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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.