Building on the technology in its other instruments, Alesis has released the Micron, a compact digital analog-modeling synthesizer with a simplified feature set that is easy to use yet doesn't sacrifice sound quality (see Fig. 1). The Micron comes with basic I/O, but doesn't have USB, FireWire, a disk drive, and other workstation amenities. The rear panel has two unbalanced ¼-inch inputs, two balanced ¼-inch outputs, a ¼-inch headphone output, jacks for an expression pedal and a pedal switch, and MIDI In, Out, and Thru (see Fig. 2).
The user interface is uncluttered: the Micron's sound engine and styling are based on its sibling, the Ion, with a brushed-silver chassis, fire-engine red side panels and volume knob, two sliders (labeled m1 and m2), three rubberized knobs (X, Y, and Z), and a transparent Pitch Bend wheel. The Micron can load an Ion's program data through MIDI using the SysEx Dump function.
The Micron can play eight voices, each with three oscillators, two multimode filters, three envelope generators, two LFOs, and a sample and hold. The voices can be configured in a variety ways, from 8-layered monophonic operation to single-voice 8-note polyphony and Unison mode. The Micron's 37-key bed feels strong, and the instrument is small enough to fit on a crowded desktop. The instrument's apparent simplicity tempts you to start playing it as soon as it's unpacked (although Reference and Quick Start manuals are provided if you need them).
Keeping It Simple
The Micron's four playing modes are Programs, which houses the basic preset synth sounds; Patterns, which contains melodic sequences and arpeggios; Rhythms, which has patterns of drum programs; and Setups, which combines all of the aforementioned modes. The Micron's 575 preset Programs are conveniently grouped into categories. The first group, Recent, automatically remembers the last ten Programs played, and the second, Faves, bookmarks user favorites. The other categories include Bass, Lead, Pad, String, Brass, Key, Comp, Drum, and SFX. You can scroll through all of the Programs sequentially or jump to a group with the press of a button and a key. The All group lists all Programs alphabetically.
As soon as you make a change to any Program with the sliders or knobs, the Store LED lights and you have the option to overwrite any preset in its current location. If you scroll off of a Program and then return to it, the Program will be just as you left it. The default assignment of the two sliders depends on the preset, but most often they affect vibrato amount and filter frequency (see Web Clip 1). The Micron's keys are touch-sensitive, and with some of the presets, the sensitivity appears to be linked to envelope attack or resonance, lending a good amount of expressiveness to the sound (see Web Clip 2).
The Model for Modeling
The 44 bass tones in Programs are overwhelmingly monophonic. The selection is surprisingly good, ranging from dirty, growling Oberheim-esque basses to quirky ones reminiscent of a Sequential Circuits Six-Trak or Roland Juno.
The 43-preset Leads category also contains many monophonic sounds, ranging from sweeping windy tones to rich harmonic fifths. The Leads category showcases plenty of warm sounds, yet some presets have digital delay built in, giving away the fact that these are indeed only emulations of an analog synth. On the other hand, many of the patches have convincing analog-like properties, showcasing Micron's diversity (see Web Clip 3). The Pads category leans more toward polyphonic patches, ranging from warm tones with long filter sweeps to ghostly environments and pulsating, panning timbres. The smaller Strings and Brass categories, which are almost exclusively polyphonic, include 18 String and 26 Brass Programs. With both categories, I didn't experience the wide variety as with the other categories, and these two were the most digital sounding that I came across. They are undoubtedly not just a pile of samples, and while they aren't bad, they are fairly straightforward.
The Keyboard programs focus on classics, such as Wurlitzers, Clavinovas, harpsichords, and a nice assortment of organs. Though not overwhelmingly original, many are interesting and have a full sound. The Comp category also has a lot of variety, with convincing analog-like tones ranging from panning and delayed whistles to strange staccato sounds and pure weirdness.
The Drum category has 118 individual percussive sounds, such as gongs, ride cymbals, hi-hats, Kraftwerk-esque blips, laser zaps, and 29 killer bass drums (including emulations of classics such as the Roland TR-808 and TR-909 kicks). Overall, the drum sounds are original and thick, but they are electronic sounding: there aren't any acoustic drums here (see Web Clip 4).
The 50 Programs in the SFX category cover everything from plane flybys to infinitely morphing sonic experiments. I found myself spending a lot of time in that category.
Return of the Classics
After listening to the Micron's first ten Patterns, I was sold. They are very rhythmic and expertly programmed, and they sound excellent. The first subsection, Analog Style, is aptly named. There are patches appropriately named after classic synths (Arp) and artists (Moroder), and there is enough variety in there to keep everyone from Joe Zawinul to Erasure happy. The patches, which alternate between monophonic and polyphonic setups, span the squarest of waves to the glassiest of tones and just about everything in between (see Web Clip 5).
I am usually skeptical about preset drum patterns in any piece of gear, but Micron's Rhythms are chock full of goodies for the electro and techno crowds. Like the Drums, the Rhythms are strictly an electronica affair, but they are well programmed and sound good. One key press anywhere on the keyboard plays the same rhythm in one pitch, and the patches are reminiscent of analog sequences and old-school drum machines (see Web Clip 6).
Some Rhythms are usable as main grooves, while others are better suited for breaks or bridges. As a bonus, the individual sounds used with each Rhythm are mapped across the keyboard above the trigger keys, allowing you to jam on top in real time. The m1 and m2 sliders, along with the Pitch Bend wheel, allow you to morph the sequences.
The Setups section, which contains the heart of Rhythms and Patterns rolled into one, is great for those who just want to press a button and let some live music fly. As with all else on the Micron, each of the setups are analog-electronic sounding and contain a variety of percussion sequences under percolating pads and basses. They are all user-programmable, and the X, Y, and Z knobs affect the sound of the arpeggios but not of the drums (see Web Clip 7).
At the Controls
The Micron's controls have a comfortable rubberized feel and are fun to play because of their visual feedback. The spring-loaded Pitch Bend wheel, which can raise or lower the pitch by one octave, progressively glows brighter red as you push it more toward either side. Unfortunately, it's inconveniently located above the keyboard, forcing the player's left hand into a slightly awkward position when using it. The Octave +/- buttons allow you to transpose the keyboard up and down three octaves, and with each press the buttons glow progressively brighter red while a miniature keyboard in the display highlights the key span.
The latch button substitutes as a sustain pedal and, when lit, sustains the current Rhythm, Pattern, Setup, or Program. The backlit Tap button pulsates in time with the current tempo and can be used as a tap tempo or in conjunction with the Control knob to manually set the global tempo in tenths of a beat per minute. The Phrase button allows you to record a riff and then play it back by holding down any key. Riffs are automatically transposed up and down according to the key pressed: they work across presets and are saved when you power down.
The Accomp button works along with Setups and, when lit (its default), it triggers patterns and rhythms. When Accomp is not lit, setups become like Programs and sound only the notes you play. The three assignable knobs — X, Y, and Z — are preset to alter different parameters depending on the patch. Typical parameter mappings include Filter Frequency, Pan, Noise, Attack, and Ring Mod (see Web Clip 8). As soon as you turn one of them, the green display shows its assigned parameter and value. A simple two-button operation maps any parameter to any knob.
The Control Knob Circle on the right has a master Control surrounded by a Config button and buttons for selecting Programs, Setups, Patterns, and Rhythms. The Control knob sweeps through Micron's presets or changes the value of the currently selected parameter, allowing you to, for example, edit each oscillator's waveform and waveshape or pan the filters. The Config button is for editing global settings such as tuning, transposition, Velocity sensitivity, MIDI, and SysEx.
Good Things in a Small Package
The Micron is impressive. It sounds great, the presets are well programmed, and it is a breeze to use. The documentation is somewhat spotty, and a few of the instrument's features can be cumbersome to use. But those are small issues in light of the Micron's sound quality and overall value.
Doug Eisengrein is an electronic-music composer and software developer living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
MICRON SPECIFICATIONS Sound Enginemodeled analogAudio Inputs(2) ¼" TRSAudio Outputs(2) ¼" TRS; (1) ¼" TRS headphone jackMIDI ConnectorsIn, Out, ThruKeyboard37 keys, with Velocity and Release Velocity sensitivityPolyphony8 notesMultitimbral Parts32Program Memory(500) preset; (400) userOscillators(3) per voice, with continuously variable wave shapes, sync, and FMFilters(2) per voiceEnvelope Generators(3) per voiceLFOs(2) per voiceEffectsvoice effects; drive output effects; 40-band vocoder, reverb, delayPedal Inputs(1) expression pedal; (1) sustain pedalDimensions22.2" (W) × 2.75" (H) × 8" (D)Weight8 lbs.
analog modeling synthesizer
OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 4
PROS: Great sounds. Simple to use. Well built. Small and light. Attractive price tag.
CONS: Spotty reference manual. No direct computer connectivity other than MIDI. Pitch Bend wheel awkwardly placed.