Synthstrom Audible Deluge (and how/why I found my way to it)

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How I Found My Way To The Deluge

I remember reading about the Deluge a couple of years back and thinking “Hmm.. that sounds pretty damn interesting, wonder if they can pull it off” after reading the rather ambitious feature list. A couple of years went by and I got sidetracked by work and kids, that sort of thing, and didn’t really do much with music or machines. If you’ve read any of my previous entries from years past, you may know that I am quite fond of the idea of having an all-in-one groovebox and, for many years, I have been on a quest to find the one that really speaks to me.

The Tempest is my all time favorite so far but, of course, it doesn’t sample. So my last attempt to find the sampling groovebox of my dreams was the MV-8800. Absolute beast of a machine and, when it comes to sampling and arranging, it can do just about anything you need it to. But I never gelled with the interface; it always seemed too complicated and joyless to me. Simple things like creating a drum kit just were not as quick and easy as I had hoped and every time I turned it off, I felt worried and stressed out that I wasn’t saving something properly and would somehow lose my work. I think that kind of contributed to my hiatus from synths and samplers and whatnot. And the load times certainly didn’t help (hey, like all of us, I’ve become a little bit spoiled by technology).

But then, the MPC Live came along. Well, let me correct that. The MPC Live *was announced*. It took a very long time before it was actually available. I knew I wanted one but I eventually got tired of waiting and ended up buying the Pioneer SP-16, thinking maybe it would be similar enough and, if not, I would just sell it whenever the MPC Live was finally available. It sounded amazing and I was rather surprised to find that I was pretty happy with it and eagerly awaiting the promised (and hinted at) updates that seemed like they would make it the best sampler ever. Well, Pioneer took note of all the great ideas that the (rather enthusiastic) user community hurled at them… and promptly created a new version of the SP-16 (without the DSI filter that made it sounds do damn good) that was aimed at DJ’s and incorporated some of the better ideas they had been given. The SP-16, meanwhile, got a magnificent, glorious 1.4 update that added… the ability to copy and paste patterns from one slot to another [/sarcasm]. Ok, so they also doubled the sample time from 32 seconds to 64 but, of course, it was poorly implemented, as the machine can still only do 4 bar patterns and doesn’t allow a 64 second sample to play through in a sequence without an overly complicated workaround. I’m not going to go into that any further because I will just upset myself all over again. We’ll just say that the 1.4 update that Pioneer touted as a “monster update” was anything but that and addressed none of the real shortcomings of the machine.

So, by this time, the MPC Live had been out for awhile and I found a decent deal on one and snatched it up. Shipping time was going to be about a week and, two days into my wait, I saw a Deluge on Ebay and remembered all of the things it was supposed to be able to do. I researched quite a bit and it appeared that, at firmware version 1.3, it was the real deal. So I performed some mental gymnastics to justify buying another $900 box and did the deed. It arrived a mere two days later, even before the MPC Live, which I had ordered first. The point of all of this is to say that this all happened about two months ago and I have been working with my Deluge every single day since I got it, while the MPC Live sits lonely, dejected, and probably wondering why it isn’t getting any attention. And THAT is the point of this post: To explain to all of you what is so great about the Deluge that it has actually made the mighty MPC Live into not much more than an afterthought for me when, really, the Live IS the DAW in a box that I’ve always wanted. So here is my take on the Deluge.

What Is The Deluge?

The Deluge is a synth, sequencer and sampler (and by extension of that, of course, also a drum machine). It has a battery that gives you upwards of 6 hours of battery time, an onboard speaker and microphone (not bad quality either, really) for the ultimate in portability. While it is a great sampler for both drums and synthesis, it is not just another rompler, as it also has 2.5 synth engines onboard. The first is a rather deep and nice sounding 2 oscillator virtual analog engine, the second is a 2-op [not 4op, as I had originally written] FM engine and the “.5” is a ring mod section. The most noticeable thing, however, has got to be the interface that is used to access all of these features. It is very light on knobs but heavy on RGB pads, with a whopping 128 pad grid for sequencing and 16 pads along the side for muting and auditioning/selecting each track. So that is a very general assessment of the feature set, but let’s look at it in a bit more detail.

The Hardware

Physically, it is SMALL, occupying approximately the space of 3 Korg Volcas (perhaps even a bit smaller than that) and, as a result, one of the first things people will notice is that it has but one stereo out. So if individual outputs are something you absolutely must have, you’ll need to look elsewhere, unfortunately. But it is sturdy and well built and, in my opinion, very aesthetically pleasing. Classy, even. The 2 black knobs on the left are used to scroll what is displayed on the pad grid up/down and left/right. In sequencer mode, the grid is where you enter your notes, with each row of 16 corresponding to a note (which can be muted and auditioned using the 16 pads on the right). In song view, each row of 16 represents a synth track or a “kit” track, with the rightmost pads being for muting and designating sections (groups of tracks). In “keyboard” view, it is where you can do live playing with either the C note of each octave lit up in a different color or by using a Linnstrument style layout, with notes arranged as frets on a guitar. And finally, in kit mode, each row represents one sound, each with its own sequencer line and mute/audition pad. You will find that the black scroll knobs are crucial because the number of bars in your song and the number of sounds you can have in your kits is, according to the manual, “limited only by the RAM.” And I have to say, I have yet to hit that limit and I have had as many as 130 sounds in one drum kit.

The Knobs

The two gold knobs kind of stand out from the rest of the machine and they perform a very important function, as they can have a wide range of parameters assigned to them. They have a row of buttons in between them and each button equals one pair of parameters. So, really, this section does the work of 16 encoders, quite handily. By default, the parameters you would probably use the most are assigned, but you can freely reassign any of them, not just the three slots marked “custom.” Once you’ve got a parameter assigned, the movements of the gold knobs can be recorded into your sequence on any track. Further more, you can hold down the pad for any step, turn one of the gold knobs and parameter lock whatever is assigned to it. What I think is a very nice touch is that you also have a four segment meter by each of the knobs that will show you, roughly, what value it is at as you turn it. It’s also worth noting that every encoder can be clicked by pushing down on it to perform various functions. For example, if you have filter assigned to one of the gold knobs and you click it, it switches between adjusting the LPF and HPF (yes, you get both types on every sound). If you have reverb assigned, it will switch between the different “room sizes” that are available. And to add yet another layer of easy accessibility, holding shift while you click an encoder will unveil yet another function, in many situations. So, although many people are turned off by the apparent lack of knob-iness of the interface, the design choices they’ve made here really give you all the hands on control you need. Trust me. This is coming from a guy who was very skeptical at first, but this interface simply WORKS.

The Screen

Up next, we’ll look at the screen. Now, here again, I was very skeptical. One of the main reasons I had for buying both the SP-16 and the MPC Live was that I was beyond excited to finally have a sampler with a modern touchscreen. And on the Deluge, we have quite the opposite, in a 7-segment 4 character alarm clock type screen. How can that possibly work, right? Well, the biggest downside to this is with sample management, obviously. I had become used to scrolling through dozens of folders containing thousands of samples. How could it even be possible to get used to this screen? Well, first things first, it bears mentioning that, with the 1.4 firmware update, folder and sample names now scroll across the screen, which makes things much, much easier. But even before that, I noticed that I was spending a lot less time worrying about scrolling for the perfect sample and a lot more time just loading something up and making music. Really, with just a little bit of planning, it’s pretty easy to create a folder structure that makes it easy to find what you need. On the root directory, there is a folder for samples and it contains a few folders for the different factory samples. I just created another folder for my own samples and just named it “23.” Since I named it a number, it always shows up on top, since the folders are displayed in alphabetical order. And within that folder, I made a few more folders simply named “1-6” and just had to remember what types of samples I had put in each. One has single cycle waveforms, another has breakbeats, another contains a few subfolders of large sample collections I’ve accumulated over the years, and so on. When browsing samples, a quick click of the Select knob will take you into a folder and a tap of the Undo button will back you up one level. When you do get to the sample you want (and yes, it does preview them as you scroll through), just click the Select knob and it will load the sample and take you back out to the main screen. A nice touch here is that when you go to load another sample on a different pad, it starts you off right on the last sample you loaded. So if you’re building a kit from a folder full of drum samples, it’s really a lot quicker and easier than you would probably expect.

As far as editing sample start and end points, I’ve spent many years with samplers where you do it by ear so it wasn’t that hard for me to get used it again. The left/right encoder, in this mode, moves which decimal place you are adjusting, so it’s actually not as tedious as you might think. A nice touch here is that the Deluge can do autochop, though only into a user selectable number of equal slices at the current firmware version (1.4). But, unlike a lot of samplers I’ve used, you can edit the end point of one sample without affecting the start point of the next one. So you can have overlap between the sounds in your kit if you like, which is kind of handy when dealing with breakbeats or vocals. Example: you like that snare hit on the end of your first chop but you’d also like to be able to play/sequence it just by itself? No problem.

Another area where the screen might still fall short for you would be with your patch and kit names, which are just numbers. But here again, they used some real outside the box thinking. When you have a saved patch loaded and you edit its parameters in any way, the display changes to show a letter suffix. For example, patch “1” becomes “1a” and so on. Same with kits. So, with a little planning again, you can have “patch 1” be a category. Say, maybe pads, or leads, or bass sounds, or however you want to organize. And then you can save 27 sounds under one number (1 – 1z). And then when you go to scroll through your patches, holding the shift button will skip all of the sounds with letter suffixes. So again, it’s very quick to find what you want and, I think, very handy that the Deluge automatically re-names the patch as soon as you edit it. Another interesting side effect for my workflow is that I spend way less time making up stupid names for my patches (yes, it ate up a lot of time for me on other synths, don’t judge) and more time just creating new sounds.

The Synth Engine(s)

The synthesis capabilities of the Deluge run a lot deeper than you might expect and it sounds quite good. The FM engine is a little sparse at this time, with the screen displaying “Can’t” or “Soon” for several of the parameters. But, as I understand it, Synthstrom are planning to develop this further. But for now, you can use basic FM (not to mention the “Ring Mod” engine) to get some nice, metallic sounds. I look at it as a bonus, for now. Really though, how many grooveboxes even offer any type of FM synthesis? There are a few out there, though if they do FM, that’s usually *all* they do (Volca FM, Digitone, the old Yamaha DX-200, etc). Not so in this case.

The real star of the show here is the subtractive synth engine. It’s got two oscillators which allow you to choose between the standard square (with PWM), saw, sine and triangle wave. But there are also two other options: sample and input. So let’s just start with using samples. Just the fact that you can layer two samples puts the Deluge well ahead of most of the competition. Just look at every Elektron sampler (come on, you knew that comparison was coming) and you won’t find a single one of them that will let you layer two samples, let alone polyphonically AND with up to 8x unison/detune. Older grooveboxes like Roland’s MC-909/808 let you layer up to four samples (with polyphony) but, for reasons that I can not fathom, this type of functionality fell, largely, by the wayside, even as technology *should have* made it more and more common.

And then you’ve got one of my absolute favorite tricks that the Deluge has up its proverbial sleeve: line-in audio as an oscillator with live, polyphonic pitch shifting. If you think about that for just a moment, this allows you to play any monosynth through the Deluge with a sort of emulation of polyphony. The way this works, you create your synth voice with the line in assigned to an oscillator. You then sequence a sustained note that spans the length of the pattern. You can then sequence further notes in the same way and it will play it at all of the sequenced pitches, simultaneously. So, logically, if you set your sustained notes at the proper intervals, the incoming audio will, effectively, be played as a chord. Now, I know it’s not *true* polyphony for your monosynths, but it is close enough. And that is a trick that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before.

As for patch editing, let’s just put all of the “it’s too much menu diving” myth to bed. You can access all of the parameters by pushing the Select knob and doing full on menu diving, “painting through a keyhole” style if you want to, but you don’t have to. Most of the 128 pads in the grid have a shortcut assigned to them to take you directly to the parameter you want, simply by holding the shift button and hitting a pad. It’s dead easy. It actually reminds me of the old Roland MC-09 (the one that was a looper/303 emulation) except with a lot more pads. If you’re buying a Deluge, I very strongly recommend that you get it with the option to have the shortcuts printed on. But, if you’d happen to find a used one that doesn’t have them printed, you can also get a magnetic overlay that will fix that for you (I think it’s like $20 or so).

Like I alluded to above, the subtractive engine on the Deluge is fairly deep. It’s not going to make you rush to sell off your DSI synths, for example, but it’s much deeper than, say, an Electribe, which it has drawn more than a few comparisons to. You get 8 modulation sources (that’s 2 envelopes, 2 LFO’s, velocity, aftertouch, note and random) and the ability to modulate the modulation depth of one parameter per sound (that includes every sound in a drum kit as well). It handles single cycle waveforms with ease and, as mentioned, allows you to layer two of them if you like. Unfortunately, both oscillators go into the filter together, so you can’t, for example, run one through the LPF and the other through the HPF. But you can independently assign the pitch, PWM or volume for each to different modulators. So there is plenty of potential for creating pads with a lot of movement (probably my favorite type of sound to make on it, to be honest).

For effects, per sound, you get: a nice lo-fi/distortion section (with saturation, bitcrush and decimation, delay with a fair amount of control and your choice of phaser, chorus or flanger. Reverb is available as a send and has a few parameters to tweak (it’s no Strymon but it gets the job done). You also get dedicated bass and treble with a frequency parameter for each. Unfortunately, though you can parameter lock/motion record most effect parameters, you are not able to assign them to the modulation sources, currently. But where the effects really shine is in creating drum kits. Remember when I mentioned that you could have, potentially, hundreds of sounds in a drum kit? Well, each of those sounds have their own independent effects (except for the reverb, which is shared by the kit). There is also a stutter “effect” and, if you’re sampling the Deluge into some other piece of gear, you could use the tempo itself as an effect, as it goes from ~0 all the way up to 10,000 bpm. Some interesting textures to be had there, if you’re feeling adventurous.

As A Drum Machine

Every sound in your drum kit has the full synth engine available to it, so you can layer a modeled wave (with a noise generator) over a sample, you could use two samples per sound or you could even build full kits using the FM and ring mod engines. So it’s very versatile and, structurally, bears some resemblances to both the Analog Rytm and the Tempest (albeit, virtual analog instead of the real deal). I’ve found the lo-fi effects to be absolutely wonderful in creating drum kits, personally. You can really get some nice crunch, if that’s what you’re after.

But the biggest advantage that I can see the Deluge having over any other drum machines that might compete with it, is sequencing with the pad grid. Now, on practically every groovebox since grooveboxes have been a thing, the common thread has been 16 pads or buttons for sequencing a bar of one sound at a time. This has always been adequate, of course, but you have to think, the Deluge gives you access to one bar of 8 different sounds at all times. You can sequence them all at the same time, if you wish, and you can even set probability and parameter locks for multiple notes and multiple sounds at the same time. It’s simply never been done before.

External Sequencing

So, of course the Deluge can do midi sequencing, but it also has CV/gate outs and the full complement of parameter locks, motion sequencing, swing, arpeggiators and probability per step are available in these modes. I hate to bring Elektron into this again, but their sequencers are kind of considered the standard that we measure by these days. If we compare them side by side, the Deluge stacks up quite nicely. The only things that Elektron have on it that I can think of right now would the ability to use sample trigs, one shot trigs and scenes. Although, via the Deluge’s “midi learn,” I’ve read that you can get an approximation of scene functionality (though I haven’t experimented with it myself). Two areas in which the Deluge easily surpasses any Elektron sequencer are pattern length and number of tracks. And with the latest firmware, you can assign multiple tracks to the same midi channel, which opens up another avenue for your creativity. You can also clone tracks and create “sections,” which gives you even more flexibility in how you want to arrange or perform.

Line In Sampling

The easiest way I’ve found to sample and re-sample is in kit mode. If you’ve ever used a Korg Microsampler, you are probably familiar with its “key gate” sampling mode. Basically, you hold down a key to begin sampling and release it to end sampling, at which time the sample you’ve just created stays right there on that key and you can move on to another key. Very quick and easy, no need to stop and save the sample and assign it. Well, the Deluge’s kit mode is very similar. You just hold down the audition pad for the slot you want to sample to and hit record to start sampling and again to end. Since you can have literally hundreds of sounds in a kit, this mode is great if you want to just flip through your record collection and harvest a huge number of samples. One downside to sampling on the Deluge is that all samples (across all patterns and songs) are saved to one folder for samples and one folder for re-samples. This is one thing I really hope can be changed in future updates. What I would like to see, ideally, would be an option to have a subfolder for each song so that it would be a little easier to find the sample you want when you start getting up into the hundreds and thousands of samples.

The Bottom Line / Other Things I Haven’t Mentioned Yet

This review has ended up being much longer than I intended it to be, mainly because there is just so much going on in the Deluge and I really wanted to be thorough and let people know what it’s all about. The bottom line, for me, is that this is the groovebox I’ve always wanted. From the portability and the multiple synth engines to the abnormally high polyphony and virtually endless sequencer, it ticks off every box on my wishlist. You can look at the interface and say the screen and lack of knobs don’t impress you, but it’s the intangibles that really make this box a joy to use. You can look at the paltry 64mb of RAM and scoff, but then you have to remember that none of that RAM is used for samples, as it streams everything directly from the SD card and, really, all of that RAM is used for sequencer memory. There is so much that is right about this box and very little that is wrong. I am not generally prone to blind fanboy-ism and I’m well aware of the “honeymoon period” where we tend to do nothing but praise a machine while ignoring any of its weaknesses. But I’m about 2 months in with the Deluge and I’ve used *just about* every other groovebox under the sun and I can confidently say that this is it for me. Paired with my Tempest to cover the analog side of things, I really have all of my bases covered. No matter what your setup, I truly believe that everyone could benefit from having one of these around, there’s just so much that it can do well.

 

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One Response to Synthstrom Audible Deluge (and how/why I found my way to it)

  1. Guiljerm3 says:

    I have a deluge for 5 months now and this review reminded me how little I use all the functionality. Which is great only a few weeks ago I started making my own synth patches and now I’m nearing 100. I’ve made 230+ tracks and I’ve still not loaded in my own samples.

    Point being there is soo much to do you’ll barely scratch the surface and you can still do so much. If anything the longer I’ve had it the more I’ve liked it. I don’t even use my hardware synths anymore just the deluge on its own always.

    Another point proving how much I like it. I just read this review and I own one haha.

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