Making Music with the Internet’s Most Reviled Synthesizer

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I recently bought a Red Sound Systems DarkStar eight voice, polyphonic, tabletop synthesizer. This feature packed virtual analog (VA) was released in 1999 by the British manufacturer. Despite a glowing review from Sound on Sound on arrival, the instrument didn’t quite take off and was discontinued, along with its younger sibling the DarkStar XP2, after just a few years in production. Even more curious than that is the amount of vitriol amassed for the DarkStar on forums all over the web. I could go on, but suffice it to say that “piece of shit” was among the milder comments.

So why bother trying to make use of an abandoned device that broad swaths of the community dismiss while more zealous members condemn? Well, digging a little deeper led me to discover that although the instrument does have its shortcomings it also has its strengths and at least a handful of people seem to appreciate the character and flexibility of the DarkStar. Five part multi-timbral, two MIDI clock sync-able LFOs per part, low-band-high pass switchable 12db filter, full MIDI implementation, and loads of modulation routing add to the depth of the synth. It also has some quirky features like a formant waveform on oscillator 2, ring modulation, and a random LFO shape that interpolates between the values.



SO WHY ALL THE HATE?

1) It only has RCA outputs. This is one of the biggest complaints about the DarkStar. It doesn’t bother me because I have plenty of good quality RCA to 1/4″ cables. RCA works just as well as 1/4″ (non TRS) when it comes to fidelity. I’d rather have RCA than the 1/8″ mini jacks on the Korg Volcas for example.

2) It lacks a headphone output. While inconvenient, most of the time I’ll have it plugged into a mixer with a headphone output anyway. This is a desktop synth with no keyboard. An audition button lets you listen to the current patch, but it’s not practical for headphone programming on the couch.

3) It has no dedicated volume knob. This is also inconvenient, but once again, I’ll have it plugged into a mixer most of the time and one button press swaps the envelope attack to volume for the current part. The part volume can be also adjusted per channel via MIDI CC, so one could easily control the levels with an additional MIDI controller.

4) It suffers from low output levels. This is partially true. On the other hand, a big patch using all the parts can virtually overdrive the unit. The DarkStar is dynamic and that can be tricky. For example when the velocity sensitivity is applied to a patch it can sound quiet unless playing very hard. Fortunately there are eight levels of sensitivity for the amp and filter envelopes. Carefully adjusting these can get your patches louder while maintaining dynamic control.

5) It sounds thin. This comment simply exhibits a lack of understanding for sound synthesis in general. It can sound thin if you want it to because the filter has a high pass mode that purposefully cuts off the lows. However, the DarkStar will rattle your speakers if you want it to when the low pass filter is enabled. Stacking several parts with subtle filter differences will produce a fat, complex, bass synth.

6) It’s difficult to program. In this case the reality is quite the opposite. A knobby interface provides instant access to the oscillators, envelopes, LFOs, and filter. Most of the encoders are multi purpose. A shift or part key toggles access to the alternate parameters. There is some menu diving necessary to adjust oscillator 2 settings, part settings, modulation routing, and filter tracking, but these are usually found with no more than a few button presses.

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For me the DarkStar fulfills a spectrum of features that I’ve been looking for in a desktop poly. It has a low profile so I can use it along side a collection of other devices while performing. It has eight voice polyphony allowing me to produce dense harmonies. It has a bloody joystick to control the filter and resonance! The joystick can also be configured to control ring modulation and oscillator mix. Many knobs make sculpting the sound in realtime possible. The LFOs have ramp, triangle, square, sine, pulse, sample & hold, and “random” waveforms. What random does is pretty remarkable. Similar to slew on the Novation Bass Station II, it interpolates or slides between random values instead of jumping to them like sample & hold does. This is especially nice for panning and one of the things that distinguishes the DarkStar from other VAs of the time.

I’ll be the first to admit that the presets are mostly retched, buzzy, sawtooth affairs, but if you’re willing to take an hour or two to learn the clear and concise architecture of the DarkStar a sonic reward is there to be had. Have a listen to the experiments shared on SoundCloud and let me know what you think in the comments below.

25 thoughts on “Making Music with the Internet’s Most Reviled Synthesizer

  1. …I have one as well, freely admit to not using it much for some of the aforementioned issues, but I had no idea it was so reviled! I don’t think it sounds bad at all, mostly just a little inconvenient to use, and with the preponderance of decent VA’s at my disposal from Nords to ITB stuff, it has been a bit ignored… but I certainly don’t understand the hate! Thanks for posting this…

  2. I have its larger sibling the RedSound eleVAta which has all those features that people complained were missing on the Dark Star like headphone jack, 1/4″ outputs and volume knob, and a host more. The “sound wizard” button is nice – it just randomizes all the settings to help create new sounds. Add an arpeggiator, 8 part multitimbral, 16 voices, 127 user patches and a 3u rackmountable chassis that can double as a tabletop with an adjustable incline ala minimoog (hence the “elevata” where VA stands for virtual analog). The sound to me is sorta like an ARP 2600 – very pleasantly raw. Apparently only a tiny amount were made, i forget the exact number but 200 or less?

  3. Hey Tommy B, most of the complaints I read were, as you might expect, on Gearslutz, Harmony Central, and Reddit. I do admit to slight hyperbole in the title, but hey, “made you look!” ;-) Seriously though, I can see why people got upset about it when Red Sound pulled the plug on production and support. A lot of the units suffered from buggy OS versions and bad encoders. The one I got works perfectly, so I feel pretty lucky about that. I also got an XP2 around the same time that had several bad encoders on it. You had to push them in to change the values. Thankfully I was able to return it. If I’d been stuck with that unit I might be on the other side of the fence.

  4. It should be mentioned the XP2 version has the 1/4″ outputs (plus two additional assignable outs), master volume, headphone output, a jogwheel instead of cursor buttons, and I believe it added chorus, too?

  5. The darkstar was my first synth. I never quite understood all the hate for the little guy. The only thing that ever irked me was the square wave was never truly “square” at a 50% PW. It’s easy to program, has 5 parts and a multimode filter. The darkstar xp2 is quite nice because it has 1/4 inch outs, volume and a headphone jack. It’s still a little buggy and quirky, but honestly aren’t those the things we love about old synths?

  6. @Nate, yeah the type 1 oscillator is weird! I kind of like how it is variable between sawtooth and square. It’d be nice if there were a triangle thrown in there, but as you said, those quirks are what we love!

  7. I’ve owned and sold both the DarkStar and Elevata. The only patches I missed were the thin whispy band pass cicada pads. So I built some on my Virus TI2 Polar. Super easy.

  8. John, the demos on SoundCloud are GREAT! I found a DarkStar on ebay for $200.00 US, a few years back, and asked my partner to buy it for my birthday. I just have not dug it out to play with much. Actually, since moving to CA fro CT, most all my synths are in storage, but this is in an easily accessible drawer. Time to dig it out I think… THANK YOU! What a treat to find this article on Facebook, AND your tracks! :) You have a ton of great patches! Any chance of getting the collection?

  9. @Buzz R. Most of the sounds in the demos I just dialed in and didn’t bother saving so I can’t really offer any patches yet. Perhaps once I’ve saved more than just a few I’ll post a sysex dump. Thanks for the feedback and I hope you enjoy your DarkStar once you’ve retrieved it from storage!

  10. I didn’t even know this “little synth” existed until I’ve read the article on Synthopia and now here.

    Also, I’ve been loving the demos since yesterday, in loop. This beauty can sound amazing although some quirks and limitations.

    Bottom line is: thank you for this article. I can’t wait for my DarkStar + Vocoda to arrive. I bought it on eBay after reading this article.

  11. Congratulations, Aner. Please share some examples here once you get it. I’m especially interested in hearing the Vocoda ROM. I haven’t been able to find any examples online. Cheers!

  12. Thank you John, I’ll post to soundcloud as soon as I have something meaningful.

    I have a question about your DS tracks: is there any effect involved ? e.g: a bit of reverb or anything? or is it just plain DS?

    Another question is: I found a XS-FX, is that worth/good as a “companion” for the DS? (how much would be too much to spend on it?)

  13. Yes @Aner. My demos are recorded into Ableton Live and have delay and reverb on most of them. I also ran them through a mastering chain during mix down. The only patch that doesn’t have any reverb or delay is the bass on DarkStar Juicy Bass. Sorry to say I have no experience with the XS-FS. I used Ableton’s stock plugins on my tracks.

  14. I guess it was the programming interface which caused a lot of hate . The first Darkstar i bought, roughly ten years ago, had worn out knobs and switches, so programming was the hell and in result it had left some sort of bad taste in my mouth. Now i’ve bought for cheap a second one, practically unused, a low serial number (below 350), in a metal housing (not the plastic one) without this “hip” and weird lettering on the front panel and i am complete blown away by its abilities. Sure, its not much comparable to other VAs in terms of being user friendly and as you said, it lacks a lot of features, which Musicians with a real home studio would need, like individual outputs for each part or RCA-Jacks, but they were back then not the target market for this thing. It was DJ-Equipment. One thing i still don’t like is that it doesn’t seem to re-assign new notes while other notes are still being held on the same part. It seems to run from voice 1 through 8, regardless if a note is currently active while rolling through the voices, or not. It simply kills the active one. My opinion: It would be great if Red Sound would release the OS-code for the Darkstar to let improve the Operating System by the community, like people did for the old TX16W Sampler and its improved OS named Typhoon 2000 in order to make this thing usable in a studio environment.

  15. @Stef. Thanks for the insight. I agree that it would be great if the source were released for would-be hackers. I think there’s little chance of that, but I did see a full sysex spec in the Yahoo Darkstar Group files section. If nothing else that might be helpful. Glad to hear that the DS is getting some love. Cheers!

  16. @John
    You nailed it ! Thank you John. The Darkstar is well underrated, but still a lovely “piece of shit” in terms of dirty charme plus having it’s own character – something softsynths still keep missing.
    Spending some time in programming and most sounds would
    function in the mix. And yes, the presets are thin, something
    RedSound didn’t focus and so frighten consumers, but keeping
    these only as a starting basis works fine. I for myself love
    the joystick, hey it sends MIDI data ! The only thing i dislike is it’s
    “slowness” which enables big pad sounds, but fast percussive
    bass sounds are very hard to programm. The artifacts we get when morphing sounds i welcome due to the own character.

    Cheers Tony

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