M-Audio is positioning its Venom keyboard as “virtual analog” device. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
The big trend in synth design is to fire up the Wayback Machine and accurately recreate the sounds of the beloved ’70s and ’80s analog synths, then roll up the results into one does-it-all keyboard. Incorporate modern touches like USB and MIDI ports, microphone pre-amps and digital audio outputs and you’ve got a package ready to serve any GarageBand or Pro Tools jockey.
The Venom does all of that, and it does it for around $500. Stand-alone synths or software-and-controller combos usually cost at least that much. So given the added versatility, the Venom is relatively affordable — especially considering the quality of the sounds within.
Rather than rely on digital synth modeling, M-Audio has used raw samples of the original instruments to give the Venom its voice. Taiho Yamada, the designer of the Venom, wheeled out dozens of specimens from his vast synth collection (and called in a few favors from friends) to gather samples. These samples of vintage synths — Moogs, Arps, Oberheims, Rolands and the lot — form the foundation of the Venom’s sonic palette. Yamada’s team also sampled some bizarre old hardware. A Harvestman Zorlon Cannon, which employs the same kind of tone generator used in the Atari 2600, was used to achieve some chiptune flavors. An old, tube-driven Hewlett-Packard test oscillator yielded a pure and glassy sine wave. A circuit-bent Roland TR-808 supplied some crunchy drums.
The samples — 41 waveforms and 53 drum sounds — are all played back over the Venom’s three oscillators. There are also dozens of unique creations, all adding up to 512 single-voice patches and 256 multi-voice patches. You want it, you’ve got it: monophonic and polyphonic lead sounds, fat bass tones, arpeggios and thick synth pads.
You’re equally spoiled for sound modeling options, including 3 LFOs, an AMP modulator, multiple frequency cutoff filters, an arpeggiator (syncable or tap-tempo) and on-board effects for adding echo, delay, chorus and distortion.
Though the Venom retains the sonic character of each original instrument, what can’t be sampled is the vibe; specifically, the long-term behavior of the old synths’ oscillators. Analog oscillators can drift around, introducing funky inconsistencies. The Venom adds these wobbly bits back in, altering the sample start points as much or as little as you’d like.
When it first arrived, I took the Venom out of the box and dug right into it by dialing through the presets. Even moving quickly, this took me a couple of hours. The sound library runs deep. Along with the expected Roland or Moog leads and soft Arp Odyssey washes — most of which, but not all, sound great — are a bevy of really aggressive, thoroughly modern sounds. Throbbing blobs of squelchy acid bass, glitchy drums, bubbling arpeggios, those high-pitched Dr. Dre whines, and a dozen or so patches that sound lifted straight from the Tron:Legacy soundtrack.
That aggressive, Daft Punky, Crystal Methody character was a determined decision on M-Audio’s part, Yamada says.
“Some of the larger companies tend to stick with tradition, only using Minimoog basses and brass sounds,” Yamada told me in a phone interview. “I felt like a lot of that was covered already. Once we had the vintage sounds down, I wanted to take Venom in its own direction and make it modern.”
To my ears, some of these “modern” sounds are straight-up cheesy, and at first I skipped right over them. But after getting comfortable with the Venom’s modulation stage — which took a while, given only four assignable control knobs, a mod wheel and a crowded LCD display — I was able to go back and tweak them until I’d gotten something I actually liked. And because I built these sounds using a starting point I never would have chosen myself, I was being pushed to be more creative, which felt gratifying.
Not that you need much encouragement to get creative. With 12 voices at your disposal, you can pile on the waveforms, detuning effects, octaves and filters. When you’re playing a multi-voice patch, you can alter each different instrument sound using the multi-control pads located just above your left hand. It’s nice when you want to apply mods to the melody but leave the drum loop untouched. I’ve never seen this done so easily on an inexpensive keyboard, only on expensive synths and in multi-track software.
I used it as an input device. You can plug mics and instruments directly into the Venom and use it as a plain, low-latency USB audio interface. You can also plug in an external source using the RCA jacks. I fired up a few simple iPhone drum machines and, for yucks, BeBot. By cranking up the input signal, I got some really nice distorted drum noises out of it. I also went crazy with the effects, turning my guitar tone into something that sounded like the TARDIS was materializing in my bedroom.
The Venom’s construction is what you’d expect from M-Audio: plastic, and lots of it. The case is large, even unnecessarily so, but still rather lightweight. The 49 keys don’t really have any weight to them either — no piano action here — which is a bummer since the keyboard ends up feeling more like a toy than a tool.
Another thing I didn’t particularly care for is the Venom’s tendency to go dark. Too many of the stock sounds have a gritty, industrial flavor — especially the drums, the synth basses and the multi-voice patches. It evokes images of an S&M club in Rotterdam circa 1996. Maybe that’s your thing, but I’d prefer more proggy and poppy sounds.
If you really want to get lost, a DVD of Vyzex, the Venom’s software sound editor, comes in the box. Here, you can dissect the stock waves, create your own patches, arrange your favorite sounds into banks, and build complex effects chains. Not surprisingly, I was much more comfortable doing my editing on my Mac than I was on the Venom’s hardware.
After a month of use, the biggest drawback for me was still the feel of the thing — it’s big, plastic and sort of cheap, which wouldn’t be as bothersome if M-Audio had used some of the Venom’s extra real estate to add a few more manual knobs. There’s still too much dancing around on the scant controls for my taste.
But otherwise, the Venom is a versatile machine. There are no classic piano, organ or acoustic instrument sounds within, but if you’re making unabashedly electronic music, it knows a lot of tricks. I’d especially recommend the Venom for anyone building up a home studio, given its low cost, the strength of the software editor, the compatibility with ProTools and Abelton Live, and all the fun you can have plugging in iPad and iPhone apps, instruments and microphones.
And while it won’t totally satiate your lust for a real Moog, a vintage Oberheim, or a Nord Lead, it will help you hold out a few more years until you’ve saved your pennies.
Hear the Venom
Here are some samples I recorded, a few of what I consider to be the synth’s strongest sounds.
First up are some of the bass sounds. First is a classic Moog bass with the oscillators set to pulse ever-so-gently. Then I sent some other gloopy low-end sounds through the arpeggiator.
Next are some of the Venom’s stock drum loops. Some presets are just full loops. Others let you edit each individual voice in the drum machine. Here, I just played loops but manipulated the filters and oscillators to get some woozy hip-hop and electro flavors.
The Venom is great at mimicking ’80s sawtooth synths and vintage dance stuff. I like these moody leads. You’ll hear a little bit of echo, some ring mod and filter adjustments throughout.
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