Beneath the 2.8-by-1.5-inch, black-on-white backlit LCD, two soft-knobs scroll context-sensitive menus and adjust onscreen values.
In 2004, Waldorf fans thought they'd seen the end of an era as tough times befell the once — thriving German synth powerhouse. As money dwindled to finance its lofty hardware designs and cheaper software systems flooded the marketplace, operations ceased almost overnight. Since then, Waldorf has hired back its original engineers, previewed a trio of exciting new products at recent trade shows — including the Blofeld — and seems to be on solid financial footing.
Named after the James Bond supervillain — later spoofed as “Dr. Evil” in the Austin Powers series — Blofeld packs many aspects of Waldorf's “greatest hits” into a design that's as small as its price. It sounds decidedly like a hybrid, largely based upon the PPG Wave (the first commercial synth to feature digital wavetables) from the early '80s but also on later models such as the Microwave, Microwave II/XT and the virtual analog Q/Micro Q.
You could consider the fully programmable Blofeld as the “next generation” Micro Q, capable of producing fat, warm and organic analog-type sounds, as well as those instantly recognizable edgy, hard-hitting and bell-like timbres that are synonymous with the Waldorf name. Fuse in an all-new graphical operating system, some sound-shaping delicacies previously available only in the company's most high-end units, a streamlined fast-tweak control surface, computer connectivity and modern D/A conversion specs, and you've got something truly wicked on your hands.
A departure from the company's loudly colored panels, the Blofeld looks cool, sleek and modernly subdued. Axel Hartmann, the man behind the Hartmann Neuron who is also Waldorf's longtime designer and conceptualist extraordinaire, was in charge of aesthetics. His stunningly simplistic arctic-white wedge measures just 5-by-12 inches — perfectly sized to sit in that “dead space” found on many large keyboards. There is no rackmount kit available. For such a tiny unit, its 3 lb. full-metal chassis with ergonomically beveled front edge is extremely durable and rests securely on four rubber feet. It won't bounce or slide around as you rock out.
Eight shiny stainless steel knobs fashionably adorn the front panel; four of them are smooth endless-rotary types used to edit program values from within the silk-screened parameter matrix. Similar to the Micro Q, you select a quick-edit function by cycle-pressing one of four buttons located down the left side of the matrix (orange LEDs indicate which of the 10 available quick-edit rows you're affecting) and then turning the knob relating to the function in the corresponding vertical column. A Shift button allows further access to Utility and Global commands.
Two soft-knobs beneath the LCD scroll context-sensitive menus and adjust onscreen values. A detented control to the left of the display navigates presets, producing gentle clicks as you turn, and a system volume control is located on the bottom left. The large and solid knobs have a reassuring twist to them, and the generous spacing allows for aggressive tweaks without jamming your knuckles.
A look around back reveals that Blofeld is rather short on connectivity for a 25-note polyphonic/16-part multitimbral synth. The unit's lone unbalanced stereo output pair pines for a secondary or even tertiary pair of jacks, which would allow live stem effects or submixing. To keep down the price, there is no audio input, which is too bad considering the propensity Waldorf users have for piping external audio sources through those juicy filters. You get a single MIDI input, but no MIDI Out or Thru; a USB port does allow for MIDI data to be both transmitted and received (as well as load firmware and soundbanks), but unfortunately, there's no audio streaming or plug-in DAW integration over USB at this time. The obligatory ¼-inch headphone output and 12V power input round things out. There are no expression pedal or footswitch jacks, so you'll have to adapt to using those functions over MIDI.
Q WORLDS COLLIDE
Blofeld's sound engine begins with three oscillators, each offering virtual analog (VA) waveforms: pulse, saw, triangle and sine. Oscillators 1 and 2 also feature 68 digital wavetable options. All ROM tables been drafted from the flagship Waldorf Wave and Microwave II/XT, as well as the mighty Upper Wavetable from the classic PPG Wave. What this means is that you can combine (for the first time ever) Waldorf and PPG oscillators, not to mention VA, under one machine for some completely hybrid sounds.
Coarse oscillator tuning takes place over nine octaves, marked in standard organ-stop measurements from an aliasing-free ½-foot to a sub-rattling 128-foot length. All oscillator types can have their pulse width adjusted from myriad sources, and you can even dial in the harmonic complexity of wavetables using the Brilliance control to decide whether you prefer the pure and perfect harmonics of Q-series units or the edgier timbre of earlier PPG units.
The Brilliance control can also alter the VA waveshapes, allowing soft “rounded-saw” padlike sounds or harder shark's-tooth shapes needed for bass sounds to cut through, for example. Each of the oscillators can frequency-modulate any other oscillator, the noise generator or one of the LFOs. Oscillators 1 and 2 can be ring modulated, and oscillator 2 can be hard-synced to oscillator 3. The noise generator delivers white noise capable of being run through the unit's filters. You can set up for poly or mono voice allocation, Unison mode (as many as six voices with variable detuning) and several glide modes with rate.
All three oscillators, the ring modulator and the noise generator each have their own level and Filter Balance controls, allowing you to freely blend them between the Blofeld's two multimode filters per voice. The 11 filter types — which can run in series or in parallel with individual panning — include lowpass, highpass, bandpass and notch with 12/24 dB slopes; a positive or negative feedback comb; and a very special inclusion: a model of the distinctive PPG Wave 24 dB lowpass filter.
With frequency modulation (filter FM) and self-oscillation, each filter can have its own Drive amount that is selectable from 13 curves, including warm Q-series models, tubelike saturation, pickups, rectifiers, harsh clipping, binary distortion and more.
Three LFOs offer sine, triangle, square, sawtooth, sample-and-hold and random waveshapes that can sync to MIDI clock, playback as polyphonic or monophonic and be speed scaled with MIDI note or key-follow. On every key trigger, LFOs can reset to start at a definable phase value, incur variable note-on delay and fade-in positively or negatively. Because LFO speeds reach well into the audible frequency range, they can double as FM sources.
You can shape signals with four multimode envelopes — one each for filter and amplifier, plus two that are freely assignable. Modes include classic ADSR, ADS1DS2R (two decay and sustain stages), One Shot (ideal for percussion), Loop S1S2 and Loop All — whereby the latter two cause envelopes to act like custom-shaped LFOs. Each envelope can be either polyphonic or single-trigger.
The Blofeld has two effects slots. The first offers such modulation-based goodies as chorus, flanger, phaser and overdrive, while the second has those, as well as delay, clocked-delay and reverb. In standard live Play mode, both slots are in series. In Multi mode, you assign sounds to MIDI channels 1 through 16 for sequencing. The first effect slot is available for Parts 1-4 only, while the second acts as a global effect. The effects sound typically Waldorfian: thick, velvety and rich with a nice gritty edge I've always loved about the Micro Q.
A MOD PARTY
The Blofeld's modulation facilities go deeper than any VA synth I've seen. The Mod Matrix has a pants-wetting 16 freely definable slots, each with a choice of 30 sources and 54 possible destinations. The lists contain everything you would expect, as well as some novel inclusions, such as the ability to source LFO1 × Mod Wheel, LFO2 × Pressure or Release Velocity as controllers. Also controllable are the pitches, levels and pans of individual or multiple oscillators; their waveforms and pulse widths; FM amount and ring-mod level and pans; nearly every filter parameter including Drive; and much more.
Blofeld's four Modifier blocks are also included in each Mod Matrix list. These are incredibly powerful extensions of the modulation system that let you create new modulation sources with mathematical, algorithmic or logic operations. For example, I set up a Modifier to control an oscillator's wavetable position by combining mod wheel “XOR” velocity. In this way, I could scan the wavetable with the mod wheel but override it momentarily by stabbing at the keys; the harder I'd stab, the higher in the wavetable I'd travel. Awesome.
Naturally, you can modulate any of the modulators themselves, including the Modifiers, LFOs and every stage of the four envelopes. But what's really cool is that Blofeld lets you specify that these sources act upon themselves, for what essentially results in recursive modulation. It definitely can get heady, but it's a tweaker's paradise that truly sets Blofeld apart from the crowd.
The freely programmable, MIDI-syncable arpeggiator at the end of the parameter list is a monster! Featuring clock divisions from 96th notes to 64 bars with variable swing/shuffle and a range as high as 10 octaves, it can arpeggiate up, down or alternate up and down. It sorts notes “as played” or reversed, from lowest to highest key or velocity (and vice versa) and with variable note length. In Multi mode, you get one arpeggiator per part.
The fun really begins at the step-data level, which is displayed graphically. Pattern lengths range from 1 to 16 independently programmable steps. Four more screens let you adjust individual note accents, turn step glides on or off, nudge timing ahead or behind and finely expand or compress individual note lengths for tight staccato or full legato play. The 15 storable user patterns range in tempo from 40 to 300 bpm. A front-panel Mode control quickly turns the arpeggiator on/off and switches to One Shot or Hold modes, which are handy for firing off chorded sequences in time with a drummer or drum machine.
LET'S SHAG, BABY, YEAH!
Factory programs are spread over eight banks (A through H). Plowing through all 1,024 presets takes some time, but 11 filter categories help narrow the search. I recognized many patches from the Micro Q, but with a distinctly cleaner and smoother sound from the Blofeld, particularly in its filters and wavetable scanning. The VA programs sound absolutely gorgeous: superfat sub wobbles and kick basses, juicy analog brass and strings for every occasion, greasy R&B/hip-hop leads, blistering Chemical Brothers synths with raunchy filter distortion and teeth-chattering resonance, lush Oberheim/Prophet-style pads and tons of explosive electro drums.
On the flipside of the sound spectrum, you find chunky hybrid organs, classics like B3 and Farfisa, Wurlitzer/Rhodes/DX-7-style pianos, tons of mystical sweeps and classic PPG fodder including mallet, vocal and glassy bell-like sounds. The smooth transitioning through each of the wavetable's 128 indexed waves, which you can modulate into extremely complex harmonic and seamlessly evolving textures, impressed me the most.
Blofeld's well-designed GUI has more than 100 menus to surf; the context-sensitive paging and soft-knob system manages to make the edit facilities a piece of cake to navigate. The deepest you ever have to scroll is seven pages and, even then, the most frequently used parameters are typically found in the first two or three layers.
PROJECT “GLOBAL WARMING”
One can't help but wonder if Blofeld's underlying scheme is to melt a bit of Access' Virus TI Snow (which will be reviewed in next month's issue). After all, the features and design appear similar. It's quite possible these similarities are purely coincidental, but either way, it's worth comparing the specs on both units.
Both synths sport VA and spectral/wavetable synthesis. Snow also features a dedicated suboscillator, formant voicing and granular synthesis, which Blofeld does not. Both units have dual multimode filters with competing filter types (Snow's exclusive Moog cascade filter versus Blofeld's PPG model). The Snow's modulation matrix is 1-to-3, but it has only six slots. Their LFOs are very similar, but Blofeld's four multimode envelopes will take you quite a bit further than Snow's two ADSTR envelopes. The synths' effects are also comparable, though Snow has independent delay and reverb per patch, plus a global vocoder. Snow also has full multiperformance layering capabilities, analog inputs, audio streaming and full computer VSTi integration over USB.
Still, at two-thirds the asking price of the $1,550 Snow, it's clear that Waldorf has done its homework in figuring out the best places to cut costs and release a sub-$1,000 unit representing incredible value. Blofeld is a perfect companion for live musicians or laptop producers.
Listen to exclusive audio examples from Blofeld atRemixmag.com.
(DIST. BY MV PRO AUDIO)
BLOFELD > $999
Pros: Classic Waldorf/PPG sound. Combines virtual analog and wavetable synthesis. Fat-sounding filters. Excellent modulation facilities. Deeply programmable arpeggiator. Incredible value.
Cons: No auxiliary stereo outputs. No audio inputs for processing. MIDI Out/Thru only via USB. No audio streaming or VSTi computer integration at this time.