Walk Away, Rene

The wonderful thing about modular synthesis is that once you understand how to do it, making sounds becomes a very intuitive process. Plug in a patch cord, grab a knob.

And then there’s the Make Noise Rene. Conceptually, it’s brilliant — very deep and powerful. As an actual piece of hardware, it could be improved by hitting it a few times with a hammer. And I say this with the greatest respect for Make Noise. I have two of their Maths modules, and also their DPO. Brilliant designs. Rene is another story.

The concept is, Rene is a two-dimensional step sequencer. It has 16 knobs arranged in a 4×4 grid, and you have independent control over the X and Y positions of the active step, using either a CV or a clock. If you don’t use a Y clock/CV input, the X control can either hang on one row or cycle through all 16 steps in various patterns. You can program it interactively, in real time, to skip certain steps. It has a quantized output, plus one that’s not quantized. It can glide from one output value to another. Plus a number of other features.

The knob tops are lighted so you can see what step is being played, or (in programming mode) what the current settings are. That’s good … but other than that, the user interface is really bad. There are two problems.

First, to program the rather elaborate functionality of the device, you touch one of the 18 touchplates (16 corresponding to the sequence steps, plus two for choosing program modes) with the tip of your finger. The trouble is, the touchplates are close to 100% nonresponsive. They ignore my fingers. This is apparently because my skin is not sweaty enough. I can get them to sort of respond, in a random unreliable way, by dipping my fingertip into a cup of water before touching the plate. Of course, if too much water gets on a touchplate, it may think my finger is there even after I’ve lifted it. So I dip my finger, dry it a bit on my trousers, and then it works for three or four finger-taps (maybe) before it stops working.

Second, and almost equally problematical, the device itself fails to provide nearly enough visual feedback on programming. There’s no LCD. There’s a row of six small colored LEDs that tell you which of the six programming modes you’re in. In each mode, the 16 touchplates do different things. To learn what they do, you have to consult the manual. Unless you’ve dedicated your life to learning how the device works, you may never manage to memorize all of the esoteric functions, so you’ll constantly be delving into the manual. And of course the manual is cryptic. The information is there, but you have to keep flipping up and down to different pages and … phooey.

If the touchplates worked, I’m sure I’d be able to learn the important functions within a week or two. I might even be motivated to do so. But right now, my motivation is seeping away into the woodwork.

To be fair, I have several other digital modules, including the Intellijel Shapeshifter oscillator, Mutable Instruments Braids, and the Tiptop Trigger Riot, all of which are brilliant, and none of which is exactly obvious. All three require more than a bit of manual-diving. (Shapeshifter is way deep.) Maybe I just need sweaty hands. On the other hand, they all have at least minimal data displays. You just have to learn what the lights on Rene mean by reading the manual, because zero information is actually visible on the panel.

Footnote: I contacted Make Noise, and they tell me they’ll recalibrate my unit to make it more sensitive. I’m shipping it to them today and keeping my (non-sweaty) fingers crossed.

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