paging Sam Sao…

My Spectraphon was finally delivered yesterday evening and I’ve formed some first impressions.

any resemblance to the Flying Spaghetti Monster is probably coincidental.

My theorizing about how it works goes right out the window along with a lot of my expectations.

SAM Mode
This is the mode that monitors an input signal, analyzes the frequency content and then translates that to the oscillator. You can adjust the frequency range it monitors with the Slide knob, but Focus has been a bit confusing. Now I realize it controls the size of the time window being analyzed. Smaller values mean faster response to short-term events (transients, sharp attacks) but the actual frequency is more of a guess, leading to (honestly kind of cool at times) noise and growliness. Larger values mean better frequency accuracy and thus purer tones, but slower response and generally quieter output. But at any setting though, the latency is extremely minimal, and I still don’t know how they’re doing it.

The result of this is, even feeding it with a sine gives you more interesting timbres on the output. You can modulate Focus, Slide, Partials, give it some FM and sync, and get a whole variety of unique synth sounds from it. Or you can use slightly more interesting sounds — not meant to be heard necessarily, but simply used as a catalyst. Learning how it reacts to these I think is a big part of getting to know the module.

Running field recordings into it to lend texture to drones is another cool thing, as is tracking the pitch of another voice so it can harmonize.

SAO Mode
This is like the spectral equivalent of wavetables, and the sound can be very similar. I haven’t explored array capture yet, but even the default array can be useful.

It’s not like anything else — clean like Shapeshifter, but much brighter and edgier at what otherwise seems to be a similar index. And the maximum index is much more intense than most other things (except maybe Odessa). I’ve found sometimes I prefer the character on Shapeshifter, but Spectraphon’s greater intensity really suits some patches, so it’s a matter of letting each module play to its strengths.

It might seem big when contemplating fitting stuff in the rack, but it’s perfect in usage. I’m glad they didn’t try to cram this into a smaller space and make compromises, even if that makes choices a little more difficult.

Minor Gripes
Some of this could be due to my unfamiliarity with it or have good design decisions behind it, but:

  • It can be a little tricky to keep the tuning ratios in line. There’s a handy LED to show them but it seems like the frequencies either drift or the coarse tuning knob is easy to nudge. I find myself using the fine tuner more than usual. But it honestly could just be the LED is making me more sensitive to it than my ears would be.
  • A wet/dry control would have been nice for SAM mode. Patching a mix of the input and output is going to be a pretty common usage I think.
  • The SD card that stores arrays is on the back panel. I guess they didn’t expect people to want to transfer them to a computer (and possibly edit them) very frequently, but putting a slot on the front would have been a nice touch.
  • No inputs for external FM or sync.
  • You can’t drop the oscillator frequency to sub-audio rates even with external CV. That could have been handy for the “TZFM an LFO” trick.
  • I’m not sure why in SAO mode, Slide and Focus become coarse and fine controls for navigating the array, instead of Slide shifting the partials like it does for SAM. Maybe the way it’s implemented that’s just not practical.
  • At high Focus, SAM can get really quiet. A little gain compensation could have helped — but you do have to be careful with automatic gain controls because they can be counterproductive, so this is a “maybe”.
  • An instant spectral freeze mode would definitely have been cool. This is something Panharmonium could do, but latency kind of ruined it.

Rack Changes
This is going to take me a while to figure out, and I’m putting all decisions on hold until after I’ve used Spectraphon for a while. It’s unique, and the idea of trying to use it as a replacement for one or more things I already had may not fly. I’m going to play more with “super doomful” chords to see if Akemie’s Castle can go. I doubt I’ll be letting go of Shapeshifter or Odessa; they’re all just so different. But it’s possible that instead, I’ll replace the Minibrute 2S and Pod60 with a small, not so shallow modular case and move some things there, so I can keep the Castle and have a little room for the future. I’m pretty committed to this Eurorack thing after all.

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