Synthesizer enthusiasts lived (and still live) in a world of their own.
Back in the 70’s or early 80’s you might have come across a Minimoog lying in some store window. Or it could have been the ARP-2600, if you were lucky. Or an OSCar. Big eyes and a flat nose on the pane … who didn’t dream of owning such wonderful electronic instruments? So you maybe took a second job (taxi driver) and, after arduous work and many privations, you could buy that Minimoog (or the ARP-2600 … well, the OSCar in any case – if it was still available). Friends came by, they were amazed and said Mhm! A red carpet was rolled out in honor of your instrument, you opened a bottle of wine and somehow life was very good.
Today, 40 years later, we’re dreaming the same dreams again. This doesn’t necessarily happen in front of a music store window (forget the flat nose), more likely you’ll be browsing in a virtual store (eBay and friends). You’re dreaming of a small System 700, for example, just the main console, that would be fine. Or what about an ARP 2500 modular system? Not affordable back in the 70’s, but now it can be yours with a little luck and after another five years of juggling two jobs. (The instrument will probably work fine and shouldn’t require “too many” repairs if you are really lucky). Friends come over, say Mhm! The red carpet is rolled out, you open a bottle of wine … we’ve been there already. Things haven’t changed. Well, the life of a synthesizer enthusiast is just a little crazy.
I’m one of them – my therapist (sitting right next to me) implores me to talk about it in public. Synthesizer enthusiasts should come down to earth, at least every now and then, he says. Shoulder on shoulder with reality! Reduction of those delusions of grandeur through a combination of fun and low-cost therapy. This self-help is now available to us thanks to the Berlin company MFB. No need for supersized flagships, instruments with cockpit feeling (tons of switches, knobs and LEDs) or other prestigious projects. It’s the small MFB Dominion X that will do the ticket. Slightly larger than a cigar box (remember those?), with buttons and a small patchbay, discrete circuits and unique musical possibilities. All for the price of a used Korg MS-10. You’re feeling better already? Perfect.
The Dominion X is MFB’s latest synthesizer. It combines analog synthesis, programmability and modular patching. It should drive fear and awe into your bones: The instrument is a combination of Minimoog (3 VCOs), ARP-2600 (CV inputs and numerous modulation capabilities) and OSCar (multimode filters and memories) … the whole package for well under 1000 Euros and – last but certainly not least – with an incredibly good sound. And what are your friends gonna say …?
The OSCar effect
Now, let the crazies be crazy and simply turn to the equally idiosyncratic association of the Dominion X with the OSCar. The instruments are similar in at least three ways. Two of these are very positive, the third is a bit strange. Let’s start with the good ones. The filter of the Dominion X sounds fantastic. It reminds us of the OSCar in terms of sound, flexibility and its aggressive, strong filter resonance.
The second parallel is storability. Memories on a monophonic synthesizer were a sensation in 1985, when the OSCar appeared (one of the last monophonics at that time, by the way). But you can’t take that for granted even today. Whether memories are necessary or not is a philosophical question, but regarding the huge potential of the Dominion X one can say: memories can be quite useful!
The third similarity (the strange one) between OSCar and Dominion X is illustrated below. It relates to the ergonomics of the instrument. Anyone who has ever owned an OSCar knows that programming it is somehow like doing garden work in heavy rain. You don’t see too much. The knobs of the British hybrid synthesizer are so high that they partially cover each other. That probably makes it difficult to read the labels on the panel (the printing, which is not entirely unimportant).
Now, this peculiarity of design is also true of the Dominion X. The knobs are very high and close to each other. Not that there isn’t a simple solution. Either you put the instrument flat on the floor and try to sit on a fluffy coat in a sort of Klaus Schulze meditation way, bending over the Dominion X (which may not be convenient in smaller studios), or you mount the instrument at an angle position on your rack (or on your desktop) so that you have “direct” visual access.
In terms of manufacturing and hardware quality, the Dominion X is well made. The previously mentioned knobs positioned close to each other do wobble a bit, one of the few criticisms from our side. That being said, there is hardly anything else to find fault with! The pots are reliable and the high quality sockets are screwed directly to the robust casing. Thick wooden end cheeks give the Dominion X a vintage flair.
Our Dominion X came with a user manual that doesn’t really deserve the name: two A4 sheets folded to A5, which makes 6 small sides of paper to read (since there’s only the logo on the front and nothing on the back). But we have to be fair: this flyer is explicitly titled preliminary instruction manual. While I’ve been composing this article the final instruction manual has indeed just been completed and may now be downloaded on the MFB website. We’re confident that all new Dominion X are now being shipped with the complete version (some 17 pages).
The little monster
Once you have read over the preliminary instructions (20 seconds) or the final user manual (5-10 minutes) and once you have found the perfect angle for your Dominion X (which might take another 20 seconds), you’ll probably be (briefly) at a loss for words. Some amazing features should become apparent and it may dawn on you that the Dominion X is not simply the equivalent of the very good (if somewhat differently designed) Doepfer Dark Energy, but a synth with a different design, more like a little monster.
The Dominion X offers:
- 3 VCOs with triangle, sawtooth, pulse (PWM) and ring modulation (!)
- 1 VCF with 6 filter types (LP1, LP2, LP3, BP, HP and Notch)
- 2 ENVs (ADSR) for VCF and VCA
- 3 LFOs (2 main LFO with sample & hold and a third, special MOD LFO)
- Noise, Glide and Feedback
- Extensive modulation possibilities, sync, FM, trigger and MIDI capabilities
- INSERT to integrate an effect or distortion unit into the signal path
- CV / GATE IN and additional CV control inputs
- MIDI IN / OUT / THRU
- Audio In / Out
- 128 memories (!)
Each VCO has triangle, sawtooth, pulse (with PWM), an own ring modulator (VCO 1 <> 2, VCO 2 <> 3 and VCO 3 <> 2) and the possibility of wave shaping (via MIDI). The pulse width can be adjusted manually or can be modulated by LFO 1. Pulse width ranges from 50 to 95%. Interval- and fine-tuning plus octave selection (32″, 16″, 8″ and 4″) is also part of the oscillator section.
Another distinctive feature of the Dominion X is wave shaping:
“Dominion X offers three oscillators for maximum flexibility. Each waveform can be varied in symmetry. Besides altering the pulse width of a rectangle, you may also continuously turn a saw tooth into a triangle and a triangle into a sine.” (Source: http://mfberlin.de)
This leads us to the following six areas that together exhibit the VCO modulation capabilities. They’re responsible for that little monster we were talking about.
First: The VCO Mod Section – a multi-modulation path with the following routings:
- Level: VCO volume modulation by LFO1
- Pitch1: VCO pitch modulation by LFO1
- Pitch2: VCO pitch modulation by LFO2
- ADSR1: VCO pitch modulation by ADSR1
- PWM: Pulse Width Modulation by LFO1
- PW: Manual pulse width adjustment via the Mod VCO knob
This section possesses considerable sound potential. Slightest changes in the beating behaviour of the VCOs (minimum pitch modulation by LFO 1, LFO 2 or ADSR), bidirectional octave modulations of two VCOs by LFO1 and 2, drastic frequency modulations by the LFOs (at high frequency speed), ever-changing sound impressions of the VCO’s mixture by volume modulation of one (or more) oscillators … these are just a few examples of the VCO Mod department.
Second: The dedicated Mod LFO (3rd LFO) – this sine-LFO works in combination with a keyboard’s modulation wheel and can dynamically address the VCO, VCF and VCA sections
- VCO: modulation control of all 3 oscillators
- VCO2: modulation control of oscillator 2 (as the name suggests …)
- VCO2 +3: modulation control of oscillator 2 and 3 (…)
The dedicated Mod LFO may also influence the VCF and the VCA, but right now we want to focus on the oscillators. The LFO’s speed is manually adjustable. Turning the “Rate” knob fully anticlockwise disables the LFO. In this position the modulation wheel movements themselves are the source of control voltage.
Third: The Sync Section – synchronization of the oscillators
- VCO2 (synchronized to VCO1)
- VCO3 (synchronized to VCO1)
- VCO2 +3 (both VCOs are synchronized to VCO1)
As you can see, VCO1 is always used as the master oscillator. However, it can be replaced by any signal attached to the SYNC socket in the patch area.
Fourth: The FM Section – frequency modulation by VCO 3
- VCO1 (modulated by VCO3, as I said …)
- VCO2 (…)
- VCO 1 +2 (…)
This is, in other words, cross-modulation (one of the great features of the Roland Jupiter-8, by the way). As in the FM section, it is possible to override VCO3 by an external signal attached to the FM VCO socket.
Fifth: The Velocity Assignments for up to eleven modulation destinations include:
- VCO (symmetry control of the VCO waveform)
- ADSR (controls of the envelope times, and thus also of ADSR1, which can be used for VCO modulation)
- LFO (speed control of LFO 1/2, both of which can affect the pitch of the oscillators)
Other destinations of Velocity Modulation affect filter frequency, filter resonance, VCA and the modulation depth of the filter envelope … but again, we’re now concentrating on the VCO section.
Sixth: MIDI and CV Control
Well, pitch control via MIDI is self-evident. We’re just mentioning it for completeness.
The CV inputs, however, are particularly interesting. Each VCO has its own CV input. Therefore, the oscillators can be easily combined with other analog synthesizers such as a Doepfer modular system, another MFB synthesizer (Megazwerg, just to name one), any Eurorack module (external LFOs, ADSRs, other VCOs, …) or any analog hardware sequencer, whatever.
Strictly speaking, the oscillator CV inputs are cleverly routed. If just CV VCO1 is connected, all other VCOs are automatically linked to it. So, a single CV and Gate connection is enough to run the Dominion X properly. But of course you can have it more complicated and control each oscillator individually, as mentioned above.
A comprehensive set of oscillators combined with vast modulation possibilities requires an equally potent filter. Or in other words: an ordinary 24dB low pass filter would be perfidy, almost like chalk and cheese.
Of course this is not the case. The great Dominion X filter is incredible. It offers six operation modes:
- LP1 (24dB lowpass, there it is …!)
- LP2 (18dB low pass, resonance increases according to the feedback settings)
- LP3 (12dB lowpass)
- BP (12dB bandpass)
- Notch (12dB bandstop)
- HP (high pass 12dB)
As already mentioned, the filter is of finest audio quality. It’s extremely expressive, rough, wild, analog. But all the glory would be pretty useless without proper modulation and control options.
The VCF can be modulated as follows:
- Key tracking (0%, 50%, 100%)
- ADSR (+ / -)
- LFO 1/2 and VCO 2/3
- Via Mod LFO (and thus, in full left position, the modulation wheel movements themselves)
- VCF CV IN
- Velocity (+ / -)
Then there is feedback. The output of the filter is routed back to the filter input, which can give you an aggressive, overdriven sound. Good old Minimoog offered this by simply connecting its own output to the input. Same thing, 40 years ago.
Two main LFOs (LFO1/2)
We’ve already discussed the VCO Mod LFO, so now we can concentrate on the two main LFOs. Each LFO offers 6 (!) waveforms (including sample & hold) and may be switched to one-shot-mode to emulate a simple envelope.
The small multi-colored LED of LFO1/2 provides information on how each LFO is triggered.
- LED off (LFO free run)
- LED green (cycling is restarted with every new note)
- LED red (LFO set to free run, frequency changes according to keyboard tracking)
- LED red / green (cycling is restarted with every new note, frequency changes according to keyboard tracking)
Last but not least, LFO speed control is possible via velocity (from -63 to +63 and therefore negative or positive). We also have this feature in the wonderful Yamaha CS-80 … and in the new GRP A4.
The Dominion X has enormous potential. No, really, that “slogan” really applies in this case. And it gives you pause to think (more about that later). 3 VCOs, 3 LFOs, a 6-way multi-mode filter … the basic sound architecture is imposing in itself. What surprises us is the rough, analog atmosphere of the Dominion X and its sound flexibility.
Yes, we would expect fat bass sounds from those 3 oscillators. But how about this: soft lead sounds (preferably with one VCO only), sounds typical of dance music (out-of-tune oscillators in fifths and fourths plus an additional octave), the equally typical Vince Clarke electronic sounds (thanks to OSC FM, Filter FM, RingMod, S/H and more) … The practically infinite sound repertoire of this little synth just has to impress. The Dominion X can hold its own with those elaborate prestige models and overpriced collectors items that we talked about at the beginning.
Are you looking for a full-fledged electronic studio on a lean budget? Try this setup: an external effect unit, a simple recording tool (e.g. Audacity, a freeware program), an analog step sequencer, a small rack of additional Eurorack modules (LFOs, some filters, VC Pan …), a master keyboard (a polyphonic synthesizer, maybe the new Studiologic Sledge) and at its center the Dominion X. There is nothing missing here from the analog point of view. And all this without a lot of fuss, because programming is easy (thanks to the Dominion’s definitely manageable size). And you can always save (or bring back to life) those wonderful sound creations with the 128 memories …
All in all, the Dominion X is a revelation. Such a compact (and surprisingly versatile) 3-VCO synthesizer is unique. A fantastic machine for those concentrating on sound expression and flexibility – the heart of music – as opposed to the flashy effects of the big synths. Some synthesizer collectors might stop and think about that.
Small wish list
There are three things (in my personal opinion) that would make the Dominion X even more perfect.
- A stereo output and the possibility for panorama modulation
- The option for envelopes “with” and “without” snappiness. Because the Dominion X just comes with the “with”. It affords very strict portato if you want to achieve a soft lead sound (with long attack times) “without” that snappiness. True legato playing results in crackles at the beginning of each soundNote:Those crackles are now eliminated with software version 1.5, as MFB just told us. And there’s a possibility to switch both LFOs and ADSRs to slow mode now (to achieve beautiful, long attack times)
- The knobs should be two thirds of their size (they’d still be useable). That would simplify the working process. And they shouldn’t wiggle …
Dominion X SED
Most recently, there is a second version of the instrument, the Dominion X SED. It has a slightly different filter design (and is slightly more expensive). The 24dB and 18dB LPF of the original multimode filter were replaced by a 24dB and 12dB SED lowpass filter. No big difference, clearly speaking. It’s just that the Dominion X SED comes closer to that sought after vintage Roland sound. The SED filter design is a discrete analog filter with transistors.
The little monster Dominion X from the house of MFB is a fully mature, versatile and very well sounding analog synthesizer. The attached sound samples (40 minutes of audio files) will convince you. With two exceptions these were all recorded exclusively with the Dominion X. The exceptions are the mix files “CP70” and “OB-8”, where these mentioned instruments enhance the Dominion X results. And the Korg Monotribe functions as a rhythm unit in some audio files.
The Dominion X is the instrument for those sensible users who want to concentrate on the essence. Those who know what it’s all about. Those who want to make music, work creatively, lend musical expression to their musical ideas and effect this all with the help of just one instrument. For those with limited space or a limited budget. Who, nonetheless, don’t want to sacrifice high quality analog sounds. MFB has created the impossible: an elaborate analog synth of the smallest possible dimensions.
The Dominion X / X SED is a further significant step along the path in the new analog era of synthesizer history.
In 2014, MFB released the Dominion 1 keyboard. Another wonderful piece of musical instrument, with a huge patch-panel and other, stunning features. If you’re a synth player and if you’re interested in the Dominion X, then look out for the Dominion 1!
MFB Dominion X
- 780 Euros (including shipping) within the EU
- 700 Euros (price does not include VAT) for non-EU-residents
MFB Dominion X SED
- 840 Euros (including shipping) within the EU
- 750 Euros (price does not include VAT) for non-EU-residents
Update 2015: the Dominion X is no longer available. We recommend its successor, the keyboard version Dominion 1.