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XioSynth… the perfect portable controller/synth?

Being old and such, the Christmas presents don’t pour in like they used to… thus I easily caved in to an impulse buy temptation and bought myself an early Christmas present, the new(ish) XioSynth 25 from Novation. Tiny (468 x 68 x 190 mm), light (a mere 1.4 kilos!), and with a built-in USB audio interface complete with phantom-powered mic preamp… it seemed like the perfect portable controller/synth for me to cart around while I backpack around the world with my trusty ‘ol Powerbook.

Right out of the box… Build-quality wise it didn’t stand out much with its all-plastic exterior, a keyboard that felt exactly the same as all the other cheapy keys out there, and some buttons that weren’t quite on straight, but I suppose that’s the tradeoff for being incredibly dirt cheap at a price of US $329 (and of course plastic is really light, too). The onboard menu didn’t exactly spell everything out for me, but I did manage to mostly figure out the necessary basics — changing and manipulating patches — without having to resort to the manual. I loved the sounds of many of the default patches, which were also fun and easy enough to tweak… no computer necessary.

As a portable controller/synth, I decided to go with the XioSynth over the MicroKorg — the only contender I considered since my primary concern was as small and light a form factor as possible and I’d already ruled out the Micron due to not liking the interface with its few flimsy knobs — because I felt it really won out in portability and features. As far as the synth quality goes, both produce a variety of sounds that appeal to me just as well and that I can see applying to the same sort of applications. But since I’ll probably often be carting it around to record stuff in conjunction with my Powerbook, it made more sense to go with the XioSynth for the USB connectivity options, circumventing the need to carry a nasty wall wart (I don’t feel comfortable relying batteries for something I could conceivably leave on for hours and hours on a regular basis), USB/MIDI converter cable for controller purposes, and an external audio card (you can record the synth audio output right into your computer just through the USB connection… and there’s always the analog inputs and phantom-powered preamp for anything else). I also prefer the XioSynth’s full size keys just slightly more than the little MicroKorg keys, but not by much since they both have that cheap toy feel resulting in hard-to-control velocity-sensitivity, compounded by lack of aftertouch. But the XioSynth does attempt to compensate somewhat by providing a touchpad, which I suppose could be a cool way to control the sound if I can get used to it.

And the bad… Coming from a classical piano background, the cheap feel to the keys and lack of aftertouch on the XioSynth is most annoying to me. This is made worse by the lack of a standard MIDI in on the unit which would prevent using it as a live synth (i.e. sans laptop and with a nicer more expressive keyboard controller). Does anyone know if a MIDI/USB converter box/cable can give it the MIDI in it desperately needs? I also prefer standard pitch/mod wheels to the XioSynth’s joystick control… though again maybe it’s just something I have to get used to.

Anyway for the lack of nice keys and a MIDI in, I wish I had considered the slightly larger/heavier (88 mm deeper/1.1 kg heavier) X-Station, which has all the standard old MIDI connectivity options and the added bonus of more knobs/buttons (don’t really need/want), faders too (ooh but I like a few faders!), a pressure-sensitive (!) touchpad, and the ability to be used as an analog effects box via the audio inputs (nifty!). Ah well… depending on how often I end up ACTUALLY using my XioSynth, I may trade-up… or maybe something better and just as portable will eventually come along…

In the meantime I suppose I’ll be recording a bunch of crunchy synth-bass driven song ideas with my new toy… whee! Now I really need more hard drive space…

5 replies on “XioSynth… the perfect portable controller/synth?”

Hello, thanks for your honest review of the xiosynth. I have been rooting around trying to find a review written by somone who isn;t trying to sell me one! I’m not yet put off and going to try one out in the flesh next week. Thanx again, happy sound pounding. RSL

Cool, glad you found my review useful! I’ve since discovered another annoyance… apparently the XioSynth doesn’t reliably power up from either of my Powerbook USB ports. Often it will only power on after a few rounds of plugging and unplugging. It’s written on the Novation website FAQ that this is a known issue with Powerbooks, and unfortunately not much can be done about it. The Powerbook USB ports just doesn’t seem to put out enough juice to get things started. Won’t spin up my external 2.5″ hd either on just the one port. Boo!

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