Stylophone GEN X-1 Analog Synthesizer
By Phil O'Keefe |
Stylophone GEN X-1 Analog Synthesizer
This is definitely not your grandfather's Stylophone
by Phil O'Keefe
You may have heard the name Stylophone before. The moniker goes all the way back to the late 1960s when it was used for the original Stylophone - an affordable monophonic electronic "keyboard" that you play with an attached stylus. That original unit was viewed by some as just a kid's toy, but it still managed to find its way on to recordings by artists like David Bowie and Kraftwerk. But the new Stylophone GEN X-1 under review here isn't a reproduction of that first stylus-based electronic noisemaker - it has a lot more features and capabilities that the original lacked. Such as? Read on to find out!
What You Need To Know
- Like the original, the Stylophone GEN X-1 features a metal panel with a "keyboard" layout, with regions marked out for 24 keys. This is located on the top panel, and the user triggers notes using a metal-tipped stylus. The stylus can be coaxed out of its recessed holder by gently pressing on one end of it. The stylus is attached to the main unit with a cable, and touching the tip of the stylus to the metal keyboard completes the circuit and triggers the selected note.
- In addition to the two octave keyboard section, there is also a "Sound Strip" controller directly above it that can also be used to trigger sounds. It's particularly well-suited for use with Theremin type sounds and for glissandos. It can be triggered with the stylus or with your finger, although this takes steady, firm pressure - which is somewhat hampered by the strip's narrowness and how deeply set into a recess in the top housing the Sound Strip is.
- Anything playing on the Sound Strip takes priority over the keyboard and overrides it.
- The styling of the modern Stylophone Gen X-1 is similar to the vintage unit, and it retains a bit of that "old transistor radio" vibe. The main housing of the Gen X-1 is plastic and measures approximately 7.5" W x 1.75" H x 5" D.
- The Stylophone GEN X-1 is powered by four AA batteries (a set of batteries is included with the unit) and a fresh set of alkaline batteries will last you for several hours. The power switch is located on the left-hand side of the unit.
- The Stylophone GEN X-1 is an all-analog synth, and according to the folks at Dubreq, its main oscillator generates a ramp waveform. This can be processed by the synth's envelope section and resonant lowpass filter. A LFO is also provided for modulation, along with an analog delay.
- In addition to the basic ramp wave, there are two buttons on the left side of the unit that provide square wave sub octaves. Both one octave down and two octaves below the fundamental are provided, and these can be used either individually or simultaneously for really thick, fat sounds.
- Furthermore, an X key (also mounted on the left side panel) provides Pulse Width Modulation, with the PWM speed being controlled by the GEN X-1's LFO section. This can also be used simultaneously with the octave buttons.
- There is a small (< 2") built-in speaker so you can hear what you're playing. It doesn't have the greatest fidelity, but it's fine for having fun on the go. If you really want to hear what this little synth is capable of (and it can generate far beefier low frequency sounds than the built-in speaker might lead you to believe), the way to go is to either run the headphone out to a pair of headphones or to an external amplifier. You can also use this right-hand panel Headphone connection as a line level recording output.
- Also on the right side of the unit is a Aux In jack. This allows you to run an external signal through the GEN X-1's Filter controls (cutoff and resonance), and LFO for amplitude modulation and tremolo-type effects. You can also apply the built-in Delay to the incoming audio and use all of its controls to manipulate the sound.
- The envelope section of the GEN X-1 has three controls - an Attack knob, a Pitch knob, and a Decay knob. As you might expect, Attack adjusts how quickly a note starts - from instantly, to a much more gradual "ramped" attack that fades up over time at higher settings. The Decay control has a similar effect over the decay (but not release) time. The Pitch control is used to determine how much the envelope will also simultaneously affect the pitch of notes, which is great for "sweeping pitch" sounds.
- The resonant lowpass filter section has only two knobs - one labeled Res (Resonance) and the other to set the filter Cutoff frequency. There's a fairly broad range available, and you can do classic filter sweeps easily.
- The Stylophone GEN X-1 also has a LFO section that provides pitch modulation for internal sounds and amplitude modulation for sounds arriving at the Aux In jack. You can select between triangle and square waveforms with a slider switch, while Rate and Depth controls let you adjust the speed and the amount of modulation.
- The Stylophone GEN X-1's built-in analog delay features a slide switch to turn it on or off, along with a D-Time (Delay Time) knob, a F-Back (Feedback or "repeats") knob, and a Level control so you can adjust the ratio of original sound and delay. Maximum delay time seems to be right around 600 milliseconds, which is longer than I was expecting, and plenty long enough to have some fun with. The delay adds quite a bit to the unit, especially since it can help sustain sounds and ease legato playing, allowing you to get the stylus in position for the next note without the sound of the previous note decaying completely before you do.
- The delay will "run away" (self-oscillate) if you turn up the Level and dime the Feedback control. You can then "play" the resulting sound by adjusting the D-Time and Level controls in real time.
- There are no MIDI capabilities of any kind, so you'll need to perform your parts using the stylus in real time - there's no way to use an external keyboard or sequencer with the Stylophone GEN X-1, and no on-board sequencer is included.
- The headphone / line out of the Stylophone GEN X-1 is rather noisy, and there's a fair amount of hiss, but then again, some users will no doubt find the noise and somewhat grungy and lo-fi sonic character to be one of the GEN X-1's more appealing attributes rather than a limitation.
- Batteries are the only way to power the Stylophone GEN X-1. There is no jack for a power adapter to plug into.
- There is no rubber on the bottom of the case, so it isn't very "sticky;" the unit slides around a lot on slick tabletop surfaces. I found that laying a dish towel between the table and the GEN X-1 helped to keep it in place. Of course if you're holding the unit in one hand and playing it with the other, or sitting it on your lap, this won't be an issue.
- The master tune knob is located on the bottom panel. Tuning the unit (which needs to be done occasionally due to oscillator drift) is done with this, in conjunction with a rear panel-mounted trim pot This is similar to the original Stylophone, but it would be more convenient (and offer more opportunities for creative use) if these controls were mounted on the top panel.
Cheap, cheerful, and fun, the new Stylophone GEN X-1 is a surprisingly capable and musical little noisemaker that begs you to experiment, learn, and have a good time! It is an excellent low-cost introduction to analog synthesis for neophytes, as well as a device that even pro musicians will not only have fun with, but that they can use (along with a DAW) to make serious music with. I'm sure some people will even find a way to make use of it in live performances.
I do wish the tuning controls were more readily accessible, but that's a relatively minor complaint. It also takes a bit of practice to learn how to use the stylus to its full potential. I found that if I put the stylus dead-center on the line separating two "keys" the pitch glitched a bit and jumped up a full octave, which is kind of fun, and I'm sure that my stylus playing will improve and become more fluid with even more practice - but even a complete novice will quickly be able to trigger beeps, blurps, and cool sounding sci-fi sound effects, and will quickly master playing basic musical melodies and beefy bass lines. Like a toy, this is supposed to be a fun and easy to use product - and it most certainly is fun - but it's far from being "just" a toy. Whether you're looking for a gift for a young musically-minded person or a pro musician, or even a little something for yourself, the Stylophone GEN X-1 is sure to be a big hit and provide hours and hours of musical entertainment and enjoyment. -HC-
Want to discuss the Stylophone GEN X-1 analog synth or have questions or comments about this review? Then head over to this thread in the Keys, Synths and Samplers forum right here on Harmony Central and join the discussion!
Dubreq Stylophone GEN X-1 analog synthesizer ($69.99 "street")
Dubreq's product web page
Dubreq Stylophone GEN X-1 quick start guide (PDF file)
Dubreq Stylophone GEN X-1 manual (PDF file)
You can purchase the Dubreq Stylophone GEN X-1 from:
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.