Dogbotic Workshops
SoftPop SP2 - Bastl

SoftPop SP2 - Bastl

by Sam Chittenden

The Softpop SP2 from Bastl is a visually and physically dense little brick of a synth. Much like Guy Pearce’s tattooed body in Memento, every surface is covered in labels, notes, diagrams, and various bits of other information. Having a manual of sorts printed right on the unit does come in handy once you’ve familiarized yourself with the instrument, but it’s really more of a cheat sheet, serving as quick reminders of all the key combinations and shift actions available. And there are a lot of key combinations and shift actions, most of which you are likely to forget several times. While dense, the front of the SP2 is laid out logically enough with a prominent set of six faders to control aspects of the oscillator, the filter, and the envelope. Above that are sliders for fine tuning the pitch, adjusting the resonance of the filter, and for timbral manipulation from “Soft” to “Pop”—smooth and classic when “Soft”, through to hard-edged 8-bit style distorted mayhem at “Pop”. On the left is the SP2’s 8-step sequencer controls, on the right are level controls for both the output and input jacks, and a midi input, as well as buttons for manual trigger, a tap tempo, and play [all of which are utilized in various key combination functionality]. The top half contains the substantial array of patch points for the various modules of the Softpop SP2.
The basic architecture of the SP2 is that of a classic subtractive voice, a pulse wave into a filter into an envelope controlled VCA, but there are also some interesting normalizations that immediately give the SP2 a very characterful, fun, and sometimes chaotic vibe.
The six main faders control the pitch, filter cutoff, and envelope in pairs. For the oscillator, the left slider is the pitch fader, working similarly to a coarse tune [although it is also the way in which you program in notes for the sequencer—more on that later]. It is combined with a pitch modulation slider that adjusts the level of input from either the signal at its dedicated input, or a normalled modulation source from a sample & hold circuit that is fed by the envelope. Next in line is the fader for the filter cutoff and its corresponding cutoff modulation fader [filter mod is normalled to the envelope]. The two right-hand faders control the rate and the shape of the AD envelope, respectively. The envelope can be cycled or manually triggered by a TRIG button or from a trigger at its patchbay input. In practice the interplay [sometimes subtle and sometimes extreme] between these six controls and the way in which the different normalizations play off each other give the SP2 a very organic and somewhat wild character. The faders lend a nice performability to the interface and really make experimenting with the Softpop SP2 fun even at an unpatched level. The filter sounds excellent and has a really nice aggressiveness when the resonance is cranked, the envelope is a nice and snappy exponential AD, and the continuous envelope shaping via the fader control makes moving from percussive strikes to an almost reversed feeling easy and fluid. When cycling, the envelope doubles as an LFO and also has a reverse input jack which will flip the attack and decay times as set by the slider, great for injecting some serious wonkiness.
After a recent firmware upgrade the SP2 now features a digital oscillator with a greatly expanded set of waveforms and timbral possibilities. Each waveform [selectable via the sequencer gate buttons] also has a unique set of waveshaping parameters that can be morphed by holding down the SLIDE button and adjusting the fine-tune slider. Unfortunately, there is currently no CV control over the waveshaping parameters, but the SP2 can be set up so that the waveshaping is the default control for the fine-tune slider, and that option makes manual morphing much more manageable. One thing to note is that the SP2 has an internal scale quantizer that is applied to the combination of the pitch slider, the pitch MOD slider, and the pitch information from the sequencer. While the oscillator can be “unquantized,” it is still in stepped quarter-tone increments. The SP2 has eight default scales which can be easily edited to create custom scales for use with the sequencer. Speaking of sequencing, the Softpop SP2 has a surprisingly powerful sequencer on board. While it is limited to 8 steps, there are a few functional tricks up its sleeve that really open up its creative potential. Each 8-step pattern is stored in one of the eight slots in a bank, of which there can be eight. A pattern consists of gates, pitch, and slide information, and patterns can be selected in any order as well as chained together to form longer sequences. Additionally, the scale of the played patterns can be sequenced, as can various performance effects and the eight different playback modes. Programming a pattern can be done in real time by playing the sequence, holding down the record [PATTERN + SLIDE] buttons and moving the pitch fader or by manually entering pitches in a step edit mode. Gates can be toggled on or off and you can program in slides on a per note basis. Moving between different patterns in a bank is done by holding down the PATTERN button and tapping one of the eight gate buttons. To chain patterns, just hold down the PATTERN button and tap the gate buttons of the patterns you want to play [up to a maximum of 16 patterns or 128 steps] in the order you want them played. Once a series of patterns is chained and sounding good, you can mess with the play modes. SP2 features eight different playback patterns: forward and reverse, random 8-step, random while playing only the first four steps of a pattern, as well as first and last four steps or first and last three steps of a pattern. Holding the PLAY button allows you to select between the different modes as well as chaining them together for longer and more varied sequences. There are alos a` set of temporary fill type effects. Ranging from tremolo and ratcheting effects to pitch, slew, and gate probability, each one can be engaged, combined, or chained together like the patterns and play modes.
If the thought of memorizing key combinations and shift functions has you backing slowly out of the room, I don’t blame you. Sitting down with the SP2 the first time can be a bit harrowing, but there is a method to the madness [and a reason for the Leonard Shelby look]. After only a short time the logic of the functionality makes sense and you get the hang of navigating the various shift functionalities. Muscle memory will help a bit, but there is definitely a learning curve to access the synth’s deeper functionality and utilizing it fluidly. That’s not to say that the Softpop isn’t accessible and fun straight out of the box. The recent digital oscillator upgrade adds a host of new and interesting waveforms that increase the SP2’s repertoire of tones. The sliders are immediate, performable, and fun, and the normalled cross modulation sets the SP2 apart from its semi-modular peers and gives it loads of character by default. Even the jam-packed patchbay is well organized and easy to navigate. While I found the onboard sequencer a bit finicky to program pitches into, the sheer amount of fun and possibilities for new ideas that the various chainable patterns, effects, and play modes offer up more than make up for a bit of clunky step editing. Most importantly, with its wide range of tones—from classic subtractive beef to FM’d percussive hits to manic feedback to gonzo chirping filter trills—the Softpop SP2 just sounds great, rendering Bastl’s second iteration of the Softpop semi-modular synth a wonderfully dense, extremely enjoyable, and great sounding little box.

Price: $559