Sunday, April 14, 2024

Review of Artiphon Orba | Engadget

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If you want to swap sounds or record something you’ve been working on, there’s a companion app for iOS, Android, Windows, and macOS. Right now, song mode is under construction and the company is fixing some issues with connectivity on Android and iOS versions, but the basic functionality is there. You can choose from 10 drum kits, 10 basses, 12 chord sounds, and nine main instruments. They are organized in thematic packs, but you can mix and match them as you like.

The sounds themselves turn to the quieter side, which I think speaks to its primary purpose as a casual device. You won’t find moody trap synths or abrasive industrial drums here. Instead, the packs focus on things like lo-fi hip hop, vibe, and bedroom pop. The sound quality can be spotty, but there is a handful that I always come back to loving the “Ambeeant” drums and the main Ohm sound.

While Orba doesn’t really have any moving parts, there’s something satisfying about how sounds react to your movements. For example, this Ohm lead tone responds differently to a quick light knock than if you press and keep your finger there. Holding your finger down dampens the sound, as if it were a physical instrument that you were avoiding ringing. But if you clap and remove your hand, the glass-like tone continues to hang in the air for a while.

It is these types of keys that make the Orba convincing as a stand-alone instrument. The chipset inside consumes very little power, so the synth motor designed for it is quite light. It’s impressive what Artiphon has managed to do with the resources at its disposal, but the sounds you get aren’t always the most complex or the richest. Instead, it all depends on how it reacts to gentle finger movements by adding vibrato or opening the filter when you tilt it to the side. That being said, you can certainly squeeze some pretty epic basses and pads out of them by running them through a few guitar pedals.

Again, however, this is about casual musical creation, not deep sound design and maximalist pop productions. You’re basically limited to creating eight bar loops, with four tracks, in a particular scale, which you can edit in the app. Even your choice of scale is quite narrow. You can choose any root note you want, but you can only choose between major or minor from there. The main instrument is even limited to the pentatonic scale in most cases. (The only exception being the Diatonic lead orba.) This essentially ensures that almost anything you play will be passable. Maybe not exciting, but at least not actively bad.

The current selection of soundpacks is a bit thin, and there are currently no plans to open up the synth engine for custom sound design. Instead, the company is focused on smoothing out issues and creating tools for users to share their jams. But that doesn’t mean you should rule out Orba just because you take musical creation seriously.

Orba has a whole different side once you hook it up to your DAW or a software synthesizer. For starters, this is one of, if not the most affordable MEPs controller on the market. It opens up a whole world of expressive play thanks to apps like Arturia’s Pigments (my current favorite music synthesis), Bitwig and GarageBand. The company has even created custom sessions for several popular DAWs so you can quickly explore its features.

Here, the possibility to play with a subtle vibrato, to control the filter on a bass synth by tilting Orba or even conduct a virtual orchestra waving it in the air can cause you to play music in ways you might not have considered. If you are a Ableton user, Artiphon has even created a Max for Live app that lets you easily assign different movements – tilt, move, shake, bump, radiate, vibrato, spin and press – to different parameters of a synth. Let’s use Pigments for an example of how you could make this crazy: You could have two different filters on a sound: one controlled by tilting the device, the other by rotating and when you irradiate your finger towards the edge it could increase the amount of detuning, while shaking it it adds vibrato and moving it through the air triggers variations in pitch.


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