Monday, November 3, 2008
Review: Arturia Origin. It's big, it's expensive, it's sexy. Why don't I want one?
This is a difficult review to write. The point of Music Thing over the last few years has been to celebrate hardware when all around were defecting to the sensible, practical world of software synths and in-the-box mixing. Celebrating hardware not because it's better, but because it looks cool and is nice to have around. The best hardware is ambitious, bonkers, knob-covered and over engineered; where no switch is left unilluminated and there's always a joystick. Synths should be modular and/or white. Sequencers should be analog and involve copious blinkenlights. We should remember the mega synths of the past - the Yamaha CS80, the ARP 2600, the Roland Jupiter 8, the Moog Modular, and we should remember the crazy experiments of the early digital era - Dave Smith's gnarly Prophet VS.
Here, then, is one machine that does all that. The Arturia Origin is a big white synthesizer. It has a hand rest like an old studio console or an MPC60 (unfortunately curved steel, not pleather, but still...) It's made in France, of all places. It's a digital modular synth, containing models of oscillators and filters from Moog, Arp, Roland and Yamaha, plus a VS-style wavetable section. Editing is done on a little colour screen surrounded by knobs and buttons - just like the one on the prototype PPG Realizer - the German machine that anticipated soft synths and virtual analog long before it was possible.
So why am I not in love with the Arturia Origin? Why am I writing this, rather than playing with the thing? How come I've already taken the top off to have a look inside and see how it all works? Because the Origin has crossed that line - it's not a hardware synth, it's a computer in a box covered in knobs.
Please remember this isn't a real review. This isn't Sound on Sound. I've lived with this box for days, not weeks. I'm not a real musician, I haven't read the manual properly - most of what I say is ill-informed prejudice.
The trouble starts when you turn it on, after first plugging it in, using the OEM external power supply that must have cost 99p. (Seriously, a £1900 hardware synth only really makes sense if you're playing live. An external PSU only makes sense if you're desperately trying to cut costs. If Behringer can manage a proper internal universal PSU in £70 mixers, why can't you?) Anyway, when you turn it on, it takes 30+ seconds to boot. Because it's a computer in a box.
No, it isn't a literal PC in a box like an Open Labs Neko or a Hartman Neuron, so it will have taken serious R&D investment to design and build. The hardware was designed - in 2005 - by Wave Idea, a French company who make MIDI interfaces. What's frustrating about the Origin is that it's a computer in a box pretending to be an analog synth... and nothing more.
The presets are nice enough, although it's a shame that combining 40 years of synth design produces a bunch of trance noises. The switch-covered interface means its rather too easy to turn off the layers of reverb and chorus on all the presets. It's a bit unfair, but does leaves many of the patches sounding weedy and thin.
The fun bit is building new patches - delving in to that glorious vintage toolkit. And it's easy enough. You control the whole process through one one those big encoders with a push switch. I found it quick enough to patch together a basic VS - four wavetable oscillators, mixed by the joystick and running through (why not?) parallel CS80 and Jupiter filters. I like the little design features - the Yamaha filters look like knobs on a CS80.
The thing is - and here's where I'm so conflicted - I just wanted a mouse and a decent-sized screen (oh, the shame of it). I'd much rather have the beautifully realised screen-based Nord Modular editor - which reproduces the reach-and-grab simplicity of a real modular synth, while allowing for endless complexity. Because patching a modular synth is more than rearranging a few filters and oscillators. It's about weird connections - putting control signals through audio effects, building oscillators from envelope generators. The Origin is not a tinkerer's paradise. Apart from anything else, the modules are so restricted - no sample player, no FM, no granular synthesis, nothing that's been invented since 1986. And it's a completely closed system - it doesn't run VSTs or allow users to develop their own modules.
Perhaps there are hidden depths to the Origin - hidden away in menus I missed, or planned in future upgrades. It does much more than the £190 Analog Factory software/controller combo which presumably contains all the same synthesis algorithms. Unfortunately it costs as much as Analog Factory and a brand new mid-range MacBook Pro. That is a very, very big ask.
The Origin is a wonderful thing. It looks good, it feels good. I'm sure it's not overpriced for what it is - a boutique, limited-run machine with a lot of custom hardware and software. But I can't imagine who would be willing to pay £1,900 for it. It's too digital for an analog fetishist, too analog for a sound experimentalist. The potential of this box is immense - DSP power + screen + knobs + blinkenlights + wooden end panels. But at the moment it's just - tragically - boring.