The German team behind the inexpensive MARS have been responsible for several SOS-reviewed products in the past, although the MARS is the first under their own brand name Vermona. But is it more of a Trabant than an Audi?
Rising out of the ashes of former East German state synthesizer company Vermona, HDB Electronic initially found it hard to establish a foothold in the market. After doing development work for other companies, they formed HDB Audio and produced studio equipment such as tube preamplifiers and a tube spring reverb. But it was not until 1998 that these developers of the GDR's only monophonic analogue synthesizer (also called Vermona) worked on a new instrument — the DRM1 analogue drum module (see review in SOS April 2000). This product, born out of HDB's contact with other German companies MAM and Touched By Sound (under whose brand name it was marketed), was the kickstart required — and HDB developer Bernd Haller started to dream of resurrecting an earlier idea for a polyphonic analogue synthesizer with the project name 'Mephisto'.
Differences with Touched By Sound eventually led to HDB Audio deciding to distribute their own products — under the now reclaimed name Vermona. Sadly, the Mephisto has been shelved for various reasons, not least that initial press releases were too early and contained far more speculation than was healthy. However, Vermona do have other synthesizers in the pipeline, the first of which — the MARS (Monophonic Analogue Rack Synthesizer) is with us today.
First contact suggests the MARS to be a fairly typical analogue synthesizer with two VCOs, two LFOs, two ADSR envelopes and a low-pass 24dB filter. At just one rack unit high and only 2.5-inches deep, this MARS is definitely bite-sized and will leave plenty of fresh air if housed in a standard-depth flightcased rack. Slim, silver and stylish is the order of the day with a user interface comprising just four knobs, a two-line LCD and a row of eight blue LEDs. I was intrigued to see a small screw on the front panel: the rather curious means to adjust master tuning. Thankfully, despite this being an analogue synthesizer, it remained impressively stable after a brief warm-up period.
If the front panel is uncluttered, the rear is positively spartan, with just two MIDI sockets (In and a configurable Out/Thru — more about this later), the single audio output and the external connection for the wall-wart power supply. The only other addition is a footswitch input that doubles as an output control voltage for one of the ADSR envelopes. You can access both functions by means of an insert lead (stereo to two mono jacks) should you so wish. The envelope output can be used as part of a larger analogue system and the footswitch is programmable for various duties, such as stepping through patches or to enable glide, glissando or envelope release — all fun performance tricks. There is no audio input, though, which is a shame.
Operation is via smooth-action controls that offer an intuitive means to navigate the Martian menu system. The rightmost of the bevelled silver knobs is a dedicated volume control and adjacent to this is Brilliance: a fine-tune for filter cutoff frequency. However, it is the remaining two knobs, Prog/Param and Value, that will see the most action since they serve to select patches, edit parameters or simply call up the value of any parameter onto the display. Each of these two controls may be pushed as well as turned. So, for example, pushing the Prog/Param knob selects the next patch — typically incrementing the program number by one. If you take a look at the main picture of the MARS above, you'll see that the display shows on its top line the current program number, name and a second number. The last of these is the 'next' patch to be selected, its field updated by a turn of the Prog/Param knob, so you can quickly jump to any patch location. Beneath this information are three other value fields: note number, pitch-bend and mod wheel amount. These are updated as you send each type of data to the MARS, which is handy for reference purposes.
Turning the Value knob accesses a Quick Edit function for one parameter, and pushing it provides a one-note audition of the current patch. Conveniently, both the editable parameter and the audition note are user-selectable and stored on a per-patch basis.
All of the 128 onboard patches may be overwritten and demonstrate a range of fat basses, leads, filter burbles and sound effects — in short, the type of sounds you buy an analogue monosynth for! My initial impressions of its character may be described by the words squelchy, warm and punchy; the filter is particularly good, and comes complete with buttock-clenching resonance. As few of the factory sounds were exactly to my taste, I was keen to start tweaking. Even without the optional MARS Controller programmer, this is quite easy. You enter Edit Mode by pushing and holding the Prog/Param knob for a couple of seconds after which turning the same knob speeds you through the various menu pages, your current location represented by both the on-screen parameter name and one of the blue LEDs. In this mode, the Value knob serves to edit each parameter. It's simple and it works.
Although I'm still in the middle of describing the MARS synth, it's worth looking at the pic of the optional MARS Control hardware controller above, as this illustrates all the parameters available for patch creation. The MARS has a plentiful supply of sound sources; each oscillator features two sub-oscillators (at one and two octaves below the oscillator's pitch), and there's also a noise generator and a ring modulator to play with. I looked in vain for a waveform mixer but, surprisingly, there was none. Waveforms are selected at preset volumes only, the ring modulator is either on or off, and the noise generator has just four available levels (off, 20 percent, 60 percent, and 100 percent). All this means that you won't be subtly fading in a little noise or adding a smidgeon of ring modulation to your patch to spice things up.
Both VCOs have their waveforms selected in a series of combinations. Thus, Oscillator One has 15 selections, represented in the display as tiny images of the waves at 4', 8' and 16' settings (the latter two being the sub-oscillators). The main waveform (the 4' setting) may be a sawtooth, a square or a narrow pulse; the combinations can therefore draw on any of those waveforms plus one or both sub-oscillators (which are always square waves). Oscillator 2 has exactly the same combinations but they are available at two different levels: maximum or at a preset (but unspecified) lower level. An oscillator may also be set to Off, which is useful if you need only the output of the ring modulator, or when using the oscillator sync facility, where you may wish to hear just the synchronised oscillator.
This on/off implementation for waveforms seems like a bit of a lost opportunity, since introducing (for example) a tiny amount of sub-oscillator can really boost a patch, whereas adding it at a fixed level is far more restrictive. The only other significant omission is a variable-width pulse wave, which means all those rich pulse-width modulation (PWM) sounds are lost to the MARS. I noticed from the manual that operating system upgrades are available via MIDI files but neither a mixer section nor pulse-width modulation can be added later via software.
Each VCO can be controlled by the keyboard or can be of fixed frequency, set over a five-octave range. There's even a sample & hold mode for random pitch generation, its rate controlled by the speed of LFO2 (not LFO1 as stated in the manual). On the Programmer, these VCO modes are set using the knob marked Control.
Coarse tuning offers +12 and -24 semitone transposition so the oscillators have a good useable range. They also feature some interesting (and rarely-seen) options such as individual Glide (portamento) amount. This can really thicken up a sound if you choose slightly different rates for each oscillator but I'd have liked a wider range of glide times than the 0-7 increments that are available. Another treat is Glissando, which can be turned on or off for each oscillator. Unlike Glide, Glissando sweeps through its pitches in discrete semitone steps. A global Glissando Time parameter sets its rate and a Glissando EG control determines whether the generated notes trigger the envelopes or not.
A small two-stage (attack/decay) Pitch Envelope resides in the LFO menu. If you set Pitch Envelope amount to zero for both oscillators, the envelope then functions to delay the onset of LFO 1 so that pre-programmed delay vibratos can be created. The envelope may be inverted too.
LFO routing is simple, with LFO 1 exclusively available to control oscillator pitch, while LFO 2 is routed to the VCF and VCA. Each LFO has Speed, Waveform and Ratio parameters and the waveforms on offer are: triangle, square, sine 1, sine 2 and sample & hold. Sine waves 1 and 2 are the same shape but respond differently to the Ratio control, which is used to set the symmetry of the waveform. It varies Sine 2 through positive sawtooth, sine and negative sawtooth, but compresses Sine 1 in a pulse-width-like way. Indeed, it's ironic that this control can be used to transform the width of the LFO's square wave — this is a nice extra, but one that would have been appreciated far more within the VCO section.
The LFOs may be reset on keyboard trigger, can run freely, or can sync to MIDI clock in four possible divisions. They range from a quarter note to 16ths and triplets, but lack very slow divisions such as multiples of bars. Unfortunately triggering is common for both LFOs, so you can't have a MIDI-sync'ed LFO 1 alongside a free-running LFO 2.
The envelopes are fairly straightforward, with just their triggering modes offering anything out of the ordinary. Envelope 1 is hard-wired to the filter and you'd typically shape the level via Envelope 2 (although this is not fixed). Each ADSR may be triggered from a keyboard trigger (as usual), via LFO 2 or from a combination of keyboard and LFO 2. You can sychronise LFOs to MIDI Clock, making for a useful repeat function. The envelopes may be triggered on each keypress or just on the first, if you're using a legato performance technique. The synth caters for last-note, high-note and low-note priority on a per-patch basis.
Here is hardly the place for me to start campaigning for daring detours from the well-beaten path of filter design. It's pretty much expected that an analogue monosynth will feature a 24dB-per-octave low-pass filter for those big, rounded basses and thick, warm solos. Yes, I'd like to have seen at least a band-pass mode offered too, but the filter chosen for the MARS doesn't disappoint in either its range or its squelch and squeal factor. There are a few quirks though: keytrack, for example, can be either either off or fully on where a variable amount would have been more desirable. And the resonance control is a little odd — its range is just 0-63 (the first half of the knob's rotation) after which the control becomes a selector for a resonance modulation source. Resonance can be modulated by LFO 2, Envelope 1 or Envelope 2, but there is no means to set the amount — it's always the full range. So, if you're tweaking resonance, you need to be a little careful when cranking it up to maximum, so that you don't accidentally slip into performing modulation. Finally, the filter envelope response may be inverted and velocity can be applied to cutoff frequency in eight staged amounts.
We've seen that the VCA output may be controlled by either ADSR; it may also be set to drone constantly. Volume modulation is available courtesy of LFO 2 and velocity control may be applied, again with eight staged amounts from zero effect to maximum velocity response.
Patches are named in the Global Menu — you simply spin the Prog/Param control as far as it will go clockwise and push both it and the Value Control simultaneously to perform the save operation. Within this menu, you can find the option to reload the factory sounds, transmit patches as either SysEx or as MIDI controllers (nice) and carry out all the usual functions, such as set the MIDI channel. An important option here is the mode for the MIDI Out/Thru socket. If set to Thru, anything received at the MIDI input is retransmitted. If the mode is set to Out, the MARS can transmit its patch dump data. The MARS itself does not transmit individual parameter changes — to do this, you require the optional MARS Control.
The mod wheel can be set to work in either relative or absolute mode, which is a cool function to include in this menu. The former adds modulation wheel signals to the value being controlled, and the latter replaces the value with the absolute wheel value.
The optional Programmer features 56 small, slightly wobbly knobs, each sending MIDI controllers corresponding to all the addressable parameters of the MARS. It is suited to either rackmount (2U) or desktop operation and, oddly, the knobs are not spread over the full surface of the unit but, instead, are crammed into approximately three-quarters of the available space. A red LED shows incoming MIDI data, although the one on the review unit had slipped slightly inside and therefore didn't seem especially bright.
Compared to the MARS itself, the Programmer feels a little on the cheap side and, although consistently styled, it lacks its sibling's smooth and assured action. Several of the knobs perform simple on/off functions that would be better served by switches — eg. Filter Track, Glissando on/off, envelope invert. I also have to say that the layout of generic, closely-packed and identical controls would be far from ideal in a live situation where you need to quickly find — or feel for, depending on lighting conditions — the one you need.
The sharp-eyed amongst you may have noticed two knobs labelled R1 and R2. These are currently reserved although no function is envisaged for them at the moment.
The programmer has MIDI In and Out sockets, the Out merging incoming data with its own generated control changes. A series of DIP switches (shown above) select its MIDI channel, and the tiny amount of power needed is taken from the MIDI lead itself when connected to the MIDI input of the MARS. A further switch enables filtering of incoming data on channels other than the one selected. This "disencumbers the MARS", according to the manual (possibly by putting less strain on the soft MIDI Thru function).
The programmer is relatively inexpensive, but if you already have a MIDI controller box with sufficient sliders or knobs (the Doepfer Drehbank comes to mind here), it could serve you better than the MARS Control. If you don't have such a device, Vermona's programmer is still worthwhile, simply because it encourages rapid tweaks to be made.
When an external control change which matches a MARS parameter is received from MARS Control (or an equivalent controller), the parameter name and value appears in the display, ready to be further adjusted with the Value knob if necessary. Doing this works well for those parameters requiring smoother or more precise control. I found it to be a superior way to tweak filter cutoff, for example, as it handles the full 0-255 range assigned internally to this parameter. Incidentally, as MIDI control changes have a resolution of just 128 divisions, they are translated into even-numbered values only (0, 2, 4, 6... up to 254) when received by the synth.
You need to be careful when recording knob movements into your sequencer, or MIDI loops can occur. Vermona have created this difficulty by binding the Programmer's power to connection with the MARS and by implementing a configurable Out/Thru socket; you have to enable the Thru function of the MARS in order to pass data from the Programmer into the sequencer. However, the data you send is then echoed back via the soft Thru function resulting in a loop. Handling this was a little messy in practice and meant I had to keep activating and deactivating Thru, or juggling my sequencer's MIDI port connections, which was a shame and definitely one of the weaker points of the MARS/MARS Control combination.
Despite the MARS' good MIDI spec, there was still one area where additional MIDI control would have been welcome. With no mixer section present and no control on the Programmer assigned to volume, it is impossible to set overall level via MIDI except by using velocity control of individual notes. MARS does not respond to the MIDI standard volume control, Continuous Controller 7.
A final word of advice: when you come to save your patch after a good wiggling session with the Programmer, make sure you push and hold the Prog/Param knob to enter the menu system first. If you push and release this knob by mistake, the synth increments to the next patch and all your precious changes are lost. Take it from me, you might curse a little if that happens. Better still, always ensure the synth is in Edit mode first.
Dedicated assign options for the pitch-bender, mod wheel, aftertouch and an optional footswitch fit into a neat section placed on the bottom right-hand corner of the Programmer. There are plenty of Assign functions for performance controllers on offer. So, whether you wish to pitch-bend an individual oscillator (handy when using oscillator sync), control vibrato of one or both oscillators, control glide time, filter cutoff or resonance, or vary LFO speed or envelope release, it's all in this section. Access via the dedicated knobs means you tend to use these functions far more than on a synth where they are tucked away in a menu system.
This is an excellent-sounding monosynth, with an interesting selection of features and a few surprising omissions that you can decide to live with or not. Although I did miss not having a variable-width pulse wave and a waveform mixer, I found I did get along well with the MARS because of its tone, flexibility and MIDI spec.
The optional MARS Control unit is a dedicated programmer encompassing every useful parameter and, although the knobs are small and their quality a little suspect, at the price it's still a worthwhile partner for the MARS. Had the cost been a little higher, I'd have advised drafting in a different controller but, as it is, the combination of the two units is tempting. I felt there was no excuse for skimping on the MIDI sockets though, and the soft Thru/Out did little to endear itself to me.
As shown by the newly reintroduced Waldorf Pulse, the Moog-like Macbeth M3X, plus such imminently arriving monosynths as the Minimoog Voyager and Analogue Systems' Spawn, there is obviously still a varied and healthy market for genuine analogue synths making 'that sound'. The MARS has enough of its own identity to survive amongst all these and if it seems I have spent more time on negative points than positive, I must end by saying that the MARS sounds fat, solid and offers a healthy marriage of power and instant gratification. Ignore it at your peril!