We'll admit that sometimes it doesn't take much to get our engines running here at Engadget HQ. If you can throw a couple of knobs, exposed circuitry, a 9v battery, and a sense of adventure into a semi-coherent package, we'll be pleased as punch. The SuONIO synthesizer, therefore, makes us very happy indeed.
SuONOIO is the band of former Nine Inch Nails keyboardist Alessandro Cortini, and SuONOIO is a pint-sized slab of silicon that comes bundled with a digital copy of the band's latest album. Delivered bubble-wrapped in a hand-stamped cardboard box -- if you've ever had the pleasure of unboxing an Arduino kit, you'll know the feeling -- it's pre-loaded with two banks of samples that were used to create the album.
Although it's a sample-based instrument, it's the user's job to create new noise using an array of jumper-activated effects and mixing techniques. It's not quite as expansive as an MPC, but as any good experimentalist knows, there's a lot to be gleaned from limitations and new interface paradigms.
Read on for our impressions of the noisebox and a tour of its inner workings!
At the core of the SuONOIO experience are the two identical sample banks -- 16 knob-selectable loops ranging from triangle waves to watery bloops to percussive backbeats. A "mix" knob crossfades between the two banks and frequency knobs control the playback speeds of each. As is usually the case in synthland, the real fun begins once you start exploring the effects section.
There are no buttons to be had onboard -- parameters are activated by attaching jumpers to terminals in four different areas, a nice pseudo-hackery touch that makes you feel like you're creating your own monster as you go along. Distortions and a series of adjustable delays and rhythm effects can be controlled by an onboard LFO. There's also a random on / off value generator that can be connected to nearly any other terminal on the board via adorable tiny patch cables, just to keep things interesting.
Easier heard than read, actually, so look at this:
The whole kit is powered by a 9V battery or an external power supply (neither are included in the package), and the output can be routed through an onboard 1" speaker or standard 1/4" jack. The onboard speaker is fun and convenient, but obviously won't give you much in the way of fidelity -- it's definitely best to plug in to your Marshall stack, or whatever other Rock Amplification Device you have laying around.
So: what kind of sounds can you pull from this thing? The tone is definitively rich and crunchy, with a Speak n' Spell vibe coming from the onboard chips. The crossfader-based interface encourages you to create loop derivatives independently and combine them with each other in unexpected ways. Syncing between the two channels is difficult, if not impossible, so it's natural to have one channel become the beat, and the other channel morph into the more plastic melodic element. Mr. Cortini and his hardware partner The Harvestmanplans to integrate a keyboard and inter-device syncing in the future, which is a nice idea -- but for now, you're planted firmly into the realm of of controlled chaos.
At $160, owning a SuONOIO isn't going to catapult you into Brian Eno territory. It might catapult you into Neon Indian territory, but that's a different story altogether. Either way, that's not the point: it will add a sharp little tool to your existing studio toolbox -- we can definitely see it being a loop kit to build off of or draw inspiration from. And we know our prepubescent selves would have been ecstatic to unbox one of these during our preferred annual religious or agnostic celebration events. During the time it's spent hanging around our house, it's also been a great conversation piece, temporarily transforming even our parents into knob-twiddling fiends.
Like all of our favorite toys, this little guy more than compensates for its lack of ability with a big helping of the most important ingredient of all: heart.