This little marvel only costs… $250?!
Call me a late bloomer, but I’ve been resisting the siren song of hardware modular synthesis – until I discovered Cre8audio’s latest desktop synth. There is something incredibly seductive about these affordable, small, and self-contained synths that it was simply too much for me to resist. I just had to go buy one.
The West Pest is a semi-modular monophonic desktop synth made in collaboration between Cre8audio and legendary synth designers Pittsburgh Modular. It features a fantastic-sounding boutique oscillator, a dynamic filtering and wave-folding section, a fairly comprehensive set of input and output patch points (including MIDI in and out), a built-in sequencer/arpeggiator, and a set of cute round plastic buttons that work as a surprisingly playable one-octave keyboard.
East vs. West. Earlier this year Cre8audio released the East Beast, a similarly priced and -featured desktop synth, and then quickly followed it with the West Pest a few months later. What’s the difference between the two?
To answer that we have to go back to the early days of synthesis, when two schools of thought developed re: how to go about producing synthetic sounds. On the East Coast, developers like Bob Moog and Alan Robert Pearlman used a subtractive method of sound generation.
This method shapes the incoming wave through a set of filters and VCAs by “removing” frequencies and creating an amplitude envelope shape. Subtractive synthesis generated the type of traditional sounds that we recognize in sweeping pads, soaring leads and phat bass tones.
West vs. East. On the West Coast, developers such as Don Buchla used a method of sound manipulation called Wave Folding to create tones with biting attacks and a percussive, almost organic nature. Cre8audio’s West Pest uses this latter approach to sound creation to provide a very complex, sometimes verging on chaotic, type of synthesis that would be impossible to replicate with subtractive methods alone.
The synth. Diving right into the West Pest is easy and fun thanks both to the built-in keyboard and a convenient output jack that’s headphones-friendly. The compact size and light weight makes it an ideal couch companion for late night synth explorations (perhaps while your significant other endlessly browses the latest Netflix offerings).
Wave Folding does pretty much what the name implies: the wave is first amplified, but instead of flattening out when it approaches the upper threshold (and simply distorting), it gets folded back onto itself, creating a more complex wave shape. This folding process can be repeated several times over to create an increasingly complex waveform full of rich overtones and odd harmonics.
The other secret sauce element in the West Pest is a filtering and shaping module called the Dynamics Controller. The Dynamics Controller is based on Don Buchla’s famous “LoPass” gate, which excels at creating decay envelopes with a more organic or natural character than those generated through a standard VCA. Pittsburgh Modular also added a Sustain dial that allows for longer envelopes than was possible on the Buchla synths.
The combination of the Wave Folding and Dynamics Controller is what allows the West Pest to create such compellingly unique synth sounds. It’s perfect for those looking to venture into the more experimental sonic waters of West Coast-style synthesis.
Starting with all the knobs at their leftmost minimum setting (except the volume knob, that is) and the main oscillator wave set to Sine yields a punchy mellow tone, that at lower octaves resembles an 808 style kick. Turning the large Fold knob to higher values introduces more bite to the sound, almost as if the wave is being distorted, only with more pleasing and rich overtones.
The attack becomes almost a snap, adding a percussive tone reminiscent of hitting a tight drum which is very suitable to fast sequences and arpeggios.
The West Pest’s oscillator offers three wave shapes – Sine, Triangle, and Saw – as well as paired combinations (for instance Sine and Triangle, or Triangle and Saw). A Noise wave is also available, which can be a useful way to achieve high frequency percussion like snares and laser zaps.
A Random trigger mode will automatically switch between the three main oscillator waves with each incoming note, adding variety to arpeggios and sequences.
The Dynamics Controller section plays another important role in the signal chain. While at first this might appear to be a simple envelope shaper, rich and complex sonic characteristics start emerging as the Sustain and Release knobs are turned clockwise, encouraging further experimentation.
Lastly an FM (frequency modulation) knob can impart wobbly and unpredictable variations to the sound, adding yet another layer of depth and complexity.
Of course the West Pest has a built-in LFO (low frequency oscillator), designed to add motion to the wave folding, the Dynamics Controller release, and the Frequency Modulation. The LFO range can be switched between slow-to-medium-speed and medium-to-ludicrous-speed. The latter is a useful way to add a metallic vocoder-like characteristic to the sound.
Spice of life. If you’re getting the idea that this little guy can produce an insane variety of sounds, you’d be absolutely right – and I haven’t even touched on the “modular” portion of this semi-modular synth. The right side of the front panel is populated with 20 1/8” jacks – ten inputs and ten outputs.
Signals from various components of the West Pest can be patched in creative ways to offer even more sonic mayhem, or to other EuroRack-style modules. Cre8audio even packages a handful of short patch cables to get you started.
To get a taste of how useful this patching can be I used the Multi output to drive a variety of functions, such as the FM or even the Note Pitch. Multi is, as the name implies, a multifunction driver that can be switched between incoming MIDI CC data, a second LFO whose speed is based on the sequence or MIDI tempo, random values (particularly cool when used to drive the pitch), or a Decay Envelope.
Other drivers include LFO, Triangle or Square wave, Gate, Pitch and Fold.
Rounding up the West Pest is a built-in 32 step sequencer/arpeggiator with an unusual and very handy Pattern Generator that can create random sequences to get the creative juices flowing. The sequencer speed can be set either with the Tap Tempo button, or incoming from a DAW or other master clock device through MIDI sync. I found the West Pest to be an ideal complement to software instruments in my toolbox, adding a unique, somewhat vintage character to my tracks.
Considering all of the functions that Pittsburgh Modular and Cre8audio have crammed into such a small and affordable synth, it might seem gauche to criticize it for only having a set of four LEDs (the “4-bit display”) to select modes. While more would have raised the cost, this can be a little confusing to understand without referring to the manual.
It would also have cost more to include MIDI DIN jacks (or better yet, USB MIDI) instead of the included 1/8″ to MIDI dongle. Same with a 1/4″ audio output jack. And a little instrument like this would really benefit from a battery power option, in my opinion; I can imagine spending hours jamming with the West Pest while wearing headphones on the beach or on a long flight.
But these are minor comments, and I understand the need to keep things as simple as possible to keep this instrument affordable.
Finally, I personally like the look of the front panel’s quirky yellow graphics, straight out of an underground comic book. Kudos to Cre8Audio for not succumbing to a generic design.
Go west, young man and woman. So should you get a West Pest? In my opinion the answer is a resounding yes!
The combination of sound quality, a wide ranging sonic palette, the incredibly vast and well-rounded set of functions, and a price that’s almost too good to be true make the West Pest one of the most compelling small synths to come around in decades.
In addition, the option to remove the unit from its desktop enclosure and mount it into a standard Euro Rack setup makes the West Pest a fantastic gateway drug to the deep rabbit hole of modular synthesis.