THE AMBIENT SYNTH #16: M-Audio Venom Part 2
Last week I demonstrated some of the factory presets and basic operation of the M-Audio Venom. This time, we're going to dig deeper into its synthesis and see what this synthesizer really has to offer and some problems along the way. Most of all, you'll find out if I can "tame the snake" of this notoriously dirty and aggressive synth for ambient, space, and new age tones.
At its heart, the Venom has three oscillators, with a selection of, not only basic analog style waveforms, like sine, triangle, sawtooth, square, and pulse, but several variations on each waveform, emulating oscillators from classic analog synths from Moog, Roland, Korg, Oberheim, and ARP. In addition, there are a variety of digital-sounding waveforms as well as the percussion sounds to choose from. Although the Venom is considered a virtual analog synth, these waveforms are actually digital samples of those classic synths, but attention was given to creating waves that would have some nice variation over time, so they do have much more complexity over a mere sampled single-cycle waveform. To help these samples even more, there are parameters for variable oscillator pitch drift, as well as random start position for the phase of the waveform. These settings help the Venom with its analog qualities, and definitely give it noticeable vitality. These samples do sound very good, and alias noise in the higher frequencies isn’t too noticeable. For me, the next critical piece is the filter, and the Venom has a resonant multi-mode filter, selectable with 12dB or 24 dB roll-off, along with modes for low pass, high pass, and band pass. I read an interview with one of the Venom’s creators, that the filter was not necessarily designed to emulate any other specific synthesizer. The Venom’s filter does seem to have a slight resonant quality, even with the resonance setting at zero, but it still sounds very rich and analog. The result of the oscillator section and filter together is that the Venom can really shine with fun polyphonic analog classics like synth brasses and stabs in the vein of a Prophet 5 or OB-Xa. For my taste I found the Venom usually just a tad thin in the bass and perhaps sometimes a little harsh in the highs, but luckily each preset has two sets of EQ’s you can program, so you can easily add some beef and dial down any harshness for each sound. Also, the Venom has a pre-filter boost setting, which is designed to emulate a tube pre-amp. This is usually employed to create distortion, but in lighter doses, I found the boost can add some extra boldness to just about any sound. The Venom is also versatile for synthesis, with three AHDSR envelopes, three LFO’s, unison modes with variable detune (supersaw, anyone?), three effects busses (one for modulation effects, one for delay and reverb, and a third for things like compression, auto-wah, and sonic decimation), and great sound shaping tools like frequency modulation, ring modulation, oscillator sync, the Venom’s own waveshaping effect, and a nice modulation matrix.
JUNO THAT VENOM DOES ANALOG?
Sitting down with the Vysex programming software, I thought I would put some of these analog emulation qualities to the test, so I powered up the Venom side-by-side with my old Roland Alpha Juno 1, to see if I could match up some of my favorite 1980’s vintage sounds. I choose the Venom’s appropriate Roland sampled “JX Saw” as my waveform, and with a little tweak of the filter and keyboard scaling, and just a little EQ boost in the bass, their raw sawtooth waves matched up incredibly well! As I programmed, the envelope response took some work, especially in conjunction with the filter, since the Venom has an AHDSR envelope with different timing curves than the Alpha Juno’s stage & rate envelope, but it wasn’t bad at all. I was even able to use the Venom’s effects processor to create a nice emulation of the Alpha Juno’s distinctive chorus effect. Plus, I found by adding a second detuned oscillator to the Venom’s Juno emulated preset, I could also get a cool sound, similar to Roland’s two-oscillator JX-8p synthesizer. Impressed, I was starting to contemplate building a whole library of carefully emulated Alpha Juno sounds for the Venom, when I realized the Venom has no keyboard scaling for envelope timing (more on that later), so I couldn’t match a lot of the Juno’s nuances up and down the keyboard, but its important to remember that the Venom is really it’s own synth, with it’s own voice. You really can’t expect any one synth to completely emulate another, so I feel the Venom definitely gets an “A” for effort on this test!
Hear it for yourself! Here are the results of my Juno emulation test:
I love playing synths in a monophonic legato mode for great lead and bass sounds. Reminiscent of a classic Minimoog style, it is irresistible to me, and I was looking forward to some mondo-mono-legato riffs on the Venom, which can offer a fat, three-oscillator sound, just like the Mini! (OK, I admit it, if I weren’t playing ambient music, I’d be recording retro 80’s techno-funk!) However, the Venom gave me a lot of problems with legato playing. At first, if I switched the settings to a mono legato mode, and specifically turned down the glide rate (portamento control) to zero, instead of getting that smooth legato sound, each note change had a strange volume pumping, almost like a string attack envelope was being placed on it. It seemed like a terrible glitch in the system and finally, after a few weeks of this, I realized that the hold stage of the AHDSR envelope for amplitude needs to be turned all the way up to maximum time. For some strange reason, this cleared it up! I’ve never seen anything like this on a synth. It does seem more like a glitch in the design to me, but I was relieved after all that frustration that I finally could get a much better legato response. Although the end result works OK, I still detect a little bit of quirkiness about the monophonic response, with some kind of subtle polyphonic slop-over happening, and although there isn’t the volume pumping, there is now a subtle percussive envelope to every note change, noticeable more on extremely fast runs, so perhaps I won’t be playing George Clinton style funk bass too often on the Venom!
Here are audio examples of the legato mode on the Venom, and for reference, you’ll also hear a legato mode played on the Roland Alpha Juno
As you can hear, the Venom does OK, but it is not really what traditional legato should sound like. Finally, even though I was able to smooth this out, I am surprised that even within the factory presets, no monophonic preset lead or bass sound has that smooth legato response. It seems that the sound designers themselves either left in that glitchy volume pumping or turned off the legato mode altogether to have every note trigger an envelope! It leads me to believe that even those professional programmers had trouble correcting that glitch, and it’s an aspect of the design the company could have paid a lot more attention to.
SOUND SHAPING TOOLS
Putting that legato frustration aside, the Venom seemed to make up for this by offering something very surprising: After my initial sound programming sessions, I managed to build a convincing Wurlitzer electric piano sound. Not only does it sound very real, but I also find it incredibly expressive to play! This electric piano sound works fantastic with the Venom’s keyboard, and I feel it even beats out many sampled electric piano sounds I’ve worked with. Before long, I was having fun with jazz-like riffs, funky jams, and soft, new age passages. I just couldn’t get enough of playing this little piano patch, and that says a lot about a synthesizer! This was a level of expressivity I wasn’t getting much of in the factory presets, and I was now surprisingly impressed with the virtual analog Venom as a digital sounding synth! I even managed to add a nice subtle phaser effect to that Wurlitzer for a little 70’s charm! This nice ability for more dynamic and complex instrumentation is actually thanks to the Venom’s addition of sound modifying parameters like 3-part frequency modulation, oscillator sync, ring modulation, and, of course, its modulation matrix. As I programmed, I also managed to build a Rhodes style piano, several ambient pads, a Solina-esque string machine, a DX-7-reminiscent choir pad, and, of course, some nostalgic 80’s analog sounds! These new presets really blew me away, since this gritty rough synth was now finally showing itself to be warm, expressive, and dynamic, a versatile musical instrument! Through this, I was surprised that sounds like my electric pianos weren’t represented much in the factory presets, but, again, M-Audio perhaps didn’t want to market it in that direction.
Here are some audio examples of custom patches I built on my Venom:
ENTER THE MATRIX
In addition, the modulation matrix does take the Venom to a higher level of synthesis than you would expect, although it is lacking some settings I usually enjoy with a matrix. For example, they left out envelopes and LFO’s as modulatable destinations. I’ve worked with these parameters in other synthesizers, and it would be nice to have keyboard scaling modulating attack time, or to set one LFO to modulate another. As far as programming is concerned, I feel just a few more parameters on the matrix would have placed the Venom in competition with some of the best soft synths today, but despite this, the matrix is still very versatile and can give you great creative possibilities.
There is also a feature called waveshaping on one of the oscillators, which does require some explanation: The Venom’s waveshaping setting results mostly in pulse width modulation-type sounds, but waveshaping derives the tones in its own Venomous digital way (don’t ask me to explain the actual technique...I’m still confused) but strangely, when you select a sawtooth wave in the oscillator (even more confusion for me), the waveshaper will convert it into square-to-pulse wave modulation. Choosing different types of waveforms will yield subtle variations on this same sound. So, a sine wave will give you a softer sounding version of that same square-to-pulse modulation, and some of the digital waves will give start to give you gritty, glitchy, or fuzzy versions of it. Using the modulation matrix to control it, there is definatelty some colorful, creative possibilies in waveshaping, but unfortunately, if you are actually looking for classic analog pulse width modulation sounds, the Venom will not quite deliver. That’s because the waveshaping technique always creates noticeably distortion in the upper notes, no matter what waveform you choose. In addition, waveshaping makes alias noise in the upper notes much more audible. This was a big disappointment, since I love using pulse width modulation on synthesizers. With a modulation matrix, pulse width modulation can be an incredibly powerful synthesis tool for complex things, like acoustic emulation, but the Venom’s distorted version ruins the whole effect for me. However, to be fair to the Venom, waveshaping may appear to be yet another source for its famous dirt and edge and perhaps not necessarily an attempt to completely emulate other synthesizers. If you look at waveshaping on the Venom’s own terms, it can give it a distinctive sound all its own, from an appealing warm fuzz to a glitchy dirt!
Going back to the Roland Alpha Juno 1 as a reference, here’s a pulse width modulation pad played on the Juno and then an emulation on the Venom. The Venom matches very well, except for the distortion and noise as the notes get higher.
In conclusion, after working with the Venom and examining the waveshaping, pre-filter boost, and effects like compressors, distortion, and decimators, I started to see that the designers of the Venom gave it far more than one source of programmable edge and distortion, showing a lot of thought going into this as a signature sound. To give the Venom it’s due, these aspects give it a sound and character all its own, and if you happen to like distortion, attitude, and fizz, maybe you might fall in love with this synth from the dark side. This all being said, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a Venom to an ambient artist. If you are looking for smooth, graceful tones, the Venom can definitely do it, but it might initially work against you, and you will need a lot of time to tweak with it. I’ve worked with other synths in the past that were initially much more friendly to ambient and space music, and the Venom obviously just doesn’t show its softer side immediately. I would at least recommend spending some hands-on time with a Venom before you buy it.
As far as negatives, I am happy to say I only have three big problems with the Venom, which I feel isn’t bad at all for most synthesizers: I really would have loved to have seen a cleaner sounding pulse width modulation, just a little more complexity in the modulation matrix, and a smoother monophonic mode. Related to these problems, even though I personally enjoy the hardware/software hybrid design, the deeper synthesis parameters being accessed only through software is not for everyone. Think about your workflow. The Venom’s compact, intuitive hardware unit might suit you, but you might actually prefer sticking to a dedicated hardware or software synth, depending on your preferences.
But back on the positive, the Venom is fun, intuitive, and rewarding to play on and work with. It is still a very powerful synthesizer that sounds great! It can sound vintage and also can excel at sounding fresh and contemporary! Plus, there is also so much more to the Venom than I can mention in just one article, like the Patch Collider that can mix, warp, and combine two different sound presets into something completely new.
Finally, the most attractive thing about the Venom is all of these features for the price, with many under $200 used online! So, maybe I might spend a little more time programming it, or make due without a few features, but for the price, it is well worth it!
TAMING THE SNAKE
So, in the end, the question remained: With all of these aspects of the Venom creating aggression and distortion, could I really tame the snake? Could I give it some grace and beauty for space, new age, and ambient tones? The answer is, of course! After I created that Wurlitzer piano sound, I was suddenly confident I could get a lot out of this synth. I was able to create several dynamic instruments and ambient pads that I enjoy playing a lot. So, perhaps this bad boy with the edgy reputation is really a softie at heart! The only thing truly evil sounding about it is its name! So why not throw out some new names for the Venom? How about:
The M-Audio Venus: Named after the Goddess of beauty and femininity.
The M-Audio Venice: Romance and Renaissance awaits you!
The M-Audio Phenom: Music beyond ordinary is at your fingertips!
Whatever you want to call it, M-Audio did come up with something special, and I’m happy to see it in my studio!
To end this off, here's a quick demo I recorded just this morning using only Venom sounds. It's called "May Rain" and it has some elements of ambient, chill, and Berlin School. I decided to play the Venom sounds through my favorite digital plate reverb on my Ensoniq ASR-10's effects processor. ENJOY!