Gordon Reid gets twiddling with two small but perfectly formed analogue units aimed at the pockets — literally — of today's aceed‑hungry dancemongers.
When Roland released the TB303 Bassline in 1982, they would have been completely unaware that they were laying the foundations for a whole new synthesizer industry. Without that tacky silver box there would be no Syntechno TeeBee 3, MAB303, MAM MB33, Freeform Analogue Technologies FB383, TBS303, Braintec TB3, Novation BassStation, Doepfer MS404, or even the new crop of Rolands, like the MC303 and MC505.
Now there's yet another name to add to this list of instruments designed for the dance market. Until now Technosaurus was known only for its huge and expensive modular analogue system, the Selector. But if you look at the company's advertising for the Microcon and the Cyclodon, you will see that these little boxes are aimed straight at the heart of the low‑cost world of groove.
Like many other recent single‑oscillator synths, the Microcon is a more complex beast than the Roland it emulates. Some 'acid' purists dislike this approach, but I'm not one of them. However although the Microcon offers 20 sound‑making controls (as opposed to the 303's seven), it does retain the endearing simplicity of the Roland.
Laid out like a 1970s monosynth, the control panel offers six sections. The VCO is, as always, the first element in the main signal path, and in use proves to be remarkably stable. Furthermore, the discrete circuitry employed should prove to be future‑proof, unlike synths based on Curtis chips. There are four VCO controls and like the TB303, the Microcon offers just square and sawtooth waveforms. However, unlike its Roland forebear, it also offers a sub‑octave square wave that you can mix with the standard VCO signal in any amount from 0‑100 percent. There is also a transpose switch (‑2 octaves), and LFO‑driven pitch modulation.
The envelope generator is similar to that of a TB303, although it still offers a couple of surprises. The first is an attack control that ranges from 'snappy' to around 10 seconds. The second is a Release On/Off switch that changes the action of the Decay time control. With Release 'off', the AD envelope snaps back to zero as soon as you remove the Gate pulse. With Release 'on', the envelope acts a little like an AR, completing its cycle no matter how brief the gate may be.
The VCF offers the 12dB/octave filter characteristic found on the Korg MS20 and many Yamaha monosynths, as well as the 24dB/octave setting that defines the sound of most Moogs and ARPs. There are controls for the cutoff frequency, the resonance, and the amounts by which the envelope and LFO affect the cutoff frequency. There is also a switch that applies the CV to the cutoff frequency. Unfortunately, the filter does not track correctly, so you can't keep it in tune with the oscillator. This is a shame, because the VCF will self‑oscillate, and you can generate many classic sounds by tracking the oscillator in this way. Technosaurus claim that this limitation is a known trade‑off between fast attack and sound quality (which this type of filter has) and correct tracking (which it doesn't).
The VCA has just two controls: a Level knob, and a switch that makes the envelope a volume contour, or not. Likewise, the LFO is very simple with a Speed knob, and a switch to select between square and triangle waveforms. Finally, the Control (modulation) section offers three facilities: a master Tune knob that allows you to shift the Microcon by +/‑5 semitones; a Glide knob that controls a standard portamento (which does not have the TB303's special characteristics); and a manual Trigger button.
As far as the panel is concerned, that's your lot. The only extras lie in the connections found on the right hand side of the unit. At first sight these appear very basic ‑ CV In, Gate In, Audio Out, and a power input for the supplied wall‑wart. But there are three hidden inputs. If you use a stereo mini‑jack lead, the CV In becomes two CV Ins: one for pitch, and the other for an independent filter cutoff frequency CV. This allows you to add limited velocity or aftertouch sensitivity to your sounds, or to use two rows of an analogue sequencer to make things a bit more interesting. Similarly, if you use a stereo mini‑jack lead for the audio Out, it becomes both an audio output (tip+ground) and an external audio input (ring+ground) routed directly to the filter. This means that you can use a 'Y' cable to feed audio in, process it using the VCF, EG, and VCA, and then output it.
But if you're processing external signals, it's unlikely that you'll want the oscillator operating, so the third 'hidden' input defeats the internal sound source. If you insert a mono mini‑jack into the Gate In socket the tip+ring contacts are shorted, and the oscillator is switched off. So (in normal use) if you want to hear anything, you need a stereo mini‑jack lead, even if the ring isn't attached to anything. Why didn't Technosaurus do this the other way round? Because, configured this way, you can use the Microcon by pressing the Trigger button, even in the absence of a Gate.
If the Microcon is more complex than some other small synthesizers, the Cyclodon is much simpler than most other sequencers. Indeed, it's hard to see how it could be any simpler and still be useful. It offers a maximum of 16 steps, and you can use a set of four switches to select any sequence length from 1 to 16. You determine the CV generated at each step using the 16 knobs arranged in two rows of eight. The seventeenth knob sets the tempo. Another switch defeats this, and allows you to clock the Cyclodon externally using Roland's DIN‑Sync 24 standard. The only other controls are a switch that toggles between 'auto' and 'manual' stepping, and a Start/Stop/Manual button that allows you to set up and run your sequence.
There are only two outputs: CV and Gate. And if I mention the 10 LEDs that show which step is playing (position one to eight, row one or two) and the input for the PSU, there is nothing left to describe. Well, nothing except for the programmable Clock Divider. This allows you to slow the external sync signal by any factor from two to 16. Interesting. Anybody fancy a sequence in 7/4 over a 12/8 sync pattern?
I liked the Microcon from the first moment I saw it. It's beautifully built and presented, and, like a Ferrari Testarossa that screams "drive me like an idiot", the Microcon couldn't be anything other than a groove box. But before going any further, let's get one thing clear. This is not a replacement for a TB303. It's a perfectly serviceable little synthesizer ‑ probably the smallest and neatest in the world ‑ but if it's that indefinable Roland 'aceeeed' you're after, this doesn't quite do the job. The sound of the Roland was not only defined by its unique filter and resonance responses, but also by its Glide function and, in particular, the Accent circuit. The Microcon doesn't have this. (For the uninitiated, accented notes had shorter envelopes than non‑accented ones. They also caused the filter to open further and sweep more for the distinctive 'squelch' that the TB303 makes.)
Nevertheless, or maybe because of this, there are many aspects of the Microcon that I like. Its basic waveforms are excellent, with lots of body, so I can recommend it as a very serviceable add‑on to an existing analogue monosynth. With its filter input for processing external signals, it could also be used as a signal processor to warm up or mangle digitally generated sounds and rhythm loops.
I initially liked the Cyclodon too, and for the same reasons. Unfortunately, it's harder to recommend this. Sure, it is unbelievably simple to use, but is this enough? Despite a high features‑per‑cubic‑inch ratio, the Cyclodon is perhaps too limited by its size. With no way to switch between patterns (say, two sequences of eight steps, or four of four) no way to mute steps, and no transpose, it's hard to see how you could get much from it. Sure, it makes a stylish add‑on to the Microcon, but that may not be sufficient to justify the expense.
Prices for TB303s are still hovering around the £600 mark, and other simple vintage synths such as the SH101 and MC202 will set you back around £250, so it's no surprise that many manufacturers have released alternatives such as these. Some have added second oscillators, many have added sophisticated MIDI capabilities, some have added memories. But always the aim is the same ‑ to cash in on the dance and groove markets. The Microcon is a creditable stab in this direction. Unlike other Swiss products it's no more expensive than you might expect, and it offers a fair range of facilities in a neat and very robust package ‑ ideal for slipping into your pocket after you've loaded the PA into the Ford Transit. Viewed in a wider context, it's also a perfectly usable addition in the studio, capable of a much wider range of sounds than any purely 'bass' synth.
As for the Cyclodon, the idea is good, but it's a little too limited for my tastes. Somebody in Switzerland needs to go back to the drawing‑board, and add a few of the facilities that musicians and DJs are going to need. Indeed, Technosaurus have just announced that they are planning a MIDI Microcon (with Accent) and I suspect that a Cyclodon II is also being discussed. But don't let that stop you checking out the current products. When all is said and done, they're rather fun!
- Beautifully designed and built.
- Well‑laid‑out controls.
- Easy to use.
- Small enough and light enough to go anywhere.
- Swiss quality without a Swiss price tag.
- The Cyclodon's capabilities are, as yet, too limited.
The Microcon is a useful and remarkably convenient little synth, but you may choose to wait to see what the future brings before committing yourself to a Cyclodon.