FIG. 1: Revolution, from Future Retro Synthesizers, has a unique circular layout that makes loop programming a snap.
If you've always wanted a Roland TB-303 Bassline, you're going to love Revolution from Future Retro Synthesizers. It has a completely analog emulation of the mono synth that's inside the TB-303 and couples that with a much more sophisticated, if a bit unorthodox, step sequencer. If you don't care about the TB-303 sound but want a slick hardware step sequencer for controlling either MIDI or analog devices, Revolution is worth looking at.
The revolutionary aspect of Revolution is its control-panel layout (see Fig. 1). The controls are arranged in concentric circles, with a circular LCD display in the center, sequencer step select buttons and position LEDs on the innermost ring, step parameter buttons and synthesizer effects knobs on the middle ring, and synthesizer parameter knobs and sequencer mode controls on the outermost ring.
The rationale for a circular rather than linear layout is step sequencer ergonomics — a circular array of buttons and LEDs is a much more natural representation of a looping sequence. Once you've arranged the sequence steps in a circle, you might as well do everything else that way, too.
The Revolution synth controls are almost an exact replica of the TB-303's controls (see Fig. 2). There are knobs for filter cutoff and resonance, envelope amount and decay, and accent amount, and a waveform switch to alternate between sawtooth and square waveforms.
FIG. 2: Roland''s TB-303 Bassline sequencer and synth combo was the inspiration for Revolution.
Revolution also features an Accent Decay knob, which works with the filter envelope's Decay knob (for accented notes). The original TB-303 owes much of its unique sound to its Accent knob, which affected envelope amount and decay for the filter. Revolution's scheme offers the same functionality with greater flexibility.
More Is Better
Future Retro Synthesizers has added an overdrive stage, filter-cutoff pitch tracking, and a stereo-effects processor to Revolution's synth. Overdrive produces a gritty, hard-edged clipping distortion. The amount of clipping is coupled with the filter's resonance setting.
The filter-cutoff pitch-tracking amount is controlled by the CV Mod knob, and is disabled when an external control voltage signal is plugged into the CV In jack. In that case, the CV Mod knob controls the external modulation amount.
The stereo-effects processor has 16 modes, including auto-wah, chorus, flange, delay, lowpass filter, a rotary speaker effect, and ten flavors of reverb. Although the effects stage's input is mono, separate wet/dry controls for the left and right output channels allow stereo-image enhancement (see Web Clip 1).
Finally, an external audio input allows you to process external audio with Revolution's filter, amp, overdrive, and effects. If you use Revolution to play an external MIDI device, routing its audio output back through the unit greatly expands its sound palette. You can, for example, produce a variety of interesting gating effects using its sequencer as the gate trigger.
Revolution's step sequencer is flexible and full featured. It holds 256 patterns spread across 16 banks. A cleverly designed Remix function provides 256 variations for each pattern, expanding the number of patterns to 65,536.
Patterns always consist of one measure of 16th notes in the pattern's time signature, which can be 3/4 or 4/4. In other words, 3/4 patterns have 12 steps, and 4/4 patterns have 16. Patterns always start at step 1, located at the 6 o'clock position, with 3/4 patterns ending at step 12, and 4/4 patterns ending at step 16.
Unlike time signature, pattern tempo is a global parameter except in Song mode. Tempo is set in beats per minute, but in keeping with the TB-303 design, it is automatically adjusted for 3/4 patterns so that all patterns take the same time to play. For example, with the tempo set to 120 bpm, 3/4 patterns play at 90 bpm. You can, however, create equal-tempo patterns at 3/4 and other time signatures by choosing the appropriate loop points for 4/4 patterns.
Entering pattern data is easy and intuitive, and a number of ergonomic features make pattern editing simple. When in Pattern Edit mode, the individual step LEDs indicate whether a step triggers a note (bright), holds the previous note (dim), or is a rest (off). Pressing a step button automatically makes it a trigger step and selects it for editing, which is indicated by its flashing LED.
The LCD display in the center shows the selected note's pitch. Accent, Loop, and Glide buttons and LEDs in the middle ring control whether the selected note is an accent, whether its pitch glides to the next note, and whether it is the loop point of the pattern.
You convert trigger notes to rests by selecting them and pressing the Clear button. Although a note must be turned on to set it as the pattern's loop point, it can then be converted to a rest, so that patterns can end (and begin) with a rest.
Hold That Thought
Programming ties (notes held for multiple steps) is done by pressing and holding down the button for the trigger note, and then pressing a higher-numbered button to indicate the last step of the tie. For example, holding down the step 1 button and then pressing the step 4 button creates a quarter note at the beginning of the pattern. (Although you can't create a tie across step 1, you can accomplish the same thing by using equal pitches and turning on Glide.)
In a nice touch, clearing a note (or all notes in the pattern, which can be done in a single step) resets only the note's trigger status to rest. It does not affect its pitch, accent, glide, or loop status. Because patterns can be freely copied and pasted, it's easy to create noteless pattern templates, and then set up groups of patterns that differ only by which notes are triggered.
Other handy pattern manipulations include transposing the pattern by as much as 36 semitones up or down, shifting the pattern one or more steps clockwise or counterclockwise, and adding swing to delay even-numbered steps. Unfortunately, there is no way to create eighth-note swing without halving the tempo.
Three global operations — reversing, chaining, and remixing — add creative flexibility to real-time pattern playback. You can reverse the playback direction for all patterns. Reversing is intelligent: playback doesn't reverse until the end of the current pattern, and the pattern begins at step 1 in either direction.
You can instantly chain the playback of consecutive patterns in the same bank by holding down the button that selects the first pattern in the chain while pressing another button for the last. The only limitation is that the last pattern must have a higher number than the first.
In Remix mode, two 16-position knobs allow you to select among 256 variations of the playing pattern. A Remix button turns remixing on and off, and it takes effect immediately. That allows you, for example, to remix the last four steps of a pattern to create a fill.
The Song Is You
Although chaining, remixing, reversing, and transposing all add variety, you will eventually want to organize diverse patterns into songs. Revolution stores 16 songs with as many as 3,580 measures each. The limit of 16 songs is a bit severe, but songs are flexible, easy to set up, and editable on the fly.
Creating a song amounts to selecting a pattern and transposing for each song step, and designating which step is the loop point for the song. Each song also has its own tempo.
Once a song is playing, you can switch to Pattern Edit mode at any time to edit the currently playing pattern. The current pattern loops until you return to Song mode, at which time the song resumes playing where it left off.
Beyond the Box
Revolution is designed for playing the built-in TB-303 synth, but it's an excellent, hands-on step sequencer in its own right. It features MIDI and CV outputs, so if you're lucky enough to have some pre-MIDI vintage analog synths or a modern remake of one, you can use Revolution with it.
In the case of MIDI, Revolution sends and receives MIDI Clock and can thus act as either master or slave to other MIDI devices. When slaved to another MIDI device, it also responds to MIDI Program Change messages to change patterns. That greatly expands Revolution's song capacity, allowing you to create songs on your computer. (Revolution also supports SysEx for dumping its own patterns and songs to your computer.)
Revolution transmits MIDI note messages with two Velocities: 63 for unaccented notes and 127 for accented notes. (If Revolution isn't slaved to another MIDI Clock, it will send MIDI Program Change messages when patterns are changed.) Because you can control the affect of Velocity on most synths and manipulate MIDI note messages in most MIDI sequencers, you can do a lot with Revolution's output.
For example, you can direct Revolution's MIDI output to several MIDI devices and use pitch remapping and automatic chord generation (if provided by your software) to simultaneously generate drum, bass, and chord parts. You can then use Revolution's real-time manipulation of patterns to produce complex tracks. If you have a multisample player that can play sliced audio files (in REX format, for example), you can use Revolution to rearrange the slices. All those techniques were used in Web Clip 2, which was generated in one pass from one Revolution pattern using only transpose, remix, and reverse.
Revolution is well suited to a number of tasks: it's a great TB-303 emulation, its sequencer can play MIDI and analog external sound modules, and it seamlessly interfaces with MIDI sequencing software as either master or slave. Pattern editing is easy and well-thought-out, and there's lots of room for real-time manipulation, which makes Revolution a viable performance tool. And the circular interface design lives up to Future Retro's claims for ease of use.
Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. He can be contacted through his Web site atwww.swiftkick.com.
FUTURE RETRO SYNTHESIZERS Revolution
hardware synthesizer and sequencer
OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 4
PROS: Faithful TB-303 synthesis emulation. Unique, easy-to-use step-sequencer layout. Remix function greatly enhances pattern flexibility. Has analog synth control-voltage outputs in addition to MIDI.
CONS: Memory limited to 16 songs.
Future Retro Synthesizers