Saturday, September 12, 2009

Chimera Synthesis bC16 handheld modular synthesizer

In May of last year I bought a Chimera Synthesis bC16 synthesizer, and it finally arrived just the other day. The bC16 is a fully patchable synthesizer, nothing’s prewired for you. It’s not quite a modular because you can’t change the modules or move them around, but for all intents and purposes it may be the worlds smallest modular synth. It has sorta two VCOs, sorta two LFOs, a VCF, ADSR envelope generator, VCA, ring modulator, MIDI interface and an arpeggiator.

I say “sorta” because there aren’t really two fully accessible VCOs. Rather, there are two linked VCOs with one set of knobs and patch points. There’s a Difference knob (and control voltage input) to let you spread the two oscillators apart. They’re both really in there but you don’t exactly have individual access to them, and there’s just the one output jack. This isn’t a problem, it’s just something I felt I ought to point out. The LFOs are similar. There are two of them but knobs for only one. You’ve two less knobs for the LFO when compared to the VCO, and the VCO’s FM input jack is changed to a Ring Mod input for the LFOs.

The bC16 ships with 10 micro-sized banana-style patch cables. That will probably be more than enough for most purposes. It also comes with a patchable signal inverter so you can take a standard envelope, for example, and invert it before sending it to, say, the filter.

The envelope is loopable as well. If you set the sustain knob to 0 the envelope will repeatedly retrigger itself. You can get nice long drones that way. If you move the sustain knob up just a touch it functions in the normal one-shot way.

There’s still a million things I haven’t yet figured out. The manual is, shall we say, somewhat lacking still. For example, the VCO page simply says “work in progress” and nothing more. At least there is a manual, though. From what I can see in the forums there wasn’t one at all for quite some time. It’s freely downloadable from their web site, though, if you want to take a look at it.

The bC16 is not exactly your “normal” synthesizer (whatever that means!). For one, it uses the 0.586 volts per octave standard, according to the manual. I’m not 100% sure that that’s really a standard that I’ve ever heard of, but just because I’ve not heard of it doesn’t mean it isn’t one. Another oddity is the patch cables and jacks. The bC16 uses 2mm banana jacks, which are really small. There’s nothing wrong with that but it might make it difficult to find pre-made cables from sources other than Chimera. I’m not saying that’s a problem, but it’s something to keep in mind.

I’ve only had the bC16 for a day, but I have to say I’m pretty darn impressed. The build quality is amazing. The thing feels totally solid, and all the knobs and jacks are firm yet smooth. It’s a modular synthesizer that you can hold in the palm of your hand. It’s incredible flexible, sounds good and can make all sorts of noises. I may even hook it up to a MIDI keyboard one day and try to play some actual notes with it.

The piece below isn't really a tune but it's not really a demo either. About five minutes long, it's nothing but the bC16 recorded live into Ableton Live. No sequencers, arpeggiators, or overdubs.

Photo credit: bC16 front panel layout graphic was downloaded from the Chimera Synthesis web site as a PDF and formatted to fit this page.