Review: Make Noise 0-Coast

I’ve already said it numerous times: this is a good time to be getting a new analogue synth. You can get 3 VCO/three-voice paraphonic synths for 150 bucks, full-blown four-voice polysynths for under 600, 12 voices for ca. 800 and now even 16 voices for under two grand. Plus all the old names, from Moog over Dave Smith to Oberheim, are still there, and there’s a lot of new ones. And finally, Doepfer has created a nerd biosphere called Eurorack (a.k.a Würm Bank synthesis school).

So what would you say, in that market context, if someone offered you a one-oscillator tabletop synth without any filter for over 500 bucks? Nobody would get that, right? Well, I did. And I’m happy about it.

0-Coast Overview

The Make Noise 0-Coast (pronounced “oh-coast”) is a small, desktop-style synth module. Slightly larger in surface area but considerably slimmer than the omnipresent Volcas, it fits nicely on top of the Doepfer Minicase, and will look nice next to other small tabletop synths such as the Pulse 2, Evolver, Tetra, and even to guitar stompboxes.

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There’s a stunning 28 3.5mm jacks on top (see how I switched to SI when naming jacks?), and a jack for the (included) multi-region wallwart PSU. Why is that connector on the side? I’d rather have it on the back.

Included is also a 3.5mm-to-6.35mm adapter, and a 3.5mm-to-diode MIDI adapter, plus six patch cables. Earlier versions obviously shipped with only four, but believe me, you’ll need all of those six. At least.

The physical user interface is completed by 15 knobs of varying sizes and three blinking pushbuttons, plus several colourful lights.

There’s a signal flow chart on top which clearly indicates all the normalled connections (i.e. the connections which exist within the unit), and jacks are clearly marked with symbols telling you whether it’s a CV or gate in or out.

All in all, the layout is well laid-out, and jacks and knobs feel sturdy and reliable. And it’s nice to look at with its charcoal top, white and gold lettering/drawings and the blinking lights.

There’s seven distinctive sections from left to right, indicated as MIDI, CTRL, Oscillator, Overtone/Multiply, Slope, Contour and Dynamics.

So what is this? Oscillator seems to be clear, and is an oscillator with triangle and square wave and linear FM input. Overtone and Multiply is a two-stage waveshaper, Contour and Slope are kinda envelopes (ADSD and AD, respectively), and Dynamics is something like a VCA.

Which is relatively weak. You get one oscillator, two envelopes (one of them a really weak one), one VCA and MIDI. For over 500 bucks. You don’t even get a filter.

Buried Secrets

Approaching this synth with the mindset of your run-of-the-mill subtractive synth will however keep you from discovering the wonderful possibilities residing within that synth. Let’s start with the CTRL section: here you get a tempo in, a clock out, tap tempo, a random S&H generator synced to clock, and a summer/attenuverter with two outs (essentially something which does z = z’ = x + ay). The oscillator gives you triangle and square at once (it has a triangle core), and offers both exponential (1V/oct) and linear frequency control (the latter with a knob).

Next is the Overtone/Multiply combo, which starts with the triangle wave (which, with Overtone/Multiply set to zero and the output not driven, sounds more like a sine) and then adds harmonics in one of two ways.

This is, in essence, two different kinds of distortion, in the case of “multiply” looking more like a wavefolder-kind of process…rather than trying to explain what this sounds like, I’d simply refer to the excellent Sonicstate demo on this:

Now we’re already at Slope (which is also normalled to the Overtone/Mulitply section, both as a control and a signal source). Yes, you read right: this envelope is both a control and an audio signal source. Having paramters for Rise and Fall, you can adjust the shape from Log over straight to Exp, and also modulate Time (i.e. both Rise and Fall). And you can press Cycle and get a handy oscillator, which, with the Overtone section, can be used to do something akin to a ring modulator with the oscillator. (This thing goes very well into the audible range and, by using relationships between Rise and Fall and adjusting the shape, gives you a lot of options by itself). Or you can use its trigger in and then hardsync it to the main oscillator for some funny and sometimes unpredictable results.

Next is Contour, which is the thing so far that comes closest to an East-Coast mindset, as it’s in essence an ADSD envelope, with knobs for adjusting attack (here called “Onset”), Decay and Sustain, plus a modulation input for Decay. The thing gets as snappy as you want it to, using low values for onset and decay and then adjusting the sound with the Exp knob.

Can we get it to cycle? There’s no knob for it, but…using the “end of onset” out and gate in, and combining it with an initial gate source via the CTRL section, you can get it to oscillate as well. This thing really invites for that kind of playful experimentation.

The Dynamics section at first is a mixer/VCA/output combo. You get to combine the outputs from the Overtones/Multiply section with a signal of your choice (normalled to triangle) and get a control input for the mix, then it’s into the VCY-kinda thing, and then out to both line/headphones (with a level knob) and an unattenuated “hot” output.

I always avoided saying “VCA” so far, because that thing is more akin to the low-pass gate from Buchla fame, but can be combined easily with a snappy envelope.

So, all in all, it’s really more than it seems. You can have up to three oscillation sources in the audio range. And by clever use of the Dynamics section, you get some low-passing as well.

Digging Deeper

In the last section, I didn’t mention the leftmost MIDI section at all. Now, within this oldschool analogue semimodular, we’re diving into the embedded system world. First, you get a four-parameter MIDI-to-CV interface, which can be configured (by a succession of button presses guided by blinking, flashing and pulsing lights) to be a two-channel note/gate interface, a one-channel note/gate/velocity and CC-over-threshold interface, or you can use the second CV/Gate pair as output for a LFO (tempo to be set by tapping). There’s also an arpeggiator and a sequencer, you can set retriggering/legato behaviour, and can scale velocity/aftertouch/pitchbend via MIDI CCs.

While setting those parameters under the hood is everything than intuitive (and in this cables and knobs synth a stark contrast to the rest of the user interface), it allows for some powerful MIDI integration, plus gives you an additional LFO, an arpeggiator and a sequencer.

So what does it sound like?

First of all, I spent about two evenings with this synth before connecting it to anything else (other than the PSU and a pair of headphones). By simply using the internal possibilities, you immediately get motivated to experiment. This is, of course, added by the very immediate user interface, but also by the fact that a lot of possible connections do something and none can damage anything.

20180117_172535_Roßtalerweg
The Tatami area is a good place for the 0-Coast to live – South Coast, anyone?

The manual provides you with some good patches as a starting point to invite you to experiment in various directions, and you can quickly generate a multitude of sounds – from the odd bleeps, noodles and drones of West Coast fame to your bread-and-butter analogue synth bass or lead sounds of East Coast fame.

Due to that, you might also run into situations where you just might want to have an additional sine source in the audio range, or maybe a multiplier. That’s not a problem, though, as the thing happily interfaces with the Eurorack things you might have. Control a Doepfer VCO with the CV out, trigger a Doepfer ADSR with the Gate out, use that to modulate the VCO via a Dreadbox VCA, and feed that into the linear FM in, and you’re deep in FM territory. Maybe want to run the square of the oscillator through a standard filter? Patch it to the external in of a Minibrute, open the VCA and send the Minibrute’s out into your external in. The possibilities are already huge with this thing on its own, but every module or other semimodular thing you might have brings those possibilities closer to infinity.

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2-operator FM together with a miniature Eurorack

Summary

I have started this review by challenging the price tag for such a seemingly primitive synthesizer. Looking at that simply from a manufacturing cost standpoint, a big cost driver are all those jacks, and if you compare it to available semi-modular competition (e.g. Moog Mother, and the newly released Arturia Minibrute 2 and Moog DFAM), you’ll see that the competition is even more expensive.

Still, if you’re looking for typical analogue synth sounds, then a lot of competitors will give you more for less money, such as the original Minibrute and the Pulse 2. However, this is not what this thing is aiming for, and to look at it differently, the individual building blocks as Eurorack devices will set you back considerably more.

What I can say for sure, though: if you’re looking for a small thing that will invite you to experiment in analogue sound synthesis, with your goal being not to arrive at yet another staple patch, then go out and get this thing. It’s fun! And musical! And inspiring!

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2 thoughts on “Review: Make Noise 0-Coast

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