Make Noise Strega review: A wonderfully weird, one-of-a-kind synth

It's an amazing drone machine, a lo-fi delay and even a pretty solid overdrive.

Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

The Make Noise Strega is a strange beast.

If you’re a strict adherent to the familiar world of East Coast synthesis (think Moog), you might even consider it downright hostile. The face of the synth is a bewildering array of lines and shapes, labeled with odd terms like “activation” and “tonic.” The manual doesn’t go out of its way to clarify anything either. In fact, it tells you up front that it’s “not important to fully understand the Strega.” And it leans hard into treating the instrument as a metaphorical “alchemical experiment.”

Unless you’re drawn to strange and esoteric instruments, you might be turned off by the Strega. Tony Rolando of Make Noise, who co-designed the instrument with Alessandro Cortini, is quick to admit that it’s not for everybody — especially considering its $599 price. But, I think even many skeptics will be convinced if they give this little steel box of weirdness a chance.

All sounds in this demo are coming directly from the Strega:

Engadget · Strega tones

At the heart of the Strega is a single oscillator that morphs as you turn the “Tones” knob from a simple triangle wave, to a saw, to a much more complex folded waveform. On its own and completely dry, the oscillator is a bit thin sounding. Could you play a bassline on it? Sure. But don’t go throwing your Bass Station in the trash just yet.

Make Noise Strega
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

The truth is, though, the monophonic oscillator is not the star of the show here. Unlike other synths, the soul of the Strega isn’t in its sound generator. Instead, the character comes from the combination of a multimode filter and lo-fi delay (a PT2399-based effect that can trace its origins back to karaoke machines) . While there is a blend knob that allows you to mix the raw sound of the oscillator with the results of the delay and filter, Rolando and Cortini actually suggested recently in an interview with Engadget that there’s almost no reason to use the Strega in anything other than 100-percent wet mode. (I tend to disagree.)

The importance of the delay is immediately clear when you look at the controls. There are three knobs that are larger than the rest: the Tonic, which controls the pitch of the oscillator, the filter cutoff, and dead center the delay time. The Time control takes you from super short, almost slapback style repeats to basically uncontrolled chaos where the clock noise from running the delay chip much slower than intended overtakes the sound of the oscillator.

Make Noise Strega
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

The delay is noisy no matter what. It always has a slightly crushed, hissy quality to it. But it only becomes unusable at its extremes. And, if you do want to tame the noise you have two different filtering options: the Absorb control and the main filter. How do the two differ? Well, I’m not entirely sure. And the manual doesn’t really help. All I know is that Absorb comes after the filter in the signal chain. I think.

But, again, Make Noise would argue that all of this is beside the point. Instead, it wants you to explore and experiment and find what sounds good without worrying about the technical details.

The Strega also has a looping envelope in the bottom right-hand corner. It’s not labeled on the synth itself, and in the manual it’s called the “Agitation Generator,” but for all intents and purposes it’s an LFO. (Unless you connect something to the Begin and End in, but we’ll get to that later.)

By default, the Agitation circuit changes the cutoff on the filter but, since this is a semi-modular synth, you can easily route it wherever you want. If you ask me (and I feel like by reading this review you are implicitly asking me), you should connect the Agitation to the Time Modulation input and never look back. With a slow speed and the attenuator for the Time modulation set to between 9 and 12 o’clock you can get lovely tape-esque warbles that seem to be exactly what the Strega was made for. It really leans into the lo-fi quality of the delay and makes anything you run through it feel like it’s been weathered and beaten on a rocky shore for decades. (You can also turn up the Tonic modulation slightly to double down on those hazy vibes.)

Make Noise Strega

And I do mean anything, by the way. My second favorite thing about the Stega (after the delay) is the fact that it has an audio input. It can be used not only as an instrument, but as an effect. The delay sounds just as sweet on a guitar or vocals as it does on the synth itself. But it also can be an incredible overdrive. That I’m so in love with the saturated sounds you get by cranking up the Strength and External Constant controls shouldn’t be too shocking. The preamp circuit is modeled in part after the EMS Synthi, which was also the inspiration for the Erica Synths SYNTRX, and I spilled quite a lot of words fawning over that.

In this demo the Strega is being used to process a guitar, my voice and a dulcimer with no additional effects:

Engadget · Strega effecting external audio

The preamp can add a touch of warmth and crunch to anything you run through it, but it works best with signals that are pretty hot to start with. The Atomic Humbuckers on my Fender Toronado are enough to push it to full on distortion mode. Even without an amp and straight into an audio interface it’s perfect for the rough-around-the-edges riffs of Guided by Voices and The Who.

The other thing you’ll probably notice immediately when looking at the Strega is the series of gold squares and circles peppering the front. These are actually touchplates. While you can, and should, still use patch cables to design sounds, these pads give you a uniquely tactile way of manipulating your creations. The circle pads are sources and the squares are destinations. Usually, the destinations are pretty easy to figure out since there are lines pointing to what they manipulate, but circles are harder to decipher. They have strange icons on them that look like they were ripped straight from a book on the occult.

Basically, though, they all introduce some level of randomness or interference. All you do is lay one finger (or some other conductive material) on a circle, then another finger on a square and suddenly you’re changing the filter cutoff or the delay time. And, since it’s using your body as a bridge between those two points, the amount and quality of that interference will be different for every person.

Make Noise Strega
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

The Touch Bridges and Gateways are sort of emblematic of the whole Strega concept. They beg you to literally poke, prod and explore. They dispense with the technical stuff and get straight to the controlled chaos.

And “controlled chaos” is definitely the best way to describe what comes out of the Strega. It’s a bit of a happy accident machine, but it’s much easier to recreate something you’ve patched up on it than, say, Moog’s Subharmonicon.

It’s clear that Strega was built with drones in mind. And it excels at them. You can easily craft cinematic soundscapes that are either disarmingly beautiful or nightmarishly claustrophobic. If your thing is scoring films or games, you will almost certainly want what the Strega has. As you turn the Tones knob clockwise the soft hum of the triangle wave becomes thicker and more menacing. And the Activation Interference control (the unlabeled knob directly above activation) introduces crackles, dropouts and other touches of unpredictability to the tone.

But, as much as the Strega feels like a drone machine, it’s capable of much more. For one, it’s not a big leap from drones to monophonic pad sounds. If you connect the gate out of a sequencer or keyboard to the Begin and End on the Agitation circuit and run that to the Activation, then you have an amp envelope that allows you to get the long attack and release times that any good pad needs. You can even get some simple synth string and organ sounds with the tone set to the right place. Now obviously pads, strings and organs all demand polyphony, but you can kinda fake it with the decay on the delay cranked up high.

All sounds in this short demo track originate from the Strega. Some EQ and compression was added after the fact in Ableton Live:

Engadget · All Strega demo track

Things don’t stop there either. You can even get simple bass and drum sounds. Now, just because you can play a bass line on the Strega doesn’t mean you should; the range of bass tones is pretty limited. But I’m quite enamored with the percussive loops I was able to coax out of it. They have a quirky vibe about them that reminds me of the sort of percussion sounds that Hainbach generates using his massive collection of test equipment.

But I think the true power of the Strega is unlocked when you combine its internal tones with those of an external instrument. For example, you can use a guitar to control the playback of the Strega and blend the two sounds together to play a simple dreamy melody over a drone that reacts dynamically to your playing.

In this demo the input of a guitar is being used to drive the Strega synth engine before eventually being blended in to play on top of the resulting drone:

Engadget · Strega tones combine with guitar

Things get even more interesting if you have an instrument that has CV outputs, like the Microfreak. This particular pairing was one of my favorites. The somewhat cold, digital sounds of the Microfreak are warmed up nicely by the Strega’s preamp and lo-fi delay. And the thin single oscillator of the Strega benefits from being reinforced when playing in sync with the Microfreak. With the Blend knob cranked to full wet, the two instruments get lost in each other and become something completely new.

Here the Microfreak is being played through the Strega, while simultaneously controlling it via CV:

Engadget · Strega tones combines with Arturia's Microfreak

The biggest downside to the Strega is definitely its price. $599 isn’t prohibitively expensive, but it’s probably a touch high considering its somewhat limited functionality. There’s no MIDI, no keyboard, no sequencer. Out of the box Strega will make wonderful noise and gorgeous drones, but you’re not gonna play anything too melodic without some additional gear. An obvious pairing would be Make Noise’s desktop sequencer, the $399 0-CTRL. The two have the same form factor, aesthetic and experimental approach to music making. But anything with CV out will do, like Arturia’s Keystep series. If you’re looking for something that will add MIDI and expand the sonic possibilities of the Strega, the $499 0-Coast would make sense.

While the Make Noise gear isn’t cheap, there is definitely an appeal to sticking with its desktop ecosystem. You can power two devices from a single power adapter and the 0-Coast, 0-CTRL and Strega were all designed to complement each other. Plus, they just look great together.

Make Noise Strega

Tony Rolando is right when he says the Stega isn’t for everyone. But, that’s OK. Not every synth is going to appeal to everybody. And different instruments should be filling different musical niches. What I can say without hesitation is that the Strega is a blast and I’m still finding new ways to use it almost every time I sit down. Make Noise succeeded in doing something special in a world flooded with somewhat samey-sounding desktop analog synths — it built a truly unique instrument. Nothing else sounds like the Strega. Nothing else behaves like the Strega. And even if you’ve decided it’s not the synth for you, the company deserves credit for going out on a limb.

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