The Oberheim Matrix 1000 analogue synth module recently enjoyed a relaunch, resplendent in a new cream livery. Self‑confessed Matrix 1000 owner Paul White extols its virtues and exposes its vices.
The Oberheim Matrix 1000 has a long history in hi‑tech music. Launched in 1988, it was hailed in SOS as a flexible, musical and outstandingly useful expander and found its way into many a studio as a plentiful source of classic Oberheim sounds. However, sporadic production after Oberheim was taken over by Gibson eventually petered out altogether, and the Matrix 1000 went completely out of production for some time. Now, with the upcoming launch of the OBMx monster synth, Oberheim have decided to re‑float the Matrix 1000 onto a market clamouring once again for the warmth and character of analogue sounds. They've even exchanged its original black casing for a cream paint job, to match the front panel of big brother OBMx.
No matter what style of electronic music you indulge in, whether New Age or Techno Rave, analogue synthesizers still have a lot still to offer, and they work surprisingly well alongside more contemporary digital sounds. It doesn't really matter that the string patch doesn't sound quite like strings, or the flute patch exactly like a flute — what really draws you in is the almost organic sense of warmth, movement and evolution that permeates just about every patch you set up.
The Matrix 1000 isn't typical of any other analogue synth module I know of, being completely devoid of control knobs, other than a volume control, and only capable of being edited with a computer editing package or via an Oberheim Matrix 6. The name Matrix 1000 provides the first clue to the instrument's staggering 1000 patch memories; 800 are presets and the remaining 200 may be edited providing you have the means. You don't actually get 1000 different sounds to start off with, as the 200 user memories contain copies of the more popular presets, but although you can't edit these without external help, you can copy a different set of presets into the first 200 locations. The sparse front panel of the instrument belies its inner complexity. The sound generating system is identical to that of the Matrix 6 which, in addition to the usual selection of oscillator waveforms, filters and envelope shapers, includes Oberheim's immensely flexible Matrix Modulation system, which acts as a virtual patchbay, allowing almost any signal to modulate any viable destination.
After several years of getting used to multitimbrality and heavy polyphony, it may come as a shock to those brought up on digital synthesis to find that the Matrix 1000 is not multitimbral, has only 6‑voice polyphony, and has just one mono output jack. That's because each voice of an analogue synth is, in effect, a complete synthesizer in its own right; the more voices you want, the more physical hardware you must have, and the higher the cost. On the other hand, when you consider that most of the classic analogue synths were monophonic, and that many of them originally cost more than the Oberheim Matrix 1000, the deal seems rather better. If you need more polyphony, multiple Matrix 1000s can be connected in cascade mode.
Unlike the early analogue synths, the Matrix 1000 is equipped with MIDI and has the full complement of In, Out and Thru sockets. All 1000 patches may be accessed via MIDI — I'll come to how in a moment — and the instrument responds to velocity, pitch bend, modulation wheel, breath control, pedal control, sustain and pressure. Because the analogue oscillators are digitally controlled, there are none of the tuning stability problems encountered in early analogue designs, and for those working with guitar synths, the Matrix 1000 can be set to work in Omni Mode, or in Mono mode, where each of the six voices is controlled by a different MIDI channel. In this mode, the channels are all consecutive and start at the base channel set for the machine, so if you're set to a base channel 2, then for Mono mode you'll be working on channels 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.
As with most MIDI synths, the pitchbend range can be set in integer semitone steps; to create fat mono sounds, there's a Unison mode which forces all six voices to play the same part. The overall instrument can be transposed up or down by as much as three octaves, again in semitone steps, and a Fine Tune option provides a quarter of a semitone of leeway in either direction.
The sounds themselves are quite wonderful, and have all the weight and edge that we've come to expect from Oberheim filters and oscillators. From subsonic film soundtrack bass drones to silky analogue strings or mellow brass, it's all there.
Going back to the patch change system, you can access patches without using MIDI simply by entering a 3‑digit number from the front‑panel numeric keypad. Conversely, the Up/Down buttons may be used to step through the patches. For this to work, the unit has to be in Patch mode, the default for normal playing. Each of the available modes has its own LED on the front panel, and the Select button is used to step through them.
It's when changing patches via MIDI that things get interesting, and again, there are two options. A Bank Lock button may be used to divide the memory up into 10 banks of 100 patches each; once you've chosen a bank and locked it, MIDI patch change information in the range 0 to 99 will then directly address all the patches within that bank. Should you want to address all 1000 patches without having to select the bank manually, this too is possible, though slightly more convoluted. Notator Logic includes a direct Matrix 1000 bank and patch selection option, so you don't even have to worry about the underlying mechanics if you happen to use that particular sequencer.
Other MIDI features include MIDI Echo, which enables the MIDI Out to act as a MIDI Thru, and the ability to dump patch information to a sequencer. Dumps may be single patches, banks or the complete user memory.
Unless you have access to an external editing package, using the Matrix 1000 is little more complicated than deciding which of the 1000 on‑board patches you want to use, and then playing. With 1000 patches on offer, some kind of organisation is obviously essential. The Matrix 1000's designers have endeavoured to separate the types of preset sound by bank — Banks 3 and 4 are synth sounds, bank 5 is woodwind and horns, and bank 6 contains horns and lead sounds. That leaves bank 7 looking after the strings, bank 8 the basses, bank 9 FX and percussion, and bank 10 an assortment of keyboard sounds, such as organs and electronic pianos. That's fine as far as it goes, but the sound organisation within those banks is a bit dodgy, to say the least. Instead of grouping, say, the strings into categories such as lush, aggressive, pizzicato, cellos and so on, they are instead grouped in alphabetical order by patch name, which is of very little help when you're looking for a specific type of sound.
The sounds themselves, though, are quite wonderful, and have all the weight and edge that we've come to expect from Oberheim filters and oscillators. From subsonic film soundtrack bass drones to silky analogue strings or mellow brass, it's all there. Most of the presets are musically useful, though as you might expect, the FX section provides refuge for more than a few off‑the‑wall weirdnesses, including SMPLTHIS, a slowly evolving patch featuring complex modulation that takes well over half a minute to do its thing. Apart from lush pads aplenty, there are numerous examples of analogue lead sounds, including passable emulations of many classic synths. For the techno types, there are myriad percussive filter sounds, mind‑wrenching phase syncs and a whole cartload of generally trendy bass sounds, so no matter what kind of music you're into, there's plenty of choice.
Even though you need an external editor or a Matrix 6 to edit any of the Matrix 1000's sounds yourself, the fact that there are 800 different presets instantly available goes a long way towards mitigating this limitation. The sounds are, on the whole, pretty great though, as mentioned earlier, their organisation leaves something to be desired. Operation is simplicity itself, and considering that this model was developed before any form of MIDI standardisation or bank changing was agreed upon, the system employed works perfectly well.
I have no real criticisms of the instrument itself, though I feel that Oberheim could have taken the opportunity of the relaunch to update the design by providing attack, release and filter brightness knobs on the front panel. Those simple controls would have elevated the status of this wonderful instrument to one approaching greatness. Failing that, a bundled basic sound editor would have been more than welcome. As it is, I like the new paint finish. I wonder if I can get a hardware update for my old model?
Like the Matrix 6, upon which it is based, the Oberheim Matrix 1000 boasts two oscillators per voice with a choice of the usual analogue waveforms and the ability to create oscillator sync. The oscillators may be detuned, and the legendary Oberheim 4‑pole low‑pass filter has its own envelope generator.
The two LFOs each feature a range of waveforms, while each voice also includes two ramp generators. There are 20 possible modulation sources routable to 32 destinations, making this synth a programmer's dream; the presets loaded into the Matrix 1000 are based on the Matrix 6's 1000‑patch library, which shows exactly what aspiring programmers can achieve.
- Loads of great sounds.
- Easy to use.
- Patch organisation could be better.
- No way to edit sounds without dedicated software or a Matrix 6.
If you haven't got a polyphonic analogue synth, you must try one of these. And if you don't mind patch editing via software, then the Matrix 1000 is even more of a bargain.