Nonlinear Labs C15 MIDI Synthesizer Review

In his latest gear review, Martin Stimming takes a look at the latest project of Native Instruments founder Stephan Schmitt, the Nonlinear Labs C15.

Video Summary:

The C15 is a polyphonic instrument, based on digital sound synthesis, and provides users with boundless sonic possibilities. The instrument was initially designed for real time performance by trained musicians and therefore Nonlinear Labs decided to craft the synth without MIDI when it came out. This was often criticized, the company has since taken this on board and now offers the synth with MIDIU capability. For those who own one already, it can be retrofitted.

Stimming has been a proud owner of the C15 for quite some time now and has used it in many of his productions. We thought it’d be a good time to cover this one, now with the midi implementation it’s opened up the machine to a wider audience and is a truly intriguing synth capable of producing a broad spectrum of sounds from organic and acoustic to experimental and electronic.

Check out Stimming’s review and share your thoughts on the C15 in the comments!

14 thoughts on “Nonlinear Labs C15 MIDI Synthesizer Review

  1. Good review – the architecture sounds very similar to NI’s Kontour Reaktor ensemble, which I assume is the one he is referring to at the end. I’m a bit perplexed as to why Nonlinear Labs won’t release the engine as a plug-in; there don’t seem to be any performance capabilities in the keyboard that aren’t available on a good quality master keyboard, and that would dramatically expand the market. Maybe it relies on a dedicated computer with very low latency for the feedback calculations. Hooking this up to an MPE controller would be cool, if the engine supported it.

    As a wholly digital synth, in theory there should be no difference between a plug-in version and the hardware version. Also, you could then just use the GUI and dispense with the nightmarish interface altogether. That interface gave me flashbacks to the DX7 and other digital synths of the 80’s and 90’s, which were infamously hard to program. Phase modulation is of course, what the DX7 called “FM synthesis.” So I might call this a 21st century DX7, rather than a Hi Tech Rhodes.

    1. Apart from the fact the DX7 has made the sound of an entire decade, while this one will barely leave a scratch.

      1. That’s like saying that a Model T is the best car, because it was more revolutionary than what we drive today.

        If the C15 had been around in the 80s, you would have never heard of the DX7.

    2. “As a wholly digital synth, in theory there should be no difference between a plug-in version and the hardware version.”

      Except that soft synths run on general purpose operating system, which means that latency, jitter and other problems are a lot more significant than on dedicated hardware.

      I talked to the developer at NAMM and it sounds like the synth engine of the C15 has been tailored, like the Continuum’s, to deal with extremely low-latency control feedback loops, to preserve the player’s performance and to provide the same responsiveness as an acoustic instrument.

      That’s why – like with the Continuum – the developer wasn’t originally interested in including MIDI. An expressive performance has to be ‘dumbed down’ quite a bit for traditional MIDI to handle it. Even MPE is much more limiting than what modern sensors can do. MIDI 2.0 probably addresses this, but not sure if there are synths taking advantage of this yet.

      1. It’s one of those arguments that kind of makes sense “in theory.” And I’m sure it makes sense to the developer. But, for electronic musicians.. jitter… a little latency… meh. If you’re good at what you do, it’s not a huge deal. Anything under 10 ms is fine. What matters is the sound, and the interface. How does it sound? Does it sound WAY better than Kontour? Is it intuitive to program?

        1. “Anything under 10 ms is fine.”

          10ms is only fine if you’re not playing expressively. It’s way too high if you want to play with the types of expression possible on traditional instruments.

          I don’t know the details on the C15, but the Continuum’s responsiveness is in the millionths of a second, which is three or four orders of magnitude better than what you’re used to, and is comparable to a traditional instrument.

        2. I don’t think this is aimed at people sequencing tracks in Live. But my own piano playing style is very noticably different with a real instrument versus 10ms latency.

      2. I didn’t mean that the plug-in version would give you the same experience as the hardware, just that it would be a way to expand the audience and promote the hardware. I worry Schmidt is being too purist about performance, and limiting his company’s growth. Maybe it’s a diversion of resources that he can’t afford right now. I just wish there was a way I could engage with the engine, since I’m not likely to drop $4,000 on a keyboard instrument.

  2. MIDI is just one of those things; you don’t use it, you don’t miss it.

    I want to like the C15. I’ve never found a video I could sit through.

  3. Love the sound of the C15, but the lack of MIDI was always a major obstacle for me – glad they’ve finally seen the light!

  4. I strongly dislike the button-centric interface, although I understand the advantage of being able to create standard overlays to repurpose the controls. I can’t help but think that a graphical touch screen with encoders and buttons surrounding it would be a much better control surface in this instance.

    [I’m nervous about posting this negative assessment, because the last time I expressed my honest opinion about a front panel on a Make Noise product, another commenter basically tore my throat out in a viscious response.]

    1. In my august opinion; Make Noise panels are more noise than information. So now you’re even. :0)

      I use a button/menu encoder interface for programming Prologue. It’s a range of muscle motion you learn just like playing keys. It’s like Synclavier, buttons and a knob. Very easy to use. I prefer the knob off to the left or side though; in the middle you have to keep switching hands based on which button you pushed.

      I don’t like talking videos…. or talking, or videos tbh.

  5. id be willing to bet that most people are not in favor of this style of keyboard UI – regardless of how good it sounds

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