Elevata is a 16-voice polyphonic, eight-part multitimbral modelling synth from UK innovators Red Sound. But with a number of virtual analogue synths available at the same price point, does the Elevata offer enough to distinguish itself?
Red Sound Systems first graced the pages of SOS in 1998 with their innovative Beat Xtractor automatic tempo-detection device. Since then, they have remained close to the dance/DJ market with products such as the Federation BPM FX and the DarkStar synth. A desire to extend their repertoire further has now resulted in the Elevata: a 16-voice polyphonic, eight-part multitimbral virtual (ie. modelled) analogue synthesizer, with a unique appearance, as you can see from the photos accompanying this review.
Perhaps the Elevata's single most striking feature is its, um, 'elevating' front panel. This can be used to great effect if you prefer desktop, rather than racked, operation. There are four different angles to choose from, ranging from flat against the base right up to vertical. For me, the optimum was the 65-degree setting; there was something comfortably Minimoogish about it. If you intend to rack it, the Elevata's panel should be set at right angles to its main body. It then occupies 3U of rack space, making all connectors easily accessible, unlike some desktop/rack compromises where space is wasted at the top of the unit. Angle adjustment is a simple matter of lowering the notched support arms. As these do not lock, there is a certain amount of 'play' inherent in the mechanism, and this could make it feel a little shaky if flightcased for life on the road.
A generous six audio outputs are present on the rear panel, along with two audio inputs. There's also an input for the (optional) vocoder, plus the usual three MIDI ports, an external joystick port (see the 'Wizards, MIDI Control & Arpeggiation' box later in this article), a socket for the wall-wart power supply and the red On/Off button. The headphone socket is a stereo mini-jack positioned in the lower centre of the front panel.
For such a slim instrument, the Elevata is deceptively heavy (4.5kg), its cold steel construction suggesting casual strength. The two holes in the dark grey front panel are necessary to allow it to tilt, and contribute to the somewhat industrial look and feel. The panel is labelled in rather stylish text although (call me a boring so-and-so), a less elaborate font might have been easier on the eyes and have aided intelligibility when you're in a hurry. That said, the general knobbiness, small joystick, and buttons with their integral red LEDs, all promise ease-of-use in the tradition of Red Sound's earlier products.
At first, it seemed that the only compromise was to be the display, which is of the eight-digit LED type. I was prepared for the inevitable weird abbreviations of parameter names but, perhaps due to the Elevata's essential simplicity, this didn't trouble me too much. OK, it's no substitute for an LCD when menu-cruising and, with only eight characters to play with, there is a certain amount of juggling necessary as parameters, values, patches and menu items all fight for their chance to be displayed. Still, at least it will be nice and bright on stage...
If the display seemed a slight drawback, this was soon forgotten when I turned my first knob. I was surprised to find that these are continuous rotary encoders (apart from the main volume control) yet they are capped as if standard pots, with red pointers. In the past I have been quite a keen advocate of continuous knobs because of their smooth response to parameter changes in live performance. The disadvantage is their lack of visual feedback: even after an extensive tweaking session, all you see are a row of faceless controls. However, this does mean that with a Waldorf Q or Microwave XT, there are never any illusions that knob positions mean anything at all — and you learn to work with a combination of ears and memory. Red Sound seem to have chosen the worst of both worlds by providing continuous knobs but with marked caps, thus giving the impression that their indicated position actually means something — but it doesn't. As you turn any of the encoders, the resulting parameter value is briefly shown in the display — provided that the value is not already at maximum, in which case there is no visual update at all. The encoders transmit their values as MIDI control changes, so they can be recorded into a sequencer for automation purposes.
Red Sound have kept the knob count down by doubling up the function of most controls. When you press any of the buttons marked 'Mod', the button flashes to show it is active. At this point, the encoder directly above takes on modulation amount duties, with the display showing the current modulation source. We'll look at modulation a little more later when we examine the modulation matrix.
In addition to the various Mod buttons, each of the Elevata's main sections has a Menu button from which a series of pages is opened. You navigate through these using the Menu Last/Next buttons, which also double up as Save and Compare. You need to be careful, as it's all too easy to perform an unwanted Save operation if you slip out of the menu system accidentally.
The onboard arpeggiator has various up, down, and up/down modes plus random, note order and 'Gate'. The latter should really be labelled 'chord' as it simply repeats all notes held as a block chord. The arpeggiator may be latched, has a variable gate time and can be synchronised to MIDI Clock if required. Its range and length (up to 16 notes) may be set by the user, and it has a separate MIDI receive channel used to apply arpeggiation to any parts receiving on that channel in Multi mode.
Turning to the MIDI menu, here you define the behaviour of various controllers for each patch: joystick, mod wheel, aftertouch and so on. The onboard joystick offers an instant way to mess around with various musically useful parameters. It has two planes: the X-axis (left-right) and the Y-axis (up-down). You can program dynamic control over pretty much any feature of the Elevata that you might want, including filter cutoff, resonance, oscillator mix, ring mod amount, pitch or pulse width (of either oscillator), panning, tremolo and so on. The joystick provides plenty of that instant gratification stuff we all yearn for and is great fun. Although it's small and therefore a bit fiddly, you can make sweeping changes to any patch with it really quickly. If you find a sound you like by waggling it, a handy Hold button freezes it so it 'sticks' when you let go. The joystick is certainly not robust, but an (optional) external stick can be connected too, which then has its own modulation settings, separate from those of the onboard one. You may simultaneously use the range of supported controllers as dynamic modulation sources too, which is all very flexible and easy to get to grips with.
The Sound Wizard is an unusual feature to dedicate front-panel real estate to — it's essentially a random patch generator. You press and hold the Sound Wizard button on the far right of the front panel for more than one second (the delay is to prevent accidents) and random values are then applied to all settings. You can also keep the randomisation down to just filter, oscillators or envelopes.
Using the Wizard and the Audition button directly underneath, you can quickly listen to a variety of newly-created sounds that you can then tailor manually if necessary before storing. It's simple and fun and will surely encourage experimentation.
Oscillators are at the heart of any analogue (or virtual analogue) synth and the Elevata has two of them per voice. The Oscillator menu offers sound sources that go beyond the obligatory brassy sawtooth and hollow square waves. Those classic waveforms are present, of course, the dedicated Waveform knob (see above right) controlling the gradual change from sawtooth at zero through to a square at maximum. The Pulse Width knob varies the square waveform from a thin pulse to a full square wave, and pulse-width modulation can be introduced courtesy of its Mod button.
Each oscillator has pitch intervals of +63 to -64 semitones! This seems an extraordinary range until you realise that oscillators fade noticeably in the higher registers, disappearing completely at around E6. In the bass department they do rather better, becoming a satisfyingly murky popping before degenerating into strangeness at subsonic levels.
I found the Detune function to be rather extreme; it offers (approximately) a full tone up or down for each oscillator. You can easily end up with patches that sound very out of tune indeed if you're not careful. Incidentally, the Elevata has no master tune facility — something that could prove a little awkward in a gig situation where you might need to match the tuning of another instrument.
There are three options in the Oscillator menu: Mode, Source and Key Sync. The Modes on offer are: Free, Ratio, and two flavours of synchronisation, Sync1 and Sync2. The former is the classic hard sync where Oscillator 2 restarts its cycle each time Oscillator 1 does. Sync 2 is similar but the reset is performed on every other cycle of Oscillator 1. This is equivalent to sync'ing to an oscillator with half the frequency and adds some welcome extra meatiness.
In Free mode oscillators run freely in relation to each other (as analogue oscillators typically do) and in Ratio mode, Oscillator 2 operates in a frequency ratio that is fixed to that of Oscillator 1. This provides some passable FM tones, and is handy for creating electric pianos and the like, although this fact (and the selection of tuning ratios) is largely ignored in the manual.
Oscillator Source can be set to 'Norm' (normal — the full range of frequencies), 'Fmnt' (formant — "a limited band of frequencies", according to the manual), 'Sine' (a sine wave), or Pink, White or Blue noise (with frequency components biased towards low, equal or high). Alternatively, the oscillator can be set to source its audio from the Elevata's external inputs. The manual disappoints again by offering no information about the formant waveforms, and it manages to get the three noise types in the wrong order too. While I'm complaining about its shortcomings, I must say that the manual is generally rather light on explanations all round, especially concerning the modulation section and its destinations.
The final Oscillator menu option is Key Sync. If switched on, this function synchronises the oscillators to note start and adds an extra click to percussive voices. To manage the output of the two oscillators, a small mixer sets the balance between them, with a separate control for ring modulation amount. This arrangement means you cannot hear the ring mod in isolation, which is a shame.
The filter is rather simple: it's a 12dB-per-octave multimode affair with Modulation buttons for both cutoff and resonance. Envelope modulation (via Envelope 2) has a dedicated amount control and may be positive or negative. Within the small Filter menu there are just two entries: filter mode and keyboard tracking. There are low-pass, band-pass and high-pass filter modes (not forgetting 'off'!) and all perform well enough. Keyboard tracking has seven discrete settings: Off, 25 percent, 50 percent, 100 percent, 150 percent and negative settings of -25 percent and -50 percent. I have no idea why these values aren't continuously variable, but there you go.
No synth would be complete without some form of modulation — whether the cyclic fluctuations of an LFO or the key-initiated curve provided by an envelope. We've seen how modulation is introduced using a series of buttons, present in each section. The complete list of destinations in the mod matrix is: Waveform balance, Pitch, Pulse width, Oscillator mix, Ring mod level, Filter cutoff, Filter resonance, Part level and Pan. Once you push any of these buttons, the modulation source is shown in the display and can be changed with the Program/Value edit knob. You have four sources to choose from: LFO1, LFO2, Env1, Env2. This is not a long list, but at least you won't get lost. Modulation amounts may be positive or negative and the LED in each Mod button stays lit whenever modulation is present. This can be handy if you're trying to trace the source of an unexpected warbling.
Turning to the modulation sources, the two LFOs have Speed, Delay and Waveform controls, the waveforms on offer being: ramp, triangle, square, sine, narrow pulse, sample & hold, and random. The LFO menu provides key synchronisation (so that the LFO cycle may be reset each time a note is played) or MIDI sync with intervals from one-eighth of a beat up to eight bars. A 'slow' option here allows for a much slower LFO range, which is a nice touch.
The Envelopes are of the standard ADSR variety, with Envelope 1 being fixed to amplitude and Envelope 2 routed to filter cutoff. Within the associated menu, velocity can be applied to each envelope, with 15 levels of response available. Also, you can turn sustain on or off in this menu, just as if you had hit a sustain pedal.
The Portamento control (see right) is positioned adjacent to envelope release, and oddly, several portamento modes are found within the envelope menu. These include modes created for monophonic or polyphonic portamento and, if you need something slightly more exotic, there are various 'pre-glide' settings where note pitch always starts above or below the note played (in intervals of two, five or 12 semitones). I found that, even with portamento amount set to zero, a small amount is still applied unless you also turn portamento off in the Envelope menu. This is especially noticeable at higher pitches. Oddly, my Octave Cat used to do this too, so perhaps this is some advanced form of analogue modelling. Alternatively, it could be a small bug!
Confusingly, Glide is also present in the (rather packed) Envelope menu, but Glide in this context relates to operation of the envelopes and not to a glide in pitch. In fact this could be more accurately described as 'envelope retrigger' and is ideal if you wish to recreate the expressive legato style of some monosynths.
Altogether, there are 128 preset and 128 user-programmable patches (initially filled with copies of the presets). You select the one you want by pushing down on the Program/Edit knob and then turning it. As the limited display cannot show full names, user programs are distinguished by having an asterisk before their number. Thus 'PROG 5' is preset number 5, but 'PROG* 5' would be user program 5. This may not be elegant, but it's workable.
Having expressed some misgivings up to this point, I'm relieved to report that the Elevata has plenty of sonic potential. Its 12dB-per-octave filter can serve up reasonably convincing analogue sweeps or, by turning it off and selecting formant waves as the sound source, you enter thin, digital synth territory. Clearly there are sufficient tools available, so I wondered why so few of the factory presets sounded inspiring — until I started my own programming. I, too, laboured to produce the kind of classy patches I'd expect to pluck effortlessly from any analogue-type synth. The envelopes seemed a little unresponsive even at their fastest initial attack and the oscillators, although versatile, never quite oozed warmth or lush analogue swimminess, even with the subtlest detune setting.
I did, however, manage to create some pleasant pads incorporating pulse-width modulation, coaxed some wet, squelchy blips from the filter, and lured some rounded sub-basses to the surface too. Some of the better factory patches include decent basses, sync leads, bells, FM-like electric pianos and — perhaps finest of all — whooshy space-alien farts.
Using the Elevata multitimbrally is simplicity itself: push the Program/Multi button (shown on the right of the pic below) so that it lights, then hit one of the eight Part buttons. To select a new patch for any part, hold down the Part button, push the Program/Edit knob, and then turn it as normal.
Whether in Multitimbral or Program mode, you have a maximum of 16 notes to play with. Unlike on many synths, however, you must specify the polyphony of each multitimbral part when you create the Multi. I'm probably in a minority, but I actually prefer this method, because it guarantees that playing a few extra notes in a chord won't rob you of that vital bass line if you set up the chord patch properly. However, an option to dynamically allocate polyphony and give key parts priority might be more popular with some users, and would stretch those 16 notes a little further.
Each multitimbral Part may have its own MIDI channel, pitch-bend range, key transpose amount, note range and stereo output pair routing. Using the three stereo outputs and making cunning use of panning, you could process six individual patches separately with their own external EQ, effects, and so on. All of the Part values are set in the Multi Menu with the exception of Part level and routing, which are set in the Output section. In all, there are 90 Multis, the first 10 being stored permanently in ROM.
I noticed a few oddities in Multi mode. For example, after editing a Multi and altering just the MIDI channels, you cannot save your changes, because the synth does not recognise the edit. You have to find something else to change too — perhaps note range — and then the Save LED flashes and saving is possible. I also found that selecting Parts to edit during multitimbral playback resulted in a few timing glitches as you hit the Part buttons. Not ideal in a synth with continuous 'tweak me' controls! Finally, be aware that if you select a new Multi having tweaked the patches used within the previous one, there is no warning before your edits are all lost.
The Output section (shown above right) has just three knobs: Part level, Panning and Master Volume. This latter is the only 'normal' knob on the Elevata, so if it looks like it is set to zero, it really is!
The Output menu accesses the output routing and the 'effects'. Forgive the use of scare quotes here, but I didn't want to raise your hopes only to dash them again right away. Effects, in Elevata terms, are no more than a simple chorus or flanger and, if invoked for a part in Multi mode, are applied globally to all patches routed to the main output pair. Both Chorus and Flanger are adequate, but I looked in vain for a simple reverb or even a delay. If you wish to route some Elevata patches through the effects and have others clean, you must use the additional output pairs, which isn't too flexible, but does work. However if you use the effects at all, you sacrifice one note of polyphony — something not mentioned in the manual.
If you turn effects on in Program mode, they are applied to every patch you subsequently select until you turn them off — at least in version 1.10 of the OS, anyway. It seems odd that you can't store this individually with patches, but then the effects really aren't significant enough that you'd lose sleep by neglecting them entirely.
As you'll no doubt have noticed, throughout my time with the Elevata, I have constantly struggled to find things to like about it. Those continuous knobs are, frankly, irritating and I'd have much preferred either rotary encoders with plain caps or conventional knobs plus some kind of 'pass-through' or 'knob pickup' mode.
If my overall tone seems unduly negative, it's because I just can't see where the Elevata threatens its competitors in any category. As far as the UK market is concerned, the Elevata's price places it in the same general range as the Access Virus Rack, Novation Nova and Waldorf's MicroQ, yet when compared with these competitors, it does little to distinguish itself. Having said that, although it lacks the effects present in its rivals, it does nevertheless have its own unique range of timbres — these are especially apparent in some of the nasal tones of its formant waveforms. Its 12dB-per-octave filter has just three modes, yet sounds fine and there is a limited but useful modulation matrix too. This was enough for me to produce a few useable patches, so perhaps you could say that simplicity and ease of use were key design factors.
However, programming the Elevata did feel like a constant battle against an instrument that frustrates rather than inspires. If it was priced a little lower and pitted against such instruments as the Novation A-Station, then at least its multitimbrality would score some points.
My final thought is that if you are prepared to put in some effort, perhaps using those six outputs for external processing, the Elevata could reveal its true value and an identity that is a little different from the other virtual analogues; sometimes another approach can inspire in ways not immediately apparent. I'd love to think of some of you giving it a try and discovering something new, rather than just ruling it out because I didn't get on with it. That, however, I will have to leave up to you.
There are three expansion slots, one being set aside for the so-called 'Vocoda' conversion kit which will be inexpensive (though Red Sound don't have a confirmed price yet) and require the fitting of an EPROM. Other kits are unannounced as yet.
OS software updates are also performed by fitting EPROMs and, during the review period, I replaced the OS twice as I came across various problems which Red Sound then resolved.
Even the current version (1.10) has a few issues remaining, as identified in the main part of this review. I haven't listed everything here that caused me grief, nor do I claim to have identified all the problems. Hopefully, there's enough information to give you a balanced overall impression without making this into a bug report rather than a review.