Among the three grooveboxes I got in the time since last Christmas, this is the last one to get a review. Even though I already got it a few days before said Christmas. The reason for that delay is easy to explain: I had a hard time understanding it, and consequently also arriving at some kind of review-worthy summary.
One I pulled the box out of the shipping container, I noticed “it’s beautiful”. The cardboard box is beautiful, the contents of the box are beautifully arranged, and the device itself is beautiful, too.
It arrived readily assembled, including the power distribution between its three pieces. It looks like a work of art.
A COTS adapter to connect the plug from the included PSU to our power outlets was included, most probably by the store. If they did it because they’re so nice or because it’s mandated by some regulation is unknown to me, but it’s good to know that you can immediately plug it in.
I already mentioned “three pieces”, and those are more specifically three Eurorack modules with a 44TE width and a very low depth – the latter is definitely good for all your skiff case needs. Each module has a 12-pole Eurorack power connector on the back, as well as one for the barrel plug of the included PSU – either one can be used. Also, each module can either be powered individually (the way to go if you install it into an Eurorack case), or you only power one module and then distribute the power with two pairs of DuPont (breadboard) connectors, which are included.
A propos included: included are two medium-short 1/8 TS (aka Eurorack), a really large amount of said breadboard cables, the PSU and a printed manual. And if you’re using the thing stand-alone (i.e. without any other Eurorack things), those two cables are all you’ll need. There’s also a bunch of resistors, capacistors, diodes and a transistor in a small bag.
Speaking of the Eurorack context: 44TE has to be the most stupid width a module has ever had. Why? If it was 42, two of the three modules would fit into one row of a standard 84TE case. Which means you can’t install the Mescaline into a two-row 84TE case. Bummer. Especially considering that it looks like you would’ve perfectly been able to make it 42TE wide. Perhaps a good case to hold it would be Behringer’s Go, at 140TE also something with an unusual width, and also mandated by oddly sized modules.
If you don’t want to install it into an Eurorack case, let’s not forget it arrives mounted to a fancy, dark metal stand, with open back so you can access the trimmers, and which looks really cool. Like an expensive piece of modern art. But just like that piece of modern art, you wouldn’t be tempted to throw it into a bag and then put it onto a table on a festival stage. It’s meant to stand in a place where its beauty shines, and it can’t be easily damaged. Which somewhat limits its use. Severely.
I got this category from the fantastic Schneiders Laden, the store for all your modular thingie needs.
So can something odd like this be a groovebox? It’s got a sequencer (called Motion), a synth for pitched sounds (Channel), a synth for drum sounds (Mental), and some effects/mixer section (also in Channel) – so yes, it does qualify as a groovebox, even though it doesn’t really look anything like a Roland MC or Akai MPC.
Speaking of those two, the Mescaline lies almost exactly between a MPC One and MC-707 price-wise.
It doesn’t work like one of those, either. So how does it work?
This module has a trigger sequencer, a CV sequencer and a sine LFO. Both sequencers run either from an internal adjustable clock or from a joint external one (1/8 or breadboard), and feature independent dividers (breadboard cables) for 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 12 and 16. If you remove the divider cable, the sequencer stops.
Both sequencer have the odd property that you can add and subtract active steps with a pair of buttons or – you guessed it – breadboard connectors. These active steps then run around in a circle of eight LEDs (which represent eight steps), and if an LED is lit, the corresponding trigger is sent for the trigger sequencer, or the corresponding voltage for that step (which you set with eight potentiometers) sent out on a CV out (breadboard and 1/8). What if more LEDs are lit (because you have more than one active steps)? Then the voltages get added for the CV sequencer, and several trigger outs are active for the trigger sequencer.
There is another specialty about the trigger sequencer, as it has two rows of outputs. First, there’s the Gate 1-8 connectors, which send a gate. Then, there’s the Out 1-8 connectors which, when active, make a connection to the Main 1-4 or Main 5-8 connectors. The same principle also works for the LFO, by the way. So why is that? Let’s leave it at “Mental wants it that way” for later.
There’s connectors for resetting the sequencers (e.g. by patching any of the gate outs into those, you can do shorter sequences – or sync the CV and trigger sequencer. Or use the LFO for that, or an external source, if you somehow connect the external 1/8 cable to the breadboard header.
As mentioned, there’s also a sine LFO with adjustable speed over a somewhat narrow range. It has a LED, and a specific connector for the LED (why? So I can drive it by another signal?).
All in all, it’s two almost independent eight-step sequencers for triggers and CVs. I say “almost” because normally they’re both running from the same (internal or external) clock – although while writing this I’m pretty sure that you can also patch that differently. In summary, not completely bad, but nothing to write home about, either.
There’s ten capacitive pads you can trigger with your finger, or via a breadboard header. You can adjust their relative pitch with trimmers in the back in a relatively small range, and the overall pitch with a potentiometer in the front. Which means you can also trigger them from Motion – and you can control the overall pitch from Motion as well via headers or even a 1/8 jack.
Now as we have a kind of pitch CV input and a trigger input for the vactrol, it immediately begs the question: can this thing be used to be played normally, like with a CV/gate pair? The short answer is “yes”: by plugging a CV/gate pair from you modular system, from an interface or a so-equipped synth like the Minibrute and connecting one of the key trig patch points, pressing a key triggers a note with a pitch, and pressing another key triggers a note with another pitch. And if you wire more than one key trig, you’ll be playing chords. On could think of ways to use a polyphonic MIDI-to-CV/gate interface to play in a completely deterministic, but also completely counter-intuitive way. While the tracking seems to be V/Oct, it definitely isn’t one volt per octave, though, adding to the counterintuitive aspect.
So how does it sound? It sounds like an ambient version of a chiptune synth, and that is not intended as praise. It is what it is: a very weak synth, although with a user interface that would have been called “innovative” more than twenty years ago.
There’s an effects processor, which does either reverb, or delay, or pitch shifted delay, or reverse delay. All of these algorithms have a metallic early-age-digital vibe to them, but are done well in that regard. The processor is stereo, Channel’s voice is hardwired to the left in, and you have a 1/8 in for the right input (which you’re supposed to patch Mental in to).
In the end, Channel is a disappointing synth with a non-standard UI and a simple, but in the context of this system well-designed effects processor.
This is a fun one. There’s a kinda patchbay with 4×14 (or so) patchpoints (where all four ones in one row are connected), and you can generate sounds by sending a voltage into them, sending an audio signal into them (yep, it works as an effects processor. A very angry one), or by connecting two points to each other. Around that, there’s four potentiometers with 2×3-point headers, and so-called “Convert” 1/8 jacks with allow you to connect external signals easily.
Below the kinda-patchbay, there’s a so-called breadboard which, according to the manual, is “pretty self-explanatory”. It isn’t. There’s 12V somewhere, so one of the diodes that came with this thing literally went up in flames.
This is as good a place as any to mention the manual. It sucks. It’s bad. It’s an utter catastrophe. Someone should be severely punished for it, and I suggest it’s the guys who released this product.
There’s things that do pitched sounds at different pitches. There’s noise, and clicks. If you connect things to each other, other things happen. With a potentiometer, you often adjust the pitch. Sometimes, you adjust the timbre instead. Even if it’s somewhat limited, it’s still a big lot of fun. And it will never sound like the hit album or the coveted vintage synth/drum machine you’ve just listened to.
Let’s start with the obivous: patching this thing is no fun at all. It might be better if the thing is mounted in a flat skiff case, or if you have the hands of a watchmaker, but pulling and inserting those small cables quickly and easily doesn’t work – at least for me. Which is bad, because you need to do that if you want to change your groove a little, and you need to do that while the header is surrounded by lots of other cables you better not touch in the process.
Apropos “touch”. Touching things can make a big change for Mental. For example connecting a cable, and then touching it. Or moving it slightly to the side in mid-air. This is not necessarily bad – if anything, it lead to some sounds that I would have liked to reproduce but wasn’t able to (maybe because the weather had changed?).
A trigger sequencer immediately gets associated with “groove” – and while you can do that with Mescaline, that’s not really what it’s good at. The combo of Mental and Motion (and yes, even a little Channel) worked best for me if I used slower sequencer speeds and had Mental working more like a stepwise-changing drone synth.
Yes, you can use Mental’s sounds for drum grooves – but I found it much easier to just sample them (e.g. with the MPC One) and then work from there.
Processing other things: while you can feed other sources into Channel’s effects (but most probably have better ways to process things in a similar way), you also can send signals into Mental. Odd things will happen.
Send your drumkit through Mental somehow, while sequencing things in it, record that in parallel and bring it in at a low level into your mix. Moses Schneider’s Wurst brought into the Folktek domain!
Another one of those tricky cases.
One reason making this summary tricky is the individual aspects vs. the interoperation of all three modules. In other words I think Mental is extremely cool, but can’t tap its full potential without Motion, which otherwise isn’t that great. And finally Channel is something I’d be happy without.
So starting with Channel, it is just a really boring synth, and considering all the other offerings by Folktek, I would have expected more. While the effects thing isn’t exactly stellar, it does have character and in the context of this system, does fill its role nicely.
While all modules somewhat suffer from the flimsy cables, it affects you the most in the workflow for Motion. A lot of the most basic performance steps require patching – and that is not something you’d like to do in the foggy darkness of a live club.
The thing that really shines is Mental. The odd way how you can create and modify sounds by either sending in voltages or signals, or make connections invites for experimentation and is a welcome deviation from over-used sounds.
On the negative end, I’ll add the stupid module size and disappointing manual. On the positive one, there’s the visual beauty.
So who is this for? I’m pretty sure someone with the knack for it and an orientation for ambient/noise-related genres could do an album with this and maybe a nose flute alone. Another potential application would be the EDM producer who’s looking for a few new sounds in a world dominated by over-used analogue gear and samples of it.
Is it worth more than a MPC One, or almost as much as a MC-707? For most people, the answer is a clear no. This one is for the few who need something different.
Here’s a video I did with the Mescaline as the only sound source. The MPC One sits next to it as a simple 2-channel mixer and effects processor.