The Modor NF-1 has a front panel festooned with knobs, but at the same time it’s unashamedly digital...
Belgian company Modor don’t have a Dark Lord with a burning red eye, as far as I know. But they do have a burning desire to build a synthesizer that stands out from the rest, as demonstrated by their first product, the NF-1. Once encountered, you won’t quickly forget its white panel and weirdly arranged knobs, but when you dig a bit further, even its name — derived from ‘Noises and Formants’ — proclaims a unique identity. So whether or not it’s the one synth to rule them all, this large, decidedly digital instrument could be an ideal contrast to the glut of new analogue, proving once and for all that ones and zeroes can be cool — if given an approachable–enough front end.
With its oddly angled lines and unconventional layout the NF-1 does look strange, at least at first. Your precious introductory moments aren’t sweetened by first contact with the knobs though, especially the large ones which (like my good self these days) have just enough wobble to faintly disappoint. In practice, they handled OK and — surprisingly — it was the smaller of their kin that I found least fun to use. Many function as bipolar modulation amounts, but they lack a ‘dead zone’ to help in quickly nulling modulation. In comparison, the buttons felt to be high quality from the outset, but even they have an unusual element, at least when it comes to oscillator and envelope selection. Instead of working like radio buttons where a deliberate action is required to edit multiple objects, each button is fully independent and remains on until explicitly deactivated.
In practice, it’s a fairly innocuous design choice and easy to adapt to. It gets more challenging when you examine the menu system, which manages the unlikely feat of being convoluted despite having a 16x2 display, a menu button, yes and no buttons, and Select and Value dials. The menus are ‘blessed’ with page headers that appear on repeated button–presses. To enter a particular page, you must first let a timeout occur. For example, to save a patch you press Menu twice, then — this is crucial — wait until a bunch of pixels scroll past. After the pixels have been and gone, you press Menu a third time, at which point a ‘Y/N?’ prompt appears. Only then can you save. If you fancied renaming the patch, it requires a separate series of button presses, ideally performed prior to saving. In the system’s favour, you can audition any patch before overwriting it. However, the whole process would benefit from a ‘quick save’ option and a more systematic approach generally. It’s far from stoner–friendly.
The NF-1 is shipped with wooden cheeks and rack ears, and very nice it is to have the choice. Continuing with the attention to detail, the MIDI and audio connections are recessed. It’s not a deep recess — you might need guitar leads and right–angled MIDI leads — but you shouldn’t be forced to use any more than the six rack units already demanded. As well as the stereo outputs, there are a couple of other quarter–inch jacks: sustain and pedal. These could be handy if using a keyboard that doesn’t already have them, but given a choice I’d have sacrificed one for a headphone socket. At least MIDI is present in all its triple–holed glory, but some may complain there’s no USB port. The practical effect of this omission is that you might need to find a MIDI interface for your computer in order to back up or update the operating system.
Updating is what I did almost at once, in order to start with the most current version (OS004). The update instructions are fairly clear and more insistent than usual about backing up your patches beforehand. It transpires that there’s a darn good reason for this: patch memory is used as temporary storage for the new OS before it’s written. You therefore will have to restore those sounds afterwards. During the update I encountered a problem with the Mac’s SysEx Librarian, which got stuck near the end despite several attempts. Fortunately, slowing down the transmission was the easy solution in my case. For PC users, MIDI–Ox has a similar option.
The latest operating system delivers a legato mono mode, some bug fixes and a ‘pass–thru’ function for the knobs that prevents sudden parameter jumps on editing a stored pattern. Modor readily acknowledge there’s more to be done, for example, the new legato mode works well for introducing glide to legato notes, but it highlighted an issue with clicky envelope releases I’d already started to puzzle over. I also experienced hanging notes from time to time. In general, though, except for a few head–scratching moments with that first patch save, the NF-1 is as straightforward to program and play as its panel implies. The more you use it, the more the baffling, almost random sci–fi design makes sense. In the end, those crazy diagonals and idiosyncratic knob families are much more enjoyable to interact with than a grid of boring, identical controls.
The NF-1 isn’t multitimbral: it’s a one–sound–at–once eight–voice polyphonic synthesizer able to run in mono mode if necessary. Almost all its functionality is visible on the panel, but there’s a modulation matrix not far away for freestyle programming (available from the Src/Yes, Dest/No buttons).
I was impressed to note that a fair proportion of the factory patches were based on a single oscillator. This isn’t one of those digital synths in the ‘puny, needs help’ category. There are three oscillators in total, all equally capable, plus a ring modulator and a white noise source. Deactivating any of these is as simple as taking the relevant level to zero in the gently sloping mixer — an adjacent LED goes out as confirmation. As previously stated, it’s up to you whether you perform edits on one object (oscillators, envelopes) or several, always maintaining awareness of any already selected.
Each oscillator has a choice of 10 waveforms, accessed by a repeated button–press. In every case, the large Mod knob makes a key contribution to tonal variation. Unusually, for all of the analogue standards (sawtooth, square and triangle), this variation amounts to varying the ‘pulse width’. The value can be modulated or swept to unleash an amazingly broad range of textures.
The next waveform — Sync — produces distinctive sync–like tones as if locked to an invisible oscillator. Turning the Mod control has the effect of sweeping the sync’ed oscillator’s pitch for a smooth, rather fab digital variation on traditional sync.
The fifth waveform up the sloping ladder is Add, meaning additive. It generates sine waves with frequencies that are multiples of the base frequency, with the Mod control used to vary the distance between them. Since the number of sine waves produced is limited by the NF-1’s processing power, this waveform doesn’t exactly glisten with high–end sparkle. You can verify this by setting Mod to its minimum value (all harmonics are present) and comparing the obviously less vibrant sawtooth with the regular version. If you press the FM Carrier button, the harmonic series is shifted to begin at different harmonics, producing increasingly thin and nasal tones.
Amongst the trio of noise waveforms, Sonar possesses the qualities of a sonar ‘ping’ courtesy of a resonant band–pass filter tuned so it’s chromatically playable. Turning Mod clockwise filters more and more noise until, at the maximum, you’re left with an almost pure sine wave. Wind resembles the tuned noise of a pan pipe or similar woodwind instrument; its Mod control serving as a high–pass filter. It’s a waveform very suitable for adding ‘air’ to pads or giving extra pizzazz to percussive patches. The final noise variant is also loaded with the most attitude. Arcade delivers the lo–fi effect of many distressed square waves in all their tearing, sizzling ugliness. Should this become too grating, the Mod control is on hand with yet another high–pass filter to tame it. A bit.
Two FM waveforms complete the set, in versions with or without feedback. Don’t panic — it’s not some cerebral version of FM that will scar you for life but a far simpler implementation based on a pair of sine waves (modulator and carrier) and accessed using knobs and buttons. The Mod control serves as FM amount and you adjust the frequency ratio between the sine waves using the Carrier and Modulator buttons. It never gets too crazy: the available ratios go as far as 8x for the carrier, 16x for the modulator. For the feedback version of the waveform, the modulator modulates itself before being turned loose on the carrier, typically for more harmonically energetic results.
While there are no octave buttons, shifts of 31 semitones upwards and 32 in the opposite direction are available from the Tune control. Fine-tune stretches to half a tone either way. The LFO and Env controls require a short explanation too. The former sets the amount by which LFO1 affects the Mod parameter (for creating pulse-width modulation, sync sweeps and so on). However, when no oscillator is selected for edit, the LFO knob supplies pitch-modulation to all oscillators equally; its source is set in the Parameter menu in a rare example of menu diving. The Env knob works in a similar fashion: it generates universal pitch-modulation if no oscillator is selected. Otherwise it connects successive envelopes to each oscillator’s Mod parameter (ie. Env1 to Osc1, Env2 to Osc2 and Env3 to Osc3).
The oscillators are a capable bunch that are at their most interesting when you mix the various types and filter them. They pass, along with any ring modulation or white noise, into the dual filter system comprising a multimode and formant filter. There’s no option to bypass filtering, which I felt would have been useful for some waveforms. Instead, the filters are connected in either series or parallel, with the formant filter first when serial is chosen. In parallel mode the processing is simultaneous but whichever you opt for, the mix control determines the balance between the filter outputs.
The multimode filter offers low–pass, band–pass, high–pass and notch modes and all have alternative characteristics to the accepted norm. For example, the resonance has a slightly metallic edge when it feeds back rather than being just another grafted–on sine wave. The 12dB low–pass mode has a gritty enough character even before you crank up the Drive (a balls–boosting soft overdrive), while band–pass and high–pass are great for carving out sonic slices and eliminating mush. Only the notch filter is sometimes too subtle, until you lower the resonance, which has the effect of widening the notch. Each mode has something worthwhile to offer and it’s a pleasant change that none leap on the bandwagon of emulating Moogs, ARPs, Oberheims and the like. It’s fascinating stuff — and it’s still only half of the filtering available.
It’s always seemed a shame that there aren’t lots more synths with formant filters, ie. filters with peak frequencies that remind you of particular vowels. While I love the vocal filters of my Alesis Micron and Emu Proteus 2000, those of the NF-1 offer far more user control. Modor’s slant on this is to offer a choice of three possible vowels out of a possible 10. A large knob morphs through them manually but the process is much sweeter when performed using an LFO or a multi–stage envelope. The vowels offered are: A, E, O, I, OE, EI, EU, AO, U, UI and you can arrange them in any order.
Should you pick new vowels during playback, the synth engine glitches, sounding unintentionally wonderful in the process — at least to my ears. Although you can’t modulate the selection of vowels, you can vary each one dynamically via MIDI CCs. Given a suitably powerful sequencer, this is a practical way to recreate the glitching effect, as well as turning up even more outlandish noises. If adventures like this seem appealing, there’s a menu where you can edit all the formant frequencies, although I found it a rather hit–and–miss exercise. To obtain the best results, you need a harmonically rich source, but this formant implementation is fast, easy to understand, and those extra envelope stages really come into their own.
Modulation is well catered for and consists of four envelopes, three LFOs and a separate sample and hold. The LFOs have saw, square, sine and triangle waves, but only one can be sync’ed to MIDI clock. Similarly, only one is polyphonic, ie. capable of separate values for each of the eight notes. This LFO is also notable for offering a high–speed option and thus audio–rate modulation. In addition, random and smoothed random sources are available.
A glance at the panel shows that all the envelopes have more stages than a regular ADSR; the extra levels and extra decay phase are accessed by three smaller knobs. If you crave even more complexity, every stage can be modulated in the comprehensive, if shortish, modulation matrix. This is accessed by pressing the Src/Dest buttons where you can view and edit up to seven connections. There are 16 sources to choose from and the available destinations include all effects, filter, mixer and oscillator settings — almost 70 parameters in all. The FM modulator and carrier values are potential destinations too and a lot of cranky, noisy results can be had from those!
While the NF-1 can be persuaded to do ‘nice’, it’s not afraid to show its digital rough edges and eagerly lurches towards nasty and trashy whenever possible. It therefore excels at uncouth and unusual sound design, although this angle isn’t heavily exploited by the factories.
A pair of delay–based effect processors provide chorus/flanging and regular delay/echo. The first of these involves a tweakable comb filter, its delay short and crunchy — and not always in a pleasant way if you adjust during playback. Rogue crunches or not, you can serve up many flavours of chorus, vibrato, flanging and screeching feedback that can be further manipulated in the modulation matrix.
The delay is simple enough, its maximum time of 750ms sufficient for most regular applications. Again, there are glitches if delay time is adjusted during playback but in its favour it can sync to incoming MIDI clock (with a range of half notes to 16th notes) and has a basic low–pass filter to dull successive echoes.
The NF-1 is digital and proud. Its oscillators have character and variety and its filters offer something out of the ordinary too. Even so, I’ll concede to being underwhelmed for a day or so. I didn’t mind that the polyphony was limited to eight notes and that multitimbrality wasn’t an option, my mistake was to try and bend the NF-1 to my will rather than allow experience to reveal its unique, often band–limited or lo–fi qualities. When I did hit the mother load, the NF-1 became much more enthralling, occupying similar sonic territory to my Waldorf Microwave 2.
The FM implementation is basic but retro–nice, the sync tones have more scope than some modelled analogues and curiosities such as Sonar–flavoured noise are always welcome. Given three oscillators to play with, you can subtly mix different types of raw material before subjecting it to the dual filters. Of these, I loved blending in vocal tones from the cool formant filter and using Drive to add subtle aggression. There are new sounds to be claimed here, even if many of them will probably have your granny casting aside her hearing aid.
Who would have guessed that the untidy layout could feel so right? It even grew on me enough to render multi–stage envelopes enjoyable. However, not everything that is deliberately different works so well. I had a few baffled moments on the first occasion I tried to save a patch, and even with familiarity some aspects of the menu system feel awkward. However, apart from this and the occasional crash, hanging note and crackle, this is a remarkable and distinctive synthesizer that’s a delight to play and to program.
Accessible digital synths with mixed synthesis and weird filters aren’t exactly thick on the ground, which means there’s definitely room for more competition. Until then, quirky instruments such as the keyboard–based Studiologic Sledge 2.0 could be considered alternatives, or older gear (if you can find it) such as Waldorf’s Microwave XT.
Before you dig into earnest patch creation, I recommend sampling the factory sounds. The NF-1 is a powerful synthesizer, but its sonic highlights take time to discover because it’s also quite a different synthesizer.
There are a total of 14 banks (A–N) of 32 patches and, during patch load, the Yes button adopts the functionality of a bank skip control. The factory content provides a valuable impression of the NF-1’s range, which stretches from dirty and abrasive to warm, ethereal and fizzy. It’s capable of percussive FM, shifting vocal textures, filter–swept pads, bells and electric pianos too, yet many of the 448 patch slots are empty, begging to be filled. Here’s a short list of some of my favourites:
- A21 SyncFilter: a ripping solo that could have been lifted from a Prodigy track. It achieves its sync effect from a combination of filter drive and high resonance.
- B10: VoxyHoover: made from a blend of PWM (sawtooth and square varieties) and ‘arcade noise’, the whole lot vocalised via the formant filter. Very characterful for solos or pads.
- B12: SuperGlass: three oscillators in FM mode, delivering hard and sharp DX–glassiness.
- B18: Zippora: features pure–sounding, detuned triangle waves — will be much sweeter when the envelopes don’t click.
- C04: RandoVox: random vowel shifts lend this one its strange organic charms.
- C07: ElectrPian: yes, it’s an FM electric piano, and why not!
- C09: A Bit Addy: additive synthesis with harmonic sweeps from an envelope, the whole thing warmed by the built–in chorus.
- D16: Noisytail: a pad that demonstrates the excellent high–pass filter as it opens then fades during the note release phase.
I asked Marcel Belmans of Modor Music for some comments on the NF-1’s look.
“The layout actually reflects the sound somewhat. It tries to look ‘special’ and ‘experimental’, and it is somehow inspired by the late-’80s cheap plastic and oblique lines look of ‘modern computer technology’ of that era. I tried to pick up the thread of digital sound synthesis where it ceased to be experimental. In the ’80s and early ’90s engineers were still trying to invent new sound synthesis methods, but that didn’t seem to have any success anymore... The successes in digital synthesis seem to have stopped after wavetables and FM. I always asked myself if it stopped because people didn’t like the sound or because these synths were way too complex to work with. Of course many people went back to analogue synths because of their analogue sound, but I’m sure some people also lost interest in digital synthesis because it was impossible to get into a creative flow with them due to their lack of controls.”
This led on to a question about the sound...
“It can indeed sometimes sound a bit lo–fi. The difficulty in digital sound synthesis is to avoid digital artifacts such as aliases and digital glitches. But I set the threshold for these artifacts a bit lower than most other manufacturers to avoid a digital, over–polished sound and to avoid losing precious calculation time that I can use for better things. Such as the special noisy waveforms and the formant filter...”