by SAM CHITTENDEN
Despite being released in late 2016, Synthstrom Audible's Deluge has perennially flown underneath the mainstream synth radar. With its active and enthusiastic user community, staggering depths, and relentless development team, it’s a small mystery as to why it isn't continually mentioned as a worthy companion/competitor to Elektron's Digitone and Digitakt. At once a desktop groovebox, portable polyphonic synth, powerful sampler, MIDI controller and CV sequencer, song arranger, and an effects unit, the Deluge can shift seamlessly from an on-the-go musical sketchbook to the nerve center of your studio.
Measuring about 12" wide, 8" deep, and just shy of 2" thick, the Deluge is compact and can easily slip into a computer bag or backpack for some extra-studio creation. Off the grid, it is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery [according to Synthstrom, and promises an average of six hours of use on a single charge. For wired use, the unit can be powered via a USB B cable or by any 12v guitar pedal style power supply. The Deluge ships with a well-written and thorough printed manual, though Synthstrom's passionate and committed development team will keep you heading back to the continually updated online version. Since its release, the Deluge has had no less than 15 firmware updates, many of which added several new features. As of this writing, a hotly antic-ipated 3.0 update has been teased [slated for a release in late 2019], promising a host of new features including live audio and MIDI looping capabilities.
Dominating the Deluge interface is a grid of 128 [8 rows of 16] pads and an additional two columns of eight pads used for clip launching and sound auditioning. When lit up, it offers some great eye candy, and this grid serves as a fantastically flexible interface for the majority of the Deluge's functionality. In addition to serving as a piano-roll style step sequencer interface, the grid also serves as a sequence track and song arranger, an isometric keyboard, a kind of low-resolution waveform viewer [used for editing samples in the unit], and perhaps most importantly, as a shortcut matrix for the myriad functions and parameters the Deluge has lurking under its hood. In addition to the grid, the unit features dedicated knobs for real-time tweaking of effect and sound parameters, tempo, volume, UI navigation, a compact LED screen, and several function buttons.
The Deluge's internal synth engine features both subtractive synthesis [standard sine, saw, square, and triangle waveforms, plus the ability to utilize the Deluge's audio input as a sound source as well as sampled and single-cycle waveforms from the SD card] and a two carrier / two operator FM engine. In addition there are "kit" tracks which assign a different sound per row of pads. The Deluge ships with over 150 synth presets and close to 40 kits, but creating your own sounds–like most operations in the unit–is easy and fun to do. Along with the sound sources, up to two LFOs and two envelopes can be used per voice and can be "patched" to almost any parameter. The Deluge is polyphonic, allowing up to 64 synth voices and up to 90 unaffected samples to play at once. Run out of voices? Unlikely, but not a problem as you can also resample or record the audio output of the unit directly to the SD card. Record your live performances and songs or utilize the resulting file to create new synth and kit sounds altogether.
The Deluge really shines when you dig into its sequencer, and features an easily adjustable and flexible track length, which makes it easy to create polyrhythms or play tracks of differing lengths off of each other. Entering notes can be done step-by-step directly on the grid, or by recording a performance in real time. Each note of a track can then be edited for velocity, probability of playing, or a certain amount of iteration dependence–allowing a note or a series of notes to sound whether or not a previous note played. To add more layers, parameter settings can be recorded in real time [the Deluge's parameter knobs can be reassigned to control almost any of the Deluge's sound and FX parameters, effectively allowing you to record automation for any parameter], and if micro control is your thing, each note can have individual parameter settings set, similar to Elektron's "parameter lock." Track count and number of notes are only limited by available RAM and Synthstrom claims this translates to over 2 million notes.
All sequencing takes place in a "track" on the Deluge, and these tracks can be sequenced via the Deluge's "Song" view, which reduces each tracks note grid to one row, giving you the ability to mute, launch, and manipulate multiple tracks at once. But that's not all, as the Deluge zooms out one level further into what is called "Arranger" view, it allows you to place instances of tracks into their own sequence. Add all of this to the ability to control a heap of external gear via MIDI [simultaneous separate sequences and CC messages on all 16 channels] or its 2 CV / gate channels [plus 2 additional gate outputs] and the Deluge could easily become the centerpiece of your workflow.
The Deluge has a magical combination of ease-of-use and astounding depth. Its intuitive interface makes it quick to get up and running making music; and indeed when the Deluge launched, Synthstrom held a "Two Hour Challenge"–giving participants just two hours to learn how to use the Deluge, write a song and perform it for five minutes at their release party. At the same time, it has a seemingly endless supply of "Oh, it can ALSO do THAT" moments. If there are any nitpicks to be had, the lack of velocity or aftertouch on the pads prevents the Deluge from being as immediately expressive as some other synths from a performance standpoint, but with the ability to edit velocity after the fact or to hook up literally whatever you want, who cares? Some may find fault with the decidedly lo-fi LED display, but in practice [and I'm sure there are technical reasons why the choice was made] I found I didn't mind it at all. It provides just enough information to be useful but doesn't intrude into the device workflow. Like reading subtitles in a foreign film, you may grumble at first but eventually you forget about the screen's shortcomings and just get back to making music. The Deluge just might be New Zealand's best kept secret.