Review: Strymon Starlab
Strymon has gifted the modular community with something like a Euro rack version of Big Sky or Night Sky only with (even more) knobs on.
Review: Christopher Steller
Earth to Starlab, do you copy? ‘Well, yes, actually, I do copy… only with an additional LFO, filter, pitch shift and modulation parameters, multiple reverb algorithms to create shimmery, lush, ambient environments, and a string synth waveform generator for added tonal goodness. Is that enough for you?’
The modular synthesizer market has become something of a juggernaut of technology development, with constant releases (especially in the digital realm), and it just keeps growing. With the additional (and inevitable) crossover into the DSP-based effects pedal zone, which is also blooming, manufacturers would be crazy not to combine the two markets into a single product.
Strymon’s latest entry into the modular effects world is its ‘time-warped reverberator’ known as Starlab, featuring a mind boggling collection of parameters, perfect for the current trend in droning, infinite synthesis.
ENTERING THE LAB
My first instinct on a module like this is to crank every parameter to the max (the ‘saturate everything’ theorem). But to test the Starlab’s versatility, I wanted to find out how simply each individual processor could operate. Once you work your way around Starlab, it’s quite easy to isolate sounds via the Dry and Wet controls — the reverb decay, the LFO depth and the delay’s feedback amount — so sections can be brought in and taken out of the mix.
The individual sections of Starlab are reasonably straightforward, but when combining sections, or modulating parameters with external LFOs, etc, the results are often incomprehensibly complex and just as pleasing. Keeping the Decay control, LFO depth and filter settings on zero allowed me to hear the processed signal as a simple delay, with delay time (and a tap tempo button for quick matching) plus feedback controls.
Next, bringing up the LFO depth gives modulation of the delays, with selectable waveforms and speed control. The LFO’s Target switch selects delay, pitch or filter to be modulated, giving some stunning results. A very quick turn of the Decay knob feeds a slow, pitch-modulated delay into the reverb and we’re suddenly floating away in a dreamy haze.
The reverb section controls are spread out around the panel with the Size/Pitch knob at the top adjusting actual reverb length (giving you that tape speed change sound when adjusted quickly), while the Texture switch selects one of three different reverb structures, described from the manual as:
Sparse: Granular-sounding reverb that can create interesting effects with staccato inputs, or produce a clean reverb with sustained inputs.
Dense: Plate-like reverb with a fast response and dense reflections that can venture into ambient territory at high decay times.
Diffuse: Slow-building, atmospheric wash that excels at ambient, swell, and even reverse-like textures.
NEED TO KNOW
Time Warped Euro Rack Reverberator
The Harmonics section, with its Shimmer and Glimmer controls, offers pitch shifting (Shimmer) and harmonic modulation (Glimmer) to further enhance movement of the reverb environment and create more ghostly tones. Shimmer offers up to an octave above and below the original input (set in intervals with a button hold and knob turn), and has a Regen button, which gives more of a feedback build in the wet signal; while using Glimmer’s High Band button emphasises the upper frequencies to the point of harshness.
The results of these parameter changes vary based on the Texture type selected (the three reverb algorithms as described above). If ‘Sparse’ is selected, a more alternating left/right movement is created, which is great for a big, stereo field; while ‘Dense’ is a more traditional tail; and ‘Diffuse’ has a slow build up. All of these types benefit from some experimenting with the Decay control, especially when you are chasing huge, ambient atmospheres ie. maximum output for minimum effort.
The Filter can be switched between a simpler low/high damp and a 24dB/octave LPF, with variable resonance for the effected signal only. This is a surprisingly useful tonal control for the overall output of the signal.
Finally, the Delay/Karplus section’s Karplus bit: the most unusual feature of this effect module. Karplus-Strong string synthesis is a form of physical modelling that simulates hammered or plucked strings, and also certain simple percussion instruments, developed by the eponymous Messers Karplus and Strong, in an American university. With a button press and knob turn in the delay section, Karplus/Strong mode is activated. The Tap/Trig button will give you a short or long note, depending on hold duration, and the Size/Pitch and In Gate inputs become CV and Gate ins for using an external sequencer or keyboard.
Starlab can also store four presets, referred to as Favourites, which can be selected from the front panel or externally.
I whiled away the hours with Starlab being fed different left and right waveforms by a Pittsburgh Primary Oscillator (the fragments and timbre waveforms), triggered by a simple four-step sequence, with two extra LFOs from another module for some slow parameter movement. It was something of a religious experience. The first external LFO controlling the speed of the internal LFO, and the second controlling Shimmer depth… quite heavenly! Next, I’ll break out the MPU-101 MIDI/CV converter for some serious parameter control with Logic Pro X, for the proverbial ‘swine wallowing in effluent’ experience.
Visiting the Modular Grid website for an hour or two really brings home the size and scope of the modular market, offering a bewildering array of products for all genres and budgets, but Strymon is definitely responsible for the more popular effects available. Just watch a few synth videos on YouTube and a healthy number of these will be utilising a Big Sky reverb pedal to create amazing soundscapes. Starlab? Just imagine a Big Sky or Night Sky with 18 control inputs. Hell, yeah!