Ashun Sound Machines, or ASM, came virtually out of nowhere to deliver one of the most hyped synths of 2020. The Hydrasynth is an unabashedly digital instrument with an impressive collection of sound design tools and a proprietary keyboard that has polyphonic aftertouch. For those looking to leave behind the warm but staid world of analog for the complex frontiers of digital, it’s pretty alluring. But, while its $1,299 list price isn’t absurd given the feature set, it’s also out range for many hobbyists. Even the desktop model, which ditches the keyboard in favor of 24 pads, is slightly pricey at $799.
The new Hydrasynth Explorer, however, is expressly designed to get ASM’s keyboard and synth engine in the hands of as many people as possible. And it’s “portable” to boot. (Although, as I’ll get to later, the company’s definition of portable is highly questionable.) Of course to reach the more attainable price of $599, some things had to be sacrificed. But the good news is, most of what’s missing amounts to minor conveniences.
ASM Hydrasynth Explorer
- Unique wavemorphing sound engine
- Excellent keyboard with polyphonic aftertouch
- Seemingly bottomless sound design options
- Surprisingly straightforward interface
- Designing patches gets complicated fast
- Pushes the boundaries of what can be considered “portable”
Before we go any further, let’s set some expectations: I cannot possibly cover every feature of the Hydrasynth Explorer in detail. Even the 88-page manual feels like it’s just skimming the surface. If you’re looking for an exhaustive walkthrough, I highly recommend Loopop’s nearly hour-long tutorial on the original Hydrasynths and its half-hour long follow-up looking at what’s different on the Explorer and Deluxe.
The most important thing you need to know is that the core of the Hydrasynth — its wavemorphing engine — remains unchanged and it's running on the same hardware. So the Explorer still has eight-note polyphony, with three oscillators per voice, and over 200 waveforms to choose from. The first two oscillators can be static or in “wavescan” mode, which simply means you can choose up to eight waveforms at a time to morph between. While you can’t import your own custom wavetables, you can essentially build your own from the pre-approved ingredients.
Those oscillators can be combined and manipulated using what ASM calls Mutators — two each for oscillators one and two. There are eight different Mutators to choose from, ranging from classic FM (frequency modulation) and hard sync, to the slightly more exotic PhazDiff, and even three different flavors of pulse width modulation.
The third oscillator is a much simpler affair. It’s a static wave and it can’t be sent through a Mutator, but it can still add depth to a sound. The most obvious use is as a sub-oscillator to add a little bass, but it can also be fed through the ring modulator. Which, by the way: Yes, there is a ring modulator and a noise source as well.
There are also two filters, which can be in series or parallel, and you can control how much of each oscillator goes to which filter. The first filter has 16 different modes, ranging from classic 12db low pass to a speech-like vowel filter, while the second sweep from low pass, through bandpass or notch, and into high pass.
To control all these various parts, you’ve got five six-stage envelopes and five LFOs that all feed into a 32-slot modulation matrix. In total there are 29 modulation sources and 155 destinations. It’s a lot of variables to contend with. Frankly, it can feel overwhelming, and that’s even before you start digging into the effects and voice options like “density.”
The good news is, to get started with the Hydrasynth you don’t need to master its sound design tools, you can just dig into the presets. The stock sounds are pretty solid and cover a wide range of styles, though it does especially excel at icy ambience, strings and plucky keys. But even navigating those can be daunting, especially as some of them start to sound indistinguishable. There’s a grand total of 640 presets spread over five banks of 128 patches. Scrolling through them one by one with the large patch knob can get tedious. But if you turn your attention to the small OLED to the right of the “Main Systems” section, you can use the encoders there to filter presets by category, such as brass, ambient or e-piano. There’s also a favorites menu, where you bookmark 32 of your most used patches.