Semi Modular Shootout

A forum for comparing two or more synths against each other. Also known as "versus" threads.

Semi Modular Shootout

Postby Walter Ego » Tue Jan 08, 2013 3:53 am

Okay folks...time for another hair-splitting synth battle. This time, I am curious about how three semi-modulars compare to each other. I am not totally familiar with the semi mod world, either, so if there is a glaring omission, please bring it to light.

I saw a CL posting for an MFB Kraftzwerg today and was intrigued. Looks solid enough, with a 3 VCO structure and lots of routing options. I've heard them mentioned alongside the Doepfer Dark Energy a number of times, but I'm not sure if it's a fair comparison, though they appear to be in the same price range. The Dark Energy has one VCO to start with, which is a tad bit of a turn-off, since I love the detuned osc sound. But just on price, I had the thought that either of these is way cheaper than an MS-20 (something I have lusted after a long time). If I could have a great deal of that MS-20 flexibility at less than half the cost, it might be worth it, keyboard notwithstanding.

So, how do they compare:

MFB Kraftzwerg
Doepfer Dark Energy (II)
MS-20

Don't need any lectures about the MS-20, plenty familiar with its 2 VCO structure and basics...

How do they compare on sound and build quality? Is one of these modules a viable alternative to an MS-20 or perhaps an MS-10?

(Also as an aside, there aren't any reviews of MFB products on the VSE, and not much in the Doepfer dept either.)
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Re: Semi Modular Shootout

Postby Stab Frenzy » Tue Jan 08, 2013 4:43 am

MS-20s are stupidly overpriced at the moment. For that price you could get a Pittsburgh Foundation or a Tom Oberheim SEM and a few extra modules. Or go for a Minibrute and a small modular system. :thumbleft:
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Re: Semi Modular Shootout

Postby Walter Ego » Tue Jan 08, 2013 4:48 am

Stab Frenzy wrote:MS-20s are stupidly overpriced at the moment. For that price you could get a Pittsburgh Foundation or a Tom Oberheim SEM and a few extra modules. Or go for a Minibrute and a small modular system. :thumbleft:


I guess the idea is more that I know MS-20s are overpriced/out of my pricerange (doesn't mean I don't still want one); how are DE and KZ as alternatives?
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Re: Semi Modular Shootout

Postby Stab Frenzy » Tue Jan 08, 2013 5:25 am

They don't really sound similar at all. Good synths, but nothing like an MS-20.
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Re: Semi Modular Shootout

Postby Solderman » Wed Jan 09, 2013 3:02 am

Afraid I don't have any insight on the Doepfer, but I can offer some insight into the other 2.

Having bought VSE User Meatballfullton's Kraftzwerg some time back, and having played an MS20 connected to a Kenton Pro 2000 once, I can definitely say the former is not going to give you any sort of specially unique lp/hp filter character like the latter without external help. The 'zwerg's 4 pole lp filter sounds like a cheap Moog knockoff, that's noisy to boot.

The Korg exclusively possesses frequency to CV converter, portamento, pink noise, noise as a modulation source, trigger out, LFO shaper, complete sample and hold circuit, inverter for the envelopes, and of course a keyboard with configurable modwheel. Many of these could be acquired by coupling the 'zwerg with a Moog CP-251 control processor.(and alot of 1/4" to 1/8" plug adapters)

The Kraftzwerg's exclusive options include CV for LFO Rate and VCF Resonance, a second LFO, 2 very snappy AHDSR envelopes with a linear/log slope switch for one or the other, third oscillator, oscillator sync, pulsewidth modulation, and the more standard V/Octave type CV control for pitch.

I won't even expand on the 'zwerg's built in Midi to CV converter, because due to the inexplicably buggy nature of the onboard Midi processor, it will randomly lock up until power-cycled, even if you are only sending one non-legato note every 10 minutes. It's as useless as tits on a boar.

The other big annoyances of the 'zwerg, and this is only for some, are due to the compact nature, the overall build feels cheaper than the Korg, the jacks are all scattered between the knobs, making tweaking more of a chore than it should be and one big flaw I discovered about the VCA output: It's picky about cables/load. Use one it doesn't like, and the VCA will randomly make a "pop" sound and become significantly noisier until the output cable is pulled out and re-inserted.

Despite these grievances, I quite like the Kraftzwerg. I have bypassed the onboard filter and instead use a Moogerfooger MF-101 pedal, with very good results.
Image
(note the VCA out above using a 1/4" to 1/8" adapter. That turned out to be bad for reasons mentioned above)
The filter bypass means you'd need an external audio mixer to mix in XOR ringmod with VCF output, but I actually tried this once and it works fine.
The VCO's I would say have more drift than the Korg MS20, making it seem a bit better for vintage type sounds and indeed seems to have that nice vintage type detuned phasing effect you probably like that many modern analogs lack, including many modern Moogs. It's trickier to set up a stable pitch-tracking for oscillator crossmod than it should be, but sounds wonderfully huge and aggressive with non-triangular waveforms, beating out the SCI Pro~One I once used for this purpose by miles.

I don't really have much to offer as a demonstration, but here is me playing a standard Moog-like lead type sound on the Kraftzwerg using the MF-101's somewhat shrieky 2 pole filter, with all 3 oscillators set at distinct octaves using sawtooth waveforms, and one of the LFO's as a global(but subtle) vibrato:


So nothing is going to sound like an MS20, that seems pretty clear. The Korg's legendary status is mainly due to the filters, no question, (headphone out to VCF CV in must be heard to be believed and frequency to CV is one of a kind) and the 'zwerg will never be able to compete with that squelchy, grungy character unless you patch it through another MS20.
The Kraftzwerg is more versatile in many ways, especially paired with a CP-251, and provided you can deal with the annoyances mentioned, but due to the uber-crappy Midi to CV converter and no keyboard, is not as self sufficient. I use my Kenton Pro 2000, including its switchable portamento and aftertouch-triggered vibrato.

I also own an Oberheim SEM Pro, if you have questions about that.

"Lots of people are nostalgic for analogue. I suspect they're people who never had to work with it." - Brian Eno
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Re: Semi Modular Shootout

Postby Walter Ego » Wed Jan 09, 2013 4:18 pm

Solderman wrote:The VCO's I would say have more drift than the Korg MS20, making it seem a bit better for vintage type sounds and indeed seems to have that nice vintage type detuned phasing effect you probably like that many modern analogs lack, including many modern Moogs. It's trickier to set up a stable pitch-tracking for oscillator crossmod than it should be, but sounds wonderfully huge and aggressive with non-triangular waveforms, beating out the SCI Pro~One I once used for this purpose by miles.


I do like the sound of that...

Solderman wrote:I don't really have much to offer as a demonstration, but here is me playing a standard Moog-like lead type sound on the Kraftzwerg using the MF-101's somewhat shrieky 2 pole filter, with all 3 oscillators set at distinct octaves using sawtooth waveforms, and one of the LFO's as a global(but subtle) vibrato:


That was actually quite a nice demo. I do like the sounds coming out of that thing, though it may be much nicer coming through the MF 101.

Maybe I should have phrased my question a bit different; I know that these different instruments sound different from each other...I'm pretty interested in getting my feet wet with a semi-modular, though, since it has the edgy sound that I've really only heard coming out of a modular, but without as many hardware issues as a full modular system.

Thank you for the in-depth info about the 'zwerg compared to an MS. I have found it very helpful. And thanks for the photo, too, as it shows the issue with the patch cables scattered among the knobs...more of a nuisance than anything, I would imagine.

I have also been curious about MFB's products in general: do they all have cheaper construction? I've thought that the MFB 503 might be a viable cheaper alternative to a 909, especially in the kick department...and with MIDI.

I think a SEM Pro is way outside my price range, but it sure would be fun. I've heard the SEM has its own unique place in synth history with a particular sound all its own...The Pro was just released recently, was it not?
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Re: Semi Modular Shootout

Postby Solderman » Wed Jan 09, 2013 5:17 pm

Someone else will have to answer to the build quality of other MFB products. All I can say is I wouldn't want to risk dropping the Kraftzwerg from several feet. The knobs and jacks could be better, but aren't bad either. Seems more frail than at first glance. I've only heard demos of the MFB drum machine and it just wasn't my thing. I tried out the Urzwerg Pro, and while it seemed good quality and I'd prefer it over several other analog-type sequencers now in the market, ultimately I felt what I wanted was more like a Future Retro Mobius.

I think the SEM Pro has a few years under its belt now. I sent my SEM patch-panel back to Tom Oberheim for an upgrade to Pro, about 5 months ago. Mostly I am using it for its original intended purpose: As an expander module for another monosynth, namely my severly modified SH-101. Some have called the new SEM "lifeless" or "harsh", but I think spending a little time with it will render great results, if always a bit clean. The oscillators also have that nice detuned phasing effect, filter resonance does not thin out the sound, the ADS envelopes are pretty snappy and both pulsewidth mod and oscillator crossmod sound huge. Its Midi to CV converter seems to work well, although it produces a faint whine in the output signal when routing Midi CC's to filter CV. It's not going to be as versatile as any of the above other mentioned semi-modulars, but definitely works well as an expander. It's also not going to be as drifty or smooth as a vintage SEM, but that's what you buy actual vintage for.

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Re: Semi Modular Shootout

Postby Walter Ego » Tue Feb 12, 2013 7:01 pm

Looking back at the last month and a half, this thread is really funny now. The cheapest alternative to the cheaper alternatives to an MS-20 is...low and behold, a brand new MS-20! I can't say I would have imagined that two months ago.

But now I'm also way more interested in a Doepfer Dark Energy. If I find one cheap, I or II, I think I might still go for it...but it will also be a while before synth funds are replenished.
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