A LoFi Hip Hop Review: Modal Skulpt Synthesizer

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. I 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 Skulpt for us to get our hands-on and review. You can see our prior review of the companion CRAFTsynth 2.0, but here we will focus on the Modal Skulpt Synthesizer.

More great news? Well, Modal just announced the new Skulpt SE which increases portability, but has the same features and sound characteristics as the original Skulpt!

Overview of Modal Skulpt

Modal Skulpt Product Description

For an overview, we’re sharing the official Modal Electronics description of the Skulpt Synth. Modal Electronics has made a significant impression on the synth community with its undeniably imaginative and paradigm-shifting synth creations. Now it has poured that ethos into Skulpt, a portable, small-format polyphonic synthesizer, bursting with synth-tastic mojo. Skulpt can be played with an onboard 16-note keyboard or with external MIDI devices via 5-pin DIN or USB-MIDI. Jammed with 32 oscillators spread over four-voices, Skulpt churns out an array of dense, harmonically rich synth tones, from grimy bass growls to celestial pads and cutting leads. And it’s powered by USB or six AA batteries so you can take your synth show on the road. Additionally, Skulpt’s optional software editor lets you dive even deeper into its fathomless sound sculpting capabilities. Synth nuts at Sweetwater are awestruck by Skulpt’s intuitive design and immense tweakability, which make it an ideal choice for synthesis newbies and weathered patchmasters alike.

Skulpt’s deep and detailed sound is due to a stunning 32-oscillator configuration — eight oscillators per voice — and two sets of morphable waveforms. By default, the oscillators are phase-aligned, but a unison “spread” feature allows each to be detuned for thick chorusing and rich, textured harmonics or tuned in intervals for massive cinematic polyphony that goes way beyond what one would expect from a four-voice synth. For even more oscillating gooeyness, flip on the FM function to oscillate the frequency of oscillator two with oscillator one’s output.

With a dizzying slew of processing options, Skulpt is a sound designer’s dream: resonant, morphable filter; three envelope generators for filter, amplitude, and modulation; dual audio-rate LFOs; and a lush, digital delay with clock sync. Additionally, Skulpt includes a 256-note real-time sequencer and feature-packed arpeggiator with division, direction, octave, swing, and sustain that will have you “tangerine dreaming” night after night. It also sports a super snazzy glide control that can be applied globally or just on legato notes for epic, symphonic portamentos.

Modal Skulpt Size

The Modal Skulpt is a portable, capable synthesizer coming in at dimensions of 10 x 5.5 x 3″, and weighing less than 2lbs. As we did with the CRAFTsynth, let’s compare the size of the Skulpt against my personal interface, an SSL 2+. The result? Well, you can see for yourself! To my eye they are about the same size with the Skulpt being a bit wider than the SSL 2+. Portable sizing is a big win in our opinion, it allows you flexibility with where and when you create. Don’t be fooled by this tiny synth, as we continue our review you’ll see the true capabilities of this little gem!

Ins/Outs

Modal needs to receive huge props for their continued focus on I/O even on these smaller units. As with the CRAFTsynth, the Skulpt 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 its size, these I/Os are no joke and helps give you ultimate creative freedom. Want to plug in a full midi controller? No mini-midi to full-midi adapter needed. Looking to plug into modular gear via analog clock? Done! The line out uses a 3.5mm cable rather than your normal 1/4inch instrument cable, but as a musician I’m sure you have many 3.5mm to 1/4inch adapters lying around (or maybe that is just me, oops)!

Review of Knobs, Keys, and User Experience

Layout / User Interface / User Experience

User experience is a metric that is often overlooked by creators of synthesizers, drum machines, and other pro audio equipment. It is easy to pack in so many features that you get lost menu diving to find that one core setting you need to change. While the Skulpt’s user interface design may look intimidating at first given all the buttons and knobs tightly packed, after a handful of times designing and playing sounds you’ll feel at home changing waveforms, modulation, and effects.

We recommend you spend time early on getting familiar with the machine. Try designing and shaping your own sounds, through this you’ll find where the features live on the interface. Also for reference, the lines on the top of the unit help compartmentalize functions to their relevant group. For example, the ADSR envelopes live on the middle right side of the board. Hit the shift button and now that little section turns into your effects module, easy!

Touch-sensitive Keys

In our prior review of the CRAFTsynth by Modal we mentioned we weren’t initially too fond of the touch keys, but ultimately came around to liking them more than expected. While I understand the keyless decision is to make the economics work on this device, my preferred way to use the Skulpt plugging in my midi controller (Yamaha Reface CP). I’d recommend you getting used to the touch keys first and use the instrument in its entirety. There is the added benefit of functionality short cuts with the touch keys. Alternatively, if you decide they are not for you, you can plug in a midi controller with its full I/O spectrum!

Oscillators and Sound

The Skulpt is a polyphonic virtual analog synthesizer that has 32 oscillator spread across 4 voices with 2 morphable waveforms. With further ability to modulate, blend, and morph these waveforms, the end results are limitless. What is a virtual analog synthesizer? A virtual analog synthesizer is digital in design, but emulates the characteristics of the early synthesizers which were exclusively analog meaning they relied on non-digital components to give them their characteristics and sounds (think transistors, diodes, capacitors, etc..). As digital synthesizers came to the market, it drastically reduced the price barrier to owning a synthesizer, but many musicians insist the characteristics of analog synthesizers make them unique and they are still highly sought.

If I had to describe the sound of the Skulpt, I would call it a “pad machine.” We sit there endlessly skulpting pad patches time after time, and it is honestly hard to have a resulting sound that we don’t enjoy later when playing back the recording. If you’re into lofi, ambient, or boom bap hip hop, but synthesizers scare you because of the aggressive tones you see in most videos, we can assure you the Skulpt can get very mellow without losing its special characteristics.

While you can get mellow, relaxed sounds, the bass is no joke and can bring serious energy to any track. My favorite bass tip on this little machine is morphing the waveform into a sine wave, changing polyphony to mono, increasing glide, adding minor distortion, with a low-pass filter as far as it will go without losing the characteristic of the bass. The bass that comes out a machine that 3 minutes ago was playing dark, ambient pads is not only surprising, but very impressive.

Modal Electronics speciality is designing digital synthesizers that are based on analog circuitry (“virtual analog” or “VA”), and you can definitely tell that from the sound characteristics of the Skulpt. The sound this compact synthesizer produces is not only impressive, but keeps me coming back. As a bedroom producer with minimal desk space, the Skulpt has become my go-to synthesizer in my workflow. What we enjoy most is the versatility of this machine. You can go from having an aggressive bass tone to a soft, lush poly pad with the delay fx and filter in a matter of minutes. Add in the intuitive modulation matrix with the added benefit of the companion app and you’re at an enormous advantage with this little device.

Polyphony, Glide, Chord Mode, and Spread

With lofi being a very jazzy, melodic genre having a machine where chords are possible is critical. The Skulpt has 4 voice polyphony which give you enough room to use standard chords. In addition, the spread mode can artificially increase your polyphony from 4 to many (?) more notes. Incoming directly from the Modal Skulpt manual here, “This [spread] introduces additional oscillators to achieve unison and stacked octaves, intervals and chords. 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 half way, the oscillators arrange themselves into chord shapes. A huge variation of chords can be created with this control in conjunction with OSC2 detune.” Let that sink in, a synthesizer smaller than most audio interfaces, has 4-voice traditional polyphony, and a spread function to further increase the depth of chords? Seriously, how can you not be impressed with the Skulpt at this price point? Kudos to Modal Electronics!

Let’s discuss “Chord” mode. Chord mode one of my personal favorites that I really, really enjoy. Call me lazy for this upcoming tip! Pressing the “chord” button (SHIFT + OCT+) while holding any keys you wish (creating a chord) allows you to drag that chord across the keyboard of your Skulpt/Midi controller. That E minor chord you have? Well, now you can create chord progressions on it simply by selecting a different note on the keyboard. Chord mode is a feature I’ve hardly seen mentioned in other reviews and videos, but is one that I have the most fun with.

Delay, Distortion, and Filters!

The FX in the Skulpt seem to be same from the Modal CraftSynth 2.0 we reviewed in early 2021. I enjoy the 2 effects they have, but do wish they switched in (or added) a reverb. The 2 onboard FX are 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! A nice little hack is that 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

The delay on the Skulpt is a very interesting, soothing delay. It doesn’t sound digital despite being a digital effect and that really brings out a warmth feeling that is hard to describe unless you hear it. We would argue that in lofi production it is more common to delay than distortion given lofi music is very dreamy/ambient. That being said, distortion on the Skulpt is exceptional and is very simple, one knob. Most often we use the distortion when constructing bass lines. Our go-to here is moderately increasing the distortion while simultaneously cutting the high frequencies out of the spectrum using the low-pass filter on the Skulpt. With the delay, any melody can become ambient making this phenomenal for pads. 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

The Modal Skulpt may be a small, portable device, but its modulation matrix is massive! The Skulpt has 2 LFOs with 8 slots, 8 modulation sources, and 37 modulation destinations. Another beauty from the Modal manual, “These Mod slots can be used to assign any combination of modulation sources to destinations, meaning that 1 modulation source can be assigned to 8 different destinations, or 8 modulation sources can be assigned to a single destination, or any other combination thereof.”

I’ll be the first to admit, the mod matrix was initially intimidating. Thankfully Modal has wonderful resources and videos on YouTube with their top notch manual that gives you a practical walkthrough of best practices. Whether your first synth or your tenth, the parameter sheet provided with the Skulpt is ideal to get you up and running. If your experience is similar, after a handful of experiences you’ll be flying around the modulation functionality.

How to use in LoFi Production

Modulation is something we have not used extensively in the past to our own fault. Now, being much more familiar with how modulation can impact sound, it is incredible how much modulation allows you to maximize creativity and unique sounds and textures. 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 any of the other functions you select. These are just some ways we’ve been using the Skulpt and hope they show you the modulation abilities of this awesome synth!

Companion App

One of the enormous advantages of the Modal line 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 I bought a cheap adapter for my iPad that allows it to accept USB connections. As a tip, you’ll want to use a decent USB cable (no dollar tree cables!) although 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 Modal 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. I recommend you use it when you can, given the added visibility. I have encountered no bugs within the app or connection issues between Skulpt and app sync. To see a lofi hip hop jam session click here.

Conclusion

Highly recommend. It is hard to beat the value of the Modal Skulpt given its portability, complete I/O, and very solid virtual analog synthesis. If you’re a creator who gets inspired and wants to pick up a machine at any time/place, this powerful, portable device is for you. To further cement our recommendation, Modal sent us a Skulpt to review and giveaway. We ultimately bought another one ourselves after the review given how much we enjoyed the Skulpt! The Skulpt Synth has LoFi Weekly’s endorsement 👍

More great news? Well, Modal just announced the new Skulpt SE which has the same features and sound characteristics as the original Skulpt!

Pros:

  • Incredible sound capabilities
  • Compact desk footprint + fantastic for its portability
  • Solid I/O functionality (full-sized MIDI!)
  • Extended polyphony via spread mode
  • Chord mode is an insane workflow hack
  • Companion app that enables a seamless workflow

Cons:

  • Touch sensitive keyboard not for everyone
  • Knobs feel sub-standard
  • Reverb would’ve been a great added FX over the sister CRAFTsynth series