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Reviews of Studio Beden's current and formerly owned audio equipment

Behringer Composer MDX 2000/2100

If you're into the lower end of the pro audio market, you might be aware of the distinction between old Behringer gear, which was supposedly OK, and new stuff, which is regarded as "Pro" in name only. Having owned a number of units from both eras, I can say that this is only a general guideline, but it does apply when it comes to the compressors, where the MDX 2000/2100 Composers (the review is for both units, since they're in most respects very similar) do seem to outperform the later Composer Pros.

The first clue that the Behringer Composer might be a decent compressor is the build quality, which is very solid. The front panel is made out of machined aluminium, the rest of the chassis is made out of steel, the knobs feel sturdy, and while the jack sockets are soldered directly onto the PCB, I haven't had any failed or intermittent connections with the three units that I've had. It's also quite well-specified: it's got an expander/gate with variable release time, an auto mode, and a limiter. The feature that I was most impressed, however, was the failsafe relay operation meaning that if something goes wrong with the compressor, the audio still gets passed through, which is something even some much more expensive and revered units can't boast, and which, together with the reliability that I have experienced, makes the Composer perfectly viable for less demanding live tasks.

The main reason why the Composer can't take centre stage either in live or in studio work is, to put it bluntly, its second-rate sonic performance. Neither the MDX 2000 nor the 2100 are able to cope with signals that either have strong transients or a lot of bass, let alone those combining the two, e.g. kick drums. Given its reputation, some people wouldn't use it on anything, but I felt that with a bit of care, it was very transparent on vocals and acoustic guitar, though it has to be said that the Really Nice Compressor comfortably outperforms it on both as soon as ratios beyond 5:1 are required. Still, the price difference between the two is significant and if you need several channels of non-critical compression, you might appreciate what the Composer can do for you at some 20 euros per channel (and it does dual mono, which the RNC doesn't).

In fact, the MDX 2000 is rather better at dual mono operation since there is a documented but rarely mentioned bug in its stereo link implementation. The problem is that the left channel truly is the master channel, not only for the controls but also for the internal sidechain. In other words, the right-channel signal doesn't affect the compression at all, which is a serious oversight that can be downright dangerous under unpredictable circumstances. You could be having deafening amounts of feedback on the right channel but as long as the left channel wasn't affected, the MDX 2000 wouldn't act upon it. The only way to get around this is to sacrifice an aux send to do a mix of both channels and use it as the external sidechain control, which is obviously a bit of a bummer.

The MDX 2100 isn't without design flaws, either. For some reason, its headroom is significantly lower than the MDX 2000's, which means that even with the limiter turned off completely, it will use the compression circuit to auto-limit the incoming signal. There is no way to prevent this, not even with switching to external keying, which should in theory completely divorce the program from the control path. I tested this when I was trying to use the MDX 2100 as a bass ducker to make some room for the kick, but instead, it began to compress the bass. When I switched back to the MDX 2000, the problem was gone (and yes, I checked the -10/+4 input setting).

The feature speaking strongest in favour of the Behringer Composer today is the price. They rarely sell for over 50 Euros, and if you know what you're getting them for, you can't really do much better than that. The old Composers can definitely match the Samsons, the Phonics, the Alesis 3630, and Behringer's own later offerings, and even surpass them in certain regards, such as transparency.

Casio VZ-8M

There are some synths that are real tone chameleons and are able to sound really different depending on how you programme them. And then there are others that will always have their signature tone no matter what you do. While this may be a good thing if you're lucky enough to own, say, an Oberheim OB-X, for each one of these you can find ten honky turkeys such as the (non-slaying) Korg Poly-800. Unfortunately, the Casio VZ-8M falls decidedly into the latter category, and the fact that it's even more laborious to programme than Yamaha's infamous DX-series while offering less instant gratification - e.g. in the form of turning the feedback to 7 and seeing what happens - means more bad news.

As long as I like what I hear, I don't generally mind a synth being a bit of an one-trick pony. In fact, the same was already true of an earlier Casio synth that I used to own, the CZ-3000. It, too, always had a certain samey quality to its patches, but while it tended to sound rubbery and zingy in a pleasant sort of way, I never managed to get the VZ-8M anywhere beyond weedy and whiny. It was almost paradoxical how the palette of sounds it could produce was fairly wide, yet every single patch appeared to have been anchored in a particular place - and one sonically not very exciting at that. One thing I did appreciate were its flexible, 8-stage envelopes, however I was anything but impressed with their sluggish attack, which robbed the VZ-8M of most of its potential punch. It gets worse yet, though: there is an analogue noise permanently inserted into the VZ's signal path, meaning that the sound always has to rise above its non-adjustable threshold first, adding insult (and slight delay) to injury.

Furthermore, the more time I spent programming the synth, the more convinced I became that despite what some people might say, PD will never be more than a poor relation of FM, at least as far as Casio's and Yamaha's respective implementations are concerned: while the various DXs and TXs can sound just as mellow, delicate, or indeed bland as the VZ-series synths, they can also display a level of craziness and aggressiveness that the Casios appear to be unable to touch. Finally, as far as I'm concerned, FM still has the edge over PD when it comes to intuitiveness of programming, even though neither is even remotely as accessible as subtractive synthesis. This is significant both by itself and due to the fact that there are not many user-created patches available on the web for the Casio, which means that you'll largely have to programme it itself (and don't count on its 64 factory presets to be much use as a starting point).

There are a few things that I did like about the VZ-8M and that I wouldn't mind seeing more often on gear of any vintage. The build quality, for one, was top notch, with a sturdy metal chassis that looked like it could withstand any sort of reasonable abuse, and world-class Japanese internal construction. Also, despite being ten years older, the buttons on my VZ-8M were much more responsive and less prone to mistriggering than those on my Yamaha RM1x sequencer, to give just one example. In terms of functionality, I liked the comprehensive, yet very straightforward multitimbral set-ups (up to 8 parts) with panning and velocity cross-fading being particularly well implemented. Considering that a synth like that will nowadays invariably be used for special purposes rather than being the studio workhorse, even the 8-voice polyphony seems adequate. If you only end up taking to its sound - as quite a few users certainly seem to have done - the VZ-8M is likely to prove a worthy and reliable part of your MIDI set-up.

JoMoX MBase01

I started making music in the early 2000s when the analogue craze was already in full swing. While some of my own early purchases, such as the Korg Poly-800, awoke me to the fact that there was a lot of hype to it and that it wasn't so much what you had but how you used it, I still couldn't help but lust after a few pieces of gear particularly badly. Among them was the Roland TR-909, which I thought was the only drum machine I would ever need if I could only afford it, but after hearing it some years later, I was disappointed to find out that raw and unprocessed, the kick and the snare, while nice enough - certainly nicer than those on the Korg KPR-77 which I had at the time - sounded nothing like they did on the records.

When I was deciding on the MBase01 years later, this experience definitely made me more conservative in terms of my expectations, in spite of the reviews and the samples, both official and otherwise, sounding very promising. So more than hoping for a radio-ready kick drum right out of the box, I was intrigued by the many shaping possibilities, along with all the parameters not only being storable, but also responding to MIDI continuous controllers in real time. Not least, the MBase also features the chromatic mode, where it effectively becomes a bass synthesiser, not complex enough to be used on its own - the unit doesn't feature a filter, after all - but more likely as the bottom part of the layer. Everybody also praised its solid construction and attention to detail at all levels, so at the price of under €200, the MBase really seemed to make sense.

All of the above looked great on paper, but the reality was that I developed a dislike for the MBase's sound very early on, and then never progressed beyond this initial impression. Granted, it had amazing bottom end, but in terms of being useful in a context of a song, it simply did not work for me. At first, I blamed myself for possibly not being able to programme it well enough, but with the amount of time eventually invested into it, I would've had to come up with something half decent even by chance. What I identified as the root of all problems is the MBase's lack of lower mid-range, which prevents it to cut through the mix and really deliver that 909 punch we all love. This frequency hole is so radical that it can't be sorted out with any amount of compression, while equalising tended to hurt the bottom end in my experience. Furthermore, this also means that in the mix, all the real-time editing doesn't do very much since the midrange detail remains buried in the arrangement, while the bottom end you don't want to mess with anyway.

Frankly, this alone would be enough for me to give up on the MBase, but I started to get annoyed with the one thing that made the MBase appeal to me so much initially, namely the sound editing. One issue was the fact that for all the parameter adjustment, the basic character of the kick drum never really seemed to change all that much. Most parameters feature 256 degrees of change, yet the useful window may often be only ten or twenty steps. The wild sounds provided by the LFO (which doubles as a secondary amplitude envelope generator) are fun - the people who programmed the presets certainly seemed to think so - but I think it's fair to say that the majority of users will gravitate towards regular kick drums most of the time. The adjustment itself is also a bit tedious due to the implementation of the endless rotary encoder which only registers a change every two clicks, and even more so by the left-hand side function matrix containing all the LFO settings defaulting back to the right-hand controls after only a couple of seconds of idle activity.

In conclusion, my experience with the MBase led me to conclude that 90% of what it can do can be covered with a bank of good analogue kick samples and a cheap FM synthesiser, such as the Yamaha TX81z. Personally, I don't care even for the remaining 10%, especially since most other synths are as good or better at percussive weirdness, but even if I did, it wouldn't be anywhere near enough to redeem it in my eyes, especially since that's not what I'd bought it for in the first place. But the real dealbreaker for me was definitely the fact that for all intents and purposes, the MBase01 will not produce a kick drum that won't need layering in the midrange, which is often a whole new can of worms in terms of equalisation and phase alignment. If it delivered what its designers had set out to do - which, admittedly, it seems to for a lot of people - this would be one amazing product, but you may well find yourself frustrated due to its many shortcomings, which are very difficult to forgive.

Oberheim Matrix-1000

Looking at various classic synth lists, message board discussions, and Internet auctions, the number one property that makes a synth desirable appears to be "phattness", despite the fact that it's elusive and difficult to define, and despite the fact that one man's phattness is another man's bloated suboscillated mess. I have found out through the years, however, that you can always stick a sine wave under that bass but there's no substitute for flexibility of modulation. Incidentally, this might do wonders for phattness, as well, but that's another story, certainly one unlikely to dissuade most self-styled phatness connoisseurs from arbitrarily believing it to be immanent in certain synths and unobtainable in all others.

Oberheim saw their reputation of their instruments change quite dramatically between the late 70s and mid 80s. First, they were known for their ballsiness, and as much as many people claim they hate the Van Halen/Jump sound, they secretly wish their synth could do it - because to this day, most simply can't muster up the punch and the animation that seems so effortless for the OB-prefixed lineage. Then with the launch of the Xpander and Matrix-12, Oberheim challenged the limitations of the fixed-architecture synthesiser with the amazing modulation capabilities which, again, few synths before the Nord Modular - with all the gains of the digital revolution on its side - have even attempted to get close to.

But perhaps the company's greatest move of all was to go a step forward and bring much of the Xpander xperience to the masses. Sure, the Matrix-6 would never be more than a poor relation, but with siblings that rich, relative poverty might not be such a bad thing after all. For a fraction of the price, previously unseen modulation depth was available to most working musicians, and it still came bundled with the essence of that famous Oberheim sound in tow. Costs were cut wherever possible (as were some unfortunate corners - see below), and since switchgear is known to be one of the most costly features on any synth, gone were the encoders and LED screens in favour of DX7-style membrane buttons, crucially without a DX7-style data slider. Needless to say, this made for very tedious programming beyond making a few quick edits - completely at odds with the immense depth of the machine - so some years later, Oberheim followed up with a rack-only version that wasn't editable from the front panel at all, but only through sysex ... which I bet Oberheim's market research found out most owners of the Matrix-6/6R having resorted to doing in the first place.

The Matrix-1000 was my second or third synth, and for quite a few years, it was way too complex for me to be able to take advantage of all its features - for a while, I even felt its programming capabilities to be excessive and that its following the Matrix-6's bitimbral and stereo suit should have been prioritised by Oberheim (over, say, confusing honest synthesists). It was only gradually that I began to appreciate things like ramp and slew generators, multiple LFO and envelope triggering options, not to mention the fact that almost anything really could modulate almost anything else; I even found good use for the MIDI guitar mode for independent pitch-bending of each voice. It was after I started taking these features for granted and time and again missing a lot of them on other synths - even, quite inexcusably, on most VAs - that I really began to appreciate Oberheim's vision of endowing a relatively inexpensive synth with features simply not found on most others, irrespective of the price.

There are few criticisms I can level against the Matrix-1000. It's certainly disappointing not to be able to edit it from the front panel despite its having more buttons than, say, the Yamaha TX81z, and a better screen than any Roland Juno synth before the Alphas. I'm being a bit facetious here, but sometimes, having to repatch a bunch of MIDI cables just to change one envelope parameter value is frustrating. Speaking of envelopes, they are relatively slow and only simple ADSRs despite being generated in software, and on top of that, the sustain parameter of one of the envelopes cannot be edited at all due to poorly written sysex code (it shows that Tom Oberheim had left the company by then, he'd never have let a thing like that slide). You can get around that by using a patch with the right value as a starting point, or making do without that envelope entirely, but it does leave a bad taste in the mouth. For a synth owing so much to software, its CC implementation is also rather poor - it only responds to modulation and CCs no. 2 and 4. Finally, the build quality is not the best: the buttons are flimsy and tend to stick, the front plate is too thin for the synth's weight, causing the synth to bend if it isn't supported in the rack, and while my power supply doesn't hum, many other owners are reportedly not that lucky.

Still, the fact is that the Matrix-1000 can do things not many other synths, analogue or otherwise, can - and that's more than two decades after it was launched, and for not much money. I've had it for ten years now, I love it dearly, and it's my go-to synth for complex and intricate sounds, though its cutting, indeed clinical (if left unmodulated) multi-mode wave-shaping oscillators can also make it sound quite brash if required. In fact, its gratifying sound, and indeed its 800 ROM presets make it a good beginner's analogue synth, while it's vast programming potential ensures that one won't outgrow it anytime soon, if ever.

Simmons MTX9

The Simmons MTX9 is one idiosyncratic piece of MIDI drum machinery. Its baffling mix of cool lo-fi percussion samples, a rather advanced MIDI implementation despite being primarily meant to be triggered via pads, and a supremely obtuse user interface makes it difficult for one to form a uniform opinion about it. For me, tolerating its less approachable sides was mainly due to its funky built-in delay but having to check the manual for what infernal button combination performs which mundane task (with the one-digit numerical display and an assortment of LEDs trying their best to provide feedback what was going on) eventually proved too cumbersome.

Simmons could have done two things differently - and completely against mid-1980s instincts - to make MTX9 into a cult secret weapon, if not a full-blown cult piece of gear a decade or two after the fact. One, they could have decided against expensive EPROMs and recreated some of the percussion instruments using analogue circuits, at which they were one of the market leaders anyway. Two, they could have changed the MTX9 form factor from a 1U 19-inch rack into a knobby desktop module, something they had also done before. However, the MTX9 was intended as an expander with its three-piece kits to be set up beforehand and then recalled by the drummer when required, so what frustrates and puzzles today made actual sense back then.

The MTX9's thirteen samples (there are two undocumented ones, an acoustic snare and some indefinable noise) can be radically transposed in both directions - and in real time, too! - made to respond to MIDI velocity in volume and/or pitch, which I found a quite radical but obviously welcome feature, and independently delayed before being sent to a combined mix output as well as separate outputs (which aren't sensing, so plugging a jack into any of them doesn't take the corresponding sound out of the mix). The delays were definitely my favourite thing about the MTX9: each of the three is independently configurable for delay time, decay, and number of repeats, and the settings may be stored along with the rest of the kit. There's no feedback modulation (I suspect that's because the delays are created by repeating and enveloping the samples rather than using an actual delay line) but this feature still single-handedly saves the MTX9 from certain and utter obsolesce.

What is undoubtedly keeping the MTX9 from appearing on live shows, the last place where it would realistically have anything to offer, is the fact that you can't do anything quickly on it. Most functions are accessible through a combination of front-panel button presses and unless you memorise them, you can get confused very quickly, which is obviously the one thing you can't afford in a live situation. Even the build quality speaks in its favour: despite being close to 25 years old now, it has never failed me, the dials and buttons register like new, and the outputs are clean and not terribly noisy. A nice piece of kit, therefore - just not nice enough.

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