STARLAB - Strymon

STARLAB - Strymon

by Jason Czyeryk

Unlike fuzz or distortion, where you can very nearly run a patch through a dirty sock and get something cool and usable out of it, digital reverb is not something that one with little or no experience in creating it can just stumble into successfully. The ability to digitize physical spaces into auditory simulations in order to create enormous, gorgeous gargantuans of reverb, or even small slapbacks of simulated reflective space ain’t easy. Even typing that out seems exhausting and intimidating. Basically, when it comes to reverb, experience counts.
When the news came out about a new Strymon Eurorack reverb module, expectations were reasonably [Big] sky high, and why wouldn’t they be? This is, after all, makers of two of the most revered reverb pedals around—Blue Sky and Big Sky— [hence the cheesy pun], and though short, their track record when it came to modules was darn good. When Strymon’s first Eurorack module, Magneto, entered the landscape in 2018 it was on many year-end top ten lists. 2018 seems like a lifetime ago in so many ways, and since then Strymon has been quiet on the module front, but you knew that Magneto wasn’t the end of their module making, it was just a matter of time.
Speaking of time, billed as a “Time-warped reverberator," Strymon’s Starlab is much more than just reverb. Maybe they’re just being modest, but Starlab is a feature-packed creator of atmosphere, an enveloping world of haze you can live in like a pillowy caftan, a man-made machine that has the potential to make anything put through its 3.5mm input jacks sound otherworldly and then some. Starlab works equally well as an everyday, utilitarian reverb as well, as it’s extremely versatile. With a filter, harmonic additions, delay, and also a Karplus-Strong module, Starlab is also only an internal gate signal away from being a self-contained synth. If you’re not familiar with what Karplus-Strong is, it’s a physical modeling algorithm that simulates the hammering and plucking of stringed instruments that was developed in the 80s and is named after its creators—Kevin Karplus and Alexander Strong. It’s a beautiful and percussively fun way to create sounds of that sort and a great addition to this reverb module.
When looking at Starlab, the first thing that really stands out are the modulation inputs teeming around the perimeter of the module; the same layout as Magneto. Likewise, on the interior there are a lot of controls, and like their pedals some of these pull double-duty on Starlab for use in/as/or accessing secondary functions. It’s something I’ve always lamented a bit when it comes to deep guitar pedals; the increase in the flexibility of sound-sculpting with the price of necessitating a more predetermined workflow in order to get the most out of those functions/attributes. For guitar playing this approach has never gelled with me—I’m really a set-and-forget type—but modular is, of course, a different story altogether, and happily Strymon understands the difference between the two platforms, as witnessed by Starlab’s interface being intuitive and easy to navigate.
Starlab is broken up into five sections; the main reverb and interface section, and Harmonics, Delay/Karplus, and LFO sections. The main section of Starlab consists of two inputs and two outputs and can be used for stereo or mono use. Starlab offers excellent control over both the ins and outs, with the input having a DRY control as well as INPUT GAIN to drive it, with a nearby multi-color LED showing the signal level strength. Green indicates a clean signal, red is distorted [via soft-clipping], and blue is when the input is muted via the IN GATE CV, which cuts out the input signal when triggered.
On the other side of the module, at the output we have WET and DECAY controls to control the amount of the reverb at the output, and the decay of the effect. It’s nice to have such control over the ins and outs as you can really sculpt your sound how you want it, though you do need to spend time to understand their potential complex interactivity in relation to the whole signal flow, which Starlab’s easy to read, and well-written manual does a good job of laying out.
At the top center of Starlab is the SIZE/ PITCH control which, when in reverb mode, controls the size of the reverberation space. The further clockwise the SIZE/ PITCH knob, the larger the reverb space becomes and the lower the pitch of the reverbed audio becomes as well. There is CV control over this function which is maybe where the “warp” part of the “Time-warped reverberation” tag applies. Toggling the LFO to “pitch” definitely warped some time and space, though depending on the input, it sometimes obscured the input signal to the point where everything blended a little too much and I had to really hone in on my settings. You can quantize the SIZE/PITCH as well, and there are fifteen different scales available by doing some button-combo pressing, and you can also adjust the portamento of the quantization, which is a pretty cool thing to be able to do. The SIZE/PITCH knob also helps determine the pitch when Starlab is being used in the Karplus-Strong mode.
Three different reverb types are on offer here, selected via the TEXTURE toggle: SPARSE, for a granular-sounding reverb; DENSE, for plate-like reverb emulation; and DIFFUSE, which is aimed and [and excellent for] ambient reverb textures. There are a few CV inputs for modulation use for these main functions pertaining either to global types—such as the CV ins for INFINITE [to freeze the input signal that’s going into the reverb] and FAVORITE [to save up to four of your favorite presets, which also has a CV in to go between the selected preset and the current knob/ switch positions]—and others that are for the main reverb functions like the previously mentioned CV control over SIZE/ PITCH, as well as the DECAY and WET amount. There’s also a CLEAR CV input which clears the audio so the reverb cleans its slate and starts over with a clean input signal when engaged. In effect, this turns the reverb on and off as opposed to the IN GATE which mutes the input. When used in tandem, LFOs in each CV input, you can bring about a lot of change, from subtle pulsing of the input signal to odd timing of the reverb in relation to the muting of the input. In some of my experiments I really had to pay close attention, and know what I was listening for in order to hear it, but the overall sound shaping capabilities are numerous, precise, and pretty impressive.
The Harmonics section consists of SHIMMER and GLIMMER, kind of the Wonder Twins of reverb soundscaping. SHIMMER adds pitch shifting while GLIMMER adds harmonics to the signal. It’s pretty easy to abuse both of these effects, as I’ve done countless times during my time with Starlab and other reverbs, and it’s easy to overwhelm both the signal and your ears with too much harmonic content or pitch shifting, and yet…SHIMMER has a REGEN button beneath it to select where to shimmer; the button lights green for adding shimmer to the reverb structure, or red to add shimmer to the input before it hits the reverb-very cool. There are CV inputs for the SHIMMER, and also INTERVAL— the secondary function of SHIMMER— that selects the interval of the pitch shifting. Without modulating the INTERVAL, being able to adjust the pitch frequency is a nice touch, and modulating it brings about some really interesting possibilities shifting. I liked to patch in an attenuated sine wave so it was something you almost didn’t hear but had the effect of creating an uneasy feeling, like a mild seasickness.
Likewise, GLIMMER has a dedicated HIGH BAND button for selecting between the harmonics increased by GLIMMER; the LED lights green when enhancing the high band and remains unlit for the low band. There’s a CV in for modulation of the GLIMMER amount. Below the SHIMMER/GLIMMER controls at the bottom left of the unit is the FILTER section with LOW DAMP for removing low end, and HIGH DAMP for removing high end. There is a LOW PASS button to the right of the HIGH DAMP for turning the HIGH DAMP into a 24dB/octave low pass filter at the reverb’s output and having an onboard filter section is helpful when taming tinny or muddy sounds and can make this, in effect, a band-pass filter. There is a CV input for modulating the HIGH DAMP effect [or the LOW PASS effect if that’s engaged] as well.
To the right of the FILTER section is the LFO section with controls for SPEED, SHAPE, and +/- for DEPTH. There are six different waveshapes to choose from including an envelope that is somewhat user definable as it responds to the input dynamics—again, something you can shape quite nicely with the INPUT controls—the amount of which is controlled by the DEPTH knob. There are CV ins for each parameter as well as an input to patch in an external LFO, which turns the DEPTH control into an attenuverter for that incoming signal. There’s also a toggle switch for selecting the modulation destination for the LFO which can be routed to the DELAY, PITCH, or FILTER.
The last section is the Delay/Karplus-Strong area. The delay features FEEDBACK and DELAY/TUNE controls. The FEEDBACK has an illuminated ECHO ON button below it that lights up when the echo is on. Alternatively, when ECHO ON is off, it allows the FEEDBACK control to be used to adjust the pre-delay up to 1.5 seconds for the reverb. Right next to that is a TAP/TRIG button that can be used to tap in a tempo to set the delay time. There are CV ins for modulating the FEEDBACK, ECHO ON, and the TAP/TRIG, the last of which takes an incoming signal to set the delay time and turns the DELAY/TUNE knob into a clock divider/multiplier. This is a really nice sounding delay that blends well, though sometimes it took me a minute to initially dial in the right input/output amounts to attain the level of delay signal I wanted. Once I figured it out though, it got me where I wanted to go and made me realize how precise all of the controls on Starlab are. I already mentioned how much I enjoy Karplus-Strong synthesis, and I did in fact spend quite a bit of time using Starlab in this manner. It’s highly sculptable and you can use the FEEDBACK to control the decay of the plucked string and fine tune the instrument with the combination of the DELAY/TUNE and SIZE/PITCH controls. You can even mute out the dry plucks and have only the reverbed sounds at the output via the ECHO ON button.
It’s easy to get lost in Starlab. Sometimes I couldn’t tell what was being modulated at what time, or even who or what was doing the modulating. Is it the modulation of the INTERVAL or the SIZE/PITCH that I’m hearing? The IN GATE or the CLEAR CV cutting in and out? There are so many possibilities at play here, from subtle to not-so, to the point where Starlab can be tweaked to completely take over your sound so that there’s only a kernel of your original input remaining at the output—or no input at all. I mean this in the best of ways, because you can mold, meld, tweak, and sculpt any way you’d like; Strymon has made sure of that.
I found myself modulating a lot of the parameters simultaneously, but subtly, through attenuators so that Starlab effected the input signal without it being too dominant; however using Starlab as an instrument in and of itself, found me absorbed in its swath of sound for countless hours as well; enchanted, mesmerized, and drawn to the rocks, like sailors to the sirens. I can’t decide what my favorite use is for Starlab. There are so many things to love about this module: the sound/s, the fact that you can shape the EQ to your liking, the Karplus-Strong synthesizer...Everything I put through it benefitted from its architecture.
Some might be put off by the price, and surely Starlab is not cheap, but there’s no doubt in my mind that if you’re a fan of reverb, it’s worth every penny.

28 HP +12v 210mA −12v 210mA
Price: $649