British company Red Sound Systems are known for their innovative DJ products. Now, in the shape of the Dark Star, they've produced their first synthesizer. Wing Commander Paul Farrer warms up the engines and takes it out on its maiden flight.
Almost two years ago to the day, an incongruous small silver box landed on my desk for review from the Buckinghamshire offices of a newly formed company by the name of Red Sound Systems. It was the Beat Xtractor 1, which turned out to be a wonderfully useful device for accurately detecting the tempo of an incoming audio source and sync'ing up a MIDI sequencer to it. Earlier last year they took this nifty concept to new heights with the Federation BPM FX Pro (reviewed SOS October 1999), an effects unit of truly mind‑boggling proportions that has since found a place in the hearts of DJs and producers looking for cutting‑edge sound processing with unparalleled real‑time controllability. Their latest product is the wonderfully named Dark Star 8‑voice polyphonic synthesizer. The Dark Star is a DSP‑based analogue‑modelled synth, capable of 5‑part multitimbrality, squeezed into a deceptively small desktop box which can be racked if needs be. It offers a host of real‑time controls, an impressive MIDI spec, EPROM chip upgrade options and a price tag of less than £400. Too good to be true?
Owners of the Federation Pro will notice that apart from a black paintjob, the Dark Star's case is virtually the same compact 340 x 230mm desktop unit. An optional rackmounting kit is available, and effectively involves screwing two large rack ears onto each side, one with an extension jack built into it allowing rack‑front access to the unit's external inputs.
The rear of the unit has a 9‑Volt DC power socket, an on/off switch, MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets and a pair of phono outputs. The aforementioned external inputs, which also take the form of two phono jacks, can be used to process any incoming audio signal through Dark Star's synthesis engine. Moving to the front panel, we find the upper portion split into four sections housing the Filter, Envelope, Oscillator, and LFO controls. The unit's display is made up of four seven‑segment LEDs. Although these are bright and readable (and probably just about adequate for a device with this much real‑time controllability), it shows up the inherent limitations of a non‑LCD screen when the instrument's name is displayed on power up as "dArh StAr"!
In the centre of the front panel is one of Red Sound's trademarks — the mixer joystick. In normal operation this controls the ratio between the outputs of the two oscillators and the mix level of the ring modulator, but it can be assigned to control filter frequency and resonance, in which case the two relevant knobs in the filter section are reassigned to mix and ring modulation level respectively. As the Federation Pro demonstrated, this is actually a very useful and intuitive way of tweaking a mix level on the fly; indeed, with so many controllers available, the whole ethos behind Dark Star seems to be one of encouraging hands‑on experimentation rather than scrolling through endless edit pages.
Below the joystick are the five part‑selector buttons which, when lit, show which of the five multitimbral parts is currently selected for editing. On the bottom left of the unit is the audition button, which triggers a C2 note for the selected part. Next to that we find the cursor navigation controls in the form of simple menu up/down and increment and decrement buttons. Given that there is so much available space on the front panel, and that the Dark Star scores top marks for ergonomics in most other areas, some users might find these four soft rubbery keys a little too small and a bit too close together.
To the right of these are eight large red program/menu‑select buttons, followed by a slightly smaller bank‑select button and the program‑select button. The Dark Star has six banks of eight preset programs and a further two user banks, containing a total of 16 rewritable memory locations. Each of these memory locations can hold a complete multitimbral program containing up to five different patches on different MIDI channels. In normal use, the eight program/menu‑select buttons automatically access the on‑screen edit menus (for multitimbral settings, MIDI controls and so on) rather than the program selectors. This means that in order to load a new sound you must press one of the eight program buttons while holding down the program‑select button. If you want to change a preset bank it's even more complicated — you have to press and hold both the program button and the bank‑select button while choosing one of the banks, then press and hold the program‑select button again before picking the sound you want. So if, for instance, you were playing program two from bank one, and wanted to change to bank three sound six, you'd have to perform no fewer than five keystrokes — and due to the spacing of the keys you'll need both hands to do it. The Dark Star looks and feels like a true analogue synth, and would be an impressive addition to any MIDI rack — but rack it where you can easily reach it!
A cursory glance at the factory preset list confirms the kind of instrument Dark Star is. The first program in bank one, 'R‑U‑303? Bass', is a stunningly realistic and infinitely usable classic analogue mainstay. In fact there are probably a vast number of users for whom this preset alone, used with the Filter Frequency and Resonance knobs, would provide unlimited analogue satisfaction. Most of Dark Star's users will be looking for bass and lead sounds, and on the whole they won't be disappointed. The basses offer plausible warm and well‑rounded Moogs, richly acidic and ear‑burning TB303s, as well as a host of other familiar classic bass synths. Other programs include a good number of pads, organs, clavinets and sound effects and in each case the sounds load up ready for editing.
In traditional analogue style, sonic realism takes second place to warmth, depth and character: 'Warm Organ' and 'Pizz‑ish' of course sound nothing like the real thing, and ironically only the 'Stylophone' preset is liable to bring back floods of bearded Antipodean nostalgia. Where Dark Star scores and most sample‑based instruments fail, however, is that nearly every sound you load up has the potential to inspire almost immediately. With so many controls available, you find yourself reaching for a 'tweak' every time, meaning that once you get to know your way around this instrument, finding the sound you want is as quick and easy a process as you could imagine.
One of Dark Star's big selling points is that every change you make to any of the controllers is transmitted via MIDI. It's easy to see how the potential for manipulating your sounds throughout a song and recording the results on a spare track of your sequencer is an appealing idea, and it's one which this unit embraces very successfully. As soon as you touch any of the control knobs or buttons three small LEDs under the main display start to flash in sequence, telling you that the sound has somehow changed from the original loaded program and should be saved or dumped via a System Exclusive MIDI message if you want to store the sound after powering down.
Many of the factory programs load up as template multitimbral sets. For instance, program two of bank one is a complete five‑part multi set, with five very different and usable sounds assigned to each of the parts. Activating the multitimbral capabilities of a particular program is easy enough: you assign polyphony to that part (remembering that you have a total of eight notes between the five parts), assign it a MIDI channel and you're away. Pressing the Part Output button to the right of the joystick mixer turns the four knobs of the Envelope section into Level, Pan, Tremolo and Portamento controls for which ever part is selected, and as long as you keep an eye on the part‑select LEDs to make sure you're editing the right part, this is actually a very quick and easy way of manipulating large amounts of setup and control data. Individual parts can be copied within a program to another part and channel if you desire and as before, you can either choose to save your multi set in one of the 16 memory locations or dump a SysEx snapshot to your sequencer for instant recall later on. Other SysEx dump options include being able to back up individual parts from a particular multitimbral set as well as the ability to dump (and, of course, reload) all of your user memory locations if you need more space.
The slightly long‑winded method of selecting and loading programs pays off when you come to work in multitimbral mode as each of the large red program buttons become 'one‑touch' menu buttons which allow you to modify parameters such as part transposition, pitch‑bend range, note range and sustain on/off, as well as more in‑depth edit functions such as modulation and aftertouch settings. Unfortunately, the restrictions of Dark Star's display mean that you don't get to see the name of the sound you are working with, only its program and bank numbers, so it's a good idea to have the manual handy for the preset list, which also lists polyphony settings for the multitimbral programs. The manual can also be useful in some of the edit pages, where it can take a bit of time to adjust to some of the abbreviations required to fit parameters on the screen.
There are very few things about Dark Star that I don't like. Whilst the display is clear and bright, as I've already mentioned, it suffers the inevitable limitations of any seven‑segment LED readout; the exclusion of a headphone socket is unfortunate, but will be no great loss to most users (although it's curious that the Federation Pro, which was basically a piece of outboard gear, had one). Nor will the single pair of outputs be a major cause for concern. In fact, given the sub‑£400 asking price, it seems unfair to award anything other than high praise to this instrument's designers. Although there may be a few holes in the details, buyers should be most interested in the sound of the thing — and in that department there really is nothing to worry about. To say that the Dark Star could be a good TB303 clone is genuinely to undervalue its potential. It sounds fantastic and slots into any MIDI setup like a long‑lost friend; indeed, those brought up on a diet of sample‑based sound modules who have been put off the analogue market by unreliability issues and hefty price tags would find the Dark Star an excellent first 'analogue' synth.
The manual is clear and well written, and Red Sound Systems obviously have a lot planned for this powerful box of tricks in terms of upgrade options (see 'Dark Star Upgrades' box). As investments go, then, and considering the all‑important external inputs, it could work out to be even more future‑proof than Roland's JV range of synth modules. Offering remarkable levels of controllability and an operating system that simply cries out for you to tweak and experiment, Dark Star really does manage to fuse retro sound values with modern‑day studio technology in an irresistibly priced, cool‑looking unit. At a price lower than the cost of three sample CD‑ROMs, Dark Star could well turn out to be the Minimoog for the 21st Century.
As a DSP‑based synth platform, the Dark Star could be put to other uses with different software — a possibility not lost on its designers. The underside of the unit has a small access panel which allows upgrades to be added via easily removable EPROM chips. Red Sound Systems tell me that upgrade options will include a 'mega monosynth', a vocoder, and even a drum machine. Easy‑to‑fit front panels will also be provided, sliding over the existing control surface to list all the new knob and button functions. The best thing about it is that the projected asking price for the upgrades will be a mere £29.95 each. I can't think of any other studio device which could be converted from a multitimbral synthesizer to an equally desirable vocoder or drum machine for 30 quid! Obviously the number of upgrades that become available will depend largely on Dark Star's success, but it's refreshing to see a company with their mind set so firmly on users' needs in the future and not just on making a quick buck at the expense of usability.
The four main control sections each provide control over a good number of parameters. Many of the knobs are dual‑function, with the less‑used function in each case accessible using the 'shift' key; parameters without dedicated controls are edited on screen using the large red menu/program keys and the cursor menu, increment and decrement buttons.
Starting with the oscillator section, the waveform of each of the two oscillators can be varied from sawtooth to square wave by progressive clipping. Then, depending on whether or not the shift key is selected (thankfully you don't have to keep your finger on it) the control knobs alter Oscillator 2 pitch, pitch modulation, pulse‑width modulation, and the detuning of each oscillator (to the value of ±2 semitones). The on‑screen edit pages allow you to delve a bit deeper in selecting different sound sources for the second oscillator, including a "Formant‑style" source formed from a limited band of frequencies, Pink, White or Blue noise, as well as using the external inputs on the rear of the unit to drive the filter and envelope sections. You can also specify the selected oscillator's pitch and pulse‑width modulation depth from as many as four different sources, namely envelopes 1 and 2 and LFOs 1 and 2.
The two envelopes have standard ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release) contours, and one is assigned to each oscillator. With the shift key down, the 'Release' knob also determines how much the selected envelope is affected by received MIDI velocity. The two LFOs in the LFO Section each have controls which set their Speed, Delay and Waveform Shape. When the shift button is lit, the speed control becomes an editor for setting the trigger rate to synchronise the LFO with the tempo of an incoming MIDI signal — very useful.
Moving to the filter section, we find a meaty and very musical‑sounding 12dB/octave filter which is switchable between low‑pass, band‑pass and high‑pass modes. The Frequency Cutoff knob also doubles as the filter type selector (again in conjunction with the shift key), and the Resonance knob neatly doubles as a controller of resonance modulation. Likewise, when the shift key selected, the Envelope Modulation knob sets the degree to which cutoff is modulated by LFO 2. The on‑screen edit pages reveal a couple more functions such as keyboard tracking, which defines how the filter's cutoff frequency varies with the pitch of input MIDI notes, and a feature which allows you to derive the filter resonance from either of the envelope or LFO settings.
- Fantastic analogue sound.
- Instant control over almost every useful parameter.
- Original and solid design with great styling.
- Excellent value for money.
- Useful upgrade options planned.
- No headphone socket.
- Over‑complex program‑ and bank‑selection process.
- Single stereo outs.
A great British synthesizer with kick‑ass sounds and maximum flexibility. Less than 400 quid buys you a true classic synth in the making: with so much power for such little money, expect the second‑hand TB303 market to dry up within weeks!