Sonic LAB: Modal Electronics Cobalt8 - Full Review

US 8 voice, DSP synthesizer      18/11/20

First thing you notice about the Modal Electronics Cobalt8 is that it's very photogenic, a lovely shade of blue. That and the striking similarity between it and the Argon8 with which it shares the DSP driven 8 voice polyphony, voice spread feature (8 Osc per voice), three effects slots and other common elements such as the sequencer and arpeggiator. It also features the signature Modal Electronics joystick found on the Argon8 and it's other, older high end synths.

However, before you ask, no it's not possible to interchange the synths brains via a firmware swap - the DSP allocations are different and so it can't happen.

But while the Argon8 is a wavetable synth, the Cobalt8 is an "extended Virtual Analog". At it's heart are 34 distinct waveform algorithms ranging from regular standard waves to more angular, unusual Ring Modulations and more. The high contrast display gives you a real sense of what the waves are doing.

The basic voice allocation has two oscillator groups per voice, each with up to 4 oscillators per group via the Spread feature - though this does not apply to all algorithms (in some it changes other characteristics), dialing it in adds a duplication and detune, with fixed tuning intervals the further you go. 

A pretty wide range of tonality is there, with plenty of sharp, angular sync and cross mod stuff as well as the basic synth waveforms.
The drift control which adds more analog type random-ness is pretty effective, but I would like to have seen it go further into wonky territory.

This all goes into a modeled 4-pole low pass Ladder Filter - which has additional modes:

Resonant LP - it behaves much like a regular ladder with bass loss as you add resonance, Balanced LP - there's some bass compensation, Balanced HP - a high pass model which doesn't quite deliver the super low resonant harmonics and Balanced Phase - a sort of W shaped twin notch model.

All have a morph control and go through variants of their models - which can also be modulated.

It's pretty smooth and has some nice resonant character, though is lacking in any drive control.

Then we have 3 LFOs (as opposed to 2 on the Argon8), these are multi-shape clockable, with LFO 1 global and 2 and 3 polyphonic. Sadly they don't go up into audio rates, for that sort of thing you will have to rely on the Oscillator mod algorithms which can mod each other (but not any other parameters)

There's also 3 envelopes ADSR with preset modes:   

  • Expo - classic exponential curve - suited for most sound types
  • Snappy - fast attack and decay time curves - best suited for percussive material
  • Soft - smoother attack and release time curves - best suited for pads
  • Linear - simple linear ramp for each envelope stage - best suited for modulation
  • Expo Long – Expo curve with double the maximum time for each stage of the envelope
  • Snappy Long – Snappy curve with double the maximum time for each stage of the envelope
  • Soft Long – Soft curve with double the maximum time for each stage of the envelope - Linear Long – Linear curve with double the maximum time for each stage of the envelope

 Long variants possess a maximum release time of 10 seconds.

Envelope 1 is prewired to the VCF, 2 to VCA and 3 is a MOD envelope,  though all can be routed via the 8 slot mod matrix to a variety of destinations.

The FX are the next big building block with 3 slots and multiple algorithms covering modulation, delay, reverb and lofi. 

No distortion, though you can get some crunch from the Lofi algorithm. You can also modulate FX parameters for some additional sound design fun. They generally sound pretty good, though the reverb is not quite in the top tier, it can offer long modulated washes which are perfectly good.

Sequencer- a step or real-time affair with 4 lanes of animation - and yes it's possible to record mod only without notes for some nice extra modulations. It's actually pretty easy to use and has a metronome should you want it. It would be fine to use this for performance purposes, perhaps with pre-recorded sequences for live work.

Arpeggiator - similarly featured works well with beat divisions and swing.

The Cobalt8 also has connectivity via the Modal APP (iOS, Android, Windows, OS X) which connects via USB to offer great visual editing and librarian functions *patch saving via Desktop OS only.

In use, the Cobalt8 is really quick to get to know, there are a bunch of shift functions, but it's no great hardship to program from the front panel, in fact it's quite an inspiring synth  - patching is fun and rewarding and there seems to be something about this instrument that "clicks" for me.

The price is reasonable too, the hardware is good - you get a nice Fatar keybed and the build is solid.

It's hard to put your finger on this, if I had to describe what makes me warm to this more than the Argon8, I'm not sure I could say anything that would hold up in court, but it's a nice instrument with a solid set of features that has a compelling sound to it. I like it.

Available now price £579/$749 - and also just announced the Cobalt8M module £499  and Cobalt8X £649

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