Studiologic Sledge Virtual Analog Synth Reviewed

November 8, 2013
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  Gobs of knobs appeal to the synth geek in all of us, right? In radioactive yellow livery, Studiologic’s Sledge virtual analog polysynth looks like a cross between a New York taxi and a Minimoog, but the inclusion of a Waldorf-designed virtual analog and wavetable synthesis engine massively expands its tonal palette. Sledge faces some stiff competition in the crowded virtual analog synth market from the likes of Korg, Roland, and Novation, as well as the venerable Access Virus and the new Nord Lead 4. Still, the Sledge has a unique and very immediate vibe when it comes to playing and programming sounds, so let’s take this Italian exotic’s knobs for a spin. (Scroll down for video.)
 
 

PROS: Warm, creamy virtual analog sound powered by Waldorf engine. Lots of knobs and buttons. One-knob-per function programming. Includes wavetable synthesis. Has aftertouch.

CONS: Limited modulation routings and effects. No external audio input. No vocoder. Not multitimbral.

Bottom Line: Easy-to-use and good sounding virtual analog synthesis with some notable omissions.

$1,799 list | $1,599 street | studiologic-music.com

 

Overview

It’s hard to miss the Sledge in crowded room—the bright yellow case is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Though it looks like metal in pictures, the case is actually textured hard plastic. I’d normally consider this a negative, but the case has a sturdy feel with no creaking or flexing, and the molded-in color and dull texture will likely hide signs of road abuse. The plastic case also makes for a light package, weighing in at 18 pounds. That said, the Sledge is large for a modern synth; the  controls and panel are spacious like those on a vintage Oberheim or Prophet, making twisting knobs and creating sounds a pleasure. The main panel headings are in a sort of “what people in the ’70s thought the future would look like” computer font, but like the rest of the white-on-black panel, it’s legible in just about any situation. The keyboard action itself doesn’t skimp; it’s a 61-key affair with full-sized unweighted keys. Parent company Fatar’s keyboard action experience shines here; not only does it have a pleasant solid feel, but the aftertouch is unique in that keys physically travel roughly 1/8" further downward. This makes aftertouch control easier than most keyboards—you can really work the full range as opposed to going from nothing to full modulation too quickly. Performance controls are standard-issue pitch and modulation wheels. 

Scanning the front panel, there’s a master section with a numeric keypad for selecting programs and an accompanying two-line blue display. It’s pretty spare in these days of high-res color touchscreens, but given the Sledge’s almost one-knob-per-function architecture, the display isn’t much of a limitation. There’s a detented rotary encoder for program selection and master menu parameter changes, and the Sledge features plenty of patch storage with 999 memory locations; my review unit’s first 100 slots were filled with overwritable factory sounds. There’s a basic arpeggiator with standard up/down modes and clock sync as well as dedicated controls for single- and multi-trigger modes, and speed. There’s also polyphonic portamento, and where some other synths go a little haywire in poly-glide mode, the Sledge’s implementation is very musical. 

Except for the power adaptor input and on/off switch, Studiologic has boldly placed all other jacks on the left end block of the case. This gives the Sledge a clean rear view, but it also means that cables dangle from the side. This isn’t a first—the Moog Little Phatty also puts its connectors on the side; so did the Hartmann Neuron.

The Voice

The rest of the panel is dedicated to synthesis controls with simple knob-per-function controls for most synth parameters. If you’ve spent time with a Minimoog or a Prophet, you’ll be right at home—the panel layout here is mostly “analog synth 101.” The specs list the polyphony as eight-voice, but it seemed I could sustain sixteen notes before I heard a stolen voice. The Sledge has three oscillators, each with standard saw, sine, triangle, square, and variable-width pulse waves. A large chicken-head knob selects octave range, all the way from 64' up to 1' (in organ terms), which is a huge range for a synth with a five-octave keyboard. The first oscillator also has 66 original Waldorf /PPG digital wavetables and the pulse-width knob selects from 101 wave select “positions” from each wavetable (an immense 6,666 waves). These are single-cycle waves when kept in a static position, but the idea is to sweep them with an LFO or other modulation source for timbral animation (more on this later). This adds  tremendously to Sledge’s tonal palette, but I wish Studiologic included wavetables for all three oscillators. Oscillators 2 and 3 do feature a powerful and easy-to-use frequency modulation feature for crazy audio-range modulation. If a sine or triangle wave is selected, the pulse width knob becomes an FM amount control. With the ability to add FM from the PPG wavetable waves, it’s easy to make super aggressive sounds. Oscillator 2 also can sync to oscillator 2 for tearing sync sweep sounds, but the modulation routing to make this happen is a little funky, as we’ll see.

The filter offers lowpass, bandpass, and highpass modes with 12dB and 24dB slopes, and will self-resonate nicely with a little white noise, though the keyboard tracking is a little wonky, not unlike a real analog synth. Oddly, the filter and amplifier share a single velocity sensitivity knob. This means that if you want velocity to control filter brightness, overall volume is affected as well. There’s also a drive parameter for extra edge; it’s per-voice, so multiple notes won’t intermodulate like a typical fuzz box. There are two effects sections: one is a chorus/flanger/phaser with rate and depth knobs, the other can be either delay or reverb with simple time and mix controls. With no other editable parameters, this means one flavor of delay or reverb and no other variable parameters. In other words, Sledge is no effects powerhouse, but sometimes simpler is better when you want to add a little thickening and/or ambience to a synth sound.


Modulation Routing

Beside the master section is the modulation routing section, and it’s the Sledge’s Achilles’ heel. Unlike most modern synths, Sledge’s only modulation sources are two LFOs and “wheel” mod—actually a third LFO with its amount hard-assigned to the modulation wheel and aftertouch. Yes, this means the mod wheel and aftertouch can’t modulate separate destinations. Additionally, the envelope generators aren’t available in the mod section—they’re hard-assigned to filter and amplitude envelopes, so they can’t be used to modulate wavetable sweeps or pitch (for classic “tearing” synced oscillator sweeps, for example).

There’s one undocumented workaround. The LFO’s include a “ramp” wave which isn’t a really a cycling LFO wave, but instead it’s a one-shot attack/sustain envelope. Attack time is adjusted with the speed control, and it simply stays at the maximum amount until retriggered. This can be used for aforementioned “one-shot” sweeps, but without separate attack and decay controls, it amounts to a rather basic envelope generator. 


In Use 

Sledge is certainly a very nice-sounding virtual analog synth, and we wouldn’t be surprised if it shares some DNA with the now-classic Waldorf Q, which in the late ’90s was the cost-no-object virtual analog synth to want.

The Sledge’s three oscillators and immediate user interface make creating big, brawny patches a simple affair, and the Waldorf wavetable oscillator certainly adds a whole lot of sonic complexity to the mix. As a live instrument, it certainly has enough oomph to punch through a mix, and patch changes are simple via either an up/down patch select or with the retro-but-handy “10s Hold” function for one-button patch changes. 


Conclusions
Sledge is a unique proposition in today’s market. It’s not the cheapest virtual analog synth, and compared to its competition, it lacks features such as keyboard splitting or layering, dual simultaneous filters, and a vocoder. As noted, its modulation section has some bothersome limitations. However, the big-knobbed, easy-to-tweezy interface goes a long way for those who love creating sounds and hate the two-finger tap dance routine of buttons-and-display synths. Plus, the slick Waldorf wavetable oscillator delivers the punch of Waldorf’s legendary Q synth at a more affordable price. If you’re looking for classic analog vibe with some digital wavetable sparkle thrown in, Sledge might be the axe for you. 


 

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