The Red Sound Dark Star – “The Internet’s Most Reviled Synthesizer”


Audio Cookbook’s John Keston let us know about a post he’s put up sharing his thoughts on “The Internet’s Most Reviled Synthesizer”, the Red Sound Dark Star.

He writes:

Despite a glowing review from Sound on Sound on arrival, the instrument didn’t quite take off and was discontinued, along with its younger sibling the DarkStar XP2, after just a few years in production.

Even more curious than that is the amount of vitriol amassed for the DarkStar on forums all over the web. I could go on, but suffice it to say that “piece of shit” was among the milder comments.

So why bother trying to make use of an abandoned device that broad swaths of the community dismiss while more zealous members condemn? Well, digging a little deeper led me to discover that although the instrument does have its shortcomings it also has its strengths and at least a handful of people seem to appreciate the character and flexibility of the DarkStar.

He goes on to outline the most common complaints about the Dark Star, offer his take on them and then highlight some of the rare synths strengths. Check out his post and see what you think!

He also created some audio demos of the Dark Star, which you can preview below or via his SoundCloud page:

Was the Red Sound Dark Star a victim of terrible presets? Could it be a diamond in the rough? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!

38 thoughts on “The Red Sound Dark Star – “The Internet’s Most Reviled Synthesizer”

  1. I still own one, love it, and have always thought it was an overlooked and under appreciated synth. It is surprisingly deep and has quite a wide palette of sound design possibilities. The filters are just “okay” and are noticeably steppy, the presets suck but this thing has a lot of character if you take the time to learn the programming workflow and sub menus. They layout is pretty straight forward and the assignable joystick is a bonus. I do hope prices skyrocket but may have a hard time letting go of it.

  2. What a beautiful sounding synth, and those demo tracks sound quite lovely. John Keston should have made the demos for this synth back when it was released!

    It’s kind of sad that those complaints about the RCA outs, missing headphone out, and level control might have put a damper on sales. RCA jacks are unique in that they can provide superior shielding depending on how they are soldered), a headphone out is certainly a convenience, but in a pro setup is redundant, as with level control. Doesn’t sound thin to me.

    I really like the tabletop form factor, and I don’t mind a little menu diving, if the interface is well-thought-out.

  3. I do and don’t understand the hate after my research. Most of the complaints I read were, as you might expect, on Gearslutz, Harmony Central, and Reddit. There’s a Yahoo group with some diehard DarkStar users, so I do admit to slight hyperbole in the title. I can see why people got upset about it when Red Sound pulled the plug on production, support, and the promise of new ROMs like the Megamono. The Vocoda ROM actually did get produced. A lot of the units suffered from buggy OS versions and bad encoders. The one I got works perfectly, so I feel pretty lucky about that. I also got an XP2 around the same time that had several bad encoders on it. You had to push them in to change the values. Thankfully I was able to return it. If I’d been stuck with that unit I might be on the other side of the fence!

    1. I was actually thinking about this the other day, I had one, thought it was a bit noisy and a bit dull, but I liked the ui a lot. Sold it 2 or 3 months after I bought it.

      Listening to your songs almost makes me want to buy it again, it does have it’s own sound.

  4. I owned one for about 3 months… I didn’t care for it. The darkstar was very underpowered, build quality was horrible, interface was annoying… and it didn’t sound very good to me.

    I’m not a fan.

  5. Sounds like an Arturia plugin. Which isn’t particularly bad, just not particularly good either.

    It’s often not the instrument but what you do with it though, and kudos to Mr. Keston for coming up with some lovely flourishes.

  6. Pretty sure the Refaces were more reviled than this!

    I think this one just flew under the radar a bit due to stange marketing towards DJs!

  7. Great demos, John! Makes me think I need to revisit this synth.

    I’ve got a Dark Star and have always thought that it’s built like a tank. They offered an optional set of rack ears for it and it seems like it’s made much better than the majority of sub-$1000 synths are nowadays, with a solid metal case, instead of the usual plastic.

    The filter is a little ‘meh’ and the UI is a little weird – but nothing like painful menu-driven UI’s of other inexpensive synths from the same timeframe, like the microKorg.

    I think what killed this thing was the bad presets and the lack of time-based effects (reverb, chorus, echo, etc). Add some effects and suddenly things get interesting.

  8. it was reviled for the filters, most notably for the obvious stepping of values – although i think that occurs with all other parameters as well

    honestly it doesnt sound any better than most modern VSTs… 10 years ago, yeh sure

  9. Thanks, @Ebo, @Jert, @aWc. It definitely sounds better with a touch of reverb and delay (as you’ll hear on my demos). I kind of like the filter even though it’s a little difficult to tame. It seems to sound resonant even with the resonance all the way down.

    1. I suppose the manufacturer must have thought that’s how ‘proper analog filters’ behave like 🙂

      (Which they might, if little bugs are trying to hump the inductors)

  10. This was my first synth I bought over 12 years ago… I had a great time with it but the programming is horror 😉 I ve bought them for 125 euro xD

    1. @Max4life: Not sure how you can say that the programming is a horror. I find it much easier to get around on than almost everything else I’ve used with a comparable feature set. Knobby interface with shift keys to get to alternate params and menu diving at a minimum.

  11. I’ve almost picked one of these up off ebay a couple of times, largely because they’re one of the only synths that seems to fall within my <£50 budget; Didn't end up getting them either time, as they moved a bit beyond what I was willing to pay for something I couldn't find decent demos of. Maybe I'll stretch a little more next time one comes up.

  12. I have one, and I use it as a vocoder (Vocoda). I always thought it had a unique sound quality. The bass sounds of the synth are pretty rich, and the joystick is a handy tool. So what if it’s hated by critics. I quite like mine.

  13. I have the big brother of it – the elevata that I got for less than a hundred bucks on a closeout- which is actually kind of cool except the low output thing – I heard that there was an eeprom you could get that fixed it but they are impossible to find now. I am going to shortly have access to more space to set up in and am looking forward to pluggging it back in

  14. Demos sound really nice -though not overly impressive, however this make me wonder, will Rythm Wolf, Tom Cat and/or Timbre Wolf get a resuscitation attempt like this in the future?

    1. Maybe.

      I’ve got a DarkStar XP2 and an Akai Rhythm Wolf as well. (Hope to pick up a Tom Cat one of these days — should’ve gotten it instead of the Rhythm Wolf but the Tom Cat price didn’t start dropping until after the former’s did.)

      I really like the Rhythm Wolf, save for the noisy “Howl” knob; it just sounds like a cheap and VERY noisy fuzz/distortion. The RW isn’t quite enough as a drum machine on it’s own for most of us with a wealth of gear. But it is analog, has a synth part (that can be out of tune when the unit hasn’t warmed up yet), and the lighted pads would like nice on stage. It’s nice having a few knobs for each individual drum sound.

      I tend to only use keyboarded instruments these days so i rarely ever turn on the DarkStar anymore, or even dust it off for that matter! 😉 But that’s not really saying all much for an eBay addict who’s got a four-foot-high rack of modules he never bothers plugging in and turning on, either…

  15. i have still got mine somewhere, its not so much the thing sounds bad but its a pain to program which detracts from its over all standing.

  16. The Sound on Sound comment is so telling, where marketing and advertising dollars leave you saying, I will try it for myself. That said, I never met a synth I didn’t like yet.

  17. I have had my DarkStar for over a year now and still dig it. I don’t understand why it’s hated. I can tweak it into sounding close to some squelchy 303 squeals. If you dwell
    deep into learning the entire possibilities of it, then you missed out.

  18. Meh. Like any synthesizer it has it’s limitations as well as it’s unique possibilities. I use it as a MIDI guitar synth as I can run my guitar through the filters. My Arp Avatar ( another famously derided synth that I loved while others hated it) has gone belly up so I use it in that vein. The 5 voices are limiting in that aspect but
    I assign one voice to both the high and low E strings which handles the problem in 99 % of cases. And I simply account for that. IMO the audio input is one of the biggest pluses.

    A poor workman blames his tools.

  19. Man, this gentleman John Keston has really hit it out of the park with those demos! Always knew there was some reason i’ve held onto mine….

    I’ve yet to use the audio input on my XP2. Tried the last time i had it hooked up but a quick scroll through the presets didn’t find anything that affected the input. Does anyone here remember which specific preset numbers might run the input through the filter?

    I’ve not seen anyone mention the vector-synth ability re the joystick. That’s the greatest thing about it, IMHO. I was on a vector-synth kick for a while. Came across a little aluminum rod somewhere that had the same inner diameter bore size for the joystick. 😀 I put that piece on my Korg WaveStation and the put the Korg’s joystick on the DarkStar.

    I should stand up and back away from this time-sucking computer for the moment, heh-heh. I’ve got two Korg Electribes (the earlier ones) chained up to a Roland EF-303. (Another “misunderstood” sleeper of kit.) I don’t bother with MIDI since they all have tap-tempo buttons. Anyway, i’m thinking i could dust off the DarkStar and hook it up with both audio and MIDI into the EF-303 on the end of the aforementioned chain. There’s a couple of neat possibilities to be had with just the EF-303 and DS running together. (The EF-303 has both a rudimentary sequencer and a bunch of FX, including a vocoder which my XP2 lacks.)

  20. I had one of these synthz, played with it for 30 minutes and that was it. Sold it quick. It is a thin sounding waste of time and money, even if you program it it still sounds bad.

  21. I think of working with instruments in general like a color palette to pick from.

    The Darkstar XP2 has his own color. Very good to have it and to choose from it.
    It’s raw sounding something that Virus & Co. are not capable of, because
    of their “anytime user should get the best results” engine. That’s the reality :
    many parameters or their ranges on these devices are circumcised.

    I really dislike these statements : ” don’t buy it, the preset are sounding so bad “.
    Get a cheap Yamaha PSR toy instead if you ar not willing to learn how to use a synthesizer
    or the much better way : let this biz be done by others. ( those who turn some presets
    into something more usefull or wonderful ) It’s hard, one who played and programmed this little
    box, but it should sound so bad… huh !?

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