Psychic Modulation Phonec 2 Review (Winner Announced)

10

Psychic Modulation brought out Phonec a fair while back, a synthesizer designed to create the warped, nostalgic leads, pads and washes that remind us all of worn out VHS tapes, Boards of Canada and forgotten, dusty footage once again found and exposed to the light of our attention.

Phonec 2 is something of a re-write, fixing some of the problems of the original and moving it off of the SynthEdit platform (allowing Macintosh and 64-bit users in on the party). The controls are easier to click on and edit, the signal path has been improved, we finally have a variable pulse wave and PWM, and some new features have been scattered on top of the nostalgia sundae. It’s more of a version 1.6 than a version 2, but it’s welcome nonetheless.

Melt Away

Phonec 2 is a somewhat standard subtractive synthesizer on paper, but has a sound of its own. The design brief was, as mentioned before, worn out VHS, faded memories and parallel pasts. This brief has been totally nailed, mostly thanks to its Melt engine, a pitch and volume destabilizer which works in two modes – one, the Circuit mode, operates at an oscillator level, warping the pitch and volume of the voices; the other, Tape, captures the audio as it leaves the synth (or an external audio source) and applies its wandering, warbling nature to the audio as a whole.

The Melt engine has quite a few controls, allowing you to blend two types of modulation, a slow meander and a more rapid, discontinuous fluctuation. The speed, amplitude and effect on pitch and volume of these modulations combine very well to produce the desired result. Oscillator drift is also available in the oscillator section, and a pitch-shifting delay allows the drifting tones to beat against each other mesmerically.

Common Core

The raw oscillators are clear and sharp, offering some unusual waveforms such as “Cluster” and “Organ”, and you can play them high without any aliasing, provided you steer clear of some modulations such as FM and oscillator sync, which have artifacts in the high register. This isn’t much of a problem as high register sounds need not have complex harmonics due to the low number of partials that fit into the human range of hearing at this pitch height, and some of the modulations are a lot less artefact-free than others. I was quite impressed.

The two main oscillators can be mixed, ring-modulated, synced, cross-modulated or combined via boolean logic gates, resulting in complex, shifting poly pulses which are dependant on the pitch, shape and level of each oscillator and hence a prime target for modulation. There is also a noise source with its own low-pass and high-pass filter, plus a sub-oscillator capable of kicking out a few waveforms.

Beyond that, in the modulation section, along with the two envelopes and three LFOs, there lies an HFO – a High Frequency Oscillator. This is a pitch-tracking modulation oscillator which can do audio-rate modulations to pitches, filter cutoff, amplitude and even pulse width. These sorts of sounds, ran through the Melt engine, just scream “old science documentary”. An oscillator phase-reset switch ensures that when turned on, the main oscillators are in phase with the sub and High Frequency Oscillator when they are in tune, allowing the creation of robust, complex sounds as well as the usual drifting ones.

Movers And Shakers

Modulation is somewhat limited, as there is no matrix, just an assign field for each LFO and envelope. There is no mod-wheel support (with aftertouch being a stand-in for it), and velocity can only affect the height of envelopes, rather than shift parameters directly. What is here is stripped down, but there are enough unique ideas to guide you into producing certain sounds. For those that need to break out of the mould, MIDI learn is available for most controls, but for the most part Phonec 2 is a character synth able to produce any genre of sound but always with this smudged, historic character. The Melt engine need only be applied slightly to get the effect. The brain picks up on it straight away, perhaps even subconsciously in some cases. It’s very effective.

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There is a resonant low-pass filter with four different flavours to choose from, and a static, non-resonant high-pass filter for tidying up sounds and removing low-end humps. The arpeggiator and modulation sequencer can combine to produce those babbling synth lines heard all over films from the eighties, while the output stage features a gain knob for adding extra dirt and distortion.

Everything works well together in Phonec 2. I had some problems with clipping in the echo-shifter sometimes, but these can be eradicated with careful gain staging (although they do seem to come on sooner than I would expect). That may have been my fault. I also noticed that the On/Off switch for the aftertouch modulation section didn’t seem to work, but this is such a minor point it seems churlish to mention it. Oops!

Summary

Phonec 2 is a character synthesizer with its own distinct sound. While it doesn’t have every feature you would want for all of your sounds, it does what it sets out to do with maximum efficiency, making it an almost perfect tool. It’s also flexible enough to go beyond this, should you need to, but mostly it’s at home in its own stated territory. Phonec 2 probably isn’t a good first synth purchase, but for anyone looking for that lo-fi “memory lane” sound, it’s a safe bet.

More info: Phonec 2 ($59)
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The Giveaway

Psychic Modulation is kindly giving away one free Phonec 2 license to one lucky BPB reader. Simply enter your email address below to enter the giveaway. You can get additional entries by liking us on Facebook, following us on Twitter, or subscribing to our YouTube channel. The giveaway ends on May 18th at midnight. Good luck everyone! :)

Phonec 2 Review

90%
90%
Brilliant

Phonec 2 is a character synthesizer with its own distinct sound. While it doesn't have every feature you would want for all of your sounds, it does what it sets out to do with maximum efficiency, making it an almost perfect tool.

  • Features
    7
  • Workflow
    9
  • Stability
    10
  • Design
    9
  • Sound
    9
  • Pricing
    10
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About The Author

Sendy has been making music in her bedroom since she was 14 using computers, synthesizers, samplers, and whatever else was at hand. She does not subscribe to any one genre but enjoys energetic, constantly changing rhythms, disorienting synthesizer manipulations, and heroic chiptune melodics.

10 Comments

  1. Just a side note: in case anyone was wondering what a “polypulse” is. Basically it’s a waveform that can only be high or low, like a pulse wave, only it can have an arbitrary arrangement of high and low parts in any given cycle. They are used a lot in 8-bit console sound chips, such as the Atari 2600 and have a fairly harsh but interesting sound.

    Phonec produces these polypulses when it uses the boolean mixing mode because at each moment it’s comparing the two oscillators, then deciding to output a high or low value, depending on, for example, if oscillator 1 is higher than oscillator 2 at that moment. If the two oscillators are detuned, this will produce an animated polypulse that is constantly changing it’s shape.

  2. Reverend Entity

    on

    I love the sound of this synth so much I preordered it as soon as it was announced.

  3. Always happy to read a Sendy review; hype-free, knowledgeable, and thorough. I also like the synth (and Psychic Modulation stuff in general)!

  4. I very much enjoy this synth. I haven’t had a chance to use it in a song yet, but it has a very unique sound.