Way Out Ware have recreated the classic ARP Axxe in software, added a step sequencer and virtual drum machine and given it a ridiculously low price-tag.
Way Out Ware are perhaps best known for their flagship TimewARP 2600, a soft synth based on the ARP 2600. Warmly received in the USA, this didn't have as great an impact on this side of the pond, perhaps because Arturia had already beaten WOW and their distributor, M-Audio, to the market with their 2600V.
Today, WOW are trying a slightly different approach, attacking the low-cost end of the market with a product that is again distributed by M-Audio. Kik Axxe is marketed primarily as an affordable soft synth modelled on the ARP Axxe, but it's much more than that, with programmable percussion sounds and two 16-step sequencers (one for the synth and one for the drums). Nevertheless, let's start, as one always should, at the beginning...
ARP introduced the Axxe monosynth in 1975 as a low-cost alternative to the Odyssey and ARP 2600. Despite sporting a relatively limited architecture of a single oscillator, a single filter and a single contour generator, it was a fine-sounding performance instrument, and ideal for newcomers to synthesis. Consequently, it proved to be quite popular, and remained in production until the demise of ARP in 1981.
The synthesizer part of Kik Axxe mimics the original Axxe almost perfectly. What's more, and unlike every other 'soft' recreation of a monosynth that I have reviewed, it's monophonic, which means that it will run on computers that are, by today's standards, of modest power.
For the purposes of the review, I placed my Mac next to my original ARP Axxe, and ran Kik Axxe as a stand-alone application, as a VSTi within Plogue Bidule and as an AU within Plogue Bidule. In each case it worked correctly, which I found surprising for a version 1.0 product. I directed the outputs from the Axxe and the Mac to adjacent channels on my mixer with all EQ and effects defeated, and then attempted to set up the same sounds on each. The results were not identical but, if I ignored the physical positions of the faders (the calibrations of the controls are quite different), I was able to reproduce the sounds of the Axxe on Kik Axxe with reasonable accuracy.
In the quest to discover how alike Kik Axxe and the vintage ARP Axxe sound, I started with the oscillators. Analysis shows that, with the filter wide open, my Axxe's and Kik Axxe's square waves are quite similar to one another and, if you set the controls appropriately, they react similarly to PWM. Likewise, the sawtooth waves are similar at high frequencies. But, as you reduce the pitch, the Axxe's wave becomes rounded while Kik Axxe continues to produce something that is close to an ideal sawtooth. Then, if you then drop deeper into the bass region, both traces become rounded. Despite the visible differences in the mid-range, the timbres of the two waves are similar and, unless you're a real anorak, the discrepancy is (probably) not enough to worry about.
Nonetheless, there's an error in the oscillator that needs to be fixed. I created a sound using the sawtooth alone, played a note, and, while holding that note, increased the level of the square wave. With the square wave at 50 percent of maximum amplitude, the fundamental was eliminated and the pitch of the note went up by an octave. If I increased the square-wave amplitude to maximum, the fundamental reappeared. This suggests that the amplitude of the square wave is double that of the sawtooth, but with the phase inverted, which is not how the original Axxe behaved!
Unlike many soft synths, which add numerous effects to the original synth's specification, Kik Axxe adds just one: an emulation of an Echoplex delay unit, called Tape Delay. The mixer section allows you to send the outputs from the synth and drum sections independently to this, and a return control allows you to balance the delays with the original signal.
I don't have an Echoplex with which to compare Tape Delay, but I would be surprised if the original device had the bandwidth of the Kik Axxe effect. Oh yes... and it certainly was nowhere near as noise-free as the Kik Axxe effect. Umm... and you can set the Kik Axxe effect to repeat ad infinitum, but the delayed sound remains undistorted and otherwise unmolested. Oh, OK — the Kik Axxe delay is nothing like an Echoplex (or, for that matter, any other tape delay) but it's useful, so I'm not going to complain!
Using a simple audio analyser, I found that the highest frequency of self-oscillation of my Axxe's filter lies at 13.4kHz, whereas Kik Axxe's goes all the way to 20.4kHz at a sample rate of 44.1kHz. These figures do no more than demonstrate how misleading such figures can be, because I found that the Axxe sounded more 'open' for some sounds, while, for others Kik Axxe was the brighter. In the end, I stopped worrying about it; the responses of the two filters are slightly different, that's all. If I introduced a second ARP Axxe into the equation, all three synths would be different. Nonetheless, there are some tangible differences in the implementation of the filters. In particular, Kik Axxe's LFO sweeps the filter over a far greater range than on the Axxe (which is a good thing) and, of course, the ADSR can sweep the Kik Axxe filter further because of its higher maximum cutoff.
All of which bring us to the envelope generator itself. This appears to be a conventional ADSR, but there is something strange about it. I set up a simple 'square' contour (Attack, Decay and Release to zero, and Sustain to maximum) and there was a massive glitch at the start of each note. A few moments investigation demonstrated that, to eliminate this, I had to set the Sustain level to a little under 90 percent of its full value. This means that the developers have programmed Kik Axxe in such a way that the Attack finishes well below the maximum Sustain level. This is wrong, but you can turn it to your advantage... If you set the Sustain level to be higher than the end of the Attack, the Decay acts like a second Attack stage, rising to the final level. This means that you can create 'A(1)A(2)SR' contours that are impossible to obtain using a conventional ADSR envelope generator.
The maximum Attack time, at six seconds, is as it should be. Furthermore, despite the tool-tips stating that the maximum Decay and Release times are six seconds, they are actually in the region of 18 seconds, again as they should be. Unfortunately, there's a problem with the envelope triggering. The ARP Axxe was, like many synths of its era, low-note priority with multi-triggering, but Kik Axxe is last-note priority with single triggering. This can make a huge difference, whether you play the soft synth from a keyboard or sequence it, and I don't know why WOW made such a basic mistake.
Like the Axxe, Kik Axxe has an external signal input. Unlike the Axxe, however, the soft synth adds a level control, an Envelope Follower that applies the external signal amplitude to the filter cutoff frequency, and a 'Smooth' control to reduce glitching in the follower. This is good stuff.
There's also a patch manager that allows you to save and organise patches as you create them. The Axxe, of course, had no memories.
You can authorise Kik Axxe for use with an iLok dongle, which makes it transportable between computers. If this is not convenient, you can authorise it for a specific hard disk, with four possible registrations to protect you from disk crashes, and to allow for upgrading computers. Whichever route you choose, you will need Internet access, but if you want to protect your music computer from the evils of the net, you can activate the dongle or download the authorisation key-codes to a different machine, and then transfer from one to the other.
The other half of Kik Axxe is called Sequencer+, and comprises a 16-step monophonic sequencer that drives the Axxe emulation, plus a 16-step drum sequencer.
Although simple, the Synth sequencer allows you to determine the length of the sequence, the pitch for each step, the steps on which triggers are sent to the synth, and (globally) the length of the Gate. Outside of the sequencer panel itself there's a button named KYBD LEARN. When this is on you can program the sequence by playing notes on your controller keyboard. This is much easier and quicker than programming on-screen.
Clicking on the Drums button takes you to the more sophisticated rhythm sequencer. This is a combination of a sound programmer and a 16-step pattern sequencer. There are a maximum of seven percussive instruments in each of Kik Axxe's six kits, and these are notionally kick drum, snare, hi-hat and four 'sounds' whose nature is dependent upon the kit selected.
You can modify the instruments within a kit using their individual filters and LFOs. Select the sound that you wish to modify and then the desired filter type (low-pass, high-pass or off), set its cutoff frequency and its resonance, and, if you wish, determine the shape, rate, depth and phase ('offset') of the LFO that can modify the cutoff frequency. This allows you to create anything from subtle changes in timbre to outlandish percussion effects that are more often the preserve of modular synthesizers. I discovered a whole range of interesting effects obtained by sync'ing and syncopating the sequence with the LFO tempos. There's even a drum-roll facility but, annoyingly, this can't be programmed within a sequence; you can only trigger it using the dedicated Trigger button or via MIDI.
When you've programmed a synth or drum pattern, you can, of course, save it — however, you're not limited to reloading patterns in predetermined pairs: you can recombine them in any way you wish, simply by loading them into the Synth and Drums slots in the upper right of the panel. In fact, you can load four such combinations simultaneously, and I particularly like the buttons that, when the sequence is playing, allow you to cue any of these combinations to begin playing at the start of the next loop. You can also add swing, synchronise the sequences to MIDI, and play the synth and drum sounds in the current combination on independent, user-selectable MIDI channels. If you're then happy with everything, you can save a complete setup (synth sequence, drum patterns and percussion instruments) as a Session.
- PC: 1.5GHz CPU, 512MB RAM (Windows XP) or 1GB RAM (Vista 32-bit), 100MB available disk space. Supports stand-alone, RTAS and VST.
- Mac: 1GHz CPU, 512MB RAM, Mac OS X 10.3.9 or higher, 200MB available disk space. Supports stand-alone, AU, RTAS and VST.
As I mentioned above, Kik Axxe will run on older computers, but it's still greedy; on my Mac, Plogue's DSP meter ran at 40-something percent with a single instance of Kik Axxe loaded. This meant that I was unable to run two Kik Axxes simultaneously, which is something that I would have liked to try, to test its signal-processing capabilities. So, instead, I played the output from the far less rapacious Korg Legacy Polysix through Kik Axxe, which proved to be an intriguing exercise in colouring one synth with another's filter. Adding rhythms and sequences from Sequencer+ was even more interesting, allowing me to do things that would be possible but rather expensive by using an original Polysix, an Axxe and an ARP1601 sequencer. Ultimately, I found Sequencer+ to be great fun and, while it's not to the highest standards of 'pro' rhythm sequencing, I can imagine that you could coax a huge range of sounds, patterns and effects from it.
Despite all the hoops that I forced Kik Axxe to jump through, it proved to be crash-free throughout the review. That's a lot of brownie points earned but, notwithstanding the oscillator and envelope errors, I have one other complaint about the product. When you open the capacious box, you find that Way Out Ware have provided just a CD and a Quick Start Guide that tells you how to load and authorise the software. The lack of a paper manual, and the not-particularly-good HTML help, is far from ideal.
Kik Axxe has no hidden menus, no micro-tuning options, no additional filter profiles, no extra VCAs and no added wotnot. It's clean, it's simple, and it works. If you're looking for a straightforward soft synth that doesn't complicate matters with polyphony and a bucketful of added features and effects, this could be ideal. And with its percussion samples and rhythm capabilities it could even be an excellent introduction to both synthesis and sequencing. Just bear in mind that the moment you try to play two notes simultaneously you've stepped beyond Kik Axxe and into the territory of Korg's soft synths or Arturia's V series, and you will then find that Kik Axxe is imposing limits on you.
Finally, there's the price. At just £39 in the UK, the cliché 'affordable' seems a bit limp. Kik Axxe is cheaper than a couple of rounds of drinks after a game of footie, and it will be fun and useful for a lot longer. Try it.
- Like its inspiration, it's a simple and useable synthesizer.
- The drum sounds and sequencers are more useful than you might imagine.
- The whole package is excellent value for money.
- There's an error in the oscillator when mixing waveforms.
- There are a couple of errors in the envelopes and triggering.
- The on-screen manual is inadequate, and there's no paper manual.
£39 including VAT.
M-Audio +44 (0)1923 204010.