Arturia Matrix-12 V reviewed

March 26, 2015

In many ways, the Oberheim Matrix-12 was the last great analog mega-synth of the ’80s. At the time of its release, digital synths from the Yamaha DX7 to the Ensoniq Mirage sampler were dominating the market, while digitally controlled oscillators and wavetable synthesis were gradually making their way into subtractive-based hardware such as the Korg DW series. Keyboardists everywhere thought that analog was passé and digital was the only way forward, so despite its astonishing depth, the Matrix was underrated during what should’ve been its heyday. It’s a travesty of the highest order that this synth isn’t as legendary as its forebears, as it handily eclipses its vintage competition, especially today. As with all of Arturia’s vintage emulations, the Matrix-12 V’s feature set is an exact replica of the original, so let’s take a closer look.


Architecture

The Matrix-12 was released in 1985 and is based on the original Oberheim Xpander, a keyboard-less sound module that arrived on the scene the previous year. In terms of synthesis, it’s identical to the Xpander but with 12 voices instead of the Xpander’s six. There were a few other minor differences, mostly related to its expanded multitimbral features and added keyboard, but that’s about it.

As with the majority of high-end analog synths from this era, the Matrix-12 was configured in classic analog style, with two voltage-controlled oscillators feeding an incredibly sophisticated filter followed by two VCAs. The engine also included analog FM and noise modulation, but the real showstopper was its absolutely massive complement of modulation resources and destinations, which actually were not analog, but digital implementations of envelopes, LFOs, and several more exotic tools that were previously the exclusive realm of modular behemoths. In fact, it could be argued that the whole modern concept of “matrix modulation” is a direct result of the Matrix (and Xpander), which is why this synth and its sound are such important parts of our history.

Oscillators. The Matrix’s dual oscillators were slightly different than the usual fare and included a few features that helped define its distinctive sound. For starters, the three waveforms—saw, triangle and variable-width pulse—could be selected simultaneously, giving them more sonic range than the competition at the time. Oscillator 2 also included a noise generator in addition to its waveforms.

Additionally, oscillator 2 provided analog frequency modulation (FM), which could be used for audio-rate modulation of either oscillator 1 or the filter cutoff. I’ve always had a soft spot for analog-based FM effects, as it sounds nothing like the FM we’ve grown accustomed to since the Yamaha DX7. Analog FM is nasty, messy, and a great resource for generating grungy sidebands. Interestingly, the Matrix-12 V’s implementation disregards the waveform selection of oscillator 2, so it’s unclear as to what wave is modulating the destination. To my ears, it sounds rather like a square wave. Since I use analog FM a lot, I’m pretty familiar with this territory—and the fact that FM is available, even if all of oscillator 2’s waveforms are turned off—makes me think there’s a little artistic license going on here.

Filter. Oberheim synths have always been praised for their filters. The SEM included state-variable filters that could be swept smoothly from lowpass to notch to highpass. The Xpander and Matrix-12 continued this legacy in a slightly different manner, with 15 discrete filter modes that cover an astonishing amount of ground for that era. Even modern analog synths don’t have the scope of the Xpander/Matrix filters, which is why the original units are so coveted by connoisseurs.

The filter modes are as follows: one, two, three, and four-pole lowpass (with self-oscillating resonance in four-pole mode); one, two, and three-pole highpass; two and four-pole bandpass; two-pole notch; three-pole phase shifting (which sounds fantastic on pads and strings); and four hybrid modes that combine the previous options in clever ways, with three-pole phase plus single-pole lowpass being my favorite here.

Since all of the modes are resonant and can include FM modulation from oscillator 2, the filtering possibilities on the Matrix-12 are staggering. One of the factory presets, “2001,” was my go-to choir patch back when I had the Xpander, thanks to the airy, textured sound of the phase-plus-lowpass option.

At the end of the filter section is a pair of VCAs in series. Why two? So that each can be modulated by different sources. In most presets the second VCA defaults to envelope 2, so the first VCA can be used for things like tremolo or pulsing effects via sawtooth or square waves.

Modulation Matrix. Prior to the Xpander and Matrix-12, modulation in analog synths followed a familiar topology: dual envelopes, one or two LFOs, keyboard tracking on the filter, and after 1983, basic MIDI. But that was it. The Xpander turned everything on its ear by including five envelopes, five LFOs, four ramp generators, three tracking generators, and a lag processor—and allowed users to route those resources to almost every significant synth parameter. Up until that point, this level of complexity was the exclusive province of modular synths, so Oberheim packing them into a slab keyboard quickly put them at the front of the pack.

The secret to the Matrix-12’s flexibility was the fact that Oberheim was the first company to move all of these components, including routing, into the digital realm. That is, each of these modulation resources was entirely virtual, running on what was an advanced microprocessor at the time.

Envelopes. Each of the five envelopes is a DADSR affair with an overall amplitude control that allows for scaling the entire envelope’s range (this is great for velocity effects, incidentally). The bonus here is that each segment includes a modulation input, so if you want to control the decay time via MIDI controllers or get freaky by applying LFOs to every segment, that’s available. You can even create half-hour long (!) envelopes by setting all of their segments to maximum, then modulating each with a tracking generator set to maximum.

Digging into the secondary envelope functions, there are options for retriggering the envelopes or letting them free-run, as well as an array of external triggering modes that allow for things like tying the envelope triggers to an LFO for rhythmic repeating effects, which was a big deal back in the day.

LFOs. The five LFOs include the standard complement of classic waveforms—saw, square, triangle, and random—along with two unusual additions: noise and sample. Noise will modulate its destination with pure white noise, which in the case of oscillator pitch or filter cutoff will result in a gritty, distortion-like effect at extreme settings. Used with restraint on a destination like pitch, noise modulation will impart airiness, which is one of the primary reasons that the “2001” choir sounds so credible, despite its analog roots.

The LFO’s sample “waveform” is actually a true sample-and-hold function, with the source to be sampled being selected within the LFO itself. For example, if you want to grab the output values from one of the other LFOs, you can instantly set at a different rate and waveform in Matrix-12 V.

There’s also a continuously variable “Retrig” parameter on each LFO that really should be named “phase,” as it changes the start point of a given LFO’s waveform based on its retriggering settings, which are controlled from its secondary set of “Page 2” parameters.

Ramp generators. The four ramp generators are straightforward once you understand their purpose. Each serves as a single-segment envelope that can modulate another parameter. If the ramp is set to a positive modulation value, the result will be a long attack, which is useful for having an LFO slowly fade in as a note as held. Negative values work in a manner akin to a decay segment, which is great for having a burst of modulation at the beginning of a note that fades to zero. The Page 2 parameters here give access to retriggering functions, including the ability to lock the triggers to one of the LFOs.

Tracking generators. Back when I had my Xpander, the most confusing components of the matrix modulation were the five-point tracking generators. Now that I’m older and wiser, these are among the Matrix-12’s coolest features. In essence, a tracking generator allows you to map (or remap) the output of a modulation source so that its values no longer retain their original shape or linearity.

Applied to say, keyboard tracking, a tracking generator will let you rescale the keyboard tracking such that (for example) ascending the keyboard no longer scales the relevant parameter in a linear fashion. Instead you can create effects like having the filter cutoff at maximum at the opposite ends of the keyboard, while the cutoff at the center of the keyboard is more moderate, which allows for some nifty pseudo-splitting tricks.

Another great use for tracking generators is to reshape the output of an LFO waveform. For example, if you use a slowly rising sawtooth as the input for a tracking generator, then reconfigure the values for each of the five points, you can create entirely new LFO wave shapes, which can be extremely cool for swooping, modern electro bass lines.

Lag processor. The final modulation tool in the Matrix-12’s extraordinary bag of tricks is its Lag Processor, which causes any modulator’s values to slide smoothly between two points. Most keyboardists are already familiar with lag thanks to its more common use: portamento. By assigning the keyboard as the lag generator’s input, switching between notes causes them to, er, lag rather than immediately transition to the next note. On a Matrix-12, this is how you create classic glide effects.

There are quite a few other uses for lag generators besides glide. You can apply them to sharply shifting LFOs like square or random waves so that the instant jumps in value slide around. Again, this is cool for dance music production where wobbles and sweeps are in effect, but on a retro tip, it’s also great for recreating R2D2’s burbling voice.


Multi Mode

In addition to all of these synthesis features, Matrix-12 V also includes a remarkable multi mode, which allows you to split, layer and play other cool tricks with the instrument’s 12 voices. Back in the day, it was also used for MIDI multi-timbrality, and while that feature is still in the software for those who are using the Matrix in a laptop-based stage rig, the real power lies in the layering and voice allocation, which are stellar. There are six zones, each of which is governed by a set of six voice assignment modes: rotate, reassign, reset, uni-high, uni-low, and uni-last.

The first three of these are ideal for polyphonic applications. “Rotate” assigns each new note to the next voice in successive order, so if you have four different presets assigned to the same zone, each new key you hit will be assigned to the next available voice, giving that patch a constantly changing character since different presets are constantly being assigned sequentially to the various notes in your melody or chords. This sounds kaleidoscopic on sequences and arpeggios, by the way—instant hocketing.

Reassign” will assign specific voices to the same note. So if you play C over and over, the same voice and preset will play that C; add an E and that note will get a new voice—and if you have multiple presets assigned, a new patch as well. “Reset” co-opts the scheme from the Oberheim Four-Voice, with each successive note getting voices in ascending order.

The unison features are simpler. Each mode stacks all of the voices in a zone to a single note, with the three modes determining whether the priority goes to the highest, lowest, or last note played.

What makes this all the more powerful is that each voice has its own controls for transposition, detuning, volume, and panning, so it’s possible to stick six different presets on a single unison zone, then use these features for everything from massive stereo leads to modern techno one-note chords.

In addition to the blending and tuning features, each zone has its own keyboard range, so you can do extremely complex combined splits and layers, each with its own voice assignment settings to boot. Again, the Matrix-12 V was designed to be a player’s synth, so it’s no surprise that these performance tools are baked in.


 

Effects

Since this is a soft synth, Arturia has included a pair of effect processors in series on the master stereo outputs of the Matrix-12 V. That is, these effects cannot be applied to individual voices within a Multi framework. Considering the rest of this synth’s power, this detail didn’t bother me, but it’s worth mentioning in this context.

The six effects are delay, phaser, analog delay, flanger, analog chorus, and reverb. It’s notable that all six effects have a decidedly warm, organic flavor, but the analog chorus and delay are noteworthy in a few ways. This delay incorporates an LFO in an unusual manner in that the delay time governs the echo rate and the LFO is applied to each repeat discretely, as opposed to smoothly modulating the delay time, like a proper analog delay with LFO. In the big picture, this isn’t a drawback per se, as it gives the effect a really unique sound.

The analog chorus includes three modes and a few unusual stereo controls, which when set properly are rather good at recreating the sound of classic string ensemble synths. All in all, these added “analog” tools are cool and make the already amazing Matrix sound even more eclectic.


Conclusions

After spending a lot of time with Matrix-12 V, I was extremely impressed with how closely it resembles the original, which is exemplified by the fact that many of the factory patches are absolutely spot-on (though several also didn’t quite hit the mark; notably the original “S. Geneviv” patch was smoother with less pronounced vibrato). Quibbles aside, the overall experience is so much like having a real Matrix-12 that I found myself feeling a tad emotional as I re-experienced a sound and texture that was integral to the first decade of my musical career. When you live with a synth for that long, its sound becomes as distinctive as the taste of grandma’s cooking or the smell of your first sweetheart’s cologne. While there’s a certain visceral “presence” that can only be found in a real Matrix-12 or Xpander, the essence of those extremely sophisticated synths is captured here with authority and pride.

The only real consideration is that Matrix-12 V is extremely thirsty for CPU in its current version. Even the basic vanilla voice template consumes 30 percent of my MacBook Pro’s resources at rest, with no voices playing and both effects turned off—and I have a 2.2GHz quad-core Intel i7 and am running a 512-sample buffer at 44.1kHz. Perhaps this will be optimized in the future, but it’s something to be aware of if you’re on anything but a heavy-duty computer rig.

All in all, Arturia Matrix-12 V is a thoroughly impressive achievement—and it’s about $7,000 less than an original on eBay. Whether you’ve coveted this synth or just wondered how it sounds, Matrix-12 V is an essential addition to any software-based synth rig. There’s nothing else like it in the synthesis world, and it wins our Key Buy award on grounds of technological excellence and outstanding value.

PROS

Fastidious recreation of the Matrix-12’s complex architecture. Fifteen different resonant filter modes. Massive array of modulation options. Multi mode offers comprehensive voicing, routing and blending opportunities. Unique approach to analog effect processors.

CONS

Very CPU-hungry, even when no notes are active.

Bottom Line

The first definitive and authentic emulation of Oberheim’s monster Matrix-12 analog synth.

$189 list | $169 street | arturia.com

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