A streamlined version of Modal’s Cobalt8, is the Cobalt5S even better than its sibling?
The Cobalt5S is the slightly simplified 5‑voice, go‑anywhere sibling of the Cobalt8. I say slightly because the differences are minor to the point that it’s almost in competition with itself. While the sound engine is the same, a sense of order and simplicity combined with a less imposing frame gives the 5S every right to stand on its own rubber feet. You could pop it in a bag and take it to Starbucks or your mate’s house without doing your back in or worrying about breaking the joystick off.
The out‑of‑the‑box experience of the Cobalt5S is markedly different to the Cobalt8. While the width is the same, it feels much lighter, with the bulk of the hardware being sucked in from the front and back. The keyboard has shrunk into itself; the back has pulled forward, gathering parameters and merging knobs along the way. It’s a Photoshop‑style exercise in reducing the Cobalt8 down to a more portable and less cluttered format. And it works. It’s still pretty solid, though, with metal front and back plates and a reassuring amount of mass. The encoders float a little like with the Cobalt8, which may feel disconcerting to analogue knob users, but Modal tell me that these are premium quality encoders that’ll last a lifetime of turning.
As with the Cobalt8, the 5S sounds are just lovely. It’s virtual analogue, so it’s warm and responsive by design. I can’t find a duff preset; nothing clangs or bites, it’s all smooth and joyful, cosy and familiar. While there are some edgier algorithms here, the overall impression is of electronically musical bliss. In trying to find some criticism, you could say that it will be a bit too nice for some people. But if you enjoy smiling, then the Cobalt5S has you covered.
...the 5S sounds are just lovely. It’s virtual analogue, so it’s warm and responsive by design. I can’t find a duff preset...
Modal call the 5S an ‘Extended Virtual Analogue Synthesizer’, meaning that it has more than your regular roster of analogue waveforms. You have two identical oscillators which are really oscillator groups of up to eight oscillators that can run one of 40 algorithms. Each algorithm is like a mini modular patch, where Modal have crafted some exciting waveforms that are folded, modulated and interestingly fiddled with.
Amongst the algorithms, you’ll find oscillator spreads, detuning and pulse‑width modulations; you’ll discover sync and fractals, reverses and ring modulation. There’s quite a bit of ring modulation actually, and then some noise, FM and AM. Each algorithm has two parameters, A and B, that you can play with and modulate. They act as macro controllers for affecting the oscillators. So with the Spread Saw algorithm you can increase the spread with A and detune with B, whereas with Fractal Square, A controls the asymmetry while B handles the sync ratio.
In an initialised patch, it’s fascinating to explore the algorithms, and the little OLED display pulls you into the dance of these waves and how they’re being pulled apart and remade. You can find harshness and sharp edges here; for instance, I created the sound of a truck engine in idle, and then a broken radio transmitter, and then some chiptune noises just by playing in the algorithms of one oscillator. But for the most part, the results are very musical.
Once you’ve enjoyed Osc1 then you have a second one with the same menu of tasty possibilities and a knob that will mix the sound between the two. A favourite feature of mine here is the OscDrift control. This introduces a bit of sloppiness to the tuning and phase of each oscillator. While you can actively detune the oscillators directly, the fine‑tuning controls are a little bit buried in the menu, whereas you can access OscDrift with the tap of the Shift button, and you get a more interesting version of a similar thing.
How do you go about reducing the 29 encoders on the Cobalt8 down to 16 on the Cobalt5S? I imagine you have to decide what’s important and then be ruthless. The result works remarkably well; it’s comfortable, frustration levels are relatively low, and I don’t feel I’m missing out. There’s some initial stumbling about, and the menu system can sometimes feel laborious as these things do. But it doesn’t take long to get the hang of things.
The idea is that you have 16 encoders laid out in a row, with the oscillator controls on the left of the screen and the filter, envelope, effects and sequencing on the right. Each encoder has a default parameter, a Shift function, and a button press. So with the LFO that’s rate and depth, with the oscillators it’s parameter A and B on both and the mix between them. The filter gets cutoff, resonance and morph controls, whereas the envelopes, of which there are three, get a single depth control. The arp and sequencer get division and tempo. The Shift button, which is above the touchpad, then latches on to give you access to the second level of controls, which is where you’ll find things like LFO shape, algorithm selection and ADSR envelope controls.
The envelopes are probably the worst served in this system. You have to be in Shift and have to select whether to control the filter, amp or modulation envelope by pushing down the appropriate knob. On the whole, the parameters you want to use are the most available to you.
However, if menus are...