The Soundmachines NS1nanosynth is a miniature modular synthesizer that’s priced about the same as one module of a full-size modular synth.
It’s cheap, as modular synths go, because it dispenses with custom screen printed panels, jacks, knobs – leaving you with the essence of a modular: a circuit board.
Developer Davide Mancini describes the NS1nanosynth as ‘A powerful, deep and hacker-friendly blend of a real analog modular synthesizer and an Arduino platform’.
Can a modular analog synth that fits in your pocket be taken seriously?
Design & Build
The NS1nanosynth is tiny – small enough to fit in your pocket, if you wear cargo shorts.
But designer Davide Mancini has packed a surprising number of capabilities into the NS1nanosynth.
On board the Soundmachines ‘nanomodular’ you’ll find:
- a saw core thermally stabilized v/oct VCO
- a 12db lowpass and bandpass VCF
- two LFOs
- one loopable ADSR envelope
- a standard VCA
- two adjustable attenuators; and
- more than a dozen “micro” modules, including mixers, multiples, sample and hold, sum/sub blocks, inverters, logic or, and, nand, analog dividers, clock dividers and fixed voltage generators.
That’s a lot of features, but the NS1nanosynth also includes an Arduino Leonardo microcomputer, USB connectivity, a ribbon controller and more.
The box itself is pretty unassuming. Inside, this is what you’ll find:
The NS1nanosynth comes with a large collection of breadboard-style patch cables and a USB cable. It’s designed to be powered by USB, but can also be powered by a 5VDC wall wart (not included).
All NS1nanosynth modulars now also come in a case, as shown at top, to minimize the possibility of damaging the circuits.
The NS1nanosynth is laid out with a left-to-right flow in mind:
The left side of the NS1nanosynth exposes the connections for the Arduino Leonardo. The Arduino is a user-programmable microcontroller that comes loaded with USB MIDI-to-CV firmware. This means that controlling the NS1nanosynth from a computer or iPad is pretty plug-and-play. If you want to use the Arduino to do something else, though, thousands of applications are available for it and it’s a popular developer platform.
Pitch, modulation & gate CV’s are available via the Arduino headers and can be patched directly into the modular analog modular section, which is found in the middle of the nanomodular. Full connectivity is available for the Arduino, in addition to these CV’s, which means that programmers can create custom firmware to control the modular or support bidirectional connections with other devices.
Finally, the right side of the NS1nanosynth has logic functions (AND, OR, NOT, NAND), a clock divider, patchable button controllers, sensor expanders and an audio out.
The NS1nanosynth has a capable synth architecture for a microsynth. It only offers a single VCO, VCA, VCF & envelope, but each of these offer more options than most budget analog synths.
For example, the oscillator offers V/Oct & CV control inputs, along with Sync and pulse-width modulation. On the output side, it offers square, triangle and saw wave outputs, along with a sub and white and pink noise.
The strength of the NS1nanosynth’s architecture, though, is in its connectivity and the range of modules that it offers:
Functions that we’re surprised to see in a budget analog modular include: fixed CV voltage sources, three mixers, four mults, sample and hold, clock divider, math modules and the previously mentioned logic modules.
Using The NS1nanosynth
The NS1nanosynth synth section is completely modular. Plug it into your computer and all you’re going to get is blinkenlights. To get any sound, you have to explicitly patch any connections that you want.
Getting started with patching it is a little daunting at first, too, because there are well over 100 patch points on the tiny device. And, if you need glasses for reading, you’ll probably need them to be able to patch the NS1nanosynth, because the type is tiny and the patch points are a fraction of an inch apart.
Fortunately, the NS1nanosynth manual is excellent and provides multiple example patches, like this:
Once we tried the examples in the manual, the nanomodular made sense, and we started creating our own patches.
Here’s a short video example that features four NS1nanosynth patches:
The video documents our testing of several aspects of the synth:
- The first patch is a bassline sequence, sequenced by Nodal running on a MacBook Pro. This patch let us see how USB MIDI control worked (seamlessly) and also to check the stability and scaling of the NS1nanosynth oscillator. Tuning the oscillator is a little fiddly, because you’re working with a single tuning pot. But the oscillator played in scale. across multiple octaves. This patch has a short echo added to it.
- The second patch explores using the ribbon controller to control the oscillator’s pitch. Two tracks of this are used.
- The third and fourth patch try out typical old-school modular synth sounds, filtered white noise and sample and hold bleeps.
In addition to the manual, Soundmachines has shared a fairly extensive playlist of videos, embedded below, that demonstrate key features of the NS1nanosynth. If you’re interested in the NS1nanosynth, these offer demos of each of most of the key modules:
Here are some of our key takeaways from testing the NS1nanosynth:
- The NS1nanosynth is a capable little modular. The basic analog synth voice is simple (a single VCO-VCF-VCA-EG), but the Arduino and extensive collection of modules result in deep patchability and extendability.
- The NS1nanosynth offers many options that are unavailable on analog synths in the same general price range.
- The tradeoff for making it tiny and inexpensive is usability; breadboard-style patching is workable, but not as usable or fun as working with a full-size modular.
- The small potentiometers make fine control of patches a bit ‘fiddly’. The lack of finer controls makes it harder to tune the oscillator the way you want or to dial in the sweet spot you are looking for with the filter.
- The NS1nanosynth uses non-standard signals for modulars – 0-5v, which means that connecting it with other modular gear would require some special attention. Soundmachines does offer an optional NS1nanobridge expansion board that provides 14 minijack patch points for interfacing easily with other modular systems.
- A NS1nanosynth Experimenter’s kit is also available that’s designed for experimenting and expanding the NS1nanosynth with DIY electronics.
The Soundmachines NS1nanosynth is a powerful little system that carves out new territory in the modular world.
The NS1nanosynth doesn’t really compete with full-size modular synths. Both Euro and 5U synths offer much better usability and a wealth of expansion options.
But the NS1nanosynth is cheaper by an order of magnitude. A Eurorack Ardcore module – comparable to just one of the NS1nanosynth’s modules – is more expensive than the entire NS1nanosynth modular.
Soundmachines tiny modular is an interesting solution for situations where an expensive full-size modular doesn’t make sense. It’s an inexpensive ‘modular synth lab’, and could be a great tool in education, where you could affordably put one in each student’s hands. It’s also a great platform for music hacking, with its combination of a full Arduino and a complete modular synth.
- It’s a capable modular synth that’s tiny and affordable
- Wide variety of modules, including some less common ones
- Lots of patch points and connectivity options
- Great platform for experimentation, education and hardware music projects
- Tiny controls and breadboard-style patching are fiddly
- Small pots make dialing in the sound you want trickier than on full-size modulars
- Simple single VCO-VCF-VCA-EG synth voice is limiting
The Soundmachines NS1nanosynth is available for 198,00€ at the SoundMachines site.
If you’ve tried the NS1nanosynth, leave a comment and let us know what you think of it!