The Novation XioSynth includes 200 onboard synthesizer patches, 60 of those were programmed by producers from a variety of genres, including Ferry Corsten, Rennie Pilgrem, Shimon and Skeewiff. The following three examples all use the same 4-bar synth bass pattern for easy comparison and have the x-y pad assigned to filter frequency cutoff and resonance.
Fery_Beefy.mp3 The "Fery Beefy" patch by Ferry Corsten
JZap_HypnoBass.mp3 The "JZap HypnoBass" patch by James Zabiela
Roots_SnapBass.mp3 The "Roots Snap Bass" patch by Roots Manuva
The move toward portability is hitting all areas of electronics. All-in-one devices like Apple's recently announced iPhone are coming into vogue with consumers looking to consolidate their digital worlds. This same ethos is hitting the MI industry as well. The days of massive racks of blinking gear may be numbered, as many musicians and producers lean harder and harder on software instruments and plug-ins. On the hardware front, that boils down to users needing a streamlined way of recording and monitoring hi-res audio as well as controlling MIDI instruments and software.
Currently, a smattering of products bring all those elements together. M-Audio and Edirol both offer budget-oriented audio/MIDI keyboards of varying sizes, but Novation stands out from the pack by bundling these same features with powerful synthesizers. The company garnered a Remix Technology Award in 2005 for the X-Station 25, which combined a 25-note keyboard/control surface, USB audio interface and an 8-note polyphonic synth. Now the company has taken much of that same technology and packed it into the über-svelte XioSynth. In 25- and 49-note configurations, the XioSynth is equally at home onstage or stowed away in a backpack for traveling. With a healthy complement of standard audio/MIDI connections, as well as direct USB streaming for the onboard synth, the XioSynth may be all the audio hardware some users will ever need.
Aside from the number of keys, the two versions of the XioSynth are functionally identical, and the focus of this review will be on the 25-note version. The unit allows you to use the synth, audio/MIDI interface and control-surface capabilities all at the same time. The linchpin of this functionality is the Play/Synth button, which allows you to toggle the unit's controls between the synth and MIDI control-surface capabilities. It's even possible to separate the keyboard from the synth and have your sequencer control the onboard synth while you play another soft synth from the keyboard.
The keyboard features semiweighted keys, a combination mod/pitch joystick, assignable x-y touchpad, a 2-by-16 backlit LCD, octave up/down buttons (which work the same in synth mode), one ¼-inch sustain pedal input and a single MIDI out port. There are also 11 270-degree knobs that pull double duty in both synth and controller modes. In synth mode, each knob is assigned to two parameters, which you access via the A/B button. Similarly, you can assign the 11 knobs to 22 total parameters in controller mode and use the A/B button in the same way.
For audio, the XioSynth features one XLR input with selectable phantom power, one ¼-inch TS input, two ¼-inch TS outputs and one ¼-inch headphone jack. By pressing and holding the Menus/Audio button, eight of the 11 knobs switch over to audio mode, providing independent level and pan control for the two audio inputs, input monitoring level control, main volume, synth USB volume and synth USB panning. The onboard synth features eight notes of polyphony, three oscillators with 17 selectable waveforms, two LFOs with a whopping 32 selectable waveforms, a multimode filter, two envelopes, an apreggiator, Novation's X-Gator sequence generator and selectable digital effects.
The unit is powered via USB, six AA batteries or an optional power supply. As a class-compliant device, the XioSynth will work without drivers on most Mac OS X and Windows XP computers. Novation does provide optional drivers on a DVD, which are designed to eliminate potential latency issues with certain software titles. Also on the DVD are PDF documentation, video tutorials and a control-surface template editor.
I tested the XioSynth on a Mac dual 2.5 GHz G5 with 4 GB of RAM, as well as a 1.5 GHz PowerBook G4 with 512 MB of RAM, both running OS 10.4.8 with Logic Pro 7, Ableton Live 6 and Reason 3.
PLUG AND PLAY
Honestly, hooking up the XioSynth is about as easy as the marketing copy leads you to believe. All you have to do is plug the unit into an available USB port, set the power switch to USB, and you're set. I plugged the unit into the front-panel USB port on my G5, and it was instantly available as an audio device within the Mac System Preferences. It was the same story with each of the audio apps I tried. With Logic, Live and Reason, there were no glitches or any audio-driver issues.
With the unit in control-surface mode, I tried a few of my favorite soft-synth patches in Logic. Overall, the keys felt solid and playable. Some users may find that the keys feel a tad light for semiweighted, and I'd be inclined to agree. But when compared with many other portable keyboard controllers on the market, the XioSynth feels like a real instrument. The knobs also felt solid. Each one has a rubberized coating that makes them easy to grab during a performance, and each turns smoothly and with a good amount of resistance. Personally, I far prefer the 270-degree design with hard stop and start points because it gives you a much clearer idea of where you're starting from — say when performing a filter sweep or ramping up the feedback on a delay effect — and how much further you can go. The mod/pitch joystick is the same as on other Novation products, and its spring-loaded design provides for fluid control with just the right amount of resistance. Finally, the x-y pad is where some of the real fun happens. If you're a fan of the Korg Kaoss pad, you're going to love this controller. You can assign two parameters to each axis and then just run or tap your finger across the controller to produce some very interesting sweeps and extreme parameter jumps.
Next, I tried out the onboard mic pre. I hooked up a Blue Bluebird condenser and tracked some acoustic guitar. To engage the phantom power you have go into the Global menu, locate the phantom power dialog box and select from 12, 24 and 48V, which actually isn't as annoying a process as it sounds, though it would be nice to just have a dedicated button somewhere. Adjusting the gain using the Input 1 knob is straightforward. Overall, this is a clean, no-frills mic pre. There is no highpass filter and no pad, but that's not really the point. For general work, such as tracking vocals and in my case, an acoustic guitar, the pre gets the job done, and the ability to mix between the input and playback tracks right from the hardware is a nice touch. The other input is a simple, unbalanced ¼-inch input with adjustable gain, which is suitable for amp modelers, synths and other line-level, mono sources.
The outputs are standard ¼-inch TS connections, which I had connected to a pair of M-Audio BX5as. The sound quality of the converters was well above what you might expect from a compact piece of gear like the XioSynth. I noted excellent clarity and detail in everything I played through the unit. If you plan on connecting the unit to powered monitors like I did, I'd suggest using cables with plenty of slack. Maybe it's my own poor posture or bad habits, but I really preferred having the unit in my lap, and on a few occasions I just about yanked my speakers off the desk when I turned my chair to answer the phone — just a note of caution.
MASSIVE SYNTH, MINIMAL FLUFF
Contrary to what the unit's diminutive size might lead you to believe, the included synth is for real; though for space reasons, a great deal of the functionality is hidden behind menus. The synth is loaded with a bevy of electronic-oriented sounds that will more than satisfy most users. The synth features a three-oscillator design with a noise generator, ring modulator and numerous internal modulation options. In addition to standard waveshapes such as sine, triangle, sawtooth and square, each oscillator can use one of four noise types — white, highpass, bandpass and highbandpass — as well as one of the nine sampled waveforms, which include organ, harpsichord, electric piano, slap bass, Rhodes, Rhodes tine, Wurlie, Clavinet and analog bass.
The LFO section is similarly well-equipped with two separate LFOs that both sync to tempo and can be used to modulate the oscillators or filter or can be arranged in a series — LFO 1 can be set to modulate LFO 2. Like the oscillator section, there is a wide variety of selectable waveforms/patterns, including sine, triangle, sawtooth, square, random sample & hold, quantized sample & hold, exponential, decays 1-3, sustain expression 1-3, piano envelope, exponential up/down, chromatic, major modes, major 7th and patterns 1-9. The synth has a multimode filter (low, high and bandpass) with two selectable slopes — 12 and 24 dB — as well as standard ADSR amp and mod envelopes.
The real fun happens with the arpeggiator and the X-Gator, both of which turn the XioSynth into a serious rhythm machine. The arpeggiator section includes seven modes, ranging from standard up/down to random and chord settings, and 32 different patterns. The arpeggiator can be easily synced with the host tempo when connected to a computer. The X-Gator is essentially a tempo-synced gating effect with a customizable 32-step gating sequence. The gating sequence can be broken down to 16-steps and applied to panning, making it a rather versatile item. Also, like the arpeggiator, the X-Gator easily syncs to the project tempo.
Rounding out the synth is the effects section, which includes delay, reverb, chorus/phaser, distortion, EQ and panning. Like the LFO, arpeggiator and X-Gator, all of the tempo-based effects sync to tempo, and there is a useful sync menu where you can specify different sync times for all available parameters. The X-Gator can go all the way down to 64th notes. Otherwise, the maximum grid resolution for all remaining parameters is a 32nd note with the option for dotted notes and triplets.
Regarding the sounds themselves, the XioSynth comes preloaded with two banks of 100 sounds each. The first bank includes 10 sounds each from a variety of notable musicians/producers, including James Zabiela, Ferry Corsten, Rennie Pilgrem, Skeewiff, Shimon and Roots Manuva. The second bank is more of a standard factory-preset bank, with the sounds grouped into general categories: bass, lead, pad/string/chord, arp, SFX and drum/drum arp. Now 200 sounds may not sound like a lot by today's standards, but they are 200 very usable electronic-leaning patches. There really isn't much fluff. When combined with the X-Gator and the Arp section, I found the basses and leads to be a great way to get a track started. A simple 4-bar phrase can be easily turned into an exciting bass line with plenty of variation and movement.
The XioSynth also works as a standard MIDI controller and comes preloaded with a number of templates, including Logic 7, Cubase SX3, Sonar, Live 5, Native Instruments Absynth, B4, FM7 and a host of others. Furthermore, users can download additional templates from the company's Website, as well as edit and store controller presets with the included XioSynthEditor.
THE MULTITASK AT HAND
Even with such a great piece, there are some minor things that could be improved. My biggest gripe is with the color scheme. With so many parameters packed into such a small space, being able to read the screened names is enough of challenge. Unfortunately, a number of these are printed as light grey on a grey background, and from a variety of lighting angles, the parameter names disappear against the background. With so much functionality packed inside, you'll have to play Marco Polo with regard to the various menus. At first glance, items like phantom power and some of the deeper synth functions don't really scream out their location, so you'll have to spend some time with the manual or video tutorials.
At the end of the day, the XioSynth is an outstanding all-in-one piece. Each aspect of the product could stand on its own. The semiweighted keys and assignable controllers are a pleasure to play; the audio interface provides clean, transparent I/O; and the synth is a monster. It's really hard to believe that a unit this small produces such gritty, serious synth sounds. If you've been struggling with how to spend your music-making money, and you need to cover all these bases, I can't think of a good reason not to pick up the XioSynth. Even if you want more I/O options or keys later, the XioSynth sounds are so solid and usable, you'll want to hold on to this piece for a long time.
XIOSYNTH > $549
($599, FOR XIOSYNTH 49)
Pros: High-quality, affordable, all-in-one keyboard/audio interface/synth. Excellent sounds. Semiweighted keys.
Cons: Somewhat cramped interface.
Mac: G3/400 MHz; OS 10.2.4 or later; USB 1.1 port
PC: Intel-compatible/600 MHz; Windows XP; USB 1.1 port