Synthino XM Review

by Kurt Larson, lead singer of Information Society


The ‘Synthino XM’ is the latest device made available by the clever guys behind Nootropic Designs, Michael Krumpus, and, Alex Dyba. Building on the success of the Synthino ONE, the Synthino XM greatly adds to and expands the ONE’s features. The primary addition on this programmable unit is the clock-based devices: the arpeggiator and “GrooveBox” modes. They’ve also added a low-pass filter, which the Synthino ONE lacked.

. Has a sequencer!
. Fully programmable using the Arduino API
. Can respond to up to four MIDI channels at once
. Unlike the Synthino One, the XM has a low-pass filter
. Velocity-sensitive!

. The filter-resonance function has very little effect
. Only three of the four top buttons can be used to play notes. The Synthino One used all four
. Fairly limited function without an external keyboard
. The battery life is relatively short. (about 6 hours)
. Velocity-sensitive, and you can’t turn that off.

The Synthino XM operates in three different modes, switchable from the front panel. The Synth mode lets you make awesome analogue-sounding synth sounds (although the device is, in fact, digital) and play them back from either the buttons on the device itself or with a MIDI keyboard. The Arpeggiator allows you to choose from several different pre-set arpeggiated chords, or make your own with a MIDI keyboard. The GrooveBox is a 4-channel, 16-step sequencer which requires a MIDI keyboard to program.

There are twelve synth waveforms, five percussion samples and a noise generator. The synth waveforms are mostly classically-useful basic synth tones, with some more digital-synth-sounding ones added in. I dialed in my go-to favorite on any device, sawtooth, and was pleased to find it clean and strong. Low-noise and plenty firm in the bottom end. Combining the sawtooth and square waves gave a really nice, beefy bass synth sound which could easily hold its own in any live setting. The percussion samples are really versatile because they can be transposed over a fairly wide range. I had the most fun with the arpeggiator when I was using down-pitched percussion sounds. I do rather wish there was a de-tuning feature to widen out the synth tones when I double them on separate tracks, but if I really can’t do without that, I could probably program it up myself. [UPDATE: the ability to detune tracks has been added to verstion 1.1 of the firmware.]

The Synthino XM is fully re-programmable by those with the computer skills to do it. Although no longer using the Arduino processor, the Arduino programming API is still used to program the device, so Arduino developers will feel right at home. ‘Re-programming’ can mean anything from simply swapping out the included waveforms for new ones to completely altering how the device functions.

Physically, I much appreciate the care the designers took to make it a solid, durably-built device. Despite its tiny size and open circuit boards (ew! I can see its brains!), I never got the feeling I was handling something fragile. It doesn’t flex. Seriously, you can’t bend it. At all. The important support structures are all metal. The plastic parts are very rigid, hard plastic. It looks and feels much more like a laboratory instrument than a typical miniature audio device. To test it, I dropped mine from a height of three feet, four times, and can detect no change to its functionality or appearance. Perhaps I shall have to take it to the Cracks of Doom…

Other notable and nice features:
. 5-note polyphony. This may not sound like much, but for a device of this type, size and price, it is pretty cool.
. Fine-tune setting for the entire instrument (independent of the pitches of any individual notes) whose value is saved when the unit it powered down.
. In addition to the synth waveforms, there are 5 synthetic percussion sounds and a noise waveform included. This is really nice when using the ‘GrooveBox’ sequencer function.
. Each note can use a different waveform in the ‘GrooveBox’ sequencer mode. This allows you to use all five drum sounds on a single track.

So who wants to use this, and in what settings? To my mind, I think the obvious use-case scenarios are these:
1. A person wants to plug a small synth device into a party or live-event sound system and add to the fun.
2. Someone is in an experimental/circuit-bending kind of live music performance and wants to augment the show with another interesting and unique-sounding device.
3. A teacher of a synth class wants a small, affordable hands-on device his or her students can use to learn basic synthesizer skills.
4. A hobbyist with programming skills wants to design their own version of the Synthino.

I myself very much enjoyed playing with the prototype device supplied to me. I love the fact that you can play it from the top buttons even without having a keyboard plugged in. I felt a bit stymied by the fact that whereas I could play four different notes on the Synthino One, the XM only allows three, (the fourth button is reserved for toggling the alternate functions of the eight knob controllers) but the immense fun of programming the step-sequencer (‘GrooveBox’ mode) more than made up for it. It took me about 7 minutes to bunk-up a little re-creation of one of my favorite DAF songs, ‘Der Mussolini’, even though it was the first time I had ever used the device. I did have to read the manual for about 2 minutes, but for the sort of people who would buy the Synthino XM, that is not much of an investment. The patterns you make can even be saved internally for later use.

The arpeggiator function is super-fast and super-fun. Even without a keyboard plugged in, one still has a choice of four patterns of four chords and can transpose the pitch. With a keyboard, one can play any pattern one wishes, up to 16 notes. If the lack of a rest function bothers you, do what every self-respecting New-Wave synth band did in 1979: play a very low note!

Speaking of the manual, this isn’t one of those translated-from-an-Asian-language deals. As a lover of well-written manuals, I appreciate the clarity and usefulness of this one. Anything you would want to do with the device is laid out in clear, concise instructions.

Although the sound quality is generally quite good for a device of this size and type, the particular prototype I used did have some dirt or noise in the knobs (“pots”). Occasionally the values would change without my input. Whether this problem will also appear in the production models, I do not know. Keep in mind that the values of the knobs are discrete, so it is easy to re-locate the exact same setting if something does get changed.

Be sure to unplug your headphones/output-cable when not in use; the 9-volt battery continues to drain fairly quickly even when you are not doing anything with the device. You can use USB to power it too, which is going to be a better option in most settings.

In summary, the Synthino XM is a surprisingly capable micro-synth for its size and cost. It is a great addition to any ‘gee-whiz-hey-what-is-that-thing’ collection of live instruments for the discerning circuit-bender. The fun is immediate and easy to find. I recommend being ready to have an external MIDI keyboard plugged into it at all times, as the functionality is rather limited without it, but for just making sounds, even without that there is still fun to be had. I used two Synthino ONEs at a jam session with a bunch of video-game-music guys last month, and had a blast. I suspect it would have been even more fun with the Synthino XM!