Drowning in synth: Mooer Ocean Machine FX

Prog-metal guitar legend Devin Townsend partnered with a relatively new Chinese stompbox maker to create the ultimate ambient pedal – for synth players?!

Mooer Ocean Machine – £179 – £259 – view offers on Amazon UK

One of the key differences in sound between what you hear in a recording, and what a synth produces, is the effects chain. Until the mid-1980s, effects weren’t even part of the equation in the majority of synths, and since then they’re generally reserved for ‘value-added’ type concepts – though some notable exceptions, such as Novation’s Nova-series, made the effects an integral part of the synth architecture.

Mooer’s Ocean Machine – developed as a ‘dream device’ for Canadian prog-metal artist Devin Townsend, is a guitar stompbox style effects unit that is unusually well-suited to use with synthesizers. It’s also very cool looking, which goes a long way.

The Mooer Ocean Machine
The Mooer & Devin Townsend Ocean Machine

It contains two delay processors and a reverb, plus a looper, with MIDI control as well as some very direct hardware knobs and the option of a remote footswitch (which makes it easier to use as a desktop unit alongside most modules). It crosses the line between ‘effect’ and ‘instrument’, in that it becomes a flexible drone machine with the smallest input and is designed from the outset to be played, not just set up and switched on and off.

At £179 (a typical price – it’s officially around £259), it’s a little cheaper than buying separate low-cost pedals, not much more than most secondhand, dated rack effects units, and it’s also on-par with higher-end reverb plugins – though at that price you do get some of the best virtual effects in the business, and the quality of the effects is much higher in isolation.

Yeah, okay – it’s a DSP too, not analogue or simple-digital effects units, so the results are akin to software if you want to be pedantic (albeit with built in ADC/DAC)…

But it’s not software – it’s a big blue metal box that looks built to withstand being kicked around a stage, doesn’t need a computer and is delightfully hands-on – so let’s find out how good it is, and what makes the Ocean Machine different to other effects pedals…

Why use effects?

Time for a bit of nostalgia. When I first started playing keyboards half-seriously, I had a Roland JV-50 with limited delay and reverb, an SH-101 and an assortment of odd little gadgets. The JV did what it did – sample playback with contours and layering – and the SH-101 was the creative fun monosynth you expect.

But when my parents bought me a Zoom RFX-1000 effects unit, my world was transformed. Even as one of the cheapest multi-FX you could get, the delays and reverbs brought the SH-101’s single-oscillator squawks to life, adding bounce and texture, rhythmic patterns and depth to the overpowerful or brittle noises it made.

If your analogue synth alone is ‘singing in the shower’, your analogue synth with effects is ‘singing on stage, with a backing group and a producer’. It really is that simple.

This is hardly news to anyone, we know effects are an essential part of synth, as well as guitar based music, but it’s easily to overlook how much more you can get out of say, adding an affordable effects unit instead of buying another synthesizer, or a more powerful computer.

Creatively, I still feel I can achieve more with a four-track, one hardware synth and one effects unit than I could with a sequencer, 24 tracks and multiple plugins.

Mooer Ocean Machine with Modal Electronic Skulpt and Arturia KeyStep Pro
Tap-tempo and the KeyStep Pro’s metronome – a solution of sorts…

Multi-effects for synth and keyboard players appear to be a fading resource. The last I had was a TC Electronic FireworX, but the list of devices used to be overwhelming (you can see how diverse by searching used on eBay, of course).

Now, only a couple of manufacturers make standalone effects units not aimed at guitarists, and most options are DSP hosts with plugins.

Which means in a strange loop of time, we’re back to the days before rackmount, line-level effects. Guitar stomp boxes are the new (old) trend for analogue synth players, and you’ll see Electro-Harmonix, Eventide and Boss pedals on most YouTube videos. Most people, once established in their music whether hobbyist or pro, tend to gather a few effects – but like that Zoom RFX, I guess the saying is true; you never forget your first.

Most ‘known-brand’ effects aren’t cheap, and having the confidence to buy one when you’re starting out could feel like a big risk. Mooer’s affordable stompboxes caught my eye for reviews, but they sent me an Ocean Machine first – and I’m kinda glad they did. If this is the first effects unit you buy for your synth, you may never want another…

Diving into the Ocean

  • Super-simple, super-effective effects for synth players
  • Two delays, a reverb, a looper, one box, three buttons
  • Lots of prog and ambient, the only ‘metal’ is in the casing

If you haven’t heard Devin Townsend, the Ocean Machine might seem a little odd – the blue livery, the logo – what is this all about? If you have heard Devin Townsend; don’t let the pedal be typecast by the powerful guitar-led prog/metal/rock you’ve encountered.

This isn’t a one-trick pony with a single signature sound – it’s a very flexible package of otherwise generic tools. It’s also free of the ‘metal’ part of prog metal – there’s no distortion or other off-the-peg guitar noise stuff getting in the way, though there are fuzz, bitcrusher and distortion modes if you want those textures.

Setup reveals why there’s no pre-amp, cab-modelling or other guitar-focused stuff – and why it’s so great for synths. You’re expected to put this into the effects loop of your amp, or use it after a more typical floorbox or effects chain.

You could use it with a guitar if you wanted to...
Apparently, you’re supposed to use it with these…

In other words, Devin’s kinda assuming you’ve got your guitar sound sorted, and just want the special sauce of endless delays and shimmering reverb.

The pedal itself is a super-solid metal beast with a colour LCD display, three footswitches, 12 small direct-control knobs for the three effects units and four larger controls – three direct-select mode switches, and one menu encoder. It needs 9V, 500mA from a centre-positive supply and can’t run on batteries, which may put some guitarists off – it also doesn’t come with a power supply and for the best results, you’ll want to add about £17 to the price to get the proper Mooer-branded PSU for Ocean Machine. That does provide 2000mA though, so with a splitter cable can power multiple pedals.

Ports on the Mooer Ocean Machine
Mooer Ocean Machine ports

It does not have a direct guitar input, or a headphones out. This may throw guitarists who don’t have a preamp or effects loop on their amp, but for synthesizer players it’s a moment of joy. This can go inline with your line-output gear and there’s no misery with gain, distortion or levels, it’s also ideally suited to an aux send/return on your mixer, or as a channel insert.

In fact, if the footswitches were just ordinary touch buttons, it’d be a great desktop effects unit. On the other hand, the buttons are VERY easy to press. They light up and flash with delay time or tempo, too – like great big glowing gumdrops.

Looking for instant results? You’ve got ’em – there are 24 presets, created by (and for) Devin Townsend, and they’re absolutely brilliant. Shimmery, sometimes brittle by design, occasionally otherworldly, it’s a delight for a synth player used to grabbing guitar effects and having to tolerate a wall of ‘fuzz’ ‘disortion’ and ‘amp simulations’ to just get a box of lushness.

As you’d expect from any delay-looping-feedback system, it’s possible to make sounds only an alien would like, but that’s another part of the appeal – fans of Throbbing Gristle, Boards of Canada or even modern soundtracks such as Fox/Canal+’s War of the Worlds will really love the sounds you can get out of the Ocean Machine.

Unlike many drone machines, though, if you’re not quite ready for fully-insane experimental noise often provided by drone/ambient synths, this is a gentle introduction to the world of making the musical equivalent of being wrapped in molasses, memory-foam and tinfoil bubblewrap for half an hour.

Both delays offer a maximum time of 2,000ms (they can exceed that for 1-bar clock-sync) and of course, have up to 100% feedback; there’s another function, ‘Trail’, that retains the effect sound even when the type of delay or reverb is changed; it follows what would have happened if you just stopped playing at that time, allowing the sound to fade out naturally or loop forever if you have full feedback, but still being manipulated by the delay and reverb processors you’ve switched to. Subtle control of the feedback/time controls, while switching delay type, can yield some incredible sounds and rhythmic transitions.

A typical effects chain on the Mooer Ocean Machine
Mooer Ocean Machine – effects chain display

The effects chain is user-configurable for different cascading sounds – though this isn’t entirely free-form. In addition to a straight series chain, with the pedals in any arrangement, you can pop two effects in parallel (but not the looper in parallel with an effect), either before or after the remaining slot, and you can position the looper ahead, between or after the effects (which is handy for playing back a loop with one effect already recorded on it, and improvising over it with a different effect).

Each effect has nine ‘types’, but a couple of the delay types are duplicated between the two delays on offer. Delay A and B both feature:

  • Digital: High fidelity delay with clean repeats
  • Analog: Vintage BB style delay with warm degrading repeats
  • Tape: Based on a classic reel to reel tape echo

Delay A features the following six extra settings:

  • Echo: Based on a vintage echorec
  • Liquid: Digital Delay with modulated Phaser repeats
  • Rainbow: Special effect pitch Delay with modulation
  • Crystal: Special effect pitch Delay with glistening highs
  • Low-Bit: Delay with bit crusher
  • Fuzzy: Delay with Fuzz

Whereas Delay B offers these programs:

  • Real: Clear delay with natural sounding repeats
  • Dyna: Dynamic Delay
  • Galaxy: Delay with swelled repeats and a light modulation
  • Mod: Delay with modulated repeats
  • Tri mod: ’80s style delay with thick modulated repeats
  • Mod-Inv: Reverse delay with modulation

(These are the descriptions in the manual – they’re pretty accurate!).

Scrolling though the delays in isolation, they’ve all got distinct, unique characters even if the ultimate goal is the same (most delay technology started out with the same goal, just different compromises to achieve it that then became ‘character’). Analogue and Digital models behave differently when you use feedback/time tricks to adjust pitch and repeats, the ‘Real’ delay is almost too bereft of quirks to describe (it does what it says it does) and the mod, bitcrushing and fuzz delays are controllable and generally pleasing with less complex source sounds.

The reverb options are relatively traditional. They all sound quite good for what is, ultimately, one of the cheaper pedals in this class, but aren’t anything special in isolation – it’s the combinations possible in the Ocean Machine that makes the reverb come alive.

  • Room: Small room Reverb with a short decay
  • Hall: Large spacious Reverb with a long decay
  • Plate: Based on a traditional mechanical plate reverb
  • Dist Verb: Distorted Reverb
  • FL-Verb: Reverb with a modulated Flanger
  • Filter: Reverb with a modulated envelope follower
  • Reverse: Backwards Reverb
  • Spring: Based on a vintage, large tank, spring reverb
  • Mod: Reverb with a modulated Chorus

Note that Shimmer isn’t a reverb type – it’s a parameter that can be applied to any reverb, but it is quite brittle. As an effect, it’s not up to the Eventide H9’s equivalent patch, but then the H9’s three times the price. Though it needs to be cranked right up for an obvious shimmer effect, the subtlety combined with the low/high pass filter of the tone control is worth exploring once you’re done finding out what the Ocean Machine does in extremis.

The distortion ‘verb is one of the few times some ‘metal guitar’ character slips into the programs and again, it’s terribly polite and well behaved compared to a typical stompbox & synth distortion (and can have shimmer as well!).

Spring reverb has a satisfying amount of twanginess – I have not tried kicking the Ocean Machine while playing…

Effect mixing is controlled by a master wet/dry mix in addition to individual mixes per effect (with hardware and MIDI control). It’s very flexible. Bypass can get a bit confusing, though. There’s also an overall EQ with LF/HF control as well.

Going loopy

There’s also a 32MB, 44-second loop pedal with overdub, reverse and half-speed options. The looper can be pre, mid or post effects – for advanced loop building it’s possible (when the Ocean Machine is on a desk in front of you – somewhat harder if it’s on the floor) to use one preset to record an effected loop, then move the looper to post-effect, swap preset and play over the loop (or even dub) with different effects.

A quick, easy and flexible looper is part of the Ocean Machine's immersive sound creation system
Using the Looper on the Mooer Ocean Machine

Naturally you can dub when running at half-speed and/or reverse for even more interesting effects, such as pitch-shifted bass and reverse synth leads. It’s a thoroughly absorbing, delightful machine to work with in that regard.

However, this is a basic loop pedal in effect – the Ocean Machine doesn’t preserve your loop when powered off, so if you’re particularly happy with a sequence you’ll want to record it with other means.

Push, push… taking control

Each ‘pedal’ in the chain has four analogue-style controls. All three feature a tone control with switchable high-pass or low-pass filter, and a wet/dry mix. The reverb has the coveted ‘shimmer’ control for extra harmonics, an plus decay time, and the delays have feedback and time, which can be messed with while playing for the traditional crazy effects and fun.

Playing with the Ocean Machine on a desktop – my review unit has Mooer’s adorable gumdrop switch covers which helps make the footswitches more pleasant to press – you often need to press two buttons at once to swap modes or arm/stop the looper (which needs a double-tap to stop rather than dub). Even in early videos, Devin Townsend’s demos suggest using it on a stand to keep all the controls in reach.

Even ‘Freeze’ is available via MIDI, allowing effected notes to be held in the same way as you would holding the footswitches when playing.

Making life easier for desktop applications, there’s a wireless foot controller (the Mooer Airswitch) for around £49, that has four switches that allow three different tap tempo rates to be set (Master, Delay A and B) or quicker bypassing in ‘Play’ mode. Annoyingly, the manual doesn’t clarify how the footswitch behaves in ‘loop’ mode, where I’d find it most useful.

Wave and Rate parameters on Ocean Machine's Liquid delay
Additional parameters such as the Liquid delay rate and waveform are adjusted with ‘menu’

Some settings have expanded controls beyond the hardware – in which case, the parameters are adjusted using the wheel and LCD menus.

You can assign an expression pedal to one of various parameters – including the A and B parameters of more sophisticated delay and reverb types. And of course, there’s the option of MIDI. The Ocean Machine is fixed on channel 1 with a MIDI thru, and carries an on-board reference for all the CC#s needed to control any aspect of the effects. For more sophisticated expression, you could use a MIDI expression pedal configured to send multiple CC#s.

All that lovely exterior design - then those fonts. Why? Ocean Machine has a list of MIDI CC#s to save hunting for the manual when automating
MIDI CC# display on the Ocean Machine – handy! Original firmware.

But there’s no MIDI clock sync, even in the most recent firmware update. Can’t help wondering if there’s a technical issue at hand given the quirky behaviour MIDI-sync delays with feedback can display if there’s any jitter in the clock.

Recommended! Mooer Ocean Machine

I’m not going to hide it – I’m going to be really sad sending this one back. From the moment it was plugged into the synths I’ve tried it with – Circuit Mono Station, Modal Skulpt and Arturia MicroFreak – I’ve been absorbed in tweaking and adjusting the effects (or even just playing with the presets) and enjoying the immediacy of an in-line effects unit along with a synth, no DAW, plugins, levels or other nonsense needed.

Ocean Machine with Novation Circuits and Modal Skulpt
Circuits and Machines…

The comprehensive control layout is easily navigated and adjusted, for very hands-on creation of sounds and textures, and hell, it looks good too to my eyes – with the Mooer pedal caps on the big glowing buttons are really tactile and tempting. Who doesn’t want more blinkenlights in their studio?

The LCD display is almost overkill for a guitar effects pedal, yet it’s fantastic for a desktop unit – and the MIDI support is great. When recording, you can map all the controls and record an automation track for tape-delay shenanigans and dynamic muting/mixing, it can even list all the CC#s on the display to save rooting around for the manual.

I feel properly enthusiastic about using the Ocean Machine, and don’t think the £179 price is unreasonable given the tank-like build quality and intuitive, responsive interface. There may be better rackmount options for the money and there are definitely better standalone reverbs and delays – few multi-FX units and pedals offer two delays simultaneously, a looper, or this kind of hands-on creative potential made possible with 12 direct controls for sound.

It does have some downsides; the inputs/effects aren’t true stereo, which precludes tricks like sending one synth each into each of the channels and is also a little disappointing for reverb and shimmer – and the reverb isn’t high-enough quality to want to use standalone, though at the price, that’s an acceptable limitation given the target use of the Ocean Machine.

The lack of MIDI clock sync will definitely annoy electronic musicians and producers even more than it would guitarists – particularly when the delay tempos can be set to different clock divisions.

I’d buy one in spite of these limitations; you can technically nitpick elements of the Ocean Machine, but as a whole, it works extremely well for creating the kind of sounds it says it will give you, and offers a lot of potential that’s accessible to even the least experienced synth players.

If those are dealbreakers, the Boss 500 series offer similar potential (particularly the RV-500) albeit at a much higher price – but still not quite the same combination.

Shipping without an included PSU is also, frankly, insane – if nothing else, there are a number of negative reviews of the unit online and I suspect a lot of them are down to users trying ‘almost compatible’ power supplies.

Essential: firmware update for Mooer Ocean Machine

There’s also a firmware update – which needs a Windows PC and a USB-MIDI cable to apply. Cheap USB cables don’t work, and it’s really fiddly to get it sorted out for some users. It resolves some issues with the original firmware, tidies up the CC display, allows selection of MIDI channel and does improve the reverb quality and tone controls somewhat, too – it’s definitely worth applying before deciding if you like the Ocean Machine.

It’s straightforward to update as long as you remember that on most USB MIDI cables, the ‘in’ and ‘out’ are the port on the cable – not the name of the port you connect to. So MIDI in to the device comes from… MIDI out of the port. And vice-versa.

Press settings, and go to ‘Reset’ – if it displays a version, it’s been updated

You can check that this has been applied by looking at the ‘reset’ screen (it’s also obvious from the CC page, which has tidier fonts). If you’re buying from a music shop and you don’t have a PC, ask them if they’ll apply the update for you.

This is the cable I got that worked – the “DigitalLife GM-BM1001” for £15.99 on Amazon – it also included a £5.99 ‘free gift’ in the promotion selection. I did end up sending back an incompatible cable first, but then this is the risk of unbranded lowest-price things on Amazon…

As with almost everything associated with electronic music these days, you could achieve all this with plugins, of course, but if you want to do that, why are you playing with hardware synths? I’d actually be more inclined to use the Ocean Machine over some VSTs as a DAW send-return than run a hardware synth into software effects for this style of music.

Buying Ocean Machine in the UK

Unlike some of Mooer’s cheaper pedals and their analogue-clone rivals from Shenzhen, the Ocean Machine’s relative cost and speciality means it escapes a lot of the fullfilled-by-Amazon overnight ‘sellers’. It’s officially distributed in the UK by Strings & Things – who of course, also provide support and backup. They have an official online store here.

Let’s get technical: Ocean Machine hardware and quirks

  • Raw processing power and physical build quality = great value
  • Which does throw some issues into sharp relief
  • Not dealbreakers, by any means – but it has so much potential

We live in a world where hardware falls into the hands of all manner of experts, and expectations, and they can publish their findings everywhere. I consider the Ocean Machine to be a fantastic, inspirational add-on for monophonic synths that can benefit from delay and reverb, but it’s got stereo I/O which means it should (in theory) be capable of all manner of interesting things, and yet, the stereo behaviour can be quirky.

I’ve witnessed this myself, with two separate inputs coming through at different levels/panning, and the effects are clearly summed/mono for processing then stereo panned with ping-pong, but the dry signal’s getting altered too. So what’s going on?

First of all: there is a true bypass. You can hear the relay click, but if you’ve got stereo two inputs and a mono output, there’s a degree of signal crossover (I can’t discount this being due to using balanced leads) – plug a jack into the opposite channel and right is right, left is left, no overspill.

Any processing, including the built in EQ or ‘always listening’ Trails will disable the bypass, so even if you’ve switched all the effects off, the summing/mixing of stereo input will occur unless you’ve put it in true bypass mode.

Inside the Ocean Machine there’s some serious horsepower (I haven’t opened mine, but several people in forums have). If you’re looking for ‘value for money’ in terms of components, the Ocean Machine’s raw power exceeds that of say, the Eventide H9’s 150MHz Freescale 56000-series processor by a significant margin; it’s even got more raw power than Strymon’s pedals.

Here’s a rough idea of what’s inside the Ocean Machine.

  • Analog Devices ADSP-21489 – 450MHz SHARC DSP
  • Cirrus Logic CS4272 24-bit, 192KHz ADC/DAC
  • 32Mb Hynix RAM, decent LCD display, etc…

Of course, a processor is only as good as the software on it, and it’s fair to say Eventide have had a lot more experience than Mooer at producing DSP effects.

So for users – though I’m 100% happy with Ocean Machine as an effects unit for mono sources (and mono tracking), I can understand why stereo is frustrating. There is a true stereo bypass, but it only works with everything including Trails and EQ disabled. The moment you bring Trails (which buffers sound), or any effects into the mix, it’s summed and panned weirdly, even when everything should be 100% dry on the settings.

You’ll get a hint of left-channel input in the right, or a reduction in levels depending on delay, and even the looper isn’t quite as straightforward as you’d expect. The combinations of delay blocks, ping-pong, looper and wet/dry mix all produce different results, and if trails are on even if you bypass the pedal, your stereo source won’t be passed through.

It would have made more sense for Mooer to just make this a pure mono device – but, there’s some hope that as the hardware is very capable, an Ocean Machine V2 firmware could transform this behaviour. How likely that is may depend on how much Mooer (and Devin Townsend) feel the PR would be worth the development time.

As mentioned below, I suspect the time has passed and you should consider the Ocean Machine the pedal equivalent of a Dodge Ram SRT-10; a pickup truck with a ludicrous amount of power, but it’s still a truck.

Footnote: Mooer? Who-er?

Mooer (pronounced ‘Moore”, essentially) is a Chinese audio effects/pedals manufacturer that started selling under the Mooer brand in 2014. Analogue pedal clones and early DSP-based effects have expanded into stompbox workstations such as the stunning GE-300 dual-DSP unit, with USB audio interface and guitar/cab learning & simulation. Though there’s an element of ‘is this more clone stuff?’ and a hint of Amazon drop-ship ‘what?’ about the brand name, it looks like they’re pretty serious about developing into a serious contender in the guitar/effects marketplace.

The catalogue of stompbox pedals is quite comprehensive, but easily lost in the sea of unknown-brand cheap loopers, delays and distortions that litter Amazon’s catalogues, not helped by the initial Shenzhen-importer-branding many resellers shove over their products Muslady? Ammoon? Who are these people…

There are some parallels with Behringer, not all of them favourable (it’s never good when your back catalogue includes the words ‘lawsuit pedal’ for collectors), but on the whole the range looks to be developing as an independent, original set of effects; the Ocean Machine seems to be 100% a Devin Townsend and Mooer original product, for example.

If the Ocean Machine were branded by Alesis or Eventide it would be £400+. Though to be fair, it would probably also have MIDI clock sync and better options for firmware updates; the GE300 shows that Mooer are progressing rapidly when it comes to support and polish, but perhaps the stops on the way there are too easily forgotten.

In a few years, either Mooer will have found a stronger brand to sell their manufacturing through, or will have built up a reputation that gives their brand its own identity – either way, the software development and recent products look like it will be worth the wait.

I’m reminded of Huion’s progression in the world of graphics tablets, and the thought that Wacom’s once unassailable position looks very precarious now.