Review: Behringer MS-101
With the continuing emergence of products inspired by legendary hardware from Behringer, we strap in and get our hands on its new MS-101, and place it side by side with an original SH-101.
It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas, which might seem like an odd thing to say when it feels like we’re only just out of summer, Yet it feels as though there’s been a little tease or announcements most weeks from the Behringer R&D department, offering us a sense of the machines that are coming our way.
The MS-101 was first mooted by Behringer well over a year ago now and, for one reason or another, it’s only just breaking ground in a store near you. What’s even more exciting is that it seems to have taken a very familiar form and taken the concept a little further, at a price point which is undeniable attractive, so the time is nigh for the MS-101 to meet its original sibling.
When it comes to the history of synthesizers, the SH-101 from Roland arrived at a time when synths were still relatively expensive. Available from the end of 1982 until somewhere around the mid-80s, it was a supposedly cheap and cheery little monosynth which offered no memories or metal pots and faders, as found on the far grander Jupiter-8 and Juno-6/60, but it did offer character and bass by the bucket load. No surprise then, that as analog fell out of favour, you could pick the original 101s up for as little as £50 in the early 90s, which is exactly when I bought mine, which I still have today.
Despite the less than outstanding build quality, it did sound superb, being used by an enormous number of drum ’n’ bass artists, partly because of its great bass sound, but also because of the squealing filter, which could be employed as a sine bass, ripe for the d’n’b culture of the day. No surprise, then, that said filter also attracted the ‘acceeeed’ crowd, with its leaning toward something that wasn’t a million miles away from a 303, particularly if used with the onboard sequencer, which curiously had a capacity for 100 notes! No, I have no idea why 100 was the magic number either, as it makes no musical sense – but that was 80s tech for you!
So with great anticipation, Behringer has not only made a product that resurrects the best qualities of the 101, but applied a few new elements to teach the old dog some new tricks.
The original SH-101 was available in grey, but due to the unpopularity of the 101 at the time, was later released in both red and blue guises, in an attempt to revive sales. This gave rise to the urban myth that the red model was better for bass and the blue better for leads. I’ll burst that bubble immediately; they were all the same, but Behringer has followed that tradition by providing the MS in red, blue and black, rather than grey. It also ships with a power supply, but does not have the capacity to run on batteries. This is not a huge deal, except that the package also includes what Behringer describes as the Live Performance Kit.
This is a modulation grip, which utilises anchor points for a guitar strap, also supplied, so if you want to get all keytar, you can happily do so, but you’ll need to remain attached to a power source. In reality, the one time I went keytar with my own 101, (which I hasten to add is not something I have repeated since participating in an 80s night, many years ago) I found that I continually knocked the faders while playing it, so I really wouldn’t advise it.
The MS-101 is pretty much the same width as the original, along with full-size keys, although it has an elegant design, with slightly rounded corners. The pitch/mid lever illuminates, just in case you can’t see it in the dark, but the biggest difference is that it is slightly shallower in-depth compared to the original. This is not something that seems to hinder use, and wasn’t really apparent or noticeable until placed side by side with the original. All cable insert points are around the back, with options for MIDI via USB or conventional MIDI sockets, as well as CV/Gate.
There were reports of MIDI issues with some of the very first models available, but this appears to have been fixed completely. In this test, I have a USB MIDI Out connected to Logic, building audio and MIDI tracks within the DAW. The timing is pretty consistent and excellent, as is the ability to use the 101 as a controller for the inputting of notes to my DAW.
labMIDI implementation is basic; you don’t have access to the filter through MIDI, but you do have additional CV points on the rear of the MS, for control of filer cut off and clock in. The internal sequencer also responds to MIDI clock and I find that the MS sequencer reliably chases my DAW, even when altering tempo on the fly, albeit it with a hefty MTC offset from within Logic.
Maybe the most staggering point of all is that it looks amazingly good, even stylish, and is very well made indeed. I would go as far as to say that it feels better made than the original which, with today’s production methods, shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. The original was always a budget synth, even with its big heart and sound.
A chip called Curtis
At the very heart of the MS-101 is a 3340 Curtis chip, which is a familiar starting point, as this was also the original chip used in the VCO of the original, so you can’t be entirely surprised that this offers a sonic stamp which is simply identical to the original, at least when placed against my ageing 101 which I recently had calibrated.
For the uninitiated, the original design of the 101 was firmly monophonic, but there was an ability to blend waveforms simultaneously. This allowed for saw and square waves to be placed in the same timbre, while a further sub-oscillator could be added, as a square/pulse at a point of one or two octaves lower than the note being played. This made it sound enormous and phat, albeit lacking in some subtlety, unless filtered.
Well, thanks to a couple of additions to the MS VCO section, there is a dedicated triangle wave available, along with the ability to include an external input, both with matching faders sitting alongside the saw, square and white noise. While these are welcome inclusions, it’s the further addition of FM that moves the MS firmly away from the original. An additional couple of pots allows for both selection and varying application of FM, which yields some incredibly exciting sounds. Apart from the ability to rip into audio-rate distortion, which sounds amazingly raw, the MS can sound metallic or thin, according to the choice of modulation, filtration and initial choice of modulation wave.
Moving to the filter, there is a sense that the filter opens slightly wider than the original, but this could well be down to calibration, leaving it to the user to dial the cut off back a little bit, if required. In any case, it’s barely a point for criticism, particularly as the application of resonance gives all of the hallmark ticks on a bullet list; it rips, squeals and tracks superbly and had those d’n’b basslines recreated in no time at all.
Applying the envelope to the filter brings forth incredible bite and presence. The 101 only ever had a single ADSR envelope, with the ability to gate the VCA and that is firmly mirrored here. If I’m honest, it feels as though the MS is subtlety different in the envelope area, most specifically with the decay and release phases. It’s certainly reminiscent, and it could be another one of those calibration points, but there doesn’t seem to be quite the same degree of play in the faders that is apparent with the SH-101, while the decaying elements can diminish pretty quickly by comparison. This is a highly picky point too, and not one that should be worried about if this is an intended consideration for purchase, because it sounds stunningly good in so many capacities.
To give the MS a fair bite at as many cherries as possible, I built up a couple of MS-101 only tracks, using it to create drums, basses, leads and more. It was simply a joy to work with, with the envelopes proving to be as snappy and tight as the original, with that taut Japanese sound that I have always enjoyed. There is no doubt that this is a sum of parts, with all areas looking after the details exactly as you would hope. It’s a very serious synth which has plenty of punch and depth.
The MS is equipped with both a sequencer and arpeggiator, although unlike the original, the sequencer only stores up to 32 steps, but does have capacity to store up to 64 patterns, allowing for recall of patterns on the fly. The sequencer is also fairly comprehensive, with the ability to input accents, notes, rests and glides and in another alteration from the original, there is a specific pot for sequencer tempo, which is unrelated to the LFO speed. This has its benefits, but also means that it is not possible to exploit the LFO in sync, which used to be a great original feature, but this might be added in future firmware updates.
Other performance-related features are as expected, with the illuminated pitch wheel offering bend and LFO modulation when pushed forward, but it is the glide which feels less assured. When applied, it requires note holding, to glide from one pitch to the next, which is rather like the Auto Glide found on the original. This is a little bit frustrating, as it’s not possible to create those wonderful glides post-release, as you could on the original, but I don’t expect it will upset too many people, especially those new to the 101 feature set.
What we have here is a really fine synthesizer. Its recommended 15-minute warm-up underlies the nature of its analogue credentials and while pitch remains very stable, I am able to detect very small alterations in behaviour for some parameters, as the MS-101 remained powered up for a long day, but this is entirely de rigueur for a machine of this kind.
It’s sleek, very well made, sounds superbly fine in detail and depth, but offers that element of teenage fun that we all want in a good monosynth. We also have to consider the price point, which frankly makes the MS-101 look like a total bargain, especially when compared to the exorbitant prices of classic SH-101s on the second-hand market.
If you can live with the couple of details that set it apart from its original inspiration, then it’s a little bit of a no-brainer, although additional elements, such as FM and USB connectivity, really do make up for any shortcomings.
Do I really need this?
The analogue monosynth market is a fairly abundant place to be right now; there’s plenty of choice for the discerning producer, and that’s without the inclusion of digital and software affairs. The SH-101 has always been a synth for certain styles and music, but it can go way beyond that in creativity, but it is bound by its own architecture and that’s where I believe Behringer has attempted to put its own stamp on a classic design.
It is, and always has been, a monosynth with a single oscillator, it’s just that you can blend waveforms from within – and that’s where a machine like a Moog or even a Roland SH-2 (vintage or software) move to a different domain. The ability to work with additional oscillators does have its rewards and that, for me, is quite an influential factor, but meanwhile, the 101 is what it is and if you go into a relationship with one knowingly, you’ll be rewarded hugely!
The heart of the 101 is a tonal source emanating from a 3340 VCO chip, just like the original. Routable modulation includes pitch and pulse width, with the ability to conjure modulation from the LFO and Envelope. Four range positions allows for choice of basses or leads.
2. Source Mixer
The Source Mixer is where the waveforms are blended to create the desired timbre, with the inclusion of triangle wave and an external input. Routing the headphone output into the external input invokes those classic distortions, but with no dedicated headphone volume, can feel a little unruly.
The original 101 filter was highly favoured for numerous forms to electronic music, capable of self-resonating to a sine for those classic kick and bass tones. The filter tracks beautifully in pitch, lending itself to this form of usage again.
Another new and desirable inclusion is the FM source and amount. Simply choose your desired FM source on the left and dial in the amount of modulation you require. Subtle metallics and overdriven gnarly tones quickly emerge, as never before seen on a 101.
5. Sequencer and arpeggiator
It might not have the 100- note capacity of the original, but it does offer 32 steps of sequencing and the ability to save sequences in up to 64 locations. The arpeggiator offers the usual wonderfully simplistic patterns, with both elements being open to an external clock source.
6. Performance controls
A glowing pitch and modulation lever forms the mainstay of this section, with the additional glide switch also offering ratchet effects while programming sequences, alongside more traditional portamento duties.
- Analogue reimagining of the original SH-101
- 2.5-octave keyboard with full-size keys
- VCO oscillator offers four simultaneous waveforms
- 32-step sequencer and arpeggiator
- MIDI available via conventional MIDI I/O or USB
- Various options for CV/Gate connectivity
- Available in red, black and blue
- Complete with mod-grip and guitar strap
Roland’s recreation of its own original 101 is equally impressive in sound. You simply cannot tell them apart, but does come with the inevitable shrinking in size, due to the Boutique form factor. Unlike the original, it also offers four-note polyphony, which is an appealing concept.
We love the Monologue at MusicTech, receiving our synth of the year award in 2017. It still offers plenty of aggressive punch, with a sizeable set of credentials and patches, some curated by Aphex Twin himself. It looks classy and is very competitively priced.
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