Why you can trust us

Engadget has been testing and reviewing consumer tech since 2004. Our stories may include affiliate links; if you buy something through a link, we may earn a commission. Read more about how we evaluate products.

SOMA Labs' Rumble of Ancient Times is the chaotic neutral of synths

This 8-bit digital noisemaker is charming, affordable and unpredictable.

Terrence O'Brien

I wrote my first synth review for Engadget in 2019. At the time I thought it might be a one off. Maybe it would afford me the opportunity to play with some fun gear now and then, but “Engadget synth beat reporter” was not something in the cards long term. Well, four years later I’ve not only managed to turn music tech into a regular part of my job, but I’ve become something of a connoisseur of weird, cheap synths. I’d almost say that I’ve become jaded by the relentless releases of wannabe Volcas and VSTs-but-hardware. So I was somewhat skeptical of SOMA’s Rumble of Ancient Times (RoAT from here on out), a $170 “8-bit noise synthesizer.”

Well, this little pile of battery-powered weirdness has silenced my inner cynic. It’s reminded me to stop being so precious about my music. That creating art should be fun. And that, sometimes, you just need to let things go.

Engadget · Soma Labs Rumble of Ancient Times demo

Before I turn you off with more philosophical ramblings (and don’t worry, there will be more), let’s lay out exactly what the RoAT is. It’s an 8-bit digital synth and sequencer inspired by video games of the early PC era, which had to do a lot with incredibly little. The core here isn’t some high-powered ARM processor; there’s no advanced physical modeling or complex wavetables. Instead, the RoAT runs on a very basic microcontroller like you might find in old kitchen appliances. (Not the kind that connect to the internet and have giant touchscreens.)

There are four freely tunable oscillators with 16 waveforms to choose from. The frequency range available is huge and the potentiometers can only turn so much, so dialing in a perfect scale isn’t something that’s going to come easy. The 16 voice options are all harsh and decidedly digital. Think Atari 2600 in a blender. And the resonant filter is deliciously lo-fi. I know that it’s somewhat cliche at this point to say that a synth is oozing character, but I don’t know how else to describe the sound of RoAT. It’s one of the more characterful instruments I’ve had the pleasure of using at any price point.

The sequencer is basic, too. An oscillator is either on or off and that’s it. If you want a particular note you have to lock it in with the tuning knobs. The one variable is that by default, the voices can either be momentary on, or momentary off – so you can set one to drone while the others pop in to add color. The sequences must be played in live, nothing is quantized and the pattern length is just a single bar. But since it’s not a step sequencer, that doesn’t matter quite as much. You can always just turn the tempo down to 70 bpm while actually playing at 140 bpm and effectively get two bars.

Soma Labs Rumble of Ancient Times voice buttons.
Terrence O'Brien

The simplicity here actually makes it fun and fuss free. You just hold down the record button and tap the little copper pads under each voice button, wait for the loop to come back around and tap some more to add additional triggers. The whole process of dialing in notes then sequencing them is sloppy and playful. You don’t have to think about ratchets or parameter locks. The limitations actually free you up to focus on jamming, experimenting and iterating.

The one part of the RoAT interface that might seem intimidating at first is the bank of registers. This is how you do actual sound design on the instrument. There’s a table in the bottom right hand corner where all the various parameters are laid out, like frequency, wave selection, LFO type and speed, etcetera. They’re in numbered rows, from zero to seven, and you navigate between them using buttons on the left side labeled one, two and four. So yes, you will need to do some basic arithmetic if you want to change the release of a voice or tweak the filter resonance, which you’ll find on page five and select by pressing the one and four buttons (1+4=5, got it?). While this might seem unnecessarily complicated, it’s actually pretty easy to wrap your head around and I’d argue far faster and more enjoyable than trying to scroll through an endless menu.

Some of the parameters need a little more explanation than what can be squeezed into the table on the front. But flip the RoAT over and you’ll get most of the info you need on the back of the unit.

Soma Labs Rumble of Ancient Times reference charts on the back of the device.
Terrence O'Brien

The one exception to this is page six of the registers, which is where you’ll find the summing algorithm controls. These are explained on the back of the device, but I’d be lying if I said I fully understood what they all meant or why they affect the sound the way they do. I have a feeling that many people will be in the same boat as me. That being said, you don’t really need to understand to simply tweak the knobs until you hear something you like.

By the way, turning knobs until you hear something you like is perfectly a valid approach for any instrument, but it seems particularly appropriate here. The dramatic changes even a tiny bit of movement introduces mean this is best navigated by feel. And if that seems like too much work for you, there’s that button labeled “CHAOS” in the top left corner. I bet you can guess what it does. (It causes chaos, btw.)

This button randomizes all the parameters except for the row you’ve currently selected in the register. So if you don’t have any of the numbered buttons on, you’re on row zero which controls pitch, you can knock out countless iterations on a particular melody or sequence, swapping in different waveforms and algorithms.

Soma Labs Rumble of Ancient Times chaos button.
Terrence O'Brien

Now this is where the limitations of the RoAT might become an issue for some. Do you like the chaos you’ve just created? Great, you better record that right now. Get out a field recorder and a TRS cable, or fire up your DAW or something. Because once you flip that power switch on the RoAT off, your creation is gone – forever. There’s no saving of sequences. No presets. No MIDI out to control other instruments.

There is analog sync out, but no sync in. That means that, while you can connect the RoAT to a Volca or a Pocket Operator and keep them in time, you have to use the clock on the RoAT to drive everything. And there’s no tap tempo here or a screen where you can see the exact tempo you’re at. So I really hope you enjoy your jams at 108.45 BPM.

Soma Labs Rumble of Ancient Times register table.
Terrence O'Brien

Practically everything about the RoAT is messy and ephemeral. But, that’s also kind of what makes it so great. I realize that a lot of what attracts me to the RoAT might not matter to many of you. You might just want to play a pleasant melody on a clean sounding synth. Which, great, I like doing that too. That’s not what you come to the RoAT for, though.

It’s excellent at noisy rhythmic patterns perfect for industrial or chiptunes. But it’s limited connectivity and inability to reliably reproduce the same exact results multiple times means it’s not an ideal performance instrument. Instead it’s best as a source of inspiration and samples. Though, thinking of the Rumble of Ancient Times in purely practical terms misses the point. It takes obsolete technology that would otherwise be destined for a landfill and mutates it into an experimental instrument that’s easy to get lost in. And every time you turn it on feels like a brand new adventure.

Soma Labs Rumble of Ancient Times close up of SOMA logo.
Terrence O'Brien

Remember when I said earlier that it reminded me that sometimes you need to let things go? Well, I am a digital hoarder. I have saved practically every photo I’ve taken since 2008 (and every crappy photochop since 2005). I have a hard drive overflowing with song sketches that are absolute trash and clearly going nowhere. And I have a hard time parting with even insignificant personal items floating around my house.

Not only that, but I am the sort of person who second guesses everything. I will nitpick and obsess over a project – be it a song or this review – until I hate it. In April of last year I mentioned in my review of the Chase Bliss Habit that I had been sitting on three songs for an EP for over a year. Well, absolutely zero progress has been made there. In fact I’ve since decided one of those songs is worthless and I’ve cut it.

Which brings me back to the Rumble of Ancient Times. Its simplicity, playfulness and sloppiness are a natural counter to my obsessive tendencies. Its insistence that you explore, iterate and constantly push forward prevents me from getting stuck. And the fact that I can’t save a sequence – that I have to start with a blank canvas every time I turn it on – keeps me from hoarding half-baked ideas that I will never revisit.