Ever since the dawn of electronics, inventors have looked at weird and wonderful ways of getting at the wealth of opportunities offered by synthesized sound. The instruments through which such sounds are controlled by a player have enjoyed much variety in form, size and functionality in the years since. While most have been keyboard-based, some – like the Theremin – have broken away from tradition to offer an altogether different way of playing. French sound and sensor innovator Eowave has recently updated an instrument that uses a more modern approach to the ribbon-based synthesizer technology used by the likes of Dr Freidrich Adolf Trautwein for his Trautonium – the Persephone Mark II.

From the eerie sounds accompanying the invasion of alien spacecraft in budget B-movie classics to that special ingredient in some of our favorite pop songs, synthesized sounds have become a familiar aspect of our modern audio enjoyment. Although there have occasionally been variations on the theme (like the monster Telharmonium 36-note-per-octave keyboard from Thaddeus Cahill), access to most of sounds made available by huge synthesized libraries is generally undertaken via a standard piano keyboard interface.

Familiarity and proficiency amongst keyboard players or even perhaps an unwillingness to start the often steep learning curve demanded of a new instrument may be why the keyboard has reigned supreme, leaving other control methods to lurk in the shadows. Yet despite the apparent lack of mass adoption, some keyboard-less synthesized sound controllers have managed to make the occasional break into the limelight to leave their memorable mark in musical instrument history.

Keyboard-less familiarity

We're most of us familiar with controllers like the Theremin, perhaps even the Dynaphone dial-operated vacuum tube oscillator instrument or the Hellertion. Dials, knobs and ribbons have managed to sneak onto keyboard controllers too, such as on some of Robert Moog's succession of popular synthesizers.

Eowave's inspiration for the first Persephone came from instruments like the Trautonium developed in Germany by the electrical engineer Dr Freidrich Adolf Trautwein in 1930. In those days a resistance wire was stretched over a metal rail marked out with a chromatic scale and the pitch of the oscillator was altered when the player touched the ribbon.

Replacing the resistance wire with new sensor technologies, the first Persephone was outed at the Winter NAMM show in January 2004. But it was another couple of years before the production model was ready for release and included some enhancements to the original design, such as MIDI in and out and full tone and half tone modes. The instrument was given a vintage look with the inclusion of a birch table and oak sides and merged new technology with digital controls and an analog oscillator to generate precisely controlled tones over a 10 octave range. The oscillator could be "set between triangle and sawtooth for a more or less brilliant sound" and an optic sensor allows expression key functionality beyond that available to older mechanical systems.

Get ready for Mark II

Now Eowave has announced the development of the Persephone Mark II. Like its predecessor, the new instrument's available scale runs from 1, 2, 5 or 10 octaves and benefits from both full and half tone modes. The optical expression sensor remains, as does the MIDI in/out and the 1970s-inspired resonant 12dB low-pass filter for sound shaping.

The Mark II benefits from a 50cm duophonic pressure and position sensitive sensor ribbon which extends the glissando-like playing possibilities by offering simple chord-like dimensions and numberless oscillator modulations. It's the only analogue ribbon synth with two analog oscillators with a range from 1Hz to more than 20kHz that can be played separately or together. Of the 16 routing presets, eight can be user assigned which, according to Eowave, "significantly increases the instrument control and modulation possibilities."

There's a claimed latency of less than 1.5 milliseconds and analog to digital conversion is taken care of by the Eowave ESS DSP which offers accurate 12-bit resolution (4096 values). Joining the MIDI and audio input/output interfaces are a foursome of CV outputs and a USB port, as well as the option to add a couple of control pedals.

The Persephone Mark II is available now for EUR1090 (US$1523).

The first of three videos overviewing this intriguing instrument can be seen here:

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