Modal CRAFTsynth 2.0 review – tiny synth, big sounds

The affordable, accessible synth spirit remains but Modal’s CRAFTsynth 2.0 is a total rework of the entry-level monosynth – no assembly required

Modal CRAFTsynth 2.0: £113 – £129 (view offers on Amazon UK)

  • Not a kit – the CRAFTsynth 2.0 is about crafting sounds
  • Small, lightweight, portable, it’s a mouse that roars
  • Incredible diversity of sound for a £129 synth

Moving on from Modal’s affordable synth kit, the next step from the Bristol-based firm is the imaginatively-named CRAFTsynth 2.0. It keeps the CRAFT brand, but there’s no self-assembly required; in fact, it owes less to the original than Modal’s other low-cost Kickstarted synth, the Skulpt.

The Modal CRAFTsynth 1.0 kit and CRAFTsynth 2.0 are very, very different instruments
The CRAFTsynth kit, and the CRAFTsynth 2.0

What it does share with the first CRAFTsynth is that low cost – the recommended price is £129, and some resellers go as low as £113. It’s still receiving active support and updates, with the latest 1.4 firmware (which the app will apply for you) adding MIDI breath controller routing.

Being so compact, yet bristling with controls and polished app support, means it has a niche all to itself. There are few ready-made instruments that have a full plastic shell, VST integration, and real knobs for sound shaping, for such a reasonable outlay.

The Modal CRAFTsynth 2.0 is small, affordable, and very expressive
Modal CRAFTsynth 2.0

Though there are few (if any) direct rivals, there are plenty of ways to spend a similar amount on ‘a musical instrument’, You might be considering the Korg Volcas, a Behringer TD-3, or perhaps the Korg Nu:tekt NTS-1. Or even one of the more advanced Pocket Operators.

Although all of those devices offer something of value musically, and as gadgets to play with, none have the blend of size, connectivity, app integration and above all, sonic flexibility that the CRAFTsynth 2.0 offers at the price.

Mighty Morphin’ Power Waves

What sets the CRAFTsynth 2.0 apart is the use of Modal’s wavetable models. These include a subset inherited from the impressive Modal 002 synthesizer, and as a result a many online shops and reviews appear happy to imply that the Craft 2 is comparable to having one voice of the flagship machine, even though there are significant differences.

While on the one hand, that does a disservice to the analogue side of the 002 – which is a high-end polyphonic dream-synth – on the other hand it minimises the sheer brilliance of the wholly-digital CRAFTsynth 2.0.

This is a baby that’s got an identity all of its own, and it’s a bit of a rebel in a sea of endless budget-analogue recreations.

Rebelling against Analogue Skywalker and the Recreation Empire...
CRAFTsynth 2.0’s compact dimensions fit under an iMac

It all starts with two oscillators, and even the straight sine wave has a very different feel to the original CRAFTsynth. Whatever DSP this is based on (‘m not taking it apart to find out, sorry), it’s clearly either much more powerful, or the code’s been totally reworked.

Both oscillators offer a choice from 8 banks of 5 wavetables, with the second oscillator providing a ninth bank that, like the Skulpt’s second oscillator, morphs from a simple waveform to various textures of noise. You’ve got 16 ways of modifying, modulating and cross-modulating the oscillators on top of the blend control, all acting on oscillator 1 and using oscillator two for cross-mod.

Ignoring the technical side of it for a moment, the upshot of this design is that before you’ve even got into envelopes, filters and modulation the CRAFTsynth 2.0’s ‘voice’ is incredibly sophisticated. You’ve got the meat & potatoes of waves that you’ll find in any analogue monosynth, plus formant, mathematically-generated waves, polygonal waves and classic wavetable snippets.

Oscillator modulation includes some familiar names, and some unusual tricks too:

  • Phase Modulation
  • Ring Modulation
  • Frequency Modulation
  • Min Modulation
  • Window Sync
  • Window Amp Sync
  • Sine Wavefolder
  • Triangle Wavefolder
  • De-Rez
  • Bit-Crush
  • Vocalized Sync
  • Hard Sync
  • Rise-Over-Run Phaseshaper
  • Scrunch Phaseshaper
  • Glitchy Sine Waveshaper
  • Lo-Fi Phaseshaper

But wait, there’s more! The ‘Spread’ control seen in the original CRAFTsynth is here, and yes, it does the same trick – taking those 2 oscillators, modulations and all and creating 8 oscillators at once, either slightly detuned or set at fixed intervals for chords and octaves.

Though Modal mention the effect this control has on the level, or strength of the sound, it’s less marked than in the original and you can delve into fattening up many sounds without finding the punch has departed. The chords are truly impressive, if a bit Bontempi-ish if you program an organ patch.

Modal CRAFTsynth 2.0 and quick-start guide to shortcuts
There’s a cheat sheet. You won’t need it for long

As a result of this flexibility shaping a sound is a very interactive process right from the start. It can be almost overwhelming if you’re used to ‘a square wave and some bits’, but the knobs are logically arranged and… well, they’re labeled – the fonts are a bit small for my liking, but the important thing is that most things are straight adjustments, or shift-adjustment.

That cheat-sheet above mostly tells you how to navigate presets and sequencing; the sounds are very quickly modified using the front panel knobs.

Hook up a smartphone and you have something really easy to use, with visual representations of the waveforms and morphing, envelopes and routing that would be the envy of any high-end synth.

Sync, Line, headphone and MIDI/USB ports on the CRAFTsynth 2.0
Full-size MIDI on a pocket-sized synth

Speaking of smartphones and plugging in, connectivity in any situation is actually pretty good. The micro USB port can be used to power the synth, and connect to computers or mobile devices, there are real MIDI ports for joining in other people’s studios (and polychaining Craft), the sync ports conform to the Pocket Operator/Volca standard, the line output is dual-mono so you can use a splitter cable to get a pure dry signal and an effected wet signal; pretty much all that’s missing is an audio passthrough for chaining without an external mixer, PO-style.

Even the filter and LFOs are morphable

Modal’s clever filter design is quite well known, and this is one thing it does share with the original CRAFTsynth, in theory at least. The morphable filter sounds much better, and is more useful and usable in the CRAFTsynth 2.0.

The two-pole, state variable morphing filter normally works as a lowpass, 12dB/oct (I believe – specs aren’t easy to find and the slope can vary) resonant type, but can be shaped through a shelf-style filter with less aggressive slope, to bandpass, to highpass.

Not only is the resonance is quite lively, though not self-oscillating, the synth can go from muffled mumbling to feedback-esque screeching very quickly. Aside from the new waveform structure, this is the biggest difference between the kit and the 2.0 sonically; it no longer saps all the energy out of a patch needing a lot of gain to get a small payoff and it’s capable of changing the character and feel of a sound in subtle or extreme ways very effectively.

And it can be modulated too, over a decent length of time. There are two assignable LFOs which like the voice oscillators are also morphable from sine, through triangle to square, plus sample & hold variations. Either one can be free-running, retriggered or one-shot, with clock sync or adjustable rate and beat-matched divisions run from 1/64th to 16/1.

In addition to the filter and amp envelopes, there’s also a modulation envelope that can be assigned to different destinations. All three envelopes can be inverted; the filter and amp with their respective depth controls, the mod EG via the modulation matrix…

No fixed destination

It’s insanely easy to use, yet still a complex (for the price) mod matrix – three sources are available directly on the CRAFTsynth, with five more accessible in the app (which makes sense, as they’re the expression controls you get from a sequencer or MIDI controller). The delay effect is available as a destination too, as are the waveforms within the chosen bank.

On the road, just hold the modulation source on the touchpad, tweak the destination and the keyboard LEDs indicate the amount – plus/minus where appropriate.

Eight expressive LEDs
Blue LEDs confirm your currently selected options

Multiple sources can be assigned to the same destination – you can’t, however, send one source to more than one destination, and it’s hard to think of any situation where that’s particularly limiting when you have two LFOs with different rates, three contours and aftertouch, velocity, expression pedal and modwheels at hand to affect the sound.

What’s the use of all of this? While it’s all well and good making a synth that can produce little bass hits and flat, un-changing leads, the CRAFTsynth uses those wavetables and modulation options to amazing effect as a slow, evolving drone machine (and musical pads, thanks to the ‘spread’ control – also offered as a modulation destination, of course). You can enable sustain by pressing octave up & down at the same time, and off it goes.

Careful programming can bring out astoundingly complex harmonics and almost lush pads, albeit sparkling and glittery rather than outright shimmering softness. Basses fare better in that regard, but if you want to get a one-word character for it – ‘Orbital’ would be my answer. It’s got flavours of The Box, Illuminate and just a touch of Chime… and I kinda love it.

Small-scale synth

  • Seven slots can have one of 29 scales applied
  • Custom scales can be programmed and transposed
  • Selection of scale preset and root note can be done on the CRAFTsynth

Musicians of a more traditional inclination, look away now. Although the CRAFTsynth 2.0 is way more flexible than the PCB-origami original’s five-note keyboard allowed, it still has just 8 keys – and they’re all white.

That does mean a whole octave for anyone who doesn’t venture into the black keys, but of course, it does have selectable scales, and selectable root note, and sharps & flats are allocated across 7 presets plus one custom slot.

Each preset can have one of 29 scales assigned, but the same root note applies to all slots except the custom scale, which can start with whichever root note you programmed and is then transposed when the root is changed.

On the go scale selection from the 8 presets is reasonably straightfoward, as the available slots correspond with keys & LEDs on the touch pad – just remember which order you loaded the scales in.

The CRAFTsynth is easily controlled via smartphone
iPhone connection isn’t required, but the app is extremely good

The root note is also selectable without using the app, but with a full range to scroll through and only 8 dots to show the value, you’ll want to connect for extreme values – it’s easy enough to adjust one or two notes either way from a known start point, though.

As with so many features, the app makes it very easy to see what’s currently selected and make quick adjustments, and it also allows creation of that custom scale and assignment of one the 29 scales to each the seven preset slots.

Portability – takeaway noodles

Packing the CRAFTsynth in a design about the same size as a handheld console (though much deeper) means it’s ideal for taking on the move. The only flaw is that it doesn’t seem to come with a shell to protect the encoders – at least, my review unit didn’t. It was part of the Kickstarter, and I have seen some pictures with a cover similar to that provided with the Skulpt.

3 x AA batteries power the CRAFTsynth 2.0 - it can also use USB or powerbanks, or be powered by your smartphone
Space for three AA batteries – USB power is also supported

The battery compartment adds most of the depth, holding 3 x AA batteries and tilting the synth forward nicely for use as a desktop module. It’s small enough to live on the ‘foot’ of an iMac, for example, and can be tucked neatly away if you’re using it primarily though the app or plugin.

The Craft 2 is small enough to tuck under an iMac and be unobtrusive
CRAFTstnth 2.0 would definitely be a Rebel

How small is it?

  • 150 x 135 x 68mm
  • 368g with 3 x AA batteries installed
  • Headphone, line and sync on 3.5mm jacks

Aside from the rather exposed knobs, it feels like it should withstand being carried about alright; there’s a bit of play on the encoders, but that’s in part because they’re encoders, not pots, and have a small amount of play that feels exacerbated by the hard plastic, tall and featureless controls.

The Modal CRAFTsynth 2.0 weighs just 368g with fully charged batteries

This would be alleviated somewhat by the existence, of say, a CRAFTsynth 2.0 carrying case. The Kickstarter showed such a thing – but it seems that it’s neither available as an accessory, nor included with the retail versions of the synth (you don’t get a Micro-USB cable either – costs are clearly kept as low as possible for that retail price!). But the shell cases do exist…

Playing the CRAFTsynth 2.0 on the go is pretty straightforward, and you can program patterns of up to 32 steps, which play back transposed to the key that you’re playing. It’s one of the few times you need to use the touchpad; you enter program mode by holding ARP/SEQ and rests are entered by tapping the EG pad.

Unlike the Skulpt, there’s no preset pattern bank for storage and unlike some comparable synths, there is no parameter automation. Despite the glide control there’s no legato slide for the sequences, either. Some of these sound like easy fixes, and all can be overcome with third-party sequencers, albeit once again tying the CRAFTsynth 2.0 back to that smartphone connectivity and app.

Power requirements and connectivity may be a tricky subject when on the move. Using the Apple Camera Connection Kit, even with batteries installed the CRAFTsynth 2.0 required a powerbank to work, due to Apple’s nagging “This accessory needs too much power” warning.

Just one cable from Lightning to Micro-USB would be really nice here...
Do Androids have it better? App and synth good – Apple’s connection kit, not so much

On the other hand, with even a small powerbank the batteries weren’t needed. I’m putting this issue down to Apple’s occasionally draconian approach to handling accessories. However, Amazon is full of weird USB convertors and splitters, and I’m sure there’ll be a neater solution in there.

The ideal hardware synth for a mobile studio?

As has been pointed out to me many times, the real rival for the CRAFTsynth – and almost anything of its ilk – is ‘software’. You can pile all manner of crazy synths onto an iPad for not much money, and if you’re not the sort of person who likes interacting with hardware, you’ll argue yourself out of buying gadgets like this no matter how instant, how free of bulk and operating systems and updates and other irritations they are.

Modal clearly shares this concern, and has put a lot of effort into making out-of-the-box hardware behave as ITB (In-the-Box – shorthand for doing everything with virtual instruments) as it possibly can. Even on a £129 synth.

Visual representation of morphing waveforms makes programming easier to understand

Paired with some headphones and a smartphone, the potential for creating sounds, sequences and music is very real, and easily fulfilled. Everything’s done simply, logically and for a good reason, with very few things lurking to trip over for the novice or those who don’t have time to mess with hardware instead of making music.

The Modal app really is quite remarkable, and the more I play with these synths, the more impressed I am. Not everything is perfect – for example, right-clicking on banks to import/export sysex isn’t clearly signposted when everything else is so clear, but these are tiny niggles compared to, say, a scalable UI that’s ideal for dealing with retina displays and less-than-perfect eyesight, and instant feedback on contours, mix and waveforms.

The Modal App VST plugin integrates your CRAFTsynth 2.0 (or Skulpt) with DAWS such as Cubase, Logic or Garageband
The CRAFTsynth 2.0 editor in the Modal plugin offers VST-like integration

The CRAFTsynth 2.0 is also supported by the VST/AU plugin, which takes care of clock sync and transport for the sequencer without having to remember enabling it in the DAW.

It also provides MIDI through to other devices, and if you have a number of Modal synths you can either use one track to manage them, switching the VST between supported models (Modals?) which are currently the Craft 2, Argon8 and Skulpt, or you can run multiple instances assigned to a specific instrument’s MIDI ports.

The Modal app can address all your Modal devices at once, just select from the top tabs
Manage all your Modal devices in one place

CRAFTrhythm and the original CRAFTsynth are only supported in the standalone apps, but that’s okay, because the app lets the VST know if you’re already controlling the synth and they play well together. I’d very much like to see CRAFTrhythm supported in the plugin, though.

CRAFTsynth 2.0 – tiny synth, big character

You want a verdict, don’t you. No beating about the bush, this is an impressive synthesizer with a great deal of depth for the price, physical appearance and size. It’ll literally fit anywhere, but it’s not going to land in a studio full of gear and be forgotten.

Modal's desktop studio - CRAFTrhythm, CRAFTsynth 2.0 and CRAFTsynth
Two synths and a drum machine – in the wasted space of an iMac

At first, the light weight and limited keyboard threw me for a loop, and I had to get used to the way the CRAFTsynth worked via the app to really get an understanding of how everything interacted. Modal’s manuals are efficient, but the most effective way of learning about the synth is to have it all laid out on the screen with graphics and labels.

Modal CRAFTsynth 2.0 – ownership envelope

  • Attack – neat style, great presets, low cost, well put together
  • Decay – lack of pattern storage can be frustrating
  • Sustain – Modal app removes barriers to programming, scope for creating your own sounds isn’t limited by the tech at all
  • Release – it’s a keeper; interesting enough to keep playing, affordable enough to hang onto between projects

There are still a couple of flaws – it should be easier to get a case for it, or a cover should be included like the Skulpt, and I found the touch pad (it’s not a membrane, but a touch-sensitive glossy-perspex feeling panel) sometimes didn’t register my presses.

These are small niggles, and really overshadowed by the quality of sound you get and relative lack of background noise unless plugged into a misbehaving USB power source.

As an addition your existing the desktop outboard armoury, it offers some unique sounds, and not all of them are unique because no-one else wanted them – the potential for longer, more interesting pads is unusual in anything of this size and budget.

It is, unusually, satisfying to use without any outboard effects, too. It will tempt you to buy more Craft 2s though, as it can polychain up to four as one master and three drones, and it plays nicely with the app and sequencers when doing so – though you’ll still need a mixer for the audio.

That’s probably the biggest risk, really – you may find it hard to buy just one CRAFTsynth 2.0…