Modal's revisited Craft Synth offers complex sound design in a compact package.
In the world of software, major updates to instruments are commonplace; less so in the hardware world. Yet here we are with a second generation of the Modal Electronics Craft Synth. The original was a budget-conscious, snap-together DIY effort, resulting in a zany-looking two oscillator digital monosynth. The Craft Synth 2.0 moves away from the DIY approach with a more robust build and a matured synthesis engine, yet keeps the price almost as low as the original.
The synthesis engine under Craft Synth 2.0's hood is impressive. Eight wavetable oscillators, 40 morphable waveforms, multi-mode filter, frequency modulation, phase modulation, sync, ring modulation, wavefolding, waveshaping, unison, three envelopes, two audio rate LFOs, arpeggiator, sequencer and effects. It is a lot to fit in a small space.
And make no bones about it, the Craft Synth 2.0 is small. At 150 x 135 x 68 mm, it easily fits in one hand, yet manages to pack in a dozen encoders, a touch-sensitive keyboard and even proper MIDI DIN ports. A tubed section underneath holds three AA batteries and tilts the entire instrument forwards slightly, making it an ideal tabletop synth.
Basic operation is simple to grasp. Each of the dozen encoders has three functions it can control, with each function being labelled in a different colour underneath. On the left and right of the keyboard is a Shift and Preset key. Holding down one of these whilst adjusting an encoder will access its alternative functions. In this way, you have direct access to 36 different parameters using 12 encoders. The Preset key is also used in conjunction with the eight touch-sensitive 'keys' to store and recall up to 64 presets arranged in eight banks of eight.
The touch keys can be used to play the synth too, and are flanked with buttons to increase or decrease the octave. With only eight keys, Modal decided that the best approach was to have them permanently locked to a root note and scale. There are 29 scales to choose from, with one slot reserved for a user-programmable scale, which requires the MODALapp editor. However, without any kind of screen, it is impossible to tell which key or scale you are selecting. Coupled with the fact that the keys are not velocity sensitive, it's difficult to see how the keys could be used for anything other than simple triggers during sound design. Any serious playing will need to be done via MIDI.
Above the eight keys are dedicated buttons for various functions. Alongside Shift and Preset, there are buttons for selecting which LFO or envelope will be controlled by the shared encoders, as well as an on/off switch for the arpeggiator/sequencer. Along with these more obvious functions, there are a reasonable number of hidden key combinations which can only be learned by reading the manual. For example, holding Shift and Preset buttons for four seconds allows you to set the synth's MIDI receive channel. I'm not a big fan of esoteric key commands like this. It is rare that one can remember them all, but given the size of the Craft Synth 2.0 and its relative complexity, it is difficult to see how they can be avoided. Worse still, some functions are only available by using MODALapp, an application available for OS X, iOS, Windows and Android (see the 'MODALapp' box).
The design is striking enough. The diagonal lines on the front panel give it a certain '80s feel, while the rounded white plastic put me in mind of early iPod designs. I do question making the knobs almost the same colour as the panel. In a dark studio, it is difficult to see the knobs at all. Some of the labelling can be hard to read in low...