Dreadbox is what you might call a bespoke synth company. It is just one of seemingly hundreds of relatively small enterprises trying their hands at – and largely succeeding at – making great hardware synths with a unique flavour.
Many of these, of course, make smaller units for the burgeoning modular market but there’s an increasing number of all-in-one synths and semi-modular machines out there, too and Dreadbox’s Nyx 2 fits well into the latter camp.
Dreadbox is a Greek company and makes striking-looking gear. Its older machines include the Hades, Erebus and original Nyx – all names of Greek gods of the dead, darkness and the night respectively (you might see a theme here). That original Nyx was a stunning-sounding machine that, with a massive reverb, was also an ambient-producer’s delight. It also had complicated routing that took a while (or a degree) to master, but when you got the machine doing its thing, then, boy, what a sound. I guess it proved that you need to work hard for the best things in life…
On the face of it
Nyx 2 looks similar in terms of functionality to the original Nyx, but actually borrows more of the features and looks from Dreadbox’s Erebus 3, so really does now look like its sister synth. It comes festooned with lots more connections, not least that host of Eurorack patch points, some 30 ins and outs in total. These allow Nyx 2 to modulate and be modulated, to send audio out and receive it from, well, just about anywhere and anything you care to, so there’s clearly a desire to see it as part of your larger modular collection.
The architecture starts out looking simple, with few controls to go too crazy with. Although like the original, the genius comes in the design, where a quick flick here or nudge there can dramatically alter what your signal is doing and where it’s heading to or from. With that in mind, I’m half dreading and half looking forward to trying to explain it in as simple a way as possible.
I’ll start with the easy stuff. A couple of sync’able oscillators sit top left, selectable between saw and pulse (1) and saw and triangle (2). You get +/- 12 semitone tuning with the middle position for transposing over three octaves.
The Dual Filter has the usual Filter and Resonance dials, but the first of Nyx 2’s small controls that can make a big difference comes in the form of the Offset dial. This sets the difference of the cutoff frequency between the dual filters – the manual suggests a normal position of 50% and in practice, this works, although a lot of routing options can change the results here.
The Mod Route section is another interesting one, again with one dial that really can make a difference. Nyx 2 comes with two Modulators to the right of this so it determines how they control the filters. Set it to Off and they don’t. Otherwise set both Modulators to control both filters, each one to control one filter each or just one Mod 1 to control filter 1. It sounds complicated but isn’t (yet!). This was on the original Nyx – albeit named slightly differently – and really added a lot of character to the sound. Do also bear in mind that you have all those patches to modulate externally, so this is really only a glimpse of the capabilities so far.
The two Modulators I’ve mentioned, plus an Amp Modulator, function in a couple of ways as you switch between Envelope and LFO. The former means that whenever a MIDI note is played (or gate triggered) they start an envelope cycle determined by the Attack, Decay and Sustain sliders on each Modulator. Switch to LFO or Drone then they cycle around. What this means is a more constant sound – depending on many other factors, of course. Overall, though, you will be experimenting more and more in this section as it really does afford plenty of shaping ideas.
Although, having said that, the next part is pretty crucial to Nyx 2 (and indeed the original Nyx): the Routing section. You start off in VCF and Norm mode where both VCOs go to the first filter. Half means they route to the second filter and Split, as you might expect, means that each VCO gets a filter each. VCA means the filters are bypassed with both VCOs going to the VCA. Easy so far, but there’s more…
The VCF options simply let you choose how the filters are set and interact with one another. Here, you can choose to have the filters set to low pass (LP mode) and in series; or in HP mode where both are in series and set as high pass; in BP (bandpass) mode, one will be low and one will be high. In PAR (parallel) they are set to be independent of one another, but both in low pass.
Reading back, those might seem complicated, but really all it’s about is that you have four options in routing the oscillators through the filters and four combining the filters. The result? Lots of options! Really this, like many of Nyx 2’s functions – and indeed any synth, if you think about it – is all best explored in use so that’s where I’m heading now… and to that glorious reverb.
The Nyx 2 sound
I find that the best way to do this is to set everything to what I would call ‘normal’ – although anything can be normal with synths, of course. So I start with VCOs each going to a filter; those are set up in parallel without too much modulation. It’s recommended in the manual that you use Nyx 2 with a MIDI controller, as this helps with the Auto-tuning feature (you set the Octave switch at the mid point here) and this does help; I’m pretty quickly getting the kinds of notes I think I should be.
Then it’s time to explore the options and that Modulation section really can bring in some dramatic changes. But, as suspected, it’s that innocent-looking Routing section that provides most the damage and fun. Just switching between filter modes and setups will give you all sorts of drama.
I return to the Mod section to effectively set up loops; it’s great for getting ideas going and hearing how one section affects another. I set the Amp Mod to Drone – like latching it – and then discover more. That Offset dial really comes into its own with the right setup in the Routing section, for example and I quickly have a dark, sweeping sequence that almost rotates on itself with the Offset dial cranked one way and then the other. What I’m also finding is something of that paraphonic nature of the sound coming through; almost like two voices drifting into one another.
It gets even better when I run the loop through the monster Reverb section. With six sliders, it’s not like any reverb I’m used to. The first three are Modulation controls whereby the effect is modulated to create real movement. Then dial the Feedback, Mix and Size sliders and you’re suddenly flying through the most bizarre spaces you can imagine. Not only does the room size sound incredible, but the Feedback slider set at the top will have any loop rotating for eternity; the kind of thing Eno would have used back in the 70s for complete albums.
Nyx 2 is not going to be for everyone, that’s for sure and with that mighty reverb, you can still see its appeal being more to experimental and ambient composers.
I just wish I’d had one years ago – the cash I could have made! There’s no space to cover all the patching options, but here you can maintain this experimentation but also bring in more control and calm it down. You’ll have to work to discover all its nuances, but as they’re revealed, you’ll discover a beast of a synth. A god, even.
Do I really need this?
I don’t need another synth, that’s for sure. But when you play with something like this for some time you realise that a) hands on hardware beats software hands down for its sheer fun and b) those magnificent soft synths, with their fabulous presets and easy routing are all pretty much doing the same thing. I’m even – oh, god here we go again – rediscovering my modular urge.
- Analogue semi-modular hardware synth
- 2 oscillators
- White-noise generator
- 12-24dB dual filter from 12dB/oct low pass to 24dB variable-width band pass
- 2 function generators
- Extensive digital reverb
- 30 Eurorack patch points
- 3 loopable envelope generators
- Drone mode
- Auto-tuning function
Moog’s entry into this area of the market doesn’t boast all the power of some of its rivals but, if you like, you can rack three together! And, whatever, £499 is still the cheapest way to get a fully functioning Moog and we loved it, dishing out the full 10.
Here’s a semi-modular that I reviewed a while back and possibly the daddy of the genre (Moog’s can be the Mother!). I built the one I reviewed from a kit, but now you can pretty much only get the Mini version.