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.
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.