When Make Noise label an instrument an ‘experiment’, you know things are about to get interesting...
The Strega is the third in Make Noise’s occasional series of self‑contained tabletop devices, following the 0‑Coast synth and 0‑Ctrl controller/sequencer. This one is a, erm... Synth? Processor? Drone Machine? Make Noise’s preferred noun is “experiment”, which isn’t as pretentious as it sounds: it’s really the right word for the job.
Strega is a collaboration between Make Noise and the brilliant artist Alessandro Cortini (‘strega’ is Italian for ‘witch’). Whether you’re a general fan of electronic art music, or, like me, a Nine Inch Nails nut, you’ll be familiar with the sound worlds Alessandro spins into existence. His music often has beautiful, delicate tones decomposing into lo‑fi noise and chaos. And this combo is precisely what Strega conjures up.
Make Noise panel designs have a slightly alien hieroglyphic feel that I find appealing, and here they are deliberately and deliciously cryptic. This encourages you to set aside expectations and explore what each control and section does. This getting‑to‑know‑you process is joyful, and to avoid spoiling that I’ll try to avoid fully unpicking and explaining the Strega in conventional synth review terms. Plus there’s still parts of it I can’t explain!
The Strega shares the same slim metal form as the 0‑Coast and 0‑Ctrl. It can sit neatly behind or in front of either, and ships with a splitter cable so you can power it alongside one of its siblings from a single outlet. Although standalone, it is essentially a self‑contained Eurorack standard device which melds readily with the other Make Noise systems or another modular setup.
While the Strega is unconventional and esoteric, it’s actually simpler in some ways than the 0‑Coast. It has no MIDI, and no programmable features, for example. A basic overview shows the Strega to be a game of two halves. The left‑hand ‘Tonic’ side of the panel supplies tones from both an internal oscillator and an external input. These ‘substances’ flow into the ‘time/filter experiment’ section to the right, which is dominated by a grungy multi‑layered delay effect and filtered feedback loop. The final result is a blend of the two sides.
The most logical place I could start was with no patch connections or inputs, where I could get to know the Strega’s inherent sound and routing. The internal sound generator is brought into play with the ‘Activation’ cluster at the bottom left, which is essentially a combined oscillator/VCA section. There are a few ways to stir this into life, but the simplest is to turn up the central knob and introduce a steady tone.
With sound running, it doesn’t take much exploration to learn that the large Tonic dial sweeps pitch over a very wide range, aided by a small fine tune trimmer. ‘Tone’ changes the character of the oscillator, which starts as a triangle, then gets progressively shaped or folded, becoming sawlike, then a kind of pulse+sub that sweeps nicely before finally becoming something like a fat jagged square.
Pushing up the Blend control you’ll hear what the Strega’s other side — the dark side, if you will — is doing to denature this simple seed sound. Again, I want to avoid being too analytical here, and frankly I never fully figured out the structure of the time/filter experiment, but the gist is you have a wild, unpredictable delay which spits noise and mangled up bits of your source into what is maybe a parallel filter arrangement, one of which feeds back into the maelstrom.
Depending on the initial tone and pitch, and the delay/decay times, you can arrive at many different places, albeit different coordinates in a diverse dystopian moodscape. Because of the large amount of self noise in the delay unit, and the feedback loop, the same panel settings won’t bring you back to the same place twice.
Wherever you find yourself, it’s only a starting point. I quickly realised that the Strega is made to be played. Even just tweaking the knobs gives you an evolving soundtrack, but so much more is made possible with the capacitive touch points, which allow you to make temporary modulation (or ‘agitation’ in Strega‑world) connections with your fingers.
There are various sources of modulation on Strega, although it’s not often clear what these are or where they come from! Fairly unambiguous, though, is a typically Make Noise‑esque function generator at the bottom right of the panel, which produces a free‑cycling or triggered Attack/Decay envelope with adjustable shape. This is normalled to the main filter. You can also patch out in the conventional way, or take the output from the touch panel next to the Tone control.
In other places you’ll see modulation sources labelled with a kind of gothic cross, or a line intersected by short dashes. The latter are sub‑oscillator signals derived from the main tone generator. I’m pretty sure the number of lines indicates how many octaves down these are. The former, which the manual sheds some rare light on, provide ‘interference’ coming from the time/filter circuit.
Agitation and Interference are well‑chosen descriptors for the modulation on the Strega, which interrupt and alter signals and settings in ways that sometimes sound like shortwave radio crackles and static. But they are not entirely inharmonic as they are derived from the synth itself, which also means they’re self‑influencing and generative. For example, if you dial up the first Activation control, the oscillator VCA is triggered and shaped by whatever’s happening in the delay/filter loop, which in turn is fed by the oscillator. Then you could stir up some noise from the delay or input circuit, and surf the controls to keep things bouncing around, poking the oscillator like a wasps’ nest and recharging the delay.
You’ve probably gathered by now that the unusual Delay circuit is central to Strega’s character, so let’s look a bit deeper there. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, the delay is an off‑the‑shelf chip found in various other devices from guitar pedals to karaoke machines, but uniquely implemented here. On the Strega, the chip sounds like it’s generating a multitap (maybe three‑step?) repeat, over a very wide range of possible times.
The long delay time is bought deliberately at the expense of fidelity, stretching the component’s sample memory, resulting in a noisy and, by the way, mono output. At the shortest settings you get a resonant spatial sound that can be tamed with the Decay (which is more like a feedback control). Dialled down to about 2 o’clock you still get something that’s recognisable as an echo. From there down, things get chaotic and crusty, and one of Strega’s signature sound characteristics comes to the fore: the ticking, burbling clock noise that would normally be kept out of range in a more conventional design.
Audio can be patched into Strega and routed into the Time/Filter stage. I found a large range of levels is supported, from high‑voltage modular sources right down to a direct guitar input. The Strength control applies gain with a tasty bit of drive. When I plugged my 0‑Coast in and drove the input hard it sounded like a different synth, in a lovely squelchy acid way. After the gain, another knob sets how much of the sound is allowed in, and there’s also patchable output to send the signal elsewhere.
While we’re talking extra sources there’s also a triangle wave sub‑oscillator available at the top of the panel, as well as a four‑octave sub. Audio source routing is fixed. All sources, internal and external are hard patched into the delay/filter module, and there’s no way to patch audio directly into the filter stage. The external patch‑through port does mean an audio input can double as a mod source. Another feature is a CV output that presents a voltage based on the audio input, ie. an envelope follower. Next to this is a second CV source derived from the time/filter side, giving another interesting mod source.
While Strega is not your typical oscillator or synth module it can still be triggered and played from external sources. There is a standard 1V/octave Pitch input, and the Activation VCA section has a CV input where you can plug a Gate, or better still, an envelope source. The onboard Attack/Decay can be triggered, but is a bit limited, so I plugged in the Contour generator from the 0‑Coast, and gated that from a Keystep, feeding the note CV to Strega (or both).
This opened up a whole new side of the Strega, with some beautiful tones and percussive sounds possible as well as the more broken sounds that are its trademark. Again, there’s no way to route through the filters directly without fully blending in the delay, and there’s no setting on the delay that take it out of play. But Strega isn’t trying to be every other synth, and you can certainly find nice pockets where the delay works with played notes and sequences as well as drones. It has its own dark beauty, even though I sometimes wished I could get more gloss.
I had hours of fun combining the 0‑Coast and Strega voices, and patching modulation between the two. One limitation is that there’s no VCA on the external input. Not really a problem in the way I had it patched where I was using the 0‑Coast’s contour generator to shape both its own sound and the Strega’s, but it does restrict what you can do with the onboard triangle and sub outputs. You could route that, or the whole Strega output (or both) through the VCA section on 0‑Coast if you have one, or look for another module — and this is how they get you.
Patching is half the fun of modular, the other is interacting with the instrument to produce dynamic and expressive performances even from a repetitive note sequence or drone. The Strega manages to combines both these aspects into the same gesture, allowing you to make fast, temporary patch connections with capacitive touch points. The five gold circles are modulation sources, comprising various sub‑oscillators, interference from the time/filter circuit, and the function generator. The square plates are destinations such as tone activation, pitch mod and filter resonance. Touching two points connects them.
Every time I thought I’d got it figured out, I found some new unexpected thing it could do.
You could, for example, momentarily apply the function generator as an LFO to the delay time to produce wonky detuning. With most of the sources being pulses or the unpredictable output from the delay loop, the modulation is often unconventional, introducing bursts of strangeness which of course then permeate through the delay. You can also touch multiple points at the same time. Like most capacitive touch sensors, you have a certain amount of leeway in how strong the modulation is by how much surface area and strength you apply to the pad.
Pretty often I found that I wanted to bridge touch points with the jack patch points. It turns out this is entirely possible, if temporarily. You can simply hold a patch cable to a touch point and a connection is made. You can do this in either direction from point to point, or via your body by sticking a thumb one end of the cable and touching a point. The two methods provide different modulation amplitudes. It doesn’t take long after you discover this to note that other general interference in your body can be injected into the Strega in this way, including directly into the external audio input. At one point I was grooving out, earthing myself on a light switch screw with a jack cable pressed against my tongue and thought it was probably time to go to bed.
You could sit down with the Strega, start your recorder of choice, and complete a convincing movie bed or avant garde electronic album in time for your lunchtime sticky bun. The myriad ways you can interact with the panel, and the generative, self‑perpetuating nature of the design makes it impossible to produce anything boring. Combined with some other modular gear like a 0‑Coast and sequencer it can show another, more melodic, side compared to its native drones and textures. The Strega does have a sonic direction that tracks determinedly towards the noisy, lo‑fi and chaotic, which is not going to be to everyone’s taste. For me, I like a hardware module to bring something unique and untidy to my mostly DAW‑based world. Above that I just found exploring and tinkering with the Strega ‘experiment’ hugely rewarding and absorbing; every time I thought I’d got it figured out, I found some new unexpected thing it could do.
- An absorbing explorative instrument.
- ‘Playable’ panel with touch points.
- Blend and process external inputs.
- The inherently lo‑fi Delay/Filter circuit may not suit all tastes.
Strega transports you to a shifting, often noisy sonic landscape which you can explore standalone or with other modular gear.