Mutator reviewed by Roger Brown

My first encounter with the Mutator was an ear-opening one. David Toop showed me his early mono Mutator and demonstrated its sonic capabilities on some sounds from his beloved pedal steel guitar. What I heard was astonishing: new layers of sound were coaxed from the plaintive tones of the pedal steel by the analogue filter lurking in its small black box. Beyond its impressive conventional filtering, the Mutator seemed to produce whole new vistas of sound from the barest scraps of audio information. Above all, it added that elusive quality – atmosphere –to the mix emanating from the monitors.

 Proof that the Mutator could be put to use for more than just adding atmosphere came when I finally got my hands on one of the first production machines, which had two channels of filtering. Everything from drum loops to basslines and pad sounds yielded new avenues of exploration, as the various routings of the Mutator enabled me to filter sweep sounds while also panning them or adding gating, modulation and resonance.

 The only gripe I had was that without MIDI control the results of a mix were often well nigh impossible to replicate. Now the MIDI retrofit for the Mutator is here, and it's been well worth the wait (not to mention the hours of work Mark Lusardi has put into making the MIDI aspect of the Mutator as creatively inspiring as the original undoubtedly is).

 If you're already the proud owner of a Mutator, the MIDI card can be retrofitted for a mere £159. A fully MIDI-equipped Mutator costs £740 and is worth at least twice that much to the serious sonic explorer or professional studio, so versatile is this strange beast.

 Mutant Mix
 MIDI input works on two adjacent MIDI channels which are selected from a control knob on the rear of the unit. Selecting channel 1 means that MIDI channel 2 controls the second filter; selecting MIDI channel 2 places the second filter under the control of MIDI channel 3; and so forth. There is a MIDI Thru, but no MIDI Out, since transmission of the signals from the satisfyingly solid knobs on the front of the Mutator is not supported.

 

 On previous incarnations of the Mutator, you had the option of allowing the filter or gate to track the input from an external audio source. This option still exists with the MIDI card but you have the further option of controlling the triggering of the gate or LFO from incoming MIDI notes. A Note On command will trigger either, depending on which mode you have switched the audio channel to, with the value of the note deciding the cut-off frequency of the filter. You can also control the cut-off frequency with a pitch bend command. The latter has been given an extended scope so you can sweep the full frequency range of the Mutator's excellent filters.

 Resonance and VCA level can be controlled by MIDI controllers 1 (modulation) and 7 respectively, completing the MIDI control on offer. The flexibility this adds to the Mutator has to be heard to be understood. Because you can link the two audio channels in various ways, including feeding the output of one into the input of the other, being able to control the LFO and/or gate trigger from a sequence of MIDI notes opens up vast new areas of sonic exploration. Adjusting the pitch of the notes to operate the LFO frequency allows you to superimpose the melody from one pattern onto the envelope of the sound you are treating.

 Whole new musical patterns can be produced from this method as harmonics shift and bend. Above all, the timing is tight, with the LFO or gate being retriggered in perfect time with the original rhythm. Some MIDI retrofits suffer from slow response, but that is not an accusation that can be levelled at the Mutator. The blending of analogue and digital functions is seamless in effect, further blurring the boundaries between the two worlds.

 The only slight fly in the ointment is the lack of output from the Resonance, Filter Frequency and VCA level knobs. You can easily control these from your synth or master keyboard, of course, recording the results into a sequencer, but it's so much fun sculpting sounds from the front panel of the Mutator that I for one would gladly pay the extra spondoolicks provision of such a facility would inevitably entail.

 Verdict
 If you don't understand what the hell all the fuss is about with the Mutator, have a listen to the examples on the Re:Mix CD this month, recorded by Mark Lusardi himself in his famed Mark Angelo studios. Even that won’t give you the full picture as the possibilities engendered by this machine are truly limitless. You've simply got to play with this one yourself. Adding MIDI control to the Mutator is the digital icing on what is a very rich analogue cake to start with. It's no surprise that Mutators are already selling like hot cakes and this addition to its features makes a great thing even better. - Roger Brown

 

 

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