With a front panel resembling a butchered Moog Source, and plug‑in filters that claim to give you the sound of various vintage brands inside one instrument, the ATC1 is bound to excite interest. Paul Nagle changes his tune...
American‑based company Studio Electronics are best known in this country for the excellent SE1 'Minimoog plus' in a rack — (see review in the January 1994 issue of SOS), but that may change shortly when they release their new ATC1 rackmount synth. As work on the Tone Chameleon was nearing completion, we were offered a sneak preview of the nearly‑completed prototype, which should keep you going until we can dissect a production model in true SOS style!
Cosmetically, this strange‑looking module is not completely dissimilar to the Moog Source vintage analogue synth, with its coloured membrane front panel and editing via a single knob. The chameleon nature suggested by its name manifests itself in the form of plug‑in filter modules, two of which were supplied with the pre‑release model.
The ATC1's architecture is uncomplicated: two voltage‑controlled oscillators; two modulation oscillators (LFOs); three ADSR envelopes; the chameleon filter; and a section which controls response to MIDI controllers, velocity, and so on. A reasonable number of modulation routings means that wild and wibbly noises are at your fingertips as easily as thundering basses and powerful solo voices. Several goodies, such as oscillator sync, cross modulation, an external input to the filter, and the almost obligatory CV and Gate connectors, mean there's plenty of scope for sonic exploration.
All the ATC1's functions are accessed using the 50 membrane switches on its front panel. With a press (or in some cases, two or three) of one of these switches, your selection becomes live, with its current setting appearing in the three‑character LED. The continuous data knob is then used to increase or decrease the currently‑displayed value. This means that there is no conflict between parameter settings and knob position. In the final model, I am told that changing parameters like this will generate MIDI controllers, to which the synth will also respond.
I was most intrigued by the plug‑in filter cartridges. This is a remarkably open‑ended design idea which could be used to copy the characteristics of many a favourite analogue synth.
An impressive 512 internal patch locations are provided, all of which can be overwritten, and since programming is a piece of cake, you'll soon be filling these with wondrous creations, although with no patch names, you'll have to find some way of keeping track of them. I don't know how many sounds in this model will make it to the final version, but flicking through them revealed a mixed bag, including basses, leads, filter sweeps, and many strange effects. In the brief time I have had to play with the ATC1, dozens have already been consigned to that great patch graveyard in the sky, replaced by my usual assortment of thuds, sync leads, sequencey twangs, and monster squelches. I found it to be particularly good at lead voices and other‑worldy wails, whilst the bass end has a warmth and presence that will be felt in any mix.
I was most intrigued by the plug‑in filter cartridges. This is a remarkably open‑ended design idea which could be used to copy the characteristics of many a favourite analogue synth. The two cartridges supplied were affixed with sticky labels on which the words 'Moog' and 'Oberheim' had been hurriedly written — and these two filter types certainly represent as good a starting point as any where synth filters are concerned! Physically, the cartridges are larger than I'd expected and, when fitted into a socket at the back, protrude somewhat from the rear of the unit. It's a good thing it's going to be stowed safely in a rack — although you would need to allow access room to change cartridges. I was worried that the precious connectors stuck out unprotected from one end of the cartridge, and I'd have liked a dust cover for the large hole into which it plugs. And perhaps two slots would have been better, to allow switching between different modules without having to keep powering down. Incidentally, the power switch is also positioned at the back of the unit — hardly sensible for a rack device, especially one that requires the power to be switched off in order to make fullest use of its facilities.
To check the sonic characteristics of the two filters, I spent a considerable amount of time swapping cartridges around, then sweeping the cutoff and resonance. I eventually recorded the results to DAT in order to convince myself that there was an audible difference — both sounded excellent but very, very similar. Perhaps the Oberheim was brighter, with the resonance kicking in sooner along the range, but I really am going to have to spend more time with this to be sure I'm not falling for the Emperor's new clothes. With luck, I'll have the production cartridges in time for the full SOS review, as I started to distrust those sticky labels after a while...
Driving the filter into self‑oscillation by cranking up the resonance produced some great bloops and squeaks, although the filter stability doesn't compare with, for example, the Waldorf Pulse. This may be a deliberate attempt to recreate the way analogue VCFs used to work but if so, it doesn't quite produce the subtle changes evident in my old Minimoog filter, which had an almost organic response to temperature (and probably sun spots as well, for all I know). It occurred to me that you'd need to keep notes about which filter was required to recreate any individual patch — assuming, of course, that you could hear a difference! I'd also love to see other filters, such as an ARP, or even a humble Korg MS20, if Studio Electronics can find a way to incorporate a high‑pass filter into the design too.
We'll take a closer look at the ATC1 when the final operating software revisions have been carried out. Hopefully, by then I'll know if the two filters really are different, or if it's time I got my ears syringed out. Who knows — maybe I'll get the updated software with MIDI‑sync'd LFOs, MIDI controller generation, and even a manual. From what I've seen and heard so far, I'm looking forward to it.