Ever wished you could pack the sonic goodness and programming power of a soft synth into a hardware box? Dreamed of software that lived in a road case and had the stability and power-on capability of your outboard gear? You’re certainly not alone. That meant many of us were intrigued when soft synth emulator house Arturia showed off the Origin, a DSP-based hardware box that put their emulations in a box that wasn’t a PC.

There’s plenty to recommend this device, with an onboard step sequencer and terrific sounds. And then you hit the US$2500 street price – hardly recession-friendly, especially with Arturia’s much-cheaper and very-capable software synths.

Dave Dri knows touring with gear, as the founder of Seque and a live electronic festival vet. We got his impressions from across the Pacific in Australia. He’s upfront with everything he loves and everything that annoys. To bring a different perspective to Planet CDM here, I’m pleased to welcome Dave as a guest.

An Origin Of Sorts

Founded in France in 1999, Arturia has gained a solid reputation for the quality of its emulations of classic analogue synthesizers. If the soft synth emulations of the classic Moog Minimoog and Yamaha CS-80 have made Arturia a name in the industry, the news of its development of a hardware DSP system made for enjoyable speculation and furious Google searches for videos, news and reviews. While units in Australia are somewhat scarce at present, an Origin was supplied for review by Musiclab in Brisbane, Australia. Where the initial review was for music press print media, there is so much more to this module that we can take a deeper look and share with the CDM community some of the issues and notable features of the Arturia Origin.

Man, Meet Machine

The initial impression of the unit is typical of any large synth module with a host of knobs and blinking lights. The Origin can be rack-mounted or run as a table-top unit, with supplied wooden ends screwing in for the all-important retro aesthetic. There have been comments about the time it takes the unit to boot up, which takes a while. Once you have booted, though, it’s a treat to use, and the LCD screen is both large and bright. As ever, first impressions gained by scrolling through the individual and multi presets give a feel for the possibilities and examples of programming inside the box. A range of usable bass and synth sounds nestle amongst the abstract sweeps and blips, showing plenty of sonic diversity. The Origin is, after all, billed as being “the most powerful synthesiser on the market”.

Origin is essentially a modular environment for programming custom synth modules with a collection of oscillators and filters. It draws upon Arturia’s stable of analog gear models, adding new, original content from the Arturia team. With those synth sounds now in a physical case, boasting external signal inputs and a three-layered step sequencer, the Origin is impressive on paper. Its sound is equally impressive, but one would expect no less from Arturia based on the quality of their software. The presets might attract the same “heard it all before” criticisms from anyone who has been around analog synths for a while, but that can be perhaps considered a complement to the analog modeling. One needs only to play up and down the range of notes of a Minimoog patch to realise that the coherency of the lower and higher notes is superior to lesser Virtual Analogue products. This is especially pronounced in the lower note ranges, though the manual goes into details about avoiding upper frequency aliasing and a “no names” criticism of some other “leading softsynth”. If you’re a soft synth developer, it might be you! Uh oh!

Get With The Program

The first issue that one is likely to run into is delving into the much-talked-about modular programming environment. Whereas the similarly modular Nord G2 includes robust programming environments in computer software for their hardware synth, Arturia have chosen to limit the Origin’s programming to be an entirely inside-the-box affair. Indeed, the USB port and supplied software are merely for archiving and transferring patches. Quite why this process takes such an excruciatingly long time is a mystery, but the lack of any ability to edit file names of archived patches is simply lazy programming. At the time of writing, Arturia haven’t replied to confirm if there is an editor on the way, but one would consider it likely that such a revision will be released with an OS update shortly.

Not that programming on the Origin is anything near impossible. Merely annoying. There are two modes to view the programming process, which amounts to dropping modules into slots and opening each module to connect to another. Frustratingly, there appears to be no way to intelligently “insert” modules into the signal path. This, in addition to no method of “swapping” modules in and out, slows down the rate of programming and limits the kind of creative and random experiments that make actual modular synthesis interesting. Similarly, deleting a module inline will break the signal path, and require re-patching. Despite these quirks, the process is relatively fun and the availability of up to 9 oscillator instances and 4 filter instances will surely yield some interesting results.

Ed.: This is one I’m definitely interested in following – I’d be willing to make some sacrifices for in-box programming, which is an impressive feature, especially with this modular structure. But these do sound like significant obstacles. Other folks want to chime in? -PK

These modules are sourced from the modeling of the Moog Minimoog, Yamaha CS-80, ARP 2600 and Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, as well as additional Arturia originals. Each has its distinctive quirks and allows for some interesting combinations, with features like self-oscillation on the Moog and the smooth response of the Jupiter filters. The manual becomes useful here, with examples and reference points for understanding the characteristics of each.

Better Living Through Synthesis

Beyond creating your own patches, the unit comes packed full of preset programs. Each program contains one synth structure as well as up to three effects settings and one sequence. Up to four Programs can be combined as a Multi, allowing for multi-timbral sound module use with MIDI note, channel and split functionality. The synth structure can be either a user-built modular environment or a template synth. At time of writing, the Origin is shipped with only the Minimoog supplied, with no clear date from Arturia when they will supply the rest. This does seem a curious omission given not only the cost of the unit, but the idea that all these units are already modeled in other Arturia software, requiring only a programmer to port the modules to the Origin. Add another thing to wait for in “the future”.

Room For Improvement

There are quickly a list of issues and concerns a programmer will have with the unit. Where the Arturia software emulation of the Minimoog shows numeric values for tuning settings, the Origin does not. Indeed, all parameters are merely displayed as a graphic representation of a knob, leaving only a visual cue as to the settings. This becomes an issue when tuning the semitones of a number of oscillators for instance, which coupled with the lack of editing software or a touch screen, makes programming the same patches on the Origin a slower affair then Arturia’s own Minimoog V.

Other issues include the use of only a single instance of the Delay, Chorus, and Reverb effects, out of a maximum of three effects able to be run at any one time. The limited palette of effects including Distortion and a Phaser are similar to those found on a Novation X-Station at five times less the expense, and pale in comparison. The Delay and Reverb lack depth of character, and one might find themselves checking that the Distortion is, in fact, actually turned on. The restriction to singular use of the more CPU intensive Delay and Reverb is an indication of conserving processing power for the actual synth patches, but these issues quickly creep into the potential capacity of a Multi patch. In an era where the cheapest entry level laptop has processing power to spare, it is relatively disappointing that a module advertised as “the most powerful synthesizer on the market” would have any processing restrictions whatsoever. If you intended to run the world’s most ultimate 9-Oscillator Trance super saw Multi with full effects and blazing filters, think again. Outside of CPU and “I can’t believe it doesn’t have a touch screen” interface issues however, much of what currently detracts from the overall desirability of the Origin could well be fixed with a timely OS update.

Things Are Looking Up

Those niggles out of the way, it’s time to reaffirm that the unit does in fact sound fantastic. As said before, so it should. It’s Arturia doing what Arturia do. Coupled with the rather interesting, if quirky, step sequencer, the unit has the potential to become a boutique brain for a relatively well-funded live act. Where programming may feel like a festival of clicks, the Origin is perfectly suited for performance and allows for an incredibly well-planned customization and mapping of knobs to this end. External inputs offer the chance to create inspired filter programs and the unit hasn’t neglected a healthy array of midi ports. The unit is heavy at around the 8kg mark, but the build is impressively solid and all the knobs have the same smooth feel that makes units like the Waldorf Blofeld such a joy to tweak, grab and perform on.

It is, however, the quality of the sound that will emerge as a common point of conversation regarding the Origin. It is very expensive and will perhaps emerge as a limited and desirable boutique unit for some. For others, the comparison to the Arturia software will be a pressing factor, with all the synths on the Origin available as part of Arturia’s acclaimed “V Collection” at a price over four times cheaper than the Origin. Of course, these are not available in modular form, which invariably brings up again the question why the Origin is shipped without a software editor. Sure, the Origin sounds amazing, but the question is whether it sounds that much more amazing than the same software, and whether the potential for programming is currently worth the restricted workflow of doing it all inside the box.

To Origin, Or Not To Origin

Some of the best music technology in history has been quirky and difficult, and there is little argument against calling the Arturia Origin exactly that. For all its difficulty, however, it sounds incredible. For all the niggling feature complaints, it suggests a well-timed OS update in response. For its price though, there are no easy answers. Comparing the recommended retail prices in Australia at present, the Arturia Origin costs only a few hundred less than one would spend purchasing both a Moog Little Phatty Stage II and a Dave Smith Prophet 08. Both being genuine analogue synths in their own right. Whether the market is ready to pay this price until Arturia address the features left wanting is entirely up to the producers and acts with the money and passion for incredibly sounding and very specific modular emulations. For everyone else, the software awaits.

For another – similarly skeptical – take on the Arturia, here’s Music Thing from last year:

Review: Arturia Origin. It’s bit, it’s expensive, it’s sexy. Why don’t I want one?