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Knobula Kickain review

Potent kick synthesis meets sidechain mix bus compression in this clever module. Greg Scarth finds out how it adds punch to your productions.

The Kickain module is only Knobula’s second release, but you can already get a pretty good idea of the London brand’s ethos. Much like the Poly Cinematic eight-voice synth module, the Kickain explores unusual territory – not necessarily in terms of approaches to music making, but in terms of what’s usually expected from Eurorack. Where the Poly Cinematic focussed on polyphony, the Kickain combines kick drum synthesis with sidechain compression and a few other clever digital processing tricks, blurring the lines between creating kicks, sculpting sounds and even mixing within Eurorack.

The functionality of the Kickain means that it’s important to think of it as a kick drum module first and foremost. We’ll come back to why this matters in due course, but the best place to start is with the kick section. The Kickain is based around virtual analogue drum synthesis, with control of tuning, distortion, Click (offering a range of different click characteristics at the start of the kick), pitch bend, punch and reverb. Decay time is adjusted via a central knob which links the kick and compression sections. There’s also a bass cut switch, effectively a high-pass filter which can be set to 40 Hz or 60 Hz. Only tuning and decay time can be controlled via CV, but the pitch tracks 1V/oct, meaning you can use it for pitched bass sounds as well as kicks. An accent input allows you to trigger a louder, punchier version of the kick (when triggered simultaneously with the main trigger input) or a low, ‘reverse-style’ kick (when the accent input is triggered on its own). Overall, it’s a nice, versatile setup, broadly 909-inspired but with a lot more versatility. It’s not as comprehensive as something like, say, the Jomox Modbase 09, but it’s a very impressive kick module, capable of everything from filthy 90s techno distortion to minimal, clicky thuds. And that’s before you’ve even explored the sidechain options.

On that point, the implementation of the sidechain compression is simple but impressively thorough. It’s a stereo compressor, with the internal kick signal used to trigger the sidechain, but the clever aspect is the way the controls have been simplified to make the two sections interact nicely. Adjusting the decay control changes the kick envelope, but also adjusts the release time of the compressor. The attack control adjusts both the kick dynamics and external signal, with the intensity of the whole effect controlled by the Depth knob.

There are multiple uses for sidechain, from subtle mix applications through to extreme pumping effects, but the Kickain lends itself mainly to a couple of specific applications. The most obvious is to use the kick to pump an entire stereo mix, right at the end of a signal path. Alternatively, you could use the kick to sidechain a bassline, helping the two to sit together in a similar frequency range. That’s not to say there aren’t other approaches, of course, and there’s lots of mileage to be had in modulating a pad sound, a synth element or a looped sample. What’s particularly impressive about the Kickain approach is that you can switch from the standard Normal setting into Spectral I or Spectral II mode, each of which effectively offers dynamic EQ rather than straightforward full-frequency-range compression. The two modes leave the higher frequencies untouched while pumping the mids/lows (Spectral I) or just the bass (Spectral II). It’s an excellent touch which adds a lot of versatility.

There aren’t many hidden features to the Kickain, but it’s worth noting that there are two modes, stereo and mono, selected by setting a DIP switch on the back of the module. In stereo mode, the kick drum signal is panned to the centre, whereas in mono mode you get a mono mix of the kick and external signal. As such, you can’t pan the signal post-Kickain without panning your kick drum off centre, which isn’t ideal. The most obvious use of mono mode would be for a signal which is likely to stay mono throughout your mix, such as a bassline. With that said, this is a purposeful module which sets out to do a fairly simple thing quickly and efficiently. In that respect, it’s completely effective, making it a doddle to set up everything from subtle mix effects to help avoid the kick drum being lost in the mix, all the way through to extreme ‘pumping’ effects.

We mentioned previously that it’s important to think of the Kickain as a kick drum module first, and this is where that becomes obvious: you can’t use the compressor on its own without the kick drum; if you don’t trigger the kick drum, the compressor won’t compress the signal. The option to separate the two sections and use them separately as a kick drum generator and a ‘normal’ stereo compressor might have been nice. In practice, the two sections of the module are inherently linked, and you can’t really think of them separately, other than the fact you can use the kick drum without the compression. You don’t have the option to take the kick drum as an individual output with the compressed signal separately; you can only have the combined stereo sum or mono sum in mono mode. There’s an argument that Knobula might have created a more versatile module by adding such options, but you get the feeling it would have diluted the very specific focus of the module.

In conclusion, the Kickain is a very well thought-out module. You need to buy into the kick drum side of things for it to make sense as a whole, but the versatile, high-quality kick synthesis should make it work for a broad range of styles and genres. With your kick sound set up, the process of compressing an external signal is hugely efficient thanks to the well designed control interface. The main benefit is the way it simplifies the whole process; there are other Eurorack compressors, other spectral tools and other kick drum modules, but to achieve similar results to the Kickain would take a fair bit of hassle. If you’re in the market for a kick module or looking to expand your compression and mix options in modular, the Kickain is an excellent choice.

Greg Scarth

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