« A switchblade that looks like a penknife »Published on 08/04/18 at 10:58
I had gone to a local shop to demo the Model D, and pure chance made me get out with this Neutron. What a great idea!
My reference in terms of synth is the 80s poly models – both analog and digital models, and both back in the days and in modern contexts. In the past months, I’ve sold a 01/W (though it’s great for its waveshaping pads), sent back a (too artificially-sounding) Deepmind12, renounced a (too polite) Rev 2 and frowned upon a (too cold-sounding) Prologue. I still have no experience in terms of modular synthsn and chance made me discover the JX-3P in 2018 (the real deal, with auto-oscillating resonance). Enough for background sounds.
Raw and wild
The Neutron is striking by its raw, wild character ans oscillators, so much that it’s very easy to mistake it for dirty. The sound soon turns acid, especially with the overdrive, BBD and filter resonance circuits bring a lot of harmonics with various types of signal distortion and overdrive.
While truing it in the shop, I wasn’t too much worried by the sound mayhem which soon came up while playing with the Neutron’s controls, nor by how difficult it was to gat out of it as experience taught me it’s sometimes easier to have an analog synth sound bad by tweaking its controls without knowing what you’re doing. With headphones, I managed to find very fat sounds, a deafening clipping redonance filter sound, a (very tight) mono delay right into dub territory and an overdrive which will dissuade you from adding an external overdrive pedal (only a stereo chorus might sometimes prove useful). The Neutron has all it takes for standalone use.
Once back home, all parameters reset and tuned one tone down, through the air using monitors, another character arised. LFO and envelope modulations sound lusher and lushed as the LFO turns into frequency modulation and filter is added. Forget reverb or any other external processor, its standalone aspect gets confirmed with a big physical sensation and fat sound, with all reserves of various effects allowing to make it sound even better, make it even fatter up to making the Neutron scream.
A nice Design choice
Some features that quickly stand out (at least in my own experience) :
update- the different waveshapes available allow to obtain a subtle, almost LFO-like beat, even at their lowest settings, making the sound lively whatever you do. The Neutron’s front offers no PWM but the ATTENUATOR 2 is default-hardwired inside to altern between both width settings, independently from the Mod Depth which results in a kind of cyclical PWN. You easily get beat patterns following the various selected waveshape, as they cross as the oscillator phases zero in – all that even before touching the filter and modulations.
-the paraphonic mode opens a wide territory for keyboard-playing which can’t even be envisioned on a monophonic synth as here you can work on harmonic variations of the sound itself (filter, resonance, oscillator interactions) from a diaphony. In that regard, the Neutron is some sort of diatonic accordion, immediately lusher and you can play with counterpoints, fugues and so on: a lot of fun for any keyboardist.
-the VCA BIAS parameter allows to control the overall amount of sound to be affected by the (VCA) envelope 1. In other words, when pushed, the Neutron outputs the sound through bypassing the amplitude envelope, allowing to play with it even without a keyboard and to enrich that drone-like background sound. A sort of variable anf progressive HOLD feature.
-the TONE and OVERDRIVE sections work as a lowpass filter, it’s very useful as it allows to tame the overdrive’s peaks and the filter’s resonance, avoiding ear-piercing sounds while maintaining the right amount of harmonics brought in by these sound sweeteners. In the end, the entire OVERDRIVE section works like a guitar preamp with overdrive, gain and volume – all independent from the master volume level. It allows to get overdriven sounds without having the overall sound volume explode.
- The NOISE generator is very efficient even with the TONE and filter controls lowered, so that NOISE soon turns into an auxiliary oscillatorwhich works wonder with transitions and other inflexions of a drone or sequence.
-the LFO can get both very low and very high. In the lower end, you’re way under 1Hz while the upper range goes far beyond what can be heard, so that you can have the Neutron sing like a talkbox-style robot or produce FM-style metallic sounds. One of its hidden features allows a continuous variation of the LFO shape (with the same feature available for oscillators) instead of a toggle, and settings can be changed without having to reset the synth (and stays on when lit again).
- the BDD delay is a real marvel. Rather on the dirty side, but all depends on the incoming signal. It really eats the signal’s peak, instantly giving the sound a roots/dub, somehow vintagy footprint. Short values allow to place the sound in space in a minimal way, so in the end the synth doesn’t sound dry even without an external reverb/delay.Long values gat you into a world of feedbacks up to total buffer overdrive, and as this buffer overdrive is delay time-related it can be modulated to make the time longer so as to fill the BBD in and then empty it out while shortening the time – all this even as the synth no longer produces any sound as the delay features a buffer that can autosupply to provide un turn a secondary oscillator, an external LFO, a sequence engine or the ultimate and progressive control of a drone sound which can act as to modify uninterruptedly the underlying patch – a kind of manual and analog "patch remain" with no learning curve, you’re here instantly!
- the filter resonance is very lush, most of the time you’ll get a natural overdrive at halfway which will nurture the overdrive in a most pleasant way. The resonance’s KEY TRACK allows to follow the resonance chromatically and offers an additional kind of boost as it goes beyond the ceiling of the filter frequency, so that you can use this KEY TRACK toggle to reach a step further toward ecstasy, e.g. through an evolutive patch.
As a live instrument
As a whole, there are 1000s of ways to use such a synth. Of course, it can be used in a most traditional way to power a sampler, when recording separate elements of an electro drums kit, or even for a precise tracking in a sequencer, when recording different parts one by one.
But the Neutron offers even much more than that for live play and sequence building, and their evolution towards harmonic peak landscapes. This is in my opinion the highlight in a series of good design choices made with this synth. Most often, analog synths don’t offer much room for manoeuvre to create steps, once the filter is open, the LFO in place and the resonance engaged, you only have to go down or switch the gate on, or you have to go with external processing.
With the Neutron, it’s the other way around: if you start slowly with the oscillators interacting through SHAPE, then you go upper following more or less the order of the aforementioned parameters, while making the best out of each, you can get step after step and go far up the road with no need to get back, especially as the output stage features an OVERDRIVE which can push all limits as you readjust it with each selected step.
This is one of this synth’s assets: its sound texture and dynamics are very, very wide with lush oscillators (+paraphony), envelope management (VCA BIAS & ENV DEPTH), LFO (ATTENUATOR 2 and MOD DEPTH), the filter’s latitude and brilliance (FREQ, RES & TONE), giving the OVERDRIVE and DELAY duet (together or separately) all the materials it needs for vast sequence progressions.
Far, far away
Truth be said, I haven’t spent much time on it so far, but after a few dozen minutes what I can say is that by itself, in standalone mode, this synth brings in a wide array of possibilities to make the audience take off (at least to my ears).
In a set with other synths, its sonic autonomy and raw, wild character make it a sharp knife that cuts through any pad or atmosphere, even one already heavily loaded with overdrives and distortions, or extralong delays and reverbs. It cuts through the clouds and while its leads aren’t as polished and clean as those from, say, a Model D, at least they don’t get drowned in the ambiance.
The Neutron swims through the whole of it, it’s a very expressive synth in that context, when you want to add another waveshape to an already existing landscape, it can be heard easily – without having to reduce the rest for that.
It’s also a rhythm synth which animates as soon as you plug it in.
R2D2 at Acapulco Bay
Through the Sample&Hold module, the patchbay is a crazy territory for random creations. So far, I’m getting lost in it, I plug it in, try to understand what I’m doing and the Neutron quickly goes at bay in a great discussion with itself. Very interesting: see the included sound excerpt, all I did was record (with only an additional stereo chorus added to the output). So far, I still have 2 cords available out of the original 6. Obviously, the merest move on the keyboard or parameters would break this balance, inducing a real musical creativeness. A real world of its own.
The patch I used for this excerpt : S&H -> Osc2
Osc2 -> Delay Time
LFO Uni -> LFO Shape
LFO -> Osc1+2
Extricating Philip K.Dick
update- I haven’t talked much of the patchbay, or (almost) the three sections on the left of it. Others will do it. By itself, the (perfect) patchbay guarantees many possible evolutions, including on the long term, and the included 6 cords allow to make things even more exciting. For beginners, the patchbay consists in taking the signal from here to there, then from this point to somewhere else. Needless to say that most often, nothing happens if you only connect a single cord, fun only begins with combinations involving at least two of them. The manual provides useful examples and tips, and as you understand more and more of what happens you get the inspiration for new patch settings. A counter-example for this is the single-chord patch from the S&H out to the FREQ MOD in, which allows to use the Neutron’s Sample & Hold module (which can only be accessed through the patchbay and is the source for most of the modular fun you can get out of this device as it introduces randomness). In the beginning, you may be left circumspect with the cable limitations, but several ins/outs are dedicated to signal multiplication, so all it takes is imagination and know-how to find how to make the complex routing idea you have (even before you have to use a doubling cable and so on). Finally, an assignable output allows to add velocity and aftertouch (though not both simultaneously). It’s very comprehensive, and with additional outer modules even more possibilities emerge.
update- The Neutron is also audio-proned, with an audio input in the back which takes hot signals (most often +6 to 12dB to get the best out of it, depending on the signal level and impedance). The filter and envelope are to be opened to let the signal through, so you’ll have to do with a compromise between the synth’s sound and the quality of the incoming signal if you want both to coexist. On a drum machine or another rhythm device, the audio IN proves very interesting and allows to play the synth in the same time, through a sequence or using the keyboard. For signal treatment alone, the OSCs have to be used outside of the audio spectrum, either at the very top or bottom, and once this is done the entire Neutron controls (except those from the OSC section) are dedicated to processing the incoming signal. The patchbay’s other audio ins, the VCF IN, OD IN and DELAY IN, shunt the synth but are easier to use and allow custom routing.
A word on the finish and the material aspects: I like the headphone volume knob at the back, which is independent from the output volume (hence allowing to look for a patch in one’s headphones without having to do it publicly – a perfect feature for stage use!), the MIDI THRU output which avoids using a USB hub, the DIP switches on the back that allow (through the use of combinations) to set the synth on a MIDI channel from 1 to 16 (without having to go through, say, sending SYSEX).
Well, I’ve let my enthusiasm carry me away! From afar, the Neutron could be compare with a small penknife that does not look like much with its two oscillos and its bargain price, but it turns out to be a real shiny switchblade with shark teeth back – or, even, a machete, the Fire Station’s rescue tools, or, even better, the drilling machine from Cartel B on Philip K. Dick’s Mars peopled with electric sheep!