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ASM Hydrasynth Explorer – the Synth and Software Review



Larger versions have been praised for their sounds, but does this one go where no synth has gone before (other than a desktop or connected to Eurorack modules)?

And wouldn’t you know it. Just as we were going “to press,” ASM just announced a free, rather major firmware update. – NB 

Explorer is the latest and most affordable in the Hydrasynth line, launched by a relatively new manufacturer Ashun Sound Machines (ASM), based in Hong Kong and Los Angeles.

The earlier models in keyboard and desktop form, such as the Hydrasynth Deluxe, have been praised for their fresh approach to sound creation. Explorer represents an opportunity to get many of the same sonic options within a footprint that will fit easily on your desktop.

In fact Explorer offers three octaves of mini keys, a compact format already familiar from the long-lived MicroKorg and a few other synths, and has a battery power option (8 x AA batteries give about three hours in use). It can be powered over USB too, so you have an option of using a small or even portable USB power source. 

In terms of sound creation, the Explorer is eight voice polyphonic (16 with the latest firmware). This is true polyphony, not paraphonic playing with all voices through a single filter as on the Arturia MicroFreak. Like the MicroFreak, though, the Explorer has many waveform options that make it sound as if some sound processing is going on even if the filters are not doing anything at all.

The control panel layout is a good compromise between offering instant access to parameters and keeping the complexity and size of the panel down. Master volume, Octave Up/Down and Pitch Bend/Modulation strips (not wheels) are to the left.

At the top of the panel are no fewer than four controls devoted to the arpeggiator, its various patterns and swing options, so the arpeggiator is a real live performance asset. It includes advanced functions such as ratcheting (fast repeating notes) and random variation.

The filter has the usual cutoff and resonance controls. However, there’s also a Drive function to give a harsher sound, and a Morph control varies between two different filter effects. 

Main systems are go. The central portion of the Explorer panel is labelled “Main Systems.” With use of a small LCD display, this is where you’ll find the current sound name alternating with a moving waveform display.

But to its right is another LCD display in the section “Master Control/Module Select,” which offers another four multi-function rotaries with many display options, so you’re not doing all the programming work on a single small display. The panel is completed by a set of function select buttons arranged as a flow diagram from the oscillators, through the modifiers and filters, to the amplifier and effects.

Included within these buttons are no fewer than five selectors for different LFOs, so you can imagine the massive modulation effects possible. And there’s another secret weapon too – the keyboard offers “poly touch,” which is aftertouch with individual note sensitivity plus Key Up in addition to Key Down velocity sensitivity. 

The Main System area accesses 219 different wave shapes for the three oscillators, and by making a Wavelist of up to eight shapes it’s possible to morph or jump between them, as the old wavetable synthesis keyboards like the PPG or Korg Wavestation used to do.

Before oscillator sounds proceed to the filters they go through a choice of Mutators – FM synthesis, hard Sync, wave slicing, and others. The two filters can be used in series or parallel.

The Explorer’s LFOs, which can have delay and fade-in programmed, can also have up to 64 level steps entered to create melodic sequences. Similarly, the five DAHDSR envelopes can be routed for use as modulation sources. In all there are 29 modulation sources and 155 modulation destinations.

Yes, but what does it sound like? The answer to that question, given the vast number of routing and modulation possibilities not seen since something like the E-Mu Audity, is probably “anything it wants to.”

The Explorer can certainly compete in creating lead lines, basses, pads, analog or digital-sounding strings, arpeggios and sequences, wavetable sounds, and more. But the ultimate limitation is only your imagination (and the small keyboard, though you can always MIDI it up to a larger one). 

Five banks each of 128 internal patches are searchable, but the Explorer isn’t even limited to on-board sound creation – it offers analog CV and Gate outputs with 1V/Octave, 1.3 Volt/Octave (Buchla style), and Hz/Volt (Korg analog style) options, and two modulation CV outputs, so interfacing to a modular system is a breeze. That means you could readily process Explorer sounds with external filters, envelopes, and other effects.

As an indication of the kinds of sounds the factory presets are going for, here are the names of just some of the hundreds of factory preset sounds. There’s nothing called “Bosendorfer Grand Piano,” but there are plenty referring to Vangelis or Prophet 5s, for example:

A101 – an analog brass sound with plenty of reverb, brightness increasing with aftertouch.

A016 – a good go at the Vangelis slow brass sound from “Blade Runner.”

A023 – a digital “rolling marble” effect.

A027 – a respectable FM synthesis electric piano.

A043 – a deep echoed slow arpeggio.

A080 – another Vangelis sound, a brassy analog lead with aftertouch giving pitch bend.

A118 – a brassy Prophet 5 imitation.

B002 – Mello strings, not realistic, but with a lot of “analog tape” style modulation.

B02 – a Pink Floyd imitation, a reasonably twangy MiniMoog lead.

B037 – pipe organ with a nice white noise chiff.

B057 – good clanging PPG wave imitation.

B063 – mysterious pad with aftertouch effects.

B071 – that “Sexy Boy” vocal formant sound.

B087 – lullaby for Minions – random vocal formant effects

Explorer vs. the world. What is Explorer’s direct competition? The synth comes in at £500-£575 in the UK ($600 in the USA), and in terms of other mini keyboard synths the Korg Micro offers standard but quite flexible virtual analog synthesis with built-in effects; the Arturia Microfreak (£300) offers 4-note paraphonic playing, though the very new MiniFreak (£520) does have true polyphony; and the Modal Cobalt 5S (£340) offers 5-note polyphony but through a single filter. 

While the Explorer rests top of that table in terms of cost, there’s nothing to quite match it in the vast numbers of sound processing, effects, and modulation options available. Construction seems good, and the compact size, battery power option and CV/Gate output in addition to MIDI give it a potential place in almost any type of studio or stage setup (or indeed out in a field somewhere). 

There’s a very promotional video by Ashun here. Check out its very extensive range of sounds and performance techniques, and see whether you would like to explore the Explorer.

Price:  $600, £500-£575 in the UK

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