by sam chittenden
The Ensemble Oscillator is the latest collaboration between 4ms and musician and programmer Matthias Puech. Their previous collaboration, the Tapographic Delay, was a unique and performative module, one that demanded to be explored. The Ensemble Oscillator is no different in that regard. Accessible enough that you can dive right in, start twisting knobs and find all sorts of interesting sounds. Deep enough that you can explore for hours and hours and only just scratch the surface of possibilities.
Boasting a stable of 16 oscillators behind its modest 16hp, the Ensemble Oscillator maps these sine-based voices over a scale [one of 30 stored in the module] or set of intervals of your choosing. With sounds that span the gamut from crystalline sine wave tones to harsh and distorted FM, the harmonic quantizing of the Ensemble Oscillator gives you the ability to rein the madness if you want to and constrain the tones for very musical results.
The controls of the module are arranged in a rough circle around a central Root knob. The Root controls the base interval of the selected scale. In no particular order the controls are a Pitch-for controlling the pitch of the voices, Spread-which determines how each of the active oscillators is spaced along the scale intervals, Balance-for setting the amount of crossfading or blend between adjacent voices, Scale-a selection knob with an associated switch to toggle between one of three scale banks. There are three controls for different timbre sculpting options: Twist-with three different phase distortion methods, Warp-with three different wave distortion methods, and Cross FM-with three different FM algorithms to choose from. Additionally, there are two buttons at the top of the module-a Learn button for programming in custom scales and a Freeze button, which can "freeze" the frequency of certain oscillators [which oscillators are frozen is selectable between a few different options]. There is also a detune pot which affects the oscillators post quantization and allows for some nice stereo phasing among other effects.
On the input and output side of things the Ensemble Oscillator features A and B jacks for stereo out [or mono out on the A channel], two 1V/octave jacks-one for the Root, which is quantized to the selected scale, and one for Pitch, which is not quantized. There are six CV inputs for control over Scale, Spread, and Balance, as well as over the Warp, Twist, and Cross FM sections. And finally there are two gate inputs, one for the Learn feature and one for the Freeze control.
At its most "vanilla" setting, with none of the waveshaping or FM controls engaged, the Ensemble Oscillator has a very smooth pure tone which can morph from a singular sine to a very organ like, er... ensemble. But it is in the control over the number of oscillators you hear, the ability to spread those individual generators across a scale, and how those tones interact with each other that is the magic sauce of the module.
Built-in quantization makes for some quick and easy patching with very musical results. Throwing some stepped random CV into the Root input you've got an instant bass line. Just dial in the Warp and Twist to taste and get jamming. You can explore your way to those analog tones of yore by setting the Spread control fairly low and using the detune pot to get some fat and lush vintage synth tones. Screaming leads are at your fingertips, make them as harsh and cutting as you'd like and choose your flavor by flipping between the different waveshaping and phase manipulation algorithms.
Although the Ensemble Oscillator comes with 30 preset scales, one of its most flexible features is the ability to "learn" any scale. This is especially interesting if you approach the idea from a perspective laid out in the module's well documented manual. Namely that the scale notes can be thought of not solely as notes but as overtones or harmonics within a tone. In a sense, the Learn function can be seen as a way to set up harmonic structures in a waveform that are completely unique. The potential for sound sculpting here is vast and the Ensemble Oscillator makes it easy to do. Learning a scale is a simple procedure on the module and can be done manually by ear or by using an external keyboard, sequencer, or other CV source. Custom scales can be saved to any of the module's 30 slots. There is a caveat in that two of the scale banks place certain constraints on the created scales. The 12TET bank will quantize pitches chosen to semitones of an equal-temperament scale and the Octave bank, while allowing any interval, will adjust the scale entered and force the intervals to repeat [maintaining an octave relationship between the root and the highest note entered]. The Free bank has no constraints. Factory scales can be restored on an individual basis allowing for the free exploration of custom scales without having to resort to a complicated or lengthy restore process [or one that is an all-or-nothing approach].
The Ensemble Oscillator is really quite remarkable. It is easy to get along with, quick to get up and running on, and very musical. By allowing access to scale creation and in such an approachable manner, the Ensemble Oscillator opens a deep well of exploration and experimentation. There are so many sweet spots to be discovered and the module makes the exploration fun, unfettered, and engaging. It encourages and invites a "what if" kind of approach to crafting new sounds and I can't think of a better endorsement than that.
- Sam Chittenden
16 HP +12V 114mA -12V 45mA