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Gentle Wham - Herbs and Stones

Gentle Wham - Herbs and Stones

by Sam Chittenden

Gentle Wham is an all analog six-voice drum synth from Italy-based Herbs and Stones. The overall interface design has a charming and inviting aesthetic and is a far cry from the sleek density of some feature-packed machines. I really appreciate the large size and white on black contrast of the panel as it's easy to read, even if a few of the graphic elements are a bit cramped. The controls are well spaced, with solid pots and pleasingly tactile buttons, and that's a good thing as the Gentle Wham is a hands-on drum machine.
Along the top of the unit are the respective gate / trigger inputs [both 3.5mm and banana jack] for each voice along with a dedicated voice output [3.5mm] per channel. Power input, a banana ground jack, an external input [for voice "F"], and the master output are along the back of the panel. Patching into one of the dedicated voice outputs will remove that voice from the master out. The first five voices all have a decay only envelope with control over the length of the fall. The last voice [F] can be switched from a decay envelope to a gate signal and the knob for that channel controls the width of the gated signal. Each voice also has its own level knob, mute toggle button, and manual gate button.
The first two voices, A and B, are pretty similar sounding. In addition to the volume and decay controls, voices A and B have an envelope depth control labeled EG and a Drive knob. EG controls the amount that the envelope will affect the pitch of the oscillator and can go from subtle and soft punch to all out laser beam. There isn't a direct pitch control for either voice so adjusting the pitch comes down to the interplay between the decay envelope length and its depth. Both A and B can kick out [see what I did there?] nice meaty bass drums but the A channel has most of its sweet spots in low to medium-low pitched kick range. The B channel oscillator has a bit wider pitch range so it tends to want to head into tom tom and laser blast territory. The drive circuit on both voices sound great and can go from warm to squared off obliteration. I found a lot of nice warmth and vibe in the 9 to 1 o'clock range.
Voice C is more of a noise based-circuit, which the manual characterizes as being "synthesized by mistreating some now-obsolete ICs from the late sixties." The C channel features a Thirst control which adjusts the amount of voltage being fed to its chips. By far the most characterful and unpredictable of the channels, voice C has a whole bunch of noisy, whining, squeaking charm. Most of the best and weirdest sweet spots are at the extremes of the Thirst knob's range. If your track is calling out for a hit that sounds like someone punching a smurf, voice C is for you. Don't get me wrong, it can be less weird as well but where's the fun in that?
Channels D and E are somewhat similar to each other and you can find cool snares, hi hats, and other weird metallic percussive sounds. Voice E seemed to favor hi-hat territory for me. Voice D has two sub-voices. The upper voice is a series of ring-modded squarewaves with pitch control over the last in the series and the lower voice is a triangle wave oscillator with pitch control. The upper and lower voices can be blended together to get the right balance between the metallic overtones of the upper voice and the cleaner tones of the lower. When turned to the end of its range, the blend knob doesn't completely cut out the opposite voice so there is always a bit of a mix going on. There is a lot to explore in voice D and the interplay between the two sub-voices can be really interesting, especially with a long decay time or when droning. Similarly to voice C there are some great sweet spots to be found.
Voice F uses the input from the external jack and shapes it either with a decay envelope or by gate width [depending on whether Env or Gate mode is selected]. Intended to shape external sounds percussively, voice F is also a great way to incorporate bass lines or other melodic content and run them through the channel's volume control and into the Gentle Wham's filter.
Speaking of the filter, Gentle Wham has a CV-able 2-pole resonant filter and it sounds great. It won't self-oscillate but it does have a really cool adjustable response on a single knob. The filter doesn't close completely in either direction but like the rest of Gentle Wham has a super characterful sound. Warm and a little crunchy. With a little resonance it will distort nicely at the extreme of its range. Blending between low-pass and hi-pass is really fun and I liked the fact that the filter never fully closes as it gives more license to crank the cutoff and range knobs back and forth knowing that you'll never filter into silence.
The build quality is rock solid with a nice sturdy metal enclosure and wooden end cheeks. The pots are all solid and sturdy. The gate and mute buttons are a bit quirky but I grew to like them once I got used to their feel. One thing to note is that the mute buttons unmute immediately when pressed and mute only when released, so if tight timing is important you'll have to adjust for that. Unfortunately there isn't any latching on the gate buttons which would be nice in order to more easily utilize the voices in drone mode. You can feed the input a fast [up to audio rate] trigger or looping envelope and aside from a bit of an upward pitch shift it'll approximate holding down the button. The other thing is that I'd really like to be able to control the pitch of some of the voices with CV, especially with some of the weird and wonderful tones to be coaxed out of C and D. By no means a fault of the Gentle Wham but more of a desire to be able to harness some of its quirky charm for bass lines and leads.
All in all the Gentle Wham is a straightforward, fun, and immediate drum machine with a ton of character and a little bit of quirk. The voices all sound great, with some nice heft to them and offer a nice range of tone and timbre. This is a machine that does a few things really well and that focus makes it a joy to use. No extra layers of functionality to learn and then forget about, no shift functions to muddle through, just direct control over analog circuits with a familiar and intuitive interface. There's something to be said for planning, but most times the last thing I want to do is disrupt my creative flow in order to add rhythmic elements to a patch or jam. Incorporating a new piece of equipment can sometimes really kill the creative spark and derail an otherwise productive music making session. Gentle Wham is ready for you when you reach for it and you might never want to take your hands off it.

Price: $619

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