Make Noise blur the boundaries between the East and West Coast schools of synthesis with this unique semi-modular.
There’s never been a better time to enter the vast and endless labyrinth known as modular synthesis, but for those as yet unwilling, there are a growing number of stand-alone, patchable ‘taster’ instruments. One of these is on my desktop today, a product of respected Eurorack manufacturers Make Noise. Their 0-Coast is named in homage to the parallel schools of synthesizer development that arose in the East and West Coasts of the United States, at the soldering irons of Bob Moog and Don Buchla. While the division isn’t quite so clear cut as that perceived between rock and ‘serious’ electronic music, there’s no doubt Moog led the way in making his machines familiar and playable while Buchla steered towards more experimental ground.
The 0-Coast — pronounced ‘Oh-Coast’ but also referred to as ‘No Coast’ — takes ideas from both swings of the compass although sonically, I’d rate it as more ‘sunshine’ than ‘Moogy’. It sports a single analogue oscillator, several souped-up sources of modulation, mathematical functions, MIDI and patch points, but patching isn’t essential to use it. In perhaps the biggest departure from rival monosynths, the 0-Coast has no filter. Instead of removing harmonics from already-rich sources, it adds them to a fundamental waveform. Therefore it not only sounds distinctly different but requires a slightly different approach, too.
A Modest Semi
This has to be amongst the most attractive tiny synthesizers around. At approximately 20mm thick and measuring 230 x 140mm, it’s a black chunk of steel only a bit bigger than the average paperback. If it were any thinner, patch leads would go right through! Subtly lit in green, orange (two shades), red and white, there’s a good deal of information on the panel about signal flow, socket type and the connections that are normalised (pre-wired). Semi-modular by nature, thin gold lines represent the signal flow with patch points on hand to redirect it where applicable. Knobs of varying sizes break up the panel, with the tiniest reserved for the VCO fine-tune and the line-out level. Consistent with Eurorack tradition, some are quite hard to reach when patch cables are in place, particularly the attenuverter of the Voltage Math section.
I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of the spidery lettering Make Noise use, but apart from a few abbreviations, there’s nothing too taxing to decipher. As far as the 3.5mm patch points are concerned, outputs have a helpful arrow pointing outwards, with the exception of the main line/headphone output, a stereo mini-jack of which both channels carry identical signals. When connecting to a modular, the much higher level ‘Dynamic’ output is the one to go for — it’s tucked away in the bottom right-hand corner.
The external power adaptor plugs in to the side; all other connections are face-upwards, assuming you’re going to place the 0-Coast on a desk or similar. With my typical luck, the early model I received suffered from an occasional slow power-up, a known issue related to ‘wrong adaptor protection’ and subsequently rectified. Although the 0-Coast is crying out to get jiggy with Eurorack, it is not designed to bolt into a Euro case, but it did rest fairly comfortably on an angled space of blanking panels in mine. The MIDI interface consists of a stereo mini-jack and an adaptor wired to the Korg ‘standard’. This means you could sequence the 0-Coast directly from a Korg SQ1, Electribe 2 or a Twisted Electrons Acid 8 using only a 3.5mm stereo cable.
I’d like to kick off with a word of praise for the manual, a top-notch read packed with diagrams and explanations. Whether you’re sat with just the 0-Coast and earbuds or plugged into a MIDI and modular command centre, it will help you absorb the sometimes unfamiliar terms and begin exploring.
The single VCO produces triangle and square waves. It’s supported by a Contour (envelope) driving a Dynamics circuit and a two-stage Slope generator that can cycle like an LFO. Voltage control and variable slopes give these more power than the average envelope or LFO; since the envelope has been inspired by that of the Minimoog, I’m pleased to report it’s fast and punchy as hell. The Slope generator is pretty fast too, so much so that, when looping, it can be employed as an additional audio source or an audio-frequency modulator. Further modulation sources include clock pulses, a Random output, MIDI-derived control signals, a pair of software LFOs and the oscillator’s own waveforms. Other than the MIDI and tempo sections (and the two menu-bound LFOs), the 0-Coast is an entirely analogue synth.
For more complex patching scenarios, the Voltage Math circuit features some of the capabilities of Make Noise’s Maths module. It offers the capability to add, subtract, invert, offset, attenuate and amplify signals, or simply emulate a good old-fashioned multiple. It’s a notable example of how the 0-Coast differs from most ‘basic’ synths.
To get a feel for the raw tones on offer, I began by replicating the manual’s drone patch using one of the half dozen supplied patch cords. A constant value is sent from the Voltage Math function to the Dynamic input, effectively bypassing the envelope. The first of the unfamiliar controls is Balance, which, when turned fully counter-clockwise, lets through only the fundamental — in this case a triangle wave. If you begin to turn it, you hear the effects of the Overtone and Multiply circuits, about which more anon. In the sense that you’re fading between a pure and a harmonically rich signal, this can give the impression of filtering — kinda. To hear the square wave instead, you’ll need to patch it in at the point just before the Balance control. With Balance fully in the ‘OVRTN’ position, it doesn’t make an audible difference which fundamental waveform you choose.
I’m sure I don’t need to describe what a triangle or square wave sounds like, but the rest will be more of a challenge. The Overtone circuit adds harmonics that progress gradually through odd to even, passing a blend of the two en route. Beyond that, the ‘!!’ label indicates that the Slope circuit is added into the audio path. This, it transpires, is an important consideration and provides the first hint that there’s more than just a single audio source to play with. The blend of overtones can be modulated using the CV input, a connection that isn’t normalised. By plugging, for example, a step sequencer into this input, you can amaze your friends with an effect not unlike scanning a PPG or Waldorf wavetable.
The Overtone circuit takes its inspiration from a Don Buchla idea of a sound source morphing from odd to even overtones — it’s a surprisingly effective alternative to East Coast filtering. Adding, rather than subtracting harmonics, generates a range of complex waveforms that are in marked contrast to those of a typical subtractive synth. Think: bright, glassy, clear, sharp and zingy.
The Multiply circuit makes up to five copies of the overtones that are harmonically related to the fundamental. Turn the knob and the output becomes richer, fuzzier, toppier. This, too, has a CV input but even without patching, it’s internally routed to the Slope generator. In search of thicker, richer tones, I pressed the cycle button to set the Slope generator looping. Then, using the Multiply knob and its attenuvertor, I fine-tuned the modulation to create moving, PWM-like textures. Intimately related to the Overtone value, Multiply generates extra harmonic content whose shimmering qualities at times suggest oscillator sync, but always with that distinctly ‘Oh’ edge.
The oscillator has a large tune control and much smaller fine-tune, plus a tiny trimmer should you need to adjust the 1V/Oct input scaling. From this, the VCO tracks accurately over approximately four octaves, but for the widest range, MIDI is recommended. As well as the regular CV input, the oscillator has a linear FM jack and an attenuator ready to provide vibrato or — with a fast modulation source — all manner of clangourous FM tones. Incidentally, whatever voltage is received at the 1V/Oct jack is added to that generated by the MIDI input. It therefore presents an easy means of transposing sequences, for example.
Perhaps the only ‘missing’ oscillator function is glide or portamento, which at present must be achieved without MIDI but using the CV input in conjunction with an external voltage slew module.
MIDI & Menus
Unusually for a single-voice synth, the 0-Coast can listen to two separate MIDI channels. Referred to as A and B, these are set up by a (menu-bound) MIDI Learn function. The process is a bit involved and to master the menus you’ll need the manual nearby — at least in the beginning (brief notes are printed on the underside). The Pgm A and Pgm B buttons are used to progress through the seven available pages and to choose options. Thanks to helpful combinations of lights, it’s not as bad as it first seems.
MIDI channel A is the optimum means of supplying pitch CV and gate information, and as ever those gold lines illustrate the internal flow. The response to pitch-bend is pre-configured with a fixed amount of two semitones. MIDI channel B features CV and Gate outputs that can be routed anywhere you wish, even to a completely different synth if necessary. Its channel can be the same used by A or another of your choice. MIDI B’s CV output is derived from four possible sources: note number, note velocity (the default), mod wheel or an LFO. The latter is a triangle wave whose speed is set by tapping the Pgm A button.
The Gate output also has four possible configurations. Unsurprisingly, these include acting as a gate signal that stays high while a note is on. Alternatively, it too can be an LFO — a square wave whose speed is set in the same way as before. The other two options are more quirky. They involve spitting out a high gate signal either when the mod wheel passes its half-way mark or when velocity goes beyond its half-way point. This can serve as a means of triggering the Contour or Slope generators, providing you remember to follow up with a low value afterwards (or the gate will remain high forever).
Other settings within the menu system include the choice of single- or multi-envelope triggering, the calibration of the internal MIDI-to-CV converter and the routing of MIDI Clock to tempo. (You may, however, prefer the manual tap-tempo method of hitting Pgm B.) Oh, and I almost forgot, there’s an arpeggiator! There should be no excuse for overlooking it because it’s the first entry in the menu system, with options to run in a latched or non-latched mode. It’s switched on by a simultaneous press of buttons Pgm A and B, with the latter button remaining lit as a reminder. The arpeggiator plays notes in the order they’re received at the MIDI input (up to a limit of 20 notes) and therefore could be treated like a mini sequencer. Once you hit the note limit, any more notes entered will replace the earliest. For greater variety, you can always patch something — eg. the Random generator — into the Tempo input.
Beyond The VCO
Once you have a feel for the terminology, the remaining components of the 0-Coast quickly fall into place. When cycling, the Slope circuit delivers similar waveforms to the continuously variable LFO of Korg’s MS20; except that, instead of a single waveform knob, the rise and fall times are set individually. If both times are equal the shape is triangular, while at either extreme you get a sawtooth or inverted sawtooth. Actually, I should qualify that statement: strictly speaking it’s true only if the Vari-response knob is set to linear. The other choices are logarithmic or exponential and the knob smoothly morphs between them. Thus the curve of the Slope generator is either bowed out or pinched in, which translates to a far greater number of shapes than the average LFO.
Via the Time input you can modulate Slope’s rise and fall rates simultaneously. Patch in a suitable voltage source — positive or negative — and the Slope can be slowed down to 20 minute cycles or pushed up as far as 1kHz. In addition to the button that toggles cycling, Slope differs from an LFO in that all three of its knobs affect the rate, which is fun but not always intuitive.
The Contour generator is equally versatile. Substitute onset for attack and you can think of it like an ADSR in which the decay and release phases share a control. Once again, the slope can be varied smoothly between linear and exponential — a real tonic for envelope aficionados. It’s particularly suited to making responsive, spiky, perfectly-tailored percussion and basses. The envelope is normalised to the Dynamics circuit, a Low Pass Gate that’s a blend of West and East Coast designs. In essence, it’s a 6dB filter acting like a VCA but instead of the Vactrols of Buchla’s machines it has transistors — and a very snappy response. The Dynamic circuit progresses from a soft minimum to a much louder, brighter maximum that becomes edgy and even slightly overloaded in its final few degrees.
Lateral thinking reaps many rewards from the 0-Coast. I mean, you wouldn’t expect to get oscillator sync from a single VCO synth but it can be done, by yet another application of the cycling Slope generator. By connecting the VCO’s square wave to the trigger input, Slope is restarted for every cycle of the main oscillator. Then it’s just a matter of playing with the Rise, Fall and Variable-slope knobs to achieve the desired tone. To further polish the patch, sync’s distinctive timbral movement can be achieved by routing the Contour to the Time input. You can choose to mix the sync signal with the VCO or hear it in isolation by patching the Slope directly into the Balance external input.
Other worthwhile patching options to try out include the Contour’s ‘EON’ — or End Of Onset. This is a gate output that hits its maximum voltage when the onset portion of the envelope has finished, dropping to zero at the end of the decay. A potential use for this would be to trigger the Slope generator with a view to creating a more complex, composite envelope. The Slope generator’s ‘EOC’ — End Of Cycle — is a similarly valuable output, serving as a square-shaped modulation source or a means of generating clock signals from the LFO, etc.
The Voltage Math is a flexible but unobtrusive little circuit with two inputs, two outputs and as many roles as you can devise. These include the blending of audio or control signals, piping a single modulation source to two destinations, producing a constant voltage and so on. The right-hand input has an attenuverter that controls the level or polarity of that channel, with a zero spot in the middle. Supposing you fed in a couple of sawtooth LFOs from somewhere, you could remove the right-hand one’s influence by setting the attenuverter to its mid-point; or mix it in by a clockwise movement or add an inverted version by turning in the opposite direction. The small window lights green or red depending on the attenuverter’s position.
I’m impressed. This might be a weird thing to say but somehow I was reminded of my EMS Synthi, and not because the 0-Coast sounds similar or has equivalent functionality. It has a comparable flair for sparking the imagination, leading you down paths less well-travelled and engaging you in ways conventional synths don’t. I realise that probably sounds like West Coast hippy rambling, but there’s something undeniably attractive about a box where everything plays its part and experimentation makes such a difference.
That a single VCO machine with no filter can make so many ridiculous, complex, distinctive noises was a real eye-opener. The Overtone and Multiply circuits can spit out harmonics as melodious as gently-humming angels or as harsh, bright and grating as an Arturia Minibrute’s ‘Metalizer’. Favourite sounds I stumbled across included Star Wars lightsaber impressions, big triangle basses, cutting FM percussion and a wealth of rich, raspy, buzzy tones. The Slope generator deserves a special mention for its versatility, as an oscillator, modulator, clock generator, extra envelope and probably other things I have yet to think of.
The semi-modular nature means you can take note pitches from a MIDI keyboard but supply their gates from somewhere else (eg. a sequencer), optionally breaking the bond that MIDI long ago imposed. And whether this is your first patchable synth or a component in a larger setup, patching is hugely rewarding — if also rather cramped. Often the 0-Coast felt dwarfed by its own patch cords, leading the fingers a merry dance to reach certain knobs. As you may have gathered, I’m not an advocate of the current trend for making everything as small as possible, although I accept it’s a natural result of forcing gear to fight for desk space. And while it’s easy to see the attraction of stand-alone operation and interaction with other desktop equipment, had the 0-Coast been Eurorack-ready too, I for one would have been delighted.
I’ve rated the lack of a regular MIDI port as a con, but at these dimensions (and the growing trend for mini-jack MIDI) I can understand why it has been reduced. At least you have both CV/Gate and MIDI options, with the bonus of two MIDI channels for extra flexibility. If necessary, the 0-Coast could act an independent MIDI-to-CV interface alongside its regular duties.
Partially because of its lack of a filter, the 0-Coast’s bright, clear tones sometimes resemble those associated with digital synths. Naturally, it won’t give you big resonant filter sweeps, but there are plenty of other small synths that will — synths whose range you can usually suss out fairly quickly. Not so the 0-Coast, which has an alternate palette and complementary strengths thanks mainly to its sunny Californian influences. Make Noise should be congratulated for daring to be different and I suspect the 0-Coast is going to win a lot of friends.
Thanks to Rubadub in Glasgow for the loan of the review model.
Try to equal the 0-Coast with Eurorack modules and you’ll run out of cash long before you catch up. Of course, there are many other small, semi-modular synths eager to play with your Eurorack (and anything else besides) — one such is Moog’s Mother-32. Equipped with a sequencer and able to sit comfortably in a Euro case, it could be viewed more as a partner to the 0-Coast than a replacement. Ditto the simpler Doepfer Dark Energy II or the Dreadbox Erebus.
- A fresh-sounding semi-modular synthesizer blending two schools of classic USA design to produce something original.
- It works by adding harmonics rather than filtering them out.
- The envelope is fast, punchy and variable-slope.
- Has an LFO that can act like an oscillator.
- Dual MIDI-channel operation and CV/Gate.
- Solidly constructed, slim and attractive.
- MIDI via mini-jack adaptor.
- Access to knobs impeded by patching.
- Not Eurorackable.
An intriguing mixture of ideas adding up to more than the sum of their parts, this is an innovative synth with a Buchla-esque flavour. Whether it appeals because of its stand-alone nature, or for linking up with comparable desktop gear, or even as part of a larger modular system, it’s a little charmer.