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Budget Rack Extension Synths

Reason Tips & Techniques By Simon Sherbourne
Published March 2016

Budget Reason Synths

Here are the top five Reason Rack Extension synths for under $30.

Disappointed that Santa didn’t bring that brace of Moog Mother 32s? Why not console yourself by adding a more affordable synth to your virtual rack? This month we round up five of the best low–cost Rack Extension synths in the Prop Shop. It’s surprising what you can get for less than $30...

MS–34 Digital Complex Sound Generator by SkuzzyEye. $9

This deceptively simple synth module emulates a sound chip used in several ’80s games consoles and computers. The developer doesn’t say which, but from the features I’m pretty sure it’s the Texas Instruments SN76489 and its clones that were used in the Sega Master System and Mega Drive. MS–34 is a simple 1U rack device with tuning and level controls for the three square waves, plus a rate selector for the noise generator. The most interesting thing you can do from the main controls is link the noise pitch to oscillator 3, giving you instant access to basic chip–tune/8–bit sounds.

MS–34 has no preset load/save feature — there’d be littlepoint — but comes with a library of Combinator patch examples. The patches showcase how incredibly capable and useful this synth is when combined with other Reason devices. All parameters can be controlled by CV, and each voice can be sequenced separately from external sources. Sounds cover the whole chip–tune palette, as well as synths and basses, with the very usable quality of being both dirty but sonically cutting. At $9 it’s a must have.

Mixfood Unison Xs Sample–based Synth by Studio Corbach. $19

Budget Synths

I wonder how many people have downloaded the trial of Unison Xs, then given up on it based on the poor set of presets. This would be a shame as it’s a fairly capable synth that has quite a lot in common with the original Reason synth Subtractor. Like Subtractor the main sound sources are two oscillators that play single–cycle waveforms: in Unison Xs’s case from a library of 550 waveforms each, compared to Subtractor’s shared pool of 32 waveforms. Also like Subtractor, there’s no organisation or list view of the available waveforms — you just have to click or scroll through until you find a starting point you like. Unison, Haas, Filter and EQ modules further shape this basic two–tone recipe, and then you have a whole bunch of other built–in effects to play with. A multi–mode sub oscillator can also be added.

Rather confusingly, the version 2 update added a ‘third oscillator’ by adding on part of Studio Corbach’s other RE synth Mixfood Orange. Rather than a third sound source embedded in the original architecture, this is a more–or–less independent synth bolted on to the bottom, complete with its own effects, filters and modulation sources. This could be handy for making complex layered patches, but is rather fiddly for most purposes and I generally leave this section switched off.

The general sonic character is in the same ballpark as Subtractor, ie. a digital polysynth with a traditional subtractive synthesis scheme. While it adds capabilities with the additional waves, the array of effects and more flexible LFO routing, there’s quite a bit missing by comparison. Subtractor provides a lot more interaction between the sound sources, with FM and Ring Mod, a modulatable blend control, and the ability to modulate the oscillators separately; and Subtractor offers more playability with extensive mod–wheel and velocity assignments.

Megasaur Supersaw Synthesizer by DLD Technology $29

Budget Synths

Megasaur is billed as “the perfect synthesizer for pads, strings and the classic anthem trance sounds”, and I have no argument with that. Megasaur sports three identical supersaw oscillators, each capable of producing thick stacks of saw waves. While Thor offers similar sonic fodder with it’s Multi Osc module, Megasaur is brilliantly set up as a focused instrument dedicated to supersaw–based sounds. As well as the obligatory tuning controls, each oscillator has an X–Y controller and display where you can set the tuning spread and relative levels of the seven stacked saws. Each oscillator can also be individually switched into stereo mode, which doubles the amount of saws and produces a nice stereo spread. The whole instrument can operate polyphonically, or in a variety of mono modes that can add further sub and harmonic voices.

A simple to use rhythmic gate sequencer is included with dance music applications in mind. This is very intuitive: as soon as any of the 16 steps is clicked to make a gap, the sequencer will begin to re–trigger held notes with the pattern. However Megasaur is not all about trance stabs and piercing techno string lines. The Human control filters the sound sources to produce a vocal sound (something like a male ‘aaah’ formant). Bring up the Analog control and filter off some of the high harmonics and you can get close to some classic VP330 sounds, and some lovely deep dark beds. I probably spent more time playing with this than all the others. Recommended.

Orbis Wavetable Synthesizer by Skrock Music $29

Budget Synths

Skrock have three sub–$30 synths in the Prop Shop — this is the best. Orbis is a classic Wavetable synth, with four identical Oscillator sections, each with access to 14 wavetables. Each oscillator has a slider for manual movement through the wavetable, then there’s a dedicated envelope, LFO, and Velocity Sensitivity control for modulating the position. A single filter control sets filter cutoff, res and env mod globally, but LFO modulation is separate for each oscillator. This is a great and simple scheme that is also featured in Skrock’s Aurora synth.

The wavetable selection is great, offering some complex tables for static wave selections, classic analogue sounds with modulation, and organ and string style tone palettes. The sound is crystal clear, solid and punchy, with no loop glitching or aliasing.

Blackpole Station Polyphonic Synthesizer by Turn2on $19

Blackpole Station has an inviting front panel that looks somewhere between a classic and modern synth, which is pretty much what it is. Running through the presets initially confused me as there’s a mixture of fairly standard (but fat–sounding) synth sounds, and lots of airy, quite gritty–sounding big pads very reminiscent of E–mu’s ’90s dance–music synth modules. The variation is due to Turn2on seeming to have thrown lots of different ideas into Blackpole Station.

Budget Synths

The three main oscillator modules actually contain three different sound sources, all of which can be on at the same time. First there’s a waveform generator with multiple options ranging from basic analogue shapes to longer samples. Some of the latter are the useful source of those grungy ’90s pads, but some are rather questionable and are poorly looped. Then each oscillator section has a supersaw generator, plus a sub oscillator. All these sources then feed into parallel filters, shapers, distortion effects, spreaders and panners, with an LFO per oscillator. Finally there’s another ring–mod oscillator, which is actually just an independent basic sound source. There’s a single filter and amp envelope, then yet another chain of effects.

If this sounds like a big jumble of stuff, it is, and the UI is a bit confusing, with some modules having On switches and some Bypass switches, so it’s hard to tell which modules are active. There’s also a distinct lack of modulation flexibility, and as far as I could tell no velocity sensitivity at all. However, you can get some great sounds out of Blackpole Station, especially if you want some deep, thick textures.

Final Thoughts

There are some real gems here (if unpolished). The bits that tend to be missing (compared to the more premium–priced synths) are detailed modulation assignment, CV connections, and pro UI design, but what you get is some new unexpected sounds and inspiration for impulse–buy prices.

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