Last update: 8 April 2010
The Crumar Spirit
Nowadays, when you think of synthesisers, your mind probably makes a geographic leap across various ponds to Japan, home of Roland, Korg, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki... oops, sorry... scrub the last of those. When you think about vintage synthesisers, you will almost certainly think of the USA, home of all things Moog-y and ARP-ish. You may even spare a stray thought for the UK's quirky analogue synths - EMS and Analogue Systems among others - or the strange and frequently unfinished Teutonic species from PPG and Waldorf. However, as your consciousness flits around the synthesiser world, it's unlikely that you'll spare much of a thought for Italy. After all, this is the home of ghastly Ekos, insignificant Jens and uninspiring Siels. Yet Italy is the home of two of the greatest analogue synths ever manufactured. In the polyphonic world, the Elka Synthex ranks alongside the Oberheim Matrix 12 and Prophet VS in terms of both price and desirability. And in the monophonic world, there's the Crumar Spirit... a synth so obscure, and of such overwhelming eccentricity, that nobody bought it, nobody used it, and almost nobody remembers it. This month, we're going to change all that.
You may be surprised to know that some of the world's best accordions originate in Italy. Indeed, a whole accordion industry developed around the city of Castelfidardo (on the Adriatic coast) at the tail end of the 19th century. Next, in the first half of the 20th century, the Italians embraced traditional organ technology and then, in the '60s and '70s, they jumped onto the electronic home-organ bandwagon. By this time, numerous companies were building keyboards in and around Castelfidardo. These included Elka, Eko, Farfisa, Siel, and - you've guessed it - Crumar, whose founder was a chap named Mario Crucianelli, or Cru-Mar as he may or may not have been known to his friends and family. (It's a cliche that "families" run Italian industries, and another Crucianelli - Piero Crucianelli - was the president of Elka! I wonder how the world would have reacted to the Crupie Rhapsody or Crupie Synthex. Hmm... it's probably best not to follow that line of thought.)
Anyway, anticipating the imminent collapse of the home organ market in the early-70s, Mario Crucianelli directed Crumar down a new path, and the company soon became famous for the cheap'n'nasty electric pianos that were to be its hallmark for the next decade. Fortunately, Crumar's next batch of products was far more interesting, embracing primitive string and brass synthesis, and the company enjoyed a short-lived burst of fame when Emerson Lake & Palmer, Greenslade, and The Enid adopted its quirky 'Stringman' and 'Brassman' keyboards. Unfortunately, the affordability of Crumar's instruments conjured an image of cheap shoddiness, so most serious players avoided them, no matter how innovative later models proved to be. From the groundbreaking "Multiman" to the company's first true synthesisers, the DS1 and DS2 (see box) there was much that was unconventional about the Crumars of the late '70s. Even the cost cutting engineered into 1982's Stratus and Trilogy helped to create unconventional synths that remain unique to this day.
Nevertheless, Crumar singularly failed to make it into the big league so when, in 1983, it announced the Spirit, nobody took any notice. The world's disinterest was only marginally dispelled when Crumar let it be known that Jim Scott (one of the co-designers of the Minimoog) Tom Rhea (another Moog employee best known for writing many of Moog's synthesiser manuals) and none other than Bob Moog himself had helped design it. And that's a shame because, as you will see, the Spirit is one of the most complex, challenging, and - above all - powerful monosynths ever produced.
It's hard to know where to start when describing the Spirit. This is because it is much deeper than other analogue synthesisers. So let's ease into things gently, and start our tour with the one relatively straightforward section in the Spirit... its oscillators.
On the surface, Oscillator A couldn't be simpler, offering just a single control to select the waveform produced. Much like the Minimoog, there are six options: triangle, square, 30% pulse, 15% pulse and 5% pulse, plus sawtooth. The master tuning control let you select the Oscillator A octave with options ranging from 32' to 4'.
Oscillator B is more complex, with six waveforms; triangle, 40% pulse, 20% pulse, 10% pulse and 3% pulse, and sawtooth; four 'octave' ranges: -1, unison, +1 and +2 with respect to Oscillator A; and a detune control that spans ±8 semitones. But what of those range settings marked 'Bass' and 'Wide'? These disconnect Oscillator B from the pitch CV generated by the keyboard, instead offering frequency ranges from 30Hz to 300Hz (Bass) and 2Hz to 10kHz (Wide) that you can modulate and/or use as modulators within a patch. Used together with - for example - oscillator Sync (oops, didn't I mention that?) this allows you to create all manner of unusual and powerful sounds as Oscillator A tracks the keyboard, but Oscillator B drones at constant (or modulated) frequencies. Hmm... did I say that the oscillators are relatively simple? Mea Culpa!
The filter is, as always, the next stage in the signal path. Well, umm... no, that's not quite right. Oh bugger. How am I going to explain this? Let's start again... The dual multi-mode filters are the next stage in just one of the signal paths. Still with me? No, I didn't think so. So let's continue by looking at the filters themselves.
Crumar calls the primary signal path the FILTER/ADSR path, for the simple reason that the output from the oscillators passes through the filter and ADSR/VCA stages in conventional fashion. As I've already stated above, there are two filters, named U and L, for Upper and Lower. However, don't for a moment think that these are low-pass and high-pass filters... the names describe their physical positions on the control panel, not their functions.
Filter U is the more conventional of the two. This is a low-pass device with a master cut-off frequency control, variable keyboard tracking from 0% to approximately 110%, and a dedicated ADSR contour generator with variable depth and both positive and inverted polarities. Furthermore, a simple rocker-switch selects between the 12dB/octave and 24dB/octave cut-off slopes of the filter, allowing you to choose between Oberheim SEM and early ARP (12dB/oct) or Moog and late ARP (24dB/oct) style filtering. (There's nothing remotely Japanese about the Spirit's character, but the ARPs of early Genesis LPs almost leap out unbidden.) Filter U also offers resonance, and this is controlled by a switch that selects between a fixed 'Low' resonance (of approximately Q=1/2) and Variable resonance, which you control using a conventional knob.
Filter L is the weird one, and this offers four modes. The first is 'Out', and this simply removes it from the signal path. In contrast, Overdrive adds both a distortion circuit between Filter U and Filter L, and configures Filter L as a parametric EQ that adds a peak at its cut-off frequency, but without attenuating the signal on either side of the boost. The third mode is 'Band-pass', which is similar to 'Overdrive' but without the distortion. Finally, High-pass acts as you would expect, making the Spirit a more conventional dual-filter synth with high-pass and low-pass filters.
Further to this, the Spirit offers a range of controls over these modes. The first of these - logically, if not on the control panel - is the Dynamic/Formant switch. In the 'Formant' position, this disconnects Filter L from the keyboard tracking, filter envelope and other filter CVs, allowing you to introduce a fixed (indeed, formant) filter into the signal path. Filter U is unaffected, so you can impose this formant on to a conventional LPF sound... nice! Furthermore, the Resonance knob always affects the parametric boost or high-pass filter resonance, whether or not you use the Low/Variable switch to disconnect the low-pass (U) filter.
Confused yet? No? Well then, how about this... Filter L provides a second filter cut-off knob but, rather than control an absolute value for fc, it moves the cut-off relative to that of Filter U. The two fcs (U and L) are the same when the knob is in approximately the 8/10 position, thus allowing you to move the cut-off of Filter L above and below that of Filter U.
Now, if you make the two filters' fcs coincident and select either Overdrive or Band-pass for Filter L, you can play the self-oscillating filters conventionally over most of the range of the keyboard. However, if you offset them slightly, you obtain a unique range of ghostly timbres unique to the Spirit. (This is because the 'knees' of the filters no longer coincide.) And don't forget, you can have one filter tracking the pitch CVs while the other is stationary, so the filter characteristic can change as you play up and down the keyboard. This architecture makes the Spirit hugely flexible and, ultimately, hugely rewarding. However, the filters are far from the end of the story...
The next stage in the FILTER/ADSR signal path is a simple VCA with an associated ADSR envelope. You can bypass the envelope generator using the Bypass switch, and Gate the envelope from a variety of sources. Most conventionally, you'll want to Gate it from the keyboard, using either of the Single or Multiple triggering options. As I discussed in a chapter of Synth Secrets (in Sound On Sound) the keyboard's priority is primarily last-note, but the Spirit also remembers the first note played. Consequently, if you release all subsequent notes while holding the first, the pitch returns to this, but without a re-trigger. This has a very important, and very beneficial consequence... if you brush an unwanted note last, the Spirit will ignore it once you have released it, leaving the desired note sounding, and sparing your blushes. Again, I believe this to be unique to the Spirit, making it a first class instrument for lead and bass lines. To quote the manual, "The Spirit lets you play faster than blazes... you can play articulated passages like a machine gun if you want!" What's more, the keying system also makes the Spirit ideal for lines or phrases where you may wish to return to a 'root' drone between notes or phrases. Wonderful stuff!
However, there are three other sources of Gate: 'X', 'Y', and 'EXT'. So this is an ideal time to look at what is perhaps the most confusing and most powerful part of the Spirit's architecture: the modulation sources with the nattiest names in synthesis... MOD X and SHAPER Y.
What's in a name?
When you think about it, most integrated monosynths offer little in the way of modulation sources. Sure, there's usually an assignable LFO, and any given synth may be graced by dedicated LFOs for pulse width modulation and so on. But unless you fork out for one of the better endowed dual- or triple- oscillator synths, there's little or no chance of audio frequency AM or FM, sample & hold, or an arpeggiator. Inevitably (or I wouldn't have mentioned it) the Spirit has all of these, and much, much more...
Let's begin with MOD X. This offers six modulation sources: triangle wave, square wave, S&H, SHAPER Y, red noise, and oscillator B. There's also a dedicated LFO, which doubles as the S&H clock if that option is selected. Then there's the arpeggiator. This has three modes, the first of which is called Ripple, and which plays any held notes in an upwards pattern at the LFO rate. The second is Arpeggio, and this repeats the held notes, first at the played octave, then the one above, then the one below, thus making all arpeggios into three octave patterns. The final mode is the confusing but rewarding 'Leap', which plays the first note in the arpeggio at the source octave, the second at +1 octave, the third at -1 octave, and then repeats the cycle. This may not sound like much, but imagine that you are holding four notes... the complete cycle is then twelve notes long. Indeed, 'Leap' arpeggios can become very complex, especially if you change one or more of the played notes during the arpeggio. I suspect that this is yet another facility unique to the Spirit, and if you've ever wanted to compose tracks in the style of Steve Reich, this is the way to do it.
Of course, you'll want to control something with MOD X, and a quick hunt to the far left of the control panel will lead you to the Wheel Destinations section, which allows you to direct the modulation to five destinations. These are: the pitches of Oscillators A and B; the pitch of Osc A alone; the pulse width of Osc A; the Upper and Lower filter cut-off frequencies; or the cut-off frequency of filter U alone. Phew!
Oh yes, and the reason that this is called the Wheel Destinations panel (rather than the MOD X destinations panel) is because the modulating CV produced by MOD X passes through the dedicated MOD X wheel before being routed to its destination. This gives you full control over the amplitude of the modulation.
The action of SHAPER Y is, if anything, less obvious than that of MOD X. This, too, has an LFO with a Rate knob, but in this case it's a 'triangular' generator whose waveform you can vary from sawtooth, through triangle, to ramp wave, using the 'Shape' control. But the real power of SHAPER Y lies in its 'Mode' control, which adds four more options to the Spirit's already over-burdened feature-list.
FREE turns SHAPER Y into a simple LFO centred on 0V, thus making it ideal for simple vibrato or tremolo. In contrast, KB HOLD gates the SHAPER Y waveform, so you can use it as a secondary ASR contour generator whose A and R rates are determined by the Shape and Rate selected. RESET is similar to KB HOLD except that it describes an AD contour rather than an ASR contour. Well, it does, as long as you don't retrigger it before it's completed the cycle. If you do this, it resets to zero, and starts the AD contour again. Finally, RUN is an unconditional AD contour that always completes its cycle, even if you take your hands away from the Spirit and start playing something else. This can be very useful for sound effects and drones that you've programmed to continue developing after you've moved your hands to other instruments.
Like MOD X, SHAPER Y passes through a dedicated wheel before being presented with a list of possible destinations. These are: the pitches of Oscillators A and B (again); the pitch of Osc B alone; the pulse width of Osc B; the MOD X LFO frequency; and the cut-off frequency of filter L alone. As you can see, this list perfectly complements that of MOD X.
But hang on a minute... there's also a switch in the Wheel Destinations panel that lets you modulate (or contour) the output from MOD X with that of SHAPER Y. And, if you think back, you'll remember that I've already said that one of the modulation sources within MOD X is SHAPER Y. And now I've stated that one of the SHAPER Y destinations is the LFO in MOD X. Ow! I've got a headache!
Well, if that hurts already, get the morphine ready... because it gets worse! Do you remember that the Spirit has two signal paths? The second of these is the SHAPER Y path, and this passes all the sound sources, including the Ring Modulator (oh heck, I haven't mentioned Ring Mod yet, have I?) through a simple 6dB/octave low-pass filter and then through another VCA whose gain is controlled (or 'shaped' - hence the name) by SHAPER Y. Furthermore, all the MOD X and SHAPER Y modulations are still applied to this signal. [I'm afraid that it's far easier to demonstrate all this that it is to describe it, but that's not much comfort, is it?]
Furthermore (by now, I'm sure that you knew that there had to be a 'furthermore') the Mixer section allows you to mix the Oscillator A and B levels, plus Noise, within the FILTER/ADSR path, to the Oscillator A and B levels, Ring Mod level, and Noise level within the SHAPER Y path. And, like so much else in the Spirit, this turns out to be more than it seems. This is because - even ignoring the myriad other possibilities offered by this architecture - the U and L filters introduce tiny phase shifts in the signal that fatten up the sound considerably when you mix FILTER/ADSR sounds with the same sources passed through the SHAPER Y path.
Clearly, the Spirit is a fantastically complex synth. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to emulate its intricacies using a modular instrument, if only because you would run out of CV inputs and patch leads long before you recreated all its weird and wonderful routings. But if you want to patch the Spirit in simpler fashion, you can ignore MOD X, SHAPER Y, and most of the oscillator and filtering options, and play it like any other dual-oscillator synth. Unfortunately, ignoring and/or switching off all the complex bits is not straightforward, and I've seen experienced players reduced to (almost) tears when presented with a Spirit for the first time. Indeed, I've never heard a great sound emanate from one under those conditions.
But once you've mastered it... WOW! For example, you can build a simple lead patch with just one oscillator, a touch of vibrato, a touch of filtering, and appropriate envelopes to taste. Even with this basic set-up, you'll be amazed at how warm and creamy the Spirit can be. Now add a little portamento (yet another facility I've failed to mention) and grab the Pitch Bend wheel (and another) and you have a superb performance synth with the depth and character of any other 'Moog'. Now add the second filter in Band-pass or Overdrive mode, set the controls and... well, you're moving into very expensive sonic territory. In particular, the Overdrive is a sonic chameleon that offers numerous different characters depending upon the signal level and pitch of the oscillator signal, the resonant frequency of the filter, and the gain. All that, and we haven't yet touched the second oscillator and the myriad modulation options, let alone added the SHAPER Y path to the signal.
Of course, no vintage synth is complete without a selection of rear panel inputs and outputs, and - as you might expect - the Spirit is no slouch in this department, either. For one thing, it offers individual outputs for the FILTER/ADSR and SHAPER Y audio paths, thus allowing you to direct the two timbres to different mixer inputs and effects paths. There's also an EXT audio IN that replaces Noise in the internal signal paths, thus allowing you to apply the phenomenal filtering and shaping power of the Spirit to external signals.
As for voltage control, there's a Filter Pedal input that controls the Lower and/or Upper filter cut-off frequencies, and an Osc B input that controls the pitch of oscillator B (which is ideal for sync sounds). Of course, there's nothing stopping you from using these inputs as general CV inputs if you wish. Oh yes, and there are conventional CV & Gate inputs and outputs too.
All of this means that, despite its 'integrated' appearance, the Spirit is a superb addition to a modular analogue synth set-up. It can provide all the keyboard functions needed, and offers a bountiful supply of voltage controlled wotsits to patch into the modular system itself. Bravo!
Unfortunately, we'll probably never know whether we can attribute the power of the Spirit directly to Bob Moog, but there's no doubt in my mind that, as a performance synth, it ranks alongside the Minimoog itself. Sure, they sound different, but they both beg you to play them. If there is a difference between the two, it's in the Minimoog's immediacy... you can hardly fail to conjure superb sounds from one, whereas the Spirit demands that you learn and understand its complexities. Above all, this is a synth that rewards patience, experience, and a lot of thought rather than aimless knob twiddling. But once you've mastered it, all the classic analogue timbres are at your fingertips: warmth, smoothness, grittiness, and screaming analogue pain, all produced with depth, expression, and as much complexity as you could ever desire.
Despite its power and flexibility, the Spirit was to be the last monosynth produced by Crumar. Indeed, it was the last instrument to bear the Crumar name because, in 1984, the company launched an analogue polysynth under the name "Bit". Designed by none other than Mario Maggi - the man responsible for the Elka Synthex - with dual oscillators, dual contour generators, and bonuses such as MIDI, velocity-sensitivity, unison, splits and bi-timbrality, it compared favourably to more expensive instruments. But the Bit One was not a DX7, and it provided none of the crisp, new sounds that dominated music from 1983 until 1988.
Nevertheless, Crumar released three incarnations of the Bit. After the Bit One, there was the improved and remarkably affordable (£499) modular version, the Bit01. Finally - in the autumn of '85 - the £699 keyboard version of the '01' appeared. Called the Bit99, this addressed many of the Bit One's shortcomings, and remains a useful but under-rated polysynth to this day.
To give Crumar credit, even in the late '70s it was well aware that the era of analogue synthesis had passed. But whereas adding a microprocessor to an analogue synth was not too expensive - either in terms of development time or cost - designing a true digital synth was beyond its means. Furthermore, Castelfidardo did not have a large industrial base or a university with which to share the R&D burden, so Crumar turned to the USA to co-develop a generation of digital instruments to release alongside its low-cost synths.
Working in collaboration with a New York company called Music Technology, it first produced a groundbreaking digital synth called the GDS (the "General Development System") which was used extensively by Wendy Carlos. This then became the precursor to the Synergy, another pioneering instrument, and one that deserves to sit alongside the Fairlight CMI and the early Synclaviers in the pantheon of synthesiser history. But neither the GDS, the Synergy, nor the Bits could beat off the onslaught from Japan and, in 1987, Crumar ceased trading.
Although Crumar disappeared in the late '80s, other Italian manufacturers were more fortunate... Elka reinvented itself as a manufacturer of MIDI master keyboards, while Siel was purchased by Roland Corporation, and survived as its European division. In addition, Generalmusic (GEM) manufactures digital synths and workstations to this day. But of the deceased Italian synth manufacturers of the '70s and '80s, it is Crumar that is the saddest loss. In retrospect, it was a hugely important company because it made keyboards that were cheap enough for players who would otherwise have been restricted to lusting after unattainable instruments in shop windows. And who knows what it may have developed had it survived? If Crumar had released a polyphonic version of the Spirit it could - with perhaps the honourable exception of the Yamaha GX1 - have become the most sought-after analogue polysynth on the planet. Now, how's that for an endorsement?
You can find my full review of the Crumar Spirit in Sound On Sound magazine, July 2001.
Copyright ©2001, Gordon Reid.