Avid M-Audio Venom Review

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FIG. 1: The Avid Venom is both a virtual analog synth and a USB 2 audio interface, designed to help you easily program your own synth sounds and record them into your DAW.

The versatile new M-Audio Venom from Avid (see Fig. 1) is many things at once. It's the first-ever M-Audio hardware synthesizer and the first entirely new M-Audio product since the company''s absorption into the Avid fold. In addition to its synth engine, it''s a USB 2 audio/MIDI interface and monitoring hub, compatible with Pro Tools and most other DAWs, can also operate as a 49-key synth-action MIDI controller or an external audio processor. With an aggressive, in-your-face punchiness to the sounds and a nasty filter, the Venom undoubtedly will draw comparisons to Access' Virus series (from which the Venom noticeably borrows its color scheme). But the Venom features some creative, unique synthesis options that set it apart and give it a sound that can get ear-shatteringly, gut-wrenchingly huge.

The Venom uses a newly designed “virtual analog” synth engine intended to offer a unique sonic signature, with the flexibility of digital operation but the warmth and grit of analog-emulation circuitry. There are more than 40 oscillator waves and more than 50 drum sounds sampled from vintage synths and drum machines, all of which can be used as source material for oscillators. The synth has 12-voice polyphony, and each voice gets three oscillators, three LFOs with selectable sample-and-hold, three AHDSR envelopes, FM/Sync/RingMod options, one "Insert Effect" (compression, distortion, bit reduction and decimation), and access to the two global FX buses (reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, or phaser), all of which can add up to some impressively huge-sounding tones (see Web Clip 1).

The powerful multimode filter section is absolutely filthy-sounding with an incredibly wide sweep of 1,024 steps. It can create wildly expressive sweeps and resonant settings that blow away other digital filter sections still stuck at 128 MIDI values. The filter sounds so good that it almost eclipses the rest of the device. Its ability to double as an external, stereo audio-processing unit will make the Venom a sought-after production tool. I was able to wow a few friends by simply sweeping the filter really slowly across a basic sine wave patch (see Web Clip 2).

A total of 30 of the most important synth parameters are available in the Performance Control Matrix, which is a basic grid with four assignable knobs and one assignable button. Up/down buttons on the left scroll vertically through six layers of assignments; this lets you do more with fewer controls, but also stops you from accessing two parameters simultaneously if they live on different layers. Though not every parameter is available in the grid, further editing is available using the included Vyzex software patch editor (more on that later). The synth section is also equipped with Pitch/Mod wheels and octave-select buttons. (Hold them down together to easily enter Transpose mode for quick transposition.)

The tempo-synched, latchable arpeggiator section offers some powerful options. It features three basic modes of operation and 256 Phrase patterns, which are simple MIDI sequences of notes and rhythm. In Standard mode, it operates as a normal arpeggiator, controlled by the Tempo setting and the rhythm of the selected pattern. In Phrase mode, the user can simply hold a single note down on the keyboard, and the MIDI sequence from the selected pattern will control both the rhythm and the notes, transposing the sequence depending on which note is triggered. In Drum mode, a single held note will play back the selected pattern (patterns 0 through 50 only, as these can be drum patterns), this time not transposed. Users can upload their own 2-bar MIDI files/patterns from their computers to Bank B; this is the only way to create new patterns because they cannot be simply played in.

The Venom is four-part multitimbral, and when it's first powered on, it defaults to Multi mode. Each of the 256 Multi patches comprise four layers, and each layer is loaded with one of the 512 available Single patches (divided into four Banks of 128). Designed by star electronic producers like Richard Devine, many of the patches combine drum layers with arpeggio patterns, giving them the feel of groovebox patches (see Web Clip 3). The Multi Control section on the right-hand side of the front panel offers a simple interface of four multi-use buttons.

A Selector button offers three modes; in Mute mode, the four buttons act as simple mutes for each of the four layers (though each layer is still running and therefore using allocated voices and polyphony). Enable mode is similar except when a layer is muted, its voices are re-allocated, freeing up resources but requiring a retrigger when re-enabled (more like a Part On/Off than a mute). Select mode allows one or more of the layers to be selected for editing from within the Matrix simultaneously, and edits made while more than one layer is selected will affect them all. I enjoyed a few of the patches. I used Mute mode to create basic sections and Edit mode to sweep their filters separately. Overall, this particular element didn''t impress me nearly as much as the quality of the filter or the extended synthesis techniques like using a complex waveform (like a cymbal) as an LFO for bizarre sounds that develop over time.

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FIG. 2: The Vyzex Patch Editor/Librarian app offers seven complete pages of parameters (and more). Here we see the main Multi page where mapping, voice attributes, and more can be quickly fine-tuned.

Though the Matrix grid offers 24 very useful parameters for quick fine-tuning, while connected via USB there are many more parameters available from within the included Vyzex Editor/Librarian app (Mac/Windows, see Fig. 2). In addition to the expected usage (editing Single patches and Multi patches, managing patch Banks, setting Global parameters, saving/loading patches via the host computer), Vyzex offers some uniquely creative features. In its Direct mode, changes made to parameters in the software affect the Venom's output in real time. A Patch Collider feature will smash two or more patches together to create a hybrid tone (Morph, Blend, Mix, or the epic Mix All), a feature that I found particularly useful for creating things I would never have imagined.

The Venom also offers a deep, 16-cell modulation matrix for routing LFOs and other Mod Sources/Destinations, which is itself something I missed a few times when playing a patch and wishing the Mod Wheel controlled a different source. But I''m glad to have access at all, and was able to easily update a few of my favorite patches and rearrange them without much difficulty, in addition to doing some serious modular programming. In Vyzex''s Multi Edit mode, there are four pages' worth of parameters, from creative sweepable note and velocity range graphics to detailed arpeggiator settings, then another entire four pages of parameters for each layer (Single Edit mode), plus the Patch Banks page and Global Settings page. Each patch also includes tag information about the author, the band, and song it was used on, and more. This information will come into play when the new online community for Venom launches, giving users a place where they can trade patches, discuss techniques, and more.

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FIG. 3: Venom''s rear panel connections include inputs for Sustain and Expression pedals, MIDI In/Out ports, the USB 2 port, and an auxiliary audio input.

As an audio/MIDI interface and a MIDI controller, the Venom is simple but effective. Its functionality is optimally designed for users whose compositional setups are centered around their synths. The keys feel good under the fingers, not weighted but with a solid feeling synth action. The rear panel (see Fig. 3) offers ¼-inch microphone and ¼-inch instrument inputs, stereo RCA aux inputs, and stereo ¼-inch outputs with reasonable quality 24-bit/44.1kHz AD/DA converters. You also get inputs for Sustain and Expression pedals, MIDI In/Out ports, the USB 2 port, and the jack for the included power supply (and conveniently, a hard power rocker switch). Also, a stereo 1/4-inch headphone output appears on the front of the keyboard.

The upper-left section of the keyboard houses the basic mixer controls, with output level knobs for the synth volume, direct monitor (aux input) volume, and master volume (synth, direct, and computer return mixed and sent to the main outputs and headphones). There are also gain knobs for the mic and instrument inputs, as well as a Mono Monitor button, which immediately affects how the instrument and microphone inputs feed the main output and headphones. I''m not entirely sure why the Mono Monitor would be useful enough to warrant its own big button among such a minimalist interface, but I guess it could be useful for checking the mono inputs and certainly makes it easy to run the Venom through a guitar pedal or just focus in on a mono bass line.

The Venom works really well as the centerpiece of a simple production rig where without changing a thing, you can go from recording its synth sounds into your DAW to using it as a controller for making a beat. You can also plug a microphone into your DAW through it (via a preamp as the Venom has no XLR input or phantom power) or a guitar to record vocal and rhythm layers. During mixdown, you can easily route tracks through the Venom''s filters, LFOs, envelopes, and effects. There''s even an stereo RCA combo input for plugging in an iPod or other external source.

Beyond its giant tones and powerful programming options, the Venom presents a really plausible solution for I/O, monitoring, and synthesis for artists who work primarily in-the-box and are looking for a high-quality, all-in-one, synth-based workflow.

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