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  • M-Audio Venom Synthesizer

    Let's start by talking about guitars. Yes, guitars.



    Guitars have evolved to the point where there are guitars for different styles of music: There are flashy heavy metal guitars with exaggerated curves, semi-acoustics for jazz fans, traditional Teles for country pickers, and so on. In the world of synthesizers, there hasn't been the same degree of differentiation; most synths are trying to provide a palette of sounds that works for the greatest number of people. Even a soft synth like Cakewalk's Rapture, which is heavy on step-sequenced modulation and other dance-oriented extras, does a pretty convincing Minimoog and can load samples for acoustic sounds.



    I received Venom just before going to NAMM and was able to play with it for a little bit. It was definitely not like any other synth I'd played; preset #1 was neither a grand piano, nor a Minimoog bass As I dialed through the presets, tons of them had rhythmic things going on in a multi-timbral context - and nary a string patch among them.



    I was intrigued, but the pieces didn't really fall into place until I went to the 2011 Winter NAMM, and shot a video for Harmony Central's coverage featuring the product manager himself (Taiho Yamada - hope I got the spelling right!) showing off his baby. I got it - and I understood why this synth is called "Venom." It makes big, bold sounds; some verge on ultra-lo-fi, while others are surprisingly evocative. But one thing's for sure: This is not your ordinary "we can sound like a Minimoog" synthesizer, as it seems very much dedicated to dance, industrial, rap, techno, hip-hop, and other forms of cutting-edge music.



    Normally I start off a pro review with a "photo tour," and we'll get to that soon enough. But first, I wanted to insert the video of Taiho at NAMM, because I think it sets the stage well for what you're about to see and hear.






    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4V2TIvaqjMY
    _____________________________________________
    There are now 14 music videos posted on my YouTube channel, including four songs by Mark Longworth. Watch the music video playlist, subscribe, and spread the links! Check back often, because there's more to come...

  • #2
    Time for pix! But first, here's a link to the Venom landing page on M-Audio's site. It gives a useful overview, presents specs, and so on so we don't need to duplicate that information here - we can get right into the user experience.



    The first attached image shows an overall shot of the unit. It's 49 keys, clothed in "iPod White," and has a fair amount of performance controls.



    The second attached image focuses on the controls for the audio interface section. Yes, Venom is also an interface for not just the keyboard itself, but for instruments like guitar and mics. It's relatively basic - you won't find +48V phantom power or XLR mic connections - but for many synth players, it has all that's needed (including direct monitoring). Of course, we'll be covering this in more detail later.



    The third attached image shows the various Mode select buttons and the display. But here we also see my first wish list item for Venom: I'd like to see more contrast between the control labels and the panel, as I find it difficult to read these under stage lighting conditions. Fortunately there aren't that many controls, so after a while, using them becomes second-nature. Nonetheless, I've always felt a live performance keyboard should have obvious labeling, even if it doesn't look as cool from a design standpoint.



    The fourth attached image highlights the Multi controls. This is an important part of the synth, and the basis of some killer presets that ship with the unit. Granted, there are only 12 voices; we'll see if this impacts the usefulness of the Multi section. However, based on the presets, this doesn't seem to be an issue - remember, Venom isn't all about string pads



    Finally (for the front panel, at least), the fifth attached image shows the performance controls. The up/down buttons to the left choose a row of parameters, which are adjusted by the knobs. As you can see, the selection of parameters for various rows is logical.



    Labeling contrast aside, Venom's front panel has an open, inviting kind of feel. As I've mentioned many times before, there are certain products that just "feel" right - Venom is one of them, at least for my way of thinking and playing. Usually, it takes several posts in a pro review before I start feeling comfortable with a piece of gear, but for whatever reason, I'm bonding with this one pretty early on in the process.
    _____________________________________________
    There are now 14 music videos posted on my YouTube channel, including four songs by Mark Longworth. Watch the music video playlist, subscribe, and spread the links! Check back often, because there's more to come...

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    • #3
      Venom has a significant amount of connectivity, so let's turn the unit around and look at the rear panel.



      The first attached image shows the jack field of 1/4" jacks for instrument input, mic input, expression pedal input, and sustain switch input (given Venom's low price, I'm not surprised that neither a pedal nor sustain switch are included as part of the package).



      The second attached image proves that some manufacturers still care about 5-pin DIN MIDI - there's physical MIDI I/O, not just MIDI over USB. However, you do have USB for computer connections. Also note the jack for the AC adapter. Yes, an AC adapter, not an IEC line cord...but again, we're talking price point here, so I won't object.



      The third attached image shows the stereo outs (use only the left jack for mono) as well as an aux input, which I presume is something that relates to the audio aspect or for playing along...we'll find out. Note that these RCA jacks are about audio, not coaxial S/PDIF.



      The fourth attached image is a gratuitous picture of all the jacks, which I included because hey, we don't have to worry about a limited number of graphics or column-inches! But it gives a perspective on how the close-up shots relate to each other.



      Anyway, the bottom line is there's a lot of connectivity - which is expected if you're going to have a built-in interface, but isn't something I would necessarily expect at Venom's price point.
      _____________________________________________
      There are now 14 music videos posted on my YouTube channel, including four songs by Mark Longworth. Watch the music video playlist, subscribe, and spread the links! Check back often, because there's more to come...

      Comment


      • #4
        Looking forward to your feedback on this product Craig as I am more than a little bit interested myself.
        <div class="signaturecontainer"><a target="_blank" href="http://venndiagram.virb.com">Venn Diagram - Artist Website</a><br><br>Machinedrum, Monomachine, Analog Four, Octatrack, NordModular, Moog SubPhatty, Novation Nova, Korg MS20 Mini, Maschine, Tassman, Aalto, Absynth, Uhe's ACE &amp; Audulus<br><br><a href="mailto:faxorgy.productions@gmail.com">Contac t </a></div>

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        • #5
          Venom is billed as (among other things!) a live performance synthesizer, so before getting into the architecture and the sounds, let’s consider whether it lives up to its billing or not.



          The keybed is 49 keys and produces velocity messages, but not aftertouch. It’s a synth action keyboard (not weighted), and the keys have a comfortable, solid feel; Venom is also relatively light, and easy to carry around. The modulation control doesn’t spring back to zero when released, which to me is an advantage as I design many patches where the mod wheel “morphs” between settings, so I’ll often want to leave it set in one place.



          The pitch bend wheel has a somewhat strange feel: When you release it, it sort of “decelerates” back to zero. I thought at first it might not go back to zero exactly, but it does. I don’t consider this a disadvantage; in fact, you can “flick” the pitch bend wheel and the way it returns to zero can be pretty cool. I don’t know if M-Audio planned this or whether it’s just “the way it is,” but I thought it was worth mentioning.



          One aspect of playing Venom that I really like is the spacing and height of the Performance Controls. The spacing between controls is generous and completely uncramped; you can reach, grab, and turn without having to think about bumping another control by accident. A lot of keyboards claim to have live performance controls, but Venom really does. The knurled knobs and somewhat rubberized, non-stick surface add another overlay of security – if you sweat a lot on stage, no worries. Furthermore, despite not being held to a panel with nuts and lockwashers, the “wobble factor” is very low.



          The interface controls are spaced more closely together, which makes sense as they’re more “set-and-forget.” Still, they’re easy to adjust and again, you won’t bump into other controls.



          The button placement gets high marks, too: It’s virtually impossible to hit the wrong one by accident, or hit two simultaneously (well, unless you’re King Kong). Finally, the display angle isn’t adjustable as it’s built in to the front panel, but you can see it from a pretty wide angle - it’s not the kind of display where you need to be sitting on top of it in order to see what’s going on.



          The one negative about the knobs and buttons is that it would be nice to have more of them. With any live performance device, the less button-pushing and display-looking you need to do, the better. In terms of a control set, Venom is definitely not a Nord Lead 2X – but it doesn’t cost $1,500 street, either. Given that hardware is the most expensive component in a synthesizer, there are bound to be compromises in a keyboard that costs around $500 street. Then again, there are limits as to how many tweaks you want to be making as you play, and four primary performance knobs keeps things relatively simple – which is another factor that’s important in a live performance synthesizer.
          _____________________________________________
          There are now 14 music videos posted on my YouTube channel, including four songs by Mark Longworth. Watch the music video playlist, subscribe, and spread the links! Check back often, because there's more to come...

          Comment


          • #6






            Quote Originally Posted by Anderton
            View Post

            Venom is billed as (among other things!) a live performance synthesizer, so before getting into the architecture and the sounds, let’s consider whether it lives up to its billing or not.



            The keybed is 49 keys and produces velocity messages, but not aftertouch. It’s a synth action keyboard (not weighted), and the keys have a comfortable, solid feel; Venom is also relatively light, and easy to carry around. The modulation control doesn’t spring back to zero when released, which to me is an advantage as I design many patches where the mod wheel “morphs” between settings, so I’ll often want to leave it set in one place.



            The pitch bend wheel has a somewhat strange feel: When you release it, it sort of “decelerates” back to zero. I thought at first it might not go back to zero exactly, but it does. I don’t consider this a disadvantage; in fact, you can “flick” the pitch bend wheel and the way it returns to zero can be pretty cool. I don’t know if M-Audio planned this or whether it’s just “the way it is,” but I thought it was worth mentioning.



            One aspect of playing Venom that I really like is the spacing and height of the Performance Controls. The spacing between controls is generous and completely uncramped; you can reach, grab, and turn without having to think about bumping another control by accident. A lot of keyboards claim to have live performance controls, but Venom really does. The knurled knobs and somewhat rubberized, non-stick surface add another overlay of security – if you sweat a lot on stage, no worries. Furthermore, despite not being held to a panel with nuts and lockwashers, the “wobble factor” is very low.



            The interface controls are spaced more closely together, which makes sense as they’re more “set-and-forget.” Still, they’re easy to adjust and again, you won’t bump into other controls.



            The button placement gets high marks, too: It’s virtually impossible to hit the wrong one by accident, or hit two simultaneously (well, unless you’re King Kong). Finally, the display angle isn’t adjustable as it’s built in to the front panel, but you can see it from a pretty wide angle - it’s not the kind of display where you need to be sitting on top of it in order to see what’s going on.



            The one negative about the knobs and buttons is that it would be nice to have more of them. With any live performance device, the less button-pushing and display-looking you need to do, the better. In terms of a control set, Venom is definitely not a Nord Lead 2X – but it doesn’t cost $1,500 street, either. Given that hardware is the most expensive component in a synthesizer, there are bound to be compromises in a keyboard that costs around $500 street. Then again, there are limits as to how many tweaks you want to be making as you play, and four primary performance knobs keeps things relatively simple – which is another factor that’s important in a live performance synthesizer.






            Does the manual come with a full CC list at all ?

            I was just wondering if you could use something like a BCR2000 too control more parameters in a "hands on" performance situation.
            <div class="signaturecontainer"><a target="_blank" href="http://venndiagram.virb.com">Venn Diagram - Artist Website</a><br><br>Machinedrum, Monomachine, Analog Four, Octatrack, NordModular, Moog SubPhatty, Novation Nova, Korg MS20 Mini, Maschine, Tassman, Aalto, Absynth, Uhe's ACE &amp; Audulus<br><br><a href="mailto:faxorgy.productions@gmail.com">Contac t </a></div>

            Comment


            • #7
              I'm going to be following this closely as well. I'll let Mr. A supply the details, but from my look over of the manual they list a number of CC#'s, etc for additional external control. The one thing I noticed is their use of NRPN numbers to change things like oscillator type, etc.
              <div class="signaturecontainer">After prodding from AZtechno, I have changed my sig.<br />
              <br />
              Gear:<br />
              <br />
              Yamaha EX5, Korg M3, Virus C, EMU MP7, etc, etc ....<br />
              <br />
              <a href="http://www.myspace.com/giacomous" target="_blank">www.myspace.com/giacomous</a></div>

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              • #8
                Hi Craig! I just wanted to let you know that once again, you are spot on with your initial observation of the product. Venom is special because it is unique and it just wouldn't be right for Avid to jump into this category unless we we're going to bring something new to the party.



                I got involved with Venom very late in the game but feel extremely lucky to now have Taiho as a part of my team. I'm going to let him respond to most of the questions that appear in this review but I think folks are going to find his comments really insightful and reflective of his genius with this type of product design. Taiho has got quite a history as a sound designer and member of the design team at Alesis prior to joining Avid. He's responsible for a lot of the brilliance behind some of the best synths they made including the Quadrasynth, QS series, Ion/Micron and the legendary Andromeda just to name a few.



                I will say this, not since Eleven Rack have I seen buzz build for this product within the walls of Avid. Venom is really is the darling of the company right now and I think the response we got at NAMM reflects how quickly it can win you over.



                cheers,



                Hiro

                Comment


                • #9
                  Thanks Hiro, and big thanks to Craig for coming by the Avid booth to check out Venom! Please post if you have any questions and I'll try to answer in a timely fashion...



                  All the best,
                  <div class="signaturecontainer">Taiho Yamada<br />
                  Product Manager<br />
                  Avid</div>

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Hiro and Taiho - Thanks for stopping by. Taiho, I'm very familiar with the work you did for Alesis with the Ion. What I didn't realize is that I created some samples and programs for other synths with which you were involved, like the Quadrasynth. This IS a small industry, isn't it?!?



                    The Ion was a great synth. I can see a certain "style" you have with design...interesting.



                    Anyway, I have a bit of a problem with the review for the next few days...I'm away from my studio, hence don't have "Venom access." I prepared a few comments before I left, but got sandbagged by the recent weather issues...I spent way too many hours shoveling snow, keeping horses from freezing, re-lighting pilot lights because the natural gas lines in New Mexico keep losing pressure, and making sure my amazing 2000 VW could start in -14 degree (F, not C!) cold. It's been interesting. Having gone through two high category 3 hurricanes in Florida and a 6.2 earthquake in California, I'd have to say that I'm not a fan of natural disasters



                    So...please feel free to answer any questions people have until I return, and come up with some of my own. It would be very helpful if you could discuss what you feel is the best way to control Venom from an external controller!



                    Also I'd like to mention that each Pro Review tends to take its own path. I'm hoping that this one gets heavily into insider tips and techniques, so please, don't hesitate to contribute cool tips. Sometimes people who represent manufacturers are shy about getting too involved, because they don't want to be seen as "hyping" their products. But, the cool thing about a pro review is that if you get out of hand, people will call you on it ("Taiho is wrong, the anti-gravity module is buggy at best. I couldn't get Venom more than a couple inches off the floor.") Some of the most popular pro reviews have had strong manufacturer involvement. I'll never forget when Dave Hill from Ableton gave a dissertation on how to make Windows machines work optimally for audio...great stuff.



                    So...welcome aboard. So far I'm very impressed with Venom, but I have a lot more to learn!
                    _____________________________________________
                    There are now 14 music videos posted on my YouTube channel, including four songs by Mark Longworth. Watch the music video playlist, subscribe, and spread the links! Check back often, because there's more to come...

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                    • #11
                      mine will be delivered tomorrow. my use is unique. my 7 year old daughter is into garage band. I wanted a sound module as well. I don't think the piano teacher approves. I will post some comments/questions after I have had it a few days. this will very much be a practice instrument. I hope for it to be a gateway instrument to digital recording.



                      (from my iPhone)

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                      • #12
                        really nice

                        the Venom is really tempting
                        <div class="signaturecontainer"><font color="#990099">Me on Youtube:</font> <br />
                        <a href="http://www.youtube.com/guitardouchebaggery" target="_blank">http://www.youtube.com/guitardouchebaggery</a></div>

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                        • #13






                          Quote Originally Posted by Xoq
                          View Post

                          mine will be delivered tomorrow. my use is unique. my 7 year old daughter is into garage band. I wanted a sound module as well. I don't think the piano teacher approves. I will post some comments/questions after I have had it a few days. this will very much be a practice instrument. I hope for it to be a gateway instrument to digital recording.



                          (from my iPhone)




                          Well I'm back home after being on the road since last week, so it's back to the Venom.



                          As to the "gateway instrument to digital recording," remember Venom has an audio interface. In fact, I'll cover that next so we can get the "utilitarian" stuff nailed before moving on to the very cool sounds. BTW - after a preliminary look, the editing software that comes with it is very highly developed and useful - on its implementation.
                          _____________________________________________
                          There are now 14 music videos posted on my YouTube channel, including four songs by Mark Longworth. Watch the music video playlist, subscribe, and spread the links! Check back often, because there's more to come...

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Before going further, let’s install the driver software and Vyzex editing software. Of course there’s a CD-ROM that comes with Venom and includes these files, but also of course, it’s obsolete because newer files are available from the M-Audio web site.



                            M-Audio is quite good about making it easy to do updates. They ask you to fill out a quick survey before you download the software, but you don’t have to—it will still let you do the download. As of this post, the Vyzex editor is at version 1.11, and the driver at version 1.0.10.



                            I elected to install the Venom software on a Windows XP SP3 operating system (yeah, yeah, I know...I’ll be upgrading to Windows 7 soon, but this works for now). Installation follows the usual procedure where you install the driver software first, then connect the keyboard. Installation of the driver (which also updates the firmware if needed) appeared to be uneventful, and said a firmware update wasn’t necessary. But after installing and opening the editor, it said it couldn’t find the Venom via its “Autosense” option, which would supposedly find Venom and load the data from it.



                            I noticed an M-Audio logo in the system tray, and clicked on it; it confirmed that Venom was connected, and that the firmware and drivers were up to date. Hmm...



                            Next step was to avoid USB and try standard MIDI 5-pin DIN I/O. I hooked this up to my E-Mu 1820 interface, specified the I/O to the editor, and everything worked as advertised. Obviously the problem related to USB, although the control panel said Venom was connected. So doing my best Sherlock Holmes imitation, I deduced that the USB connection was functioning, but the problem was that the editor couldn’t communicate via USB.



                            I went back to the manuals, and noticed that if a firmware update happened, that it was necessary to do a full reset on the synth. So even though the installation process indicated a firmware update wasn't necessary, as I firmly believe that reboots and resets solve many ills, I did a full reset on Venom and voila – the editor communicated with it. Mission accomplished, and I was good to go.



                            The first attached image shows the screen for a single patch; the second attached image shows the screen for a multi. You can also load screens for the single patches that make up a multi. Unfortunately, the maximum image width for the forums is 900 pixels so I had to reduce the screen size by about 10%; the “real” version is a bit larger, and looks a little less “squished” (of course, this data-compressed image is also somewhat fuzzy-looking).



                            Incidentally, this program is an editor/librarian only, and unlike some recent keyboards from Korg, Yamaha, and Roland, the software won’t let Venom serve as a VST/AU plug-in. However, in the Vyzex documentation, Psicraft (the company behind the software) says that a plug-in friendly version will be available in early 2011 for $19.95. We’ll check it out when it lands.



                            Next stop: the audio interface.
                            _____________________________________________
                            There are now 14 music videos posted on my YouTube channel, including four songs by Mark Longworth. Watch the music video playlist, subscribe, and spread the links! Check back often, because there's more to come...

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                            • #15
                              Hi Craig,



                              The issue you ran into (when first running Vyzex) was that your Venom's Global MIDI OUT was not set to 'USB'. This parameter is not included in the editor's GLOBAL mode because (when set to KEY) it locks the editor out from further editing by switching all of Venom's communications to the physical MIDI In and MIDI Out sockets on the back of the unit. You could have made this setting inadvertently from the front panel by pressing the 'Edit' button and the second G# on Venom's keyboard when you were first exploring the instrument. The hardware reset you wisely deployed set Venom back to its default global settings (MIDI OUT = USB).



                              To ensure nobody else requires a trip to Baker Street (Conan Doyle's that is, not Gerry Rafferty's) to solve the mystery like you did, we are including a single page troubleshooting PDF that will open whenever the editor 'AutoSense' function fails to detect Venom on startup - Aside from reminding to use the latest drivers and firmware, it will explictly show how to manually set the MIDI OUT from Venom's front panel. This extra will be added to the next official release of the Venom Editor (v1.12).



                              All the best,



                              Tony



                              Tony Antoniou,

                              Managing Director

                              Psicraft Designs, Inc.

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