Think you know what analogue synthesis sounds like? Pittsburgh’s Taiga might change that...
I used to have Pittsburgh Modular pegged as a straightforward, solid and no‑nonsense purveyor of quality modular. That seriousness culminated in the fascinating complexities of the Voltage Research Lab released around Superbooth 2019. However, there was a hint of strangeness, an offset, a playfulness that seemed to mark a shift in Pittsburgh’s intentions. Over the pandemic, the solid straightforward modular seemed to fall away as founder Richard Nicol struck out on a new adventure of animal‑themed modular that was both peculiar and evolutionary.
Nicol’s thoughts and discoveries emerged as limited‑run Eurorack modules and then pushed into the mainstream through contributions to Cre8audio products. Working with co‑conspirators in the shape of instrument builder Michael Johnsen and inspired by the great outdoors, the strangeness has built until it had no choice but to spill out into a fully formed synthesizer. That synthesizer is called the Taiga.
You could say it sort of smashes together the Cre8audio East Beast and West Pest into a hybrid of East and West synthesis, but that doesn’t feel like the whole story. Don’t be fooled by the normality and familiarity of the front panel; underneath is a deep oddness and delightful weirdness that makes you question what you know about analogue synthesis.
The Taiga is a three‑oscillator analogue monosynth, and my first thought was that this is Pittsburgh’s Minimoog. Then the waveforms start to warp and fold in on themselves. The filter fights the mysterious Dynamics section for harmonic content as it plucks, drones and pumps resonance into a low‑pass gate. While it has similarities in synthesis, it feels like a very different animal to the Moog.
The Taiga follows the usual left‑to‑right convention of signal flow. The three oscillators generate their waveforms on the left before meeting up with a noise generator in the mixer section. The mix gets funnelled into the filter before arriving at the Dynamics section. An analogue delay rounds out the journey before the sound emerges from the mono output on the far right.
For modulation, there’s a single LFO and two ADSR envelopes, one normalled to the filter cutoff and another to the Dynamics level knob. Added extras include a patchable preamp circuit for overdrive, a Sample & Hold module, and a Digital Control module for MIDI manipulations. Everything is patchable and fully modular, making it a useful collection of Eurorack modules in 60HP if you prefer to see things that way. But it is prepatched and ready to go for instant synthesizer action.
To play it, the Taiga favours a MIDI keyboard, which you plug into the Digital Control section over on the far left. From there, the signal flow and modulation are all very familiar.
It feels like a good chunk of synthesizer as you first put it on your desk. It follows the 60HP desktop synth format of the Moog Mother‑32, albeit with a lot more colour, and you can pull it out of the case and drop it into your Eurorack. It feels solid and meaty with good movement to the knobs and a satisfying clunk to the insertion of patch cables. It’s powered by a wall‑wart which is the only connection on the back, and comes to life with a dazzle of orange LEDs.
Bypassing any manual‑based guidance I dove straight in, and my first play felt like I was undertaking an experiment. As with any analogue modular synthesizer, the knobs are not necessarily going to be pointing to anything useful and initially, it took a bit of work to pull it together. I found myself stumbling about trying to tune the strangely ranged oscillators, and then flicking between Dynamics modes, CV depth and envelopes to try to discover how the sound works. The patchbay initially seems a bit cryptic and enormous, with 60‑odd patch points. And then there’s the glow from the orange LEDs that are just a bit too bright to the point that they obscure the front panel around them and make the selections difficult to see.
Fortunately, the manual is very comprehensive and the Taiga began to unfurl over time. At the time of writing the manual didn’t have any patch examples, but Pittsburgh Modular are putting together a patch book to get over those first stumbling blocks so you can easily dial in an initial three‑oscillator synth sound. And by golly, once you’ve got it, it’s a nice three‑oscillator synth sound.
The three analogue oscillators are identical and offer a lot of waveform shenanigans. Each begins with a saw‑wave oscillator core and then the waveforms are generated via a series of cascading waveshapers. This interesting approach gives us a range of wave shapes and waves between the waves. Pittsburgh say that you shouldn’t really see them as defined shapes and instead use the term ‘Seed’ to suggest that the waveforms are growing towards being the sine, triangle, sawtooth and square waves that are printed in the front panel. And this lets them bend the waves to the places in between, so you also get something along the lines of a sine/triangle, triangle/saw, saw/square and square/sine. So that’s eight distinct waveforms to choose from, although some are more distinct than others. And you don’t even have to choose because if you light all the LEDs, that turns on waveform‑party mode, and you’ll get a random one on each keypress. That’s an awesome and enjoyably quirky feature. The standard waveforms have a few kinks, but if that lets us find these other weird and interesting between‑wave timbres, then that’s a price worth paying.
Once you’ve decided on your waveform Seed the oscillator delivers it to a wavefolder controlled by the big yellow knobs. It can fold the waveform up to six times, pulling in additional harmonics and complexity with each turn. These folds build on the already wide variety of waveforms on offer, giving you quite extraordinarily versatile sound sources. Don’t forget you have three of these, all running unique waveforms that will get blended in the mixer.
The oscillator tuning takes a bit of getting used to. They behave differently depending on whether you have them coupled up to MIDI or not. You press Shift and the Seed button to couple each oscillator to MIDI. With MIDI engaged, osc 1 gives you just the fine‑tuning of a couple of semitones over the whole range of the knob. Osc 2 gives you an octave and osc 3 gives you two octaves. This tripped me up on my first play because I couldn’t work out how to get them in tune. There’s only one spot at which the pitches align and that’s straight up at the 12 o’clock position. Everywhere else produces interesting chords and ratios. After you’ve got the hang of it, it feels intentional and really quite clever.
Disengage the MIDI and you have three full‑range oscillators that have loads of room at the bottom end for acting as additional LFOs. In fact, you only get to a decent usable pitch at about the two o’clock mark. This makes them excellent companions for a bit of FM. They all have FM inputs and a knob control that is usually wired to the main LFO. There’s plenty of fun to be had with that.
The oscillators are all standalone VCO modules with CV inputs over pitch, FM, sync and shape. They have an output for the shaped and folded waveform plus a separate sine wave output, which is great for sync and FM. My only gripe is that the pitches of the oscillators are not normalled to each other. So, if you wanted to play the Taiga as a three‑oscillator synth with a CV controller or sequencer you’d have to split the pitch CV and patch each oscillator separately. The Taiga has a two‑channel splitter so you can double up on oscillators, but having a third seems like a no‑brainer. I should also note that on my early production unit osc 1 doesn’t track as well as the other two over CV and starts losing semitones after four octaves. The other two are fine and they all track together perfectly via MIDI.
Once you’ve finished fiddling around in the oscillators, they travel to a four‑channel mixer, which Pittsburgh point out is actually a combined two‑channel and three‑channel mixer, although it doesn’t look like one. On face value, you can control the level of each oscillator plus mix in some noise from channel 4. Twelve o’clock is best for a clean signal and it will distort if you wind it around further.
Each channel is available in the patchbay, so you can mix your own sources of audio or CV. You can also split it down to its 2+3‑channel origins by patching the 1+2 output. This removes channels 1 and 2 from the mix and leaves 3, 4 and the preamp on the main output.
The preamp is a grungey little circuit that’s only available through the patchbay. It gives you up to 30x gain and overdrive on anything patched to it. Patching the 1+2 output to it seems like a good idea, and indeed it is.
The noise channel is used by the Sample & Hold circuit that’s also only available in the patchbay. It’s normalled to both noise and the clock but alternative sources can be patched in.
Pittsburgh are rightly proud of the PGFilter and it’s largely what made the East Beast so satisfying. It’s based around a 2‑pole 12dB state‑variable filter and has no discernible dead spots. It doesn’t matter how much you push the resonance; the sweep of the cutoff is smooth and consistent throughout. This makes it really good fun to play with. The low‑pass is solid and gooey, the band‑pass is clean and the high‑pass sparkles.
As with the oscillators, Pittsburgh were not content with regular modes of operation, and so we find combinations of modes to give us the filters between the filters. This includes a rather sumptuous notch filter. Light all the LEDs and you will get another random mode of filter possibilities. Mix it up with random oscillator waveforms, and it’s actually not as chaotic as you’d expect, just lots of room for movement, strange changes and discovery.
Pittsburgh are rightly proud of the PGFilter... It doesn’t matter how much you push the resonance; the sweep of the cutoff is smooth and consistent throughout.
The resonance never quite pulls itself apart into self‑oscillation and will, perhaps, be too musically well‑behaved for some. You can get some overload and distortion in the peaks, but it’s just on the finer side of fierce.
For modulation, the filter has two CV inputs with knobs for the cutoff. The LFO is normalled to the unipolar one, and the first envelope is normalled to the bipolar one. The LFO has two ranges; really slow to mid and then mid to really fast. This is not something I like very much because the area I want to play always seems to be sweeping through the switching point. Anyway, I can always patch in one of the VCOs to do that for me.
The power of three slightly detuned saw waves, pulling through an envelope‑tugged low‑pass filter that’s sweet all the way around, is lovely and gives you a thoroughly satisfying synthesizer experience. But then, as you play with the shapes and start folding waveforms together or individually, it changes how you approach the filter. The harmonic content is different and modulating; it gives it a bit of a wavetable vibe which is both odd and very interesting.
The other source of oddness and interest in the Taiga is the Dynamics section. This is where we find a unique combination of West Coast organic‑ness, East Coast VCAs and unexpected harmonic filtering.
First of all, it has a regular VCA mode for regular things us Moog‑style people understand. The Dynamics knob acts as VCA level and the Dyn CV knob acts as an attenuator on the incoming CV from ADSR 2. There’s nothing unusual or interesting going on there.
Then we have two low‑pass gate modes that bring a whole different feel to the Taiga. Low‑pass gates (LPG) are usually seen as something from the West Coast style of synthesis. They use a voltage‑controlled filter (VCF) to act like a VCA. So, as they close in response to decaying CV they filter harmonics rather than level. Vactrols are commonly used to control decay, giving them that short, plucky and organic feel that we associate with LPGs. The harmonic filtering and plucky decay all add up to a very natural and sometimes supernatural sound. Pittsburgh wanted to expand on these concepts to give more control and shaping, and that’s what the Dynamics section in the Taiga offers.
In LPG mode, the Taiga uses a combined VCF and VCA to let you shape the dynamics with an entire ADSR envelope. There’s an interesting interplay between the envelope, the Dynamics knob and the Dyn CV level where you can push it between sounding more like a filter or more like an LPG. With the Sustain set to zero we get full‑on LPG. But rather than having the decay set by a vactrol we have a variable Response time set by the knob at the top. This introduces more decay than you usually find in an LPG while retaining all the harmonic characteristics.
The second LPG mode, Plucked Low Pass Gate, introduces a percussive spike at the front of the envelope. It gives it that familiar woody or tubey sound that’s very Buchla‑like and is present even with the Dyn CV turned down. It gets really interesting as you introduce a bit of the fuller signal back in, so you have this organic transient in front of the sound.
In both LPG modes, the filter resonance can be emphasised with the Low Pass Gate Resonance knob. In some respects, it makes the PGFilter a bit redundant. Although, that’s not right because the feel of the Filter and Dynamics systems are so very different. I found that I tended to lean on one or the other depending on what sort of sound I was going for, but it’s fun exploring the slap that LPGs can bring to a heavily filtered bass line or the interplay between a modulated sweeping cutoff and the harmonic carving of the Dynamics.
There’s something very earthy about the Dynamics section. It has a nuance to it where the sound is affected by subtle changes to parameters and small movements of envelope and response. You get a lovely roll‑off when you strike or pluck a key very smartly that then disappears to something more solid as you play a bit more normally. The Sustain level on the envelope essentially places the cutoff point and dictates how bright the sound is going to be before falling away. If you’re very familiar with subtractive synths, then this will feel nicely odd and strangely brilliant.
At the end of the signal chain is an analogue bucket‑brigade delay based upon a pair of 4096 stage BBD chips. There’s not a lot of time on offer, and it’s all a bit lo‑fi. It can manage up to 250ms at full turn, although you can push it further by putting some voltage into the Time CV input at the expense of fidelity and some unpleasant high‑frequency clock noise bleed.
You can get some nice and grungey feedback when you turn up the regeneration, and there’s plenty of scope for some cool sound design, but it’s not as musically interesting as I hoped. It can quickly get muddy and lose itself, but it does add another flavour.
The range of tones becomes almost ridiculous when all three oscillators are randomising their wave warps while being bent out of shape and sent through random modes of a filter only to be struck by a low‑pass gate on their way out through a regenerative feedback loop.
On the East Beast and West Pest, the digital control system seemed a bit complex, with lots of button combinations and a cryptic display you were unlikely to remember. With the Taiga it feels much clearer and simpler, although you probably still want to keep the manual to hand.
There’s a clearly labelled and easily accessible arpeggiator which simply arpeggiates the notes you play in the order you play them. A Hold button and Octave buttons come into play, making for a really nice experience. Some secondary Shift functions let you randomise the pattern or transpose while in Hold mode. Holding the Shift button lets you enter up to 32 notes in a sequence, building on the melody as it plays.
There are other functions hidden away in here, like a Pseudo‑Random Shift Register and MIDI CC‑controlled decay envelopes, random voltages and LFO. About half the manual is devoted to this section, and it’s possible that I only see it as simpler because I’ve ignored most of it. But there are plenty of things you can explore here on a wet Sunday afternoon.
Pittsburgh Modular have done something remarkable with the Taiga. They’ve come up with an analogue synthesizer that carves its own timbres and tones in a space where we think we’ve heard everything. It has three satisfying sections of intrigue and adventure: oscillators that bend and fold, a musical and juicy multi‑mode filter, and a Dynamics section that plays with harmonics in a warm and organic way. It has its quirks and foibles, like the filter never quite managing to close and a bit of bleed through the LPG, but that’s not uncommon in analogue circuitry. The forest of knobs can feel crowded at times, and accidental nudges happen quite often, but they’ve packed a lot of modular into 60HP of space.
The range of tones becomes almost ridiculous when all three oscillators are randomising their wave warps while being bent out of shape and sent through random modes of a filter only to be struck by a low‑pass gate on their way out through a regenerative feedback loop. But the Taiga is a superb synth to spend time with, to explore ideas you hadn’t considered before, and be rewarded for every subtle movement with a deeply interesting source of timbres.
Pittsburgh describe the Taiga as a ‘Paraphonic Analog Synthesizer’, but I’m not convinced it’s as paraphonically useful as that suggests. Through the magic of some correct settings in the Digital Section, the Taiga can manage two‑note polyphony, which is then articulated paraphonically through the filter and Dynamics. You were probably hoping for three notes, but it’s not to be. You can dial in chords with the three oscillators, but then you can only play them with a single key press. So, two notes it is.
This works by pulling the second note out of the Velocity output in the patchbay. You patch this to the pitch input of one of the oscillators that has been disengaged from MIDI. You can then play two notes together. It’s a bit weird and not an altogether satisfying experience. It takes a while to set up, and longer to find something that sounds like it’s not fighting with itself. I think Pittsburgh have slightly overplayed the paraphonic nature because it’s not, for me at least, where all the fun is. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that the Taiga is a great monophonic synthesizer with some paraphonic potential.
- Three analogue oscillators.
- Huge variation in waveforms and wavefolding.
- A filter that’s all sweet spots.
- An organic and versatile dynamics section.
- Sounds unusual.
- Completely modular.
- Those bright LEDs.
- Can feel crowded.
- Paraphonic mode only produces two notes.
- Imperfect signal path.
Taiga rolls together East and West Coast flavours into a heady mix of wavefolding, filtering and natural decay, for an unusual and powerful analogue synthesizer.