Review: Make Noise 0-Coast

Modular synth possibilities in a pint-sized package
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Asheville-based Eurorack manufacturer Make Noise has created a standalone monophonic synth that encompasses timbre-generating capabilities you won’t find in other off-the-shelf instruments. The 0-Coast— ambiguously pronounced oh coast, no coast, or zero coast—takes its inspiration from Buchla and Moog synthesizers developed on the West and East Coasts, respectively, though it borrows more from Buchla than Moog. It is semi-modular, functioning perfectly well using only hardwired internal connections, but gaining significant flexibility when reconfigured with patch cords.

Where most analog synths rely on subtractive synthesis, with oscillators generating complex waveforms and filters removing or attenuating harmonics, the 0-Coast lacks a traditional filter. Instead, a single, dedicated oscillator generates simple waveforms, and additional circuits use waveshaping to impart harmonic complexity. Not only does the 0-Coast have a thoroughly analog-audio signal path, but most of its control sources are analog, too. Its only digital features are the onboard arpeggiator, two internal LFOs, and the ability to respond to MIDI data.

FROM COAST TO COAST

The 0-Coast is a black steel box, slightly smaller than the average book, that is densely populated with 18 knobs, 30 mini-jacks (3.5mm), 3 illuminated buttons, and 10 activity windows—small, colored, translucent squares and circles that illuminate to varying degrees of brightness (see Fig. 1). Using the jacks, you can connect internal circuits to one another and to external gear. Graphics indicate whether each jack is a signal input, signal output, control voltage (CV) input, or trigger/gate input. Gold lines printed on the panel indicate hardwired signal flow that you can bypass with patch cords.

Fig. 1. Timbral explorers have some new territory to investigate. The 0-Coast packs a surprisingly versatile analog synth into a box you’ll want to hold in both hands.

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The signal patched into MIDI In is sent over two MIDI data pathways. They can receive on two MIDI channels simultaneously, but that’s incidental to their primary function of handling different types of MIDI data. MIDI A is hardwired to send control voltages (CVs) to alter the pitch of the oscillator and gate signals to control the contour generator. MIDI B translates a variety of MIDI messages to CVs and gates and routes them to CV and Gate output jacks in the lower-left corner. That means the 0-Coast can function as a MIDI-to-CV convertor for non-MIDI synths.

Rather than using the familiar 5-pin DIN connectors, the 0-Coast uses a mini jack for MIDI In, like the type found on the Korg SQ-1 and Electribe 2. An adapter cable is included, as is a wall-wart power supply, six short patch cords, and a longer audio cable with a 3.5mm connector on one end and a 1/4-inch TS plug on the other.

After I received the review unit, Make Noise discovered a MIDI parameter had been set incorrectly and issued a firmware update to correct the problem. The procedure for updating firmware wasn’t difficult, but it was more complex than most because the data was encoded in an audio file. During the course of my review, I installed two more updates, one implementing portamento via MIDI and another enabling a Max 4 Live Object for programming the 0-Coast using Ableton Live (see Figure 2).

Fig. 2. Editing the 0-Coast is simplified when using the Max 4 Live device in Ableton Live.

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The 0-Coast’s CV processing section has two inputs that can be summed. One input has an attenuvertor for flipping its polarity. The outputs can serve as a multiple for sending one signal to two destinations, when needed.

An internal clock controls rates for the arpeggiator, LFOs, and a stepped random-voltage generator, with tempo indicated by a flashing activity window and gate signals sent to the Clock output. You set the tempo by pressing the Tap button, enabling MIDI Clock, or connecting a pulsating source to the Tempo input. The Tempo, Clock, and Random Voltage jacks have no normalled connections and must be connected using patch cords.

HARMONIC MODULATION

The 0-Coast’s voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) generates just two waveforms—triangle and square. According to Make Noise, triangle waves are often used as a starting point for West Coast sounds because they have such weak harmonics, and square waves are often used as a starting point for East Coast sounds because they’re rich in odd-numbered harmonics.

Internal connections route the square wave to the Overtone circuit and the triangle to both the Overtone circuit and Balance circuit, which passes it through the Dynamics circuit to the output. Overtone adds harmonics to the oscillator waveform, contributing complexity to the VCO’s output. Think of it as the opposite of subtractive synthesis, where filters remove overtones from harmonically rich waveforms.

The Overtone circuit works in tandem with the Balance circuit. With the Balance knob fully counterclockwise, only the fundamental can pass, whereas at the other extreme you’ll hear only overtones. With Balance set fully clockwise (overtone position), you’ll hear a single lower harmonic give way to higher harmonics as you turn the Overtone knob clockwise from its minimum setting. When the Overtone control is fully counterclockwise, only odd-numbered harmonics pass, with even-numbered harmonics gradually replacing them as you turn the knob clockwise. A CV input with an attenuator knob controls how much an external source affects the Overtone circuit, allowing you to modulate the spectrum using voltage control. You can also control the Balance setting with a CV.

Audio signals are routed from Overtone to the Multiply circuit, where additional overtones are generated to produce even greater harmonic complexity. Slowly turning up the Multiply knob sounds much like opening a lowpass filter as harmonics appear one by one. Though the results are roughly similar, it’s this technique of adding rather than subtracting harmonics that largely distinguishes West and East Coast synthesis.

GO WITH THE FLOW

The 0-Coast’s slope generator is essentially an envelope generator with two stages. The Rise knob (attack) determines how long a voltage takes to reach its maximum, and the Fall knob (decay) determines how long it takes to return to minimum. Because slope lets you control rise and fall independently, it can generate asymmetrical waveshapes as well as the usual triangle, pulse, and sawtooth. The continuously variable response knob ranges from logarithmic to linear to exponential..

The slope generator is most useful for modulating the Overtone and Multiply circuits, and that’s how it is hardwired. As a single-shot modulator, it can trigger spectral changes every time you play a note. Engaging the Cycle button loops the slope generator, with the length of the rise and fall times controlling the speed of the loop. The slope generator can serve as an LFO at slower rates and as an audio oscillator at faster rates. It makes an ideal modulator for FM synthesis when operating at audio frequencies. Because you can change the spectrum dynamically with the slightest twist of either the Overtone or Multiply knob, the 0-Coast delivers a broad range of clangorous FM timbres.

Contour is a function generator with knobs for Onset (attack), Sustain, Decay, and Vari-Response. Like the Minimoog’s contour generator, Decay determines both initial decay and release time. You can set very fast attack and decay times—so fast that it produces the snappiest envelopes I’ve ever heard, making it perfect for percussive sounds. Its Gate input is normalled to MIDI Note On and Off, and its output is normalled to Dynamics.

The Dynamics circuit functions as a VCA, and though it isn’t exactly a lowpass filter, changing its level also changes the brightness of the audio signal. The Line Out and Dynamics output jacks carry the same monophonic signal, but Line Out has a level control and clips at its highest settings, whereas Dynamics carries a much hotter signal (+10V) appropriate for connecting to an external modular synth.

Editing the digital parameters requires some rather complex button-pushing combinations. Because the 0-Coast has no alphanumeric display, the only visual feedback comes from illuminated buttons and activity windows. Hold the Program A button to enter menu pages and press it to scroll between pages. Press Program B (which doubles as the Tap button) to set values, and hold it to exit the menus.

To enable the onboard arpeggiator, press the Program A and B buttons simultaneously. You can specify whether the arpeggiator plays notes in the order held and released or that it latches as many as 20 notes at a time. Additional menu pages let you change legato mode, set MIDI channels, enable portamento, and so on.

SAVED BY ZERO

In a world filled with analog (and digital) subtractive synthesizers, the 0-Coast stands out from the crowd. It may take awhile to get to know it thoroughly, but you can generate wonderfully original and distinctive sounds you’d find difficult or impossible to produce without it, simply by twisting a few knobs. Just be warned that because it lacks patch memory, creating a patch means losing another one unless you write down all your settings and connections.

Although it would make an excellent addition to almost any Eurorack rig, Make Noise doesn’t offer any means to mount it in a rack. Still, the 0-Coast is the least expensive introduction to Buchla-style synthesis you can get, and it’s guaranteed to add unique colors to your musical palette.

STRENGTHS
Broad timbral range. Loads of functionality in a compact form factor. Fast, punchy envelopes. Relatively intuitive FM synthesis. Solid construction.

LIMITATIONS
No patch memory. Difficult-to-read labels. Not rackmountable. No alphanumeric display. Non-standard MIDI connector.

$499
makenoisemusic.com

Former EM senior editor Geary Yelton is spending his winter alongside a canal near a beach in Venice, Florida.