Right off the bat, I'll admit that I have a soft spot for SOMA offerings. The characterful, quirky, and intriguing instruments that have come out of the brain of Vlad Kreimer over the past few years have proven to be classics in the making, but what is it about SOMA's approach that makes for such enticing and alluring creations? I chalk it up mostly to the fact that SOMA tends to create machines that are made from the perspective of being not only a complete instrument but also tools for sonic adventure and exploration: Instruments that serve as vehicles in an ongoing quest for something new. In an era of low-cost clones and high-end variations of a variety of vintage synths, SOMA's releases boldly forge new territory and seek to push forward.
With PULSAR-23, SOMA have once again created an instrument with depth, imagination, and delight, a machine that is at once captivating and frustrating, intuitive and challenging, familiar and new. PULSAR-23 is a drum machine that will reward you with a lifetime of exploration and sonic spelunking. So it’s a drum machine? Hardly.
Similar to SOMA's Lyra-8, the PULSAR-23 is built like a tank: big, heavy, and industrial. PULSAR-23 is semi-modular and consists of a large number of discrete sections. In lieu of jacks, the most obviously different feature of the PULSAR-23 is its unique patching system of vertical pins. The use of alligator clips and sturdy exposed terminals allows for a huge amount of patch points in a relatively compact space—not to mention a simple way to utilize multiple cables per patch point and opening up the possibility of making connections with just your fingers. In total, the PULSAR is composed of 23 separate modules. There are the four main sound-generating modules labeled Bass Drum, Bass, Snare Drum, and Hi Hat, all of which are quite flexible. Other modules include an interesting SHAOS module [a kind of random chaotic signal generator] an internal clock section complete with a variety of dividers, an effects section, an LFO, and a looper/gate recorder. There are a number of utility modules as well: a couple of VCAs, four attenuators, two switches, a pink noise generator, and a four-channel MIDI to CV converter, which is separate from the MIDI control over the Bass module. There is also a really cool pair of touch-control CV generators that use the conductivity of your skin to generate modulation signals, and finally a set of patch points to individual electronic [a diode and two different capacitors] components that can perform a variety of utility functions and experimental applications.
The PULSAR-23 can be approached via three different modes of control: stand-alone [utilizing the internal clock, the looper-recorder, and your fingers], via MIDI, or with control voltage. All three methods of control can be used simultaneously or in any combination.
Each of the 4 sound-generators feature an envelope generator and VCA, a volume control, an effects send control, and input controls for the looper-recorder. There are input pins for external signals and output pins for sending the module's signal independently from the main mix to somewhere else [either within PULSAR or beyond]. Each module envelope also has an output pin as well a versatile pin that can send and receive triggers.
The Bass Drum module has a defined and edgy character to it and tends toward the aggressive side and it seems much easier to get a punchy, dirty, crunchy sound than a pillowy sub-kick. The Snare Drum and Hi Hat each offer a wide range of noisy flavor that can be sculpted and modulated with their respective band-pass and hi-pass filters [both of which will self oscillate]. The Bass module [arguably the most interesting and powerful] is a true beast and in some ways the star of the PULSAR-23. A digitally controlled oscillator with a selectable input control between CV and MIDI [for 1V/oct] as well as a third "percussion" mode, the Bass module doesn't sound at all digital. Indeed, according to the manual, the DCO is built not on the basis of pre-populated wavetables but instead "on unique authoring algorithms of pure mathematical synthesis". Generating the waveforms in real-time coupled with the post-oscillator analog signal path allows for the signal to respond in a very analog way to subtle modulation variations. Each of the sound generation modules [and in fact many of the main modules] have functionality that is versatile and smeared across a broad range. The module labels are only suggestions in a sense. That pillowy sub-kick you may be looking for is easily conjured up by using the Bass module in PERC mode. The SHAOS module could serve as your main clock source. Pushing the effects module to feedback and modulating its clock input can give you interesting melodies. The list goes on and on.
Sound generation aside, the PULSAR offers a fun and powerful internal looper-recorder. Consisting of 4 banks each made up of 4 individual tracks of loop based gate / trigger recording [one per module] the looper is akin to a virtual tape loop. The looper will record the input from the respective module's ADD and DEL sensors [not just triggers—the looper will record gates as well as three levels of velocity which can be set using touch sensors in the REC.CONT module]. The looper is very sensitive and boasts a highly precise level of recording resolution which makes for a very nuanced and reactive live playing experience. The looper does allow for some basic quantizing—in case your finger drumming isn't up to par—but doesn't allow for individual step editing. The events within a loop can be edited in real time by adding or deleting by hand [finger?]. Each channel of the looper is controlled by the internal clock generator by default [the clock module can also be controlled externally via MIDI] but can also receive its own independent clock. Sending clock signals of different rates to individual channels allows the looper to create complex and evolving rhythms and patterns and the modules can be triggered independently and in conjunction with the recorded channel signals, allowing for improvised fills and variations over the loop. For even more variation and flexibility, the looper can switch between 4 banks of different recorded loop channels.
The main output of the PULSAR-23 is in mono but each sound-generator has an external output that is before the volume control and can be used to process or separately pan externally [placing the output before the volume control allows you to silence that module in the internal mix if desired]. Similarly, the effects section has separate output pins that can be used for more flexible external processing or mixing. If that wasn't enough, the PULSAR also has a selection of six pins that will pass any patched signal to a corresponding 1/4-inch jack on the rear of the unit.
PULSAR-23's FX module consists of a reverb and a delay with three flavors of each. Delay can be switched between a single-tap band-passed, a double-tap, and a pitch-shifted single-tap. Reverbs are three variations of a hall algorithm with one featuring a pitch-shifted trail. In keeping with the ethos of SOMA, there are numerous modulation points and creative feedback patching possibilities. The effects module sounds fantastic and is almost a separate instrument in itself.
A pseudo random signal generator, the SHAOS module can be clocked by the internal clock and also features its own internal clock generator for modulation and signal generation that can be completely in its own world relative to other modules. A bit of a brain melter, the SHAOS module can output a variety of sequenced signals, sample and hold generation, and can even be pushed up to audio-rate and become a sound generator itself.
It's a lot. There is a definite learning curve to this synth that is pretty steep. That being said, it is intuitive, in so much as it is an instrument you can play after only a bit of orientation. Given the sheer amount of depth to the PULSAR there will always be something new to discover and technique to be refined. Which brings up one caveat with the PULSAR: Don't expect gems to fall into your lap and rainbows to stream from your monitors every time you touch it. This is a beast of a synth and in order to get the best out of it you have to learn it, use it, and live with it. The fun is in the journey though, and PULSAR-23 will reward you time and again as you continue to experiment, learn, and push your interaction with it. There are so many drum machines and drum samplers and percussion modules and clones that all chase after similar and familiar and perhaps nostalgic sounds. That is not what PULSAR-23 is about. It is an instrument that demands to be learned before it unveils its best qualities, before it yields its unique voice. To my mind, that's the whole point.