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Dave Smith Instruments Mopho Keyboard Quick Pick Review

December 6, 2010
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Just as many considered the Sequential Circuits Pro-One a monophonic version of the Prophet-5 in its day, the Mopho Keyboard is a monophonic version of the Prophet ''08.

Just as many considered the Sequential Circuits Pro-One a monophonic version of the Prophet-5 in its day, the Mopho Keyboard is a monophonic version of the Prophet ''08.

When I fired up the Mopho Keyboard ($799) for the first time, I knew better than to expect a monophonic synthesizer with a run-of-the-mill feature set. Dave Smith—who founded Sequential Circuits in the ''70s, conceived of MIDI in the ''80s, and launched the first commercial soft synth in the ''90s—has always been a trailblazer. Like the tabletop Mopho (see the March 2009 EM at emusician.com), the Mopho Keyboard is packed with good ideas and thoughtful touches evident of Smith''s decades of experience.

LITTLE. YELLOW. DIFFERENT
The Mopho Keyboard is a true analog synthesizer in a compact, 9.6-pound steel case with wood side panels. The keyboard feels good and has 32 full-sized, semiweighted keys with a choice of four preset curves for velocity and four for aftertouch. Whereas the tabletop Mopho has six buttons, eight dedicated knobs, and four knobs for assignable parameters, the Keyboard edition has 20 buttons and 25 knobs. A Shift button selects secondary functions for some knobs. The Mopho Keyboard''s hands-on control panel is streamlined for modifying programs in real time and obviously designed for live performance.

The rear panel houses two outs, audio in, three MIDI jacks, and connections for a sustain/arpeggiator-latch switch and an expression pedal—no shortcuts here. Unlike the Prophet ''08 or tabletop Mopho, it also has an all-important USB connection for MIDI data. One MIDI jack doubles as a connection for chaining with other Mophos, Tetras, or Prophet ''08s—for example, a Mopho for 2-voice or a Tetra for 5-voice polyphony.

Sticking with tradition, the front panel is divided into functional areas—Oscillators, Envelopes, Mixer, etc. Both analog oscillators—which offer four waveforms, hard sync, and independent glide settings—are paired with square-wave sub-oscillators. The analog lowpass filter (based on a Curtis chip) has resonant 2- and 4-pole modes, but only 4-pole mode is self-resonating. You also get a white-noise generator and a monophonic input for processing external audio. If nothing is plugged into the input, the Feedback Level knob sends the output back through the audio path, inserting it ahead of the filter and enabling a range of distortion effects.

An initial delay stage supplements the three ADSR generators. Envelope 3 has the option of looping, and you can route it to any destination in the Modulators section, where you can assign any of 22 mod sources to 48 destinations for impressive versatility. A dedicated knob lets you modulate filter cut-off with an oscillator signal for FM-like sounds. Switches allow you to change values for both oscillators or all three envelopes simultaneously—a handy time-saver.

Two Misc. Parameters knobs change values in the 2x16-character display to control oscillator drift, note priority (low, high, or last-note, with or without retriggering), and other program-specific parameters that lack dedicated knobs. You can assign the manual trigger button (labeled Push It!) to any of several functions; I found it especially useful for launching the sequencer and for turning drones on and off.

The old-school, analog-style sequencer has four looping parallel sequences or tracks. Each lets you program as many as 16 steps, with different lengths for each track if you like. You can assign each track to any modulation destination so that one track controls melody (including rests) while others control release times, slew rates, and cut-off frequency, for example. Because sequences are gated, you must trigger them manually or with a MIDI note. Though the sequencer synchs to external clock, it doesn''t recognize MIDI Start/Stop/Continue commands. You also get a straightforward arpeggiator with standard patterns and a 3-octave range.

SoundTower''s Mopho LE (Mac/Win) is a free downloadable application for editing programs and sequences on your computer. The software displays envelopes graphically, and pulldown menus let you choose from lists of parameters. A $39.99 upgrade buys the ability to edit any number of sequencer files, organize programs into libraries, morph between two programs, combine two programs into an entire bank of new sounds, and more.

TAKE TWO. THEY'RE SMALL
If you want a keyboard synth with real analog sound and tons of musical expressivity, nothing I''ve seen for the money comes close. All 384 program slots (three banks of 128) are filled with mostly excellent factory sounds emphasizing electronic timbres rather than acoustic emulations. Customizing them on the fly is as easy as can be. And like all Dave Smith Instruments, the Mopho Keyboard delivers an array of features that integrate into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Before you buy any analog monosynth, new or used, you should definitely take this one for a test drive.

Overall Rating (1 through 5): 5
Mopho Keyboard Product Page

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