The Tasty Chips GR‑1 makes granular synthesis more approachable than ever.
Foremost in my memories of SynthFest UK 2017 was the Tasty Chips GR‑1 granular synthesizer. It looked striking, took an alternative approach to sound generation and I made a mental note to get my hands on one. Age and decrepitude stretched this resolution to near‑farcical levels, but my dithering has racked up one bonus. Thanks to a series of updates, the GR‑1 has matured considerably since its first appearance. Without further ado, let’s...
The panel’s ‘granular synthesizer’ proclamation is exciting and maybe slightly mysterious. The granular process breaks audio into small pieces — grains — before familiar shaping and processing techniques can be applied. The GR‑1 puts the size, shape and number of grains where they can be easily controlled, using knobs, sliders and buttons. The emphasis is on tweakability and instant feedback.
Taking pride of place on the white, slightly inclined aluminium box is a sharp 7‑inch colour display. The hardware also sports a stereo output and a mini headphone jack (with volume control), along with MIDI In and Thru sockets, an Ethernet port, (currently only used for firmware updates) and a quartet of USB connections.
Perhaps the biggest advantage in catching up with the GR‑1 today, rather than when it was released, is the inclusion of sampling. But without an audio input, how can this be? The answer is that the Raspberry Pi3 living in the box is capable of addressing USB audio devices. If you add one of these, sampling becomes possible.
Making use of existing technology seems like a smart move. The Raspberry Pi is a powerful, generally known and serviceable piece of hardware. More importantly, its presence means the Tasty Chips team are free to concentrate on the fun stuff — coding. However, it does impose certain restrictions, eg. the choice of screen colours and the behaviour of the USB audio drivers.
Most of the computery stuff is quite unobtrusive. There’s an internal fan which, so far, I’ve only heard at power‑on. Apparently at high ambient temperatures, or when you’re taxing the processor, it could be called upon to cool things down. The most recent models ship with 20GB of internal flash storage for samples and patches, but USB sticks can handle much more.
Although I suggested the term ‘granular synthesizer’ carries an air of mystery, once you get beyond grain creation, the architecture becomes fairly standard; it includes a multimode filter, envelope shaping, LFOs and even a modulation matrix. There are limited effects too — delay, reverb and so on — but only a pair of assignable knobs with which to address the filter, effects or sub oscillator.
Whether sampling or importing, the GR‑1 can only deal with mono samples, which are subject to a maximum length of 10MB — around two minutes. This rules out working with gratuitously long recordings as on, say, the Bastl Microgranny or the 1010music BlackBox. However, the Tasty Chips take on granular is a world away from either of those.
The GR‑1 can be played and sequenced like any MIDI synth and I’m pleased to report all important parameters are accessible via MIDI CCs, with clock synchronisation added where it makes sense to do so. Joining the traditional 5‑pin variety is USB MIDI and should you require higher than 7‑bit resolution, NRPNs are supported, as is CV.
The two Eurorack‑sized (3.5mm) inputs are practically begging to be plumbed into your favourite analogue sources, while the Gate output could, for example, gate an external envelope. Here I should say that the onboard digital filter operates rather like the reverb and other effects, ie. it’s a ‘patch blanket’ rather than operating per voice. Therefore, in most cases, you won’t lose anything by drafting in an external filter.
At each power‑up the contents of folder performance1 are automatically loaded. As shipped this contains example patches/presets, with the term preset referring to a stored patch (a rather nebulous distinction). It’s well worth auditioning a few of these to demo the type of sounds granular excels at — and to get a feel for the controls. Not all operations are immediately intuitive, perhaps because there have never been enough knobby granular synths to cement expectations.
When starting off, the knobs feel good, the buttons are OK but the cap on the large horizontal slider draws your attention — it wobbles. In practice, this seems more related to the cap being a poor fit than any indication of underlying quality issues. Its primary function is to whizz about in samples but it also comes into play within menus.
Although the GR‑1 is a MIDI synth, it’s equally at home as a self‑contained instrument, for drones, ambient textures, weird loops and so on. To this end, you can trigger up to four voices via buttons in the bottom right‑hand corner. You need to be careful with these at first, though, because they have another role depending on the status of the Play button. When Play is not active, they select a new patch immediately. This happens with no consideration for the time and effort you may have spent setting up the old one! After swearing so loudly at this that our elderly pooch woke up, I downloaded the manual and memorised the ‘Quick Performance Save’ key combination. I now perform this regularly, and doggy dream time is restored!
Now seems an opportune moment to consider the GR‑1’s structure. A complete set of 32 presets/patches, along with global settings and MIDI channels is called a performance. It’s arranged as four banks of eight patches.
The onboard flash storage comes preloaded with a number of presets and folders whose names are fixed. You’re free to address more meaningful names on a USB memory stick, but since the GR‑1 retains no memory of the folder you last worked on, you’ll need to either switch manually every session or regularly copy all your patches to performance1.
If you have ever felt there are no new paths to explore, the GR‑1 might change your mind.
Courtesy of the Size knob, grains can range from 5 to 5000 ms (5s) in length, with those extended times lifting the GR‑1 past typical granular textures and into audio looping territory. The second main control is Density; this governs the rate at which grains are generated — from between 0.1 and 1,000 per second — up to a ‘polyphony’ limit of 128 grains per voice. Regular polyphony is a healthy 11 notes.
Visually, you’re presented with lonely chunks drifting by on screen, becoming a bustling storm as you crank up the density. With larger grain sizes, more of the audio’s identity becomes clear. There’s hours of fun to be had from chopping and slicing favourite samples and tossing the pieces around.
Grain shape is defined by the three sliders adjacent to the screen: Sides, Tilt and Curve. By adjusting these, you can shift continuously between fat, square chunks of sound, fast‑decaying chunks, slow‑attacks, rounded lumps or thin, sucked‑in spikes. At all times the current shape is represented graphically.
Ordinarily, the Scan knob sets the rate of progression through the sample (backwards or forwards). Its speed is limited to +/‑ 2x, but don’t worry, there are several ways to push this to crazy extremes. At any time you can take over manually with the slider and zip to a new position, which soon becomes a treasured performance technique.
Another key parameter is Spray, represented as a blue area around the playback position. Since grain selection is always random, widening this area will increase the diversity of grains. The related parameter Pan Spray is another distinctive contributor. As you’ll recall, the samples used are always mono; Pan Spray flings grains further and further from the centre, producing a unique stereo effect.
For more variation, you can set the probability that grains will be played forwards or backwards. Having some that run in the opposite direction becomes really interesting when larger grain sizes are involved. Working with chunks of several seconds, the granular process offers a new way to mash and reassemble musical phrases, speech, drum loops etc.
At least some of the controls are obvious. Four sliders set the attack, decay, sustain and release of the voice envelope. Ditto the pitch knob, which sweeps smoothly with a range of an octave either way. Naturally you can transpose much further via MIDI. If shift is engaged, the envelope sliders vary the pitch of the manually triggered voices, over just an octave at present. To muddy the waters slightly, the same sliders can optionally serve as level controls for the voices or multitimbral parts.
Understanding that the conventional polyphony is 11 voices and with up to 128 grains spawned for each voice, there’s potentially a lot of audio hurtling around. It should come as no surprise that you can therefore overwork the processor, especially if you set the density high and play multiple long‑release notes. A blue bar on the display gives an impression of how hard the internal fruit is being squeezed, turning red when it’s becoming stressed. Fortunately, this isn’t generally a problem and the manual offers a number of tips for optimising resources.
For modulation of all these new and exciting parameters, you’re provided with a pair of LFOs, which share controls with the CV inputs. The LFOs’ speeds stretch from hours right up to 100Hz. Yes, you read that correctly! Just above ‘stopped’, you’ll find the glacial rate of 27.5 hours. I’m pretty sure I wept with joy when I noticed that!
Incidentally, LFO rate is one of several parameters that benefit from finer control than the knobs readily provide. In such cases, the data encoder can take over and supply greater precision. Modulation of parameters such as position, grain shape and spray generate real‑time graphical updates, which is a helpful touch.
Each LFO has sine, saw, square and random shapes, or you might opt for the Aux waveform, which is hand‑drawn with the position slider. This is a superb way of creating a curve for a specific task, eg. moving between exact positions within a sample. Aux recording time is around 70 seconds.
In their shifted roles, the LFO knobs and buttons handle incoming CV, from whatever sources you wish to involve. I usually keep a Korg SQ1 sequencer nearby, but any source (of up to 5V) is fair game. For LFOs and CV, the ability to quickly select destinations and amounts should satisfy most live tweaking needs.
Next, the two ‘FX’ knobs require a quick explanation because they can perform various tasks. In many example patches, they control the cutoff frequency and resonance of a serviceable 12dB multimode filter, but in some they are assigned to effect parameters. The FX choices are limited to Delay, Distortion, Bit Reduction and Reverb. In general, they are fairly basic but could be of value in a minimal live rig. Actually, revisiting them just now, the short and boingy reverb is not without a certain charm.
There’s one final candidate for the FX knobs — a sine wave sub oscillator. It could provide a solid fundamental to the — sometimes fuzzy — granular clouds. Its range goes to ‑2 octaves and, oddly, it’s positioned before the filter.
The top‑level controls are well thought‑out but, as we saw with the battle for those FX knobs, not everything is directly accessible. Sooner or later you’ll need to dive into the menu system, using our old friend Shift and either the Sample, Patch or Performance buttons.
Probably the first port of call will be the Perf menu where you set the MIDI channels and knob ‘pass‑thru’ mode. You can address up to four separate patches on their own channels for playing, layering or sequencing. The implementation is simple, the main rule being that no patch can appear twice in the multitimbral list. I must confess that prior to starting this review I’d mostly ignored multitimbrality, which I now realise was foolish. Having chosen the patches to use, you whizz through the parts with the Select encoder. The controls take over smoothly if pass‑thru is engaged.
By far the longest list of extras is found in the Patch menu. It includes the modulation matrix, loop behaviour, synchronising of elements to MIDI clock and more. Unfortunately, the fixed colours of white, grey and sky blue aren’t ideal for reading the small text. Some squinting may be necessary until you learn your way around.
With many parameters to try out, I’ll pick just a handful to give you a flavour. First up, there are a couple of alternative playback modes that don’t engage the granular engine. Audition mode switches to regular sample playback, while Tape mode offers pitch to playback speed effects comparable to using tape. The latter can be a welcome alternative to granular mayhem, although it does make me pine for stereo playback even more.
Next, you can instruct the granular engine how to generate new grains, the options ranging from subtle to experimental. The most radical of these re‑uses old grains, leading to potential surprises such as a high‑pitched grain surfacing in response to a low note.
Enabling anti‑aliasing can, depending on the material, be quite a drastic calming measure. Often my preference is to live with the aliasing, or tame it with an external analogue filter.
None of my criticisms detract from the GR‑1’s magic. Not since the Roland V‑Synth have I enjoyed messing around with samples quite so much.
Granular Glide is an innocent‑looking but important switch. When off, the pitch remains as it was at grain generation time. Turn glide on and there will be movement towards any new pitch. In conjunction with keyboard performance or pitch modulation, this can produce ethereal shifts, rich chorus effects or freaked‑out slides.
Grain synchronisation, either by note or MIDI clock, can be your gateway to rhythmic delights. Activate clock sync and the density knob will set the divisions at which grains appear. If you’ve ever longed to pluck dancing high hats from speech samples or recordings of lapping lochs, this is your chance! MIDI clock can also drive the scan process, so you can link progress through a sample to tempo.
Found in this menu are a raft of options to boost the LFOs’ capabilities, such as MIDI clock synchronisation, key‑synchronisation, mod wheel influence, cross‑modulation and quantisation. Enough to keep you occupied for quite a while!
I’ll end this rapid tour with a brief glance at the (9x11) modulation matrix. It hosts almost everything you’d wish to modulate using LFOs, CV, velocity and aftertouch, among others. Parameters can be modulated by multiple sources, although some options are currently greyed out — eg. pitch to filter cutoff frequency. Several MPE sources are included but polyphonic aftertouch is not.
The GR‑1 puts granular synthesis squarely on the desktop with a direct, tactile interface. Its pin‑sharp display with an ever‑present view of waveform, grain and envelope, is a delight. Pretty soon you might be identifying patches by shape alone.
Prior to the GR‑1’s arrival, I wondered whether just 32 patches would be enough. But after a while I ceased to think of regular synth patches and treated each as an immersive sonic playground. It’s versatile enough to play in several different ways; standalone, via MIDI keyboard or by sequencer. In multitimbral mode, it’s a great partner for my Elektron Digitone, whose MIDI tracks send notes and MIDI CCs to four different GR‑1 patches. The only downside of multitimbral use is the lack of individual outputs.
Granular synthesis won’t appeal to everyone. There is a recognisable character to many of its sounds and the mono sources and ‘pan spray’ effects are quite distinctive. If the GR‑1 had been designed from the ground up with custom hardware, there would surely be audio inputs, clearer text boxes and a few other refinements, but it would probably cost a lot more.
None of my criticisms detract from the GR‑1’s magic. Not since the Roland V‑Synth have I enjoyed messing around with samples quite so much. For months I’ve been captivated by ambient washes, sliced‑up vocals, shifting orchestral clouds and skittering space hornets. If I ever feel I’m overdosing on granular, I increase those grain times and turn the GR‑1 into an ethereal looper instead. If you have ever felt there are no new paths to explore, the GR‑1 might change your mind.
Any typical sample collection should provide more than enough material for the GR‑1 to sink its teeth into. All expected audio formats are supported (eg. .wav, .aiff, .flac, .ogg) and the input is rendered to 44.1kHz, mono on import. The import process is fairly unsophisticated though, with no means of grabbing a section from a long sample or trimming whatever is imported.
For a little more control, you might prefer to sample directly, after first connecting one of the recommended USB audio interfaces. Assuming your device is suitable, sampling is pretty painless, even if it lacks the bells and whistles of a regular sampler. The main stipulation is that you must specify sampling time in advance — up to 112 seconds max.
I drafted in my Zoom R24 recorder and fed it some random modular bleeps, dropping in and out of record whenever something interesting occurred. By ticking ‘looping record’, it was possible to perform continuous sampling and real‑time processing. It all worked seamlessly, although I would have liked more control over the gain. After a while, the notion of conventional sampling is discarded and you simply concentrate on gathering material for the granular process. The odd glitch or noise as you drop in and out of sampling can even be useful.
Finally, as with sample import, there’s no post‑record edit functionality. Should you wish to normalise or trim away some of the audio you’ve captured, the only practical way is to save then process it offline.
- Granular synthesis made fast, fun and freaky.
- Can generate new textures from old material.
- Now includes sampling and mulitimbrality.
- Modulation sources include MIDI, CV and those glacial LFOs.
- Refreshingly different.
- Not cheap.
- Cannot handle stereo samples.
- Some screen colours not ideal, some of the multifunctionality is awkward.
- Sampling requires additional hardware and lacks basic editing.
With its hands‑on approach, the GR‑1 scratches a granular itch you might not even be aware of. Powerful, versatile, fascinating — and a pleasure to perform with.