Modal's Argon 8X offers a lot of synthesizer for a very compelling price.
I felt like Modal Electronics had read my mind when they announced the Argon synth. I like the novel sounds digital synths can offer, and I've had a particular fascination with portables like the OP‑1, MicroFreak and Modal's own Skulpt and Craft synths. But lately I've been thinking about an affordable but 'proper' stand-alone synth with a nice keyboard, something with interesting synthesis, but not a novelty... enter the Argon 8.
The Argon is an eight-voice polyphonic wavetable synth, with dual oscillator engines. It has sequencing and automation, effects, flexible modulation, aftertouch and a performance joystick. There's DNA shared with the Skulpt , but it's evolved in many ways. This is all presented as a grown-up hardware instrument with a generous spread of knobs and buttons and a small screen. Two of the three models have keyboards: the 'vanilla' version has three octaves while the 'X' has five. Then there's a desktop module dubbed the 'M'. The X (which I had for review) justifies its panel controls to the left, leaving a large blank area to the right that's ideal for a tablet running the control app.
Instead of a tablet, my NI Maschine sat on the blank space for much of the review; a fact that should give you an idea of the build of the instrument. It's solid, cased in steel and aluminium, and it's really heavy, which somehow feels incongruous with its low profile and sleek, curved panel.
The keys are a full-size Fatar keybed of the same heritage as the NI Komplete Kontrol keyboards. The knobs are the only thing that feel on the light and plasticky side. A couple had some wobble, but the review unit was a pre-production model that had already done some heavy touring.
Most notable on the panel is the spring-loaded joystick controller. The joystick's x‑axis controls pitch, while forward and backward movement can be assigned to two different mod destinations. If you're using the keyboard as a MIDI controller, forward motion of the joystick acts like a mod wheel with full CC range.
The rest of the panel has an easy to follow layout of continuous encoders. The majority of the Argon's features can be accessed directly from the encoders and buttons, split across two control layers. The Shift button that accesses layer 2 can be held momentarily or latched on. Latching helps you to keep playing while adjusting the secondary parameters, although I did then often forget it was on. Handily the parameter you're currently tweaking always pops up on the display.
In general, the synth is really straightforward to use and program. There was only a handful of things I had to look up. For example, it wasn't immediately obvious to me that some tertiary functions are accessed from local shift functions within the button clusters.
Argon's sound engine is structured similarly to other modern wavetable synths, including familiar soft synths like Massive and Serum, and ASM's Hydrasynth which we'll inevitably be comparing. The Argon and Skulpt boast 32 oscillators, which had previously led me to think they were unusually complicated. What this actually means, though, is that each voice has four oscillators at its disposal, within a conventional two-oscillator source architecture.
To summarise, you have two sweepable wavetable sound sources, each with a range of static modifiers. A choice of dynamic modifiers can be applied to Osc 1, some of which cross modulate with Osc 2. The two sources are blended with a mix control and then shaped through a single multi-mode filter. Distortion is always available after the filter, then there are three flexible effects slots at the end of the chain.
There are 24 wavetable banks available to both oscillators, plus four extras for Osc 2 for noise and PWM. The Wavetables are all based around five wave shapes that you can morph smoothly between. For example, the basic virtual analogue bank moves from Sine to Triangle, through a clipped Triangle, to Square and finally to Saw. There are enough interpolated frames that you'll only hear a hint of stepping if you sweep really slowly through the bank.
As well as the generic analogue bank, four banks come from Modal's flagship hybrid synth, the 002. There's then a varied collection of mathematically derived tables, harmonic or formant sweeps, complex waveforms, and so on. Some are collections of waves that work nicely together when modulated, some are more eclectic, and a few are single continuous animations like progressive wave folding.
The Wavetable collection is a strong point. Often wavetable synths have just a few banks that stand out, then lots that all sound more or less the same. Argon 8's banks are all interesting, and most importantly, usable. There's a consistent emphasis on more abstract, raw starting points, rather than tables that sweep out familiar sounds or samples. As a result, the Argon 8's sounds are rarely naturalistic, outside of some bells, organs or percussive sounds. A few patch names allude to pianos, electric and otherwise, but they don't come that close. And why would you want them to? If I wanted that, I'd get a sampler.
The Argon 8 does not let you load your own wavetables or samples. Some may find this disappointing, but I'm not among them. There are plenty of good starting points here, and in any case a lot of the magic is in what you can do with the starting sounds.
Which brings us neatly onto modifiers. One of the great things about modern wavetable (and spectral) synths is the ability to mess with the wave shape at source, rather than (or as well as) through traditional signal processing. The Argon 8 does this with a palette of wavetable modifiers, one of which can be applied to each oscillator. These bend your starting tone in various ways, including sample rate and bit reduction, filtering, wave shaping and folding, or more exotic warping of the way the wavetables are read.
The modifiers greatly increase the range of tonal starting points, but they are static operations, either on or off. Similar features on well-known wavetable soft synths can be dialled in by degrees. Whether Modal decided to make them switchable for the sake of simplicity or to conserve DSP resources I'm not sure.
In any case the Argon 8 has a second layer of sound warping in the shape of the Osc Cross Mod, and this is variable. In most modes, Osc 1 is modulated by Osc 2, but there are some modes that directly apply to Osc 1. Like Massive, the default mode is Phase Mod which tends to produce the shimmering growl which is that go-to sound for sci-fi sound designers and dubstep producers alike.
There's also Ring Mod, Amp Mod and traditional two-oscillator Sync. Two other sync modes modulate Osc 1 with an independent source that tracks the keyboard. Finally there are Inverter and Shaper modes which warp Osc 1. These have more in common with the static modifiers than cross mods, but have adjustable depth.
So remember the 32 oscillators thing? This comes into play with the Spread control. Each Oscillator source is a pair, meaning you can add detuning within each wave source, or use the twin for intervals (from Maj 3rd to a 5th above the octave), or as a Sub Oscillator at a 5th, octave, or two octaves down.
Spread applies within each Oscillator element. A separate option chooses how the voices are arranged: Poly, Mono, Unison or Stack. Poly gives you the full eight-voice (four oscillator each) polyphonic voicing. Mono is, well, mono. Then there's Unison, which is a monophonic mode that stacks and detunes the voices. Finally Stack mode is a poly version of Unison, offering two- or four-voice polyphony.
With all the interesting stuff happening at the Oscillator level, the filter is content to do its job without drawing much attention to itself. There are two character settings (Standard and Classic) with a Notch variation of each. A morph control fades the filter from low to high pass. All modes are two-pole with adjustable resonance. When tweaking the filter, the display indicates its current response curve.
Helping things along, the Argon 8 has a generous helping of final stage effects. Distortion is always available. This is a waveshaping overdrive rather than a warm saturation. After that there are three slots which you can populate from the palette of 11 digital effects. Six parameter controls adjust the currently selected slot. The reverb could be better: it's a little on the ringy and metallic side. It seems to have a low output, so even blending in a small amount can significantly drop the overall patch level.
The Argon has three envelope generators sharing a set of panel controls. Two have pre-wired assignments (Amp Envelope and Filter) while a third is freely assignable. The first two can't be drafted in to modulate anything else, which is rather limiting. Again, this may be a decision made in the name of simplicity.
The envelopes are all linear ADSR contours, but the upcoming update will introduce selectable curves and a new long mode. The envelopes exhibit the 'return to zero' retriggering behaviour oft bemoaned in SOS synth reviews. Each time an envelope is retriggered it starts from the beginning of the attack phase. Synths are generally more playable when retriggering starts from the point where the previous release had got to.
There are two LFOs: one global, and one polyphonic. Both have a morphable shape control which makes a nice change from the usual offerings. For example, the mid point between square and sample-and-hold can produce interesting random modulation with alternating polarity. The per-voice LFO has both retrigger and single-shot options, so can be drafted in as a pseudo envelope generator. This would be much more useful if the ramps didn't all start at zero, or if you could adjust the phase.
There are some nice touches in the way the LFO rate controls work: clockwise sets free rates, anticlockwise dials in tempo-sync'ed speeds. The poly LFO also has rates that track keyboard notes at different ratios. This is a really cool addition, enabling some tuned FM and Filter FM sounds, for example.
Assignments to the joystick provide fast and sensitive performance control. Unlike a mod wheel the joystick always springs back to the centre position, but there's a lock function to leave the mod at a particular position. This is a two-button combo next to the joystick, so requires some deft finger work to manage with one hand when you're playing. A similar combo triggers Sustain if you don't have a pedal.
Assignment of modulation is nicely handled on the panel. Tap the button for any mod source and it will flash, and the display will confirm that you're in mapping mode. Move any parameter control to assign it and set a depth. The Mod EG and the LFOs also have master Depth controls. Velocity, Aftertouch, Expression and Note modulation are assigned in the same way.
Alongside the joystick the primary performance control is Aftertouch. The built-in keyboard has mono Aftertouch, although by the time you read this the Argon 8 should support external sources of MPE. I initially had some issues with the aftertouch response, which were solved by adjustment in the app. Modal are working on getting this ironed out in software, although some users might need to do some calibration to get the best response on the X model.
The Argon 8 has 52 modulatable parameters. As well as the Amp and Filter Envelopes, another four mod assignments are hard-patched: Note and Aftertouch to Filter, Joystick forward to LFO1 Depth and Velocity to Amp Env Depth. This leaves eight user patch points for modulation. Assignments are point-to-point rather than Matrixed, so slots tend to run out rather quickly. I routinely encountered the 'All Mod Slots Full' message on the screen.
The Argon 8 X ticks a lot of boxes for me. It has its own engaging character, and is as affordable as some micro-synths.
The Argon has its own arpeggiator with an unusually generous selection of modes. On top of this there's a built-in sequencer, with four lanes of parameter automation. On the review unit the sequencer was monophonic, able to record up to 512 notes within an eight-bar length. By the time you read this the sequencer will have been updated to provide full eight-note polyphonic sequencing up to 64 steps.
The sequencer has dedicated Play and Rec buttons and a Tempo knob, but can of course be clocked to MIDI, USB or the analogue clock input. Recording is real time; step record and drawing into the app/plug‑in are coming. If the Arp is on, its notes are recorded into the sequence which is great. Sequences can be quantised on record or left as played — a relatively unusual and welcome feature on a built-in synth sequencer. Also welcome is the ability to save sequences and patches separately, or have them linked.
Motion sequencing of parameters is easy — just start twiddling while in record and the parameter will be assigned to a spare lane. You can quickly mute individual automations, but also the Notes lane, so you can play manually with parameter modulation from the sequencer. This somewhat mitigates the fact that there's only one mod envelope generator.
Sequence length is changed in one-bar steps, but there is a Loop function where you can drop a start and end point on the fly within your current sequence. This can then be turned on and off, or you can set a new loop. Another fun performance feature is Seq Hold, which hovers playback on the current step. When you release, playback resumes in step with the master grid, so this is great for dropping in quick beat repeats and fills.
The Argon 8 X ticks a lot of boxes for me. It has its own engaging character, and is as affordable as some micro-synths but built as a solid full-size instrument with proper keys. It's complex enough to make a range of sounds, but Modal have kept the basic architecture simple and mostly fixed, the result being it's not at all intimidating to program and tweak.
Some of the big-name wavetable soft synths end up being preset synths, with features built for the patch design team. Sonically, the Argon 8 can do bright, delicate, solid or grungy, and more. It does have a fingerprint that tends toward the shimmering, sandy and abstract. It's relatively light on envelopes and LFOs for sounds with their own movement, but really comes into its own when the joystick and aftertouch (not to mention abundance of dedicated encoders) are used to manually warp sounds. The Argon 8 punches way above its price tag.
Within the Argon range itself there's a surprisingly small price difference between the models, and they all have all the features. For me the regular 37-key model is particularly desirable.
Outside of soft synths, there's really nothing comparable to the Argon 8 in the same price bracket. Inevitably you'll also look at ASM's Hydrasynth, which is also great value, but the keyboard version is twice the price of the 8X. However, the desktop Hydra, which has playable pads, may be more in reach. For the extra money the Hydra does offer a significantly more powerful set of synth, modulation and effects features, as well as Polyphonic Aftertouch and the ribbon controller. It doesn't have the Modal's control app or DAW plug‑in integration, though, or a five-octave keyboard for that matter.
With Modal's portable synths, the excellent control app is pretty much an essential part of the package. The Argon 8 is a breeze to program from the panel, but the app still comes in useful. When working stand-alone on the 8X I certainly appreciated having the app running on an iPad sitting on the blank panel. But where it really comes into its own is as a DAW plug‑in, where it provides total recall of your settings within your project and a means to record automation of as many parameters as you like.
- Expressive and interesting sounds.
- Easy to use and program.
- Great build and keyboard.
- Sequencer and parameter automation.
- Great value.
- Only one user-assignable envelope.
- Mod slots run out quickly.
The Argon 8 is a grown-up, expressive synth that's uniquely accessible both in usability and cost.
Argon 8X £649, Argon 8 £579, Argon 8M £499. Prices include VAT.
Argon 8X $819, Argon 8 $749, Argon 8M $649.