The Phenol is indeed a new kind of synth. It looks like a desktop synth but it has CV and I/O familiar to the modular crowd. It uses banana patch cables and the same voltages as a modular synth. It has a low profile, a sleek design and even includes a digital delay.
So, as one of my favorite Emcees (Dr. Ski of Blah Zae Blah) once said “If you act like a duck and quake like a duck then you must be duck so whats up?” Indeed, despite all of its desktop synth clothing, the Phenol is a modular synth. It just so happens to be in a self-contained package that makes modular synthesis rather palatable for the novice while remaining powerful enough for the modular enthusiast.
I’ve watched the Phenol through its development phases. Some of you may recall its Kickstarter campaign. The Phenol was a wildly successful Kickstarter project that met and exceeded its goals. Phenol was even chosen as a Kickstarter staff pick favorite.
Kilpatrick Audio describes The Phenol as being, “Inspired by modular synthesizers, PHENOL offers the creative potential, sound and hands-on experience of a modular synth, in a sleek, compact and affordable package. ”
A few months back I had the opportunity to interview Andrew Kilpatrick (There are some excellent details about the Phenol in that interview btw.) Anyway, Andrew is the man behind the Phenol and Kilpatrick Audio. In the interview I asked a question in comparison of the Phenol to a comparably configured modular rig;
“If I wanted to represent all of the capabilities of the Phenol in a typical modular build, how many modules would I end up with and how much money would I be out of? In other words, how does the Phenol compare in terms of functionality and cash on the table to a similarly functioning modular synth rig?”
“PHENOL has thirteen distinct “sections” or modules if you want to call them that, although some are very simple like the filters and VCAs. But I would guess that building a similar rig out of Eurorack modules would cost probably $1500-2000 or more depending on what you chose. Plus with the sheer number of modules on the market right now, it would take quite a while to figure out exactly which modules to buy. We’re trying to make getting into modular / patchable synthesis simple.”
There in, my friends, lies the magic of the Phenol. I can attest to the countless amounts of hours spent internet browsing and video watching in an attempt to spec out the perfect Modular Grid system for my own needs and desires. The market is just so vast and everyone has their own little philosophies of how you should go about getting started in the modular synthesis game. Some folks are more incline to hit a few false starts and/or so forget about it altogether. To that end, the Phenol comes neatly packaged and ready to be your monster of a spring-board into the world of modular without the fuss. Once you’re in, there will be plenty of time to travel deeper into the rabbit hole with more modules and cases etc.
So let’s dissect the phenol a bit in terms of included modules…
Oscillators 1 & 2 are identical. As mentioned in the manual “Triangle, ramp (sawtooth) and pulse waveforms are available all at the same time” Both VCOs have 5 knobs (Course and Fine Tune, FM and PWM Levels and Pulse Width), 4 outputs (Ext In, Triangle, Ramp and Pulse) and 4 inputs (Pitch in, FM in, PWM in, Sync in).
There are 2 filters on the Phenol. Filter 1 is a Low Pass and the other, Filter 2, is a Band Pass filter that was initially slated to be a high pass filter. Each of the filters have an input, an FM input and an output.Both Filters have Cut Off, Fm Level and Resonance knobs.
The two VCAs are identical as well. Each has its own AMP knob, input, amp input and an output. The VCAs are used to control the level of audio or voltage input signals by “using the AMP control, or by a voltage input into the AMP IN jack.”
There are two identical Envelopes generators. Not the typical envelope generators, these are described as “envelope / oscillators because they have a number of ways they can be used to generate either envelopes, commonly used to fade notes up and down, or making low-frequency oscillations which have many different uses.” So, in essence they are EGs but they can be used as additional LFOs depending on the need.
But let’s take a closer look at these EGs. They both have few modes. Let’s see if I can demystify the modes of the EG a bit.
There are 3 mode buttons in the EG section.
The first button toggles between the envelope mode and oscillator mode. If you take a closer look the first two knobs in the EGs have dual operating modes demarked by ENV and OSC. In ENV mode the knobs are Up Time and Down Time. While in OSC mode the same two knobs are used for Speed and level.
The second mode button is used to toggle the modes of the 3rd knob which is located in the EG section. Those modes are Step, Gate Delay and Scale Quantize. The 3rd knob is demarked with little icons that illustrate the 3 uses for the knob (Step, Gate Delay and Scale Quantize).
The 3rd and final mode button is used for the EG section’s Output mode. The three modes of operation for the Output mode are Normal, Inverted and Absolute Value.
Finally, the EGs have a Gate Input, Speed input and an output.
Next, we have the LFO, Adder, Divider, MIDI to CV and Mixer.
The LFO is simple. It has Random Output and Sine output. “The SINE OUT jack generates low-frequency sine wave signals. The RAND OUT jack makes random stepped waveforms. The SPEED control sets the speed of both outputs.” A cool little hidden feature here that Sine Out can be used as a white noise generator when the speed knob is cranked all the way up.
The adder section “performs mixing, scaling and inverting of audio or control voltage signals.” Mixing is done internally for inputs 1 & 2, while “output +” outputs an in phase signal and “output -” outputs an inverted signal.
The divider is described as allowing “gates and pulses to be divided to create signals which are slower but related in time. This is most useful for dividing LFOs or clock signals to create outputs which change another parameter at some divisor of the main clock.” It has an input and four outputs (out2, out3, out4 and out6).
Midi to CV converter
This section is pretty self-explanatory… It allows control of the Phenol via standard MIDI cable or USB connectivity. This allows you to connect the Phenol to your hardware sequencers, computer / DAW and/or keyboard and pad controller.
Oddly enough there 5 pin DIN Midi connector is not located in this section. it’s actually located across the way near the LFO section. Ergonomically, I think it makes sense if it had to be on the top panel. This way its to the far left and out-of-the-way.
However, I think it would make more sense to put it on the back where the USB connection lives.
But what does live here in the Midi to CV section is the previously unannounced on Kick Starter surprise feature, the sequencer. Simple enough, the sequencer has a record button and a play/loop button. Press record button to record. Press play/loop button to play sequence once. Press it again to loop it.
The mixer section is home to two inputs that each have pan and level knobs. There is a master knob which corresponds to the stereo output signal. Finally, there is a little simple and dirty delay with Delay Time and Mix knobs.
The build is pretty good. The entire casing is metal. I initially thought the bottom was plastic but to have it in my hands proved otherwise. The knobs are a bit wobbly and not as firm as I’d like, so I’d maybe have some concern about these over time. The sockets are solid, color coated and designed for use with the included banana clip cables.
The phenol’s size, just under 16″ wide and under 9″ in length, is perfectly sized for traveling. Even the 2 1/2″ height (including knobs and feet) lends itself well to the prospect of travel.
Whats the sound like?
Well, the sound can be surprisingly wild and the delay can be dirty. Even still the filters are nice and the waveforms are dope! I think it just sounds great but I think the demo video below can do more for the sound than I can in words here in the written review.
If I could change anything I’d add the midi connection to the back panel. I’d maybe have a dedicated section for the sequencer with an expanded feature set. But these are just secondary wish list items that don’t necessarily need to happen. I’d first want to use standard 1/8th cables for patching as opposed to the banana clip cables. But I realize there is a warning regarding the usage of the ground connector when using the Phenol with other modular rigs. I don’t know the reasons that Kilpatrick used banana clips and perhaps most folks wouldn’t mind them at all. The fact of the matter is that my initial reaction was “how to connect to other CV enabled gear?” Then I realized a good deal of interfacing can be done via the MIDI to CV section using midi cables or USB connectivity.
Alternatively, Kilpatrik audio sells banana clip to 1/8″ cables and there are a few break out box options on the market as well that will allow for connectivity to existing CV gear and modular rigs.
- Banana patch system with colour-coded jacks and voltages compatible with Kilpatrick Format and other modular systems – PHENOL Panel Layout
- Two analog VCOs – triangle, ramp and pulse outputs
- Two analog filters – low pass and band pass (formerly labeled high pass)
- Two analog VCAs with level control
- Two envelope generator / LFO combos with many unique features (digital)
- An LFO with sine and random output (digital)
- Internal MIDI to CV converter with DIN and USB MIDI interfaces
- Built-in MIDI sequencer / looper
- Compact mixer with digital delay (330ms of delay time)
- Digital pulse divider – divide MIDI clock, LFOs or audio signals into useful musical divisions
- Buffered analog mixer / mult / inverter with level control
- Two external audio inputs buffer and amplify line-level signals – process drum machine or other audio sources through the system
- Rear panel connections / controls:USB-B port for USB MIDI connection to a PC / Mac
- Headphone and line outputs (1/4″ jacks)
- Power button
- DC power input – 2.1mm coax – centre positive 24VDC
- Ground banana jack
- External input (1/4″ jacks)
- Power input: 24VDC @ 250mA (500mA regulated supply required)
- Operating temperature: 15C to 30C (59F to 86F)
- Storage temperature: -10C to 45C (14F to 113F)
- Dimensions: 15.8″W x 8.8″L x 2.5″H (including feet and knobs)
- Weight: 5lbs (2.27kg)
- Universal input power supply (100-240V) included
- units purchased from North American dealers ship with a US-style plug
- units purchased from UK, EU and Australian dealers ship with a set of plugs for US, UK, EU and Australia
- Designed and made in Canada using high quality parts
- Warranty: 1 year (30 day warranty on cables)
- Comes packaged with 10x starter banana cables. More may be ordered below.
There is a lot that I dig about the Phenol. I love the prospect of a self-contained unit that potentially serves as an easy gateway into modular synthesis. Such a device seems to be trending now judging from winter NAMM 2016 but Phenol may have been the first on the block with this paradigm shift to self-contained units. Other than that, the major thing I would tighten up is the slightly wobbly knobs. A bit of tweak in this area could make the difference in someone copping it and not copping it. I’ve seen it happen with other devices of lesser promise. Still, the Phenol is counted as a winner in my book. For those that are looking for a diving board into modular with a self-contained all in one sort of package, the Phenol wins. Not to mention, it just simply looks and sounds good.
Price and Availability
$849 USD Retail Price
PHENOL is now shipping!