Arturia Origin Keyboard

May 1, 2011
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DSC_0216_nrThe Arturia Origin is a grand technical achievement, a true virtual modular synth cast in hardware. Its sound quality and deep programmability bowled us over when we reviewed the desktop module in June 2009. With its flip-up control panel, the Origin Keyboard aims to be a more integrated and inspiring instrument.

Overview

This review focuses on new features of the OS (version 1.3.23 as of this writing) and on things only the keyboard version can do. If you’re new to the Origin, read our original review first at keyboardmag.com/article/96559.

Drawing on the modeling developed in Arturia’s soft synths, the Origin emulates the distinct characters of the oscillators, filters, and other components of four famous analog synths: the ARP 2600, Minimoog, Roland Jupiter-8, and Yamaha CS-80. There are also generic oscillators (and other modules) that sound great but use less DSP, and wavetable oscillators to provide digital waveforms.

You can freely arrange and connect these elements in an onscreen rack, creating frankensynths that would otherwise require a lot of time, money, and soldering. You can tweak the results (and the factory sounds) with a geek’s garden of knobs during your performance. Rounding it all out is a three-track, 32-step sequencer.

Zones_nrYou can also set ranges for splits and layers by pressing keys right on the keyboard.

 

Axel Hartmann, who’s pretty much the Ferdinand Porsche of the synth world, penned the physical design. Beyond being aesthetically striking, the substantial flip-up panel of the Origin Keyboard puts all the controls right in your face. You don’t have to look down at them or bend your neck, even slightly. This makes prolonged work much less fatiguing. I do wish Arturia had included a panel latch for transport. If you carry the unit with the bottom against your hip and the key lips pointing up, the panel tends to flip open unless you press a forearm against it, which is somewhat awkward. Also, you can’t put this sexy beast on the bottom of a two-tier stand, but who would want to?

Keyboard and Aftertouch

The action is quiet and fast, with textured black keys and a good amount of weight for a synth action. Octave shift buttons, which the desktop version lacks, are a welcome addition here.

Almost nothing these days has true polyphonic aftertouch (the Infinite Response Vax-77 is a notable exception), but Arturia has added significant expressiveness with “duophonic” aftertouch, a feature exclusive to the Origin Keyboard. At the global level, you can decide whether only the highest, lowest, or last note played is affected when you apply pressure to any key. I found last-note priority to be the most musically useful, as I could build chords a note at a time, adding aftertouch (or not) to each note as I went along.

A perennial complaint about aftertouch is that as you press down, the effect on the sound goes from nothing to full blast too quickly. The Origin Keyboard solves this with adjustable response. Using the joystick, you drag three breakpoints around a graph to create a curve— the X-axis is physical pressure and the Y-axis spans MIDI values 0 to 127. Velocity response is set in the same manner, and it has five breakpoints. Like the duophonic aftertouch, these nifty graphs are only in the Origin Keyboard, not in any OS version of the desktop synth.

Ribbon Controller

The 14-inch strip on the Origin Keyboard can do a lot more than bend the pitch. On a new Performance page dedicated to physical controllers (all settings here can be saved per patch), you can set the ribbon to modulate any eligible parameter in the synth, or choose “self-trigger” to play notes on the ribbon. Its range is adjustable up to four octaves in each direction, but you can’t set asymmetrical up and down ranges. The same goes for the pitch wheel, which bends up to two octaves. Does nobody but me want to play subtle whole-step bends up but octave dive-bombs down?

JP8_nrAt either end, there’s a space three eighths of an inch wide between where the ribbon stops sensing touch and where you physically run out of ribbon. The active area does have a white line around it, but if you’re not looking right at this, it’s easy to overshoot the mark and hear your note snap back to its unaffected state. Fortunately, the ribbon settings include four “return to zero” speeds: instant, fast, slow, or none. (These are fixed times and unrelated to the Origin’s tempo sync features, which are otherwise quite extensive.) “None” is a latch mode, so your finger can slide off either end while the pitch stays put. Still, I’d prefer a simple latch button next to the ribbon. To put my nitpicking in perspective, most synths give you either no ribbon at all or a much shorter one, so Arturia’s glass is 90 percent full here.

Jupiter-8 Template

On both the keyboard and desktop Origins, OS version 1.3 adds a readymade template for Roland’s most famous polysynth. To be clear, templates don’t add any new modules; they just select certain ones and patch them together for you, saving a lot of futzing with the rack when all you want is an instant classic synth.

Everything about the Jupiter-8 is recreated, down to the unison and poly assign modes, arpeggiator, and of course, the highpass filter that helped distinguish the Jupiter’s sound from the Moogs, Prophets, and Oberheims of its day. As with the Minimoog template before it, it’s a snap to initialize a new Jupiter patch, and to search the patch browser for Jupiter-based sounds. Arturia absolutely nailed the lush sonic character that causes the real Jupiter-8 to be hunted to extinction on the used market. It’s just beautiful.

Tonewheel Organ

Since OS version 1.1, the Origin has included a serviceable drawbar model that you can drop into its virtual rack and patch just like any other module. In addition to the usual nine drawbars, you get octave, coarse, and fine frequency control over the drawbar group as a whole. Key click is adjustable. You can select second or third harmonic percussion, adjust the volume, and choose slow or fast decay. The “ping” triggers correctly (it won’t re-trigger if any notes are held down), but its sound waxes synthetic— more ’90s house than ’60s soul. The drawbar tones themselves are quite good, though, and you can assign the eight screenside knobs to control individual drawbars.

Tone-Wheel-Osc_nrNothing in the tonewheel module emulates Hammond’s signature vibrato/chorus. Likewise, Leslie simulation is handled in the effects section, and the effect itself is basic, with just a slow/fast speed toggle and bass/treble rotor balance knob. All in all, this won’t send any dedicated clonewheels running, but it’s not meant to. It’s more about the sound design possibilities. Think of it this way: If you had a huge modular synth and could drop an entire tonewheel generator from a B-3 into one of the rack spaces, your main objective probably isn’t perfect organ sound for Santana covers.

Further Improvements

In his June 2009 review of the desktop Origin, Jim Aikin noted that editing was a bit fiddly due to the main data dial being used both to scroll around the screen and to change settings. A big improvement here is that when the knob is in “value” mode, as indicated by a red outline around whatever you’re changing, the cursor buttons now remain active. Plus, if you press the knob once, it stays in value mode, letting you cursor that red outline around the screen while twirling the knob to adjust whatever has the focus.

The knobs and joystick now transmit MIDI, making it far easier to record and automate the Origin with your DAW. Not only that, but you can save and recall complete MIDI maps for all the Origin’s controls on a new “Live” page. The planned audio over USB hasn’t yet materialized, though. Another addition in OS 1.3 is a sample-and-hold module for producing those burbling, “computer brain” type modulations.

DSP muscle, and hence polyphony, is the same as on the first Origin. That’s a theoretical 32 voices, but you will feel the ceiling with a complex patch or a multi. I got three more notes out of the factory patch “Opening” by turning off the effects, indicating that the Origin’s DSP is allocated fluidly. Though we now view polyphony the way 1950s Americans viewed gasoline, many of the Origin’s sounds are so huge that you don’t need a ton of voices. You should also remember that the Origin really is a modular synth, and to get 32 or even eight multi-oscillator voices out of a real analog modular, you’re talking a roomful of gear, thousands of dollars, and probably a divorce.

*Click here if the player below doesn't load correctly.

05-2011 Arturia Origin Keyboard by KeyboardMag

Conclusions

Nothing you can prop on a keyboard stand offers the monstrous sound and absolute patching flexibility of this latest Origin. Even in software, its peers are few: Arturia’s own V Collection for the analog emulations, Spectrasonics Omnisphere for the huge sound, and Native Instruments Reaktor for the modular approach. Just don’t forget the price of the computer to run them when considering the Origin’s value.

To key or not to key? That is the question. Currently, the difference in street price between the Origin Keyboard and its desktop forerunner is a cool grand. That buys you 61 very nice keys, the duophonic aftertouch, the ribbon, the graphical velocity and aftertouch curves, and a work of modern sculpture that would fit in at the Guggenheim. If you have a keyboard controller you like, the desktop is certainly the better value. If you want a stand-alone instrument that makes you the most envied synth-slingin’ mofo in six counties, get the keyboard.

Specifications

PROS The best sounding hardware virtual analog synth out there. Oscillators and filters really sound like the classic synths they’re modeled on. Striking design. Unique duophonic aftertouch. Tons of inspiring factory sounds.

CONS Polyphony ceiling still feels a tad low. Can be awkward to carry. Still easy to load a new patch while editing and lose your work.

CONCEPT Virtual modular synth with emulations of famous-name oscillators, filters, and other components, plus multitrack step sequencer.
SYNTHESIS TYPE Analog modeling, tonewheel modeling, and wavetable.
POLYPHONY 32 voices maximum.
MULTITIMBRAL PARTS 4.
WEIGHT 40 lbs.

PRICE List: $3,499
Approx. street: $3,000

arturia.com

*Timeline of Origin updates.

*Tutorial videos.

 

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