Apr 5

INTRODUCTION

M-Audio are a company who design and import a range of audio products  such as DAW interfaces, monitors, mics, MIDI controllers, Digital Pianos and DJ software and controllers. They are a business unit of Avid Technology and were formerly Midiman. They mainly manufacture in China but have independent offices in the UK, USA, Canada, Japan and France.

At NAMM 2011 they announced a small affordable Virtual Analogue Synth called The Venom which no doubt will be in direct competition with Roland’s GAIA Synth and the new Novation Ultranova and has a similar price tag.  M-Audio are claiming that the Venom (unlike the competition) has an aggressive new unique sound that will make it stand out from the rest, with the warmth of the Classic Analogue keyboards combined with some cool modern digital processing. It is the first-ever M-Audio hardware synthesizer and with exception to price will no doubt draw some comparisons with the range of Access Virus Synths.

What I know from the NAMM show is that Venom has 49 full size velocity sensitive keys with M-Audio’s light synth-action keyboard but there is no aftertouch. There are 512 Single Patches and 256 Layered Patches. It has 12-voice polyphony with three oscillators per voice, a ring modulator, a tube saturation limiting algorithm at the beginning of the filter which can be overdriven to produce some gritty aggression , six resonant filter types, on-board effects, and a built- in Pro Tools M-Powered compatible interface. There are also 41 oscillator waveforms and 53 drum sounds sampled from vintage synths and drum machines, all of which can be used as source material for oscillators. You know me; I always want drums, so I am beginning to like the sound of the Venom already.

FIRST LOOK AND SINGLE PRESET SOUNDS

I have just unpacked one from the box and it comes complete with a PSU, a USB Cable, a DVD containing the Venom installer and the Vyzex editor software installer and a printed quick start guide. I will load the software later, as for now, I am eager to plug her in and see what the presets sound like. When it’s first powered on, it defaults to Multi mode but I am going to start with a Venom Single Program Preset so I just press the Single button and use the Value knob. I can toggle through the four banks of sounds A, B, C or D.

The sounds to be honest really do give you the feeling that they have toxins injected by bite or sting.  I know the market – driven hype words that are used to describe sounds in the release of new products usually put people off but in this instance they do seem to be right. I personally hate the phrase “Designed from the ground up” but fortunately M-Audio have not used this phrase. What they have done is to not just to design another Virtual Analog Synth but one that has a specific purpose to have all that dirt, grit and nastiness so that it doesn’t sound like all of the rest. Listen for yourself and you will hear that they have achieved this.

For Bass you certainly have the bombastic speaker-shaking sounds you desire and Leads have that assortment of screeching, squealing and ear-piercing presence.  Many of the Pads have an M-Audio atmospheric sound which makes a refreshing change to the Roland’s and Korg’s that we are too familiar with and the interesting arpeggiated sequences round off the collection of well-designed presets.  I did find however that some sounds had a harsh reverb that I did not like but I could easily change the effect(s) on these.

Banks A and B of the Single Presets are fixed in ROM and Banks C and D are there for your own creations.  Bank A contains some awesome patches with great names such as phatBSTRD, 2 Much Saw, Ugly Mess and Ultra Nasty.

LAYOUT

Everybody has their own ideas about what colour, looks and layout that they would like to see on a Synth. When using white or off-white, the danger is designing the Synth in such a way that it still retains a professional look and does not look cheap or toy-like. I think Avid M-Audio has achieved this in the Venom. Its shape and curves give it a sleek look and its subtle use of orange and grey on white looks pleasing but you may find it difficult to read the text in low-light areas especially the dark grey on grey background.

The first thing to catch your eye is that there are four grey sections with orange text. Strangely enough the first section to the far left, above the Pitch and Modulation wheels does not have a title. This section is divided into three covering the Gain controls (for Mic and Instrument inputs), Arpeggiator and Octave / Transpose buttons.

Next is the Performance Control Section which is a 6 x 5 matrix of parameter controls with two up and down buttons, four knobs and one button and LEDs at the side. The button on the right acts as an ON or OFF switch for five parameters. The up and down buttons select one of the six rows and the four knobs allow you to have expressive control over your sound in real time.

In the centre is a Mode Section of four buttons. Here you can select Single, Multi, Patterns or the Store button. You then have the bright green custom LCD. I must say that I did not like this display as the text is not clear. Lowercase is very spindly and can be difficult to read but as the main editing is covered by way of software, this is not really a problem.

The last section after the main selection dial is the Multi Control Section which has buttons to select parts within a multi-part arrangement. Here you can select, enable or mute parts.

MULTI-PATCHES

It is here that I found that the patches really grow into something special. The Venom is four-part multitimbral, and each of the 256 Multi patches comprise of four layers with each layer loaded with one of the 512 Single patches. M-Audio have used some top sound designers like Richard Devine and Francis Prève and you find that many of the patches have drum layers with arpeggio patterns so they sound a bit like groovebox patches. You can also do things like fade drums in and out with the Modulation Wheel and each of the four parts has its own EQ and insert effects.

The Multi Control section on the right-hand side of the front panel offers a simple interface of four multi-use buttons. If you press the Selector button on the right it gives you three modes; Mute, Enable and Select Mode. Mute mode makes all the four buttons act as mutes for each of the four layers. What you need to note here is that as you mute a layer it is still running and using valuable voices and polyphony. If however you switch to Enable Mode then the voices can be re-allocated. This is similar to a Part On/Off rather than a mute. Select mode allows you select one or more of the layers from within the Matrix simultaneously, and edits you make here while more than one layer is selected will affect them all.

THE VENOM’S ARPEGGIATOR

The arpeggiator on-board has some great options. You can of course sync it to tempo and it has 256 Phrase patterns to have some fun with. It also has three modes – Standard, Phrase and Drum. If you select the Standard Mode it operates just like you would expect being controlled by the tempo and the rhythm. If you put it into the Phrase Mode you just have to simply hold down one note and a MIDI sequence from the selected pattern will play and transpose the pattern as you play different notes. Lastly in Drum Mode, pressing a single note this time will play back one of the Drum Patterns.  You can upload your own two bar MIDI pattern from your PC to Bank B. Unfortunately there is no other way to create new patterns. This is a shame as I would have liked M-Audio to have provided a way to play them in from the keyboard. I believe this might happen in a future update.

SYNTHESIS ARCHITECTURE

SAMPLESThe Venom gets its sound from 94 samples of Synths and Drums from a variety of sources (some of them a bit strange) such as :-  the Alesis Fusion , Roland’s JX8-P, the Oberheim , the Moog, an Arp 2600, Korg’s MS-20, the famous TB 303, the X wave Doepfer, HP’s 200CD 1952 test oscillator, Plan B Model 15, Harvestman Zorlon Cannon, TR808 , TR909 and DR55 drums.

OSCILLATORS – It has three Oscillators, Oscillator 1 being the biggest and main Oscillator. This Oscillator has waveshaping which can be applied to any waveform or modulated from the Modulation Matrix.

Oscillators 2 and 3 can run in parallel or provide special functions like Oscillator 2 Ring-modulating Oscillator 1. Oscillator 1 can also be frequency- modulated by Oscillator 3. This action can also contribute to the sharp aggressive sound of the Venom as can hard-syncing either individually or together Oscillators 2 and 3.

LFOs – It also has three LFOs that offer Sync to Tempo and Rate controls. The waveforms for the LFOs are a great selection as follows – Sine, Sine (unipolar), Triangle, Sawtooth, Square, Sample and Hold, Linear Sample and Hold, Log Sample and Hold, Exponential Square, Log Square, Log Up Sawtooth and Exponential Up Sawtooth. You should note that LFO 3 is monophonic, while LFOs 1 and 2 are polyphonic.

FILTERS – The Venom has a powerful multimode filter with an enormous wide sweep of 1,024 steps. This filter can create wild and dirty expressive sweeps with resonant settings that surpass many other digital filters. For even more sound-shaping possibilities, the Venom resonant multimode filter features 12dB/octave (2-pole) and 24dB/octave (4-pole) operation. On top of which it can also be used as an external, stereo audio-processing unit. This will make it a great production tool. So there it is – go and buy a Venom just for the Filter. I think this poison is getting into my veins.

ENVELOPES – Additionally, each program can access three AHDSR Envelopes for Amp, Filter and Pitch. Envelope 1 is assigned to the Amplitude, Envelope 2 to the Filter and Envelope 3 the Pitch. Instead of the usual ADSR on other Synths the Venom has the bonus of “Hold” (AHDSR).

MODULATION MATRIX The Modulation Matrix can only be accessed only through the Vyzex Editor and this is where you can really make your sound complex as well as assign what changes will be affected by the Pitch and Modulation Wheels as well as Velocity. There are 16 Modulation Routings which is enough to satisfy most needs.

EFFECTSThere are two global effects buses AUX 1 which provides you with the following algorithms: Plate Reverb, Room Reverb, Hall Reverb, Mono Echo, Stereo Echo, Mono 3/4 Echo, Stereo 3/4 Echo, Mono 4/4 Echo, Stereo 4/4 Echo, Mono Triplet, Stereo Triplet, Long Mono Delay and Long Ping Pong Delay. AUX 2 gives you Chorus, Flanger, Phaser and Delay.

On top of this each of the Venom’s four multitimbral parts has its own effect insert for Compression, EQ, and Distortion. If you want some of that Lo-fi you also get Bit Reduction and a Decimator and lastly there is Tremolo and AutoPan via an additional modulation path. You can also process external audio with these effects via the integrated USB audio interface. Although the effects are OK, I did find them a bit disappointing. As I mentioned in my Novation Ultranova Review, I think the Roland GAIA wins in the effects department on both the quality of the effects and the superb layout and quick access you have to them. On a positive note, I did find the effects on the Venom very much part of the Synth itself. You found yourself selecting and adjusting them as you would a filter or an oscillator and did not feel as if they were an “Add on” in anyway.

VYZEX VENOM EDITOR

The Vyzex Venom Editor allows you to edit every available parameter in Venom Single and Multi Program patches, Global parameters, manage patch banks, and configure Venom MIDI settings. When using it in Direct mode, changes made in Vyzex Venom affect the selected Single or Multi Program on Venom in real-time. The Vyzex Venom Editor lets you create and save programs and banks of programs on your PC and load them into the selected program or bank on Venom. However, you must save the programs on Venom separately after editing the selected program in the Vyzex Venom Editor in order for it to be available for recall on Venom. I found that the Editor connected and loaded quickly every time (I found it easier than my Access Virus to connect to ) but there were some minor problems in its operation. Sometimes the parts in a multi were not displaying the correct information and there were differences between the Venom’s display and the Editor’s.

PATCH COLLIDER

There is also an  innovative patch collider feature so you can  mash together multiple patches to create new hybrid sounds. Some other Synths have something similar like Random Patch generators. I feel these can be very hit and miss but sometimes quite out of the blue you discover a really great unique sound. so I am glad Synths have them.

PRO TOOLS COMPATIBLE USB AUDIO and MIDI INTERFACE

The Venom could be used as a centrepiece of your production setup so for example without changing anything, you could go from recording the Venom sounds into your DAW to using it as a controller for making drum beats. You can also plug a microphone into your DAW through it (via a preamp as the Venom has no XLR input or phantom power) or a guitar to record vocal and rhythm layers. During mixdown, you can easily route tracks through the Venom’s filters, LFOs, envelopes, and effects. There’s even an stereo RCA combo input for plugging in an iPod or other external source.

Beyond its giant tones and powerful programming options, the Venom presents a really plausible solution for I/O, monitoring, and synthesis for artists who work primarily in-the-box and are looking for a high-quality, all-in-one, synth-based workflow.

I do not have a copy of Pro Tools so I am unable to test this on this review

CONNECTIONS

Around the front, sensibly located is the headphones 1/4” stereo jack socket which is controlled by the Master Volume control.

At the back there is quite an assortment of goodies. You have the main audio outputs which include a mix of the synthesizer output and audio signals from the Aux Inputs, the Instrument Input, and the Mic Input. When you are using the Venom with your computer, the main outputs also include the stereo mix from your computer via USB.

The two RCA Auxiliary Audio Inputs connect to any stereo line level source such as from another Synth or a Mixer). The left aux input is mixed with the Microphone input, and the right is mixed with the Instrument input. This is good because any Incoming audio can be routed through the Venom voice path at the Pre Filter Mix section and then modified by the filter, amplifier and effects and then finally mixed to the main outputs. In USB mode, these inputs are also mixed with the Mic and Instrument inputs. You will see these as audio inputs 1 and 2 in your DAW.

You will then see four Inputs for (an instrument , a Mic , an Expression Pedal and a Sustain Pedal) and finally MIDI In and MIDI Out, a USB port, a DC Power connection and switch and a Kensington Lock.

CONCLUSION

It is an odd thing but I think whilst Avid M-Audio Venom has a complete up-to-date sound and just what I would expect from a product released in 2011, you can’t seem to stop yourself creating music that would suit the Eighties. There are some minor quirks with it , but I feel confident that M-Audio will address these in future updates. You will obviously compare it with other Synths but you are really getting all the essentials of hardware and software in a portable package at a great price. The Venom may not be for everyone and you need to be sure you like its aggressive sound but I think for many people the Venom makes a refreshing change and provides you with an alternative sound pallet to the other Synths that you may own. With the addition of an excellent 24-bit USB2 audio and MIDI Interface, an awesome Filter and the Vyzex Editor this could very well be the addition to your setup that you have been waiting for.

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