The world of synthesizers is ever-changing and growing. With great advancements in technology since the first ones came to be, more and more companies are popping up with fresh and innovative instruments that push the boundaries of traditional instruments. One such company is Ashun Sound Machines, a newcomer to the game that released their first synth just last year. Standing out in the world of hardware synths is no easy task, but their first product, the Hydrasynth, is perhaps like nothing else around. The Hydrasynth is extremely deep and meant to be pushed to the limits and in this review, we'll be taking a look at just how powerful it really is, as well as my experiences with it. Please note that this is for the desktop version, which contains the same synth engine and features.
WHAT IS IT?
Ashun Sound Machines' Hydrasynth is an absolute powerhouse and synth nerd's wet dream. The company describes it as a "digital wave morphing synthesizer with polyphonic aftertouch." That's a bit of a mouthful, but in layman's terms, it's an expressive digital synth that allows one to create unique sounds using advanced wavetable synthesis. If you're unsure what wavetable synthesis is, think Xfer's Serum or NI's Massive. This has become a very popular form of synthesis due to the flexibility it provides.
The depth of sound design possibilities are borderline overboard, but these days, more and more people looking to go deeper and push the boundaries, so the technology and capabilities of one's tools need to be up to par. The most simple way to describe the Hydra is an expansive modular rig in a small desktop package. There are countless routing options, CV ins/outs, onboard effects, and enough LFOs to do your head in. But, don't let this scare you off. While Hydrasynth allows one to go to extremes, it can also be used in a more simple and userfriendly way.
As I mentioned earlier, the Hydrasynth is extremely deep. There are many features you can use to create otherworldly sounds. I've highlighted a few of the key ones below, but you can click here to read the full list of them.
While the keyboard and desktop versions are essentially the same, the biggest difference is the desktop version's 24 polyphonic pressure-sensitive touchpads with aftertouch. Most desktop versions of other synths have no way of playing them without an external keyboard, so this actually allows you to play the synth without the need for any other hardware. The pads can also be assigned to different scales and layouts for easier playability depending on your needs.
There are three oscillators that allow you to choose from a selection of 219 single cycle waveforms. Wavemorphing is a feature usually found on synths with preset wavetables, but unlike most wavetable synths, oscillators 1 & 2 have their WAVELIST mode. This mode allows you to pick and choose 8 waves, from our bank of 219, arrange them in the order you want, and then morph from one to another.
One of the shining features of the Hydrasynth is its Mutators. The Mutators allow you to modulate, bend, and sculpt the sound in a variety of ways. Each Mutant allows you to choose from the following processes:
- FM-Linear - for making classic FM sounds. Choose multiple FM sources, including external inputs.
- Wavestack™ - creates 5 copies of the incoming sound and allows you to set a detune amount.
- Hard Sync - This gives you those classic hard sync sounds. Try hard syncing a morphing wavetable for some fun.
- Pulse Width - This will pulse width modulate ANY input sound.
- PW - Squeeze - This is a different form of pulse width mod that creates a smoother sound.
- PW-ASM - this mode divides the incoming wave into 8 slices and allows you to set how much pulse width mod will happen in each section.
- Harmonic Sweep - this will sweep the harmonics of the incoming sound.
The Mutants can also generate its own waveforms in both FM and Sync modes so that you do not have to use another oscillator.
Remember when I said there were enough LFOs to do your head in? Hydrasynth has 5. Yup. They aren't standard LFO’s either. The Hydrasynth LFO’s feature a STEP mode that allows you to create patterns with up to 8 steps. Having 5 mini step sequencers allows you to go next level with shaping your sound. There are also 10 standard waveforms.
5 seems to be the magic number here, as there are 5 DAHDSR Envelopes. As I said, one's tools need to be up to par when trying to push the boundaries, and as such, the sound engine needs plenty of modulation sources. The stage envelopes feature Delay, Attack, Hold, Decay, Sustain, and Release stages. The time settings for the stage can be set in seconds or in time divisions, giving you envelopes that play in sync to your song. You can also loop the envelopes to create LFO’s whose shape can be controlled in the modulation matrix.
The Modulation Matrix is where things start to get real interesting. The modulation capabilities on the Hydrasynth are endless. With 32 user-definable modulation routings, you will have plenty of ways to use the 29 modulation sources and 155 modulation destinations. Almost everything in the synth engine can be a modulation destination including the effects and arpeggiator. The Modulation matrix points themselves can also become modulation destinations. Modulation sources & destinations include the CV Mod In & Out jacks as well as MIDI CC. Basically, hang on to your butts.
With more and more people entering the modular world, it only makes sense that there are patch points to allow you to connect to your rig. Hydrasynth comes with standard MIDI and USB/MIDI interfaces on the synth and CV/GATE interfaces. It supports the standard voltages for Eurorack format as well as some of the Japanese Volts>HZ products. The MOD in and outs allow for modulation from DC to full audio ranges, expanding your modulation capabilities.
For the performance aspect, there are 8 assignable macro knob encoders and buttons can each be routed to 8 destinations. Complete sound transformations can take place with the press of a button or turn of a knob.
I've said it before, but I'm not the most technically proficient producer out there by any means. I love diving deep, learning my gear from the inside out, and making the most out of them, but I also treat them like tools/actual instruments. What I mean is that, when I pick up my guitar, I want to play guitar. The same goes for my synths. Obviously the better you know your gear, the more you can get out of it, but I also believe in setting a limit to prevent yourself from getting too lost in the sauce and keeping the focus on actually playing your instrument. I can say that, for the less technical people out there, there is definitely a very fine line with the Hydrasynth.
Now, that's not to say that it's not user friendly, and I have to commend ASM for doing an excellent job in keeping things rather surface level for those not looking to do their head in. If you're looking to simply browse through presets and start playing, Hydrasynth most definitely allows this. In fact, this is where the Macro Controls come into play. Each preset comes with fully programmed macro knobs, which allow instant control over simple functions like effect depths and such. If you do want to get under the hood, this is also quite simple, but again, hang on to your butts. It's a bit hard to really explain the depth in which one can go with the Hydrasynth, but as I mentioned earlier, it's essentially a full modular rig inside a desktop synth box. That's also a bit of a joke as modular synths are basically regular synths with the guts on the outside. But I digress...If you've spent any time with a wavetable synth, parts of Hydrasynth will certainly feel familiar.
I do believe it's very important for artists and producers to get out of their comfort zones in order to evolve, and there were parts of Hydrasynth that I did feel a bit lost with. With so many different routing and modulation options, it can easily get overwhelming, but when I find myself starting to get too lost, I take a step back and try to keep things simple. One thing I did notice was that it does feel a bit cold/tinny. I could be extra sensitive to this as I mostly use analog synths, but it did seem a bit on the thinner side. Some people might prefer that crispness, others maybe not. I felt the fx section was solid. ASM actually kept this part fairly simple and didn't overload you with 1000 different types of reverbs and such.
One of the best, if not the best feature though, is for sure the pad section. The fact that they come with aftertouch allows you to really add life to your sounds that just can't be replicated without it. I really hope we see more of this on other desktop synths in the future. I also like that they can be assigned to different scales, which help you keep things musical. This is a feature I loved on the Push 2.
On the subject of pads, I found this most useful for pad sounds with movement and texture. Take a pad like that and layer it over a warmer and thicker analog pad and you've got yourself a serious wall of vibrant color and depth.
For a new company, I'd say Ashun Sound Machines definitely nailed their first piece of hardware. Is it for everyone? No, but nothing truly is. Is there a lot to digest? Yes, absolutely. Should that prevent you from taking a chance with it? Definitely not. I will say I'm not too crazy about the color scheme, but again, that's a personal preference. I do like the build quality though. This thing is a tank and feels like it's built to last. One thing that really struck me about the Hydrasynth was the price. For something this feature-packed, you'd expect a hefty price tag. That's certainly not the case for the desktop version at least. Again, this isn't a synth for everyone, but if you're looking to challenge yourself and want a machine that will push your abilities without spending a fortune, the Hydrasynth is definitely worth a look.
$799 (desktop) / $1299 (49-key version)
For more information, click here.