Are the motorised knobs of Melbourne Instruments’ debut synth a gimmick, or should all synths have them?
My first thought upon switching on the debut synthesizer from antipodean developers Melbourne Instruments was, ‘I’ve never been told off by a synthesizer before.’ ‘DO NOT TOUCH’, warns the Nina as it commences its start‑up sequence, which is on the lengthier side it must be said, but is also so acrobatic that every time I switched it on henceforth I invariably found myself beckoning the closest person over to show them. The sequence in question is a calibration procedure of the Nina’s knobs, behind each of which is a lightning‑fast motor whose design stems from those used in drones, allowing them to move by themselves. Upon power‑up, waves of rotations move across the panel’s knobs from left to right, before each snaps into position simultaneously according to the currently selected preset.
There’s much to discuss about said knobs. They are, after all, the Nina’s headline act, and an impressive one at that. After seeing it at Superbooth one of my SOS colleagues said to me, “I went from thinking, ‘Why does a synth need motorised knobs?’ to ‘All synths should have motorised knobs!’” That remains to be seen, for reasons I’ll come to in due course, but it’s worth mentioning straight out of the gate that it’s by no means the Nina’s only selling point — far from it.
Patience Is A Virtue
“We’ve started at the top, with a big development effort and a flagship synth for us,” Ian of Melbourne Instruments told SOS editor Sam Inglis, in front of a large banner proclaiming, ‘The Synthesizer Revolution Begins Here’. The Nina’s ambition matches that adage: a hybrid analogue‑digital 12‑voice polysynth with multitimbrality, onboard effects and a wealth of modulation options, it draws on both wavetable and conventional subtractive synthesis and boasts some seriously nifty design features besides. On top of this, its fully discrete circuitry was designed in‑house by Melbourne Instruments. This is no mean feat, least of all for a debut instrument, and thus promises something a little bit unique and characterful on top of the rest. It is a highly impressive synth, but no less than I’d hope for from a $£3500+ instrument with no keyboard and no lineage to fall back on à la Oberheim, Sequential or Moog.
The time required for that ‘big development effort’ was afforded to Melbourne Instruments by — you guessed it — the Covid‑19 pandemic. I must say, while we’re still reading countless album reviews that open with ‘Written and recorded during lockdown...’, it’s almost refreshing to be reminded of how that period was also put to good use by instrument designers, not least since the main story for developers since the pandemic has ostensibly concerned parts shortages. The Nina’s design certainly feels well‑considered and patient, even if its motorised knobs are possibly the closest a synth can come to the showmanship of a Tesla with ‘falcon wing’ doors.
Considering everything going on under the Nina’s faceplate, it’s still a relatively compact desktop instrument with a front panel measuring about 45 x 23cm. As mentioned, it has no keyboard, a respectable decision since it supports a wide range of controller types and styles (including MIDI Polyphonic Expression, impressively) and would in many ways only limit itself by presenting a ‘usual’ means of control. It comes with a pair of 19‑inch rack ears; just make sure that rack is strong enough, though, because this thing is very heavy — 5.5 kilograms to be exact. That’s almost two kilos heavier than the physically larger e7 from GS Music, a comparable desktop polysynth, which I reviewed back in July. This is no doubt largely thanks to the grid of brushless drone motors that sit behind the Nina’s knobs, and with chunky metal side cheeks to boot it’s built like a tank. A single screen, cutely labelled ‘Computer’, sits to the top left of the panel, with a data encoder for navigating various menus. The Nina can get a little menu‑heavy, something that sits in stark contrast to the fact that in almost every other way it presents a WYSIWYG panel endowed with satisfyingly chunky, backlit ‘soft key’ buttons. The motorised knobs take this aspect of the Nina’s interface to another level, of course, but before getting to those it’s worth seeing what it is they actually control, after which it’ll become clearer as to why they’re about much more than just a bit (or a lot) of fun.
On first glance, the Nina has the architecture of a fairly classic synth. Two analogue oscillators, a 4‑pole ladder filter straight out of the Moog playbook, and a pair of ADSR envelopes. There’s a sequencer, whose buttons double up as a quick‑access preset bank, and modulation matrix menu. Already the Nina’s uniqueness comes to the fore, thanks to its discrete circuitry. Its custom VCOs can move between square and triangle wave shapes, both of which have adjustable widths; for the square wave this concerns pulse width, something not shown on the panel for some reason, but the triangle wave can also use this knob to transition to a saw wave. This means that on each oscillator it’s possible to combine both pulse‑width and wave‑shape modulation between three distinct wave shapes with just two parameters. Oscillator 3 throws further fun into the mix: it’s a digital wavetable oscillator with an array of factory wavetables included, though it can also happily import and export custom wavetables, with Melbourne Instruments promising that most soft‑synth formats are supported. This immediately throws open the doors to a vast world of possibility as to what kind of synth you want the Nina to be — VCO 1’s sub‑oscillator could simply be used to thicken the sound of a complex wavetable, or with the simplest of modulation a wavetable could inject a dose of extra movement and harmonic content into a weighty, classic analogue voice. Pair this with the Nina’s capacity for four‑layer multitimbral mode and the recently‑added MPE control, and suffice to say I could fill this entire issue with sonic options.
There’s also a noise generator, which has a few nifty tricks of its own: alongside white or pink noise, it can be set to output a ring modulation of the pulse widths of VCOs 1 and 2 and blend this into the main signal. It can also become an attenuator for the aux input to funnel external audio into the front end of the signal flow, and here the Nina’s I/O shows itself to be very impressive. It doesn’t just have four DC‑coupled inputs for either line‑level audio or CV, mixable in a range of configurations via the screen and data encoder: one of these takes the form of a hybrid XLR‑jack input that can happily accept mic‑level signals. This opens up huge amounts of exciting signal processing possibilities, not least on account of the Nina’s onboard effects and panning potential.
Effects & Morphing
It’s always nice to see a drive knob on a synth like this, and the Nina’s sounds predictably good. It also helps with mixing, particularly when in multitimbral land, since it’s actually bipolar and can therefore attenuate residual distortion resulting from the build‑up of layers. The Output section on the far left of the panel presents three intriguing knobs: Effect, Spin and Morph. Effect entails options for chorus, reverb or delay, all of which are multi‑mode in their own way and sound fantastic. Chorus comes in one of two types whose characteristics work well when played off against the Nina’s stereo spread. The reverb offers a room algorithm, two plates and two halls and can be adjusted time‑ and tone‑wise, as well as endowed with a shimmer. The sync’able delay offers 60ms‑1.8s of delay time, and a low‑pass filter.
The secondary function of the Effect knob, Pan, relates to what Melbourne Instruments dub Stereo Infinite Panning; a kind of super‑pan achievable thanks to each voice moving through a set of custom four‑quadrant VCAs at the output. This means a sound can pan to one stereo channel while playing with the phase or polarity of the other, to psychoacoustically create a ‘beyond stereo’ level of width, something found in numerous plug‑ins but rarely built into a synthesizer. Different voices can be dotted around the stereo image and have this movement modulated, too, for anything from big, lush pads to three‑dimensional dancing percussion. The Spin parameter works off the Stereo Infinite Panning, maintaining the distance between voices while literally ‘spinning’ them around the stereo image. “Play with this effect to hear how it sounds. Imagine what it would sound like in a stadium,” says the manual. [Sighs] Yes, we all do.
My maxim with effects and stereo tricks on synths has always been to ‘keep it brief’: it should be streamlined, focused and always done well. Huge banks of averagely‑executed effects only add to cost and are immediately superseded by outboard gear. The Nina treads this line very well, despite its swirling stereo options striking me as, let’s say, a ‘choice’ effect that can become a little cheesy and tiring if overused, even if on a technical level it is quite brilliant.
If there’s one aspect of the Nina’s workflow that deserves special mention, it’s the last parameter in the Output section array, Morph. This I found truly a pleasure to use, partially because in principle it’s just so elegantly simple. Beyond all the other capacity for dynamism and movement I’ve already mentioned, each preset on the Nina has in essence two ‘poles’, A and B. Hit the A/B key and adjust the A side of a present, then hit it again and adjust the B side. The Morph knob then allows for ‘morphing’ between the two, showcasing the Nina’s motorised knobs with aplomb as they simultaneously move this way or that into their respective positions for each side and back again — at the same rate as you turn the Morph knob and with little latency. It’s like having a multitude of elastic bands stretching from the Morph knob around every other control — or, I should say, almost every other control: the Effect and Tempo knobs are not affected. While this came as a minor disappointment, particularly concerning the effects, Morph is still an outstanding performance feature allowing anything from two subtly different versions of the same voice to a full‑blown Jekyll‑and‑Hyde interplay within a single preset.
While the term ‘brushless motor’ may strike you as a forgettable epithet, it’s actually very important to understanding the Nina’s motorised knobs and their role in the synth’s architecture. The clue is in the start‑up procedure: each knob rotates the entire way around as if it were an endless encoder, yet upon assuming its position in a preset suddenly presents a more conventional‑feeling knob with a start point and an end point. Some knobs have detents while others don’t, others are stepped. This is because the technology at play in the Nina’s motor design is actually based around the use of a magnetic field, which not only means that their travel is incredibly smooth, but also allows them to physically take on the characteristics of a variety of knob designs by way of a clever use of magnetic resistance. The start and end points at either extreme of each knob’s travel distance are not, so to speak, ‘real’. They are the resistance of a magnetic field stopping the knob from going any further.
Elsewhere, the tuning knobs for the Nina’s three oscillators can be set to either coarse or fine tuning. Set to fine, they are smooth. Set to coarse, jumping between octaves, the knobs magically become stepped. So too with the Nina’s data encoder, which switches between smooth and subtly stepped, depending on its role. Some parameters are given a subtle detent at zero, but only when dialling in modulation. It’s a totally ingenious use of haptic feedback, and in the oscillators’ case also economises on panel real estate by giving the knobs some very clever, genuine multi‑functionality. The use of magnets also means that these knobs’ speed and torque is astonishing; they can change direction on a sixpence, in much the same way as a drone’s propellors must constantly change direction at speed and make tiny adjustments to steady themselves the air. Switching between presets, the knobs snap into position almost instantaneously. I daresay even if motorised knobs were ubiquitous on synthesizers, the Nina would do it better than most.
Of course, the drone motors aren’t only there to contribute to the Nina’s knobs’ feel. The central tenet of their design is concerned with preset recall — I certainly heard about that one first, back when the Nina began making the rumour rounds. This was a hugely impressive concept and it’s just as impressive in practice. Upon switching the Nina on for the first time, I spent more time than I care to admit cycling through presets just to watch the knobs dance before my eyes. In multitimbral mode, the knobs snap to correspond to each timbral layer for lightning‑quick editing. The aforementioned modulation matrix also makes clever use of the motors; cycle through each modulation source and the panel will snap to display which parameters are being modulated, and by how much. I was a tad disappointed to see the knobs don’t move in real time in correspondence to their modulation, at least when viewed on the Mod page. It would be marvellous to assign an LFO to the filter, for example, and watch the invisible hand turn the filter knob back and forth. This, I’d imagine, is where some decisions had to be made, though. Modulating at audio rate, for example, would require a knob to move at an untenable rate, and it would also present difficulties adjusting fundamental values relative to this. It would also presumably be difficult to have manual control override automation without putting a huge amount of strain on the motors.
A Revolution In Motion
All this considered, whether the idea of automated knobs appeals to you or not, the key takeaway, happily, is that the Nina doesn’t just implement them, it implements them incredibly well. There’s nothing worse than a statement product executed badly, and Melbourne Instruments’ endeavour to avoid that pitfall has paid off. Who knows, perhaps the pandemic‑less Nina of an alternate universe would have lacked the patience that clearly went into this one. That said, it is also likely accountable for a significant chunk of the Nina’s price tag, and it’s in light of this that, lying awake at night, I began to consider the actual benefits of a design like this beyond its sheer coolness. I couldn’t escape the question of how much the Nina genuinely benefits from being furnished with motorised knobs over any alternative type of panel preset recall — they are impressive, tactile and executed beautifully, but I couldn’t but think back to the LED‑haloed encoders on my trusted Moog Little Phatty, which, although their limited physical travel distance was a little awkward relative to their digital parameter values (I always wished they could be endless encoders for guaranteed true‑to‑value positions), achieve essentially the same result at a fraction of the cost, weight and current draw (the Nina demands a whopping 8A, compared to, for example, the aforementioned GS e7’s 3A).
“The reason not all synths have gone to LED rings is that there’s always a compromise there,” Ian posited to Sam Inglis at Superbooth. “They’re just not as nice to use.” That, for all intents and purposes, is true. Sure, a couple of extra degrees of movement given through a zero value can be a good LED substitution for detents, but there’s no real replacement for the physical feeling of that subtle resistance under the hand, not to mention its ability to reduce the need to constantly study the panel when making adjustments.
What’s in question isn’t the ability to maintain knob‑per‑function alongside preset recall — instruments like the ASM Hydrasynth demonstrate that we crossed that hurdle years ago. It’s about how this is done. My unwavering maxim with electronic instruments (make that any instrument) is that it’s not about how it looks, nor is it about its fun bells and whistles; it’s about its usability, and how that usability contributes to the most important thing of all, which is the sound.
This is a synth for those who miss using their hands and their ears in a world of visualised software instruments and menu‑diving.
In fairness, all this refers us back to one key benefit of the Nina’s physical motorised knobs. For someone like me who does not respond particularly well to reading small screens and greatly values physical, haptic indicators of what is going on, the Nina carries some major appeal. It manages to maintain a timeless sense of physicality, no matter how clever it is behind the scenes. It comes at a hefty price, no doubt about it, but it’s also worth acknowledging that an instrument designed from scratch like this is always going to be more expensive, partly because most of the off‑the‑shelf components that help tame the prices of other synths simply don’t exist for it yet. If you want some perspective, just Google the starting price of the Fairlight CMI when it came out in 1979. The Nina is heavy, it’s sturdy, it’s spacious and it’s kinetic; this is a synth for those who miss using their hands and their ears in a world of visualised software instruments and menu‑diving. All in all, the Nina’s primary success is not, in fact, its complexity; it is its simplicity.
So, to return to the introduction. Should all synths have motorised knobs? Maybe. Will more synths adopt them? Hopefully. Am I glad this one has them? Absolutely. If there’s one thing Nina is not, it’s gimmicky. It’s reliable, it’s deep, it sounds excellent and it’s thrown down one very large gauntlet to developers everywhere.
- The knobs!
- A great combination of subtractive and wavetable synthesis styles.
- A truly excellent Morph function.
- Massively versatile I/O and modulation potential.
- MPE compatible and multitimbral.
- Very power hungry, very heavy.
Melbourne Instruments have created something special with the Nina, which not only opens up a world of potential with its motorised knobs but also brings some excellent ideas to the table with its sound and architecture.