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Sound Quality

Excellent. Still sounds digital, as do all things digital, if one is super discriminating.


Too early to tell.


About what one would expect. I'm giving this 5*, not 4* (which i'd give anything not a great deal) because it can do the job of several pedals if one is clever with their patch design.

General Comments

Zaio is a two channel analog modular synth emulator for building effects processors and keyboard synths. It has some high level components like reverbs, and all the components like pitch and envelope analyzers, LFOs and ADSRs, sequencers, midi I/O, and such to build just about anything, using a simple multi-page colored grid-button interface to plug in and route modules. You can make most anything you can imagine, in an addictive Rube Goldberg fashion.

I've only been building patches with this for a week and already I've confirmed this will be the centerpiece of my (predominantly slide-guitar + polytonal shamanic-opera vocals) stage rig, even without yet trying out the majority of stuff this is supposed to be able to do. The stuff I've tried so far all worked great as planned. This is going to make all sort of wild yet subtle dynamics+expr control-freak inter-modulating, arpeggiating, and microtonal scale accompaniment possible, faster than any other digital platform I've used, plus send out light-shows to match. I typically sit on the fence for a year before making purchases but knew I had to have this the moment I saw it - and did not regret it in the slightest.

I only found this because my Pigtronix envelope phaser/tremolo w/expr was crucial to my rig yet required an AC supply, no good for battery use at festivals, but it turns out to offer most of the fantasy rig stuff I've been wanting to do for 20 years, but was having to write my own processing platform to attain. It has the toolset, but not the horsepower to replace all my main gear. Think of this as a do anything pedal, just not a do everything pedal. It will do some pretty elaborate saturated anything though. If you really understand the internals of your existing chain and can double up on their internals to build a highly personalized patch, you might be able to knock a few pedals off your chain with this. More importantly though, you can manipulate music in ways which only ever occurred to you.

Oh right, my genre, I call it Mermaid. It's a mix of experimental, sitar raga, bluegrass, dream-pop, trip-hop, native, german opera, swing-jazz, klezmer, celtic, psychedelic-space-glam, heavy on microtonal scale morphing, layered odd timing mixes, and meta-melody formed from harmonic interference/dissonance, from polytonal-resonance vocals and deep independent bending of six-strings on slide at once.

Plus the firmware is so easily upgradable and under feverish development by a magician responsive to the requests of his users for new capacities and refinements - so if it can't do something chips should be able to do yet, and the feature is of popular interest, it probably will eventually. There are of course hardware limitations, spread over several categories of synth/sequencer/effects functions, so I wouldn't for instance expect this to even eventually do everything any midi event processor ever was able to do. A full-blown commercial convolution reverb would occupy a chip itself, so if that's the sort of thing you are emulating, that's the most you are going to fit yourself, not that plus tube gain plus resonator drones - but you might create a combined streamlined effect from the essentials which still captures the feel of all those together.

If you have a trained ear, anything you do on this is still going to sound a touch digital. There's no replacing the real thing with frequencies bouncing around in capacitors and resistors, not just being handed discretely to the next transistor, so to say, but this does do a marvelous job of emulating an analog modular synth, and the architecture is brilliant. It would have been easy to create a hack job where few patches work, but this is the opposite, where even your most poorly designed routings are likely to at least produce something interesting with not much tweaking (provided you have the basic concepts of analog synths down, like LFOs, VCOs, & VCAs. It's easy to pick up).

I find this way more addictive than other digital modular synths because the workflow is so direct, crucial component to crucial component, not a bunch of behemoth modules with poor routing options between them.

This does require a lot of blacksmith style puzzle solving, but in a way which feels like a challenging game of wits, not some burdensome programming chore. It also lends itself to easily roughing in a component routing, then expanding on the subtle intricacies of process chains later. - For example in one patch I'm ring-modulating against an attack-driven LFO pitch-shifter of my audio, and just decided tonight to add ring-modulating off a bit of delay-line as well to add more saturated dynamic depth to my string bends. The more structured flow-chart your thinking is, the more this device will suit you. If you enjoy graphical layout of spread-sheets, you will be quite at home with this device.

If you don't keep copious notes on usage of your patch, it would be very wise to organize your interface such that only aspects of modules you would tweak live would appear on a live-tweaking page of your patch. If you had to dig in all over the place to parts of your patch to modify your sound, it would be quite easy to break a patch. Even jumping around checking out what your existing modules are doing, it's quite easy to accidentally change a setting or unintendedly connect more nodes, then lose sight of it and have to go through your whole patch to figure out why it no longer works the same. ..So only hit 'save' when you've had the leisure to be careful about your editing. This thing should work great with a midi controller, which would be another way of keeping your patch safe from accidental modification during performance. The device is 'always' in edit mode, which I prefer anyhow. Toggling between edit and performance in other systems always sucked. Any math or proceduralizing done on this machine is implemented as live process routing, which is slightly different from script programming, but turns out to be fun and simple once you quickly get the hang of it.

Working with the Zaio has a very refreshing feel compared to other platforms with its capabilities.

I wouldn't say it leans toward any genre. A lot of demos are heavily glitch/granular or beep-beep, both textures I hate, possibly because this has a lot more tool-primitives to support that stuff, but it seems to be just as much a tool for smooth subtle analog refinement, and I'm guessing perfectly capable of precise overdrive/clipping/mangling for metal if one's into that as well. Samba, Kraftwerk, Marilyn Manson, Velvet Underground, Sitar Ragas - this device has the possibilities covered if you understand sound processing. And if you don't yet, but want to, I can't imagine a better way to learn.

If I were to liken this device to another product line in terms of sound, I would say EHX. You'll find the same strengths and shortcomings in the sound, like guitar driven hammond organ emulators which somewhat require you to play slow monophonic to do such a creative thing, but you can - and this one is totally custom. I would imagine emulating Earthquaker pedals would probably come pretty naturally to the Zaio as well - anything gimmicky sounding. I haven't run into any default patches I would say sound lush and deep like a $10k analog rack component might offer, but neither is it chintzy sounding. It has a place performing for discriminating audiophiles. The circle of musicians I hang with are world-class and cutting-edge in technique and composition, and I would say this is their level of gear. With other pedals one is torn between sharing their delight and giving away the secret to their sound. In this case it's not an issue, because even if they get one their self, they're going to do something entirely different with it.

Reviewer's Background

Musician, audio and MIDI control product developer, client-server and graphics app architect, systems engineer, other unrelated things.

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