A LoFi Hip Hop Review: CRAFTsynth 2.0

Late last year we had a few lofi producers reach out about Modal Electronics, a synth company we were not too familiar with at that time. The ask was for thoughts on two of their budget-friendly synths, the CRAFTsynth 2.0 and the Modal SKULPT. We realized few of the videos were being used to produce hip hop / lofi music, although the synthesizers looked perfect for what we lofi producers do, spontaneously create. After a great conversation with the team at Modal, they offered their CRAFTsynth 2.0 and SKULPTsynth for us to get our hands-on and review. While we’ll discuss the SKULPT another time, let us focus on the CRAFTsynth 2.0.

Overview of CRAFTsynth 2.0

CRAFTsynth 2.0 Product Description

For an overview, we’re sharing the official Modal Electronics description of the CRAFTsynth. Incorporating the power of 8 wavetable oscillators, CRAFTsynth 2.0 is an exciting modern monophonic synthesizer, not confined to just ‘mono synth’ sounds. With its complex and rich sonic spectrum, CRAFTsynth 2.0 produces modern synthesizer sounds for new-school musicians, performers, sound designers, and producers.

CRAFTsynth 2.0’s ergonomic user interface with 12 encoders invites you to tweak and modify sounds while playing. Musical programmable arpeggiator patterns elevate moving performances and integrated effects add depth and character to the rich sonic wavetable experience. Powered by USB or batteries, CRAFTsynth 2.0 comes in a portable, compact desktop-style enclosure with full-size MIDI connections and analog Sync I/Os. It can be easily integrated into music creation environments in studios or live rigs and delivers countless hours of fun and inspiration while traveling.

CRAFTsynth 2.0 Size

The CRAFTsynth is portable with dimensions of 150mm x 135mm x 68mm (or 6″ x 5 1/2″ x 3″ for our fellow Americans). My personal interface, an SSL 2+, looks like a giant compared to the CRAFTsynth 2.0. We love this given we’re always trying to maximize desk space in our setup. Don’t be fooled by this tiny synth, as we continue our review you’ll see the true capabilities of this little gem!

CRAFTsynth 2.0 size compared to SSL 2+

Ins/Outs

Despite the small footprint of the CRAFTsynth, it has MIDI DIN in and out (full-sized MIDI), Analog clock, sync in and out, USB MIDI (connection to computer/tablet), headphone and line output. For something this size, it punches way above its weight for ins/outs! The one critical part of this synthesizer was the inability to connect a MIDI keyboard via USB. As an Akai MPK user, there is no full-sized (or even half!) MIDI in/out as the MPK connects via USB to its host device. A bit of a bummer you’re forced to connect both the CRAFTsynth and Akai MPK to a computer (or tablet).

Modal Electronics CRAFTsynth 2.0 Beginner Synth MIDI

Review of Knobs, Keys, and User Experience

Knobs & Encoders

Let’s talk about the user experience of this synth. Being a compact synthesizer comes with certain trade-offs. Yes,  phenomenal for producers who have limited desk space (myself), travel frequently (not during COVID), or move/reorganize their gear around a lot (also me). On the flip side, the compact size has a few accessibility concerns where we end up grabbing the wrong knob, or even hitting knobs while tweaking the correct one. Given the proximity of the controls, we expect this. While annoying for sure, more frequent use helps as muscle memory kicks in. The knobs are more fragile compared to other samplers/modules we own, but for a ~$150 synth we expect this.

Touch-sensitive Keys

Before embarking on our journey with the CRAFTsynth, we read people’s thoughts online (Reddit?) about the CRAFT, most specifically around the touch-sensitive keys. It seemed 2 groups of people existed on the forums:

 1.) You grow accustomed to the touch-sensitive keys and you will enjoy them in the end.

 2.) Connect your own MIDI keyboard and forget the touch-sensitive keys ever existed.

Given the Akai MPK was a USB connection MIDI, and we did not want to plug in the Ensoniq ASR-10 / Mirage keyboard every time we wanted to play with regular keys, touch-sensitive keys were what we decided on. I’ll link below how we got the CRAFTsynth working with the Akai MPK by using a spare Raspberry Pi to make a USB MIDI Hub. We’d just plug the Akai MPK into the Pi, configure a quick setting on the Pi, and use USB to MIDI DIN to connect to the CRAFT. While fun, too many moving pieces (wires) involved for this setup to last. Fair to say, the touch keys were not as bothersome as expected. Plus at this price-point it warranted such a tradeoff. We’ve come to enjoy the touch sensitive keys which really make gliding across keys a lot easier. Don’t be intimidated by the touch-sensitive keys!

SHIFT Button

The function layout is straightforward with the knobs and keyboard labeled for both their primary, SHIFT, and Preset use (Preset is an extra shift given the compact design of this synth). One disappointing part was not having a dedicated hard button for the SHIFT/Preset feature. Instead, it is part of the touch-sensitive keyboard. Not a big fan of this, as it feels hidden. Given a core part of this compact device, perhaps a physical button would make the workflow a tad bit easier (and there was space for it!). It was challenging as we had minor issues where pressing SHIFT wasn’t being registered by the CRAFTsynth. A few extra taps later, problem solved.

On the other hand, muscle memory kicks in and it feels like second nature. Overall, the user experience here may seem overwhelming at first, but Modal has done a fantastic job on the layout and put every feature within a finger’s reach. Plus with a comprehensive user manual and plenty of demos/walkthroughs, it is unlikely you won’t be able to find what you’re looking for!

Oscillators and Sound

The CRAFTsynth is a monophonic (kinda) wavetable synthesizer that has 8 oscillators and 2 selectable waveforms that can blend/mix amongst the 40+ unique waveforms. What does a wavetable synth do? Well, linked here is an excellent overview from our friends at Sweetwater. For a high-level view, the difference between analog and wavetable synthesizers is that analog synthesizers generate tones based on voltages. Wavetable synths have a table of waveforms (e.g. wavetable) that you can choose from (40 with the CRAFTsynth). With further ability to modulate, blend, and morph these waveforms, the end results are limitless.

One of the scariest parts of dipping your feet into the synthesizer landscape was that almost every demo on YouTube for every synthesizer period focused on how harsh they could make the synth sound. As a lofi producer, we want something that can sound soft, musical, and occasionally aggressive. Maybe our tone is harsh for the synth community in general, but this CRAFTsynth made us realize not all synthesizers follow this rule! Sure, the CRAFT can get aggressive, but with its filter and a couple knob tweaks, it gets very musical. You can see that in a lofi beat-making video here. With the spread feature (next) you can make very interesting soft pads!

While endless debates exist between digital and analog synthesizers, we’ll go out on a limb and say that for 95% of us if we can design the sound we’re looking for it doesn’t matter whether we made it with an analog or digital synth. The cool thing about the CRAFTsynth is that Modal Electronics speciality is designing digital synthesizers that are based on analog circuitary (“virtual analog” or “VA”). The sound this compact synth produces easily puts it in the discussion with synthesizers 3 times its price. What we enjoy most is how quick you turn a traditional sine wave to a fitting sound (pad, key, string, trumpet, etc..). Add in the versatile modulation matrix and you’re packing a HUGE punch with this little device.

Spread (Chords)

Let’s talk about one of our favorite features of this synth! Despite the CRAFTsynth being marketed as a monophonic synthesizer, Modal Electronics is doing a disservice in this sense in our opinion. Yes, true, you can only play one note at a time. Although “Spread” unlocks the CRAFT oscillators to make a single note resemble a chord. As you adjust the spread knob on the CRAFTsynth, it activates more oscillators to achieve unison and stacked octaves, intervals, and chords. This spreads out the waveforms and detunes them as you increase your turn on the knob, arranging the oscillators into chord shapes. This turns a compact, monophonic synthesizer into a chord generating machine! The oscillator spread/detune algorithm sounds phenomenal for lofi, huge props to the Modal Electronics team!

How to use in LoFi Production

How do we use this for lofi hip hop production? Well, you can see it first hand in this raw jam session video. First, I’ll tweak, blend, and detune the waveforms until we find a sound we enjoy. I’ll next add a low-pass filter and resonance as needed. Maybe include delay or distortion depending on the flavor. Modulation applied as needed, although we’re still getting a hang of the potential there! Once a sound we’re excited about is ready, we move towards the spread knob. Again, no genuine science here it is an art! According to the CRAFTsynth 2.0 manual, “In the first half of the dial, Wave 1 and Wave 2 are split into individual oscillators and spread out over the frequency spectrum to create a fat unison sound. This effect is increased up to the center position. Past halfway, the oscillators arrange themselves into chord shapes.”

Delay, Distortion, and Filters!

The CRAFTsynth has 2 onboard FX, delay and distortion. The delay FX has 3 dedicated [SHIFT] knobs which controls delay, time, and feedback. When holding SHIFT and turning the Delay effect knob, you control the dry/wet mix of the delay. The time knob controls timing of the delay (0.022 to 750ms). If you turn the knob negative, it syncs to the tempo at subdivisions (1/16, 1/12, 1,8D, etc..). The feedback knob sets the amount of delayed audio signal that is fed back into the delay input. Sounds like a circle of continuous delay! You can use this feedback knob to make the delay sound like a reverb, we’d argue that is 3 onboard FX 😉.

How to use in LoFi Production

We’ll be honest here that we use the delay much more often than the distortion just given lofi music is very dreamy/ambient. That being said, distortion is super simple, one knob. We find it useful if you want to have part of your melody pop more. As far as the delay goes, we tweak it to see how ambient sounding we can get most of the melodies (while using Spread of course!). While we’d prefer a basic reverb module (more of a reverb person than delay) you can get very close using the delay feedback loop trick!

Modulation

Modulation is a critical part of any synth as it allows you to maximize the ability to create unique sounds and textures. The CRAFTsynth has 2 LFOs with 6 other modulation sources (8 total) and 36 modulation destinations. Whether your first synth or your tenth, the parameter sheet provided with the CRAFT is ideal to get you up and running. After a handful of experiences with the synth, you’ll be flying around the modulation functionality.

How to use in LoFi Production

To be honest we’re still learning the modulation abilities of this synth (2 months later!). We will say it is very easy to stumble into something that sounds incredible and fits the lofi vibe perfect. For example, assigning the LFOs to the filter and/or resonance (very simple LFO) can truly transform your sound. We’ve created other interesting textures by assigning the LFOs to the Spread or the Wave Mix function which blends the two waveforms you select. These are just some ways we’ve been using the CRAFTsynth 2.0 and hope they show you the modulation abilities of this awesome synth!

Companion App

CRAFTsynth 2.0 ModalApp

One of the enormous advantages of the CRAFTsynth is its companion app. Sure, we can use it as a standalone synthesizer, but if you wish to visualize the modulations and/or tweaks you are making, you’ll want to get it hooked up to a tablet or computer. This connection is standard USB mini, and we bought a cheap adapter for our iPad that allows it to accept USB connections. As producers we typically have 3 cables lying around for every 1 piece of gear we have (until we need it…).

Ease of Use

Once in the CRAFTsynth software, you’re able to see your tweaks in real-time! You see the waveforms you’re tweaking, modulation amounts, and how heavily you’re applying the FX or spread. The software is a hidden gem with this little device. We recommend you use it when you can, given the added visibility. We have encountered no bugs within the app or connection issues between CRAFT and app sync. Getting the MIDI settings for your USB controller (MPK) was a bit confusing although not sure if that was an issue with Studio One or the ModalApp (had to change options in both!). We’d definitely advise you to get familiar with the ModalApp as it does make life a lot easier in seeing what levers and knobs you’re using most when designing sounds! Oh, and don’t forget to update the CRAFT via the ModalApp!

Conclusion

We believe the CRAFTsynth 2.0 offers extreme value for the price point and easily competes with synthesizers 2-3x its price from a sound perspective alone. Perfect for producers who want a powerful, portable synth with serious sound capabilities that takes up a minuscule amount of desk space. It is great for beginners and advanced synthesizer users alike! The CRAFTsynth 2.0 has LoFi Weekly’s endorsement 👍

Pros:

  • Compact desk footprint + fantastic for its portability
  • Serious sound capabilities
  • Solid I/O functionality (full-sized MIDI!)
  • Spread mode, spread mode, spread mode!
  • Great companion app
  • Battery operated for on-the-go production

Cons:

  • Knobs feel sub-standard
  • Touch sensitive keyboard not for everyone
  • No ability to control with USB midi keyboard (e.g. Akai MPK series)