A few months ago, while Neil Mclellan and I were having dinner at his place and listening to some tracks he'd been mixing on his home rig, he started to show me webpages of some big old synths that he wished he could shoehorn into his small, NYC-sized living room. I put on my propeller-topped Gear Geek hat and started thinking out loud, "How 'bout a mini USB keyboard controller and some software synths?" Neil replied that a controller would be nice, but he'd rather have something with its own sounds, so he wouldn't have to bother with fiddly on-screen controls. My next thought was the microKORG, but we both agreed it was too limited in palette and functionality. Then it came to me-Novation's XioSynth 25, a two-octave controller, audio interface, and hardware synth in one. (There's also the four-octave XioSynth 49, but that would have been too big for Neil's desk.) I called up Novation's US distributor and had them send us one.
The XioSynth 25, as its name implies, has 25 keys; they're semi-weighted and velocity-sensitive but not aftertouch (although the synth engine responds to external aftertouch data). The keys have a responsive feel to them-much better than the microKORG's, for example. A joystick handles pitch-bend and modulation; it springs back to center even for modulation, unfortunately. In front of the joystick is a rubberized X/Y touchpad (kind of like a laptop's trackpad), to which you can assign up to four different parameters. You can be extremely expressive with it, as it responds both to taps and strokes. 11 controller knobs (3/4 turn) are lined up along the far top edge; these are rubber-coated and have a nice feel. With the help of a few selector buttons, the knobs can be quickly switched between 22 parameters in controller mode, 22 in synth mode, and 8 for audio control (levels, pans, etc). Interestingly, both the synth and controller functionality are available to use at the same time, and you can do things like use the XioSynth's keys to operate a software synth while you use the 11 knobs to tweak the onboard synth while it's being played by your software sequencer. There's also a rotary encoder and a backlit LCD display for programming patches and changing settings. 16 preset templates are onboard for popular hosts and soft-synths, and you can download more from Novation's website.
For its own sounds, the XioSynth relies on a monotimbral (single-layer) virtual-analog synth engine with 8-note polyphony. There are three oscillators (with 17 waveforms); two LFOs (32 waveforms); a multimode filter; two envelopes; an arpeggiator; digital effects (reverb, chorus, phaser, distortion, panning, EQ, etc); and Novation's X-Gator step-sequencer. The oscillators can be combined in a number of ways-summed, ring-modulated, frequency-modulated-for a huge range of sounds. The filter can be switched between low, high, and band-pass, with 12 or 24 dB slopes, and it sounds especially smooth and resonant; but you can also add a wallop of grit with the filter's Distortion control while a Shape control accentuates harmonics. X-Gator gives you a 32-step gating sequence (down to 64th notes!) which is visualized on the LCD screen as a bar graph. When used together with the 7-mode arpeggiator, you can really get your sounds to move.
The audio interface includes two inputs: one 1/4" and one XLR, the latter with selectable phantom-power.
Interestingly, you can choose 12, 24, or 48 volts, but you have to scroll through one of the LCD-displayed menus to even turn on/off phantom power. There are four more 1/4" jacks: stereo outputs, sustain pedal, and headphones. The XioSynth connects to the host computer via a USB cable for both the controller and audio streams. Thankfully, it's all class-compliant, so no drivers are necessary-true plug-and-play. Given that it's got audio inputs, I was disappointed when I discovered that you can't process external sounds through the XioSynth. Bummer! But it can do zero-latency monitoring of the keyboard and the two audio inputs via a blend function on one of the 11 controller knobs. Awesome! There's also a MIDI output, but no MIDI input. Power can come from USB, six AA batteries, or the supplied 9 volt wall-wart.
The XioSynth ships with 200 presets, 100 of them programmed by well-known programmers/producers. They range from very good replicas of TR-series drum machines, to atmospheric pads, to analog-keyboard basses, to basic keyboard strings and leads, as well as a few weirder sounds. The included template editor (Win XP or Mac OS X) also functions as a patch librarian-a good thing because almost all of the factory patches are usable (and they're also good starting points for making your own sounds), so you might not want to lose them when you start overwriting them with your own. Speaking of patches, while I was listening to Neil's in-progress work with the band Senser, I asked him how he was getting certain sounds.
"Dude, that sound was so easy. I did it on the XioSynth. Just listen to how tight that bottom end is but how wicked the top is. Like Depeche Mode on acid. And it translates-from small to big speakers to whatever headphones you've got on your noggin. It's wicked.
"As a controller, it's good, but not really handy in the Pro Tools environment; I used it with Logic, and it works great there. But as a synth, it's the bollocks! Even though it's just incredibly deep, and you can get really tweaky with it [makes a pinched face while pretending to finely turn a knob], it's beautifully simple to operate. It's not scratch-my-head-read-the-manual. And it's got enough horsepower to make it run.
"Beautiful sound-and it works right off the bat. You plug in the USB cable, and it works-right into my project just like that. No finding another audio input or fooling with MIDI or anything like that. The touchpad thingy is rubberized and it does this... and that... [makes funny crooked-tooth faces accompanied by synth-like mouth noises]... and it's just brilliant what you can do to your sounds. The arpeggiator-well, it comes in handy if I need a little filler on a track. It's not crazy wacky, just really useful for that little bit of candy to fill out a track without adding more music, if you know what I mean. The built-in effects are really, really powerful. The delays remind me of the old TC Electronic TC 2290-what you can do with it. The keys-the weighting on them and the action-the playing is just beautiful. The whole thing is just fucking beautiful."
Um, I think Neil really meant to conclude by saying that the XioSynth is well thought out; the build quality and feel are steps above the competition; and its compact size and $299 street price belie its comprehensive capabilities. ($549 MSRP for XioSynth 25, $599 for XioSynth 49; www.novationmusic.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.