PRODUCT: ELZ_1 Synthesizer
By Jeff Dittenber
Senior Sound Designer
Yessian Music and Sound
Farmington Hills, MI
In an age of virtual software synthesizers, there seems to be a constant, never-ending stream of new plug-ins, updates, and releases. Some virtual instruments try to break new ground, while others try to emulate the past. Keeping up with all of these new flavors can be a full-time job, especially when you’re looking for avenues of inspiration to add into your arsenal of tools.
As many of us have grown increasingly weary of clicking a mouse to dial up a sound, missing the tactile feel of knobs, switches, and buttons, we look back to the world of hardware synthesis to quench our thirst for sonic exploration. Of course, you have the tested classics that defined eras and genres of sound, which are all incredible tools, but there is now a new wave of hardware synths that seek to fill the tactile create voids. Enter Sonicware’s ELZ_1.
Make no mistake, the ELZ_1 is intended to be a compact portable synth. Many of the design choices were influenced by this primary function. It wasn’t designed to replace your older classics, rather add a fun new palate to your color scheme that has the added benefit of being something you can throw in your backpack. When it first arrived at my studio, I was amazed how small the box actually was. I cracked open the package and staring back at me was a modestly-simple rectangle with a handful of buttons, knobs, keys and an LCD screen. The box included a few pieces of simple documentation (detailed manuals available on their website), a USB/DC power cable and a soft case.
Again, modest and simple, but definitely enough for you to get right into it. At first glance, I was a bit concerned that the feel of the buttons, knobs, and keys were a bit cheap. After I fired it up and began to experiment, however, I realized that I began to like the design “flaws,” if you will. More on that a little later…
Just the basics, really. Pretty much everything you need, and nothing you don’t. For power, you have the option of 4AA batteries, or a USB powered 5V DC power input jack (cable included), perfectly designed for portability. You get three options for listening: internal speaker, headphones or stereo ¼-inch line outputs. All MIDI and file data flow through a single mini USB jack. This can be connected to external MIDI sources (MIDI keyboard, etc.), or straight into a computer for use with your DAW. This is also how you access file backups, and firmware updates — keeping things simple, portable and flexible at the same time.
Since I do most of my work through a DAW, I went right for the USB hub. No problems there, just plug in, enable MIDI as an external device and go. You also have an aux input for sampling audio, but more on that a little later.
Two words: simple and intuitive. Obviously, the entire bottom half of the synth is dominated by the d-pad style 37-note keyboard, but the top half is where all the magic happens, particularly the top left. Digital synths that have a lot of sub-menus can be pretty deep, and the ELZ_1 is no exception. But fortunately, the layout has been arranged in a way that I feel is very intuitive and doesn’t take too much time to get a feel for.
The key to this success is the bright color LED screen and the repeatability of each sub-menu’s layout. You have five buttons and five knobs — and that’s pretty much it. Each button represents a core function of the synth (oscillator, envelope, filter, effects and arpeggiator), and each knob represents parameters that can be changed that show up on the screen.
In a nutshell, each button opens up a page, and each page allows for five parameters to be changed at a time via the knobs. If there are more possible parameters to change, you simply hit the button again for the next page. Assuming you have a basic foundation of how synths work, you can start coming up with great sounds within minutes.
Buttons, switches, knobs and simple design are all well and good, but if it doesn’t sound good, then what’s the point? Well, luckily, the ELZ_1 has the sounds to back it up. The first thing I did when I fired it up was rolled through the 118 presets that were already on the synth. This just helps you get a basic feel for what the synth is capable of.
I was impressed with the variety, so, I started reading the manual to see what made this thing tick. With 11 different types of oscillators (not waveforms) to choose from, and having the ability to add modulation to most parameters, the possibilities for sound design are vast. Plus, with the addition of highly-tweakable filters, effects, an arpeggiator and an onboard sequencer, the palate keeps expanding.
Even though I consider this a versatile synth, it still has its own character sound. It’s not what I would call a “huge modern” sounding synth. It’s more of a nod to the simple classics of yesterday, but with a new twist. The ELZ_1 covers a lot of bases, and I won’t go into every detail that you can read about in the manual, but there are two oscillators types that deserve special mentioning here: 8-bit Wavemem and SiGrinder.
The ELZ_1 really excels and puts a lot of attention into classic 8-bit chip tune style synthesis, and you can go deep. Shaping, combining and morphing your own custom waveforms can keep you busy for hours creating sounds you remember from all of your favorite classic video games…seriously a blast.
SiGrinder is in a completely different stratosphere than the 8-bit Wavemem. Basically, it’s a sample-based granular synth that allows you to record your own waveforms right into the aux input. You can mangle these sounds into oblivion! Details aside, the overall takeaway is that any sound I came up with was fun to make and sounded great. And that’s the key, inspiring creativity.
As I mentioned above, I was a little concerned with what I considered “cheap” knobs, buttons and keys. The keys are a bit clunky, and the knobs are small and have no resistance. But as I began to experiment and play around, I started to like those features. The keys inspired a different way of playing, and the small, low-resistance knobs allowed me to tweak parameters on the fly with just one finger. Now, I don’t think I would want to change it. After all, you can always simply hook up a MIDI keyboard if you want piano-style keys with velocity. Plus, that would likely affect the portable nature of the design.
As you can probably tell, I like pretty much everything about the ELZ_1 — more than I thought I would actually. But there are a few small details that I think could be improved upon.
1) I would love to see the addition of some kind of pitch bend. Nothing fancy, just a great function to have.
2) The on-board memory is pretty small. When you start saving and backing up your settings, you can run out of room pretty quick. You can always archive your settings onto your Mac or PC, but recalling that can be a hassle. I’d love to see more on-board memory for additional bank storage, or maybe a USB-A port that would allow the use of flash drive storage.
Coming in at $599, the ELZ_1 is totally worth the price. It’s built well, fun, intuitive, sounds great and most of all, inspires creativity. It’s definitely a worthy tool to have in a synth arsenal.