Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lookee what I found!

Hmm, I wonder what's in this box...

It has a label on it printed in German. Could it be...

It is... it's a... SOLARIS!

The day that's been long in coming is finally here! To recap: John Bowen was a cohort of Dave Smith's at Sequential Circuits; it's not clear to me who did what at SCI, but I understand that John had a lot to do with the design of the later synths, the Prophet VS in particular. After Sequential went bust, John went into soft synths and developed something called Scope. A few years ago he had the idea to put Scope into a hardware implementation -- the Solaris. I was one of the pre-order customers, #37 in line last time I looked. I pre-ordered mine... well, it's been two jobs ago. I leave the math as an exercise to the reader. But I never had any doubt (well, almost never) that John Bowen and his team would come through. It was a long strange trip, full of redesigns, financial adventures, NLA parts, and a few untimely vacations. But it's here. It's sitting on the couch in my den. The Solaris is real.

Let's take a quick look at the panel. It's basically divided into four sections. Starting from the left:

Each of those windows is a two-line backlit LCD display (I took these pics before I turned the power on) that shows the parameters for some functional grouping. The upper half of this part of the panel is the oscillators and rotors parameters, and the lower half is the LFO and mod sources parameters. Within each of these sections, there is a row of buttons across the top where you select which specific unit you want to display (osc 1, osc 2, etc). A page comes up which displays names and values for five parameters, each laid out on the display above one of the knobs. Turning the knob changes the value of the parameter displayed above the knob. Pages are grouped into two sets, "main" and "mod"; you select the set using the button at the lower left corner of the LCD window, and you use the two buttons to the left of the LCD to scroll through pages. The row of buttons at the bottom of this photo is mostly performance parameters, such as unison mode, octave transpose, and arpeggiator on/off.

Next section:

The top half of this section controls the mixer and insert effects. The bottom half, with the larger screen (which looks crinkly because I hadn't taken the protective plastic off) is the main display where you select patches to load. It also contains a huge number of parameter pages. The buttons across the top select page sets for particular categories of control, such as the arpeggiator, FM and AM modulations, and the MIDI setup. This LCD contains two rows of parameters on each page, corresponding to the two rows of knobs beneath.

Next section:

This is similar in appearance to the leftmost section. The top half has the filter and VCA parameters; the bottom half is the envelope generators. The four buttons at the bottom enable layers; a patch can have four layers.

Rightmost section:

These are the patch storing and recall controls. There's a button for bypassing the effects. The numeric keypad can be used to enter values for any numeric parameter, as can the data entry wheel. The knob at the top left is the master volume. You can see a bit of the ribbon control at the bottom -- it runs across the whole span of the keyboard.

And last but not least:

Yeah, we got lit pitch and mod wheels (which are an option). OK, they're a bit cliched now. So what. The dark circle above is the joystick, which doesn't show up very well in this photo.

So I've played with it a bit, and I can tell you that it looks and sounds wonderful. So far I've tried only a handful of the factory patches (some of them voiced by Bowen himself), but I've come across some incredible evolving pads, some really grungy leads, some weird vocal-like sounds, and a few what-the-heck-is-its. I've barely touched the patch controls so far. But it appears to have tremendous potential, a synth that will take years to master. I'm looking forward to the challenge.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you... the Solaris.

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