given that there are no other soft synths based upon the Matrix 12, the obvious competitors for Matrix 12 V should be the soft synths based upon other ‘big’ synths of the 1980s, such as the Memorymoog and Rhodes Chroma, the Prophet T8 and the Roland Super JX10. However, since none of these have been emulated by mainstream soft-synth manufacturers, we’ll have to look elsewhere.
In Arturia’s own stable there is the Prophet V (based upon a hybrid of the Prophet 5 and the Prophet VS), as well as soft synths based upon the CS80 and the Jupiter 8.
Just around the corner (geographically speaking) you’ll find XILS Lab’s PolyKB II, which offers an unusual slant on mid–’80s synthesis, as well as the company’s Elka–inspired Synthix. It’s the latter of these that I think comes closest to Matrix 12 V. Maybe not directly — the Matrix 12 and the Synthex were different in many ways, but because they are both interesting recreations of what were in many ways the most desirable of the obscure polysynths of the era. If you like one, I suspect that you’ll like the other too.
You can assign MIDI CCs — with maximum and minimum values and reversed operation if desired — to all of Matrix 12 V’s parameters. This means that the amount of control provided is more detailed than I have seen on many other instruments, because things such as Zone allocations, voice modes, note assignments and keyboard zones, the modulation sources and destinations as well as the modulation amounts, and even which effects are inserted into the effects slots can be automated, which is highly unusual.
Unfortunately, and as with other Arturia soft synths, it doesn’t seem to be possible to assign multiple parameters to a single MIDI CC, which is a great shame. But, on a more positive note, you can (as usual) create, save and re–load complete MIDI control configurations so that you can use Matrix 12 V within different physical setups.
Given the arcane control panel of the Matrix 12, I particularly liked the new way in which you can select some of the soft synth’s parameters. For example, if you click on the Filter Mode display then, rather than revealing a menu, the GUI opens a window that depicts all 15 filter types. Likewise, if you click on a modulation source or destination in the matrix, all the options appear in a similar window (figure 8). These are elegant ways to clarify programming, making it much easier to see what’s doing what to what, and how.
Given the huge library of factory sounds supplied (and, hopefully, the even larger library that you’ll create for yourself) it can be a bit of a nightmare remembering what’s what and where to find it. Program Chain Mode helps with this, allowing you to insert up to 128 Singles and/or Multis in any combination into slots that respond to standard Program Change messages. This will be a huge benefit for anyone who wants to take Matrix 12 V on stage or step through sounds within a complex sequence.
- It’s capable of some surprisingly accurate emulations of the Matrix 12.
- The flexibility of automation available from MIDI CCs is remarkable.
- Arturia have clearly put some thought into clarifying the Matrix 12’s user interface.
- The method by which the relative phases of the oscillators are initialised must be fixed.
- The effects structure and the lack of individual outputs preclude true multitimbral operation.
The Matrix 12 is a mighty instrument, capable of some of the best sounds ever to emanate from a synthesizer. That Matrix 12 V captures much of this is to Arturia’s credit. If the company would attend to the issues mentioned here, it could become a ‘go to’ soft synth for many sound designers and players.
- MacBook Pro 2.5GHz Intel Core i7 with 16GB RAM.
- Mac OS 10.9.5.
- Matrix 12 V version 126.96.36.199 (64–bit).
Matrix 12 V is authorised using Arturia’s Software Center, which allows you to register and use the company’s soft synths without a hardware dongle. However, you will require access to the web and an Arturia account to do so.