Canadian Musician - May/June 2021 - Page 22


Modal Electronics COBALT8 & ARGON8 Synthesizers

By Andrew Leyenhorst

Like most categories of instruments , with synthesizers , it ’ s easy to find yourself in a state of option paralysis . There are limitless options available , catering to every sound and style , in a variety of form factors , and across both the hardware and software domains . In recent years , British designers Modal Electronics have stepped into the fray with their hardware synth offerings that began with the 00 series , which have become revered as modern classics for their sound , functionality , and versatility . Since then , they ’ ve delivered a smattering of synths to the market , and those innovations have reached something of a singularity with the COBALT virtual-analog series and ARGON series of wavetable instruments .

What Modal have done with the COBALT and ARGON series synths is incredibly clever . Firstly , each synth is available in three form factors , which are nearly identical across both series : “ 8 ”, which is the standard 37-key build ; “ 8X ”, which offers a greater 61 keys ; and “ 8M ”, which is the synth module by itself . The 8 and 8X models boast a gorgeous full-size FATAR key bed with aftertouch that feels really , really good to play . In fact , the build quality of these instruments is impressive in all facets , as beyond the key bed , they are housed in a sophisticated steel and aluminum chassis that looks fantastic and is considerably weighty , which I personally like a lot . If you ’ re a more intense player , you can rest assured that it won ’ t slip away from you like a runaway kick drum .
Each unit features 29 endless encoders , 24 buttons ( many of which are multi-function ), and an X / Y joystick for tactile modulation . What ’ s really convenient is that the layout of these knobs and buttons remains almost the same across both the COBALT and ARGON series synths . Consequently , I spent time getting to know the COBALT8 first , and found it very easy to transition over to the ARGON8 .
Both synths offer mono or stereo output , which is lush and wide for performing and when using the sublime suite of onboard FX , including reverb , stereo delays , lo-fi , chorus , and more . Of course , they also sound killer through FX pedals . For production and recording purposes , I found myself preferring to output in mono and double-track manual stereo parts for further width where needed .
In terms of production , any of these units can be plugged into a computer via USB-B , allowing them both to be used as a MIDI controller , and to be fully controlled from the computer via MODALApp .
Ultimately , both synths sound and feel delightful . Where they are incongruent simply has to do with the fundamental differences between the them , which we ’ ll get into now .
COBALT8 The COBALT8 runs on two independent oscillator groups with up to four oscillators each , which can be manipulated with 34 different algorithms . This in itself can yield endless entertainment if you really want it to ; the variety of different waveforms on offer and the countless ways they can be blended and morphed and manipulated is imaginative , intuitive , and just plain fun .
Also on board is a four-pole morphable ladder filter , and three LFOs ( two available in polyphonic mode ) with dedicated envelopes for the filter , amp , and modulation . This gives an immense amount of control over the response everywhere in the chain for loads of versatility of expression . The 512-note real-time / step sequencer on the COBALT8 can support up to four lanes of animation , and the arpeggiator ( which I played with a lot ) is programmable up to 32 steps . In terms of the sequencer and arpeggiator , the level of control over dynamics , rhythms , and step patterns is very inspiring and can take you in a lot of different directions .
Overall , I found that the COBALT8 lives up to its ambition . It sounds fat and warm , with an outrageously smooth master cutoff to perfectly tailor the high end , which I found really tonally satisfying . The sonic possibilities might as well be inter-galactic in terms of where you can go with this synth , and it delivers them in modern style with vintage attitude .
ARGON8 While the COBALT series aims to take classic analog synth tones and modernize them , the AR- GON8 is an entirely modern affair that seeks to push into the future . As a wavetable synth , it is
geared towards intricate sound design and ultimate versatility . This became apparent from the moment I loaded up the initial patch ; CO- BALT ’ s default patch being smooth , warm , and subtle , whereas ARGON8 ’ s is a little bit edgier and somewhat eccentric . I think Modal made a cool choice by highlighting these distinct tones directly out of the box .
The ARGON8 can generate any number of tones and sonic combinations via its wavetable engine , delivering 32 static wavetable modifiers that can take sounds even further . The tones that this thing can spit out at its most outrageous are fascinating , but in doing so it can also cover just about any sonic territory .
Four morphable filter types allow further tweakablility , with two LFOs ( or one in polyphonic mode ) compared to the COBALT8 ’ s three . As for the sequencer / arpeggiator sections and the onboard effects , functionality is shared between both synths .
If the COBALT8 is a synth for players with a proclivity toward vintage tones and a classic vibe , ARGON8 is for those with a bit more reckless abandon when it comes to synthesis ; ARGON8 can be as tame or as wild as you want it to be , and it does so with blissful conviction .
Andrew Leyenhorst is a Niagara-based producer , engineer , mixer , and consulting editor at Canadian Musician .