Review: Arturia Origin. It's big, it's expensive, it's sexy. Why don't I want one?

This is a difficult review to write. The point of Music Thing over the last few years has been to celebrate hardware when all around were defecting to the sensible, practical world of software synths and in-the-box mixing. Celebrating hardware not because it's better, but because it looks cool and is nice to have around. The best hardware is ambitious, bonkers, knob-covered and over engineered; where no switch is left unilluminated and there's always a joystick. Synths should be modular and/or white. Sequencers should be analog and involve copious blinkenlights. We should remember the mega synths of the past - the Yamaha CS80, the ARP 2600, the Roland Jupiter 8, the Moog Modular, and we should remember the crazy experiments of the early digital era - Dave Smith's gnarly Prophet VS.
Here, then, is one machine that does all that. The Arturia Origin is a big white synthesizer. It has a hand rest like an old studio console or an MPC60 (unfortunately curved steel, not pleather, but still...) It's made in France, of all places. It's a digital modular synth, containing models of oscillators and filters from Moog, Arp, Roland and Yamaha, plus a VS-style wavetable section. Editing is done on a little colour screen surrounded by knobs and buttons - just like the one on the prototype PPG Realizer - the German machine that anticipated soft synths and virtual analog long before it was possible.
So why am I not in love with the Arturia Origin? Why am I writing this, rather than playing with the thing? How come I've already taken the top off to have a look inside and see how it all works? Because the Origin has crossed that line - it's not a hardware synth, it's a computer in a box covered in knobs.
Please remember this isn't a real review. This isn't Sound on Sound. I've lived with this box for days, not weeks. I'm not a real musician, I haven't read the manual properly - most of what I say is ill-informed prejudice.
The trouble starts when you turn it on, after first plugging it in, using the OEM external power supply that must have cost 99p. (Seriously, a £1900 hardware synth only really makes sense if you're playing live. An external PSU only makes sense if you're desperately trying to cut costs. If Behringer can manage a proper internal universal PSU in £70 mixers, why can't you?) Anyway, when you turn it on, it takes 30+ seconds to boot. Because it's a computer in a box.
No, it isn't a literal PC in a box like an Open Labs Neko or a Hartman Neuron, so it will have taken serious R&D investment to design and build. The hardware was designed - in 2005 - by Wave Idea, a French company who make MIDI interfaces. What's frustrating about the Origin is that it's a computer in a box pretending to be an analog synth... and nothing more.
The presets are nice enough, although it's a shame that combining 40 years of synth design produces a bunch of trance noises. The switch-covered interface means its rather too easy to turn off the layers of reverb and chorus on all the presets. It's a bit unfair, but does leaves many of the patches sounding weedy and thin.
The fun bit is building new patches - delving in to that glorious vintage toolkit. And it's easy enough. You control the whole process through one one those big encoders with a push switch. I found it quick enough to patch together a basic VS - four wavetable oscillators, mixed by the joystick and running through (why not?) parallel CS80 and Jupiter filters. I like the little design features - the Yamaha filters look like knobs on a CS80.
The thing is - and here's where I'm so conflicted - I just wanted a mouse and a decent-sized screen (oh, the shame of it). I'd much rather have the beautifully realised screen-based Nord Modular editor - which reproduces the reach-and-grab simplicity of a real modular synth, while allowing for endless complexity. Because patching a modular synth is more than rearranging a few filters and oscillators. It's about weird connections - putting control signals through audio effects, building oscillators from envelope generators. The Origin is not a tinkerer's paradise. Apart from anything else, the modules are so restricted - no sample player, no FM, no granular synthesis, nothing that's been invented since 1986. And it's a completely closed system - it doesn't run VSTs or allow users to develop their own modules.
Perhaps there are hidden depths to the Origin - hidden away in menus I missed, or planned in future upgrades. It does much more than the £190 Analog Factory software/controller combo which presumably contains all the same synthesis algorithms. Unfortunately it costs as much as Analog Factory and a brand new mid-range MacBook Pro. That is a very, very big ask.
The Origin is a wonderful thing. It looks good, it feels good. I'm sure it's not overpriced for what it is - a boutique, limited-run machine with a lot of custom hardware and software. But I can't imagine who would be willing to pay £1,900 for it. It's too digital for an analog fetishist, too analog for a sound experimentalist. The potential of this box is immense - DSP power + screen + knobs + blinkenlights + wooden end panels. But at the moment it's just - tragically - boring.


Comments:
interesting point tom re where is the line between software and hardware ... in fact it's exactly the crossing of this line that has always steered my away from the roland mv .. as an mpc fan i've always been curious about the mv and have nearly cornered one many times .. only to realise it's just going to feel too much like software and pony software at that .. in a box
 
not because it's better, but because it looks cool and is nice to have around.

that sounds like the perfect philosophy for life in general
 
Tom

I think you just killed the Origin's buzz.

The boot up time is insane, especially when you can close your laptop and open it up whenever you need. it.

I'm not sure that the startup time is a show-stopper, though. My Kurzweill takes some serious time to startup, too.
 
From a technical point of view, DSP-based synths or effect units have all been "computers in a box" for ages - the sound is generated and altered digitally on a single general-purpose processor, then sent to a D/A converter at the end of the chain. Just like what happens with software synths played through an audio interface...

Beside the brand of DSP, the Origin's guts are no different from those of a Virus. What could make them feel more or less "softwary" or "hardwary" is just the OS (boot time, latency, reliability) and the user interface.
 
Great review, lets hear some sounds!
 
I think I see the problem - no analogue VU meter! Seriously though, I think many musicians will like the idea of assembling a new synth from a few favourite building blocks - the 'what if factor'. As I'm not a musician, it's not enough for me. I need to connect the VCO to the toaster, toaster to Mr Fusion, kneebone to the thighbone, from time to time.
 
re ; slabman said "I need to connect the VCO to the toaster, toaster to Mr Fusion, kneebone to the thighbone, from time to time."

YOU TOO?!

I think I must marry you!
 
I think it looks interesting but it's way too pricey! I also think a good synth is a reliable synth. I can switch on my 20 years old cheap second hand Kawai K1 and it works like new. Will this thing still be around in 2028?
 
It's main problem is that for the price you could buy a real modular synth.
 
I think you may be a little optimistic thinking you can buy a real modular synth for this price...
 
gosh .. it's not even a very interesting boot-up sequence, they should let you play pong or something while it's doing it

and why so long? it doesn't have a hard drive or anything so that os must be loading from some kind of solid state medium .. maybe it's compressed on rom and is expanded into ram or something?

as for the "looks cool and is nice to have around" philosophy i agree wholeheartedly when it comes to things like muscle cars, automatic weapons, girls in bikinis etc but if a music making machine aint .. well helping you make no music then you gotta think again surely?
 
My Doepfer modular cost me less than the Origin.
My Andromeda cost me less than the Origin.
And, just to point out I'm not an analogue fetishist: my Machinedrum, Monomachine and Virus TI each cost me less than the Origin.

So far, I'm not tempted!
 
I'm not defending this thing by any means - I've got my own doubts but... this thing is barely out yet and I've seen almost an unbelievably unified wave of negative stuff about it. Maybe we just mad it's so expensive? I'd love to try it out and see for myself whether the Origin really deserves thumbs down, because it seems all expensive stuff out there gets grilled no matter what.
 
"Celebrating hardware not because it's better, but because it looks cool and is nice to have around."

And so we get to the heart of the matter. How can you not see the hypocrisy of your own actions? You don't want new, exciting, "Better" hardware or technology.

So Origin doesn't make any. Instead, they recycle the same old, same old into something that "looks cool" and is "nice to have around": in other words, passes the guitar center OMG lust test. And you are surprised that the performance is disappointing? That you asked for eye candy and you got eye candy?
 
Tom, thanks for not being afraid to post your honest opinion! Respect++
 
It's a good day when everyone agrees with you, and I'm not going to break that chain. I can't really think of anything to say, that you didn't cover. I especially like to one comment about the Nord Modular; that's a DSP synth that does manage to capture the magic of modularity. I also appreciated the comment by Jyoti Mishra on cost comparisons, I'd rather have some of the pieces he mentioned over the Origin. It is a strange feeling when you know you should like something, but you don't.
 
I agree.. this is a "miss". I hope it doesnt sink Arturia because I do like the Minimoog V quite a lot. Its not a real Mini but I can make some niiiice sounds on it.
 
Tom - I spent a couple of hours on the Origin last night after I got it back from you..

The short version of my reply is that I think you spent too much time unscrewing & photographing the Origin and taking a video of the start up time.. You may have found the presets a little uninspiring at first, but a little tweaking will get you some better results, which is probably more to the point.

It's a shame you didn't get on with it, but I get the feeling you may have got more out of it with some more time.

Anyway - I'm taking the Origin to Music Live in Birmingham now if anyone wants to come and see it in the flesh (excuse the plug please)

Steve
 
I'd seriously urge people to try it themselves before forming an opinion based on an opinion. As someone who got a chance to play with one of these well before it was released and refined, I'd say its pretty essential to give it more than a few days to be able to start forming a fair opinion on it. It's more than the sum of its parts.

In response to any idea this this is a 'limited' box - I have coaxed an astonishing variety of sounds from a Juno 60, and this is infinitely more complex. It is not a Nord Modular, nor is it trying to be as such. The key joy (for me, anyway, in addition to not having to use a mouse) is the tone. Literally the quality of the sound. I love the Juno 60 for that. And I bloody loved what I've got out of the origin...I don't know if its the AD converters or the software (the process of "converting" the original arturia VSTs to work on Origin means rewriting them). In a literal sense, it sounded better than any other digital machine I've tried. Including a computer - which it most certainly isn't.

Its menu systems are unique to the machine, and will take some getting used to. With a week or more, you become very fast at getting the results you want. That's when it opens into pure tinkerland. That's when it starts to come alive. To write it off because it takes 40 seconds to start up is more than missing the point. Any old modular will take longer than that to get warm and stable.

Also, wise man say never ever judge a synth by its presets.
 
I'm sure AlexT and StephenParker meant to explain that they both work for Arbiter, the UK distributors of the Origin.
 
I'm not a real musician, I haven't read the manual properly - most of what I say is ill-informed prejudice.

So maybe you could just STFU. Do you have the ears to hear what's actually amazing in this synth ?

If you had experiment further that the booting time and general look'n feel, you may have noticed its warm, earthy sounding. That's not just marketing !

The quality is provided mostly by the Oscillator module and that's where most of DSP power goes.

And no, the Origin's guts are not the same that those of the Virus.
It sounds *way* less digital and its presets do not need to be overcrowded with effects to sound interesting. As with analog gear.

I've seen an ABX comparison between an Origin and a JP-8, they could not be differenciated. But the Origin is much more that "the same old thing", and it's sad that you find it "boring".
 
From an engineering standpoint, it's often better to have the power supply external to the synth than inside it. I know wall warts are a PITA, but most audio equipment designers aren't power supply engineers and often don't seem to be able to implement proper grounding/shielding systems when there's a SMPS inside the box.
 
what do you expect from a critic, and a non-musician at that? some kind of resounding endorsement?

if you gave a handfull of nuts and bolts to a hairstylist, they will also say "wtf? this is bullshit"

but give those nuts and bolts to a carpenter and they will say "yeh, i can do something with this"

i could give a rats ass whether a peice of gear inspires "gear lust" or not.. thats not the fucking point - go buy a life instead

i dont particularly care about this "review" just as i dont ask the dude selling burgers at McDonalds to take a look at the laptop repair im working on

does this mean im better than you? yes.. yes it does - this entire comment is just more pointless wank to add to this giant circle jerk
 
Maybe some inspired hacker will liberate this device with some true metal bashing custom firmware in time?
 
...I used to work for Arbiter. I actually just really like the Origin.
 
sorry - i left the arbiter url in my id, so I thought that would cover it, but yes, I work for Arbiter and I distribute Arturia..

Cheers

Steve Parker
(Music Technology Manager
Arbiter Group)
 
i gotta get my hands on this thing. thats all i gotta say. im actually considering the possibility of buying this thing.

why ?

because its like reaktor as hardware, and no other device exist like that on the market besides a modular system. im waiting on one to show up in a pro shop in berlin. when i test it, ill be back to report my findings. this review ripped it, but in the end, its all about testing it yourself.
 
"Reaktor as hardware"?

If only...
 
You haven't seen my MC-909 booting up. That's long.
 
@ Steve Parker - the tone? it's an open secret in the soft synth business that Arturia's synths have some of the worst tone out there, of the pro's. GMedia, WayOutWare, NI, even some of the amateurs on K-v-R leave Arturia's synths way behind when it comes to oscillator and filter tone.
 
Wow! - what a mixed set of comments.

I'm in two minds as to whether or not to buy an Origin, but am put off by the fact that the "world-wide launch" was on the 7th May 2008 and we're alomost in 2009 and I still can't find someone to sell it to me (in the UK)! And let's face it, you need to be able to test this baby before spending that kind of money!

Should I buy an Origin or a new Synergy mega-fast computer with a load of soft synths or an MKS80 with MPG programmer or a Prophet 08 rack and MKS80?
 
@FUDing Anonymous:

Wrong. You might read that on KVR though.

http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul07/articles/arturiajupiter8v.htm
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul05/articles/arturiaminimoogv.htm
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/apr05/articles/arturiacs80v.htm
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul03/articles/arturiamoog.asp
http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep06/articles/prophetv.htm
 
I'm not sure that the startup time is a show-stopper, though. My Kurzweill takes some serious time to startup, too.
 
This is exactly what shits me about my Roland V-Synth XT. It takes about that long to get started into V-Synth mode. The other 2 modes are rather quick though.
 
There isn't anything you can do on this thing, that you can't do on another groovebox machine at a far lower cost.

the demo songs on their site are quite sub par for what they're charging for this thing.
 
i tried to use arturia stuff before but it sounds fucking awful, its funny their whole thing is supposedly emulating old synths cos they couldn;t be further away if they tried, srsly ive used 5 quid shareware vsts that are way warmer. they just slap yamaha or moog all over it and somehow people believe its as good, probably all people who never owned these synths to begin with.

/rant
 
Well.. I've read a lot of negative comments there, but at the end of the day, its all down to the user, and how they use it and what they wish to do with it.
Personally, something shiny and covered in controllers always gets my attention, but in recent time, I've been hankering for a bit of audio carnage, and I did myself buy a nord modular, but found it quite a learning curve to get my head round. I moved that on a couple of months ago, and took the plunge on the arturia.. It seems a bit more straight forward than the nord, maybe not as quite as flexible (I too am one for wiring the Mr fusion through the washine machine on a wool cycle and seeing what it will do to my filter frequencies.. So 'm looking forward to having a bit of a play with the jigsaw side of this too.. It's supposed to be arriving today... Where is it!!
(By the way, I didnt pay anywhere near the £1900 for it, or the £1700 that its currently trading for here)
 
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