Yesterday, a small box entered my home. It is the Stylophone Gen X-1. Apparently, this is an upgraded version of the original stylophone David Bowie plays in the Space Oddity video clip. As many of you know, I have a soft spot in my heart for small noisy machines, and this one promises to be much more than that, so for 60 euros, I went forward and brought the thing.
The first thing you notice when taking the stylophone out of the box is that it it light, but not so light that it feels like a toy. The box is solid and doesn’t appear to bend easily. The knobs on the front panel are very similar to the ones you find on the Volcas and the Monotrons: they to wobble a little bit, but are perfectly usable. On the left side you also have the ON/OFF switch and three toggle buttons labeled “X”, “-1” and “-2”. These latter buttons feel quite nice and have a very positive feedback when pressed (somewhat akin to those old transistor radios of the 1980’s). On the left side you’ll find the volume control, a headphone output and an Aux input that can be used to pass audio thought the internal filter and delay circuit.
Unfortunately, the Stylophone Gen X-1 does not have an inlet for an external power supply, so you have to provide 4 AA batteries for it to operate. The lid for the battery compartment is held by a screw. I don’t know how long these batteries will last, but you probably want to take a screw driver and a 4 battery pack with you if you intend to use this device on a gig.
When you turn it on, he first thing you might notice is how noisy it is. there is definitively a low-fi characteristic about it. The synth can be triggered by using the stylus and the metallic pads arranged as a keyboard: this closes the circuit that opens the output gate. You can also use either the stylus or your finger on a very narrow touch bar that lies on top of the keyboard (a la Korg Monotron & Monotribe), but this strip is a little bit too recessed for my fingers and need a considerable amount of pressure to keep the note sounding… at least in my unit. Even with the help of the stylus, I found this touch strip to be difficult to use, although it is a neat idea for doing continuous sweeps of the oscillator range.
The oscillator has the same sound as the original Stylophone… something akin to a distorted or overdriven Square wave, but the Gen X-1 adds two sub-oscillators to the mix at -1 and -2 octaves. These are switched on by pressing the “-1” and “-2” buttons on the left side of the unit, respectively. There is also a Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) control for the Square wave which is activated by pressing the “X” button on the side panel, but more on that later.
The sound from the oscillator goes into a low pass filter with adjustable resonance. This is a welcome addition to the original design. As I start cutting those pesky high frequencies, this device starts sounding more and more like a proper synthesizer. The filter appears to be a 4-Pole filter (the bass end does get quieter when I turn on the resonance), but does not appear to have that bit of a cutoff slope… or perhaps it is my ears. At full resonance, the filter starts to self-oscillate, although I’m still not sure if it is because of the internal noise of the unit, or if it is a true self-oscillation.
After the filter, we have a delay circuit, which can be turned on or of with a switch. this is a nice touch the people from Korg could have added to the Volca Keys, as these budget analogue delays always add a lot of noise to the sound. The Gen X-1 gives you control over the Delay time (up to almost a second, I believe), Feedback and Level (another nice touch that allows you to mix the dry and wet signals). If you push the Feedback over the 12 o’clock position, the delay circuit may start to self-oscillate, specially with loud inputs and long delay times.
As for the Modulators, the Gen X-1 gives you an LFO with adjustable Rate and switchable between triangle and square waves. the depth knob send the LFO signal to modulate both the filter cutoff and the oscillator. The effect on the latter depends on whether your “X” button is pressed (LFO modulates the Pulse Width) or nor (LFO modulates pitch). Unfortunately, you cannot switch off the modulation to either the filter or the Oscillator, although something tells me that this won’t be a difficult mod.
Finally, there is also an Envelope generator with adjustable Attack and Decay. There is some clever design on this, because these two knobs do a lot more than just changing attack and decay rates. With the decay knob all the way to the left (zero decay), the sustain phase is automatically turned on, and you get only an attack ramp to a maximum envelope signal. By default, the envelope only modulates the filter cutoff (there is no way to modulate the output amplifier), but a PITCH knob allows you to also modulate the pitch in increasing amounts (the modulation going to the Filter still persists, though).
Tuning the Stylophone will require a tuner available. The offset for the keyboard can be found on the bottom of the unit. Once you set the lowest C on the keyboard to the desired frequency, you need to check if the middle C on te keyboard is still a C or whether you need to adjust the pitch slope (which is done via a small recessed screw on the top side of the unit). If you do need to adjust the slope, you’ll need to keep adjusting the pitch offset and slope until the keyboard is again in tune.
The Stylophone Gen X-1 first looks like a toy: it is battery operated, it is small and it is cheap. It also retains much of the look of the original stylophone. It is not going to replace any of your current synths, not even the Volcas, but it is no toy. It is an interesting synth that instantly inspired me to make drones and special effects. It is fun to play, and great for adding a touch of low-fi to your music productions. With a little bit of sound processing it can easily fit in a mix. This device is currently available from Dübreq’s website for about 60 euro. This is little more than what people are charging for the monotrons, and it offer much more flexibility and better sound quality. So, are we in the presence of a future classic?