When Bazille was officially released almost three years ago (not including the alpha version released several years earlier), my gut reaction was to conjure up painful memories of modular synth geeks up to their elbows in patch cables, aimlessly twisting knobs and obsessing over a pointless sequence of bleeps and bloops. I’ve never been a die-hard fan of modular synthesis. I don’t get all misty-eyed by the sound of a sample & hold circuit scrambling the pitch of a half-wave rectified sine wave processed through a series of bandpass filters modulated by… whatever. It’s just not my bag.
But just a few months ago, when Beat Magazine released Beatzille (a scaled-down version of Bazille) as a free download to celebrate 20,000 follows on their Facebook page, I was actually very surprised by how musical it was, and finally willing to give Bazille a much needed test-drive.
Bazille was inspired by the Roland System-100M, which was the first fully modular synthesizer used by developer and U-He founder Urs Heckmann. Regardless of its source of inspiration, the oscillators aren’t based on component-level analog models of vintage hardware, even though the filters are “analog-ish”. In fact, the four oscillators are unabashedly digital, made to be capable of phase distortion, fractal resonance and frequency modulation; the latter of which is actually the same “phase modulation” popularized by the legendary Yamaha DX7. Due to their digital makeup, Bazille’s oscillators alias more than the oscillators in U-He’s other synths, but not nearly as much as in the original digital hardware. That being said, I actually prefer the overall sound of Bazille to Zebra – and you all know just how much I LOVE Zebra!
However, it’s important to note that Bazille isn’t as flexible as Zebra; your modulation options are a bit more subdued, but there’s still an extraordinary amount of power on tap. While Zebra is “semi-modular”, giving you the ability to connect its modules in a downward fashion from side-to-side within the main grid, Bazille is “fully modular” and gives you the ability to connect any output to any input that appears on the interface, so there are no limits on which direction you can route things, which is precisely what makes modular synthesis so popular and perfect for experimental sound design.
This review will deviate from my typical top-to-bottom writeup. I won’t be covering every last detail here. Instead, I’ll be going over what I personally feel are the most notable aspects of Bazille, and walking you through some basic patching scenarios that you’ll no doubt become very familiar with.
Bazille is a phase distortion synth upon startup, with a small handful of basic waveforms available in the “Wave Select” window (Saw, Square, Impulse, 2 Pulse, Half Saw, Res I-III). But if you’re in the mood for something completely different, you can turn the “PD Value” knob in the first oscillator all the way down to generate a perfect sine wave, and then do the same for a second oscillator before routing its output to the “Phase Mod Depth” input of the first oscillator, which will result in phase modulation. This is just one brief example of how you can totally change the behavior of Bazille with a few simple connections.
If you’re in a phase modulation scenario, pitch controls suddenly become very important. The “Overtone” mode within the selector window below the “Tune” knob will automatically snap to the harmonic partials related to the “root” fundamental frequency, which makes for quick and easy tuning of modulator signals, especially when using the “Multiply” mode within the selector window below the “Modify” knob, which will effectively multiply the signal output. The multiplier allows for incredibly high pitches ideal for modeling crisp, bright bells, sparkling chimes and all sorts of plucky sounds.
Okay, let’s move on to Fractal Resonance, similar to the “Res I-III” modes in the Wave Selector window, where multiple sine waves are “packed” into three differently shaped “windows” (Saw, Tri, Max), except this time, Fractal Resonance acts on the composite waveform; multiple cycles of the waveform specified within the Wave Selector will be packed into the window, so you’re not just limited to resonant sine waves. I find this sound very similar to hard sync, which is ideal for “in your face” synth leads and basslines, even though I’ve encountered some factory patches that make good use of fractal resonance without ripping your head off… But if you’re in the mood to rip heads off, you can fractalize the night away.
Now let’s roll up our sleeves and dig into those filters. Like I explained, the filters are “analog-ish” in the sense that they behave very similarly to analog hardware, each having two inputs fed through a “Gain” control, which makes them capable of feedback loops… something you can’t always do in other synths. I’ve actually found these “untamed” filters significantly more expressive than the component-level analog models in Diva and Zebra in regard to self-oscillation. Sharp transients and impulsive waveforms sing out in a very distinct way through a self-oscillating, keytracked filter, making them perfect for creating complex overtones. Another important feature is the “cascade architecture” in the filter section that allows for easy access to each of the six filter types in parallel, which means you can route any filter output to any input, whether it be a neighboring filter input, or any combination of modulator, Multiplex and processor inputs.
Wait, a ”Multiplex”?! Yeah, that big scary junction box at the very bottom of the interface that resembles a Flux Capacitor… it’s called a Multiplex, and I promise it will not blow up your computer… at least I’m pretty sure it won’t. Each Multiplex includes an output (in red), four signal inputs and a modulator input. Try to think of them as a mixer with four inputs each, with level controls for inputs 1+2 and 3+4. Obviously, the most common use of a Multiplex is as a mixer, not just for audio signals but also for MIDI control signals, but you can also use it for ring modulation, amplitude modulation, unipolar and bipolar crossfading, and scaling control-rate and audio-rate signals in a variety of ways that open up exciting new possibilities.
And now for my absolute favorite part: the processors. I cannot stress this enough; Bazille is a deeply experimental instrument. There’s a time and a place for a performance synth that focuses on polyphony, but then there’s a time for a more adventurous, innovative and generative approach to synthesis, and for that you will need to process signals in ways that you may or may not be accustomed to. The processors in Bazille provide a few different ways of going about this, including a Sample & Hold circuit with a trigger input, a signal Inverter that does exactly what its name implies, a Quantizer that forces any signal towards a desired number of equally spaced voltages, two Lag Generators that will smooth out any signal and two full-wave Rectifiers, imposing the negative cycle of a waveform (below zero phase) onto the positive cycle (above zero phase). If you’re new to these ideas, it may take a bit of research and perhaps a few weeks of experimentation to produce a desired result, but with enough persistence and a genuine desire to explore new things, I’m very certain that you will learn to love this synth as much as I do.
There are also a number of MIDI control sources, internal control sources, two noise generators and two Control Voltage inputs in the “MIDI & More” section. The MIDI control sockets are pretty self explanatory, with outputs for mod wheel, aftertouch etc., whereas the internal control sources are (of course) internally generated, such as the “+5V” socket that basically spits out a constant voltage for offset purposes, or the “StackV” socket that generates a modulation source that behaves in a few different ways depending on the number of voices within a stack. I find the CV inputs incredibly useful, especially when routing a modulation source to filters 3 & 4 in the “Tweaks & FX” page where no cables can reach.
Also within the Tweaks & FX page are two “Mapping Generators”, a number of global controls for voice handling with up to sixteen voices, microtuning, glide, pitch bend / transposition, two “Ramp Generators”, eight “Stack Voice Tuning” controls and four “Envelope Extras” with half a dozen trigger modes, “Snappy” exponential curves and “Fall / Rise Range” knobs that determine how far the sustain stage can fall to zero or rise to its maximum value. But let’s not leave out the Oscilloscope which appears in both the Synth and Tweaks page, or the “Multicore / HQ” switches near the waveform display. For my own personal use, I try to leave both these switches turned off because I don’t have a dual-core processor and I have only 4GB of memory. However, I do switch over to HQ mode whenever I’m programming monophonic patches.
At the very bottom of the Tweaks & FX page are four interchangeable effects: a Distortion unit that looks pretty much identical to the ones included in Zebra, with pre/post tilt filters and a small selection of preamp models, a host-syncable Phaser with LFO phase and filter feedback controls, a host-syncable dual Delay with a “Center Volume” control that allows you to set a repeat rate without hearing the initial tap, and a wonderful – and I mean WONDERFUL – Spring Reverb that sounds like a real vintage spring tank.
And now for the pièce de résistance: The Modulation Sequencer! Even though Bazille was inspired by the Roland System-100M, I can’t help but wonder if Urs might have also been thinking about the Buchla 250e Arbitrary Function Generator when programming the “Snapshot Control Center”, which has a very similar (although somewhat simpler) design. Depending on the behavior of the “Rotation Modulation Input”, the “Snapshot Dial” can switch between eight value tables with up to sixteen sliders for each step. I like to route a modulation source through the Quantiser first before I connect the output to the “Rotate” input. That way, the Snapshot Dial becomes “steppy”, which is especially useful when you want to randomly select values within each snapshot. Perhaps you have tuned five snapshots to the notes of a pentatonic scale and you want the Snapshot Dial to “cherry-pick” those snapshots and play notes out of order in a completely arbitrary, yet wonderfully musical way. This is just one example of what you can do with the Modulation Sequencer, which is by far and large the most powerful sequencer I’ve ever used. Period.
To be fair, I haven’t even really scratched the surface of what Bazille is capable of. I could go on forever explaining all the crazy things you can do with the various signal processors and generators, but I’m afraid too much of that sort of thing can scare off people like me who tuck tail and run at the mere mentioning of patch cables. Obviously, there’s a noticeable learning curve, but one of the many things that U-He knocks out of the park is providing thorough documentation for all of their instruments and effects, so you can rest assured that everything you need to know has been nailed down in the manual. There’s even a “Tips and Tricks” section within the manual that provides some wonderful examples of how you can process signals in very specific ways, such as implementing pulse width modulation by combining an impulse waveform with a pulse wave drawn into one of the Mapping Generators, or mixing a rectified sine wave with the original to create a half-wave rectified sine wave…
Oh no! It’s finally happened! I’ve become one of those nerdy modular synth geeks!
All joking aside, Bazille is a great first fully modular synth for people (like myself) who can’t afford to throw money at expensive Eurorack modules. I would like to see binary logic gates implemented at some point, but Urs has gone on record saying that “Bazille’s original design phase predates Make Noise Maths by a few years”, and that he “might figure something out at some point” (fingers crossed). In any case, I’m very happy with what Bazille has on offer, and I’m really looking forward to spending some quality time making patches for it. If you’re thinking about challenging yourself and expanding your skillset as a synthesist, I can’t recommend Bazille strongly enough.
More info: U-He Bazille ($129 + VAT)
U-He Bazille Review
Bazille is a great first fully modular synth for people who can’t afford to throw money at expensive Eurorack modules. If you’re thinking about challenging yourself and expanding your skillset as a synthesist, we can’t recommend Bazille strongly enough.