This spicy offering from 1010music’s new synth range promises polyphonic wavetable sounds in a compact format. Greg Scarth puts it to the test.
As a brand, 1010music might be relative newcomers to the world of studio tech, but the roots of those involved run deep, including former members of the Traktor DJ team from Native Instruments as well as developers of other DAWs and DJ software. Starting out with Eurorack modules, the brand quickly branched out into desktop modules. We’re big fans of those products, but the new Nanoboxes aren’t just an extension of that range. The Nanoboxes are actually smaller than the Bluebox recorder/mixer and Blackbox sampling workstation, both of which are compact units by anyone’s standards. The Nanobox Fireball is a polyphonic wavetable synth, while the Nanobox Lemondrop is a polyphonic granular synth (you can read our full review of the Lemondrop here).
Measuring in at around 95 x 75 mm when viewed from above, the compact dimensions of the Fireball might suggest it’s a portable instrument – which it is in a sense – but it’s not an all-in-one groovestation. There’s no built-in sequencer, so you’ll need to control it with a MIDI keyboard, some kind of hardware sequencer or a DAW. There’s a very basic on-screen keyboard, but it’s not the ideal way to play the instrument given the small 2-inch touchscreen. With the unit powered up via a suitable USB charger, your MIDI signal is connected using an adapter (one’s included in the box, but you’ll need another one if you want to connect MIDI in and out at the same time). Once you’ve hooked up the audio output, you’re ready to get started.
The Firebox is a wavetable synth with a powerful architecture, based around two wavetable oscillator sections and one more conventional virtual analogue oscillator. The way that the editing system is set up matches that of the Lemondrop, with the settings split into six ‘feature stacks’: oscillators, filters, envelopes, modulation, effects and performance features. Pushing the layer button (second from the left, marked with three lines) cycles through each layer of the feature stack, giving you access to, say, all three oscillators, or the settings for both filters.
In practice, the architecture of the Fireball is effective in two ways. Firstly, it makes navigating the menus and accessing the full range of parameters relatively straightforward in conjunction with the touchscreen and rotary knobs. Secondly, and arguably the most important factor, is that it gives the synth a lot of depth in terms of sound. Like most wavetable synths, the Fireball is versatile: there are 100 factory wavetables plus the ability to load your own custom wavetables via microSD card. The combination of wavetable and wave oscillators is particularly effective, similar to what’s found in a lot of soft synths, making it easy to head down the route of traditional analogue synth sounds as well as the more ethereal, morphing sounds associated with wavetables. The multi-mode filters can be operated in serial or parallel, which adds another good layer of sound sculpting power, particularly in combination with the on-screen X-Y pad.
It’s hard to pick out one thing that the Fireball excels at because it’s a true all-rounder, capable of everything from fat bass sounds to lush pads. Its eight-voice polyphony makes it a particularly effective option for chords, which gives it an interesting advantage over the similar-but-different Lemondrop with just four voices. Built-in effects are identical to the Lemondrop, with five modes over the two separate layers, giving 12 different possible combinations of flanger/distortion, chorus, phaser, delay and reverb.
The Nanoboxes are unusual in the sense that they don’t quite aim to be portable instruments in the same way that the battery-powered Blackbox series work completely on their own; you’ll need a power supply and, realistically, something to play or sequence them with. The main appeal would be if you’re short of studio space and want to add a lot of hardware synth power. We can also see them appealing to live performers who want to put together a compact and easily portable setup to take out to gigs. Likewise, musicians who collaborate in different locations will enjoy the convenience of the tiny units. Don’t let the compact size of the Fireball fool you; this spicy little synth packs plenty of features and excellent sound.
Greg ScarthMore info/buy