THE MUTATOR is the latest bit of studio tackle to reflect the current enthusiasm for rushing forward into the past. The faction of bands for whom all things unattainably past (basically the Sixties and Seventies) have become hypnotically influential and inspirational all want to be able to make authentically groovy noises.
To begin with it was all about using the right amps, guitars and keyboards. VCS3 synths which you couldn't give away five years ago are now much sought after and back in production. As are Orange amps (mostly thanks to Oasis). But as the fashionable surge has picked up momentum, all the peripheral elements have also begun to enjoy new status. The splendidly crude original Mutron effects pedal will now set you back three hundred quid, assuming you can find one.
Which brings us to the Mutator. Not as crunchy as the Mutron, but more flexible. £600 worth of squiggly analogue filtering and a lot more besides - the most convenient element of which is MIDI compatibility. A dream back then, but essential now. Yes we want to make those bizarre, drug-induced noises but we also (mostly) want to be able to make them without actually taking the drugs and then being able to tinker with them and get them just so.
Essentially the Mutator is a stereo analogue filter and envelope follower. It's based on the kind of voltage controlled filters found on the old analogue synths like the MiniMoog. So if you want to make a piano sound like wah-wah guitar, or just anything but a piano, this is the box for you.
Each of the independently controllable channels has an envelope follower with sensitivity, attack, release and sweep knobs, an LFO with rate, depth and waveform shape selector knobs, plus cut-off and resonance controls. There are selector switches for Bypass; Envelope Source (selects which signal drives the envelope follower circuit); Gate/Envelope (continuous or threshold controlled signal); Link Normal/Invert and In/Out (connects the two channels and inverts the signal from channel one that's being sent to channel two); VCA/Both/VCF and VCA In/Out (selects which will be swept by the LFO).
Fair enough, you say, but what does it sound like? This is the hard bit. Describing sound in words is never easy but the Mutator is a particularly extreme challenge. I'll give it a shot. The selected sound going in (keyboard, drum loop, trumpet) will determine what comes out. But imagine listening to a guitar by raising yourself, and it, in and out of water. The garbling and burbling effect can be that of the Mutator. Imagine pink noise sweeps that bounce off the shape of the original sound. Imagine clanging, modulating repeats. Fizzing, swooshing resonances. The kind of noises that sci-makers went for in the late Sixties/early Seventies. These are some of the characteristics of the Mutator.
It's a Pandora's box of potential. Via MIDI it's possible to control the cut-off frequency, envelope, filter resonance, panning, fades, gating, ducking and LFO triggering (for rhythmic effects and time control of sweeps and gates.). One gripe: putting the MIDI channel select switch on the back is at best inconvenient, at worst as daft as the headphone socket on the back of the S1000.
The Mutator might not, at first, seem as indispensable as, say, a reverb, but I suspect that, once acquired, you'd probably wonder how you ever managed without its mysteries and wonders. Precisely because it's so variable, perhaps future models will include another post-Sixties feature, selectable and programmable memories. (After all, that's the kind of memories bands like Kula Shaker are currently peddling.) Good unit. Good fun. Good value.