From a functional point of view, the Dubreq Stylophone has an unusual user interface for an electronic instrument. It’s played using a pen-like stylus that has a metal tip on one end (hence the name) and is attached to the instrument’s circuitry at the other end. Touching the stylus to the metal plate on the surface of the instrument closes a circuit and generates a tone.
Roughly the size of a paperback novel, the original Stylophone was battery powered and had a built-in speaker, making it wonderfully portable. And while it was often regarded as a children’s toy, the instrument’s raw transistor-based tone made it popular with forward-thinking musicians.
The most recent version, the Stylophone Gen X-1, is feature-rich and truly worthy of the title “analogue synth.” It retains the built-in speaker and runs on batteries, yet it’s only 20% larger than the original model. And at $69, it is priced as an impulse buy.
On this model, the metal touch-strip is divided into 24 spaces that are arranged like a keyboard—albeit, one that is a note shy of 2 octaves. An interesting aspect of the metal keypad is that, by placing the stylus into the border between two notes, you can make the oscillator pitch jump up an octave.
The Gen X-1 also includes a ribbon-style controller, the Sound Strip, which is situated above the metal plate and can be played with the stylus or your finger (a fingernail works best). Unlike the keyboard plate, the Sound Strip’s pitch control is unquantized and spans over 4 octaves, making it particularly useful with the onboard effects.
Of course the first thing you’ll want to do with the Gen X-1 is check out the built-in delay. It has knobs for delay time, feedback and level (actually, a wet/dry control). The max delay time is just over 600ms, and if you crank up the feedback, the repeats will build until they become dangerously out of control—very old-school! The delay is a little noisy, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying it.
The Gen X-1’s resonant lowpass filter is another welcome addition to the Stylophone, especially when used in conjunction with the Envelope’s attack and decay parameters. The filter can get very chirpy if needed, and when pushed to the limits of resonance and envelope length it’ll serve up some glitchy heterodyning sounds. Throughout its range, the filter is surprisingly musical.
The Envelope is also tied to the oscillator: As you turn the Pitch knob clockwise, the EG’s control over oscillator frequency becomes more pronounced. Use this control, along with filter resonance and delay, when you want to create laser-like zaps.
The LFO offers square wave (for trill-like sounds) and triangle wave (for siren-like tones) modulation and is controlled by Rate and Depth knobs. The maximum rate isn’t very fast, but there is enough range to make it useful.
You can use the Gen X-1’s delay, filter and LFO modulation to process an external, mono audio signal by patching it into the minijack input. I was very impressed by the results, especially using square-wave modulation with a fast Rate, Depth fully on, and the filter frequency turn to 0.
The Gen X-1 also includes three buttons that augment the basic tone of the instrument (Figure 1). The first gives you pulse-width modulation by adding a second tone controlled by the LFO’s Rate knob; this yields effects ranging from subtle chorusing to aggressive timbre shifts. The other two buttons add a sub-octave tone; one an octave lower, the other two octaves lower. You can use the buttons in any combination.
Not surprisingly, the built-in speaker doesn’t do justice to the low-end tones: To really hear what the Gen X-1 is capable of, plug the headphone output into an amplifier or powered speaker. (The output noise will also become more apparent, so you may want to add highpass filtering to reduce it. At high rates, the LFO’s pulsing can also be heard.)
If you plan to play the Stylophone Gen X-1 in situations where pitch is critical, let the instrument warm up before tuning it. Recessed into the bottom of the case is the master tuning control, which is used to set the basic pitch of the instrument.
The metal keyboard has the truest intonation when its middle C is tuned to pitch C6. Set this note first, then tune the lower octave using a small screwdriver to turn the trim pot hidden in the upper part of the case. The tuning takes but a moment, and the Gen X-1 will remain quite stable. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to achieve 12-note equal temperament when the oscillator range is set to lower octaves.
When effects are more important than precise pitch, be sure to explore the wide range of the master tuning control. At its lowest point, you’ll get rich, pudgy sounds (especially if you add the sub-oscillators and increase the LFO depth), whereas in the highest setting, you’ll hear interesting difference tones as you play the upper range of the ribbon strip with the filter set into resonance.
MAKE SPACE FOR THIS ODDITY
As with Korg’s Monotron line, the Stylophone Gen X-1 has its own lo-fi vibe and, at this price, is equally ripe for circuit bending. But whether you use it stock or modded, the expanded feature set will help it fit into a variety of studio and stage situations. (It was particularly fun to use with my Eurorack system.)
It’s simply hard to resist the Stylophone Gen X-1 because it is so much fun to play.
Low price. Battery powered. EG for amp and pitch. LFO. Resonant filter. Delay. Aux input.
Output is a little noisy. LFO can bleed into output.
Gino Robair is Editor-in-Chief of Electronic Musician magazine.