A VST in a Box or a Viable Digital Hardware Synth: The Cobalt 8M by Modal Electronics
These days there are a million great VSTs out there, including a lot of free ones that are quite capable. Matt Tytel’s Vital and Helm soft-synths, for example, are some of the best I have used. Those two and Serum were staples of my DAW sound-sculpting toolbox for quite a few years. Serum was a bit pricey, but Vital is free and can do almost anything Serum can do, some things even better. VSTs are versatile, convenient and very, very usable. However, there has been an explosion of hardware digital synths lately—ASM Hydrasynth, Korg’s new offerings, Roland’s boutiques etc. Try as I may, it is difficult to suggest that buying a digital hardware synth is better or worse than your favourite VST. It generally all comes down to two simple choices: Are you making music on your computer, or have you got a hardware setup? If on the computer, stick with VSTs. If you run everything through a sequencer and love keyboards and boxes on your desk, go with hardware. I find myself in the latter group these days, so I got myself another synth to try. I’m going to give the Cobalt 8M a whirl and see if it is worth it.
In 2013 Modal Electronics in Bristol, U.K. jumped into the synth market with an analogue/digital hybrid called the Modal 002. They had felt that the synth industry was lacking innovation and wanted to come up with a banger. I have never seen/played/heard it in person, but I did find a used one on Reverb for five-thousand Euros. A tad bit beyond my financial capabilities, that one. However, since then Modal has come out with a few more affordable devices for the masses—Skulpt, Craft 2.0, Argon 8—that are a bit more down-to-earth price-wise. The latest offering from Modal is the Cobalt 8. Differing from the Argon 8’s wavetable approach, the Cobalt 8 is defined as an “extended virtual analogue” synth. What does this mean? How does it work? How does it sound? Is it for me? What is the point? Let’s take a look...
Crazy-ton of oscillator algorithms
This solid, lovely, blue box with endless encoders has a total of 40 complex oscillator algorithms to twiddle around with. The basics are this: the Cobalt 8 has two oscillator groups. Each group can have up to four oscillators depending on the amount of “spread” dialled in with the knobs in the oscillator section. Being virtual analogue you get the normal waveforms such as sine, triangle, saw, square and pulse. They all sound quite full and a bit buzzy. However, when we start twisting the algorithm knob we begin a drift into “extended” territory. You can push this synth through various ring-mod waves, FM synthesis, sync waves and more. There are seemingly unlimited waveform variations to explore and, after twisting knobs for two weeks, I could dial in a sound for every situation—from FM bases to drifting modulated pads, creepy drones, searing leads and more. Pretty versatile and easy to use so far, but what about sculpting the sounds?
Subtractive synthesis and modulation
The Cobalt 8 has a resonant 24db 4-pole low-pass ladder filter and its morphable. There are four different filter modes to choose from and the morph knob allows you to almost construct your own filter shapes by gliding between filter types and shapes. I love a good Batman-shaped notch filter. The complete filter section is digital and although does its job well, lacks the buttery smooth action of, let’s say, an analogue Moog filter. I feel that there could be a bit more drive too, but you can always add that in the effect section.
When it comes to modulation, I like it. This thing has three LFOs and three ADSR envelopes to use. The LFOs have all the expected shapes, including sample and hold and sample and glide. Two of the LFOs are polyphonic, which is a plus. The envelopes hit amp, filter and offer an extra modulation envelope—same as the Deepmind—for further tweaking of sounds. You can send all of the above to a myriad of destinations in the twelve-slot modulation matrix. The matrix, itself, is damned easy to program and is extremely flexible.
So, digital means that it can play itself and sound great while I sit back and ponder my purchase?
The sequencer available is a 64-step polyphonic glory. Finally, someone is graciously giving me more than 16 steps to work with—take heed, Korg! There are four animation lanes that can be employed to dial in modulation within your sequence and puttering with the resolution can make those 64 steps seem to go on for infinity. The onboard arpeggiator is a 32-step programmable affair that offers up the possibility to program in chords, inversions, transposition and more. It is one of the most fun arps I have used to date, actually.
What would a composition be without effects? Bland drivel, that’s what. The Cobalt 8 has three FX slots in a chain. You cannot change the algorithm of the chain, but you can put the effects in whatever order you choose. There are a total of 12 different effects to apply. They all sound great, so there is nothing to complain about there. I do feel that the reverb is a bit limited, but I have been spoiled by my other synths in that department.
So, a VST in a box?
I would answer, no. Twisting knobs just feels good. Also, it may be just “psychosomatic”, but hardware sounds different. Raw. Nicely limited. Fuller. It’s probably a load of crap in my head when it comes to digital hardware, but if I feel good, then it is good for me. The Modal Electronics Cobalt 8 is good. It is more versatile than your average analogue, while sounding quite similar. It is one of the easiest patch-building synths I have played around with. Almost no menu-diving. Everything is readily accessible on the front panel. You may need to use the shift button every now and again to reach a deeper layer of sound design, but it is sensible. The breadth of oscillator choice, the modulation, the effects, arp, sequencer, filter morphing and more make this one hell of an all-rounder.
I tested the Cobalt 8M version, but there are two more out there with Fatar keys that I have heard are amazing.
So, a digital hardware synth? Sure, why not? Getting away from screens is necessary these days in order for us to keep our sanity in check. The Cobalt 8 kept me away from screens for hours upon hours, digging into soundscapes and letting my imagination run wild. Most analogue synths in the Cobalt’s price range have limits. Although limits are good to have sometimes, the Cobalt took me way beyond what I had imagined. Nice synth.
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