This British‑made single‑oscillator monosynth is unashamedly retro in both its knob‑laden styling and its lack of MIDI. Paul Nagle gets orgon‑ised...
As the millennium approaches, bringing with it a new era of technological advances (and several new buildings in the London area) it's interesting to reflect on how the synthesizer has progressed in the 30 years of its existence. Originally a hands‑on instrument covered in dozens of knobs, sliders and wires, it could be played only by synthesists, who coaxed it into life with their arcane knowledge. These days, a synthesizer is often seen as the impersonator of a multitude of existing instruments which appear at the touch of a button to be played on a piano keyboard. To tailor these sounds, it is necessary to dial up the appropriate page on a display screen and change the numeric values — blurring the distinction between computer and musical instrument — but modern synths arrive brimming with memorised sounds, so programming is often neglected anyway.
Recently, thank goodness, it has started to dawn on manufacturers that tweakability and immediacy are important after all, and the concept of musical performance is now being applied to many instruments. In these ever‑changing times, it is reassuring to know that more traditional synthesis techniques haven't been abandoned; indeed, the latest entry in the knobby camp comes from British company Orgon Systems, who believe that plenty of honing is needed before we perfect old‑style synthesis.
The Orgon Enigiser is a remarkable‑looking instrument with its square, silver case, green knobs and green text (which looks kinda flash but from some angles is quite hard to read). It measures 1134 x 10 x 2 inches and has a total of eight quarter‑inch jack sockets on the front panel. The only other connector is the rather unusual screw‑in affair for the external power supply, located at the rear or top (or whatever) of the synth. I don't know about you, but if I must have an external power supply I'd much rather have one that can easily be replaced when someone stands on it at a gig.
The most surprising thing about the Enigiser is not something it has, but something it doesn't have: it's 1997, this is a brand‑new synth, and there's no MIDI in sight. The manual provides no explanation of why MIDI was omitted in favour of CV/Gate connectors; the advertising blurb uses the rather enigmatic phrase "Connects via industry‑standard CV/Gate interface". That's rather like trying to sell a new car which won't use unleaded petrol.
An insight into the philosophy behind Orgon Systems can be gleaned from the glossary entry in the manual, which refers to the Enigiser as "A box of analogue electronics with loads of knobs on it which can produce interesting, original and sometimes musical audio textures. Not a Mickey Mouse pre‑patched MIDI‑cloned black box wedged full of cheesy preset predictable crap for the mass market. See Computer." This has an air of good old British eccentricity which certainly made me smile. The manual also refers to future plans for sequencers, a MIDI interface, larger and more experimental synthesizers, and a modular expansion box for the Enigiser: clearly, the Orgon team have plenty of ideas waiting to hatch.
The Enigiser is a single‑oscillator monosynth module whose sound can be beefed up somewhat by a sub‑bass feature (more on this later) and treated via a very comprehensive Voltage Controlled Filter section, three envelope generators and an LFO. The oscillator has a selector switch for sine wave, triangle wave, square wave, variable square and variable sawtooth — the last a nice touch, and a source of of some of the richest sounds available from the Enigiser, especially when the sawtooth width is modulated by the LFO. The selector switch is a little tight and I'm that sure the knobs on this review model are smaller than on others I've seen. They vary in response from smooth to rather stiff but do free up with use. Main pitch can be set over an 8‑octave range, with fine‑tuning the expected plus or minus a semitone. Slide (portamento) can be added and even switched on or off via the jack input.
Catch That bus
All modulation in the Enigiser is controlled by internal buss routings, selected via rotary pots. Once they're selected, an Amount knob determines the depth of the modulation or envelope effects. The available buss routings are printed neatly on the front panel and allow most combinations of the three envelopes and two LFO waveforms to control the Oscillator, Filter and Amplifier sections. There's also a total of eight unused routings for additional envelope and LFO functions, which currently act as 'off' switches.
The LFO produces both square and triangle/sawtooth waveforms — don't be fooled by the panel graphics, which depict only the latter. These are available to the VCO, VCF and VCA, depending on the buss settings. Each LFO wave is continuously variable, as on the Korg MS series, so if you wish you can modulate the pitch with a triangle wave while a square wave is directed at the cutoff frequency. There is no Random or Sample & Hold option but, on the positive side, the frequency range of the LFO is impressively wide; at its fastest, it sounds almost like a ring‑modulator if applied to pitch. A single LFO means that you can't create a slow, swirly pulse‑width modulation alongside a fast vibrato; fortunately, one of the three envelopes can be roped into helping and, if you have a means of triggering this envelope externally, an independent modulation can be created.
The Enigiser has one traditional ADSR envelope and two half‑envelopes, AD and AR. The gate signal is cascaded to all three, but individual inputs are provided so that each one may be triggered separately or in any combination you need. This is a great approach and would be especially cool in a modular setup if these envelope voltages were available as outputs. As it is, you can sweep the pulse width with one envelope, the cutoff frequency with another and the output stage with a third.
Ace Of Bass?
The sub‑bass isn't (as I'd expected) a traditional sub‑oscillator in the square‑wave‑one‑octave‑below sense, as seen on the likes of the Roland SH101; it's actually a sine wave that bypasses the filter and adds a fundamental tone at the VCA stage. This can be used to add some depth after you've filtered out most of the harmonics using one of the high‑pass or band‑pass filters, especially as its level can be driven quite high. Better still, the main input to the VCA section can be overdriven, resulting in a subtle distortion that's quite pleasing. The addition of a simple divider circuit to add a square wave at an octave or two below the fundamental would have been better still, I think, giving the sound more oomph; nevertheless the sub‑bass is a welcome addition. Another jack input provides external control for the VCA so that accents can be created, provided that your MIDI/CV convertor is capable of generating an extra voltage output.
I connected the Enigiser to the CV/Gate outputs of my beloved Pulse Plus, set an arpeggio running on the Pulse and started trying things out. It took me a few moments to work out that I needed to turn up the Filter Drive before I could hear the VCO, and then I found the Enigiser to be capable of sounds ranging from bright and punchy to wild and raucous. Much of the synth's character is derived from its filter, which has an aggressive resonance and can be switched from a puny 6dB in 1‑pole increments right up to the classic 24dB so often used for a powerful bass. I found it difficult to create classic analogue lead voices, but I suspect that many potential Enigiser owners will be those people who always wanted a synth to make strange noises such as those obtainable from the Korg MS50 or VCS3 (to which the Enigiser bears a passing resemblance), but could never quite find or afford either of these vintage instruments.
In order to liven up the sound, I spent much of my time performing tricks such as adding pulse‑width modulation, vibrato and sub‑bass. Keeping the filter on the edge of resonance and tracking it with the keyboard creates some of the most complex textures, and I like the fact that both the VCF and VCA sections can be overdriven to dirty things up even more — as an introduction to analogue synthesis, the Enigiser would be an invaluable learning tool. However, a second oscillator should have been included to boost its sonic arsenal (and lure potential buyers away from the secondhand market and its Korg MS20s, Sequential Pro Ones, Moog Prodigys and so on). The Enigiser's main strengths, I feel, are synth basses, sequency blips and filter twangs (the squeaks, weebles and burbles are all first‑class). It's the omission of a noise source that prevents this synth from taking the honours in the sound‑effects stakes. No whooshing sea and surf noises, alas.
This is a hard synth to sum up: on the one hand it has lots of knobs, more types of filter than you can shake a very shaky stick at, and several unusual programming options; on the other hand, it doesn't cover all the bases usually required of a monosynth because of its single‑oscillator design. The lack of MIDI may be a bonus for a few people who are still using analogue sequencers and synths, but for the vast majority of us the Enigiser will require a MIDI/CV convertor before it becomes useful — which starts to make it an expensive proposition.
Ultimately, I think the Enigiser will be judged on its filter types and the sounds that can be coaxed from them. And I remain unconvinced. I also wish that there was an option to process sound sources other than the synth's own oscillator: an external filter input would increase the Enigiser's usefulness exponentially. However, if you are of an adventurous nature and have a desire to seek out new life and new civilisations, then give the command: Enigise!
A single‑oscillator monosynth at this price needs something special to give it added zest. In the case of the Enigiser, that something is the Voltage Controlled Filter with a total of 15 different settings.
The filter type is selected by a combination of two knobs, Filter Input and Pole Output. The complete list of types available is: Low‑pass 1, Low‑pass 2, Low‑pass 3, Low‑pass 4, Phaser, 1‑Pole, 1‑Pole Notch, 1‑Pole Low‑pass, 2‑Pole Low‑pass, 3‑Pole Lowpass, Narrow‑Phase High Pass, Bandpass 1, Bandpass 2, Bandpass 3, Phase and & Bandpass.
To get a flavour of what all these actually sound like, let's look at each type in turn:
- LOW‑PASS — the traditional filter type that everyone's familiar with. With cutoff frequency at maximum, the filter is open and all harmonics pass through. As the cutoff frequency is lowered, the filter is closed, removing higher harmonic components in the sound and eventually leaving only the fundamental tone. Adding resonance emphasises harmonics at the cutoff frequency.
- HIGH‑PASS — As this filter is closed, low frequencies are removed; increased resonance boosts harmonics at the cutoff frequency. Produces a thin sound suitable for adding sparkle to hi‑hats and other sounds that rely on upper frequencies.
- BAND‑PASS — passes those frequencies at the cutoff. Increasing resonance narrows the band‑pass response and boosts harmonics at the cutoff frequency. Produces a rather nasal sound
- NOTCH — the opposite of a band‑pass filter, the notch removes harmonics at the cutoff frequency, leaving a gap whose width is determined by the resonance setting.
- PHASE — the phase filter shifts harmonics around and above the cutoff frequency, creating a gentle sweeping effect.
If you think in terms of more poles equalling a steeper roll‑off of harmonics, you'll understand well enough. As an example, the Enigiser can switch between single‑pole operation right up to 4‑pole (24dB). A single‑pole filter has a more subtle effect than a 4‑pole and it's nice to be able to choose between so many different combinations. The Enigiser filter can produce a powerful self‑oscillation when resonance nears maximum; routing the main pitch CV to the control input enables the filter to be played as a tunedsound source.
- Lots of filter types.
- The three envelopes can be triggered independently.
- Both VCF and VCA can be overdriven.
- Single‑oscillator design.
- No noise source.
- No MIDI.
- External PSU.
Not a synth for the faint‑hearted, the Enigiser dares to tread where few others have gone for many years. The lack of MIDI will put off some potential buyers, although the more experimentally minded may appreciate the impressive number of choices in the filter department.