MATRIXSYNTH: M-Audio Venom Review and Interview with Product Manager Taiho Yamada

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

M-Audio Venom Review and Interview with Product Manager Taiho Yamada


A quick note: This review is long. You can jump to sections that interest you vs. reading it straight through if you prefer. This review focuses primarily on the synth engine for one single patch on the Venom. The Venom supports Multi mode with up to four multitimbral parts. Not only can you layer sound programs but you can set global parameters for the set. Be sure to see the Multi mode section of "Tips and Tricks via Taiho Yamada" at the end of this post. Taiho is the Lead Project Manager of the Venom and served as my contact during the review. I want to thank Taiho for his help and enthusiastic generosity. He is a true synthesist and the Venom is his baby.

Synth connections: Taiho previously worked at Alesis on the Andromeda A6. The DSP developer of the Venom worked on Radikal Technologies' Spectralis and the Accelerator. People that contributed to the presets via sound design include Richard Devine, Francis Preve, Mark Ovenden (Avid's AIR Instruments, ProTools VIs), Joerg Huettner (Waldorf, Access, Alesis), and of course Taiho Yamada.

*Don't miss the "Q&A with Taiho" section towards the end of the review. Also keep an eye out for "Taiho's Tips and Tricks" throughout the review in grey. You can find the consolidated list below the Q&A section.

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Update: You can enter to win an M-Audio Venom here.
(note MATRIXSYNTH is not affiliated with the contest - just thought you'd like to know)
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The Venom is M-Audio's first synthesizer. M-Audio is of course known for their various MIDI controllers, audio devices and more. How does their first synth compete? Surprisingly well. If you are a synth nut and enjoy exploring sound this synth is most definitely worth a look.

M-Audio touts the Venom as a Virtual Analog synth. I like to think of it more as a Virtual Analog hybrid with digital "multi-cycle" based oscillators. According to Venom project manager Taiho Yamada:

"The quality of the Venom oscillator waves falls somewhere between the single-cycle waves in a wavetable synth, and the variance over time found in most ROMpler samples. With our wave samples, the frequency spectra of the source oscillators is captured almost perfectly right from the source, but analog variance needs to be re-introduced by DSP functions like Start Mod, Drift and smooth S&H. Or you can choose not to re-introduce analog variance and use the vintage waveforms in a more digital context." See the Q&A section with Taiho towards the end of the review for his thoughts on Virtual Analog vs. Analog Modeling.

This differs from standard PCM sample based oscillators and single-cycle oscillators by providing a more dynamic source. This really comes into play when you start using the oscillators for things like frequency modulation of oscillator 1 by oscillator 3, ring modulation and oscillator sync. You can also drop down the pitch of the oscillators to below audio range close to the higher frequencies of an LFO (hence Low Frequency Oscillator). If any of this is a little bit above your head, don't worry. I created a simple Synthesis 101 section here. For the experts out there you can skip the section, however, it does give some background into what makes the Venom unique and the review does make reference to it.

So, where does the Venom fit and what can it offer?

The Venom according to M-Audio is a Virtual Analog synth. The diehards will call foul and say it's not virtual analog if the oscillators are sample based and not modeled. I almost cried foul too. When I think of Virtual Analog synthesis I think of Analog Modeling for the complete audio path like the original Nord Lead, JP-8000, Novation VAs and others that followed. But… The Venom isn't a PCM sample-based synth either, and it's clearly not an FM, Additive or Wavetable synth. So what it is? It's a Venom!
(See the Q&A section with Taiho below for his thoughts on the definition of Virtual Analog.)

THE SOUND ENGINE

When I first heard about the M-Audio Venom, like everyone else it was primarily via the NAMM promotional material - videos, audio, images and the usual product hype. Specifically I remember the "Introducing Venom" video in this post with Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland of The Crystal Method stating it was the best synthesizer he (Scott) has used hands down in the last 10 years. Add Mark Mothersbaugh and James Dewees to the list and I thought, "OK, what exactly do we have here? Isn't this just an entry level synth?" I do remember liking what I heard and thinking "Great, I don't really want to like this synth! " The last thing I needed was another piece of gear on the lust list. When I discovered it was only editable via the editor, I wrote it off for the time being. But fortunately, I received a unit for review. The first thing I did was start working on my TouchOSC editor for it. I figured it was a good way to learn the synth and in the end, I'd have my tactile interface. After spending some time with the Venom I have to say I love this synth. I've spent most of the time just scratching the surface in creating the editor, but what I have heard while doing so is indeed impressive. It can sound super aggressive or warm and mellow. The promo video started with Ken Jordan stating, "Geat sounds, easy to use, and as serious as you want it to be." The key for me was "as serious as you want it to be" and the Venom definitely holds its own.

I included a link to the Synthesis 101 section for two reasons. One, to give people new to synthesis some background, and because two, although the Venom on the surface is a Virtual Analog hybrid, it has some tricks up its sleeve reminiscent of the other synthesis methods mentioned.

So, what does the engine offer? The following times four, plus the ability to process and mix external audio sources and a few more tricks. Note the following primarily focuses on the synth engine in single mode.

THE OSCILLATORS
A single part or patch on the Venom has three digital oscillators. Each oscillator has a total of 94 waveshapes. The waveshapes available for each oscillator is the same. The waveshape sources range from classic analog synth waveforms to modern modular synths to percussive samples. Click on the image to the left to see the name of each. Note this is a page from my TouchOSC editor and not from M-Audio. I'm using it because it does a good job of showing every single waveform, and I want you to see the slider for something that follows below. If you read the Synthesis 101 section you should know what's coming. As for the waveforms, you can easily guess the sources of some such as MG for Moog, OB for Oberheim, JX and SH for Roland, etc.

OSC1 Controls (screen from the included Vyzex editor covered further below): Waveshape, Course Tune, Fine Tune, FM via OSC3, Shape and Keytrack on or off. Keytrack off means each key on the keyboard plays the same note. This is useful when you modulate OSC1 or mix it with the other OSCs and want to use it for effect.

OSC2 Controls: Course Tune, Fine Tune, Keytrack, and Sync to OSC1

OSC3 Controls: Same as OSC2

Start Mod and Drift Controls: These are the analog oscillator emulation controls. In layman's terms, part of the whole analog vs. digital debate has to do with digital waveforms sounding clinically precise and exactly the same every time you play a note, while analog oscillators have variances from one another and can slightly drift, creating a more organic sound. Start Mod allows you set a range of randomization with the start point of a waveform, while Drift allows you to do the same for the pitch.

Mix Section: OSC1 level, OSC2 level, OSC3 level, Ring Mod, External (various inputs covered above and pictured)

Here is where the Venom gets interesting. The pitch range for each oscillator can go down to sub audio levels - basically into the upper levels of an LFO. Read this as, you can turn the oscillators into LFOs and you can choose any of 94 waveforms as your modulation source waveshape. You can take a snare or maracas, pitch it way down and either use it as an FM source, sync it, or use it with ring mod. If you have a sequence or arpeggiation running you can get some really interesting effects going (see my earlier video here). This is where the Wavetable synthesis connection comes in - and the slider in the image of my editor above. With 94 waveforms available, and the ability to switch waveforms during a sequence or arpeggiator running along with some modulation options, you can get wavetable-esque sounds going. There are limitations though. You can't select oscillator waveform as a modulation destination so you won't be able to "sweep" through the 94 waves like you can on a wavetable synth, and changing a waveform while holding a note down does not change the waveform. You have to re-trigger either the same note or a new one. Hence why I mention having an external sequencer or arpeggiator running. BUT, use that slider and some crazy things will start happening (again, see this video). This on a sub $500 entry level VA!

Once you have multiple things running you can use the mix section to feed things in and out. The Mixer section covers Oscillators OSC1, OSC2, OSC3, Ring Mod, and External audio, BUT, here's where you can get creative with a custom editor. You can create a custom mixer page with the main mixer sliders, plus OSC3 to OSC1 FM, AUX 1 & 2 levels, and the 16 individual modulation levels. You can then assign whatever modulations you want in the Mod Matrix section and mix them all from one control page as pictured on the left. Note, if you do not have an iPad, you can still easily access all the parameters via the Vyzex editor, you just have to page through them. With the Venom's variety of oscillator waveforms and modulations, you can bring in and take out multiple timbres and harmonics via these "mix levels". You can get pretty creative here.

Claiming the Venom is capable of granular synthesis would be a stretch, but I will say you can get sounds typical of granular synthesis using the distortion coupled with bit rate reduction effects.

------------ *Taiho's Tips & Tricks (you can find the full list at the end of this post): Using FM or Ring Mod with the modulator pitched down to non-audio rates: "This allows low frequency modulation with the full range of oscillator waveforms as LFO shape choices - even drums. While the FM/LFO trick can even be done with the 3rd oscillator on a Minimoog, the Moog doesn’t have the large selection of complex oscillator waves to choose from." Synthesis functions with drum sounds and kits "Since the drums appear in the oscillator, you can perform the full range of synthesis functions with them, including FM, Ring Mod, Sync, Waveshaping, Filtering, Envelope and LFO modulation, etc. Particularly interesting is the ability to use a drum sound as a master oscillator for Sync, or to pitch them down and use them as complex LFOs with built-in “envelopes” in oscillator cross-modulations." Waveshaper and PWM "In most synths, Pulse Width Modulation is a function of the square wave, where you vary the ratio of the positive going part of the duty cycle to the negative going part. In Venom, we produce PWM through the waveshaper, which “squares off” the waveform at a variable threshold level. Anything above the threshold goes to full positive amplitude and anything below goes to full negative amplitude. So to create PWM, you select a saw wave and vary the threshold level. It’s a little difficult to understand at first, but the tradeoff is that you get to apply the algorithm to any waveform in the oscillators, including drums, and get interesting variations on the “PWM” sound, depending on the complexity of the waveform and the amplitude of its various peaks." ------------

THE FILTER
The Venom has one multimode filter with the six filter types: 12db and 24db Lowpass, 12db and 24db Highpass, and 12db and 24db Bandpass. You have the standard Cutoff and Resonance controls, but you also have a Boost control for saturation and it sounds really, really nice. The resolution of the filter is amazing. There is zero stepping with high resonance and using an LFO to modulate filter cutoff. The knob has a resolution of 1024 steps vs. 128 so there is very little stepping even with high resonance. However, if you crank resonance to max and very slowly bring the cutoff knob down you will hear some stepping. The knobs on the Venom have variable edit ranges depending on how quickly you turn them. A quick turn will run through the full filter, a slow turn will go slowly through the filter.

------------ *Taiho's Tips & Tricks (you can find the full list at the end of this post): Formant Filtering: "Venom doesn’t have selectable formant filters, but can still make those distinctive “talking synth” sounds. Vocal formants can be created by arranging two or more filters in series at specific frequency relationships to each other. Venom only has one main filter, but secondary filters are available in a couple places farther down the signal path. One filter to try is Auto-wah on the Insert effect, but strangely enough, the Sample Rate Reduction effect (decimator) does a really great job in formant filtering too. Check out Single Program A106 “Gibberish” for an example of this. It’s not too hard to experiment with cutoff frequencies until you find some relationships that sound vocal." ------------

VOICE MODES & MISC CONTROLS
The Venom supports Poly and Mono mode. For both, you can set Unison mode on or off, which, when on, allows you to stack up to 12 voices in single mode for that fat unison sound. Note that in Poly mode each stacked voice takes up a note of polyphony, so at 12 you can only play one note at a time. You can also detune the amount between voices to thicken it up even more. You can transpose and tune the entire voice. The Venom supports Glide or portamento. You can set the rate. You can also set the bender range.

Envelopes
The Venom has three full AHDSR envelopes (Attack Hold Decay Sustain Release). Most envelopes are ADSR, so the additional Hold is a nice bonus. ENV1 is assigned to the Amplitude, ENV2 and ENV3 are labeled Filter and Pitch respectively, but the labels are more for recommendation. You can map them to Filter and Pitch if you want in the Mod Matrix or you can assign them to other things.

------------ *Taiho's Tips & Tricks (you can find the full list at the end of this post): Mono Legato Envelope Mode: "Mono legato mode was used for a lot of classic synth leads and basses – the Minimoog D always behaved this way, for example. Venom, as a polyphonic synthesizer, only changes to Mono Legato mode under certain circumstances, but will do so automatically. If Venom is set to Mono mode, and Glide is turned on, the envelopes won’t retrigger unless your fingers are fully lifted off the keys between notes. Note that if you want Mono Legato envelope behavior, but don't want to hear Glide, turn Glide On but leave the Glide Rate at 0." ------------

LFOs
The Venom has three LFOs and an additional LFO dedicated to Amplitude labeled A-Mod. Editable parameters for LFOs 1 & 2 include Rate, Delay, Attack, and Phase. LFO 3 omits Delay, Attack and Phase as it is monophonic. It is useful for sweeping a filter over all your voices at once, "trance-style". You can Sync the LFOs to various divisions of tempo such as 1/8 note or 1/16 note, but not to MIDI clock directly. Waveforms for LFOs 1-3 include Sine, Sine+, Triangle, Sawtooth, Square, SH, Linear SH, Logarithmic SH, Exponential Square, Log Square, Log Up Saw, and Exp Up Saw. A-MOD parameters are Rate (including Sync), Tremolo and Pan. Waveforms for A-Mod are Sine, Triangle, Saw Up, Saw Down, and Square. One thing worth noting with the LFOs is that they do not go near audio rate. They go from extremely low rates to fast, but not super fast, and you cannot use the oscillators as modulation sources for faster modulations in the Mod Matrix. Ripping LFO sweeps are pretty much limited to OSC1 FM. On the flip side you do get a variety of LFO modes to pick from not typical on most synths.

THE MOD MATRIX
The Venom supports 16 modulation buses. You can map 16 different modulations to run at the same time. The following are the sources and destinations. Note FM and Ring Mod are destinations. Also worth noting are the different modes for the given modulation sources.

Sources: Env 1, Env 2, Env 3, Env 1 Bipolar, Env 2 Bipolar, Env 3 Bipolar, LFO 1 Wide Bipolar, LFO 2 Wide Bipolar, LFO 3 Wide Bipolar, LFO 1 Wide Unipolar, LFO 2 Wide Unipolar, LFO 3 Wide Unipolar, LFO 1 Fine Bipolar, LFO 2 Fine Bipolar, LFO 3 Fine Bipolar, LFO 1 Fine Unipolar, LFO 2 Fine Unipolar, LFO 3 Fine Unipolar, Velocity (positive), Velocity (negative), Keytrack, Mod Wheel, Pitch Bend Wheel, Channel Aftertouch, Expression pedal (positive), Expression pedal (negative), Sustain, Channel Touch (negative), Keytrack (negative), Mod Wheel (negative), Sustain (negative)

A Note from Taiho on "negative" sources: "They are not actually negative in polarity, but rather multiplicative sources. They seem sort of subtractive because as you increase the modulation amount, the 'negative' sources appear to subtract from the target parameter value, but they're actually scaling it according to the source level. For example, if you route '- Mod Wheel' to Amplitude in the INIT patch, you'll notice that the higher you set the amount, the quieter the sound will be until you move the Mod Wheel all the way up and it returns to the original volume. If you want to do a true negative modulation, just route a normal mod source to your destination with a negative modulation mount. The normal mod sources are additive/subtractive when applied to the target parameter value."

Destinations: LFO 3 Rate, Filter Cutoff, Pitch, OSC 1 Pitch, OSC2 Pitch, OSC3 Pitch, Amplitude, Filter Resonance, Ring Mod, External Input Level, FM Amount, OSC 1 Waveshaper, LFO 1 Rate, LFO 2 Rate, OSC Detune, OSC 1 Level, OSC 2 Level, OSC 3 Level

------------ *Taiho's Tips & Tricks (you can find the full list at the end of this post): Pitch modulation of noise: "In the analog world, it’s been impossible to modulate noise. You can filter it, or otherwise alter it after the fact, but you can’t run an LFO (for example) to the frequency of the noise source itself, because it has no frequency. In Venom, since the noise is a sample, you can vary the sample rate frequency and change its “pitch/formant” characteristics. Pitching White Noise down starts sounding like Brown Noise, while pitching it up edges into Violet Noise. Normally if a synth gives you a choice of noise color, it’s a set-and-forget parameter. In Venom, you can continuously modulate the White Noise “pitch”, both positively and negatively for dynamic “color” variation."

Modulating Bipolar Modulation Routes
: "The routes in the modulation matrix are bipolar, which allows you to set up modulations in both positive and negative amounts. What’s unusual is that Venom will allow you to modulate a modulation route through the full bipolar range. Depending on what you have routed in the initial mod route, some interesting effects will occur when the polarity is flipped. For example, you can have an envelope flip upside down and return to normal under control of the Pitch Bend Wheel. Another thing to try is flipping the polarity of a saw wave LFO. When you do that, an “up-saw” becomes a “down-saw” and vice versa. You can get some crazy effects if you put that modulation under the control of a sample and hold." ------------

EFFECTS
The Venom has an Insert FX section and two Auxiliary effects sections. This is another place where the Venom shines. When coupled with the various oscillator waveforms and modulation settings, you can get some sounds simply not possible with other synths. The combination of the three brings out the Venom's magic "mojo". It can be super aggressive or super subtle. What you do with it is completely up to you. Something I do want to call out with the Venom is that the effects section seems part of the synth engine more so than on many other synths. Yes they are added effects, but you tend to use them just as you would the filter, FM or ring mod. They are not an afterthought. They can have a dramatic effect on the core timbre of the sound. In Multi mode you can set the effects to Single mode or Multi mode. Insert effects are always maintained, but in a Multi, the aux FX buses are shared for the four Parts. They do retain individual sends. One thing I did notice was the slight crackling sound typical of digital delays when adjusting the time parameter. This may or may not be an issue for you and does seem to vary with whatever you are playing. You might actually find it adds to certain patches. You can of course set the time parameter to your liking and then play with no artifacts.

Insert FX
For Insert FX you have the following effects with corresponding controls to choose from:

EQ Bandpass: Gain, Q, Frequency
Compressor: Attack, Release, Threshold, Ratio, Gain
Auto Wah: LP and HP modes, Cutoff, Resonance, Sensitivity, Attack, Release
Distortion: Overdrive, Distortion and Fuzz modes, Depth, Pre Gain, Post Gain, High Cutoff
Reducer: Bit Depth, Sample Rate

Distortion and Reducer are where it's at for aggressive sounds. When you hear the super aggressive demos of the Venom, this is what you are hearing. See this video for a touch of the Distortion effect.

AUX 1
Auxiliary 1 is primarily reverb and delay. You can chose between Plate, Room, Hall, Mono Echo, Stereo Echo, Mono 3/4, Stereo 3/4, Mono 4/4, Stereo 4/4, Mono Triplet, Stereo Triplet, Long Mono Delay, and Long Ping Pong.

For Reverb you have controls for Depth, Pre High Pass, Pre Delay, Damp, Time, Threshold, Gain, Frequency and Tempo Sync.

For Delay you have controls for Depth, Pre High Pass, Pre Delay, Damp, Feedback and Delay Time including Tempo Sync.

AUX 2
Auxiliary 2 consist of Chorus, Flanger, Phaser and Delay. As with AUX 1, you can only pick one. Controls include Depth, Pre Low Pass, Pre High Pass, Damp, Time, Feedback, Rate including Tempo Sync, Depth, and Gain.

Note the Venom does not have a vocoder. You can however get pretty creative processing external audio.

THE ARPEGGIATOR
Note this is another shot of my TouchOSC editor. I decided to use it to show the sheer number of patterns available in just one bank.
The arpeggiator is another aspect of the Venom that shines. You can latch the arpeggiation, and there are controls for Rate, Range, and in Phrase mode you can set the root note. There are three modes to choose from and each part of a Multi can have its own settings. Each mode can be superimposed on any Pattern. There are 256 onboard Patterns to start from, and 128 onboard User slots for storage. Note that you can also import your own Patterns from a standard MIDI file using the Venom control panel. The three modes are Standard Mode, Phrase Mode and Drum Mode. Note in Multi mode you can either use the individual arpeggiator settings set in one of the four patches or you can switch to Multi mode and override them with the multi arpeggiator settings.

Standard Mode is your standard arpeggiator with various up down modes and a chord mode. What's interesting is the rhythm of the arpeggiated notes are based on the notes of the selected pattern.

Phrase Mode simply plays one of the patterns selected, transposed to the key pressed.

The first 50 Patterns of each bank are set to Drum Mode, which does not transpose based on the key pressed. It is possible to set any Venom Pattern to drum mode.

THE HARDWARE SYNTH

The following gives a quick overview of the front panel and inputs and outputs of the physical synth itself.

PERFORMANCE CONTROL
The biggest gripe I had with the Venom is the inability to edit all parameters via the front panel. You only have access to the following:

Row 1) Filter Cutoff, Resonance, Filter Env Amt*, Filter Keytrack*, Filter Type

Row 2) Osc 3 > 1 FM, Ring Mod, Osc 2 Pitch, Osc 3 Pitch, Sync Mode

Row 3) FEnv Attack, FEnv Decay, FEnv Sustain, FEnv Release, Unison On/Off

Row 4) AEnv Attack, AEnv Decay, AEnv Sustain, AEnv Release, Poly/Mono

Row 5) LFO 1 Rate, LFO 2 Rate, LFO 2 Shape, Glide Time, Glide On / Off

Row 6) Volume, Pan, FX Send 1 Level, FX Send 2 Level, Insert FX Type

*These two can actually be reassigned in the modulation matrix so you do get two customizable knobs.

According to Taiho Yamada, the original designs were knob laden but this changed primarily for two reasons. "It was half about controlling cost, and half about creating a compelling user interface. Having a manageable control set allows a beginner to get up and running right away, while pro sound design guys seem to gravitate to sound editor software anyway." And of course, the iPad and other hardware MIDI controllers are options as well. The idea behind the front panel is to give you quick access to controls you might need in performance mode while using the included Vyzex Venom software editor for access to the rest of the Venom's parameters. The target audience is someone looking for an affordable instrument to integrate with a computer-based workstation. When hooked up to the editor you can think of the editor as a virtual synth with the Venom as the hardware.

The good news is Vyzex is a fully loaded editor and very well designed. It is comprehensive and very easy to use. You can tell it was not an afterthought added for the sake of having an editor. It is the primary interface for deep editing on the Venom. Now for the great news. Every single editable parameter on the Venom is supported via a combination of MIDI sysex, NRPN and MIDI CC. MIDI CC is natively limited to 128 parameters so only the most common parameters are covered with it, but everything is covered with sysex. If you have MIDI Touch, S1MIDITrigger, or TouchOSC and an OSC to MIDI translator like The Missing Link you are in luck. I was able to create a TouchOSC template for use with The Missing Link. It contains every editable parameter of the Venom's Single mode. A very appreciated feature of the Vyzex editor is that it displays the MIDI sysex output for each knob so you can easily map them to your editor (see bottom of screen above). For MIDI CC and NRPN you can refer to the Venom's user manual.

The lack of full editing via the front panel turned out to be both a major annoyance and a blessing in disguise. Annoyance for the obvious reason of not being able to fully explore the extensive sound engine directly via the synth itself, or when needing to make a quick edit to something not available, but also a blessing because it forced me to open up the synth engine in a way I probably wouldn't with a menu driven front panel.


THE INPUTS AND OUTPUTS
One of the first things that stood out to me on the Venom was the top left gain control panel. Rather than just your standard volume knob, there are knobs for Master Volume, Synth Volume, Direct Monitor, Mic Gain, and Instrument Gain. The Venom screams audio interface. On the back you have stereo RCA inputs, 1/4" Instrument input, 1/4" Microphone input and USB. In addition to audio inputs you have the main stereo 1/4" outs, Expression 1/4" in, Sustain 1/4" in, MIDI Out and IN, 9V DC in, and the power switch. An odd note on the MIDI ins and outs vs USB: Initially I couldn't get the Venom to respond to MIDI. It turns out it launches in USB mode and in order to get it to work in MIDI mode you have to click on Edit followed by hitting the G2# key. Once set it will remain in that mode until reset, including after a power cycle.


OTHER SECTIONS OF THE PANEL
Below the Gain Control panel is the ARP section with an On/Off button and Tap Tempo button along with the ability to enable latching of the arpeggiation. The Octave and transpose section is below that. On the right of the Performance Control section is the Mode section where you can set the ARP pattern, store a patch, and toggle between Multi and Single modes. To the right of the display is the Value knob for editing and a Bank button to toggle between four banks, A - D, for Single mode. Via Taiho: "For all types of data, Multis, Singles and Patterns, half of the memory is used for protected factory presets and the other half can be used to store User programs." To the right of this is the Multi Control section where you can Mute, Enable, and Select the four parts of a multi. The four buttons below correspond to each part and a cool feature is that the LEDs for each will blink whenever a note is triggered, similar to the Korg Electribe series. This makes it super useful in identifying which part is producing a given sound. To the top right is an Edit button which gives you access to global parameters like setting the keyboard mode from USB to MIDI and setting MIDI channel. And of course on the far left of the keys you have your pitch and mod wheels which are programmable via the editor or MIDI.

KNOBS AND CONSTRUCTION
The Venom is super light but solid. I can carry it holding it with one hand and not under my arm. The case is shiny white electronics grade plastic with cool grey and orange accents. The Venom looks sharp and feels good. The keys are what you'd expect for the price - not the best but decent; there is some resistance to them to give the sensation of weight. The keys transmit velocity but not aftertouch. Per above, the knobs on the Venom have variable edit ranges depending on how quickly you turn them. A quick turn will run through the full filter, a slow turn will go slowly through the filter.

SUMMARY

And that covers the Single mode synth engine of the M-Audio Venom. Multiply that by four in Multi mode with additional settings on how each part interacts with the various effects and arpeggiator and you have one amazingly powerful synth for just under $500. You will however need to use the included Vyzex editor to fully tap into the engine or you will need to roll your own. I prefer hands-on tactile control over a mouse and keyboard so I went the iPad route. Other options include any other MIDI controller that supports MIDI CC, NRPN or sysex. The difficulty in creating a template will depend on how much of the engine you want to cover.

Even after going through every single parameter of the Venom I feel like I have barely scratched the surface. The possibilities for any given synth can be limitless, but with the Venom you just have more. The magic is in the multiple oscillator waveforms and what you can do with them. Add modulation capabilities, and an effects engine that acts more like an integral part of the synth engine vs. an add-on, and you have something very, very unique. The Venom simply goes where other VAs cannot. If you are into sonic exploration and are looking for something familiar but surprisingly new, the Venom is definitely worth checking out.

One thing I did want to call out is that although the majority of demos out there showcase the aggressive sounds of the Venom (including mine), you can definitely tame the Venom. It can sound subtle and delicate and is more than capable of classic warm analog type sounds.

Digging Deeper and Custom Editors for mobile devices:
If you want to dig further I recommend checking out the users manual on the M-Audio site here. The Venom is under "Keyboard Series". You can also find the Vyzex editor under the "Drivers/Updates" section - select "Keyboard Series", Venom, your OS and scroll down to "Software Updates". The Vyzex file is the editor. Even if you do not have a Venom you can still check out the editor. When you launch it after installation you will get a MIDI Ports prompt stating "No MIDI In Ports Selected! " Click No to ignore it twice, click OK for the MIDI Ports Setup prompt and wait for it to all render. Once rendered you can explore away. I'd start by clicking Single on the left. As for creating a template in your favorite editor, at the bottom of the Vyzex screen you will see a bunch of MIDI data (you may need to enable the MIDI Monitor option). You can right click on it, scroll down the pop-up menu, and click on Clear to clear it. Next, select a knob and move it. You will see the MIDI sysex data show up in the window. The editor uses sysex, but if you prefer MIDI CC or NRPN, they are in the manual. MIDI CC itself is limited to only 128 parameters so only the most common parameters of the Venom are covered. The remaining are in sysex or NRPN. S1MIDITrigger, MIDI Touch, and TouchOSC coupled with The Missing Link all support sysex.


Q&A WITH TAIHO YAMADA


The following occurred while getting background information for this review.

1. What is Virtual Analog Modeling in Venom?
"Ah, Analog Modeling… These days it really could mean that you’ve used DSP to model everything down to the component level, but back when the Nord Lead first came out, it seemed like it meant, “We used DSP to make something that approximates the sound of an analog synth.” In 1995, I doubt they had the processor power to make anything close to a perfect model, and sure enough the Nord Lead really didn’t sound like any analog I’d heard before. But it still sounded awesome, and started the whole Virtual Analog category that came afterwards. Working with, and speaking to, engineers over the years, I’ve heard some of the tricks they use to generate synthesizer voice paths and you’d be surprised how many corners they cut in order to maximize efficiency in imbedded systems. There are modeling synths out there from various manufacturers that probably wouldn’t be considered modeling if people knew exactly how the sound was generated. Keeping that in mind, I think that having a perfectly, technically accurate, model is really not the ultimate goal. All that matters is how close the synth sounds to your target. It’s all 1s and 0s in the end anyway. Does it really matter how those 1s and 0s were generated? Well, I guess it kinda does. Venom’s sample based oscillators buy us excellent timbral accuracy, but almost no behavioral accuracy. We have to re-introduce analog movement after the fact. In a fully accurate turnkey model, you would build all that into the oscillator and have it there automatically. However, I wanted to have the option for digital behaviors in Venom as well, so we broke the algorithms out into the Start Mod and Drift parameters where the level of analog behavior could be controlled. For extra emulation of analog drift over time, I feel it is necessary to add a Smooth Sample and Hold modulation with different amounts routed to the individual oscillators. And for a super geeky level of accuracy, I would then hit the first Sample and Hold Rate with another Smooth Sample and Hold modulation so that the timing of the drift is randomized as well. In regard to the Filter, we put in a tube saturation limiting algorithm to control digital clipping while maintaining the maximum system level and providing an additional place to overdrive the signal. Venom doesn’t emulate any particular analog filter, but tries to capture some useful functionality from across the analog world. That said, if I pair the 12 dB filter with the OB waves, or the 24 dB LP with the MG waves, the synth really does sound like my SEM and Minimoog respectively. I can definitely still hear the difference, but it’s pretty close, and yet still somehow maintains a sonic quality unique to Venom. BTW, no one ever mentions the VCA, but that’s also important to the overall sound of a synth. Again, we don’t try and recreate any particular analog circuit, but I am conscious of how the VCA works along with the envelopes to make a synth sound punchy like a Mini, or chewy like an MS-20. The emulative sounds in Venom definitely take things like minimum envelope rise times into consideration. To sum up, I would say that I feel perfectly comfortable calling Venom a “Virtual Analog Synthesizer” as is silkscreened on the top panel. There is a wide degree of variance in both the technical and sonic accuracy of the models out there – remember the Nord Lead that started it all. Also keep in mind that M-Audio never says Venom is an “analog modeling” synth, although I feel that definition wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate. I guess it comes down to what the most accepted definition of an analog modeling synth actually is…"
2. Are the filters modeled after any specific designs?
"No, but they were definitely intended to allow the sound design team to emulate several classic analog synthesizers. I wanted the 24 dB to give us Moog and ARP, and for the 12 dB to give us Oberheim, for example. As I said before, I think these filter types get really close, but they also maintain a particular Venom sound."
3. A bit more about “Multi-Cycle” samples
"Basically, I captured multiple cycles of the waveform in order to represent the waveform more accurately. When you look at the waves from an analog oscillator, especially a vintage one, you’ll notice that the shapes of the peaks and valleys in the cycles are not always consistent, so I wanted to make sure I had a reasonable representation of that. And often times you also find sub-harmonic variances where you see trends that evolve over many cycles of the waveform. I wanted to capture some of that behavior too. Each of these characteristics give the oscillator waveform a little extra “life” and you wouldn’t be able to represent either of them at all if you loop at a single cycle of the waveform fundamental. I also wanted to loop without doing any resampling because you can lose some fidelity in that process. Since the sampling frequency and ideal loop points don’t always line up, oftentimes you have to extend the loop by several cycles until the perfect loop point comes along. Of course, if you don’t loop at the right place, the consequence is that you start to generate harmonics that shouldn’t be there due to discontinuity in the wave."
4. Was the Venom synth engine built from scratch?
“Pretty much, yes… There’s a little bit from algorithm libraries available to the Dream DSP, but that stuff has been tweaked to the point that you wouldn’t be able to really recognize it. We basically developed our own proprietary synth algorithms which no one else has, and that’s what gives Venom its unique character.”
5. Can we mention some of the sound designers?
"I always mention Richard Devine and Francis Preve. Those guys are well known in the synth community and did stellar work. But there were about 25 designers in total that contributed tons of great sounds to the final product. Here are some standouts: · Joerg Huettner – Professional sound designer (Waldorf, Access, Alesis), music producer, and assistant composer for Hans Zimmer. · Mark Ovenden – Sound design supervisor for Avid’s AIR Instruments group. Responsible for all the great sounds in the Pro Tools VIs. · Me :) Not to toot my own horn, but I did do a fair percentage of the Singles and Patterns, and all of the Multis except for one… I started in this industry 18 years ago as a sound designer after all."
6. What’s up with the MIDI Output setting?
"Yeah, this one is kind of a bummer. Integrating a MIDI interface inside of a synth can be confusing even for the developers, and I don’t think we arrived at the best way to do it yet. We had to keep the MIDI streams from the DIN jacks and USB separated so they don’t potentially clobber each other when fed to the synth engine. Hence, there is this Global MIDI input switch that favors either the MIDI jacks or USB ports. So, you can’t use the MIDI Jacks and the editor at the same time unless you find a way to hook the editor up bi-directionally to the jacks, because the USB input to the synth gets cut off (the port going to the computer remains intact, however). To set up your hardware sequencer configuration, you’d need an external USB MIDI interface to bring Vyzex to DIN, and a MIDI merge to combine the stream with the sequencer. But perhaps another option, that maintains the USB MIDI ports and editor communication, would be to use the Venom as the MIDI interface in order to allow the hardware sequencer to get into the computer where it could then be channelized by a DAW (which also could synchronize to it), and then send that MIDI stream back down to the Venom synth engine. I haven’t tried that, but I think it’s possible… The User Guide does mention how to turn the Global MIDI Output setting On and Off on page 24, but doesn’t explain the implications of it. I’ve put that on a list of things to clarify in future manual updates."
7. 12 voices of polyphony – how are they allocated?
"Venom’s voices are dynamically allocated between the 4 multitimbral Parts, according to needs of the newest voice launched. This means that any voice can go to any Part at any time depending on what is being played. And sure, the voice mode of the program definitely has a bearing on voice allocation. Monophonic sounds restrict the Part requirements to 1 voice at the most, while Unison sounds multiply the number of voices needed for each new note."
8. Can the LFOs sync to MIDI Clock?
"Sure, but not directly. When sync is turned on, the LFOs (and delay times) sync to the Master Tempo, which can be synchronized to MIDI Clock. You just can’t bypass the Master Tempo."
9. Can Venom mimic granular synthesis?
"Not really. For granular synthesis, you need to generate a bunch of individual tiny grains, and I can’t think of a way to do that in Venom. We can get closer to that Malstrom “Graintable” style, but still… not really. It is possible to do rudimentary Karplus-Strong with the delay line, however…"
10. Who designed the physical look of Venom?
"Venom was mainly designed by Peter Schmidt, a really talented industrial designer who came out of Art Center, Pasadena."


TIPS AND TRICKS VIA TAIHO YAMADA

Using FM or Ring Mod with the modulator pitched down to non-audio rates
"This allows low frequency modulation with the full range of oscillator waveforms as LFO shape choices - even drums. While the FM/LFO trick can even be done with the 3rd oscillator on a Minimoog, the Moog doesn’t have the large selection of complex oscillator waves to choose from."

Multi-cycle samples of modern and vintage, analog and digital, waveforms
"The quality of the Venom oscillator waves falls somewhere between the single-cycle waves in a wavetable synth, and the variance over time found in most ROMpler samples. With our wave samples, the frequency spectra of the source oscillators is captured almost perfectly right from the source, but analog variance needs to be re-introduced by DSP functions like, like Start Mod, Drift and smooth S&H. Or you can choose not to re-introduce analog variance and use the vintage waveforms in a more digital context."

Synthesis functions with drum sounds and kits
"Since the drums appear in the oscillator, you can perform the full range of synthesis functions with them, including FM, Ring Mod, Sync, Waveshaping, Filtering, Envelope and LFO modulation, etc. Particularly interesting is the ability to use a drum sound as a master oscillator for Sync, or to pitch them down and use them as complex LFOs with built-in “envelopes” in oscillator cross-modulations."

Pitch modulation of noise
"In the analog world, it’s been impossible to modulate noise. You can filter it, or otherwise alter it after the fact, but you can’t run an LFO (for example) to the frequency of the noise source itself, because it has no frequency. In Venom, since the noise is a sample, you can vary the sample rate frequency and change its “pitch/formant” characteristics. Pitching White Noise down starts sounding like Brown Noise, while pitching it up edges into Violet Noise. Normally if a synth gives you a choice of noise color, it’s a set-and-forget parameter. In Venom, you can continuously modulate the White Noise “pitch”, both positively and negatively for dynamic “color” variation."

Waveshaper and PWM
"In most synths, Pulse Width Modulation is a function of the square wave, where you vary the ratio of the positive going part of the duty cycle to the negative going part. In Venom, we produce PWM through the waveshaper, which “squares off” the waveform at a variable threshold level. Anything above the threshold goes to full positive amplitude and anything below goes to full negative amplitude. So to create PWM, you select a saw wave and vary the threshold level. It’s a little difficult to understand at first, but the tradeoff is that you get to apply the algorithm to any waveform in the oscillators, including drums, and get interesting variations on the “PWM” sound, depending on the complexity of the waveform and the amplitude of its various peaks."

Formant Filtering
"Venom doesn’t have selectable formant filters, but can still make those distinctive “talking synth” sounds. Vocal formants can be created by arranging two or more filters in series at specific frequency relationships to each other. Venom only has one main filter, but secondary filters are available in a couple places farther down the signal path. One filter to try is Auto-wah on the Insert effect, but strangely enough, the Sample Rate Reduction effect (decimator) does a really great job in formant filtering too. Check out Single Program A106 “Gibberish” for an example of this. It’s not too hard to experiment with cutoff frequencies until you find some relationships that sound vocal."

Modulating Bipolar Modulation Routes
"The routes in the modulation matrix are bipolar, which allows you to set up modulations in both positive and negative amounts. What’s unusual is that Venom will allow you to modulate a modulation route through the full bipolar range. Depending on what you have routed in the initial mod route, some interesting effects will occur when the polarity is flipped. For example, you can have an envelope flip upside down and return to normal under control of the Pitch Bend Wheel. Another thing to try is flipping the polarity of a saw wave LFO. When you do that, an “up-saw” becomes a “down-saw” and vice versa. You can get some crazy effects if you put that modulation under the control of a sample and hold."

Mono Legato Envelope Mode
"Mono legato mode was used for a lot of classic synth leads and basses – the Minimoog D always behaved this way, for example. Venom, as a polyphonic synthesizer, only changes to Mono Legato mode under certain circumstances, but will do so automatically. If Venom is set to Mono mode, and Glide is turned on, the envelopes won’t retrigger unless your fingers are fully lifted off the keys between notes."

Assigning Top Panel knobs in the Modulation Matrix
"There are two top panel Performance Controls that require routes in the mod matrix in order to function. Filter Envelope Amount and Filter Keytrack appear in routes 1 and 2 respectively. However, they don’t necessarily need to be assigned that way. You can set up any engine modulation you want in these slots and the amount of modulation will be controlled by the corresponding top panel knob. The silkscreen labels won’t match anymore, but you’ll get custom modulation controls."

Multi Mode Tips and Tricks

"Modulating All Four Parts at OnceNot many synths are set up to modulate all of their multitimbral Parts simultaneously, but Venom Multis default to do this automatically whenever you select them. When you tweak a Performance Control, all four parts will snap to the parameter value from either the lowest enabled Part, or the last selected Part if you’re using the Multi Control buttons. That way, Venom will allow you to close the filter down on your entire mix, for example. (Note that programs might have different filter types selected, but you can get them to all line up by using the Filter Type button in the Performance Control section.)"

"Velocity SplitsYou don’t see this very often in synths at this price range. In venom, you can use velocity to move between up to 4 Single programs with user assignable split points, and each program can still have its own arpeggiator. The “VeloArps” Multis in Banks A and B, starting at #100, illustrate two layers that change sounds and arp Patterns according to how hard you play."

"Audio Input RoutingYou can use Multis to help set up different audio input routes for your studio setup or gigs. For example, you can use Part 1 for routing a microphone through a compressor and reverb, while using Part 2 for a guitar input running through a distortion, flanger, and reverb, and still have two Parts left over for synth sounds. Each part has independent volume, pan and effects sends which can be mixed to taste and stored from the top panel. Note that the audio input Single programs need to be played in order to pass audio, but with a combination of latched arps and long release envelopes, you can get them to open up without having to continuously hold down a key."

MIDI Tricks

"Multitimbral SequencingVenom can also operate as a multitimbral sound module by using a Multi with each Part set to a different MIDI channel."

"Controller KeyboardYou can load placeholder Single programs in the Multi with their volumes turned down in order to set up MIDI channelized key splits, velocity splits and layers. The only drawbacks are that the Performance Controller numbers cannot be reassigned, so you’ll have to MIDI learn them from the DAW, and the silent programs will still affect polyphony, although you can set up quick envelopes to minimize the affect."

10 comments:

  1. Great overview and interview! I just learned some cool stuff in the tips n' tricks section of this, too!! Thanks Matrix!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great and deep review. It made me want one of those in my studio! Tips 'n' Tricks section is just wonderful; I wish a similar section for every synth :D Thank you a lot!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great review. It seems like the Venom has more than a little in common with the Oberheim Matrix 12.

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  4. nice review. i wish all reviews (even those in print magazines) were like this. sounds exactly like my Virus TI in almost all respects. Except for the TI features it is missing.

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  5. I know the guy who was responsible for the software editor. Last summer he was giving me hints about what was coming but couldn't tell all.
    He did say it was pretty amazing though, and he knows his stuff in both synthesis and software.
    Seems he was right.

    ReplyDelete
  6. DONT BUY THIS SYNTH !!! M-AUDIO still hasnt fixed the midi timing issue.
    ARPS dont stay in synch! Even if you Record midi data and then record the audio there is jitter ................... Everyone that owns one of these has been waiting since it came out for these issues to be fixed. http://forums.m-audio.com/showthread.php?29565-Firmware-Update-News-Please!

    ReplyDelete
  7. BUY THIS SYNTH !!! while you can... With MKDR's VST Editor, "VenomEd", it's like having a poor man's Virus TI Snow with a 4 octave keyboard. It sounds good, and I can live with the quirks...

    Thank you Taiho.

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  8. it's crap...the audio don't start only random......the support it's also like hell from the m-audio website

    ReplyDelete
  9. I have an Elkatwin 61 Synth and I have a problem with the power- supply . The Regulator IC in the bottom of the PCB gets hot.When I remove it from the Heat-Sink, it cools down. Any help? Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. hi, it's 3 years late, but... have you tried changing (or adding if nonexistent) thermal paste?

      Delete

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