Soma Laboratory’s Lyra-8 may force you to reconsider everything you think you know about synthesizers.
Every now and again, a new entry in the hi-tech music world stirs age-old questions about what a synthesizer is, or should be. Such an instrument is the Soma Laboratory Lyra-8, described as an ‘organismic synthesizer’, a term I’ll attempt to flesh out at some point. Before then, you should know this is an eight-voice analogue machine with a built-in delay and distortion. Its voices may be analogue but they sure aren’t VCOs, or even DCOs, nor are they even designed for familiar synth duties. Instead, each is an individually tuned organ-style voice triggered from a pair of circular contacts. Each voice produces raw waveforms that can be shifted from triangle to square. Acting in pairs, they serve as carriers and modulators in a rather mind-blowing form of knobby, interactive FM synthesis.
I’ll level with you: it’s been over a month and I still don’t fully understand the Lyra-8. Fortunately, I feel no urge to panic because it’s been no barrier to the growth of fascination and even love. I don’t fully understand my wife either but — like her — the Lyra-8 is beautifully put together and has the capacity to surprise, delight and occasionally terrify.
The Lyra-8 became a production synthesizer thanks to musician and radio engineer Vlad Kreimer’s habit of making synths for his own performances. Requests led him to consider building instruments for wider distribution, although currently this is on a waiting-list basis. As I write, the first batch of 30 is nearing completion and production is being scaled-up to meet the demand.
Maybe because it comes from Russia, there’s nothing insubstantial about the Lyra-8. The heavy, all-metal case is 265 x 265 mm and painted a pleasant creamy white, rather like an Oberheim SEM. There’s a diverse assembly of good-quality knobs, dials and switches, plus those rather distinctive contacts that are used to trigger each voice. If it seems odd that there’s no keyboard or even a 1V/oct input, it’s because this is not a synth you’ll turn to for regular chromatic performance.
Having connected the external adaptor, an amber LED shows power is on and a green LED flashes to show the combined output of the twin LFOs, referred to as a ‘Hyper LFO’ because you can’t access either individually. The LFOs dispense my own least favourite waveform — square — but they manage to be slightly more interesting than mere on/off blips thanks to a pair of switches: Link and And/Or. The (confusingly-named) And multiplies the frequency of LFO A by B, producing odd bursts and quirky little patterns. In contrast, when Or is selected, the LFO output is created by an addition of frequencies. This time the composite waveform’s edges aren’t quite so sharp and Or is therefore the more versatile and subtle modulation source of the two. Well, slightly.
If you enable Link, you get what is described as a ‘soft FM’ — in this case LFO B modulates A. Differing combinations of switches and LFO rates yield a greater diversity of patterns than you’d probably expect, so while the output lacks the smooth finesse of sine or triangle waves, there’s plenty of potential for chaos and uncertainty.
This is a very unconventional synth and in homage to its idiosyncrasies, let’s take a different route than usual and move straight on to the effects. The Modulation Delay is the only digital part of the Lyra-8, and even then it’s described as ‘2/3 analogue’. There are two lo-fi delay lines and each can be modulated either by the delay’s own output or by an LFO (triangle or square). The modulation LFO isn’t new circuitry though; its square-wave output is derived directly from the And function of the Hyper LFO. In other words, those weird little patterns are available to modulate the two delay times. Similarly, the triangle waveform is generated by summing two triangle waves with frequencies matching those of the twin LFOs. It’s a shame this waveform is only available to the delay and not to the whole synth.
If you use the delay’s own output to modulate the times, it can generate huge washes of distorted feedback thanks to the delay’s dirty, lo-fi nature. Its sound is also pretty dark, thanks to rather extreme filtering that’s been added to suppress (some of) the noise. Whenever you take feedback somewhere past 12 o’clock, a constant metallic tone is created, which gets positively murky and spiteful at the extremes. You could almost treat this like an instrument in its own right, for ringing drones, spring reverb impressions, spacey pitch shifts and budget varieties of flange and chorus. At the longest times, the noise is quite extreme, but personally I’d be tempted to tweak the filtering (a single capacitor) and allow more noise and high end through. After all, synths like the Korg Minilogue and Dreadbox Erebus feature noisy delays and they still manage to sound fab.
Entertaining though it is, the delay isn’t the end of the audio chain — distortion follows. The top right-hand corner is where you juggle the output level, distortion mix and drive amount. The latter control increases the brightness and crunch but also begins to tear up the signal, especially if the delay is already working hard. Even with the delay and distortion out of the picture, the Lyra-8 isn’t completely silent or noise-free — some low-level voice bleed reaches the main output — so a noise gate might be worth considering.
Now seems an opportune moment to mention the Lyra-8’s audio connectivity. Its output is a single mono jack and there’s a mini-jack headphone socket too, which is noisier than the main output, especially with el-cheapo ear buds. Any source you plug into the Ext In jack is added to the synth’s output before the delay and distortion sections. A drum machine is a good candidate for treatment and I must say I wasn’t disappointed. The dirty delay and even dirtier distortion proved to be just what my old Korg ER1 Electribe needed to shake a few fillings loose.
Whatever signal you choose to process (there’s no level control but line level is fine) also plays a part when you let the delay output modulate itself, or activate ‘Total Feedback’ in the main synth. Before contemplating the latter, it’s finally time to examine the Lyra’s voices and FM structure — I’ve kept the most organismic stuff until last.
Looking over the controls, it might not be obvious how to actually play the Lyra-8 or even what features set it apart from the herd. Well, for a start each voice can be tuned independently, and within a range that starts somewhere in LFO territory. The voice is then triggered either alone or with others to form chords, drones, dissonances or partake in a freaky form of FM.
Every voice is grouped with a partner and together they are subject to common modulation and waveform shape modification. The first pair of voices (1+2) are pitched lower than the rest while the last pair (7+8) are higher — but all can overlap. With such a wide range of tuning available and a single knob for each voice, it’s not always easy to quickly home in on the pitches you want. So while the knobs feel lovely, there were times I’d have loved a fine tune. It’s quickly obvious that tuning is an integral part of all interaction with this unusual synth.
When your finger makes contact with the two circular metal pads (positioned where a keyboard might ordinarily be) a voice is triggered. Assuming for the moment no modulation is present, it will be somewhere between triangle and buzzy square, according to the position of the Shape knob. This is often a good way to add emphasis, just remember that it applies to both voices of a pair.
The behaviour of the triggered envelope is controlled by the switch immediately above the contacts, and also by the Hold knob. If the switch is set to Fast, the envelope acts in roughly on/off fashion, fading quickly on release. When the switch is up, the release is much longer — around 20 seconds, although this varies slightly from voice to voice. With practice, you learn to build up the volume using multiple strikes and to cut long envelopes short by flipping the switch. Admittedly, triggering notes with metal contacts feels weird at first, but it helps establish the Lyra-8’s distinct identity. And don’t worry about the current involved when making the connection, it is very low. The manual supplies tips on cleaning the contacts and even discusses potential shorting should you find yourself in moist conditions(!).
The other control relevant to the level of voices is Hold, and there’s a knob for each half of the synth. Regardless of the setting of those Fast switches, Hold is always able to summon drones for the quartet of voices under its jurisdiction. As you turn Hold clockwise, those voices with their Fast switch in the upper position (off) are brought in first, followed at around the two o’clock mark by any with the switch down. You can therefore prepare four-note droning chords and introduce them in pairs of notes.
Along with Hold, Pitch is the other control that’s applied to four voices simultaneously. When you have painstakingly tuned each voice — ignoring standard Western tuning if you like — the Pitch knob is handy for shifting all four voices and maintaining the intervals between them. This can be vital when mixing the Lyra-8 with other instruments.
Taking both sides of the synth into consideration, the contacts, envelope switches and Hold knobs can be creatively employed for voice and chord launching. It’s worth pointing out that, regardless of the setting of the Fast switches, the Lyra-8 doesn’t offer a punchy, staccato action. And since I’m in a ‘pointing out’ mood, I should also mention that there is some variation between voice levels and even a degree of crosstalk between voice pairs.
It transpires that an ‘organismic synthesizer’ is intended for complex and unknowable interactions. Here I quote from the manual where the Lyra is described as “a bizarre animal that twists and turns under your fingers, rather than a precise mechanism”. This is absolutely true. Once you start introducing modulation, every constituent part interacts in ways that are never fully predictable — but never boring either.
The chords, drones and even melodies coaxed from those eight notes are likely to be strange and even atonal, but to really bring the Lyra-8 to life, its FM must be engaged. Analogue FM is typically wild and should not be confused with the DX7 variety with its stable sine waves and precise intervals.
The central two-way switch selects the FM algorithm, the highest level of voice routing. In the upper position, the Lyra-8 has a single loop of frequency modulation, while in the downward position there are two, the sources corresponding to the text printed above the voice pairs. Personally, I think graphics would have been more helpful aids to understanding the flow, but you soon get a feel for what’s going on. Algorithm selection boils down to whether you wish to deal with the voices in two groups of four or (if you’re brave enough) to have all eight interact. Whichever you go for, the Mod switch for each pair selects either FM or modulation sourced from the LFO (or an external CV). The switch’s middle position deactivates modulation entirely.
In two-loop routing, voices 1+2 are modulation sources and destinations for voices 3+4. The equivalent routing is applied to the other pair. Even if you only work with half of the available voices, the Lyra-8 commands strange and powerful cross-modulation, the results suggesting air-raid sirens, broken robots screaming for help and countless harsh, noise-like backdrops.
When the Lyra-8 is set in a single FM loop, the sources are shifted to produce even greater interaction. It’s easy to become mesmerised by the effects of shape, pitch and those long, decaying envelopes. Micro-adjustments of each and every knob summon variations that can be as unexpected as they are infectious. It was around this point that some of the manual’s talk about the brain, chaos, Indian ragas and deeper states of perception began to resonate.
I mentioned earlier that the Hyper LFO can be substituted as a modulation source for any or all of the voice pairs. Due to the available waveforms, its effects are always glitchy, strange and mechanical rather than smooth and flowing, but in terms of the cumulative impact on an FM chain, it can totally chew things up. Regardless of the modulation source, the final few degrees of every Mod amount knob is a peculiar place where crackly, chirping velociraptors live.
Before we finish up, a pair of globally-acting switches need an explanation. The leftmost is Total Feedback and its purpose is to replace the LFO output with the synth’s own audio, post delay and distortion. Therefore, any voices with their mod source set to LFO are subject to the full force of the Lyra-8’s output. As you can probably guess, this spits out even more bizarre FM and if you wind up the distortion or delay feedback, rumbles of epic proportions dominate.
After all that elemental action, the Vibrato switch offers a rare moment of calm and subtlety. Every voice has a unique pitch modulation circuit, the speed and depth hard-wired. Other than a feeling that some of the preset rates were a tad slow, vibrato contributes a lush and sweet ensemble to chords and individual notes, providing you also keep the modulation and feedback levels reigned in. It should be fairly obvious by now that the Lyra-8 doesn’t naturally gravitate towards ‘sweet’.
On a superficial level, the combination of the Lyra’s voices, delay, distortion and FM produces an instantly recognisable palette of darkly fractured tones. The contact method of triggering is peculiar but not without its charm, and even the constant need to tune and retune the eight voices becomes not a hindrance but a key part of the experience. However, judging by my wife’s icy stares, not everyone is going to appreciate the drawn-out drones, distorted whale calls, metallic harshness and dissonances. It isn’t always so challenging, though. Pleasant tones are attainable — organ-like chords or individual notes that shimmer like a glass harmonica — and I particularly enjoyed using the Hold knob to add crescendos of chordal washes. But be under no illusion: machine noises, industrial desolation and eerie soundscapes are never too far away.
The Lyra-8 is a strange, addictive and highly responsive electronic musical instrument. Every control tweaked and every note played contributes to its shifting and ‘almost alive’ textures. As part of its unpredictability it can be noisy and for recording or live work, a noise gate would probably be a good idea. Soma Laboratory are currently ramping up production to work through the waiting list but I’m determined to keep this one, although I haven’t mentioned the desire to my other half yet.
My last thought is this: given its particular tonality and complex voice interaction, the Lyra-8 rejoices in every kind of exotic processing — monster reverbs, granular processors, pitch-shifting delays, analogue filters and all things weird and modular. Throw in a looper and you could be in for hours, days and weeks of meditative exploration — or possibly a divorce.
Soma also make the Lyra-4, with half the number of voices but the same tone, delay, distortion and general wildness. Apart from that, I can’t think of anything remotely like it.
Joining the rear panel’s Output and Ext In, the Lyra-8 has three CV inputs: Voices, Delay and Hold Gate. The Voices input has a switch, meaning you can leave external connections in permanently (eg. the output of a sequencer or LFO) and bring in the modulation whenever needed. The external source is then used to modulate the pitch of any voice pair with LFO CV selected. The input needn’t be a voltage either; it can be fun to feed in an audio signal such as our old favourite, the drum machine. Be aware that the Lyra-8’s oscillators don’t conform to 1V/oct but even so, you can tease wacky melodies out of it with manual adjustment of pitch and mod depth.
The CV Delay input permits an external CV (with a range of between 3 and 12 V) to modulate the delay times. This, too, can produce pitch sweeps and — as with the Voices input — there’s plenty of mileage in all kinds of voltage sources, from complex LFOs to Sample & Hold, sequencers and envelopes.
Finally, 5V received at the Hold Gate input will fully open the VCA. It doesn’t quite respond like a snappy external gate would, but at least it allows remote and rhythmic triggering of voices.
On impulse I connected my Doepfer ribbon controller, using its gate output to drive the Hold, routing its pressure CV to delay time and controlling the pitch with the ribbon’s position. Like, wow! Suddenly I had a new type of control over those eight voices. Despite the wacky approach to tuning, this might be the closest I’ll ever come to emulating some of the delights of a Dewanatron Swarmatron!