Thursday, 8 September 2016

DSI Evolver and MoPho

Sometimes, good things come in pairs. I recently jumped on the chance to buy two second hand synthesisers from a chap in Kensal Green; a MoPho module and Evolver module from Dave Smith Instruments. Despite only wanting the Evolver initially, I found that to buy both was only £100 more so I jumped at the chance to grab another cheap analogue box.

I have always been attracted to the Evolver, initally because the keyboard versions looks and sounds like a blue UFO but now because a 4 oscillator monosynth with three delay lines and four sequencers sounds immense.

Both synths, now discontinued, have had a good run; the MoPho in particular providing cheap and reliable analogue bass and lead sounds to a generation of musicians with both enough hands on control with a deep and rich feature set for those looking to get under the hood.

Back to basics

Getting these second hand at the price was a boon but as always there are always caveats with second hand gear. Luckily the biggest issues with this one were a few odd dings in the plastic case, the missing DSI sticker on the near side of the case and a weird pencil point shaped hole in the display (which thankfully disappears in operation). The MoPho meanwhile was not so lucky; a few dings in the plastic over the display were joined by a few missing encoder knobs, though to be fair all the knobs were pretty loose on the splines so it's no wonder they had gone missing. 

To counterpoint this, at the very least the paintwork wasn't chipped on either synth, all the buttons and knobs worked more or less perfectly and as both have been used in smoke free studios at least the ought to be in good condition inside and out.

I think this is even better than the originals
Let's tackle the MoPho first: a couple of knob caps were missing, but I imagine that’s often the issue with a few synths as they don’t tend to sit very snug on either the MoPho or the Evolver. Taking the MoPho down to my dad's workshop, we quickly found a few knob caps in yellow and black. Despite the encoder splines being slightly too short for the new caps, once we sanded them down to the right height they suited the synth so well that we replaced all of them. They sit much more rigidly on the unit and I think you will agree that they suit the colour and style of the MoPho perfectly. (Side note: if anyone in the UK wants a pack of 9 MoPho encoders for spares pay me the postage and they are yours!)

Additionally, there's always a certain amount of gunk, finger grease and general crud on second hand synths and a bit of isopropyl alcohol and a blue kitchen cloth did wonders at getting the yellow and orange shining again.

Programming time

As with all digital synthesisers that are in module form space is always at a premium when it comes to controls and patch programming, though thankfully for both the MoPho and Evolver this has been thought of and catered for by specific approaches with the endless encoders and buttons provided.
On the Evolver, a matrix of 8x8 rows are assigned by buttons on the side, with each of the eight parameters per row assigned to one of the endless controllers across the top. There is also a shift button that can be held down to access another eight parameters per row, meaning there are 128 parameters on this synthesiser alone, plus the step sequencers and general options.

While this can be slightly overwhelming for the initiate synthesist, I found the Evolver more straightforward to use in terms of accessing all the parameters and things are laid out from top to bottom in a straightforward manner, with oscillators at the top rows leading into filters, envelopes, modulators, effects and finally sequencers at the bottom; much like a traditional subtractive synthesiser displays elements from left to right. Anyone who is familiar with programming the Korg MicroKorg will also be at home here and as soon as I saw a favourable comparison with that method of accessing all the features, I found it a lot easier to use. However, as the only indicator of values are three seven­segment displays (also like the MicroKorg!) it can sometimes be difficult to see at a glance what you are programming, together with some creative uses of the segment displays to highlight each parameter.

For the Mopho, the opposite problem occurs. While the MoPho has a lovely two row LCD display that shows full alphanumerics for patch and parameter names, each patch has to be edited one parameter at a time, which can be rather slow and tedious despite a better understanding of what you are changing each time. This is exacerbated by not having any idea of the order that the patch parameters appear in and due to the size of the unit it is impossible to have the parameter list or matrix setup presented on the unit like the Evolver. This is actually one of the biggest reasons why I sold my Akai Miniak; it’s far too much menu diving on small screens to take full advantage of the synthesiser’s engine.

Under the Hood

Thanks to the prompt action from the former owner and the quick response from Soundtower employees (thanks Kris!), I have managed to get hold of licenses for the Evolver and MoPho standalone editors. While originally the synths came bundled with light versions of the software, these full versions are streets ahead of the free versions and until I got confirmation of the license transfer I was seriously trying to justify spending the best part of £100 on new licenses for editors for both synths.

Get access to all the options and functions via this editor panel
What the sound editors do is put your MIDI ports to good use by squirting SYSEX messages from your PC to the synth in order to change every parameter of the synth from one panel. Envelopes in particular are much clearer and can be adjusted via knobs and/or graphical representations. Signal flow is much easier to follow when tweaking. You can backup and load new sound banks and keep track with a built in librarian. Genetics creates program variants on the fly from two source patches, leading to wild, serendipitous sound creations. There is just no getting round it; both these synths demand integration with the PC editors and in the case of the MoPho this is near essential for manual patch generation. It turns a hardware analogue synth into a programmable hardware synth with VST integration...well not quite, as Soundtower have arranged VST integration as a separate product, so there's still something I will need to fork out for. The workaround I have found in Bitwig involves mapping CC values to controllers via devices so I can still automate the hardware synth in a roundabout fashion.

Tl:dr - be mindful of the need to grab a full editor for these synths if you decide to pick them up and the extra expense. In fact if I didn't have the editor I think I would probably have flipped the MoPho straight away as editing or creating patches with the display would be far too difficult. Additionally, I wouldn't be able to adjust the user waveforms held in the Evolver’s RAM either, so it's a win all round.


Both synths are very much a product of their time, when the trend for PC and DAW based music making was tipping the balance against hardware and integration of hardware with software was the best approach to get Cubase, Fruity Loops and Logic users interested in unique (Evolver) or classic (MoPho) sounding hardware synths. Great without the editors but absolutely astounding for the price with them, I am really going to enjoy these two!