As we drift into the shorter autumnal days and another lockdown, Soundsauca hopes to lighten the mood with a sonic offering to the gaseous synth gods of Argon. Unfashionably late to the party (Cobalt mania is real!), Daydrifta is a brand new 64 preset collection for the Modal Electronics Argon8 synthesizer.
An intricate and beautiful sounding synth, the Argon8 delivers shimmering sonics and glassy undulations in abundance. Though renowned for producing majestic ambient based synth textures, I also probed the other side of the synth to see where it leads. And I found plenty! Crunchy crashes, kicks, analog renditions, tortured leads and arps and some wubs to keep those Cobalt cravings at bay!
But it’s clear what the Argon does best and hopefully this sound set won’t disappoint. You can find it here and listen to my demos.
The Argon is a special synth. When I first bought the 37 key version back in August the first thing I noticed was how well it was built. It was like a time warp to how synths used to be made! It really makes a difference to how one interacts when everything feels solid and well made, so well done Modal! The user interface is also really well designed, with plenty of knobs and functions making it easier to explore the bespoke architecture.
In essence the Argon is an 8 voice, 2 oscillator wavetable synthesizer with some unique features. With 2 LFOs per voice; a polyphonic LFO that reaches way up into audio rate territory (bravo!) and another useful for driving monophonic modulation duties. There’s 3 envelopes to control amp, filter and mod sections respectively. A range of envelope curves with varying time enable sharp, percussive sounds or longer textures to evolve. The filter is a 2-pole state variable affair which can be modulated and morphed in some really interesting ways.
The star of the show and what stands out is undoubtedly the wavetable and modifier section. Each wavetable synth has its own sonic fingerprint and I really like the different waves that Modal have included, especially the waves from the 002. But it’s what you can do with these waves that make the Argon different.
With 4 virtual stacked oscillators per voice, waves can also be spread providing that subtle trademark Argon drift. Each wavetable also has a static shaper attached, where the original wavetable can be mirrored, clipped or rate reduced in a myriad of ways. And there’s more! The“OscMod” is another essential section, offering more conventional tone shaping possibilities with sync, ring mod, x-mod and more.
When you get stuck into these possibilities, there’s an endless amount of sonic territory to explore.
As a performance synth the Argon offers a 12 slot mod-matrix. 4 are pre-wired to some useful destinations. The other 8 are relatively free to assign. I say this as sometimes it’s easy to forget that some sources can only work with certain destinations. Mostly these are logical, a polyphonic LFO makes little sense to modulate an effect parameter but there are some minor limitations here. The upside, and ethos of the synth is how approachable it is without diverging into too much complexity. For many this is a bonus. Sound designers always want more (16 slots?!) but there you go.
Effects are available in 3 blocks, including a range of useful delays, flangers, phasers and reverb. These effects are integral to the synth as you can modulate their settings via an LFO. This always opens up a lot of fun for sound design.
Standing tall and proud (now now!) is that ergonomic delight that is the Argon joystick. It’s a tactile one which feels solid and responsive. I like to set up a set a range of parameters and morph between them. Sometimes I wish there was a separate pitch wheel but that’s just greedy ain’t it?!
The Argon8 has a fully featured arpeggiator with a huge range of playing modes. From adjusting the standard swing and gate, playing can be also be tailored with a suite of random/shuffle orders. Time divisions allow for either long and detailed playing or speedy note arrays. You can even input your own mini sequence as an arp source too!
The chord feature is interesting. Many synths allow for a chord to be inputted and played. Modal however added “Chord Invert”, where the chord input can be key transposed and shifted. Features like this make wonderful variations and happy accidents occur whilst playing. It would be so cool to be able to save these patterns and chords as part of a patch – maybe one day!
Like the arp, Argon8’s sequencer is comprehensive. With a 512 note capacity, real-time or step input modes, and a multitude of playback modes. It can undoubtedly be put to some amazing uses, especially with both arp and sequencer being available simultaneously.
I was eager to use the 4 animation lanes to add modulation to things. However I found that parameters are always smoothed/slewed. For some sounds this was fine, but for others I’d have preferred for more quantised behaviour. This is a really minor thing and I can totally appreciate me being in a minority here. I was also a bit unsure if the added sequencer data would add too much complexity for me to produce anything meaningful in a reasonable time frame! I’m sure many people with much better skills will make use of this section more than me.
Modal synths all benefit from a well developed software editor – Modalapp. In 2020 this should be a standard, but many manufacturers view this as an afterthought at best. Simply put, the editor is the gold standard in how software should integrate with a hardware synth. It is clearly presented with a well thought out UI, works standalone or as a DAW plugin offering the choice of hands on control or precision editing when required.
To round up, the Argon is a fantastic package. Boasting an easily accessible and uniquely sounding wavetable synthesizer, integrated into a solid chassis with professional performance features that musicians will appreciate. It’s sound is luscious and beautiful with incredible detail in the top end, without becoming brash or harsh like some wavetable synths. If I had to think of a negative, the patch gain structure would probably be it. Modal has improved this but it’s a balancing act to keep enough signal when adding effects. Often a little distortion helps this somewhat.
Hard or soft?
As with any modern day digital synth, one can always pose the question – why not just use software? My thoughts are clear. The Argon8 is much more than just a sound engine with a keyboard attached. The synergy between the synth engine, hardware and performance features is so integrated that the way one approaches it is decidedly different to a plugin. The Argon also has its own trademark “sound” which I found very pleasing.