M-Audio Venom
By Stephen Fortner
Fri, 29 Apr 2011
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VenomFrontOne of the biggest announcements at this year’s NAMM show was the M-Audio Venom by Avid. Long known for audio interfaces, MIDI controllers, and studio monitors, Venom is the first bona fide hardware synthesizer in the M-Audio product line. From the buzz in the industry, it looks like they have a hit on their hands. Devo loves it. The Crystal Method raves about it. Is this typical endorsement hype or legitimately deserved praise? We’ll play, listen, and find out.

Sound Engine

The Venom is based on oscillator samples of analog synths, which are then run through multimode filters and a highly flexible modulation matrix. Did I say “samples”? Yes—of coveted classics from the likes of ARP, Moog, Oberheim, and Roland, more than a few exotic analog modules, and even a Harvestman Zorlon Cannon, a “pitched noise generator” that uses the same technology as the Atari 2600 game console! Plus, the control panel is designed for tweaking, so if “virtual analog” is a job description, it’s legit to call the Venom a virtual analog synth. However, it’s not an analog modeling synth. Before the cynics among you cry, “It’s just a ROMpler,” let’s get deeper into how it sounds and handles.

All sampled waveforms are available to any of the Venom’s three oscillators, which include such amenities as FM, hard sync on oscillators 2 and 3, waveshaping, and ring modulation. In addition, you can add randomness to the start point of the wave sample, as well as oscillator drift, to better emulate the quirks of real analog circuits.

The oscillators feed a mixer—which can also bring in the Venom’s external audio inputs—that’s then routed into a multimode resonant filter. The modes cover two-pole and four-pole lowpass, highpass, and bandpass options. A pre-filter boost can add that classic overdriven sound. The filters sound quite good, with one nitpick: Even with the resonance set to zero, all six modes sound a tad resonant. It’s almost as if the lowest resonance setting is around ten percent, not zero.

Vyzex-Venom-Editor<- Though you can do a good deal of performance-oriented editing from the Venom’s front panel, you need the Vyzex Venom editor for real sound creation work. It’s excellent, thorough, and free.

 

There are three envelopes: one each for amp, filter cutoff, and oscillator pitch. These latter two are just defaults—you can re-route them in the modulation matrix. In addition to the usual attack, decay, sustain, and release, the Venom’s envelopes include a hold segment between the attack and decay. Once you’ve struck a note and it has “attacked” to its full volume, this nifty retro touch determines the lag time (if any) before the decay kicks in and the sound slides down the other side of the hill towards the sustain plateau. Keyboard’s Francis Preve—who created many of the Venom’s factory sound programs—explains one application of this: “One aspect of the original Minimoog envelope was a very slight delay between the peak of the attack and the beginning of the decay segment. The Venom’s hold segment lets you add that on a perpatch basis, which is great for a bit of compressor-like punch.”

The Venom’s four LFOs do sine, triangle, square, sawtooth, and sample- and-hold waveforms, with linear and logarithmic variations for the square, saw, and sample-and-hold waves. Tempo sync is present on all four, and the first two include delay and “attack” (fade-in) segments. The first two envelopes are polyphonic (they modulate each voice independently), the third is monophonic (i.e., it won’t be re-triggered by a key strike), and the fourth is only for tremolo and auto-panning.

The Venom’s modulation matrix allows any of the LFOs, as well as the pitchbend and modulation wheels, expression pedal, and footswitch to modulate a huge variety of synth parameters. Though the keys don’t sense aftertouch, channel pressure from an external keyboard or sequencer can be a modulation source.

In addition to the usual suspects like cutoff, LFO rate, and oscillator pitch, things like oscillator waveshaping, FM amount, and ring modulation amount are among the destinations. Want to get crazy? You can modulate the modulation amounts for each of the matrix’s 16 slots. This depth would be unusual even in a more expensive virtual analog synth. However, it seems that none of the envelope settings can be destinations in the matrix—though as mentioned, the filter and pitch envelopes can be sources for other things.

Rounding out each preset is a basic insert effect that can function in one of five modes: single-band parametric EQ, compressor, auto-wah, distortion, or bit-crusher. There’s also a simple semi-parametric EQ for each preset, plus three-band EQ on the master outs. Finally, the Venom includes two global aux sends. Aux 1 is for reverbs and delays, while Aux 2 handles chorus, flanger, phaser, and an additional modulated delay. In Single patch mode, think of these as parallel inserts whose dry/wet levels you can adjust; in Multi mode, they’re shared by all patches in the Multi.

Multi Mode and Arpeggiator

The Venom’s Multi mode splits and layers up to four patches across the entire MIDI key range, and also lets you switch patches by velocity—the possibilities for surprising and dramatic hybrid sounds boggle the mind. Each of the four parts includes MIDI filtering of continuous controller data, basic mixer controls for volume, panning, and the two aux sends, and independent arpeggiator settings. Some factory patches, notably “Mamba Gruv” and “Serpentine,” do an excellent job of showing off the power lurking in the Multi mode, with drum and synth patterns in the left hand and lead sounds in the right.

Speaking of patterns, the Venom’s arpeggiator is well stocked with the expected arpeggiator modes (up, down, up/down, down/up, and chord), plus a collection of pattern-based material for both melodic phrases and drum parts. A planned upgrade will let you edit your own patterns in the Vyzex editor, and the included control panel for the Venom driver lets you import patterns into the Venom that you’ve recorded as Standard MIDI files in your software of choice.

Audio Interface

The Venom includes a stereo USB2 audio interface, making it an ideal keyboard for laptop musicians looking for a MIDI controller and audio solution in one box. It’s also USB1.1 compatible. You get separate 1/4" inputs for mic and guitar, and the mic input is balanced—a nice touch given the low price. Stereo aux (line) inputs use RCA jacks, showing the Venom’s DJ leanings. You can route any of these inputs through the Venom’s filters and effects. Since there’s only one stereo bus, the mic and left line ins share a channel, as do the guitar and right line ins. This doesn’t really cause problems, as you get separate gain knobs for guitar, mic, and internal synth volume on the panel, none of which affect the line inputs’ gain. Also, anything you record through the guitar or mic inputs gets spread across a stereo track, unless you select the “Mono Record” option in the included editor software.

You can also record the Venom directly into your DAW over USB—just select it as the input for an audio track and play the keys instead of plugging in a mic or instrument. Plus, since it can move MIDI data between the USB and old-school jacks, it’ll let you piggyback that old hardware sound module you still love.

VenomBack<- Inputs for the onboard audio interface include RCA stereo line, 1/4" instrument (guitar), and 1/4" balanced TRS mic.

 

I wouldn’t call this audio interface “low-latency.” You won’t notice any lag with slow-attack sounds, but when I used the USB to overdub a percussive lead onto a mix of several existing audio tracks, a buffer setting of 256 in my DAW sounded more like 512—just where I begin to feel it. The usual workarounds like lowering the buffer and muting or freezing non-essential tracks while overdubbing, or nudging playback tracks forward in time until things feel right, are all good advice here.

Sounds and Sound Quality

The Venom’s basses range from full and deep to squishy, resonant belches. The leads cover everything from prog rock to electro house. Pad and comp presets include warm and wide classic analog entries, as well as icy textures reminiscent of PPG synths. Drum kits range from analog classics (including an unmistakable TR-808) to the sort of glitch percussion you might hear in a Richard Devine set.

As to the overall sonic character, I predict it will be somewhat polarizing. The Venom’s personality is decidedly quirky and aggressive, thanks to Avid’s unashamed inclusion of such artifacts as aliasing. That’s not to say you can’t get a decently creamy lead—the kind you’d hear George Duke or Chick Corea whip out over a funk groove—as you certainly can. The grunge factor isn’t jarring or obtrusive, and in a mix, the Venom will make most listeners think they’re hearing a real analog synth. However, if you’re listening critically for “analog warmth,” a modeling-based virtual analog (or real analog) synth will be more your speed.

For aggressive, dancefloor-ready sounds, though, the Venom is like Janet in Rocky Horror: It wants to be dirty, and that’s a huge part of its charm.

Conclusions

If your musical tastes lean towards dance-oriented electronic music and you want one synth that’ll get you that sound and get it now, the Venom is definitely for you. True, the Access Virus enjoys lofty status here, but its least expensive version, the TI Snow, streets for almost three times the price. For those of us who play in cover bands and define “DJ” as someone who works at a radio station, the low price and compact size make the Venom no less tempting as a lead synth to round out your stage-piano-and-clonewheel rig. It’s a blast as a standalone synth, but combine it with a laptop and software such as Pro Tools, Reason, Live, or MainStage, and you have a complete production and gig rig. For all these reasons, the raves it’s been getting are well deserved.

 

04-2011 M-Audio Venom by KeyboardMag

Specifications

PROS Aggressive sound. Integrated audio and MIDI interfaces. Can process external audio through synth engine. Extensive modulation matrix. Included software editor is very thorough.

CONS Filters always sound slightly resonant. Envelopes included in modulation matrix as sources only, not destinations.

CONCEPT Dance-oriented virtual analog synth with built-in audio interface.

SYNTHESIS TYPE Sample playback plus subtractive.

POLYPHONY 12 voices.

MULTITIMBRAL PARTS 4.

AUDIO INTERFACE RESOLUTION 24-bit, 44.1kHz.

W x D x H 31.7" x 11.9" x 3.4".

WEIGHT 10.1 lbs.

PRICE List: $599.95
Approx. street: $500

m-audio.com

Check out a first look at the Venom at NAMM.

 

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