Synth Studies: Intellijel Shapeshifter

The Intellijel/Cylonix Shapeshifter was introduced in 2013, but is still one of the finest Eurorack digital oscillators available. It’s an admirable complex oscillator even if you just stick to sine waves, but it also sports wavetables and an impressive array of extra features.

This article is no replacement for the excellent official manual, nor is it a complete tutorial — I recommend Seth Shafer’s series of tutorials on YouTube. But I recently dug in and got to know this module more closely, after having owned and loved it for a while, and this is a report of the results. Perhaps someone else will find the patch ideas helpful. I would certainly welcome any additional suggestions you might have.

General Impressions

  • The interface looks like it’s not going to be any fun — but in reality, it’s very easy to navigate. The main knobs never change their meaning due to a mode change (though loading a preset will temporarily set the values for a couple of them). There are attenuators for every CV input. There is no “menu diving” — dedicated buttons take you immediately to any parameter, and the encoder always edits the currently selected parameter. There is one hidden combo (to edit the name of the current preset) a couple of LEDs have a different meaning when blinking vs. when solid. But for the most part it’s really friendly to work with.
  • Shapeshifter can produce the absolute cleanest sine waves I have ever seen on a scope, with no extra harmonics and no noise. The TZFM is also pristine, free of any fizziness or vagueness or dirt or whatever other description one might have for it. Of course, there are plenty of ways to make it dirtier if you like.
  • The analog wavefolder is based on the uFold, which I find one of the most pleasant-sounding in Eurorack.
  • The wavetables. Honestly, if you’re looking primarily for a wavetable VCO, I would one of several newer modules over Shapeshifter. I think of Shapeshifter less as “a wavetable VCO” and more as “a complex oscillator that uses wavetables.”

    Perhaps typical of older wavetable synths, the majority of its banks consists of random arrangements of waveforms, rather than a smooth progression of shapes or spectra. Many of these banks tend toward harsh and unpleasant sounds when used as an oscillator, and there are a lot of redundant, similar-sounding banks of that style.

    Several newer wavetable VCOs allow custom wavetable content via an SD card or USB, and provide a handy open-source tool for creating and editing wavetables. On Shapeshifter, if you’re technically inclined and very brave, you can edit the firmware file and rewrite the module’s EEPROM according to instructions in an appendix of the manual.

    However, it’s not lacking in banks that work very well within the module’s own idiom. Several of the banks that I don’t like for oscillator use work very well when waveshaping dynamic audio from external sources. In my rack, Shapeshifter displaced a module that did wavetables “better,” and I have no regrets at all.
  • Other features: most of these are situational, and depending on how you use the module, those situations could be somewhat common or extremely rare. For instance, some sync modes were really meant for use at LFO rates. So I’ve learned to keep an open mind about basically everything on the module.
  • Preset system: honestly, for years all I used this for was to have an INIT patch that loads when the module starts up. Only recently did I save a couple of other presets. I don’t expect I’ll ever get into the morphing aspect. But it’s not in my way, so no problem.

Favorite Wavetables

  • Basic1: this bank contains the classic, evergreen synth waveforms. The sine is absolutely pristine, with no distortion, added harmonics or noise. The triangle morphs very neatly into the square. Solid fare.
  • Harmo3: clean sine waves in harmonic ratios, morphing from one to the next. The entire range is one big sweet spot. It works extremely well for combo modes or any sort of modulation. Modulating Shape smoothly climbs up the harmonic series, which can be a really tasty effect.
  • 2Tone6: slightly but pleasantly distorted pairs of sines in a collection of diffeerent intervals, mostly dissonant. And of course, there’s morphing between them so you can mix those interval combinations. It’s pretty neat on its own, makes a fine modulation source, and is a good choice for combo modes. It’s also one of the few banks where setting Multi can be rewarding.
  • LFO3: a rounded, sort of trapezoidal shape with a variable width, pleasant and smooth. Because it’s unipolar, it sounds a little quieter than other waves and doesn’t work well as an FM modulator. But it’s nice as an independent voice, an FM carrier, or for combo modes.
  • LFO9: under some circumstances this one can be good as a primary oscillator or FM modulator. But to my ears, it shines best in the Ring or Interleave combo modes.
  • LFO20: it sounds a little rougher than the above banks, but that’s what we call character. It gets a bit buzzy and just a little asymmetrical toward the higher end of Shape, which can mean big fun for FM if you modulate the index with an envelope.
  • BasRec: basic rectified (unipolar) shapes. As with LFO3 I find it isn’t the best choice as a primary oscillator or an FM modulator, but it does work well for combo modes, and is suitable as a kind of envelope for the one-shot sync mode.
  • Vocal1, Vocal2, Vocal6: of all of the more “wavetabley” banks, I feel these might be the most musical. They work well with unison detune or external chorus, and can be neat for FM or ringmod.

Handy Presets

(Thanks to Seth Shafer’s first Shapeshifter tutorial video for this idea.)

On the left side, set both banks to Basic1. Turn Sync o1 to Off, o2 to Hard, and Pulse to pwm1. Set ModA to Phase2, Multi 1 and 2 both to 1. On the right side, set Combo to osc1, Tilt to 0, Delay Depth to 0. Enable Chord Mode so you can set the chord to Unison, Drive to 50 and Detune to 0, then disable Chord mode again. Make sure Mod B isn’t assigned to anything (or you could assign it to Tilt if you like). Make sure LFO mode, Int Sync, Perc, and Quant are all turned off. Set Int FM to 0, and both shape knobs to 0. Adjust the ratio so both Osc1 and Osc2 are the same pitch. Then save the preset (I stored mine in slot 0).

(When you load it, don’t forget to turn down the ModA attenuator to disable phase modulation of osc2 by osc1 — these are analog knobs rather than part of the preset system.)

This is a nice predictable starting point to return to if you get lost. There’s nothing weird or noisy going on, and both oscillators are producing sines. But it’s also a fantastic dual oscillator, even if you never touch any of the buttons or look at the display ever again.

Start from the INIT preset, and set both wave banks to Harmo3. I also like to set ModB to Delay for this one.

You don’t really need to save a preset for this, but I like it as an alternate starting point to explore harmonic relationships. This bank is just so good for FM, combo modes, and playing with the resonator that it deserves its own save slot. I also like setting one or both of the banks to 2Tone6 for a bit more dissonance.

Start from the INIT or HARMO preset. Set ModA to Combo1 and ModB to Delay. Enable LFO mode for osc2 and press Quant twice to get it blinking.

Patch an audio signal into ModA and turn up the attenuator. A clock signal into Pitch2 will sync the delay time as well the LFO on out2; Ratio sets the multiplier/divider, and the ModB knob sets the delay mix and feedback. You won’t hear osc1 on Out1 anymore, but you can still get a PWM square out of the Pulse output for whatever purposes you like, as well as the LFO output on Out2.

Turning up ModB to the max will infinitely repeat the feedback while blocking the input, so you can use it much like a looper. (This can be a neat way to end a track or section — crank up ModB, then turn down ModA to kill the input, and turn ModB back down gradually to let the feedback die off.)

If you want the delay time (and LFO) to be free-running, turn off Quant but leave a dummy cable patched into Pitch2. You can also switch Osc2 to audio rate to use it as a resonator.

Patch Recipes

Complex Oscillator
Literally just use the INIT preset.

Play with internal FM and the ratio (modulating the FM depth with an envelope is nice). Patch through the wavefolder if you like. Try turning up ModA to modulate Osc2 with Out1 — compare the slightly different character to the internal FM. For more intensity with the PM, patch the Fold output to ModA, or use Tilt to self-PM osc1 with itself (like setting Feedback on a DX7).

Try cross-modulating by using FM and PM together — you’ll mainly get chaos, but it can also lock into a new timbre depending on very subtle changes in pitch, depth or shape.

Try the combo modes. Ringmod and Min are my favorites overall, but Interleave can sound pretty great if you slightly detune the two oscillators, particularly with Chord mode.

Try using the osc2 output to modulate the fold amount. As with FM and PM, the most harmonious sounds will be at integer frequency ratios.

It might be obvious that Shapeshifter can act as a fantastic LFO (or two), but sometimes I need a reminder. I usually like simple shapes for my LFOs, but Harmo3 serves that purpose well — modulating Shape can multiply its rate, and Multi can add some interest to its rhythm. BasRec is also well suited.

Start from the INIT preset. Set ModA to Shaper2. Monitor Out2, and patch a dynamic (post-VCA) audio source into ModA — this will be much more interesting than a static oscillator level.

If you use the Basic1 bank on Osc2, the sine on the left side of Shape acts like a gentle wavefolder. The square at the 12 o’clock position converts any input to squares, subject to noise at lower levels.

Many of Shapeshifter’s banks will work well for dynamic waveshaping, so try them all. But also try different signal levels (adjusting the ModA attenuator), because it can have a big impact on the resulting timbres.

With this patch you can still use Osc1 independently, or in combo modes, or FMd by your reshaped audio. Osc2’s frequency won’t affect the osc2 output, but it still controls the delay time if you have that enabled, and you can set the Pulse output to be controlled by osc2.

Delay with Synced Tremolo
Start from the DELAY FX preset. Select Harmo3, BasRec or LFO3 for osc2’s waveform and enable Ring or Min combo modes. This will give you a tremolo synced to the delay time, which is pretty keen.

FMing an LFO
Set osc1 to LFO rate, osc2 to audio rate. Choose a smooth shape for osc1. Monitoring Out1, you shouldn’t hear anything. But as you increase the Int FM depth, it brings up the audible amplitude as well. (You may want to use a DC blocking filter, aka a highpass with a low cutoff frequency, to preserve headroom.) Envelopes work especially well here.

Good banks for osc2 include Harmo3, LFO9, and LFO20. But you can find sweet spots elsewhere — asymmetrical waves as FM modulators will be harmonic or inharmonic depending on the FM depth, so explore!

Unison detune can add flavor, and Tilt or the wavefolder also complement the sound.

XOR Ringmod
On the ARP Odyssey, the “ringmod” is a logical XOR of squarewaves. You can set the Pulse output on Shapeshifter to XOR — and you can do it while the combo mode is set to Ring, then crossfade between out1 and Pulse externally.

Vocoder for Flavor
I don’t often have much use for vocoders, but here we’re using it just to modify the tone. Set ModA to Voc Mod and patch in white or pink noise, or the Fold output (with Out1 normalled to it). The output will be a bit quieter but also take on a different timbre.

Or patch osc2 to ModA, and sweep Pitch2 with an external LFO or envelope, or just leave it static using a dummy table. With osc2 set to Harmo3, you’ll get an effect somewhat like a bandpass filter with a bit of boxy ambience, and will be able to sweep a wide frequency range using Ratio and Shape2.

Reverse Vocoder “Phaser”
The HARMO preset is a good starting point. Set ModA to VOC CARR. Plug a dynamic audio source into ModA and turn up the level. Set Osc2 at LFO rate (with a dummy cable in Pitch2), and have it FM osc1. Generally a good starting point is to turn the Coarse knob all the way down, Int FM at max, and Ratio at noon and then tweak to taste.

You can also turn up the delay feedback a bit, which really fits nicely.

Stereo Resonator
Start from the HARMO preset. Monitor ou1 and out2 in stereo or mid/side. Turn up the delay feedback (to about 50 at first). Set Shape1 so you hear a couple of simultaneous harmonics. Set ModA to Shaper2 or Phase2 as you like, and turn up ModA until you hear something from both channels. (Chances are you’ll have to work to balance the stereo image.)

Since the delay time is affected only by Osc2’s base frequency, not by PM or its waveshape, you can tweak the ratio, shapes, ModA depth, FM depth, Multi, weird banks for Osc1 etc. and smooth out just about any kind of egregious mayhem by increasing the delay feedback/depth. Though I think I prefer it without too much FM, and going easy on ModA if using Phase2.

If you sequence the pitch, you may or may not want to plug a dummy cable into Pitch2 to keep the resonator steady — it can slew pretty heavily.

Out1 to Combo2
Set ModA to Combo2 and don’t plug anything into ModA. While Ring will be silent, Min acts as a half-wave rectifier where the ModA attenuator adjusts the threshold. Pong is similar to Min but with an added edge. Other modes bring glitchy distortion. Glch with the attenuator minimized introduces (a lot of) crackles.

Out1 to Combo1 will silence osc1 and Ring, behave the same with Min, and have different glitchy, distorted effects in the other modes.

Out2 to Combo1
If you set ModA to Combo1 and patch Out2 to ModA, you’ll get a bit of saturation if you turn up the attenuator to max. Ring will act as a full-wave rectifier, Min will give some subtle coloration, other combo modes will result in a little or a lot of digital distortion/waveshaping.

Audio Rate ModB
Start from the HARMO preset. Set Tilt so it’s modulated by ModB, and patch Out2 to it. Syncing osc2 internally can be useful.

Likewise, setting Delay so it’s modulated by ModB can give some cool results.

Broken Noise
Start from INIT. Set both oscillators to LFO rate. Crank up both ModA and Int FM. Depending on those settings and the Ratio and the chosen waveforms, you’ll get solid noise of various colors, wobbly squeals, the sound of a radio almost tuned to Morse Code signals or data saved as audio, etc.

Set Osc1 to a square LFO and Osc2 to audio rate (anything but another square). Set Coarse to max, Ratio at about noon, Mod A atteunator at max and Int FM at max — you’ll get crackles similar to “velvet noise.” Backing off on Mod A will get you more of a modem squeal sound. Backing off on Int FM instead will give glitchy interruptions.

With Osc1 still as an LFO, set it to a sine and Osc2 to a sawtooth. Set Mod A at about noon. Different settings of Int FM will give you a fluttery triangle-like sound, a more stable whine, crackles or noise.

Mean Machine
Start from INIT. Set Osc1 to BiPuls (leave Osc2 on Basic1) and assign ModB to Tilt. Enable chord mode with some detuning — unison or suboctave seem to give the widest array of great results, but chords will be good too. Set Multi 1 to 2 or 4 and tweak the Shape and Tilt to find just the right superheavy sweet spot.

You can also engage the AND combo mode with osc2 set a couple of octaves below osc1 for even more weight.
Set osc2 to a square, keep the ratio low and crank up the internal FM a lot. It’ll completely change everything and you’ll get a sort of “electronic crickets” sound.
Just play with different ratios and FM depths to get a tasty noisy drone.

Try setting Pulse to RND1 or RND2 and patching it to Mod B or Int FM.

Hardsyncing osc1 to a trigger will reset the phase of the detuning, which might work for you.

A Touch of Noise
Start from INIT or HARMO. Set the Pulse output to RND2 and set the ratio to max. Patch the Pulse out to Int FM, FM 1, Shape, or whatever you like. Subtlety seems to work best.

Tilt vs. Phase1
The Tilt feature phase-modulates osc1 with itself perfectly, without additional feedback. If you set ModA to Phase 1 and leave osc1 normalled to ModA, that also performs self-PM but a bit imperfectly, with feedback, and in the opposite direction. So you can use Tilt and ModA to somewhat counteract each other and bend the waveshape into something else.