Published by marino on 21st December 2012
MFB Dominion X
A student of mine was looking for his first real analog synth, so when I came across a slightly used MFB Dominion X for 600 Euros, I recommended it to him. He bought it, and left it at my place for a while. So I tried (in my very limited time) to familiarize with it. I liked it quite a lot, and thought to write a report for my fellow synth maniacs. I have also posted this review at Music Player's Keyboard Corner.
WHAT IT IS
The Dominion X is a mono analog synth module from German manufacturer MFB. It has lots of knobs, and 128 onboard memories. It’s normally driven via MIDI, but connections are provided for connecting external modules for CV control. It’ small, it’s sexy, it has a whole bunch of features including three VCOs, FM, ring, sync, a multimode filter with six modes, etc. - and it sounds very good.
Price for a new Dominion X is 780 Euros inside the EU, or 700 Euros outside. There’s also an upcoming version with a different filter called SED, for 840 Euros in Europe, or 750 outside.
The Dominion X is presented in a rather attractive box, with wooden sides and a black panel. It’s almost alarmingly light, but it feels robust nonetheless. On the back are located the external connections: A single (mono) audio out, an insert TRS jack for external effects, MIDI connections (in-out-thru), and the socket for the (insert profanity here) external power supply, plus an on-off switch.
An overview of the panel shows the various sections logically divided and labeled (vcos, envelopes, etc.), and on the upper edge you have minijacks for CV control of several functions, which allow you to connect external analog modules conforming to the 1-volt-per-octave standard. The jacks address CV control of the individual VCOs (to control one of the oscillators with a different keyboard or sequencer, for example), a gate signal to start the envelopes, oscillator FM, oscillator sync, VCF cutoff, VCA level, and an input for an external audio signal, which replaces the noise generator in the Dominion’s mixer. Great.
The sections on the panel are clearly labeled, but what happens inside those sections could be difficult to understand at first. There are are two reasons for this: First, the writings on the panel are quite small, and at less-than-optimal viewing angles they can be easily covered to the sight by the knob themselves, which are rather packed together; second, what’s written on the panel sometimes doesn’t explain clearly what’s going on, so you have to keep the (very sketchy) manual handy in order to understand what you’re doing. To be fair, this only happens on a bunch of parameters, so it’s not difficult to memorize the meaning of those settings - but it’s annoying nonetheless.
For example, for the sync functions, you have to keep in mind that the master oscillator is always VCO1; for FM, VCO3 is the modulator; on the two main LFOs, there’s a four-stage pushbutton which changes a LED’s color to indicate various modes of use, but no indication of their meaning on the panel. I guess it ‘s been done to save panel space, but still.
There’s one more thing you have to take into account when programming the Dominion X: The various modulation sources and amounts are set *at the destination module*. For example, you set LFO1 modulation of VCO1 frequency inside the VCO1 section, *not* from the LFO1 section. You also set the mod amount from there. A bit unusual if you ask me, but easy to grasp after a bit of practice. However, if summed with the occasionally cryptic writing, it could cause some head-scratching during the learning period.
Now about those pots and selectors. They feel way better than previous MFB products. But while they feel solid and offer a good deal of resistance (even too much), it’s way too easy to push them out of alignment, so that the indications on the panel aren’t in line with those on the knobs anymore. This happen especially with the selectors. It’s not the end of the world: After a while, you just learn to be gentle when turning those knobs. But it doesn’t contribute to a sense of trust in the instrument’s solidity.
Despite all these remarks, the Dominion *does* feel good. It feels like an integrated instrument, with a definite personality. That’s important in my opinion; if your instrument has an identity, it’s much easier to establish a relationship with it.
Let’s have a look at the individual sections.
There are three nearly identical sections, one for each VCO. From right to left (huh?!) you have a waveform selector (triangle, sawtooth, pulse/square, ring mod), a tuning knob, an octave selector, plus a pair of knobs to select a modulation source, and to set a modulation amount.
What’s really great is that you can modulate wave symmetry not only for the pulse wave, but for the other waves as well! Sweeping a sawtooth to a triangle or vice-versa sounds particularly dramatic. The triangle wave itself sweeps to a sine wave, so it’s not as noticeable. The pulse wave sounds very good when swept. Ad of course, you can also alter wave symmetry manually, and leave it at any particular interpolation value.
You can *only* modulate wave symmetry from LFO1. Time to realize one important thing: There’s no “modulation matrix” on this machine. The modulations they thought of are the modulations you’re left with. The possibilities are vast, though; it’s not a ‘closed’ machine by any means. Example: What if you want/need to modulate wave symmetry with an envelope instead of LFO1? Simple: You put LFO1 in “One Shot” mode, set it to a reverse saw wave, and set its speed. Done! You have a pseudo-envelope driving your modulation.
What’s not so great: The knobs, once again, aren’t very precise. To set appropriate tuning (or detuning) of the oscillators is not always easy. Same for centering the square wave.
Also, the selector for choosing the mod source is rather cryptic. Judge for yourself:
LEVEL = level modulation by LFO1
PITCH 1 = pitch modulation by LFO1
PITCH 2 = pitch modulation by LFO2
ADSR 1 = pitch modulation by ADSR1
PWM = symmetry modulation by LFO1
PW = this allows manual modulation of symmetry
As you can see, sometimes it shows the mod source, sometimes what’s modulated. Once again, it’s not difficult to memorize, but you ask yourself if perhaps there would have been a clearer way.
How these oscs sound? Quite good to my ears, though not among the absolute best. They seem to have a slightly “pushed” character, so they aren’t sweet, fat and moogy – even though you *can* extract some Moogism from this instrument, with a bit of thought. They sound like a few other modern analog oscillators: Thick, edgy, aggressive. Overdriving the mixer by keeping the osc levels high gives them even more thickness. And then there’s the feedback circuit, as we’ll see in the “Filter” section.
And then there’s ring mod, and it sounds quite good. Wether you use it to thicken a sound, or to create explosions of inharmonic partials, it sounds rich and satisfying.
As I said before, you have to know in advance that VCO1 is always used as the master oscillator for sync, as it’s not written on the panel. It can synchronize VCO2, VCO3, or both. Oscillator sync on the Dominion X sounds superb. I would even say it’s one of the synth’s main strenghts. Intense and penetrating, without becoming unpleasant. Modulate VCO frequency with an LFO or envelope, add a sweep of the resonant bandpass, put a bit of ring mod on top, and you have some*serious* timbral sweeping.
Close to the Sync section is the Frequency Modulation section. That’s audio rate FM between VCOs. Once again, you are supposed to know that VCO3 is always the modulator. You can choose VCO1, VCO2 or both as the carrier(s), and you set the modulation index with a dedicated knob. I’ve never been a huge fan of analog FM, but with a bit of experimentation with the frequency relationship between the carrier and the modulator, you get results that can vary from slightly metallic to sideband madness.
What’s cool in the Dominion X is the fact that you can use all those audio-rate modulations at once. With FM, ring mod and sync going on at the same time, you can achieve really extreme sounds and effects. Add some white noise, plus some interesting settings of filter, resonance and feedback, and you are in *very* complex sci-fi territory. And don’t forget that the VCF can be audio-rate modulated by VCO2 and 3, too!
My only complaint is that I haven’t found a way to disengage one of the VCOs from keyboard control – consequently, some of the classic FM sounds aren’t possible.
Or, better said, filters. The filter on the X is a multimode with three types of lowpass (24,18, od 12 db per octave), plus a bandpass, a notch (band-reject) and a highpass. You can only select one type at a time. Resonance go nicely into auto-oscillation, and sounds good without thinning out the sound. The knob for setting the envelope amount to the filter is labeled “Contour” like in the Minimoog. Keyboard tracking is provided in three steps: 0%, 50% and 100%. I would have preferred a continuous pot for that function – but what’s strange is that the keyboard tracking seems to have an effect on the filter even when the cutoff is set at its maximum value! It’s not a subtle thing; you fully open the filter, and you get a certain response... then when you engage tracking, it gets *much* brighter. Someone could consider it a musically sensible choice – but what you do if you want your filter fully open *and* no key tracking?! Mmm.
Finally, the response of filter envelope can be inverted. Good.
A separate section selects a modulation source for the filter, and sets a modulation amount for that. The possible modulation sources are LFO1, LFO2, VCO2, or VCO3. The two kinds of modulation (from LFO or VCO) are, of course, much different in result: With the audio oscs, you will achieve a timbre modulation, not a cyclic one (well, it *is* cyclic, but the ear can’t discern it). So having them in one single selector could be a bit confusing if you don’t know exacly what’s going on.
Only one modulation of the filter can be selected at one time – except of course for the hard-wired filter envelope. So if you’re modulating the filter with an LFO, you can’t have audio-rate modulation from a VCO at the same time.
So how those filters sound? To my ears, great. Again, they sound a bit pushy, like a small amount of saturation was applied – not so much to break the sound, but enough to make it thick. So the result is often full and aggressive, and in almost no case bland or generic.
Plus, the filters seem to match the sound of the oscillators quite well, for a compact and recognizable final sound.
What’s interesting is that the three types of lowpass filter have quite different sonic characters. In fact, I found that in some situations, the 12 db filter responds more like the 24, while the 18 has a completely different personality! A good thing to me, as it offers you more choices.
Overall, the Dominion filter is clearly not made to sound sweet and creamy, but you *can* achieve respectable results in that direction too. It’s not always piercing and aggressive; it has so many variables that with a bit of thought, you can use it for a myriad of functions.
To add to the treat, there’s the Feedback knob, which routes the overall output sound back to the filter input. This not only saturates the timbre further, but also alters the response of the resonance on the various filters greatly. With experimentation, you can achieve a huge palette of sounds, playing with the interaction of filter type, cutoff, resonance, envelope amount and feedback amount.
The feedback amount is not modulatable, unfortunately.
There are two ADSR envelopes, one hardwired to filter modulation, and the other to the VCA. The filter envelope can also be used to modulate the frequency of one of more VCOs. These envelopes are really fast: Percussive sounds with aggressive snap are very easy to achieve. The attack and decay times have a nice range; I’m not sure if I love the way their relative knobs are scaled, but it’s just a matter of getting acquainted with it.
More serious is the fact that it’s quite difficult to perform very small adjustments with precision, and the fact that there’s no visual feedback from the display doesn’t help. As for the VCO frequency knobs, very precise settings, or simply trying to reset these knobs to an original value, is difficult, especially in the “fast” range.
Also, when using medium/slow attack settings, in certain situations you get a slight clicking sound at note-on. This is perhaps a result of allowing the attacks to be so fast; a choice of “fast” or “normal” mode could have helped here.
That said, these envelopes sound lovely. They have a nice curve (slightly exponential?), and being so quick and responsive, playing with those settings is a treat.
There are two main LFOs, plus a third one which is hardwired to be controlled by the mod wheel. The two main ones are identical; since on the Dominion X you set the modulations at the destination, for each LFO you just have a selector for waveform, a pot for rate/frequency, and a pushbutton which selects among four different LFO behaviors.
Let’s have a look at the waveforms list: sine, triangle, saw, reverse saw, square, and sample/hold. Excellent. Rate goes from extremely slow into audio range. Great!
Now about those different modes.... they’re very useful, but like a few other functions on the Dominion X, there’s no way to guess what they are by looking at the front panel or the display; you have to have the manual handy.
Enough complaining. The four modes are:
2) Sync to note-on (the waveform cycle restarts with each incoming MIDI note)
3) Free-run with LFO speed increasing as you play higher notes
4) Sync to note-on, *and* speed increasing with higher notes.
The amount of speed increase is fixed, and a bit brutal to my ears, at least for “melodic” uses... but of course, it could be just what you need for other kinds of use.
What’s really great is that the two main LFOs can be used as simple envelopes, when put in “One Shot” mode. This function is found in the “Programming” section, but of course it belongs to the LFO section, so I’ll talk about it here. In short, you can individually switch the two main LFOs to go thru one waveform cycle and stop there. If you need a third envelope for modulating VCO or VCF frequency, this is the next best thing. Reasonably, the One Shot function is only available when the LFO is in one of the “Sync to note on” modes.
About that third LFO (which MFB calls “Mod LFO”): It only produces a sine wave, of which the mod wheel controls the amplitude. Rate is set by a dedicated knob, and it has a wide range. It can modulate a variety of destinations: Global pitch, VCO2 pitch only, VCO2+3, VCF cutoff, VCA volume. Great, although only one destination can be selected at a time.
It’s wonderful to have the third LFO, but there’s a potential problem here: The range of LFO amplitudes is scaled on the mod wheel response in such a way that a very slight movement of the wheel produces a very noticeable vibrato. Once again, it could be useful for other LFO uses to have this particular response, but for vibratoes and such, which is presumably one of the most common uses of the mod wheel, it’s definitely a problem. There’s no way to attenuate/calibrate this response, so it becomes difficult to introduce exactly the amount of vibrato that you intend – especially when you think that this is the *only* way to introduce delayed vibrato to a sound; you can't modulate LFO intensity from an envelope.
This is how MFB calls the parameters which haven’t found a place or section on the front panel, and are accessed by means of a 12-position selector, a data knob and a three-digit display.
The first selection is for browsing, recalling and storing presets. There are 128 presets divided in four banks. You only get to give your sounds a bank and a number; no fancy names allowed. Unfortunately, there’s no compare button either.
Then you get to choose the MIDI channel to which the instrument responds.
The next choices are impressive. You have key velocity control over the following parameters: VCA (volume), VCF cutoff, resonance, VCF env amount, LFO 1 and/or 2 speed, wave symmetry of one or more VCOs, the times of either or both envelopes. The quantity of modulation is programmable, positive or negative, in variable amounts for each destination. I’m impressed.
And it doesn’t end here. On the next two selections, you have control over retriggering of the envelopes: Note-for-note or just when you play staccato.
Even more impressive are the options for glide. You have a choice of constant time/constant interval, legato/always present, and linear/exponential/logarithmic curve. And fortunately, the glide time is set by a dedicated knob.
This is great stuff! In the hands of a good programmer, it opens a myriad of choices for expressive playing. My hats is off to MFB for having included all these possibilities into a low-cost instrument.
Again, it’s not the same as having a “mod matrix” for modulating anything with anything; for example, there’s no provisions for aftertouch. But if you think of the price and dimensions of the Dominion X, the designers have made sensible choices within the limits of the project. They seem to have privileged a great sound in a small package at an affordable cost, and this sounds good to my ears.
Finally, the last selection of the “Programming” section is the one which switches either or both the two main LFOs from continuous to “One Shot” mode and viceversa (see above).
Strangely enough, the Dominion I played came with no “factory presets” on board; just 5 or 6 patches on the A bank, and not particularly distinctive. They could have been programmed by the previous owner, of course. The remaining memory locations were empty.
I think this was a good thing, as I started making sounds without preconceptions on how the machine “should” sound.
So how does it sound? The overall sound of the Dominion X is, generally speaking, big and aggressive. The naked sawtooth and pulse waves don’t sound dull but rather full, the filters matches them very well, the resonance adds edge without subtracting character, the sync whistles and rotates merciless, and in fact the machine seems to give its best when a few audio-rate modulations are engaged. FM, ring mod, sync, filter FM, feedback, all contribute to an overall bright and piercing sound, with a great presence. Add a bit of delay and/or some other *good* effects, and you’ll have a very big sound.
As I said before, you *can* achieve more of a sweet, creamy sound with this synth – just it doesn’t seem to be its speciality. I have compared it with my MEK and my SE-1, and while I still prefer the overall sounds of those two (much different) synths, the MFB stands very well in the comparison, especially in a few areas like attack speed, filter versatilty, sync sound, where it seems to have an edge over the other two. I used to think that the MEK could achieve a very aggressive type of sound, until I played the Dominion X. I’ve layered a few percussive-type sounds on the two machines for a seven-oscillator monster patch, with devastating results!
All in all, the little MFB sounds definitely like a “modern analog”.... a good one. Fat and strong, but also pushy, neat and in your face. If you’re looking for a Moog or Oberheim sound, look elsewhere. It doesn’t sound very dissimilar from a few other European analogs, like the Leipzig, or the Mono Lancet. But the Dominion has more features than those two, plus of course patch memory.
You must take into account its little quirks: You have to set it at the right angle to program it confortably. You have to be gentle with those pots, as they don’t feel very stable. You’re supposed to memorize a few things in order to understand some of the settings. There's no edit compare button (urgh). Critical adjustments like VCO detune and env attack time are not easy to set precisely. Sometimes the envelopes produce a click. The third LFO is hypersensitive to mod wheel movements. The manual, though complete, is *extremely* sketchy. And it has the dreaded EXTERNAL POWER SUPPLY.
Then there’s the thought that with all that complexity in the voice architecture, sometimes you are left wanting for more modulation possibilities. For example, you can’t modulate LFO speed (except with note number, and at a fixed amount) or LFO amplitude. You can’t use aftertouch for anything. And so on. Some of these limitations (though not all) can be remedied by connecting external modules to the jacks on the upper panel.
But once again, you have to consider that this is a low-cost machine. Finding another analog synth at this price with these great features *and* such a convincing sound is an impossible task. (See “What it is” above).
Would I consider to make the Dominion X my only analog monosynth? No, as I still prefer the ones I own (MEK, SE-1) for my own musical needs. But if money wasn’t so tight, I would certainly consider adding it to my rig, to have another, different ‘voice’, more in-your-face and aggressive.
Programming the Dominion X is a real treat; I came up with two whole banks of patches in a few hours.
Of course, tastes in sound are very subjective, so I can only suggest to hear the little beast in person before committing to a purchase. But if you feel that it suits you music well, and if you’re willing to live with its little idiosyncrasies, by all means get one. It’s an instrument with a definite, complex personality, in a small package and at a great price.
Here you can hear some of the patches that I made for the Dominion X. Just totally sloppy fiddling about while selecting patch numbers.
The audio is mono mp3 encoded at 256 kbps. No effect or eq has been used, just the output from the instrument. Of course, many dry sounds seem to demand some after-the-fact treatment... but I thought it was fair to give them in their naked glory.
When playing the file with WMP on my system, there's a nasty click at the beginning, plus a few softer ones later. I haven't been able to reproduce this when playing the file with Sound Forge, Cubase, or other programs. It's not in the audio file, so I guess some format incompatibility caused it. I have tried to re-encode the file multiple times, always with the same results... then I gave up and uploaded the file as it is.
Speaking of clicks - in some of the examples, you will hear clicks at the start of the notes. Those clicks are *not* induced by some stage of the audio recording/encoding like the previous ones: They are generated by the instrument. I have talked about those clicks in the "ENVELOPES" paragraph.