In Praise of Low-Cost Synths

Six Pack Interview with Erik Norlander on the Uno Synth Pro

Erik Uno crop
I was fortunate to snag an interview with synth designer, prog-rock keyboard wizard and IK Multimedia Product Manager / Sound Designer Erik Norlander about his work on the new UNO Pro synthesizer. Erik is an accomplished keyboardist, composer and producer with over 40 album credits. He has toured for many years with his own band as well as with Asia featuring John Payne. He has been involved in synth design since the early 1990s and has worked extensively with the Bob Moog Foundation.

Q. I thought the original UNO synth was fantastic. Great sound, cool design, nice presets and features that make for a great first synth, which is why I picked it up. The new UNO Pro is quite a substantial upgrade. What was it you were looking to do with the new model that went beyond the original? 

I’m so happy to hear that you enjoyed the original UNO Synth. Our goal with the original product was to bring analog to the masses, an analog synth that anyone could afford and could easily understand. We gave it a simple, intuitive interface so you could take it out of the box and start playing right away without needing to read a manual or even a quick start guide. Plug it in, turn the knobs and hear what happens!

The UNO Synth Pro is exactly what the name connotes: a pro synth with pro features and pro sound quality. We kept the same basic interface with the 4 sound programming knobs and selectable rows for each section like oscillators, filters and envelopes. But we also have a deep editing system that you access through the display and push encoder where you can get to many more parameters than appear in the more simple sound programming matrix. So the interface remains simple if you want to work on that level, but it also allows more serious and experienced synthesists to dive into the depths of the instrument’s architecture for advanced voicing work.

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Uno Pro Desktop

The UNO Synth Pro also has a more sophisticated signal path. There are now 3 oscillators, and we include hard sync, analog FM and ring modulation. Those modulation capabilities had to be omitted from the original UNO due to cost issues and also to avoid complicating the interface. The UNO Synth Pro also has a dual filter configuration similar to what we did on the Alesis Andromeda 20 years ago. The UNO Synth Pro’s dual filters can be placed in series or parallel and in or out of phase. Between the routing options and the different modes of the two filters, there are 24 possible filter modes available when they are combined. This lets you emulate the filter sound of nearly any mass-produced analog synthesizer, from the 4-pole transistor ladder low pass filter of Bob Moog’s great synths to more radical filter modes like those of the Oberheim Matrix-12 or Elka Synthex or, of course, the Alesis Andromeda.

We also added a modulation matrix for modular-style synthesis where nearly any source can be routed to nearly any destination. I say “nearly” just to avoid hyperbole, but honestly, I can’t think of a practical routing that you are unable to do in the UNO Synth Pro. Our architecture allows for extreme modular-style flexibility. And speaking of modular synthesis, we include 2 pairs of Gate and CV I/O so that you can interface the UNO Synth Pro to Eurorack, 5U or even non-modular gear with similar connections. Plus an input to the filter and effect sections for processing external signals gives you the ability to use parts of the UNO Synth Pro to filter, shape and effect other instruments, even things like guitars and vocals. Add to that balanced audio outputs for noiseless operation and 5-pin MIDI DIN connectors, and the result is … well … pro! That’s the difference between the original UNO Synth — the simple analog synth for everyone — and the UNO Synth Pro, a professional instrument that will meet the expectations of the most fussy synthesists … like me!

Q. Since everyone in the world was quarantined and locked down for much of the last year, how did that impact working with the team in Modena, with SoundMachines, Fatar, SSI etc? Were you on Zoom calls at 6am?

I live in Northern California, so I’m 9 hours behind the Modena, Italy office and 3 hours behind the IK US office in Florida. When I started working with IK, I chose to put myself on an early schedule where I start quite early in the morning to maximize the available real-time interaction with the team in Italy. I’m really not a morning person at all, and after 20-some years of being a touring rock ’n' roll musician where you often don’t get to bed until 3 or 4 AM, it was a bit of hard transition. But I don’t regret it at all, and I’m happy to have been able to make that shift. Of course, that also means I often find myself falling asleep at 9 in the evening now … ha! My wife gives me a hard time for that.

Before Covid, I would go to Italy usually once a year, sometimes more. I think in 2019 I actually went 3 times as I spent some time there around the Superbooth convention in Berlin. Modena and Berlin are not exactly close to each other, but once you come all the way from San Francisco, it make sense to visit the main campus when it’s only a few hours away by plane.

As far as Skype and Zoom and all that, we’re all major users of video communication just because of the distances between us. While email and text messaging is great, it’s not the same being able to look at your colleagues and have a more personal interaction with them, even joke around a bit and all that. And that of course benefits the products in the end when the whole team is better in sync and pushing in the same direction.

Q. Since you’ve had a 20+ year recording career, touring with your own band as well as Asia, did you ever have to play the “rock star card” with the engineers and say “guys, I know you think that’s a cool idea, but as a musician….” and change up what they were doing?

Erik asia band
Erik with Asia

Actually it's been more than 30 years a recording and touring musician... but thanks for being generous about my age. :-)

As far as using my experience as a musician to make a point and convince others, it doesn’t really work like that at IK. It's a fairly flat organizational without a lot of hierarchy. For the most part, everyone has an equal voice, and usually the team can come to an agreement without requiring a mandate to be laid down. Although when that does happen — and sometimes it does happen — then we have a CTO and of course the owner of the company who is a great designer and a super smart guy. Experience is recognized, and appreciated. That’s just human nature. And it’s not just about age or life experience. Often I learn so much from a code writer who is 20 or 25 years younger than me, and I will defer to their knowledge and recommendation without hesitation when they're the expert. They don’t need to have spent time on a stage in front on 20,000 people to have the right answer.

Q. I love that you’ve made the step sequencer longer (64 steps) and there’s Song mode. Can you tell us how that came about and how it works? Also, the effects (vibrato, wah, tremolo, delay) were limited in the original Uno. What changes have you made in this area?

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The OG Uno Synth

It’s all in the spirit of making a “pro” instrument. Having 16 steps in the original UNO sequencer lets you keep track of what’s going on without too much worry, and it’s an easy way to make one or two bar looping phrases without any fuss. But if you want to do more serious and in-depth sequencing, you’ll find that you usually need more than just 16 steps. So we quadrupled the size of the sequencer and also the number of parameters that you can automate per step. Now you can sequence over 80 parameters per step, so you can truly morph the preset from one sound to another on the step level. Since we are talking analog synthesis here, there is no zippering or clicking or anything you might get with a digital synth when quickly changing values. It’s smooth, baby, smooth!

As far as the performance effects like vibrato, was and tremolo, the original UNO had simple buttons for these, not unlike the modulation button in synths like the Roland Juno-60 and SH-101 or auto-bend on the Yamaha CS80 and its earlier ancestors like the SY1 and SY2. We provided these articulation buttons for simplicity and immediacy of use. Now on the UNO Synth Pro, we have traditional mod and pitch bend wheels on the keyboard version, and mod and pitch bend strips on the desktop version. So you can create your performance articulations with the wheels instead of simple buttons, and of course using the modulation matrix, you can customize what the wheels do per preset. We give you deeper access to customize the controllers.

The UNO Synth Pro has 4 effect slots. The first is an analog overdrive circuit, and then there are 3 digital effects slots for Modulation, Delay and Reverb. The digital effects are taken from the latest IK software products. The reverbs were first developed for AmpliTube 5 and MixBox, and they sound fantastic with really nice density and a great tone overall. In the Modulation slot, one of the models if the Ensemble effect that we developed for Syntronik that models the great chorus-phaser of the ARP String Ensemble and the rich chorus from the Roland Juno-60 and string machines like the RS-505. That’s a standout effect for me. A cool usage of the UNO Synth Pro — especially the desktop version — is to use the external audio input to process any kind of signal with the UNO Synth Pro as a high-end effects processor. The external signal can go through the filters, so you can pre-filter your effects with both high and low pass filtering, then go into the effects section and use the 3 digital blocks like the best multi-effects boxes. For me, the Ensemble effect alone is worth the price of admission!

Q. I love that the original UNO had 100 presets. 256 presets in the Uno Pro almost seems like it could be too much. How do you keep that organized? What additional sounds were you looking to capture? Are there certain sounds you think are a “must have” I’m thinking of classic '70s Moog sounds or those famous FM synth sounds from the '80s.

When you create a bank of presets, there are few ways to organize them. You can put similar sounds in groups of 10, like presets 1-10 are leads, 11-20 are basses, 21-30 are pads, that sort of thing. Many manufacturers also organize them where similar sounds are grouped by the last number so that you have more variety when scrolling through a bank. Meaning that presets 1, 11, 21, 31, etc. are leads, 2, 12, 22, 32 are basses, 3, 13, 23, 33 are pads, like that.

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Erik & Keith Emerson

As far as designing a bank of presets for a factory set, you really want to create a cross-section of musical styles so that there is something for everyone. Some users might be fans of Keith Emerson Moog sounds and want big, detuned leads and basses. Other users might be into EDM and not even know or care about Keith Emerson and prog rock. They want edgy, distorted and ultra-modern sounds. Or the hip hop user that wants something in between but still faithful to that genre. So you really try to include something for everybody.

The music that I personally like really has no influence on my voicing work or programming approach. I actively listen to all sorts of music when voicing a synth to make sure I’m in tune with what’s current and that I’m not missing anything. Then I combine that with the classics, things like the detuned sawtooth wave lead, the Minimoog-style ballad bass, the whistle-y portamento triangle-sine wave lead, the resonant acid bass and so on.

Q. The new UNO Pro has three oscillators and dual filters including the new SSI filter. How did that come about? Also with 24 filter modes, I’m wondering if that isn’t going to be a bit overwhelming, almost like a modular synth. How do you keep it easy while still giving hardcore synth players flexibility?

We wanted to create a professional synth that a super fussy and demanding professional can use without compromise. That means drawing from the best classic synths and make sure we have equivalent sound-generating capabilities. In my opinion, the Minimoog is the greatest synth of all time. The Memorymoog is pretty freaking cool as well. So is the EMS VCS3. All of those synths have 3 oscillators (3 per voice in the Memorymoog). So it was important, especially in a monophonic synth, to have those 3 oscillators available. And of course, you don’t have to use them all all the time. If you want to make a more simple SH-101-style lead, just turn off Oscillator 2 and 3. Or use Oscillator 2 an octave down as a square wave suboscillator.

Three oscillators also lets you have an actually useful paraphonic synth. You could do paraphony going back to the ARP Odyssey, of course. But with just 2 oscillators, that means that you only play 2-part chords. That’s pretty limited, in my view. With 3 oscillators, you can do full 3-note chords. That becomes super practical when you use the digital ensemble chorus effect — then you basically have a classic string machine like the Solina or Logan. I own an absurd number of classic stringers. And I can honestly say, how often do you really play more than 3 notes at a time on them? Not often. Usually you are playing monophonic lines, sometimes in octaves. Or if you are doing string pads, 3 notes is really enough for that kind of super dense, modulated sound. Even if you’re playing something like a major 7 chord or 11 chord, you probably will want to leave out the 3rd in your voicing as it often just sounds too “closed” with all of that close harmony interaction.

About the filters, you bring up a great point. With 24 filter modes, holy cow, how are you going to navigate those? Option anxiety x 100! Luckily it doesn’t really happen like that way in real life. That’s what the presets are for, of course. If you’re not sure of the exact sound you want, you can find a preset that you like, and then edit from there. Or if you are more of an expert synthesist, you probably know what kind of filter you want. For example, if you know you want a 4-pole bandpass filter, you just dial that in straight away. There are also some filter modes on the UNO Synth Pro that are not usually found on analog synths. For example, if you run both filters in phase and in series and set them both to low pass, you can have a 6-pole low pass filter. That creates some pretty extreme bass and some super dramatic filter sweep sounds.

Q. I’m mostly a guitar player and sometimes it feels like no one is interested in any design that occurred after 1959. In the synth world, there seems to be be an equal obsession with vintage synths. So I’m encouraged when I see new designs that break free from the past. You’ve obviously seen this evolution up close, designing some pretty important synths in your career. How do you balance homage to the past with new sounds and new tools?

It's a good question question, and it’s super relevant to the UNO Synth and UNO Synth Pro design philosophy. We want to innovate, naturally. We’re not making clones or low-cost reproductions of vintage instruments here; We want to say something new. But at the same time, you must respect the past and learn from the wisdom of the great designers that did this 30, 40, 50 years ago. Chances are, those guys have already solved the problem you are facing at the moment. You just have to know where to look. I have probably a hundred synths here at my studio, so whenever there is a design issue, I go back to the well. I look at the various classic synths and see what they did, how they solved the problem. The answers are there for the finding.

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Erik & Bob Moog

I was fortunate enough to have known Bob Moog, for example, and I still actively work with his daughter, Michelle, and the excellent Bob Moog Foundation. When we were designing the Alesis Andromeda at the end of the 90s, I actually tried to get Bob to be the electrical engineer for it, the hardware designer of the actual circuits for the synth. We had an amazing NAMM meeting that I remember vividly, followed by lots of drinks at the bar later that night. Bob was already working on the Voyager then, so he couldn’t take on the gig. But he remained as a mentor during the project, and he would often send me faxes (faxes … !) checking on certain aspects and giving advice constantly. I would take the fax (fax!) to the team and hold it up like Moses holding the 10 Commandments and say, “Bob Moog says THIS!” And of course everyone would listen with laser beam focus as this was coming from the one of the most legendary — okay, THE most legendary — synth designers of all time.

With the UNO Synth Pro, we also got to know the legendary Dave Rossum a bit since we are using chips from his SSI company. I actually did a cool video interview with Dave and his partner, Dan Parks, that you can find on YouTube. This is the guy that democratized sampling with the Emulator and also created the ultra-classic SP12 and SP1200 drum machines. And of course all the great Emu products that came after, and now his super cool Rossum Electro Music line of Eurorack modules. And of course, you would not have had the original Prophet-5 if it were not for Dave and the SSM chips that made it possible to build a polysynth with presets and reasonably sophisticated modulation back in the 70s. There is so much to be learned from these guys!

Erik, thanks for such detailed answers. I know people are looking forward to this new synth. I can't wait to get my hands on it for a full review; some of the samples I've heard are mind-blowing. What do you think of the UNO Synth Pro? What else is on your wish list? Let me know in the comments below.

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