IK Multimedia’s new Uno Synth monosynth is their first foray into the ever-expanding universe of portable analog gear. Their software and mobile peripherals are extremely popular with the iOS and laptop crowd, so moving into analog hardware is a bold move for the company. I spent a week with one of the first units and came away very impressed, here’s why…
The Uno Synth’s architecture is surprisingly capable for a $200 synth, with an interface that includes impressive attention to detail. Navigation is handled by a 4x4 matrix that’s reminiscent of the Microkorg’s editing system. Here, there are four buttons — Oscillator, Filter, Envelope, and LFO — governing the behavior of four knobs, allowing immediate control over the most relevant parameters and quick switching between modes.
While the oscillator section includes two “pages” (the second is accessed via a longer button press), each is laid out according to function, with associated parameters intelligently grouped. In the top-level mode, the first two knobs offer continuously variable control over each oscillator’s waveform, morphing from triangle to sawtooth to square to variable pulse, which delivers a really wide spectrum of timbres when combined. The second two knobs govern bi-directional tuning, smartly implemented so the first 25% in either direction behaves as fine-tuning until you hit one semitone, at which point it switches to chromatic steps reaching an octave in either direction. This is a subtle touch, but it’s so smart that it should become a standard.
Pressing and holding the Oscillator button switches the knobs to Mixer mode, with the first three knobs controlling levels for the oscillators and a noise generator. For some reason, the fourth knob doesn’t control anything. (Maybe they’re saving it for a future update.)
Filter parameters include a switchable low-, high-, and band-pass selector, Resonance, Drive, and envelope amount. It’s worth noting that there’s no visible option for keyboard tracking, which is used for tuned resonance effects. Fortunately, it’s available via Uno’s extensive MIDI implementation, which we’ll cover later. The filter sounds great, by the way, with 2-pole (12dB/oct) roll-off for all three types. Wisely, there is a dedicated cutoff knob at the top of the synth panel, conveniently placed near the tempo and volume knobs, which is wonderful for live control.
The envelopes are simple but elegant. The filter envelope is an attack-decay affair, while the amp envelope consists of attack and release, with full sustain level. This is sensible, as it allows for a wide range of articulations with a minimum of fuss.
The last button accesses the LFO parameters: Wave, Rate, and discrete amounts for pitch and filter. The waveforms cover the full range of standards, including sine, triangle and square, as well as two sawtooth waves (up and down), stepped sample-and-hold, and a gliding random mode which can be useful for adding a touch of synthetic “drift” to the filter and/or pitch.
At the end of the chain is a mono delay with controls for time and mix (which is also tied to feedback). This delay is filtered to evoke tape echoes, which gives it a nicely subdued flavor.
PERFORMANCE AND SEQUENCING
While the flat-panel keyboard may put off some users, there’s also MIDI and USB control if you prefer real keys. For a synth this size and price, it’s fine — and the ability to select from 15 different scale modes makes it easy to solo without flubbed notes.
Above the keyboard is a set of momentary buttons that serve as clever substitutes for pitch and mod wheel functions. On the pitch side, there are buttons for Dive and Scoop that toggle note slides when you hit a key. The next three buttons apply the current LFO to pitch, filter, and volume (tremolo). The depths here are preset and don’t go too deep, but it does add to their musicality. An on/off hold switch is also included for latching a note.
The arpeggiator covers the gamut of standard up and down styles, with two additional modes that strike each note twice before moving to the next note in the arpeggio. These are quite useful for quickly generating 80s and synthwave patterns. Random and play-order types are also available, in conjunction with up to four octaves of range. On the whole, it’s surprisingly capable.
The pattern sequencer is one measure in length, with up to 16 steps per sequence. Length can be adjusted on the fly and the playback directions include backward and back-and-forth, for a bit of added complexity.
It’s straightforward to record your patterns in real time, with an optional metronome for keeping time as you play. Step-entry is accessed by hitting the record button without the play button. From there you can enter notes, then use the data up/down buttons to step forward through the sequence, which is a nicely intuitive approach.
Parameter automation is also included as part of your sequence. For this, you hit Record as the sequence plays, which puts it into standby until you turn a knob, which is then recorded until the sequence completes its loop. With a little planning and patience, you can get some wonderfully complex results with this technique. That said, I was a bit surprised to find that the performance switches weren’t recorded with the notes in a sequence; but on the other hand, this allows for live interaction as a sequence plays — and you can achieve similar effects via automation.
As is fairly standard nowadays, sequences are saved as part of each preset. With a bank of 80 user-programmable options, this is ample storage for most applications.
MIDI CONTROL AND EDITOR
Uno Synth features an extensive MIDI implementation, specifically with regard to Continuous Controller assignments, which integrates with the downloadable editor. In addition to essential pitchbend, mod wheel, velocity and other expressive control, many of the unit’s synthesis parameters can be accessed via CC information.
For example, filter keyboard tracking can be fine-tuned with CC 106, while the full set of ADSR functions for both filter and amp can be addressed using other CC messages. What’s more, you can add pulse-width modulation from either the LFO or envelope via MIDI, so working with the editor expands the Uno Synth’s sonic palette greatly. Naturally, these MIDI adjustments will be saved with your presets, so if you want to rig up a secondary controller for live editing, that’s also possible.
IK Multimedia certainly did their homework before launching Uno Synth. In addition to an impressively warm analog sound, it’s packed with features that make it a great first synth for newcomers or an excellent addition to music education programs. The integrated sequencer and arpeggiator will undoubtedly appeal to the DJ crowd, too.
All in all, it’s an excellent value for the price and will fit nicely into rigs of all shapes and sizes.
Fully analog signal path. Multimode filter. Integrated sequencer and arpeggiator. Innovative MIDI control options. Built-in delay.
Deeper synthesis features only available via MIDI or editor.
Francis Preve is a journalist, sound designer, and college professor. Find out more at francispreve.com