IK Multimedia UNO Synth
By Phil O'Keefe |
Just how good can a $200 analog synth really be?
Most musicians will no doubt be familiar with IK Multimedia. A software powerhouse, they offer recording and virtual instrument apps for tablets and computers, studio plugins for use with your DAW, as well as a variety of hardware products too, including MIDI controllers and an assortment of recording products and other problem-solvers; many of which we've reviewed here on Harmony Central. But they haven't really offered anything in the way of hardware instruments - until now. Their new UNO Synth is surprisingly affordable at just under $200, but just how much analog hardware synth can you expect to get for the price of a plugin or effects pedal?
What You Need To Know
- The IK Multimedia UNO Synth is a monophonic analog synthesizer; its two oscillators, noise generator and resonant multimode filter are all analog. It has a wealth of features that you might not expect, especially in light of its very affordable price.
- Made in Italy and designed by IK's Erik Norlander in conjunction with Italian boutique synth manufacturer SoundMachines, the UNO Synth is IK Multimedia's first hardware synthesizer. It's housed in a plastic case, but it seems reasonably durable, and it is certainly light and compact, weighing only 0.88 lb. and measuring 10.1" W x 8.9" D x 1.93" H.
- The power switch is mounted on the rear. UNO can be bus powered over USB (including from USB power banks and chargers), or it can be battery-powered with four AA batteries - a set of batteries are included, so you can get started using UNO Synth right out of the box.
- UNO Synth self-calibrates for a minute or so when you first turn it on. This not only gets the user interface ready to go, but automatically tunes the synth's oscillators, so you never have to worry about oscillator drift and being out of tune.
- The UNO Synth uses a smaller sized micro USB port and a short micro USB cable is included. MIDI over USB is supported. MIDI in and out jacks are also included on the rear panel. These use 2.5 mm TRS jacks. Two short 2.5 mm TRS to 5 pin DIN MIDI breakout cables are included, so you can easily use UNO with any keyboard or controller that has standard MIDI jacks.
- Also on the rear you'll find an 1/8" output jack for connecting to external mixers. You can also plug a pair of headphones or ear buds in here too. Additionally, an 1/8" audio input is also provided. This allows you to daisy chain external audio sources and run them through the UNO, but unfortunately you can't use UNO's filter or amplitude envelope to process external sounds.
- The top panel "buttons" use capacitance sensing technology that works similarly to a modern tablet, although the top surface is plastic, not glass. The interface is very responsive to touch without being overly sensitive - it responds reliably and the way that you'd expect it to.
- Most of the buttons have LEDs that illuminate when they're selected, and while UNO's three alphanumeric character LED data display is rather sparse, it, along with the other LEDs provides all of the user feedback that you really need.
- The layout of the top panel is well-organized in a way that is very logical and easy to figure out if you're familiar with subtractive analog synthesis, and yet it's not going to be too intimidating to those who are less familiar with synths. Here's a graphic from IK Multimedia that shows the layout and what various things do very clearly.
- The ARP, SEQ, Preset, and Data ^ and v (up and down) buttons on the right are major parts of the user interface, and while there isn't a data wheel or knob that you can use to quickly scroll to the value you want, pressing and holding either the up or down button causes the value of the selected control or function to jump in large increments, while single, shorter taps give you fine control. It works nearly as fast as a knob and very intuitively.
- Also on the right you'll find three knobs with dedicated functions - a Volume control, the (Filter) Cutoff knob, and a Tempo knob that controls the internal clock for UNO Synth's sequencer and arpeggiator.
- The bulk of the synth's controls are adjusted using the four knobs on the upper left. These are used along with four touch-buttons on the far left side labeled OSC, Filter ENV and LFO. Each of these buttons has a row of labels that correspond with the four knobs above them. This 4x4 layout allows you to use four knobs to control multiple parameters.
- The two analog VCO's (voltage controlled oscillators) feature fully variable waveforms, so you can gradually transition from a triangle to a saw to a square or pulse wave and all points in between, giving you a wide range of waveform options. Pulse width modulation is also available, and you also get an independent noise generator too. Oscillator parameters can be controlled by pressing the OSC button and using the four knobs. The top panel labels in the OSC row indicate what the knobs directly above them will do when the OSC button is selected.
- Pressing the OSC button and holding it for a moment causes the red LED next to it to flash; this indicates that that row's alternative functions are selected and can be edited using the knobs. In this case, the alternative functions (also listed on the top panel) are mixer-related, and allow you to adjust the volume of the noise generator and the two oscillators.
- In the Filter row you have options for editing the 2-pole 12dB/octave resonant multimode filter's Mode (with high pass, band pass and low pass options), Resonance, Drive and Envelope Amount. The filter isn't the most unique sounding one I've ever heard, but it sounds good and it is versatile, and the filter's Drive control allows you to get some grit and grind happening if you want, which can really help thicken things up.
- The LFO has several waveform options, including sine, triangle, saw up, saw down, square, random and sample and hold. You can apply the LFO to oscillators or the filter if you wish. The LFO can also be synced to the clock so that it runs in sync with the selected tempo.
- UNO Synth has two envelopes. Looking at the ENV row you might think you can only adjust Attack and Decay for the Filter envelope, and Attack and Release for the amplitude envelope, but UNO Synth actually has a separate ADSR for each. You can access these using MIDI CC commands or with IK Multimedia's free UNO Synth software editor.
- You can also use the top panel to adjust all four stages of each envelope using the press / hold technique; press and hold the ENV button until the LED next to it flashes to assign all four amplitude envelope stages to the four knobs, and do the same with the FILTER button to assign the filter envelope ADSR to the four knobs. Since this was added with a post-release firmware update these alternate functions are not listed on the top panel, but it's still nice that IK Multimedia added them.
- UNO Synth has five preset performance buttons that apply "effects" or "articulations" to a sound. These can be instantly applied to a sound that is playing by pressing and holding their dedicated front panel buttons. You can't edit the parameters for the amounts of these effects from the front panel, but you can easily do so using the software editor. Effects include Dive, Scoop, Vibrato, Wah and Tremolo. A Hold button is also included which can sustain sounds that are playing in a manner similar to a sustain pedal, freeing up both hands for other tasks.
- The 27 note "keyboard" has an LED for each one of the keys to indicate when it is pressed. It also has 13 different scale options, making it easier to play without making mistakes, even on the smaller than normal keys. While fairly small, I was impressed with how playable the keyboard actually is.
- The keyboard and the corresponding LEDs for each key also serve double duty as a display and interface for the step sequencer.
- UNO Synth can store 100 presets. Presets 0-19 are the factory sounds and can not be overwritten, while users can save their patches to and overwrite the remaining 80 preset locations - all of which come with various sounds pre-loaded from the factory.
- UNO Synth has a delay effect built-in which can add to the rhythmic complexity of sequenced and arpeggiated patterns. The Delay has only Time and Mix controls, and the Delay's feedback is also controlled by the Mix knob. Higher Mix settings give you more regeneration, but you can't set it independently.
- The built-in sequencer is only a single measure / 16 step affair, and sequences can not be chained to form songs, although you can switch patches (and thus sequences) while the sequencer is running. Each patch memory location has its own dedicated sequence. Both step and real time sequence recording methods are supported. Even more impressive is UNO's ability to record parameter changes into the sequencer, giving you the ability to subtly or drastically change sounds as the sequence plays.
- There is also an arpeggiator included. It can operate over a four octave range, and has ten modes. All the usual modes that you'd expect (up, down, up/down, etc.) are avaliable.
- While the sequencer and arpeggiator don't allow you to transpose, they send out both MIDI notes as well as CC data, so UNO Synth will partner well with your DAW. MIDI CC data can also be used to adjust any of the UNO Synth's parameters, and UNO also transmits and locks to MIDI clock.
- Speaking of DAWs, IK Multimedia has also released a UNO Synth editor. It's available for Mac, PC and iOS, and it can run as a stand-alone application or as a DAW plugin.
- The UNO Synth Editor gives you a full-sized GUI with full control over all of UNO Synth's parameters, and allows you to offload and store patches and sequences.
- While UNO Synth comes with a multi-language quick start guide on a large fold-out sheet of paper, the text is very small - you're better off downloading the user manuals for the synth and the editor. See the Resources section below for direct download links. Also be sure to check out IK Multimedia's growing library of tutorial videos, some of which are also shown below - they'll give you a good idea of what it's like to use UNO Synth.
- You'll need an Apple Lightning to USB adapter ($39 "street" for the USB 3 version) to connect UNO Synth to your iOS device, and even with a Lightning cable feeding power to the adapter, UNO isn't bus-powered when connected to an iOS device - you'll need to use batteries to power the UNO Synth when using it with your iPad or iPhone.
- The filter on UNO Synth can not be driven to self-oscillate.
- There's no oscillator sync.
- There is no transpose function for the sequencer and arpeggiator. This isn't going to be an issue if you want to dump the various sequences you create (or the factory sequences) into a DAW and transpose them there, but it is a serious limitation for live performance.
- There isn't a knob for each and every function on UNO, and while most (about 40!) can be, not all functions can be edited and adjusted from the hardware itself; some (such as keyboard tracking for the filter, pitch bend amount, the amounts for the front panel performance effects buttons, etc.) require the use of the free Editor software or the use of MIDI CC messages to adjust. But remember - this was designed to be a highly portable, lightweight synth that would appeal to both experienced and novice users alike - and a knob per function interface would add significantly to its size and weight, while possibly appearing more intimidating to inexperienced users.
- The placement of the Filter Cutoff and Volume knobs right next to the Tempo knob means you can wind up with unintended / accidental changes to the tempo if you're not careful.
- The UNO Synth can respond to velocity control received over MIDI, but the built-in keyboard isn’t velocity sensitive.
With two voltage controlled oscillators, a noise generator, multimode VCF, multi-waveform LFO, filter and amplitude envelopes, delay, sequencer, arpeggiator and a really appealing sound… what's not to love? Well, if you look at the limitations I mentioned above, it looks like there are a few things on the list, but remember, this is a $200 analog hardware synth we're talking about here - the fact that the IK Multimedia UNO Synth sounds so good and includes so much at that price point is pretty amazing. And they say they're not finished with it either. Since its initial release, IK Multimedia has taken customer feedback to heart and have released not only firmware updates, but also the free software editior... and may continue to make further improvements based on the user feedback they get. Probably the omission that bums me out the most is the lack of any way to transpose the sequences while they're playing back - hopefully IK Multimedia will consider adding that capability in a future firmware update. It would add significantly to the UNO's capabilities - especially for live performance use.
The user interface may not have one knob per function, but in actual use the control arrangement is quick and easy to get around on, making it a nice compromise between a single data entry knob and a more knob-rich (and more expensive) user interface, and it certainly helps it to be a smaller, lighter, more compact and mobile-friendly synthesizer. Some users might wish for a data knob, but the auto adjusting response of the Data Up / Down buttons to the length of your touch works very well. In fact, the way the interface responds overall is actually much better than I was expecting, and it's obvious that a lot of thought went into the design of this synth - both sonically and from a user interface standpoint. Even though I prefer using an external MIDI keyboard to control the UNO Synth, the built-in touch keyboard is actually quite usable, and with all of the various scale options, it is super-easy for even complete novices to perform on it without hitting a ton of bad notes. UNO Synth's MIDI implementation is also excellent - whether you want to use one of the free, comprehensive and well-designed software editors or MIDI CC commands, UNO has you covered and lets you easily control everything. You can also send sequences into your DAW over MIDI, and lock it to your DAW using MIDI clock, so it is very studio-friendly too.
IK Multimedia's UNO Synth is an impressive achievement. Its big beefy analog sound and wealth of features would be right at home on a synth costing twice as much - the fact that they're selling this very smartly-designed Italian-built synth for just under $200 is pretty incredible. You really do get a lot of analog synth for the money with IK Multimedia's UNO Synth. Whether you are looking for your first synth, want to add to your existing stage or studio rig, or you're in the market for a full-featured analog monophonic synth that you can take with you just about anywhere, UNO Synth is a synth that you need to add to your short list. Regardless of what else you may already own, you're going to want one of these surprisingly inexpensive, great-sounding and very cool little analog hardware synths. -HC-
Want to discuss the IK Multimedia UNO Analog Synth or have questions or comments about this review? Then head over to this thread in the Keys, Synths & Samplers forum right here on Harmony Central and join the discussion!
IK Multimedia UNO Synth ($199.99 "street")
IK Multimedia's product web page
UNO Synth manual (PDF file)
UNO Synth Editor software manual (PDF file)
UNO Synth quick start guide (PDF file)
You can purchase the IK Multimedia UNO Synth from:
Getting around the synth
The filter section
Additional UNO Synth tutorial videos can be found
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.