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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

ARP Axxe & Little Brother (Retro)



Reviews : Keyboard

The mighty ARP were in existence for little more than 10 years, but introduced a sound which is as much a part of synth history as the Minimoog. DEREK JOHNSON rehabilitates two of the ARP clan's poor relations...

Think ARP, and most of you will think of the classic 2600 modular synth. Take a couple of 2600 oscillators, add a keyboard, and you get the Odyssey -- another name to conjure with. Split the Odyssey in half, and you've got the Axxe, released in 1975 as an easy-to-use, affordable slice of ARP, and these days one of the few chances of getting the ARP sound into your setup for around £200.

All these names -- 2600, Odyssey and Axxe -- should be familiar to the clued-up synthesist. But ARP also released a number of odd and often-overlooked instruments. One such was the Little Brother, a single-voice expander module designed to interface with and expand the sonic capabilities of other ARP synths. As it happened, the Little Brother became a popular pairing for the Axxe, increasing its oscillator power in the process, and the duo were often marketed to musicians as a package. Yet it's hard to say how many of these packages were sold, since Little Brothers practically never turn up on the second-hand market, unlike Axxes.




Physically, the Axxe is of its time, equipped with a three-octave keyboard -- standard for a mid-'70s monosynth -- wooden end cheeks (walnut, actually), and a collection of 23 sliders and sundry switches. Depending on the vintage, the Axxe comes with either a cream or a black front panel (just like the Odyssey), and apparently there are also some variations in the front-panel screening colour. These differences don't seem to have any effect on the value of the instrument, however.

In common with many an entry-level monosynth, the Axxe comes with one of everything: one Voltage Controlled Oscillator, one Voltage Controlled Filter, one Low Frequency Oscillator and one Envelope Generator. This would normally be a formula for restricted sound-making potential, but this is an ARP instrument, and as such makes a little go a very long way!

The front panel layout is not entirely logical, but a screened graphic flowchart, and a refreshingly clear manual, help make sense of it. To the left, there's the first batch of oscillator controls: the VCO can be modulated by the LFO (sine and square wave options are available), the ADSR Envelope Generator, and Sample & Hold. Oddly, the VCO level sliders are placed in the Audio Mixer section, just before the VCF, rather than with all the other VCO controls, where you'd expect them to be. The Axxe's VCO offers triangle and square waveforms, plus noise -- all with individual level sliders. A pulse width slider allows the square wave to behave like a variable pulse wave, and the pulse width has full modulation controls -- from the LFO and EG.

The low-pass VCF comes with frequency and resonance controls, and can be driven into self-oscillation, producing a perfect sine wave. Once again, modulation sources include both the LFO and EG. In addition, a slider labelled Keyboard CV/SH/Pedal allows a choice of control options: the keyboard itself, sample & hold, and an external foot pedal. Interestingly, the foot pedal input can easily accommodate a control voltage input, allowing the Axxe's filter to be controlled from any device that can generate a CV. After the filter comes the VCA, which behaves as a volume control for the whole synth. There are two controls: VCA Gain allows signal to be output at all times, while the EG lets signal pass only when a key is pressed.

The Envelope Generator is a typical four-stage Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release device. Obviously, the EG does double duty for both the VCO and VCF, but the comprehensive controls allow you to make the best of this situation. Other controls include a Keyboard Repeat/Auto Repeat control, allowing notes to repeat at the LFO's rate with or without a key held down, a portamento slider, and the Sample & Hold switch. The final control on the front panel depends on which vintage of Axxe you're looking at: older machines will be equipped with a (non-centre detented) pitch-bend knob, while later machines -- and possibly retrofitted older ones -- come with an implementation of ARP's Proportional Pitch Control.

On most ARP instruments, PPC consists of three rubber pads: one each for pitch bend up and down, and one for modulation. The harder you press, the more effect is applied. This system didn't really catch on outside the company, and players were apparently divided as to its efficacy. With hindsight, it seems a good system, if a little hard on the old digits -- the pads need quite a fierce pressing to get them to work. In practice, they offer something a little different from wheels and joysticks, and they always return to zero without getting lost or throwing the tuning out. Unfortunately, PPC-equipped Axxes only have one pad, with a switch for the three alternatives. This is rather less intuitive and useful than the full system.
Interfacing is a high point with ARP products, and the Axxe is no exception: ins and outs are provided for CV, gate and trigger, and there's also an audio input (which will take anything, including the Little Brother), along with the footpedal input.



The keyboard-free Little Brother was designed as an extra voice for any ARP synth. You need to connect the CV, Gate and Trigger outs from the Axxe to equivalent Ins on the Little Brother, and connect the audio out from the module to the audio in on the Axxe (note that the Little Brother also has its own audio input). The module could also be used in this way with any other (non-ARP) synth that has an audio input and the right standard of gate and CV inputs.

The Little Brother's spec is deceptively simple: four basic voices (Brass/triangle, Hollow/square, Reed/pulse and Fuzz/dynamic pulse), and four octave settings (16-, 8-, 4- and 2-foot) comprise the sound-making facilities on offer, plus a simple LFO with speed, depth and a delay switch, and a volume control. That really is it, although any combination of the eight voice switches can be used at once, for a bigger sound. However, plumb it into the Axxe, and the two become one. Your Axxe now has a fairly complex extra voice, and an extra LFO. This is because the Little Brother's LFO is provided with an output socket, which can be easily patched into the Axxe's footpedal socket, where it can be pressed into service modulating the Axxe's filter, totally independent of the Axxe's own LFO.

The simple, single-oscillator nature of the Axxe may make it slightly less versatile than other, more well-endowed analogue synths, but this same point also makes it a doddle to use. The manual is excellent: a novice working through the examples will find him/herself finishing a comprehensive course in analogue synthesis, and that's as valid to a newcomer to analogue synthesis in the digital '90s as it was back in the pre-MIDI '70s.

Not surprisingly, the Axxe produces a typical ARP sound. That means 'edgy and precise' rather than 'warm and fat', as with a typical Moog instrument. However, it is perfectly possible to extract a wide range of usable musical and abstract sounds from the Axxe. In the same way that Roland's essentially single-oscillator SH101 has become a legendary bass machine, so the Axxe can deliver the goods at the bottom end, with an uncluttered tone that doesn't dominate a track. And the Axxe does this without the advantage of a sub-oscillator, which the SH101 has. Lead lines are also a breeze -- the (pink) noise generator is chunky, the filter quite cutting, and although generally a simple machine, the Axxe allows complex sounds to be created quickly and easily.



The Axxe doesn't pretend to be anything more than a single-oscillator synth, and within its own terms is an outstanding machine, but I will mention one or two negative points. First of all, the front-panel sliders: whilst these provide a great way to tweak sounds, in the Axxe's case, it's not easy to use them accurately: they're slightly stiff, and the calibration marks are not very helpful. Quickly recreating sounds on stage would not be easy to do with any certainty.

On older machines without PPC, you'll find getting the Axxe back into tune after using the pitchbend knob a bit of an adventure, and the same goes for the Little Brother. With the Little Brother, the solution is to turn the pitchbend knob full up or down (the shift in either direction is exactly one octave), tune the module with the master tuning control, move the pitchbend knob to the middle and fine-tune the 'Brother to the Axxe with the pitchbend knob.

It's not easy to price the Axxe and Little Brother, especially as the market seems to have hit a small trough. The accepted classics and trendy machines are still selling well, but there is more price variation within the 'second division' than there has been for several years. Bought separately, you could expect to pay up to £200 for the Axxe, depending on condition (a noted classic synth reseller recently had one for £179), and maybe £150 tops for the Little Brother. A Little Brother is unlikely to be spotted on its own in this country, and if you did spot a pair, they might set you back perhaps £350 to £400. That compares favourably to an Odyssey (which can run to £500), and gives you a taste of the sound of the desirable 2600 for a fraction of the price.

There is something very pleasing about this pair of synths: the classic ARP design and the sound make them irresistible. Both units come with excellent interfacing possibilities, making them work especially well with today's modern MIDI-CV interfaces. As a pair, they are a monster: this is one case where the whole is definitely worth more than the sum of the parts.




Using either or both of these units with MIDI is as simple as plugging leads into a MIDI-CV converter: common volt/octave CV and positive triggering is used (you don't strictly need to use the trigger input). Both can be used on one channel, since whichever one you connect to your MIDI-CV converter can simply have its connections daisy-chained to the other. One unwanted side effect of using an external device to control the Axxe is that the excellent sample & hold facilities are lost: they only function when played from the Axxe's own keyboard.

The up-side is that you have access to huge note range: the Axxe seems to track whatever you send to it, resulting in really low bass notes (count the clicks) and hypersonic highs, if you want them. Using a MIDI-CV interface also adds to the sonic abilities of the Axxe, since the the foot pedal input responds well to a control voltage. If your MIDI-to-CV interface can generate an extra CV, velocity (or any MIDI controller) from a keyboard could be used to open the filter in real time, and this would be recordable into a MIDI sequencer. It gets even better if this extra CV can be modulated by an LFO, as with Kenton's sophisticated Pro 4 MIDI-CV interface. Assign an LFO -- and the Pro 4's LFOs are more complex than the Little Brother's -- to an auxiliary CV output, and you have essentially added an extra, independent LFO to the Axxe/Little Brother combination.




In some ways, adding a Little Brother to the Axxe is much like using the SH101's sub-oscillator -- its simple design allows it to fatten and fill out the Axxe's sound in a subtle manner, bringing the synth more into line with the sonic possibilities of, say, an Odyssey (albeit an Odyssey with just one EG). Due to its varied range and waveform settings, though, the LB's potential is much greater. Convincing multi-oscillator stacks can be created, and low (8' and 16') settings help to bring a growl to Axxe bass lines. Slightly detune the Little Brother's output, and you'll get an even richer effect.

The additional LFO really does expand the abstract sound possibilities: as I write, the Axxe and Little Brother are in the corner, producing a mellow, semi-random split octave meander, whilst the filter is independently howling slowly open and shut, producing a vibe reminiscent of the wind and wolves in the Winter section of Walter/Wendy Carlos' seminal Sonic Seasonings multi-record set. I've also had the duo produce startling recreations of '70s John Carpenter movie backdrops without even trying very hard. Complicated, moving sounds are easy, single EG notwithstanding.

On a technical level, I've found the tuning of both synths to be very stable. The occasional tweak after a few hours use is all they need, and there is none of the abominable tendency to drift that other classic synths show.

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