New synth‑makers PWM met the Devil at a crossroads at midnight. This is the result.
“I’m a bringer‑togetherer,” Paul Whittington told our esteemed Editor In Chief Sam Inglis at this year’s Superbooth while exhibiting the Malevolent, the debut instrument from his new company PWM. Whittington was referring, specifically, to his previous work as a product manager at M‑Audio and then at Focusrite Novation, where he worked on an array of hit products including the Keystation, Oxygen, Axiom and Venom controllers, and the MiniNova, Launchpad and Launchkey respectively.
It’s an apt mantle for Whittington’s current work with PWM: “My company is actually called Paul Whittington Group Limited,” he explained. “The idea behind the group is that it’s a collective, where we get all the best people, basically, and bring them together!”
That approach is just what has led to the Malevolent; a dual‑oscillator, semi‑modular analogue synthesizer presenting twin envelopes, multi‑mode filter, 38‑point patch panel and a built‑in keyboard. On top of all this, it offers plentiful capacity for both FM and AM, a drive circuit, noise generator, external audio routing and drone‑latching. Purely analogue yet digitally controlled, it’s a gritty little thing with a big personality that rewards a wide range of approaches; in fact it feels more accurate to say that with this instrument there are no right answers. Like its mastermind, the Malevolent is very much a ‘bringer‑togetherer’.
The Malevolent was co‑created with precocious Bristol‑based developers Future Sound Systems, Whittington having worked with FSS’s Finlay Shakespeare at Novation. The story goes that Future Sound Systems designed the synth’s analogue architecture after initially inspiring Whittington with a bare‑bones single‑oscillator synthesizer kit named the Brunswick. Originally commissioned by the Bristol Experimental Expanded Film collective, the Brunswick featured a multi‑mode VCF, ‘dirty’ VCA, single LFO, simple envelope and a 24‑point patch bay; in other words, its ceiling is the Malevolent’s floor.
In that interview Sam asked if the Malevolent was “almost like a modern take on the Korg MS series?”, to which Paul responded, “it’s like the MS‑20, but as if you’ve taken the brakes off.” I would challenge that comparison with the idea that it’s more comparable to something like the Moog Grandmother: be this in its layout, workflow and, perhaps most of all, its patchability with external gear. While the Korg MS‑20’s oscillators operate with Hz/V scaling, the Malevolent works at the more common 1 Volt per octave. The MS‑20 also kept its patch panel and control panels very much separate, while the Malevolent, like the Grandmother, integrates its patch points into the main panel layout. I mention this because the Malevolent feels like a very modern synthesizer in a way that the MS‑20 and MS‑20 Mini do not: it appears to be designed with small studios in mind, combining analogue signal flows with the ease of digital control and with USB C for MIDI — with the capacity for bus‑power, impressively — and with an outward‑facing attitude to existing setups. Like both the Grandmother and the MS‑20, the Malevolent has no screen and no presets; something, as someone with a general aversion to menu‑diving, I find myself refreshed by.
The idea of ‘taking the brakes off’ is apt, though. Or at least, the idea of taking most of the brakes off. On the MS‑20, certain quirks in the signal flow could be utilised musically, for example patching its output back into its external signal processor to achieve distortion. The Malevolent, by contrast, is begging for rebellious patching straight out of the box — indicated at the very least by its name. From its dedicated drive circuit to twin FM inputs for each oscillator; far from leaving its idiosyncrasies to be uncovered, it presents them on a platter, daring you to push the instrument as far as it can go. The only question is, how far can it go?
From left to right, the front panel presents a Keys section with arpeggiator rate control, a simple LFO, two identical oscillator sections, two envelopes, a mixer section with noise generator and auxiliary audio input, a filter section, envelope section, VCA and drive section (here identified as AM), and finally the main output. The panel’s workflow will feel familiar if you’ve got any experience with conventional monosynth layouts. Beneath this is a mini‑keyboard with modulation joystick, vibrato and arpeggiator controls and octave‑shift buttons. The build quality here is nice. The knobs feel smooth and solid, and there’s a nice weight to the instrument overall.
When it comes to visual design, no matter how familiar one is with an interface, certain things can cause a double‑take. In this case, it’s the fact that envelope 1 is directly beneath VCO 1 and envelope 2 is beneath VCO 2. Somehow, instinctively, they seem correspondent to one another when in terms of function they aren’t correspondent at all. This isn’t helped by the fact that the envelope indicator LEDs are all the way on the other side of the panel, while all the other LEDs are next to their respective knobs. Generally, though, the Malevolent’s layout is well designed. Each section’s input patch points are at the bottom, for example, while all the outputs are at the top.
Ostensibly this provides a decent, fairly simple East Coast‑based foundation to work from, which is helpful since things can get convoluted fairly quickly once various signal paths are broken and FM gets thrown into the mix. Helpfully, the Malevolent’s normalled connections are indicated in green beneath each patch input, so it was easy to track exactly what signal path I was editing where.
These connections work as a kind of suggested, basic patch to kick things off, as opposed to the synth being ‘unpatched’. By this I mean I would occasionally think of an initial patch only to find it already there, so the normalled connections cover a multitude of functions very well. The two FM patch points for the filter, for example, are normalled to receive voltage from envelope 1 and the LFO’s triangle output respectively, while the default filter mode is low‑pass. Solid. Suffice to say, overall the Malevolent’s workflow meant I could spend more time thinking about what really matters: the sound.
Each oscillator is selectable between any or all of saw, triangle and pulse wave, all of which are shape‑variable, which is a nice touch. It’s a generous and useful amount of scope for sound‑sculpting straight out of the gate — which in some ways proves a saving grace for the Malevolent’s VCOs since, in their purest form, they’re solid enough to hold their own but don’t deliver masses of character. There is an audible noise floor that comes through from time to time (shades of the MS‑20 here...), particularly at more driven levels, but this isn’t much of a bother once other sounds come into play.
As I say, this is certainly made up for with a host of other possibilities — many more than offered by most dual‑oscillator monosynths out there. Cross‑modulating frequencies between the oscillators immediately sends the Malevolent into snarling, bell‑like or metallic FM territory, and combined with a capable drive circuit and some modulation achieved some complex and generally excellent‑sounding results. Experimenting with different waveforms proved highly rewarding, although all of this did leave me missing a sine‑wave output for each oscillator. Perhaps it’s unfair to point this out, with sine‑wave outputs a rarely seen feature on comparable synths, but since PWM have taken the trouble of including two FM inputs per oscillator, this simple but mightily useful wave would have added to its FM palette considerably.
In any case, the oscillators perform alongside one another very well. I particularly enjoyed muting the output of one oscillator and using it purely for modulation of the other, in a more West Coast‑style application, and before even reaching an envelope or filter was achieving some great sounds, be they simple or complex.
The Malevolent’s opto‑FET‑controlled 2‑pole Sallen‑Key filter also sounds great and full of character. We live in a post‑Minimoog world, so the filter is always going to be one principal indication of a synth’s substance; by this rubric the Malevolent can hold its head high. At high resonance settings it sweeps through the frequency spectrum with real attitude, performing particularly well with not a little grit in the low and low‑mid range. Higher resonance settings also initiate a brilliant relationship between the filter and the onboard drive circuit, which augments the Malevolent’s tone‑sculpting capabilities very nicely — and occasionally nastily. Above the drive is a drone switch, which subsequently places more emphasis on modulation of the Malevolent’s filter and various FM circuits to achieve movement. This the Malevolent handled well, with multi‑dimensional sounds abounding through its delicious, droning growls.
On the subject of modulation, the lone LFO is functional and useful, but feels like something of a missed opportunity. I would like to have seen a second LFO included, which once again would considerably expand the scope of the Malevolent, not least considering how many modulation destinations it has. For perspective, the Shape and second FM inputs on both oscillators, the second FM input on the filter and the second AM input on the VCA are all normalled to that single LFO. It’s not sync’able to a clock source either, which would have allowed it to interact with circuits elsewhere in a great way. With two selectable waveforms, triangle and square, its perfectly functional, but in this context it seems challenged to be more than that. It never quite gets fast enough to get up to audio rate, for example, nor does it have any more imaginative output options, such as random voltage.
You might think I’m being a little harsh, since most of this is perfectly normal for a hardware monosynth, but the Malevolent has very much announced itself as a wild beast and a rule breaker — “it lives and breathes,” says the introduction to its Getting Started Guide — and it’s surely in departments like this that it must prove itself to incontrovertibly earn that status. Here is where I’m sure Paul Whittington would tell me it’s time to feed the Malevolent with other modulation sources from my Eurorack system, which is possibly a fair point. Indeed, in his words, the Malevolent is “a gateway drug into modular”. Sure enough, it does occasionally leave you wanting more — for better or for worse.
It was down to respected product engineering consultant Ben Supper (formerly of Roli and the mind behind the wearable Head Tracker MIDI controller) at the excellently named Supperware to develop the synth’s digitally routed control side. This constitutes a mini‑keyboard, joystick, octave shift buttons, vibrato button and arpeggiator button.
For the record, I’m generally not a fan of mini‑keyboards. I find them too fiddly to play properly, and yet they add at least a third to an instrument’s overall size, not to mention provide an aesthetic disservice to an otherwise good‑looking synth. Generally I’d rather developers either commit to decent‑sized keys or save themselves (and customers) the cost. In my experience users will just get themselves an Arturia Keystep or Akai MPK if they need to. To my surprise, though, overall the control side of the Malevolent I actually found highly impressive.
I very much stand by my anti‑mini‑key thesis, but there are a few things about the control section of the Malevolent that come genuinely close to redeeming it. Since the keyboard is a digital controller, it can also act as a capable independent USB MIDI to Volt‑per‑octave interface. It’s velocity sensitive, too: this isn’t demonstrated with the Malevolent unpatched, but patching its velocity output to the filter, for example, immediately opens up more lyrical playability. Patching it to something a little more off‑kilter, for example one of the oscillators’ FM inputs, suddenly opens up some very interesting avenues of keyboard‑led fun.
The other control element responsible for this is the joystick. A very well‑designed, three‑dimensional control that also economises on space, it responds to flicking, clicking, pushing and rotating to deliver a wide array of functions. Beyond conventional left‑right pitch bending, the first of these is ‘Hold’; a brilliantly useful thing that I can’t believe isn’t more common on synths in the Malevolent’s lane. Achieved by flicking the joystick down while pressing a key on the keyboard, Hold simply freezes the note at whatever the sustain value on the envelopes are set to, freeing two hands up for parameter tweaking during a performance. It can be latched off again just as quickly for the sound to continue down the envelope and for you to continue playing. Simple.
Clicking the joystick down toggles between latched and momentary Holding. The joystick is quite easy to knock by accident, which — in latch mode — led me on more than one occasion to puzzle over why my envelope was suddenly behaving very strangely, or why I wasn’t hearing any output since Hold can also latch silence. Luckily it has an accompanying LED, so it’s easy to see if it’s on or off.
The joystick also controls portamento: push it up a little for a quick glide between notes, and further for a slower glide. It’s a very intuitive design, allowing for expressive and musical playing. Hitting the vibrato button means that the joystick can be pushed up for vibrato — once again, a little for a little and a lot for a lot. Hitting the Arp button, the keyboard defaults to low‑to‑high arpeggiating, but holding the button and moving the joystick in a circle presents a range of options for the arpeggiator order. Flicking it down to Hold latches the arpeggio, which once again can be switched on or off quickly and musically if desired.
Its filter is excellent, its VCOs are up to scratch, its FM possibilities push it into new realms and it’s just begging to become friends with your modular system.
At more or less 104HP wide, the Malevolent slots in very nicely at the bottom of a Eurorack system. This, I should concede, is another potential redeeming feature for the keyboard, which, in the context of a bigger system, actually becomes quite useful and well‑proportioned with gate, pitch and velocity outputs ready to be patched to all manner of weird and wonderful destinations. A true semi‑modular cherry on top would be to give the joystick X and Y CV outputs, but alas, not this time.
It’s altogether a yes in this department, though. Placing all the patch points at the top of the panel puts circuits like the noise generator and filter within easy reach of any adjacent row of modules, and importantly keeps patch leads out of the way to leave the lower half exclusively for twiddling knobs and hitting keys. It’s a definite asset to any system — and a relatively budget‑friendly one, too, considering its price is comparable with many Eurorack modules of 40HP or less that contribute far less flexibility and variety.
I wasn’t entirely sure of the purpose behind the Malevolent’s magnetic side panels, satisfying though they are to pull off and snap on again. You might expect interchangeable 19‑inch brackets, perhaps, but there seems to be no such intention here. Paul Whittington has hinted that PWM may consider alternative side panels down the line, and indeed there are a range of possibilities here — perhaps a 3U Eurorack skiff could be attached via the side panels to hover over the Malevolent, Arturia Rackbrute‑style, or they could feature slots to attach a protective cover.
Aggressive and raw the Malevolent certainly can be. Would I describe it as outright evil? Not quite. It’s not prudent to judge an instrument on what it doesn’t have, but occasionally I was left wanting that extra something to truly class it as a primal creature of the underworld. A drivable spring reverb, perhaps, or a random voltage generator. What it is, though, is a quality analogue synth that I can imagine holding its own in almost any context, and with some phenomenal design elements to boot. Its filter is excellent, its VCOs are up to scratch, its FM possibilities push it into new realms and it’s just begging to become friends with your modular system. Far from fearing it, what’s not to love?
- Excellent control section with great use of a joystick interface.
- Well laid‑out panel with plenty of patch points and modulation possibilities.
- Great filter and drive circuits.
- Sturdily built.
- Never quite commits to full‑blown malevolence.
Not quite as nefarious as it promises to be, but a flexible, raw‑sounding and powerful compact synth it is nonetheless — with masses of patching potential.