The price of entry into the world of modular synthesis has been trending downward for sometime. Moog even recently released the Mavis, a DIY Eurorack-compatible synth for just $350 – a shockingly low price from the company. But Cre8Audio seems to think that prices haven’t come down fast enough. It has been setting the pace in an incredible race to the bottom – and I don’t mean that as a bad thing.
In May, Cre8Audio announced the East Beast and West Pest – its first pair of self-contained synths for just $250. They’re some of the cheapest analog semi-modular synths that I’m aware of, save for the Korg Volca Modular, which is sort of a weird dead end on the synth family tree.
What they share
Unsurprisingly, the East Beast and West Pest have a lot in common. The basic chassis is the same, both have a 20-point patchbay, a 32-step sequencer, an arpeggiator, a one-octave keyboard, an LFO and a digital multi-mod tool. Even the core oscillator is very similar, with the West Pest having most of the same waveshapes and a slightly “buzzier” tone. It’s the rest of the sound-shaping modules that set the two apart from each other, with the East Beast and West Pest predictably leaning into East Coast and West Coast synth styles, respectively.
The build quality on both is about what you’d expect from something at this price point. There’s a lot of plastic and don’t seem like they’re designed with the rigors of your life in mind. They don’t feel cheap or toy-like, though; they just feel like what they are: entry level synthesizers. The larger knobs are easier to handle than the tiny ones on a Volca and the overall package feels a touch more robust than an IK Multimedia Uno. They’re also a lot more fun looking than those instruments. I know that the almost comicbook-esque aesthetic here won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I quite enjoy it. It’s playful and a bit silly, and let’s not forget – synths should be fun.
The keyboard is a welcome inclusion, perfect for auditioning patches or punching in sequences and arps. But, like the one on Moog’s Mavis, I wouldn’t want to actually rely on it for performance. The keys are small and a little wobbly. Plus most of the keys have two additional shift functions for controlling various features.
Honestly, the better bet is to use an external controller and set the built-in keyboard to default to the yellow / green functions instead. This is made easier by the fact that both the East Beast and West Pest have MIDI inputs and MIDI to CV converters for controlling other parameters. That’s not unheard of on a budget semi-modular synth, but it’s not a given either. Even some of Moog’s more expensive instruments like the DFAM don’t have MIDI support. I will make one minor note here though, MIDI notes were quite a few octaves higher than expected straight out of the box and I was initially a bit confused until I found the instructions for changing the octave offset in the manual.
One of the more unique shared features is the digital multi-mod tool. Since they only have one LFO and one envelope generator (or “dynamics section” in the case of the West Pest), this gives the instruments an extra set of controls to draw on. This can be an additional LFO, envelope, random generator or MIDI-to-CV output. There are some limitations, for instance you can only map a single MIDI CC, and the envelope is a simple decay envelope with seven preset rates, but it’s a nice addition nonetheless.
It’s a similar story with the sequencer and arpeggiator. They get the job done, and I’m glad they’re here, but both are pretty basic. The arpeggiator only has two modes – as played and random. While the sequencer can be 32 steps, you basically just add notes to the end until you’re happy with it. If you make a mistake your only option is to clear the whole thing and start over.
While dialing in basic sounds and patches is pretty straightforward, there are a bunch of options and features hidden behind those shift functions. And navigating them isn’t always intuitive. Obviously, I’m not expecting a giant display with detailed graphics on a $250 synth, but the “4-bit display” (read: four LEDs in a line) can feel arcane at times. I’ve had both for over a month now and I still have to refer to the manual to remember that the first two LEDs mean I’m dividing the clock by two for the LFO; or that the first, third and fourth lights mean I’ve set the swing to 64 percent. This is obviously not a deal-breaker by any means. But if you’re the type of person who proudly refuses to read manuals you might feel frustrated at times.
Let’s dig into the more “normal” of the two instruments. This is probably what most people envision when they think of a synthesizer. A big rich oscillator, a filter for shaving off harmonics and an ADSR envelope for controlling amplitude. While this doesn’t really sound like a Moog, it clearly shares a similar lineage.
The multi-mode filter and oscillator are straight from boutique synth makers Pittsburgh Modular which gives this decidedly budget affair some serious street cred. The oscillator has sine, triangle, saw and square waves, and you can combine two of them to deliver thicker, more unique sounds when needed. It’s something that Pittsburgh Modular has been perfecting for around 10 years. It does sound pretty massive.
Being a mono synth, you’re not gonna get compelling pads out of the East Beast, but it shines as a lead and bass machine. It can do big room shaking low end, thick creamy solos and delicate high-end plucks. It even has pulse width modulation for the square wave, which gets you wonderful video game noises, and FM for harsher, more bell-like tones. I actually think it’s at its best playing softer leads, using the filter to shave off a lot of the high end.
The filter is probably the star of the show, by the way. Often it’s what brings the most character to the sound of a synth, and this one delivers. It’s variable state, going from low pass, to band pass to high pass. But it can also combine those in interesting ways. It does acid bass lines and nasal reedy sounds. There’s a reason the filter cutoff knob is about four times larger than all the other controls on the front panel: It’s probably the most powerful tool here for shaping your sound.
Both Cre8Audio and Pittsburgh Modular like to brag that this unique filter has “no dead spots”, that it’s really “all one large sweet spot”, and you know what, they’re probably right. I had a real hard time making this filter sound bad. No matter how much you crank the resonance, in every mode, even with the filter mod set to ludicrous levels, it’s surprisingly musical. It doesn’t self-oscillate, which might be a bummer for some, but it doesn’t bother me too much.
The West Pest is sort of like the East Beast’s hippy cousin. It’s a tad strange, and has to do everything a little differently, but it’s no less compelling – just a bit tougher to tame. It has many of the same features and a very similar oscillator, but it trades the variable state filter and ADSR envelope for a lowpass gate and adds a wave folder.
I’d venture to say that, similar to the East Beast, the Pest is most comfortable with bass and plucky leads. But the timbre is completely different. It’s more aggressive and sharp, trading in the creamy goodness of its counterpart for the plasticky weirdness more often associated with Buchla synths.
Because it travels in less familiar territory, it can feel a little harder to make work in an arrangement. But, it can be a more satisfying solo instrument. Both synths have robust randomization features, including randomly cycling through oscillator waveforms and generative sequencing capabilities, but those feel more at home on the West Pest.
Setting the digital mod tool to random, and connecting it to the release mod jack will alter how long notes ring out. Then using the random pattern generator with morphing will play a continuously evolving sequence. And then you can get the oscillator wave to change for every note, giving you something truly unpredictable. Feed that through an epic reverb pedal and you’ve got a custom, soothing soundtrack for working or reading to.
Yes, you could accomplish a similar thing with the East Beast since it has most of the same randomization tools (save the release mod), and it’s probably the more versatile instrument, but I find the results on the West Pest more pleasing. And, honestly, this is one of the ways I often use synths in my studio – passively as a sort of fidget toy or to set a mood while I plug away on editing articles for Engadget.
With other gear
The one thing I will say is that the West Pest does need a little external help to shine, more so than the East Beast. Its rubbery bass sounds are pretty usable on their own, but once you start getting into the higher frequencies, reverb and delay become a must.
But what you’re probably more interested in is how they interact with other modular gear. The 20-point patchbay makes it simple to integrate into a larger Eurorack (or compatible) setup – whether these are your gateway drug or just the latest symptom of your incurable GAS (gear acquisition syndrome).
I would say the patchbay is probably where you make the most trade-offs here, though. While there are indeed 20 patch points (evenly divided between ins and outs), four of them are dedicated to MIDI functions and one is the audio output. So that leaves 15 points for internal patching. Now, that both of these act as a MIDI to CV interface is extremely useful, and can simplify controlling other gear that isn’t MIDI compatible. For instance, you could feed MIDI from your computer to the West Pest then pass those controls on as CV to something like Moog’s Mavis. But it does eat into the options available to you for sound design on board.
It would be great to have access to the LFO rate or resonance level on the patch bay, for example. Or to have a few utilities like a mult. Cre8Audio crams a lot of versatility into the patchbay, through the multi mod tool, which gives you an extra envelope, LFO or a random generator, though it also has limitations. There’s enough power here to get you exploring the basics of patch design, but you’ll probably start wishing for a few more ins and outs sooner than later.
The East Beast and West Pest are both undeniably impressive values. At this price point there’s simply nothing like them on the market. They are usable and musical semi modular synths with unique and compelling features. What’s more they’re easy to integrate with other modular gear, and you can even take them out of their cases and mount them in a larger Eurorack set up. They’re near ideal choices for someone that’s looking to learn synthesis.
That is different from saying they’re an ideal first synth, full stop. If you’re just looking to pull up some great sounding presets and get on with your day, these are not for you. Cre8Audio’s instruments demand exploration and experimentation. And recalling a patch will require you to take copious notes. However, if you’ve ever watched a YouTube video of someone’s monstrous modular rack with unbridled jealousy, these are a good place to start your journey.