Korg jump-started the craze for affordable, portable synths when it launched the Volca series in 2013. Major players like Roland got in on the action. As did more niche companies like Critter and Guitari and Modal Electronics. But 1010 Music might deserve credit for cramming the most raw power into the smallest possible package.
The company is launching a new line of candy-colored Nanobox instruments, starting with Fireball (a wavetable synthesizer) and Lemondrop (a granular synth). These are impossibly tiny, full-fledged synthesizers with a level of depth that dwarfs any Pocket Operator. But they’re not cheap, either. While they were never going to reach impulse-purchase territory, current supply chain issues mean the Fireball and Lemondrop are coming in at a somewhat pricey $399. For context, that’s more than twice what most Volcas cost. The thing is, though, after about 10 minutes with 1010 Music’s latest instruments, it becomes clear that they’re not competing with the Volcas, and might not have any direct competitors at all.
Before digging into the software side of things, let’s talk hardware. The Fireball and Lemondrop are just palette-swapped versions of each other: one a rich red, the other a yellow that might be visible from space. (I’m sure you can figure out which is which.) They’re fun looking in a way that few other synths are, regardless of size.
On the front there’s a two-inch touch screen, two knobs and four physical keys. Mastering the buttons, and how exactly they interact with the UI, takes a little practice. But once you figure out the logic behind the menu system it’s not too difficult to get around. Each section (oscillators, home, etcetera) has layers, and each layer has pages, which you navigate with the arrow buttons.
Around back is a USB-C jack for power (sadly, no MIDI over USB); ⅛-inch audio ins and outs; as well as TRS MIDI in and out anda microSD card slot. The synths come with a 32GB card installed, with over 100 sound sources and presets. If you want to load your own wavetables or sound files for processing with Lemondrop’s granulator, this is where you’ll need to copy them. But remember, since the Nanoboxes only use USB for power, you’ll have to actually take the card out, put it in a computer and copy the files over, before putting it back in the instrument.
The most distinctive thing about them physically, however, is their size. At 3.75 inches wide, 3 inches tall, and 1.5 inches thick, you can easily toss one (or both) of these in a bag or a large pocket. Even though I knew the dimensions beforehand, I was still shocked by just how tiny they were when I took them out of their boxes. And you’d be forgiven for immediately feeling skeptical of them. How can you possibly make music on something this small? And why would you want to? The answer to the first question is actually surprisingly straightforward. The second is a bit more complicated.
Let’s start with the easy bit. Despite the tiny size of the screens, both Lemondrop and Fireball are more than usable. Would it have been nice if they were a bit bigger? Sure. But they’re big enough to give you most of the important information at a quick glance: the movement of LFOs, envelopes, grains and changing waveshapes. The two knobs to the right of the screen are assignable macros when used from the main display screens. Twisting these can give you quick control over complex sets of parameters, or just change the filter cutoff. It’s up to you.
Those macros can also be controlled using the touchscreen when it's in X/Y mode. Frankly, for something of this size, it’s basically the ideal way to interact with it. It’s immensely satisfying and easy to dramatically alter the sound of a patch simply by sliding your finger around the screen. When you’re in this mode the two knobs change the default point of the macros on the X/Y axis, so you can push it all the way to the bottom left of the screen, then tap the top right to create intense rhythmic pulses.
Pairing X/Y mode with an external MIDI controller gives you a surprisingly hands-on instrument. But, if you want to just play the devices themselves, you can. There’s a grid mode where you can tap out notes, and you can lock it to a scale to avoid making too many mistakes. Now, this isn’t exactly the easiest or most enjoyable way to play a synth, but it gets the job done. I’ve found it particularly useful for sampling notes and chords from the Fireball to my PO-33, or playing a drone on the Lemondrop (using the hold function) and using the X/Y to create evolving soundscapes.
The biggest knock against the Nanoboxes on the hardware front is the lack of battery power. Yes, USB batteries are nearly ubiquitous at this point, but it would be great to have the option of powering them with a couple of AAs. Between audio, MIDI and power, there’s an awful lot of cables coming out of the back of what is ostensibly something portable.
The two instruments share a lot in common under the hood as well. The UI is largely the same. They both have a pair of primary sound sources (two wavetable oscillators or two granulators), plus a third simple oscillator that can help thicken up a sound using saw, square, triangle or sine waves. They both have two envelopes, two LFOs and a modulation sequencer, plus two morphable filters (low pass, high pass, bandpass and notch) that can be routed in series or parallel. Lastly, they both have two effects slots, one for modulation (chorus, flanger / distortion, or phaser) and one for time (delay or reverb).
This means basically that every pro for the Lemondrop also applies to the Fireball (with one notable exception we’ll get to later), and every con for the Fireball also applies to the Lemondrop. For example, while the effects are solid, and having pingpong delay on board is a welcome touch, they’re not going to win any awards. I will say that the reverb is truly excellent, though. Cranking it to full gets you some lovely, slightly unnatural ambience. And, when combined with the distortion, it results in some gorgeous digital howls that are perfect for scoring the surrealist ending of an arthouse horror film.
The two envelopes and LFOs are extremely useful for shaping your sound. They can create motion or manipulate the oscillators to constantly shift the tone. And many parameters can have up to three modulation sources for serious unpredictability. But not everything can be a modulation destination. Oddly, too, some destinations can only use a specific set of modulation sources. So if you wanted to use the LFO 2 to modulate the rate of the flanger – tough.
Similarly, the modulation sequencer is great for creating complex patterns, but it can only be used with a few different destinations. Thankfully, one of those destinations is oscillator pitch, and it can be quantized. That gives you access to a rudimentary sequencer, or makeshift arpeggiator without the need for additional gear. You can even use the sequencer to control just a single oscillator, giving you a note pattern played against a bass note.
I also can’t help but wish there was a centralized UI for controlling the modulation routing. Right now, if you want to see what macro X is controlling you have to dig through all the parameters one by one and go into the modulation submenu for it, and just kinda keep track as you go.
In general, designing patches requires a decent amount of menu diving. That’s not surprising given the size of the instruments. And credit to 1010music for designing an interface that never feels too cumbersome. That said, I do occasionally find myself forgetting where particular options are located.
Ultimately, the only real difference between the two is the sound engine. But it is a big difference.
The Fireball is very much a bread-and-butter wavetable synth. It comes with 103 wavetables and 123 presets covering everything from growly ‘90s bass tones to crystalline pads. But you can easily load your own wavetables if you have them. (The Fireball uses the same format as Serum – 2048 samples per cycle and 256 cycles – so finding wavetables should be pretty simple.)
The Fireball has eight note polyphony, which should be more than enough for most people. And the unison mode, with detune, is great for bulking up monophonic patches.
You can try to get something vaguely analog sounding out of it by using the right wavetables, and adding some drift with the modulation sources. But the 96kHz oscillators really are best at bright, clear digital tones. Which is fine, since the ‘90s are back in style, apparently. (See: the resurgence of Doc Martins and JNCOs.)
The Lemondrop, on the other hand, is something different. It, too, is obviously digital sounding. But it uses granular synthesis instead of wavetables. That means that it can take any sound file (up to 30 seconds in this instance), chop it up into tiny bits (or grains) and spit it back out. Those files can be literally anything you want: drum loops, synth pads, bird chips or the clanking of industrial machinery. There is only four-note polyphony here, but considering the complexity of the sound source, that’s more than enough. There are 16 grains per oscillator, and playing eight notes of jungle ambience simultaneously will only result in chaos.
What exactly each patch will sound like will depend largely on the audio source, but granular synth is pretty distinctive. Unsurprisingly, Lemondrop is exceptionally good at otherworldly soundscapes, atonal drones and oddball pads. While you find plenty of those among the 311 WAV files and 153 presets preloaded on the SD card, there are more traditional synth tones as well. By the way, you can, with the right settings and source material, create percussive loops that knock pretty hard when the granulators are beat-synced.
Granular synthesis isn’t new. But, dedicated hardware granular synths are few and far between. And often quite expensive. It’s far more common to find granular engines in Eurorack gear or as software. So that puts the Lemondrop in a fairly unique position as one of the only dedicated, standalone granular synths for under $500. Bastl’s microGranny is only $200, but its version of granular is far more limited, and it’s more of a lofi sampler than a proper synth. (That said, it is an awesome lofi sampler.
Both the Lemondrop and the Fireball also have external audio in jacks. You can feed other instruments through their built-in effects and use the X/Y pad to manipulate them in real time, just like with a Korg Kaoss Pad. This gives them both performance value beyond simply synthesizers. But, here again, the Lemondrop really differentiates itself from its sibling.
The granulators can use live incoming audio as their source material. That means you could process live vocals, or a guitar, or another synth in real time, breaking it up into little grains and mutating it with the X/Y pad. A particularly neat trick here is feeding a monophonic synth into the Lemondrop, and instantly turning it into a four-note polyphonic one.
The Fireball and Lemondrop are undeniably fascinating devices based entirely on their form factor. If space is the most important thing to you – whether that’s because your synth dungeon is the size of an airplane bathroom or because you’re trying to cram as much synth power as possible into a briefcase – there is obvious appeal here. These are among the smallest full-fledged synths you can get. And they offer a lot more power and flexibility than your average Volca.
There are obvious trade-offs, though. The lack of hands-on controls might deter some people. Sure, you can map an external MIDI controller to all the parameters, but that negates some of the portability. The lack of battery power also feels like a missed opportunity. Being able to throw one of the Nanoboxes in my bag with a couple of AAs and my PO-33 feels like it would be an almost unbeatable on-the-go setup.
Lastly, there’s price. $399 isn’t absurd considering the quality of the engines and the decent sound design tools. But, there is a lot of competition in the sub-$500 market. Modal’s Craft and Skulpt synths are tiny, dirt-cheap digital behemoths. To be fair, though, their interfaces are infuriating. And if portability isn’t a concern, there’s always the $349 MicroFreak, which requires almost no menu diving and is far more flexible than either Nanobox.
But, what none of those synths offer, is granular processing. So, while the Fireball is a good synth that faces some steep competition, the Lemondrop is ultimately peerless. The GR-1 is one of the few dedicated granular synths out there. It’s a large, reasonably high-end unit that costs €849.00. An arguably better option, at that point would be an Organelle, which has a number of granular patches available for it and is a few hundred dollars cheaper.
Both the Fireball and Lemondrop are impressive feats in engineering and sound great. But of the two, it’s the Lemondrop that makes an obvious case for space in your backpack or studio.