In the latest addition to their successful ASB range, Creamware take on ARP's legendary Odyssey.
Creamware are gradually building a reputation for tackling the synthesizer world's most thorny jobs. After all, the modelling of beloved, classic analogues must rank alongside 'touching up Star Wars ' in its potential to disturb the serious and the devout. Fortunately, they've done rather well so far, the digital recreations of the Minimoog and Prophet 5 setting an impressive standard, but what next in this 'rise of the clones' saga — the Yamaha CS80? Or maybe the EMS VCS3? Here I may be biased — being one of those atypical creatures who preferred their Odyssey to their Minimoog — but in my opinion Creamware chose exactly right...
The ARP Odyssey: what made it so special? Quite simply, it was one of the most versatile non-modular analogues ever made, a source of huge, ripping leads, monster basses and fantastic sound effects. During its nine-year production run, the Odyssey underwent several design overhauls, was fitted with numerous filters and by 1981, when the last one was made, had thoroughly established itself as a classic. Of the models produced, the earliest — the whiteface — is often regarded as the sweetest-sounding, although my own battered Mk2 black and gold model was no slouch either. The final run was the black and orange model, and it is this that Creamware have recreated in 32-bit DSP, packaged in an attractive hardware box.
Alan R Pearlman's Odyssey was superbly designed: it combined speed of access with a comprehensive switching system that, even today, is a lesson in what can be achieved with a finite number of controls in a finite space. Happily, these controls are faithfully reproduced in the Prodyssey — although with a few enhancements that we'll address later. As on previous Creamware ASB models, those features relating to MIDI, effects, patch selection and so on, are consigned to a separate area, the Configuration Strip, leaving the main panel as true to its inspiration as possible. Admittedly, the black and white appearance is less striking (or garish) than a Mk3 'orange face' Odyssey, but the sturdy metal body framed in dark, attractive wood is Creamware's own particular statement of class.
Right away, I was struck by the orientation of the slider caps. These are positioned vertically, unlike those of the prototype model presented at the Frankfurt Musik Messe. If I had to hazard a guess why, it would be that the caps chosen would have a very tight clearance when used in the standard orientation. Of course, anyone who has seen ARP Odysseys over the years will testify that finding a full set of slider caps at all is a rare stroke of luck! The Prodyssey's sliders respond in a smoothly convincing way; the only stepping I encountered was when adjusting the ADSR modulation depth for oscillator pitch. I think the sliders would have benefited from a white line to mark the centre point, though.
The buttons chosen are a marked improvement over the plastic switches of the real thing. These have a positive click action and an integral red LED that, when lit, indicates that the upper-labelled function is active and when dark, the lower. This is quite obvious and really doesn't need the many small text reminders that litter the otherwise neat panel.
Our review model arrived hotfoot from Germany, so I received neither a UK power adaptor nor a printed manual. I'm no lover of external power adaptors (is anyone?), so we'll just register this with a gentle sigh and move swiftly on. Fortunately, the supplied CD contains a copy of the manual, a quick browse of which showed it to be brief and utilitarian. I suspect it will mainly serve as reference material for its MIDI continuous controller assignments rather than for bedtime reading. Actually, a far better, more detailed manual is available online — that of the original Odyssey! Grab this worthy tome by paying a visit to www.arpodyssey.com, where you will also find a wealth of other resources, including example patch sheets. No mere excuse for nostalgia, these are genuinely useful learning aids, as well as a source of some highly useable patches for your digital Odyssey replicant!
Turning to audio interfacing for a moment, there are 'stereo' input jacks for processing external audio via the Prodyssey's filters and effects. In common with Creamware's Minimax, these are internally summed to mono. Similarly, the audio output is actually only stereo in terms of the onboard delay/chorus. If you prefer to use external effects, simply take one output and save yourself a mixer channel. You can't fault the reproduction of the Odyssey's I/O: even its audio and control pedal inputs are present, although the manual's many emphatic warnings advise that only a Yamaha FC7 expression pedal (or 100 percent compatible model) may be used. Stray from this path and you risk permanently damaging the Prodyssey — scary! Fortunately, a conventional sustain pedal is all you need to emulate the Odyssey trick of switching portamento on or off hands-free. Surprisingly, there's no headphone socket and — probably less of a surprise — no digital output. Finally, communication with your PC or Mac is catered for with a USB port providing direct connectivity with the supplied remote software editor. For more traditional MIDI hookups, there is a full complement of MIDI sockets
The Prodyssey's sound sources all have dedicated level sliders, with switches to select oscillator waveform or to choose between noise or ring modulator. The latter is fed by square-wave outputs from the main oscillators and produces an atonal, clangorous racket suitable for generating metallic or bell-like sounds, albeit rather buzzy ones whose tone depends on pulse width. The VCOs differ slightly in function: Oscillator 1 has a switch to turn off keyboard tracking so it can act as a second LFO, while Oscillator 2 has oscillator sync. As sync was one of the points the Odyssey scored over the Minimoog, it's a joy to find such a full-bodied and convincing emulation present. Each oscillator features variable square or sawtooth waveforms and the square wave can be modulated by the LFO or ADSR envelope.
Switching is the key to the extensive modulation options on offer. Take a look along the panel for a moment; note that the majority of the switches are modulation-related, with a slider to set the amount. Some less common modulation sources are included — particularly the audio output of the S&H mixer that can generate some biting filter and oscillator FM. In fact, it's worth spending a few moments pondering Sample & Hold, because the Odyssey possessed one of the best implementations you're likely to find. It's more familiar to see it as an LFO 'random' waveform, but modular synth fans will confirm there is more involved than that. Randomness is achieved by feeding noise (usually pink or red noise, in which lower frequency components dominate) into an S&H module, the rate of sampling being set by an LFO or clock source. The Odyssey was unusual in offering a two-channel mixer feeding the S&H unit, with noise and the two VCOs as available sources. By itself, this would be flexible — but it doesn't stop there. As expected, you can clock the S&H with the LFO, but you may also clock it with each key played — perfect if you want a random filter setting for each note, without the constant babble of an LFO-based rate. Finally, a lag processor smooths out the transitions between the S&H's output steps. Some synths use the term 'Sample & Glide' (or S&G) for this. Slider control means that you can vary the amount of smoothing as you play.
In contrast, the LFO is very simple, having just sine or square-wave outputs. And with a top speed of just 20Hz, this isn't the fastest LFO on earth either. At this point I realised that total emulation isn't always desirable. You see, the Odyssey had one annoying design characteristic: its LFO restarted each time a new note was played. Naturally, that's what the Prodyssey does too, instantly ruling out those freely-sweeping LFO filter effects à la 'Ray Of Light'. Fortunately, Creamware are working on an alternate 'free running' mode — a hardware mod done to many Odysseys.
To round off the available modulation sources there are two envelopes, one a simple AR (Attack Release) and the other a more conventional ADSR type. Their routing is not hardwired: you select which of them shapes the filter and which the output. The envelopes have an alternate mode: LFO-based triggering. This may be automatic or set to repeat only while a key is held, which is ideal for strumming effects. The envelopes operate in Single or Multi triggering modes, although you cannot set this directly from the hardware. And, as with the Minimax, the envelopes don't behave exactly like those of a real analogue synthesizer; they are calculated each time they are triggered. Thus, if you play a note that decays to zero and then raise the sustain level without releasing the note, you'll hear no change.
The Prodyssey's low-pass filter offers rather more than its analogue ancestor; we'll look at this shortly, when we get to Creamware's 'extras'. For now, I'd like to draw your attention to the second filter, the high-pass one. Although non-resonant, it should not be overlooked, being ideal for removing rumble and giving the Prodyssey its unique space in a mix.
To round off the 'why the Odyssey rocked' tour, there is one last feature that is so obvious, yet so useful, that it makes you wonder why it isn't more common. The VCA gain slider is a hands-on way of opening up the VCA. With this you require no form of note trigger to introduce drones, kick off sound effects or process external signals.
The Prodyssey ships with remote editor and librarian software for PC and Mac. The program looks and feels OK, although is perhaps a little drab in appearance. Its main panel differs from that of the hardware slightly, with the inclusion of a main transpose switch and separate velocity sliders for each envelope. But it is the 'Add' screen that offers the most interest, as it gathers together the bulk of the hidden parameters in one place. These control all elements of the chorus/flanger and the stereo delay, plus the Prodyssey's handling of note priority, the routing of aftertouch, modulation intensity and so on. Actually, one of the few missed opportunities concerns aftertouch routing: you can control the amount of pitch-bend or the filter's cutoff frequency with aftertouch, but you can't introduce vibrato that way; it's hardwired to the modulation wheel only.
Throughout the review period, I used the included USB MIDI interface for connection with the editor. The program hung a couple of times, noticeably when I alternated between making adjustments on-screen and simultaneously tweaking and playing the synth. However, its main function is likely to be accessing those hidden parameters or managing banks of patches, rather than editing the synth. In this respect it should serve its purpose, given that most who choose a hardware 'Authentic Sound Box' do so because of a desire for real controls.
The Odyssey was a powerful and flexible synthesizer but even so, there were opportunities to make improvements. I'm glad to report that Creamware haven't shied away from taking them. The first of these addresses an issue that Odyssey owners will be very familiar with: setting oscillator pitch. Although its VCOs were comparatively stable, the use of sliders for tuning rendered pitch adjustment an unpredictable business in the studio — and positively scary on stage. To resolve this issue, both of the Prodyssey's oscillators have received a valuable addition — an octave switch. The switch's LED flashes when the oscillator is raised by an octave and is on constantly when lowered an octave, while 'off' means no transposition. Naturally, the tuning sliders still do what you'd expect, with coarse tuning having a range of six octaves. Wild pitch sweeps are made friendlier thanks to the Configuration Strip's numeric display (adjacent to the value knob). With these tools at your disposal, you'll always be able to jump octaves and get back in tune!
One of the less visible additions concerns the LFO and is also a potential source of confusion. Occasionally, I dialled up a patch where the LFO slider did absolutely nothing. This, it transpired, occurs when the LFO is sync'd to a BPM figure — a setting you make in the remote editor. As I'd hardly touched the editor at this point, I scratched my head for a little while before inspiration dawned.
A far more obvious enhancement appears in the form of a switch that toggles between the two available filter models, labelled Prodyssey and Minimax. The latter is the modelled Minimoog filter previously encountered on the Minimax ASB. The two filters have markedly different characters: the Prodyssey version is biting and wet, with a fierce resonance that is very obviously ARP inspired, while the Minimax filter has a fuller presence — deeper and darker. Both filters are superb and both will happily go into self-oscillation, each with distinctive resonant characteristics. It could be argued that the inclusion of the Minimax filter supplies certain tonal similarities of the whiteface Odyssey, which itself 'borrowed' the Moog ladder design. Either way, being able to flip between them so easily is awesome!
The final visible addition is in the form of a single slider to set the velocity response of both envelopes. To access these individually requires either the remote editor software or the sending of an appropriate MIDI continuous controller (CC). As with the rest of the Creamware range, MIDI CCs are used extensively. Indeed, every function is assigned a CC number, including those otherwise inaccessible from the hardware, such as the external input level (a control not present on the Odyssey) or some of the less common effects parameters.
After using the Prodyssey for several weeks, the only feature I missed was a programmable master level control — I think this would have made it easier to give patches a common output level.
Hopefully, we're agreed that breaking with tradition can be a good thing, especially when you receive more than earlier technology could supply. As well as the innovations covered so far, the Prodyssey has rudimentary onboard effects and 12 notes of polyphony. These goodies are accessed in the Configuration Strip, along with MIDI channel selection, patch banks and controls for the fine adjustment of parameters. The Value display shows each slider's numeric value as you tweak and the yellow row of 'Match' LEDs offers a quick visual clue as you approach a stored value. In common with other ASB models, there is no patch compare facility and no MIDI indicator LED.
The effects section is exactly like that of the Minimax and features just a chorus/flanger and a stereo delay. You can set delay times independently for left and right channels and a crossover option feeds each channel's feedback to the alternate channel for spacious stereo effects. There is also a bpm sync option, but this doesn't sync to MIDI clock as claimed on the Creamware web site. Annoyingly, it syncs to a bpm figure entered manually.
Although not all effects parameters can be tweaked from the hardware, you do get some control via the Configuration Strip, in the form of five preset effects programs. These consist of various combinations of chorus and delay, each with three adjustable parameters. Overall, the effects are welcome but not earth-shattering. If you prefer to use external gear instead, a handy bypass switch is present.
Often thought of as a monophonic synthesizer, the Odyssey was in fact duophonic. Its keyboard generated two control voltages: one for the lowest note and one for the highest. These were assigned to the two oscillators (remember, there was still only one VCF and one VCA) and as a result, duophony was quirky. Creamware probably feel that the addition of 12-voice polyphony more than makes up for this omission. I tend to agree. However, the same polyphonic voice allocation encountered on the Minimax is reproduced. Thus the Prodyssey doesn't behave like a regular polyphonic synth; it fails to reliably release the oldest or quietest note, making its voice-stealing unpredictable. On a related note, with multiple voices on offer, you might have wished for some form of multitimbrality. I did, but no such luck.
There are 128 preset patches and 128 user patches on board the Prodyssey. These include the ubiquitous fat basses and scorching leads, but also encompass an array of 'weebly' noises. The factory sounds are a fair representation of the Odyssey's range, with some more generic polyphonic stuff, such as pads and strings, thrown in too. Surprisingly, the Minimax filter is neglected throughout, so you have the pleasure of exploring that all by yourself. Given that the Odyssey was one of the fastest synths to program — ever — it really shouldn't take long to assemble a stockpile of original sounds. To this end, it's great news that the preset bank can be entirely erased using the remote editor and overwritten by a bank of your own creations. So that's 256 original patches on tap. And, if you don't care too much for patch memories and prefer to do things the old-fashioned way, hold down the User button for a few seconds and the panel becomes fully 'live', the hidden parameters being set to default settings.
In this strange, transitional time, where hardware is under threat from computers, mice and 'do everything' software, it may seem rather conservative to launch a product that, to be honest, advances synthesis not one inch. The reality is that the Creamware range serves a very real need, giving us reliable modern copies of legendary instruments and serving as a stark reminder of what we risk losing, should we ever abandon hardware altogether.
In recreating patches from actual Odyssey patch sheets, I found myself simply not caring that beneath this synth lay skilful programming rather than analogue circuitry. I found the results close enough — in both feel and sound — to satisfy all but the most picky. Sure, I won't deny that certain analogues have their own magic — an elusive mixture of their physical presence, individual history and gradual decay of components. Software doesn't yet replicate these factors. But then I think of the sticky, crackly sliders of my own 'Ody', the oscillator that occasionally went haywire and the VCA gain slider that often required a desparate wiggling before permitting audio to pass through. I think I'd exchange that particular flavour of magic for a DSP box — even with its glossy perfection and accuracy, thank you very much.
The Prodyssey is a little larger and a little more expensive than others in the range but is my personal favourite ASB so far. Creamware didn't slavishly copy without daring to make improvements, the most rewarding of which is the Minimax filter. I would have loved some form of multitimbrality, though: this thing sounds too good to only do one thing! Creamware have promised to attend to the LFO reset issue and also to resolve a popping noise that occurs at power-on, although they tell me that changing the envelope behaviour is a little further down the list. However, none of these things would stop me from buying a Prodyssey as it is today.