MATRIXSYNTH: Marion (Oberheim) MSR-2 Poly Analog Modular Synthesizer

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Marion (Oberheim) MSR-2 Poly Analog Modular Synthesizer

via this auction

"Concernig the O.S. VERSION:
- Following Internet searches, I believe these are the latest OS versions:
MSR (mainframe) Version 1.09 / ASM (synthesizer module) Version 1.13
- As you can see, the mainframe of the actual item has OS 1.09; can´t really tell the ASM version at this point

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Some facts/rumors about the MSR-2:
- It has Audio-In, so you can process external audio signals thru the envelope/filter et al.
- The Marion MSR-2 is known for having the 'Oberheim sound' packaged inside a compact single-space rackmount module with modern digital reliability and MIDI implementation.
- Despite its rather harmless and simple appearance, the MSR-2 allows for some fairly complex but intuitive programming. The filters, envelopes, LFOs and other parameters are very analog-like in their sound and editing methods.
- The module is 16-part multitimbral.

8 voices and HROs (high resolution oscillators) used in here, midi control, the rest is quite like the Matrix 6, this mainframe can hold up to 2 complete ASMs (16 voices) and a main graphic EQ. planned: sample player, wavetable synth, FX, FM?.. - Module never came up.. has triangle to saw morphing.

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Although it may look like a conventional 1U, 19-inch rackmount expander, the MSR2 is described by its manufacturers as a 'Modular Synthesizer', and this is the first break with tradition. Previously, a modular synthesizer has always been one where the individual circuit blocks (like oscillators, filters, envelopes etc) have been separate modules, and you connect them together using patch leads, which is where the name 'patch' comes from. In the rest of the electronics industry, the word 'modular' suggests something slightly different, where you plug complete units into a frame or rack -- and, in fact, the old Oberheim 8-voice was comprised of eight separate Synthesizer Expander Modules (SEMs) which plugged into a large keyboard unit that supplied the power and control voltages to each module.

The MSR2 brings this concept bang up to date. The module is now a complete polyphonic synthesizer (the ASM) and the rack is now an expander box -- although Marion Systems call it a Mainframe (borrowing computer terminology) -- with space to house two horizontally mounted synthesizer modules (ie. circuit boards). And now the clever bit -- the Mainframe contains all the control functions; the display; the buttons; MIDI In and Out; even the audio connections, a mixer and EQ, and so the plug-in modules are much simpler (ie. lower in cost) than a complete expander. You effectively save the cost of a front panel and all the hardware by filling an MSR2 Mainframe with two modules. So, although Marion Systems are currently selling the MSR2 with one or two ASMs, you could always add to or replace the synthesizer modules at a later date. The obvious purchase would therefore be one MSR2 fitted with one ASM, leaving room for whatever future goodies Marion Systems (and possibly third-party designers) care to release -- they have already hinted at sample playback (presumably S+S, given Tom Oberheim's background), wavetable synthesis, and even reverb and multi-effects.

Because the modules can only communicate with the outside world via the Mainframe, it is possible to control the modules in ways that would be difficult with most other expanders. For example, with two ASMs fitted, you can use the MSR2 as a 16-note polyphonic, monotimbral synthesizer expander, or as an 8-note, bitimbral expander (or as any other mix of polyphony and timbrality), but you can still use the Mainframe to control the mixing, panning, effects send, and so forth. Although the modules could be completely different types of synthesizer, the MSR2 as a whole can behave as a single unit and can thus be changed from one configuration to another very quickly by selecting a new setup.

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The MSR2 is a modular synthesizer comprising a 1U mainframe and two plug-in cards, or modules. The card modules utilise a simple connection system which provides MIDI, DC power and audio out. Effectively, each module card is a complete synthesizer. [The item for sale has one ASM card]

The mainframe can hold two modules. The mainframe also includes:
- a 6-channel programmable mixer, followed by...
- ...a 2-channel, 7-band graphic equaliser, which is also programmable.
The 6-input mixer can accommodate the stereo outputs from the two on-board modules, plus a further stereo output from an external synth if required.

The mainframe has two MIDI ports and you can either treat the modules as two independent synthesizers or you can configure the two modules to work as a single 16-voice unit.
There's also a 25-pin connector which allows external audio to be brought in for processing by the VCFs and VCAs.

Each module has its own traditional patch storage system, where each patch is a conglomeration of parameters.
In this case there's 200 RAM and 200 ROM patches per module, plus 100 special-purpose patches for splits, layers and so on.
The mainframe also has patch storage at a higher level, and these we call Super Patches. A Super Patch remembers which patches you have set up on the individual modules and also the mixer settings, the graphic equaliser settings and even the patch you want on your controlling keyboard. This allows you to realise a fairly complex system using just an MSR2 and a controlling keyboard synth.

Basically the synthesizer module is an 8-voice, multitimbral analogue synthesizer very much in the tradition of the stuff Tom Oberheim used to do for Oberheim, except with some semiconductor technology improvements to make it more reliable and smaller. The oscillators use a hybrid analogue/digital approach so that they combine the sound of a VCO with digital stability. The circuit uses a high-resolution digital counter that produces a clock feeding into a custom analogue chip which, in turn, converts that clock to the desired analogue waveform. The pitch accuracy is much higher than typical digital machines and the resolution allows us to create very subtle oscillator detuning effects. Another feature of the HROs [High Resolution Oscillators] is that they can produce clipped triangle waves as well as all the other obvious analogue-type waveforms. The clipped triangle wave sounds very nice and you really can't get that sound any other way.

Other than the HROs, the configuration is pretty traditional - each voice has:
- two oscillators
- a 2- or 4-pole VCF (low-pass only)
- a VCA, and voltage-controlled pan
- a lot of modulation stuff
- some advanced MIDI facilities.

The filter is based around a Curtis chip, so has a similar characteristic to the filter in the Matrix 12 and Matrix 6 or the OB8.

The user interface is very simple; you just work your way from the left of the panel to the right. At the far left is the power switch. In the first column you can select the Mainframe, Module 1 or Module 2. In the next column, you choose whether you want to work with the Presets, edit the presets or edit the system parameters. Then you go through the menus with one rotary encoder and change the parameter values with the other. Having two rotary encoders really makes working with menus a lot simpler. The menu list is quite extensive, but it's pretty easy to get around. A nice feature that we put in is markers; you can mark two pages and then jump back and forth between them without having to go through the entire menu, which can make editing a lot faster.

At this point someone started to play a few of the patches that had already been programmed into the unit, and the only way one can describe the sound is 'classic Oberheim'. It is all here -- subtly evolving pads, searing filter sweeps and shimmering textures, as well as the inevitable over-the-top sounds designed to show off the gymnastic capabilities of the machine.

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The Mainframe deals with SuperPresets, which contain the highest 'performance' level setups. These include the following:

• Global data for the mixer and EQ.

• Routing for the two MIDI ports to the two modules.

• All Module data -- ie. the allocation of sounds to channels.

• Up to 50 MIDI messages (per SuperPreset) which can be sent to the modules. These messages can be used to configure MIDI Controllers with default values; send Song Select, Start, Stop or Continue messages to external MIDI devices; even send Program Changes to set up the rest of your MIDI equipment.

There are 50 named SuperPresets, which is probably sufficient for most people -- especially since I could not find a way of copying all those MIDI messages from one SuperPreset to another...

Each Module, on the other hand, contains the individual sound patches -- called Presets in this case. The Analogue Synthesizer Module, for instance, offers:

• 200 RAM user Presets.

• 200 pre-programmed ROM Presets.

• 100 RAM-based Layers, which hold details of four layered Presets with control over the Note Range, Volume, Pan and Octave settings. These Layers can be selected just like any other Preset, and so some of the complexity that normally confuses users has been removed.

• Four user-defined Patch Maps, to cope with the 500 Presets available.

• Four user tunings and four velocity curves, plus a user-definable velocity curve.

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Marion Systems have obviously taken some care with the front panel. It is a dark grey, gun-metal colour and reasonably matte in finish, which helps to reduce reflections and so improve readability in adverse lighting conditions. All the panel writing is in white, which again avoids any problems in monochromatic lighting. The LCD is very bright, very clear, and a nice colour co-ordinated blue.

Editing is relatively easy. The button names are well chosen and clearly marked in white, and the Save button is even moulded in red plastic to distinguish it.

The MSR2 uses the now-familiar 'page' system where you navigate through pages of parameters with one knob, move a cursor around to select a parameter, and then use the data knob to change the value. Three additional buttons allow you to choose between controlling the Mainframe, Module 1 or 2, and another set of three buttons chooses between selecting Presets, editing them or changing global settings.

This system works well for the MSR2; the quick editing lets you zip between pages easily.

The MSR2 has two MIDI In and Out ports, ie. four DIN sockets, but no Thru socket at all. Port 1 is in line with Module 2, and Port 2 is in line with Module 1, whilst the audio outputs follow the modules.

The power connector uses a 5-pin DIN plug and socket which looks identical to a MIDI socket. Thankfully, the MSR2 is protected from inadvertent connection of the power supply to any of the MIDI sockets. The MIDI Ins and Outs are RF-filtered with ferrite inductors, and use high quality 6N138 opto-isolators.

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• 1U, 19-inch rack case: 485mm x 355mm x 45mm
• 2 Data knobs
• 9 buttons
• Volume control
• 2 MIDI Ports (2 Ins and 2 Outs)
• 6-input programmable mixer
• 7-band stereo programmable EQ
• 2 external audio inputs to mixer
• 2 Module ports
• Backlit 2 x 20-character LCD

• 200 user RAM memories
• 200 factory ROM Presets
• 100 user RAM Layers (each 4 layers max)
• 50 user RAM performance memories
• 8-note polyphonic
• 16-part multitimbral
• MIDI Overflow

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The MSR2's Analogue Synthesizer Module is a comprehensive and sophisticated 8-note polyphonic synthesizer. It provides two oscillators, three envelope generators, two LFOs, two ramp generators, controllable pan, and an extensive modulation matrix containing 10 'patch cords'. The filters can be either 2- or 4-pole low-pass with resonance, with self-oscillation available in 4-pole mode. The oscillators are called High Resolution Oscillators (HROs), and it's claimed that "they combine a 'VCO' sound with digital stability" -- I did not notice it going out of tune, so I have no reason to doubt this claim. The HROs provide a rich source of waveforms: sawtooth, triangle, clipped triangle, variable pulse width, square, and combinations too; they can even be synced together (three settings from soft to hard). The filters can be modulated with HRO2 for FM effects, and you can feed external signals through them.

The VCF, VCA and General Purpose Envelopes have separate triggering facilities, which opens up possibilities like having the VCA on Single trigger for smooth envelopes, VCF on Multi trigger for key clicks, and the General Purpose trigger running from the LFO.

The LFOs can be triggered from envelopes, re-triggered at a specific part in the waveform cycle, or even used to sample a control voltage somewhere else in the ASM. A global Vibrato Oscillator is available, which saves one LFO and means that you only need to set one vibrato speed. Two ramp generators can produce interesting control voltages, again with lots of triggering and mode selections.

There are eight voice allocation algorithms: Dynamic; Reassign; Rotate; Reassign & Rob; Rotate & Rob; Monophonic; Unison 2; and Unison 4; and you can set high or low note priority for the monophonic mode. Overall, this is a complex and versatile synthesizer with lots of programming potential.

In common with many of the current crop of analogue revival synthesizers, the ASM offers both the smooth 12dB/octave 2-pole (as per older Oberheims) and the harsher 24dB/octave 4-pole (Moog, ARP etc) voltage controlled filter varieties.

So what about the Presets? The ASM's 200 ROM sounds cover just about the whole range of traditional analogue 'standard' timbres -- from brash, filter-swept synth brass to resonant, decaying bass sounds. Although the ASM does allow oscillator 'syncing' facilities, there were none of the really extreme sync sounds to be found."

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