Modal Electronics SkulptSynth SE Review

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In the last decade or so, we’ve seen an explosion of cheap, portable synthesizers powered mostly by Korg’s deceptively powerful Volca line. Even companies like Modal Electronics, which typically traded higher-end instruments, starting at about $ 2,000, suddenly felt pressured to compete in the $ 300 range. He first tried two simplified DIY kits: CraftSynth and CraftRhythms. But then in 2018 he brought Sculpt to Kickstarter, and shortly after that $ 149 followed CraftSynth 2.0. These were much more serious blows at the initial level. But where they were both impressed with their sound, the build quality was poor, and the original Sculpt was a bit overpriced at $ 299.

The SkulptSynth SE trying to address that concern. It’s just pretty cheaper $ 199, putting it more in line with Volcas, and the build quality is also firmer. But under the hood it’s basically the same instrument, and the question is whether it’s as convincing now as it was three years ago.

Pros

  • Great virtual analog sound engine
  • A wealth of sound design tools
  • MPE support
  • Top app

Cons

  • Cheap quality construction
  • Confusing control schedule
  • Awkward touch keys

Okay, I’m not going to make you wait: The answer is yes. The sculpture sounds great. Sure, a lot of other synthetics have come and gone in the last three years, especially at the cheaper end of the spectrum, but that doesn’t detract from the great virtual analog engine here. There are a total of 32 oscillators stacked in four voices (although with the spread function you can expand this to 16) with two different waves per voice. This gives the Sculpt a thick tone that, while you probably won’t mistake it for a real analog, is still very appealing. While perfectly capable of handling bass lines and leading performances, the Sculpt really shines when it comes to pads on which these stacked oscillators really enhance sound.

The sculpture also has numerous modulation options that give it surprising depth for something so small and cheap. There are dedicated filter and amplifier covers, but also an envelope mode and a pair of LFOs, one of which is polyphonic. The latter three can be assigned to a number of different destinations, with a total of eight modulation slots available. In addition, there are ring, FM and pulse width modulation options, plus a morphing filter that goes from low-pass to pass-through, then high-pass, not to mention built-in delay and distortion effects. There are many more sound design tools here than you could rightly expect for $ 200.

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

Wealth options are great, but it’s actually a little hard to navigate those controls. The unit comes with a file and you will always want it on hand. While the front panel has simpler, less confusing graphics than the original Sculpture, the SE is still not very intuitive. Although there are lines that show you which controls are interrelated, they are not set in some obviously logical way. And the little orange and white text labels seem cluttered and sometimes hard to read. Although the look is visually interesting, it is also infuriating. This is where form has clearly won function, not for the better.

Another thing that has been improved on the SE is the build quality. But just like the panel design, it’s not as big an upgrade as you hoped. The buttons are a bit tighter and have slightly more resistance than on the Craft 2, but they are still quite wobbly and cheap. However, they do not slip off the encoder easily.

I’m not sure how much the overall construction is better than the original Sculpt, and it’s only slightly better than the Craft 2. Overall, the Sculpt SE still feels tiny. But it comes with a wrapper that will protect it in the bag, which is more than I can say for Craft. Unfortunately, the touch keyboard is as bad as ever. It’s not always super sensitive, and the look somehow manages to feel both cramped and widespread at the same time. Playing simple triads required an awkward amount of stretching and I could rarely play a chord progression without accidentally activating at least one stray note. Volca keyboards are certainly nothing exciting, but they make Modal touch bars feel like cheap scammers.

Modal Electronics SkulptSynth SE

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

Another last caveat regarding the physical design: The Sculpt has full-size MIDI input and output jacks, but a 3.5mm plug. Although full-size MIDI DINs are appreciated, I’d rather see outs-inch audio outputs and smaller TRS MIDI connectors if I have to choose. Honestly, TRS MIDI on something that is battery powered and portable makes more sense. Save space.

Many of my complaints about the interface and the unimpressive build quality can be ignored if you just use the app. Push the Sculpt somewhere out of the way and connect it to your computer or phone via USB and you’re ready. You can then control it via MIDI via USB and execute all patches within the Modal application. This is much easier than using the device itself. It even has a VST version so you can control Skulpt from your DAW, but I had trouble running it on a Windows computer.



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