This review kindly written by Tony Long. You can read more reviews like this, along with Tony's productions at his personal site -> Tony Long Music
INTRODUCTION TO THE WALDORF BLOFELD
Despite its small size and price the Waldorf Blofeld synthesizer module, I am told has an extremely powerful synth engine. The German powerhouse company Waldorf sadly folded in 2004, perhaps now they are back they are ready to "take over the world" with their supervillan three-oscillator synth which has undergone a few OS updates and bug fixes since its release in 2008.
Taking this cool and sleek module out of its box, the first thing that surprised me was its weight for its size. The specifications are weight: 1.3 kg, Width: 304 mm, Depth: 132 mm and Height (including knobs): 54 mm. This is a very sturdy piece of kit elegantly housed in its metal casing with eight solid stainless steel knobs for some fun tweak-ability. It seems that it is exactly the right size and weight to sit comfortably on any keyboard like a Nord Piano, a Roland Fantom G or a Yamaha Motif and not block any controls from view. It uses virtual analog technology from the classic "Q" synth, and Wavetable synthesis from the Microwaves. I need to make my MIDI connection to hear what this combination of Synths sounds like and find out how powerful this James Bondish Module really is.
SOUND and SOUNDS
As you switch it on, its large easy to read 128 x 64 pixel screen displays its name and then it blurs and then displays the message "From Germany with Love". Selecting sounds seems straightforward enough. The sounds are divided into 8 banks (A to H) of 128 preset sounds. To browse through the 1024 sounds in these banks just use the endless stainless steel knob dial above the Play button. If you need to jump to a different bank turn the left dial under the display. You can also select a category with the right dial under the display. The Blofeld will then only show the sounds belonging to that particular category.
As I started to go through the sounds, I realised a couple of things. Firstly this is a Waldorf and like all makes it has it's own distinct sound - a "Waldorf" sound. I can't say any of the sounds sounded bad, it was just that I was waiting or possibly hoping that a sound was going to really stand out and grab me. This did not happen but instead my ears became familiar with its warmth and organic analog sound that I remember on the Waldorf "Q". I found that as I listened more carefully I could hear very subtle nuances within the overall sound. The problem today is that we are exposed to thousands of patches on both hardware and software synths. We somehow expect that every new sound we hear should be better than on the last synth we heard. For me I am more interested in how usable the sound is and does it give me some inspiration for songwriting. I decided to put the Blofeld to the test and start to immediately use it in my DAW - Sonar to record and write a new song. I was surprised to find that very quickly I had something coming together and that I was pleased with the overall sound. Perhaps the only thing I found from a recording point of view was that the volume of the sounds was very much lower than my other hardware synths.
In my opinion the Blofeld seems to be at its best for Pads (shimmering and evolving), FX, digital sounds and bells and metallic industrial noises. I particularly like the Wavetable sounds for their rich textures. Perhaps I should also mention at this point that the Blofeld is fully programmable. If you really do not like one of the presets you can edit and/or overwrite it. With this in mind you really do not want to judge this synth solely on its presets but more on its potential. It has been designed with all the "Q" Oscillator models and all of the Microwave II / XT / XTk Wavetables. The fusion of the "Q" and Microwaves open up a world of tonal possibilities.
Is this the "Dr Evil" of all synths? Apart from the "From Germany with Love" message and references to "Q", there are many references to James Bond in the names of the patches such as ScaramangAtmo, Pussy Galore, Goldfinger Pad, Octopussy Pad, Goonraker, Spynett, and MI5 Pad. I am sure I have missed some. Although names are not important, (apart from the fact of giving you some indication of what the sound is like) in this case it does add a little fun to this "Mini Me" synth.
LAYOUT AND CONNECTIONS OF THE WALDORF BLOFELD
The layout is very concise with the LCD display, only 8 steel dials and 5 buttons, a MIDI IN and a USB connector, Left and Right output jack sockets and a headphone socket. That should not take too long to get to grips with. The lack of connectivity here has kept both the price down and its size. I am sure most of us would have liked to have seen more MIDI connectivity, another set of outputs and an external input, especially with the filters it has on board. This is a small table-top synth module with a small price tag and it has been designed with Waldorf's survival in a very competitive market. It will fit in almost anywhere in your setup and rests securely on four rubber feet, unfortunately there are no rackmout kits available.
The Blofeld is really divided into two parts. On the left hand side you have four steel knob dials which are used for Volume, Sound Selection, Bank Selection (to select from its 8 banks A to H) and a Category Filter Selection Dial (which allows you to select a category from the following options:- OFF, INIT, 97 ARPs, 85 ATMOs, 130 BASS, 1 DRUM, 68 FX, 72 KEYS, 18 LEAD, 73 MONO, 168 PADs, 73 PERCs, 194 POLYs, and 45 SEQs). I really like the feel of these knob dials. They feel very smooth and professional and you can feel a very subtle click as you rotate them, giving you a very controlled feel to what you are adjusting. This is another one of those gems that should be incorporated into all synths from now on.
On the right hand side you have the Parameter Matrix section which has another four steel knob dials. The Matrix is sub-divided into five sections - Oscillators, Filters, Modulation, Effects and Arpeggiator. Under the Oscillator Section, you can select any of the 3 Oscillators and use the four dials to adjust Shape, semitone, detune and Level. There are two filters and the dials will alter Cutoff, Resonance, Type and Envelope Amount for each filter. The Modulation section is a little more involved with a button to select from four options - Filter Envelope, Amp Envelope, LFO and Matrix. For the Filter and Amp envelopes you can adjust - Attack, Decay, Sustain and Release. With the LFO selected you can adjust Shape 1 and speed, and Shape 2 and speed. The final two sections, Effects and Arpeggiator only have 2 dial knobs each. The effects have Mix 1 and Mix 2 whilst the Arpeggiator allows for the Mode to be selected and for you to adjust the Clock.
The four buttons serve another purpose and are marked for Utility, Global, Sound / Multi and Shift. The Shift Button can be used with other buttons and allows further access to Utility and Global commands. These four buttons down the left side of the Matrix are used for quick edits and orange LEDs indicate which of the 10 available quick-edit rows you wish to edit. If you then turn the knob dial relating to the function in the corresponding vertical column you will see further information displayed on the LCD.
Before we get editing I feel that the Wavetables are worth mentioning. The thing with wavetable synthesis is that it combines many different waveforms of varying timbre and harmonics to form a continuous cycle of sound that stops and starts with a key press or release. The idea is that each wavetable is designed to have a different sonic character. You then have a Brilliance control which you can use to enhance harmonics and the oscillator models. The Blofeld has 128 waves per wavetable and there are 66 of them. These wavetables have been taken from the Microwave XTK and XT and the Q and Micro Q models and also the best one of them all - the Upper wavetable from the PPG Wave. I am sure you are now thinking like me, that you can make some cool sounds with this.
EDITING AND PROGRAMMING WITH THE WALDORF BLOFELD
You can edit any of the 1024 preset sounds and save them to your taste or create your own sounds. Editing is very straightforward especially with the well designed matrix and you can do deeper editing with the large LCD. The best way in my opinion to start to appreciate the ease of editing is to have a go. I thought I would just select a sound and start to alter the parameters for the three Oscillators. I found that without realising it after playing with the Oscillators that I had moved onto adjusting the Filters and Modulators. There is such a vast amount that can be changed here (more than 100 menus to consider), but I love the idea of "digestible chunks" as my Math's teacher used to say. What you have on screen at any one moment in time is either one or two parameters to tweak. This takes you mind away from the possibility of a mammoth task and focuses you on the job in hand. If you set the Blofeld's Auto Edit to "on" then you will find that every button you push on the matrix gives you a corresponding graphical display. There is no doubt in my mind that experimenting more often gives you better results than scrolling through thousands of sound patches, you could also use the randomize function to get you started. There is a learning curve here, because this is a deep programmable synth but at least it makes the process as painless as possible. I think of it as fun rather than pain though.
To complete the sounds you have created, you will find two available sets of effects on the Blofeld for each program. Effect 1 provides you with Chorus, Flanger, Phaser, Overdrive and something called "Triple FX" which is exactly what it says on the can - three effects in one. Effect 2 adds to this list with Delay, Clocked-Delay and Reverb. In play mode with the arpeggiator running, I put the effects to the test. I found that whilst the effects were there and doing a job which did improve my sound, I did not find anything outstanding about them. This could be another cost issue. There again I would also say that, the effects are very much like the sounds, in that they have that Waldorf flavour which has its own distinct warmth and grittiness. There are many that loved this on the Micro Q, so I am sure they will love the effects on the Blofeld. You do also have quite a few parameters on each effect to adjust the effects still further. To access these you need to be in the effects edit menu. Press the shift key and turn the selection dial to access the Parameter pages.
According to the Manual, "the Blofeld offers a deeply programmable Arpeggiator for every sound program. It can play a wide range of different rhythm patterns including accents and different timings, and allows creating sophisticated custom rhythm patterns. The arpeggiator uses a so-called note list that can store up to 16 notes. This list is set up depending on the Arpeggiator parameter settings".
What I quickly discovered was the need to know how to navigate to the Arpeggiator screens. If you are new to the Blofeld like me then follow these instructions. Start off by selecting say a Drum Sound from Bank H. Turn the Arpeggiator mode knob dial sufficiently until "Hold" is displayed. Play a chord on your attached keyboard to start the Arp running. Press the "Shift" button so that the Effects and Arpeggiator line is selected on the matrix. Turn the Selection knob dial located immediately left of the LCD and after the Effects Screens you will find 11 pages relating to the Arpeggiator. This is where the fun really begins where you will discover that you have so many parameters to play with creating new and interesting patterns which are syncable to MIDI Clock. I think this is one of the best Pattern Editors I have ever seen.
You have "Clock" to set the note value for the steps of the rhythm pattern. This covers triplets and dotted notes. The "Tempo" can be set from a large range of 40 to 300 beats per minute. "Pattern" sets the rhythm pattern that is used for generating the arpeggio. Here you can select from one of the 15 ROM patterns, or create your own custom rhythm pattern. "Direction" sets the direction that is used to play back the arpeggio. "Octave" has an incredible 10 octave range. "Length" sets the length of the generated arpeggio notes. "Overlap" has an on or off option in case you have two notes having equal pitch overlapping. "Timing Factor" has settings from 1 to 127 which increase the shuffling of the notes. "Velocity", which determines how velocity is interpreted in the arpeggio. "Pattern Length" from 1 to 16 sets the length of the rhythm pattern.
There are more features on top of this that allow you to adjust accents (definitely as a drummer this is my favourite bit), Glide notes and select the play order, to pause, to play the previous note again, or play the first or the last note, play notes together, play a chord consisting of all held notes or a randomly selected note. If you play with the effects section at the same time, effects such as delay can add to the rhythmic possibilities. Also I like the "One Shot" option as this is extremely handy for playing along with a live drummer. You can keep the timing together because you keep re-triggering. There are just too many options here to keep you creating all manor of patterns all through the winter nights and beyond - Great stuff.
WALDORF BLOFELD - CONCLUSION
Well the Waldorf Blofeld is definitely not a salad Mr. Bond. It has a Classic Waldorf / PPG sound, fuses together virtual analog and wavetable synthesis and gives you some cool phat sounding filters which are distinctly clean and smooth. It can deliver up to 25 notes of polyphony, is 16 part multi-timbral, has three awesome Oscillators, three fast LFOs, four fast Envelopes and the Filters are out of this world. I also found the modulation facilities excellent and you have a fab Arpeggiator which goes deep in terms of being able to program it. It sounds very different to a Roland, Yamaha or Korg synth and therefore could add to your existing sound pallet. I suppose you could compare it a bit to an Access Virus Snow, but the Blofeld is more than half the cost of the Snow. Yes there are some shortcomings with its lack of connections but you have to agree it is incredible value. You can also now get the Blofeld Keyboard which has a MIDI Out port and an input for a sustain pedal. Go and buy yourself one today and keep this classic company going and perhaps they will release some other little Gems to tempt us like "the Stromberg" all "From Germany with Love".