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Alesis Andromeda
True Analog Synth

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Alesis Andromeda - 16-Voice True Analog Synthesizer

Issue #5
December 8, 2003

Thirty years in the making: The evolution of the modern analog synthesizer. Classic tones and modern technology create a showstopper! Andromeda is a galaxy — a cluster of many thousands of stars — that lies approximately 2.9 million lightyears away from our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Modern values for galactic rotation and heliocentric radial velocity have convinced astronomers that Andromeda and the Milky Way are (gulp) approaching each other at about 100 kilometers a second. Hmm, I think I’ll let you do the math on that one . . .

Despite the fact that Andromeda is the only galaxy that is actually visible to the naked eye (well, you do need to know exactly where to look) it’s still an incredible distance from our cozy little spot in the universe. But you really don’t have to be an astronomer or own a telescope to see Andomeda. In fact, I just happen to have one here in my studio.
Okay, cheesy intros aside, I’m referring to an amazing synthesizer that Alesis first unveiled in the year 2001: The Andromeda 16-voice anaolog synthesizer. At the time, I had a brief opportunity to see and play this instrument and raved about it in one of my Sweet Notes columns back then. Never in a million years — or even 2.9 million light years — did I ever expect to have one sitting right in front of me!

The philosophy behind the development of this synth was fairly simple: Just how far could traditional analog syhthesis be taken in the 21st Century. After all, it’s been about 30 years since the first affordable analog synths showed up in music stores, all of which were basically monophonic; The MiniMoog and ARP Odyssey being the most popular with gigging musicians, though there were a few other companies that made attempts at producing useful instruments.

A little bit of history.

I was the first person in Miami to own a MiniMoog, and to show you how rare they were at the time, when Emerson, Lake and Palmer showed up for a concert, I got a frantic call from the Moog rep! They had somehow misplaced Keith Emerson’s MiniMoog and needed mine so the concert could go on as scheduled. I was more than happy to hand deliver it and got to hang backstage.

Some of you weren’t even born then, but it was a pretty exciting time. The introduction of synths had a profound effect on all the music from the mid-70s well into the 80s, when the first polyphonic synths began to emerge, most notably the Sequential Prophet Five and Roland’s Jupiter Series, to name just a few. But it wasn’t long before digital technology made its first dramatic appearance, most prominantly with the introduction of the hugely popular DX7.

Most of us sold our analog synths for pennies on the dollar, but were thrilled with the extensive palette of sounds digital brought with it, which eventually included sampling. So we should have been happy as clams, right? But something was missing.

While digital technology did open up all manner of new sonic possibilities, we were missing the raw energy and fat tones we got with those original voltage controlled oscillators. Try as programmers might, they simply could not come up with a digital approximation that came close to those beefy analog waveforms. Sure, we kidded ourselves by naming patches “MiniMoog 3” and “ARP Oddysey 6” but it wasn’t the same. And when we finally realized that we ought to buy back that sweet analog machine, lo and behold, they suddenly skyrocketed in price, way out of reach for most of us.

And now the good news.

Eventually, digital modeling came along and for the most part, was able to get pretty darn close to producing the lush synth strings and creamy smooth pads, fat multi-oscillator basses and the screaming lead tones we lusted after. In fact, in a previous Tech Notes Online, you’ll recall that I was pretty darned impressed with the Alesis Ion, which is their 8-voice analog modeling synth. So impressed, as a matter of fact, that I considered buying one. To be fair, there are several other excellent digitally-modeled analog synths, but I never really had the opportunity to give them a thorough “test drive.”

But then fate stepped in: The company shipped me their A6 Andromeda polyphonic analog synth and now there’s no going back. Yes, at $2999 list, it’s three times what an Ion lists for, but let me say right here and now that this is flat-out the most gorgeous keyboard I have ever laid eyes on. So even before I plugged it in, it was love — or lust, to be honest — at first sight. Take a look at the photos and I’m pretty sure you’ll agree, this is one great-looking synth, combining the very best of both classic and modern styling!

While some may balk at the price tag, that actually works out to about $188 per voice. Try finding a decent analog mono synth anywhere for $188! Plus, the A6 offers an amazing feature set and the modulation routings are so extensive that you could say you’re getting a patchable modular synth here. The A6 is even more of a deal when you consider a classic modular cabinet synth can fetch $6000 to $8000 for essentially a single multi-oscillator voice.

From the minute I lifted it out of the box, I knew this was an instrument that was built for the long haul. Tipping the scales at just a hair under fifty pounds, the Andromeda just felt solid, reliable and roadworthy before I ever hit the first note. But naturally, once I started playing, I realized there was more to this baby than just great looks — far more!

In his introduction to the excellent user’s manual, Dave Bertovic writes, “Simply stated, this box has more features and music power per square inch than any other synthesizer I’ve ever owned . . . To me, the A6 represents the next significant step in the development of musical instruments that celebrate (analog) technology.” Can’t argue with that.

Let’s look under the hood.

Before I get into my personal raves — and let’s face it, by now you know I’m giving the Andromeda a killer review — let’s talk a little about the basic feature set. First off, The A6 is called a 16-voice, 16-channel multitimbral instrument, but that’s a bit misleading, in that each one of those 16 voices are produced by not just one, but two voltage controlled oscillators, so while you can only lean on 16 notes at a time, you’re really getting a super fat, 32-oscillator sound!

The two oscillators per voice (with sub-oscillation) can generate five classic waveforms: Sine, triangle, square wave (with variable width pulse), and two sawtooth waves (sawtooth up and sawtooth down). Also available when needed are two “non-cyclic” sound sources dubbed Random and Noise. The synthesis method, as you might surmise, is true analog subtractive with both two-pole and four-pole multimode filters per voice.
Programs? Lots! There are 256 factory presets in memory with room for another 128 user-defined presets (which come filled with factory sounds that can be written over), plus 128 user-defined “Mix” programs which are various combinations of splits and layers. That’s a lot, and accessing them requires a small amount of mental gymnastics, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

As for outputs, you have your stereo “master” output, along with 16 mono outputs (one for each of the 16 voices on eight 1/4-inch TRS jacks) plus two mono aux outputs plus your standard headphone out. There are three audio inputs for processing a line level signal: One routes to voice 15 only, one to voice 16 only, and one routes external audio to all the voices. Using voices 15 and 16 together allows you to maintain stereo throughput in a manageable multitimbral configuration. There are also two CV inputs for modulation control voltages from an external source. You also get Pedal/CV, Switch and Sustain pedal jacks (the A6 ships with a sustain pedal), the standard MIDI In, Out and Thru. For additional program and mix storage, there’s a slot for a standard PCMCIA-format card (up to two megaytes).

Beyond the basics.

Okay, so pretty standard up to this point, but everything you’d expect on a high quality analog synth is here. But since this is a 21st Century analog synth, you also get some pretty awesome “extras” like a sophisticated arpeggiator, true pro quality multieffects, seemingly limitless modulation routings, a programmable ribbon controller and a “classic” sequencer. By that I mean a 16-step, three-level modulation source / note triggering module very much along the lines of the analog sequencers found on the Moog and Buchla modular synths.

I really want to stress just how well written the manual is. Regardless of your level of experience with analog synths, the reference material is logically laid out and while a bit dry in places, explains everything in clear, concise language. If you’ve been frustrated by poorly written — and often barely comprehensible — manuals, this is a refreshing change. And let me say this right here: When you open the box and see all the knobs, buttons, wheels and sliders that literally cover every square inch of the front panel, you’ll want to have the manual available at all times. No matter how much analog experience you’ve had, the A6 takes it to such a lofty new level that it’s easy to get intimidated. My suggestion? Take the time to walk through the manual all the way through at least once.
Oh, and here’s where I should interject my one little gripe concerning the way you access programs and mixes from the front panel. See, there is a whole row of buttons above the ribbon controller, which is right above the five-octave (semi-weighted, I should add) keyboard. There are 13 Program Group buttons numbered 00 to 120 (in increments of 10, so it’s 00, 10, 20, 30 and so forth). There’s another row of buttons to the right of those which are for accessing the Program Numbers, and these are single digits from 0 to 9 (or ten buttons all told).

Now here’s the brain twister (to me, anyhow). To access program 58, for example, you have to press the “50” button on the left, and the “8” button on the right. To jump around from, say, program 109 to program 22, you’d have first pushed the 100 button and then the 9 button, then to get to 22, you’d press the 20 button, followed by the 2 button. Okay, maybe it’s me, but that seems too much like math. Why not have the Group buttons as A through M, then the Program buttons would stay 0 to 9. Jumping from B5 to M7 just seems infinitely more intuitive. Alesis admits this is somewhat of a leftover from the QuadraSynth interface. Still, that’s really digging deep to find anything negative about the A6, isn’t it?

Getting past the cosmetics.

So okay, you now know that the Andromeda has all the bells and whistles, and how you pick the programs, but let’s get down to the one thing everyone really wants to know: How does it sound? Grab a thesaurus and look up all the words that you might use in place of “sensational” — things like stunning, astonishing, spectacular, breathtaking, extraordinary, magnificent . . . aww, you get the picture by now. While there are a whole bunch of awesome keyboards on the market today, all of which have a lot going for them in terms of sound quality, versatility and feature sets, for my taste and sensibilities, the Andromeda has won my heart.

That’s not to say this is a keyboard for everyone. Far from it! If you’re looking to reproduce any sort of sampled sound, from a pristine solo cello sample to a totally mutated and looped percussion groove, the A6 is not designed to go down that particular audio path. If you need a full-featured multitimbral sequencer, Andromeda doesn’t have that capability. What it has is, quite simply, raw analog waveforms that can be used to create a very specific, very organic, very expressive tonal palette.

I have a killer sampler that I can use when I need those particular sounds (and I’ve created a huge sample library for it). What makes the Andromeda so appealing to me, is that it is the total antithesis of today’s digital sampling workstation.

Who’s gonna want one?

I could go on and on about how much I love the Andromeda (and I have been accused from time-to-time of a certain amount of overkill when writing about products that I happen to really dig), but the people who are the core group of professionals that will fully appreciate this instrument’s sonics pretty much know who they are. The problem has been that until recently, getting your hands on an Andromeda was only slightly easier than, say, winning the lottery.

The reason is simple. Just like the finest guitars (a flame top ‘59 Les Paul reissue, for instance), Andromedas are not being churned out in huge numbers. For the people at Alesis, a company with an extraordinary reputation for creating exactly the right product for today’s musicians at remarkably affordable prices, each Andromeda shipped is really a labor of love. Yes, they could have said, what the heck, let’s just build an analog modeling synth and be done with it. But they didn’t. And while the company has been through some rough times over the past few years, they have emerged with a tighter focus on creating cutting edge products, while at the same time, crafting an instrument like the A6 that is without question, one of a kind.

There’s just so much that I personally find appealing about this keyboard, like the effects for instance, which are among the best I have ever heard (and certainly the equal of many of today’s higher end processors). Still, with all that horsepower available from the onboard DSP, there isn’t a single program that depends on effects to sound good. I also find it very cool how all the various controllers work together to breathe life into what you might consider a fairly simple voltage controlled waveform.

The people who will “get” what the Andromeda is all about know who they are, but the limited availability of these amazing instruments up until now kept them from getting their hands on one. Good news! The company has ramped up production to meet the demand, and I guarantee you, the word will spread fast once more studio pros and performers experience this instrument

The wrap-up.

I found that playing the Andromeda is a totally engrossing experience. These are sounds you can really get lost in. They wash over you with their warmth and richness one minute, then blast you out of your shoes and socks the next with a raw, visceral lead tone. True, for my tastes, I had to do some tweaking to get exactly the sound I heard in my head, and as mentioned, getting around on the A6 at first is quite a challenge.

Alesis has designed and manufactured an instrument that I believe is truly timeless. Some synths show up and grab your attention, but a year down the road, you’re thinking, “Hmm, maybe it’s time to check out that (insert name of current “hot” keyboard here).” That won’t ever happen with the Andromeda. Once you get your hands on one, I guarantee you it’s going to maintain a presence in your stage or studio setup for years or even decades! And that’s the true measure of any instrument’s value.

Andromeda Demo #1 Andromeda Demo #2

About the demo files:

Just as I wrapped up writing this, I decided to do a couple of really quick recordings of the Andromeda. Everything you hear (yes, the drums are onboard and they are killer) is done with the Andromeda with the exception of the distorted guitar on Demo One (which is just my PRS Custom 22 through a Line 6 POD 2.0).

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