In a radical departure from its high-end Selector-series modular synthesizers, Technosaurus has recently introduced its Small Monster line of discrete analog synth components. Although the Small Monsters are aimed squarely at the groove and dance markets, these new instruments offer a host of cleverly implemented features that many synth enthusiasts will find useful.
The first two models in the series are the Microcon, a monophonic analog synthesizer (see Fig. 1), and the Cyclodon, a 16-step analog sequencer (see Fig. 2). The features of the Microcon and Cyclodon are complementary, making the two devices a well-matched pair.
POCKET MONSTERSTechnosaurus designed this series with portability and ease of use in mind. Each of the instruments is roughly the size of a VHS videocassette. Such a small footprint means that they can sit on the little shelf above a Minimoog keyboard, or perch on the unused portion of a keyboard controller. For the musician on the go, a couple of these modules and a small drum machine will fit neatly into a compact suitcase.
Each of the instruments is lightweight and housed in a sturdy metal box. Rubber feet on the bottom keep the units from slipping around as you tweak the knobs. In fact, the knobs are also rubberized and provide a nice amount of resistance as you work with them. This helps reinforce the feeling that the Microcon and Cyclodon are built to last.
Each of these instruments has I/O jacks on the right side. Unfortunately, they both require a wall-wart power supply-in this case, 12 VDC. (Technosaurus claims that you can power two units using a single power supply and a Y-cable.) The option of using batteries to power the modules would have been nice; the wall warts that I received with the units are almost half the size of the instruments themselves. In addition, the power jacks on both the Microcon and the Cyclodon are located at the bottom of the right panel instead of at the top; because I wanted the controls to be closer to me than to the wall warts, I had to weave the power lines under all of the other cables. This proved to be a tricky undertaking in some of my instrument configurations.
ONE VOICE, NO WAITThe Microcon is about as simple to operate as any monophonic synthesizer I've seen. Once you power it up, you can plug it into an amplifier, press the Trigger button, and be on your way. As with the earliest analog synths, you can't use the Microcon to save and recall a patch. Whatever sound you have dialed up on the front panel is what you'll hear the next time you turn it on.
The Microcon's front panel is divided into six sections-Control, VCO, LFO, Envelope, VCF, and VCA-and includes 12 knobs, 7 switches, and 1 button. At the panel's far left is the Control section, which includes the master tuning control, a button for triggering the envelope generator, and a Glide knob for setting the amount of portamento between notes.
Next is the VCO, which offers two waveforms: square or sawtooth. You can also mix in a square-wave oscillator pitched an octave below using the Sub-Mix-VCO knob. The VCO can be transposed down two octaves using the Octave switch. The final control in the section is an LFO Mod knob that controls the amount of LFO modulation added to the oscillator.
There are only two controls for the LFO: frequency and wave shape. As with the VCO, you have a choice of square or sawtooth waves. The frequency of the LFO is controlled by the Speed knob and ranges from subharmonic (roughly one cycle for every 15 seconds) well into the audio range. LFO modulation can be added to the VCO as well as the VCF.
Acting primarily on the VCA, the envelope generator gives you continuous control over attack and decay times. A third envelope parameter, Release, can be switched on or off. The release time is the same as the decay time, but by having Release switched on, you get the entire envelope if you press and let go of the trigger button when the VCA is in AD mode.
The Microcon also includes a good-sounding lowpass VCF. You're given continuous control over the filter's cutoff frequency, the resonance, the amount of LFO modulation, and the amount of control that the envelope has over the filter. When the CV switch is in the On position, the filter is controlled by the signal at the CV input. The Mode switch determines whether the filter's frequency cutoff is 12 dB per octave (for a 2-pole filter) or 24 dB per octave (for a 4-pole filter). Of the two settings, the 24 dB cutoff sounds the smoothest.
The main feature of the VCA is the AD/Gate switch. In AD mode, the attack and decay settings of the envelope determine the volume contour. In Gate mode, the volume is switched on by the gate, and the envelope settings have no effect on the volume of the signal.
In addition to the wall-wart power jack mentioned earlier, the Microcon has a single 11/44-inch output jack and 11/48-inch minijacks that accept CV and Gate signals. The Gate input requires a stereo miniplug; the CV input can accept a mono or stereo miniplug, depending on the application.
A rundown of the Microcon's features sounds more complicated than it really is. The good news is that someone without any previous knowledge of analog synthesis can get good sounds right away with this unit.
TUNING INAs you would expect with a modern discrete analog circuit, the Microcon's VCO pitch is solid. With the VCO's mix knob turned fully clockwise and the tuning knob at 12 o'clock, the pitch is A-440 Hz (just as the manual specified). The tuning knob gives the Microcon's VCO a range of a few cents less than an exact tritone (plus/minus6 semitones) up or down from the center detent. The manual, on the contrary, claims a pitch range of a fourth (5 semitones) above and below the center detent. In addition, I found that the octaves of my particular unit were not completely in tune. This was most apparent at 4- and 5-octave leaps when I was playing the Microcon and Microcon II (see Fig. 3) in unison from a keyboard as a lead instrument. I also noticed that switching the Microcon's oscillator down two octaves (the -2 position of the Octave switch) lowered the pitch a few cents beyond two octaves.
Depending on your point of view, the imperfect octaves could be a blessing or a curse. As part of the dual-voice lead instrument mentioned above, the subtle octave discrepancies give you the classic sound of some of the early monophonic synths. (And for musicians who use the Microcon as they would a bass synth such as Roland's TB-303, the imperfect octaves will probably not be a concern.) On the other hand, if you're playing a single line along with another instrument, the intonation could be a problem.
FILTER THISBy using an insert cable in the output jack, you can process an external audio signal with the Microcon's filter: ring carries the audio input to the filter, and tip is the audio output. The ability to process external audio is a nice touch, making the unit that much more valuable. Plugging a mono miniplug into the gate jack mutes the Microcon's VCO so that you hear just the processed external signal at the output.
Another interesting feature of the Microcon is that the CV input can accept two control voltages from a miniplug insert cable. The tip of the stereo plug controls the pitch, and the ring controls the filter. Thus I was able to control the Microcon's pitch with a sequencer while changing the filter characteristics separately from a keyboard-and vice versa when I swapped the tip and ring plugs.
The Microcon's Envelope section presents some additional surprises. With the Release switch off and the Attack knob at 12 o'clock, the Trigger button triggers the envelope-just as you would imagine. However, once you turn the Attack knob to the left of 12 o'clock (so that the envelope is opening on its own), the Trigger button triggers the decay. In this case, if the Decay knob is set fully counterclockwise, pushing Trigger the sound. With the decay set longer, the envelope jumps to that setting and you immediately hear the decay. If you're running another synth through the Microcon's filter but the volume of the source synth is down, the Trigger button opens and closes the envelope, allowing you to hear the Microcon's LFO on its own. What's so interesting about all of this? If you want to perform with this unit (whether in the studio or on stage), knowing how the various parameters interact gives you a number of useful options for real-time control.
MONSTROUS TONEWhen it comes to rich analog sounds, the Microcon delivers. As both a bass and a lead instrument, this little synth has a lot to offer and is more versatile sonically than I originally expected.
Comparing the Microcon-and the Microcon II, for that matter-with other analog instruments is difficult because these units have a sound all their own. To my ears, the Microcon leans more toward an Oberheim SEM than anything else.
Played in combination with other synths, the Microcon blends nicely yet retains its own character in a mix. The ability to change the slope of the filter cutoff from 12 to 24 dB certainly helps in this regard. For example, I liked the way it sounded with my Sequential Circuits Pro-One.
If you're looking for another Roland TB-303 clone, you'll have to look elsewhere. But if you want a punchy portable synth, check out the Microcon.
16-STEP PROGRAMThe Cyclodon is a 16-step sequencer that is almost Zen-like in its stark simplicity. To begin with, it has two rows of eight continuously variable potentiometers, as well as an that LED indicates which row is being played. Four switches allow you to set the number of steps used in the sequence. The Run/ Stop button controls the sequencer playback when the unit is in Auto mode; in Manual mode it moves you through the sequence one step a time-perfect for tuning each step. The Clock switch puts the sequencer under the control of either the internal clock or an external signal. Under internal control, you can set the speed of the sequence using the Tempo knob.
The Cyclodon sends control voltage and gate signals through minijacks on the unit's right side. The panel also includes a Roland-style 5-pin DIN sync jack so that you can run the Cyclodon from a drum machine, rhythm box, or MIDI-Sync24 converter.
ADDITION AND DIVISIONOne interesting feature of the Cyclodon is the inclusion of four Step Number switches, marked +8, +4, +2, and +1. These switches allow you to create sequences of 1 to 16 steps, and you can change the number of steps while the sequencer is running. Want to do an additive sequencing piece in which you increase the number of steps in the sequence one at a time? With the Cyclodon, you can.
You can also control the number of steps that are played for each external pulse via the Clock Divider setting. It can be set to play whole notes (one sequencer step for every four external beats), half notes (one step for every two beats), quarter notes (one step per beat), eighth notes (two steps per beat), and 16th notes (four steps per beat).
You set the clock division using the step-number switches-1 for whole notes, 2 for half notes, and so on. Unfortunately, you have to turn the external signal off before you can change the clock division. With a little practice, however, I was able to reset the clock division within a bar or two of a break, depending on the tempo.
QUIBBLES AND WISHESAfter spending a few weeks working with the Cyclodon, I encountered a couple of minor problems that stuck in my craw. For starters, the Run/Stop button is too close to the Step Number switches; more than once I accidentally shut off a sequence while changing its length. Similarly, the Cyclodon's power jack isn't recessed far enough into the unit; the wall-wart plug protruded just enough that I could easily disconnect it if I brushed my arm against it. (The Microcon's power jack doesn't have this problem.)
Because of the Cyclodon's small footprint, features that are important to more advanced users of step sequencers had to be sacrificed. For example, a mute switch for each step-or at least a way to play the lower row of eight steps without the first-would be a nice addition. A transposition feature would also be welcome, as would a second set of CV and Gate outputs.
Of course, any added features would dramatically change the size and layout of the Cyclodon. Admittedly, I prefer Cyclodon's simplicity enough that I would forgo any additions (although there just may be enough room for a second set of control outputs on the side panel).
MONSTERS ON THE HORIZONTechnosaurus has big plans ahead for its Small Monster series. The next device in the series is an analog multi-effects processor called the Effexon. The effects slated for this unit include overdrive, a VCO modulator, a 2-band parametric EQ, and a ring modulator that can use an internal or external control signal.
The Effexon is due for release by the middle of the year. Technosaurus also has plans for a module that will power a number of Small Monsters, eliminating the need for a cluster of wall warts and their attendant power strip.
A PERFECT PAIRBoth the Microcon and the Cyclodon are straightforward and simple to use, and either unit would be a significant addition to a live-performance or studio setup. DJs and dance musicians will appreciate the size, portability, and useful control configuration of these instruments. Studio synthesists will find that these Small Monsters can easily interface with older analog synths. The Cyclodon, for example, immediately fit into my studio setup. Because of its small footprint, it was especially convenient when used with my keyboard synths.
If you are new to analog gear, you'll appreciate the basic, no-frills aspect of the Microcon and Cyclodon as you familiarize yourself with the language of voltage control. Separately or together, the Microcon and Cyclodon are instruments well worth investigating.
EM associate editor Gino Robair wishes to thank his Moog Sonic Six, Oberheim SEM, Sequential Circuits Pro-One, and Buchla 200-series modules for their help with this review.
The Microcon II ($449) is the newest addition to Technosaurus's Small Monster family. The front-panel layout of the Microcon II is identical to the original Microcon's, but the control options are somewhat different.
To begin with, the Microcon II can be controlled by MIDI through the input jack on its left panel. However, you can control only performance aspects via MIDI; the current implementation doesn't let you save voice setups or patches. You can select the MIDI channel by using the dial next to the MIDI jack; the dial is marked in hexadecimal increments (0 through F) equivalent to MIDI channels 1 through 16.
Although the controller implementation is rather thin, I found many uses for a small analog synth that I can play from any external MIDI controller. The parameters you can control via MIDI include Pitch Bend, Glide, Accent (on or off depending on the range of the Velocity), and the cutoff frequency of the VCF.
The Microcon II also gives you two CV outputs on one stereo minijack. With an insert cable I was able to play the original Microcon and my Oberheim SEM along with the Microcon II from a MIDI keyboard.
Speaking of stacking synthesizers, the VCO on the Microcon II has a range of a tritone (plus/minus6 semitones) above and below the 12 o'clock center position of the Tune knob. However, unlike the Microcon's, the Microcon II's Tune knob is not center detented. Pitchwise, the center position yields something between A-440 and the G-sharp below it-slightly different from the manufacturer's specifications.
In all other matters the Microcon II behaves like the Microcon. Side by side, the two sound slightly different: the Microcon II is a tad fuller-sounding, due perhaps to the lower cutoff frequency of its filter. Because of its MIDI features, the Microcon II costs $120 more than the original Microcon, but I would recommend spending the extra money if you want the added control that MIDI offers.
Overall EM Rating (1 through 5): 4