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Alesis Ion 



When buying one, watch out for: bad J111 FET transistors resulting in crackling (noisy) outputs.
 

 
Day 1:

I love the dog that greeted me when I entered the seller's flat. It's so small, so fluffy, and its fur feels like macaroni (I don't know if the dog was wet, but I fucking swear that under my fingertips its texture felt like pasta). And it moves and spins around like crazy (see the movie clip). When I brought the Ion back home and powered it up, heard the sound, tweaked some knobs and looked at all the lights and interface, I got excited. I was amazed with the physical workmanship (or design) of this thing. The knobs, the gradually illuminated wheels... it's all so... it gave me this feeling of being a happy customer who has just bought a product from a company whose members run their business with great dedication (too bad for the company I bought it second-hand, lol).

Day 2:

I freaked out. Ion got completely silent. No sound. All the outputs deaf. I've experienced some bad luck with electricity in the past (fried vocoder, meal of the day), so I took it apart to find any signs of damage. None. I re-set the global settings by double-click from the panel. Everything works fine. What the fuck. It turned out that I messed up setup settings - really confusing for rookies.

Day...later:

Okaaaaaayy, fiddle around with for an hour it and it's going to sound fantastically interesting and new. One of the main appeals of this synth is its diverse sound due to its two filters that come in several variations (which you can post-mix so that you actually get 2 different sounds in one patch, as if) plus the waveshaping features that open the door to huge sound variation. Mod matrix is a blessing, Non-standard Arpeggiator, Tracking Input and (non-glitchy!!!) Loopable Envelopes with adjustable slopes add their bit to the overall originality. But again - the filters! They say it's the filter that adds specific flavor to any synthesizer, so I guess the fact that Ion has so many filter types makes it so versatile and varied in the sound range.

The interface has been hugely comfortable in my experience, although some of you can get slightly tired of clicking through the menus and matrix like through a book. I myself love that solution and altogether with its wide-and-large LCD I find Ion's UI much more pleasurable than the ones of Virus, Nova, or Waldorf Q. Also, the fact that you need to twist the knobs 3 cycles all the way around to reach from point 0 to 100 can be a hassle during live situations, but don't forget that you still have two programmable mod wheels. And the bright side of this is that the encoders have great resolution and feel orgasmically sensual.

The FX section is surely disappointing, as there are several phazers but only one chorus and a maximum-80-ms-what-the-fuck delay, nonetheless, they are original-sounding. The chorus / phasers are effective for strings and pads and make them sound as if some other type of synthesis was going on under the hood.

The largest area of dispute will, of course, be the natural sound of this thing; Ion has many enemies who find its sound lifeless and thin. If you don't need that ultra-juicy-impact-of-sound, and if you search for and find inspiration in the areas of effective ambiguity and idiosyncrasy so to speak, you can fall in love with your Ion very deeply. A couple of years ago, when it came out, I heard some guys saying that the Ion is a huge mistake. Well, either they did not have the appetite or the need to embrace its novel proposition and they crawled back to their familiar JP-8000s, or they are the mistake themselves. Or, what is most probable, they just very urgently wanted to make some deep bass and lush strings, or recreate their Jupiter (whatever the fucking reason for recreating a synth one already owns on another, different synth). It is absolutely true that Ion is thinny in the rumbling basses area, or not so shiny around the 3.000 Hz & above point, and let us say that I do see the validity of the classical point of view that a synth unable to make deep basses and lush strings does not live up to the definition of true synthesizer, but I don't think Ion ever pretended to be a smash-hit for the masses with "I-like-it-cause-it-sits-well-in-the-mix" attitude, or a reincarnation of some "classic". Times change, deep bass and lush strings may become invalid themselves, so hold on to your seats - it's time for some delirious sounds! Or maybe it still isn't... :P Maybe just buy yourself a JP-8000 for the basics and keep the Ion sitting next to it to cover everything beyond the basics. Again, it's a trade-off. In my case, it is the various and new sounds coming from the Ion that get the appreciation whatever their tonal characteristic (and I'm lucky to like this idiosyncratic characteristic). Yes, the JP-8000 can do wonderful warm pads and the Virus can do some wonderful spacious detuned leads and what not, but they are fucking glitchy and stale synths. Whereas with Ion I really hear something different, and tweaking its engine produces digestible sound most of the time, while the other buddies utter a hopeless "glitch-glitch, fuck-off" when you push them. I'll say it differently: let's say that the staple of synth music - basses, pads, leads, etc (the things that are easy to label) - constitute 20% of all possible sound types. In that 20%, Ion fares average. But in the remaining undiscoeverd 80% it is really inspiring and effective. Now, I'll tell you something really interesting: Ion comes close to Hartmann Neuron and Roland V-Synth in its timbre and sounds. Why is this interesting? Because the Ion is just a VA synth, whereas the latter are much, much more than that. This should give the right clues to the right kind of people.

All in all, Ion is a real variety gem for the price. It replicates some classic timbres decently, but it's also capable of a lot of yet unheard stuff that will make your ass tremble with thrill and your throat swell with emotion. For me, Ion is the best, most creative and flexible cheap VA. Not created by marketing heads for trance or electro or whatever consumers. It's a synthesizer created by synthesis designers for exploring musicians. Generally for people who like to reflect on the diversity of this world; that's how I would put it.

Let me just add that my favorite cheap vintage synth is the Ensoniq ESQ-1, which makes me a total fan of the American synth school, or the American sound. Those synths (Ion and ESQ1) are not juicy in the Japanese fashion, they're not straightforward in the Swedish fashion, and they're not mix-friendly in the German fashion either. But they are like a riot party in the middle of the week, or like a theme park in the middle of a business district, or like an expedition across the Frontier. You may fail miserably and never settle, but the thrill and the experience is there. There's a lot of instruments that Ion can imitate, but there are only a few instruments that can imitate the Ion. That's my best buy of the year, and the best and most enjoyable oscillator-FM behavior ever.

 

VOLUME BALANCE ISSUES?  I've played 3 Ions and they all had this weird volume / panning setting (is this the notorious "Alesis cheap transistor / quiet output design flaw"??). When the main volume knob is set to 0, you can still hear the sound in one channel. Raising the knob balances the channels. Raising the knob too far right overdrives the overall sound. My workaround? Set the main volume knob in the middle and system balance settings so that they're good, and then just adjust the patch volume knob in the upper right corner if you need to make the sound louder or quieter.

 

 

Watch the video demo part 1:

 

Watch the video demo part 2:

Watch "buying & transporting":

 

Or listen to the audio demo:
[ mp3 demo - factory patches ]

 

 

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