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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
“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
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
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.
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
The six effects are delay, phaser,
analog delay, flanger, analog chorus, and reverb. It’s notable that
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.
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.
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.
CPU-hungry, even when no notes are active.
first definitive and authentic emulation of Oberheim’s monster
Matrix-12 analog synth.
list | $169 street | arturia.com