A handy discussion for the perplexed.
An intriguing red box. Knobs. Switches. Buttons. Inputs. A solitary vacuum tube protrudes. The eye is drawn, this is a visually intriguing unit. Trogotronic should be given a great deal of credit for making their product eye-catching, and for producing hype interesting enough to make you curious about their products. There does seem to be a great deal of confusion about what the 679–billed as a “minisynth”–actually is.
Note: I own the tabletop version of this unit, not the Eurorack version. Eurorack is a different context that falls outside the scope of this writing.
Let’s start with eliminating what it is not.
From an extensive trolling of boards where such things are discussed, more than a few guitar players have concluded this is a guitar effects pedal. This is observably and completely false. You can run a guitar through it. The unit does allow itself to function as a high-gain preamp, and will cheerfully apply its circuits to any input signal you like, but it is not a pedal. It cannot be by bypassed, there is no on/off button to push, and mounting it to a pedalboard would be an exercise in folly. Cross “guitar pedal” off the list, although in a studio/recording context some very interesting results can be obtained by running the signal through the 679.
The second biggest misconception is that the instrument is a simple noise synthesizer. While the 679 will do drones for you, it has far more capabilities than that.
Lastly, the 679 is not a synthesizer module as such things are currently understood. Yes, the CV inputs can give you a sequencer-based control of the synth but the controls play by a different set of rules than the (mostly digital and MIDI-based) modules that proliferate today. And let’s be clear here: these are CV inputs. This is not a patch bay as some readers might logically assume. Nor is this a module in the sense that you can interface it with a keyboard controller and play it like a piano. This is not that. There is a playing interface, and we’ll discuss that in more detail later.
To be plain: anyone purchasing the 679 with the above incorrect expectations will be baffled, or disappointed, and likely both. And none of the above is to say that the people who have been incorrect in this fashion are dumb. This device is an anomaly in an ocean of product that shares a near-identical form factor. At a glance, or even at several glances, a guitarist might see a pedal, a sythesizer enthusiast might see a module. And even making such a mistake, the owner is still left with…something.
But what is it really?
If Trogotronic had built this thing into a two foot wide metal enclosure and populated the front with large knobs and old-fashioned rocker switches, the intent might have been more plainly deduced by the observer. The 679 is a synthesizer, plain and simple. It is a stand-alone instrument that can be learned and played like any other. And like any other instrument, it has that which it can do and that which it cannot do. This is a new take on the nearly forgotten 1950s-era synthesizer technology that can be heard on the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet and recordings by Raymond Scott/Manhattan Sound Labs. (These cited examples come courtesy of Trogotronic, who are very forthcoming when asked questions.) The modern mind does not associate the 50’s with much electronic music beyond the Theremin, if it does at all. The impact of Buchla and Moog as synthesis pioneers in the 60’s has caused a sort of amnesia in the music world. More importantly, these men changed the technology under the hood of the instrument and ultimately pointed electronic music in the direction it would go.
The 679 is not that. The instrument is 1950’s synthesizer technology crammed into a small size thanks to a hybrid solid state/vacuum tube circuit. Like those earliest machines, the vacuum tube is as much responsible for generating the sounds as a guitar string is for a Martin. (And changing the tube can change your sound.) This is not a synth based on 60s tech, or digital tech. It has its own set of rules and controls, and has a wildly different set of sounds. You know all those sounds that you think of when you think of synthesizers? You don’t get those. You get something completely different, an entirely new sonic frontier. The differences are also expressed in how the instrument behaves, and how it is played. Let’s discuss.
Think of a trumpet. An imperfect analogy that works.
On the surface, this may seem like a very simple instrument. We are, after all, accustomed to seeing keyboards and a lot more controls. We are also in an age of beat machines that are designed to placate musical illiterates as well as reward mastery. A moment of contemplating just how much musical ground a good trumpeter can cover is useful here. Now understand that this machine offers a great deal more sonic variety and complexity than a trumpet, with which is shares a very similar playing interface.You have four buttons. All can be bypassed with the flick of a switch, meaning the circuit they control can be left on. One button acts like the mouthpiece on the trumpet. Switched on, the synth only sounds when you press the button. Off, and it behaves like a drone machine–continuous sound. Unlike a trumpet, what sounds you get when the buttons are depressed depends on the settings you have selected in the main controls. Learning what sounds you get with various setting arrangements is key to using the instrument. Currently, this is a process of discovery that is squarely in the hands of the user. No dictionary of 679 settings currently exists: prepare to experiment, learn, and take notes. A few sessions of experimentation have revealed both a high capacity for the kind of soundscapes heard on Forbidden Planet and gnarly, Devo-esque riffs. (And this with just a few exploratory sessions.) And it is very clear and abundantly obvious that this type of synthesis was abandoned before the musical possibilities were explored. This was inevitable since those early synths were large, confined mostly to studios, and not available to the public for purchase. Moog, however, was able to create units that could be sold in music stores and played by gigging musicians, and so he ruled the future.
And so after about sixty years of slumber, the vacuum tube synthesizer has woken up like Captain America, a living artifact unthawed by the self-described knuckle-dragging subhumans and country luddites at Trogotronic.
If you are able to John Wayne your way through the learning process this instrument demands, you can be on the cutting edge, composing and performing music that very few people can do. And by John Wayneing it, I mean teaching yourself an instrument with no books, no teachers, no Youtube tutorials. It’s you, and the instrument, and how bad do you want to excel on it, anyway? That’s how I learned guitar (many years ago now!) so the challenge to me is not so daunting. Your mileage may vary.
But for those of us who can do such things, Trogotronic has given us a chance to turn the past into the future.
But what about the unit itself? Is it good quality?
I bought mine directly from Trogotronic. I did not get it free as a promo unit nor did I have access to a discount. So my remarks here are strictly as a consumer.
Yes, the build quality is excellent. Everything looks and feels solid. The unit is fairly light, but it is also small–a bit bigger than the standard double pedal enclosure most of your are familiar with. The shipping was via Priority Mail, and that shipping is free (to the CONUS, I believe) on orders over 100 USD. This unit retails for 425 dollars, and the quality, packaging, and service indicate that Trogotronic is serious about keeping the customer happy. This was a big ticket purchase for me, and I am satisfied that I got what I paid for.