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Norand Mono review

Way more than just an acid box, the Norand Mono proves to be a hugely versatile all-rounder with a gem of a sequencer.

The Roland TB-303 is one of the most iconic instruments in electronic music history despite its relatively basic feature set. The circuits of the legendary acid synth are almost laughably basic by modern standards: one oscillator and a resonant low-pass filter. That’s it. Even the sequencer, despite its slightly fiddly programming methods, offers little more than slides and accents to spice up your patterns. Norand’s debut synth seems to take a very clear twist on that idea: what if you were to build a 303-inspired synth which was as fully featured and complex as it gets?

The Norand Mono is a compact groovebox-style synth with a lightweight plastic case not much bigger than that of the 303. The format is immediately recognisable: step sequencer at the bottom, with the synth section wrapping around it. The analogue synth architecture itself is clearly substantially more complex than most acid boxes: you’ve got two oscillators, a state-variable filter section, a full (digital) ADSR envelope generator, plus additional AD envelopes and modulator generators (LFO or audio-rate) in the form of the X-Env and X-Mod sections. We’ll get back to those in due course.

Playing the synth using the buttons in the sequencer section as a basic keyboard, the sheer flexibility of the Mono’s sonic options become clear. There are clever touches all over the place, starting with the waveform knobs of the two oscillators, which allow you to blend seamlessly from sine waves to triangles, through square waves and on to sawtooths. The modulation section in between the two oscillators gives you the option to sync or apply through-zero FM. The filter section is relatively simple but the Color control is the key here, allowing you to fade from band-pass to low-pass to high-pass filter modes. As the excellent manual points out, you can find some interesting sounds in between settings, such as a resonant all-pass filter at the mid-point between the low-pass and high-pass.

With a much more advanced synth architecture than most grooveboxes, the Mono is a hugely impressive synth. Yes, it can do a pretty good imitation of a TB-303 if that’s what you’re after, but the Mono is way more versatile, capable of a huge range of sounds and offering much more in the way of hands-on real-time tweaking. It’s well worth exploring Norand’s excellent range of demo videos if you’re interested in the vast potential of this little synth, in which the brand show how it can be used to make everything from kick drums to glassy four-operator FM sounds, via the classic Buchla bongos.

The power of the Mono really starts to make sense when you explore the sequencer. It’s a 64-step design that draws on classic step sequencer concepts but adds plenty of new twists. It’s intuitive as a basic sequencer purely in terms of punching in patterns and stringing together sequences, but the presence of so many secondary functions, accessed by holding down the Func button, hints at the depth of the sequencer options. It’s here that the versatility of the X-Env and X-Mod section also makes itself clear. The X-Env section effectively gives every single synth parameter its own envelope generator, while X-Mod allows you to modulate all the synth parameters plus all four ADSR settings. That’s an additional 14 AD envelopes and 18 LFOs (which can also extend into audio rates). The possibilities are huge, and when combined with the Elektron-style parameter lock and the ability to record automation in real time, it’s a sequencer that you’ll never tire of exploring. The Mono’s sequencer is an absolute gem, and clearly the aspect which sets the instrument apart from similar synths.

All in all, it’s very hard to pick fault with the Mono. I would have liked a headphone output in addition to the main line output, and I’d definitely want to protect the slightly fragile unit with some kind of sturdy case if I was taking it out for live use, but that’s about the limit of its drawbacks. In terms of rival products on the market, the cheaper Erica Synths Bassline DB-01 is the obvious alternative, but the Mono does things quite differently; the DB-01 is probably a little bit more immediate to get to grips with, but if you’re willing to spend the time getting to know its deeper synthesis and sequencing options, it’s a hugely impressive instrument.

Greg Scarth

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