Parva: The latin term for ‘little‘.
Briefly, the Futuresonus Parva is a 1 to 8 voice polyphonic synthesizer that started its life as a kickstarter campaign. Each voice is made up of 3 DCO oscillators (saw, triangle, or PWM) fed through 2 serially connected filters, which can be 12db or 24db LP or HP or 12db bandpass. Oscillator 3 can be used for filter FM – and it sounds glorious. There are 4 ADSR envelopes (that can be looped and their envelope shape modified between linear and exponential), 4 LFOs, and up to 40 routable destinations in the mod matrix. Aside from this, there are individual voice outputs, stereo mix, headphones. Five OLED displays for the information. USB host capability. The Parva can also be used in single or multi mode, allowing each voice to be its own synth. What’s particularly interesting is that all voices are made using individual voice cards (fully discrete?) which makes it easy for voices to sound slightly different from each other. Thus, the Parva sounds less like the DCO synths from the 1980’s and more like a VCO synthesizer from 2020. But how does it sound? I think it sounds like heavy whipping cream.
The sound of Heavy Whipping Cream… What?
Yeah, I don’t know why I wrote that. How do you translate sound from a synthesizer to texture/flavor of food? I guess in some ways, our senses are all intertwined. Kind of like how most of what we ‘taste’ from food is actually the smell portion (plugging your nose, or if you have a bad nasal infection, your food won’t taste at all as enjoyable). Maybe those two things are different. Anyway: I am not backing down. The Futuresonus Parva sounds like heavy whipping cream… or maybe it sounds like heavy whipping cream put into a blender with ice and sugar. So… Ice cream? Yeah. I think that’s more accurate but I’m not going to go back and edit any of that.
What a crazy sounding synthesizer. When I first heard it (last year), I was really surprised by how it sounded. I think where I was struck most was by how musical the filters were. They just saturate so pleasantly, which is where my brain gets this whole cream thing going on. It’s possible the imagery of the actual synth (white) makes me think of vanilla ice cream. That’s totally possible.
Those filters are gorgeous. Nothing else I have (and I have quite a few synths) really touches it. The filters sing when saturated with overloaded oscillators. I think if there’s a synth that gets close to it, it would be the Moog Matriarch, although that’s a paraphonic synth.
Upon first examination (A discussion on the User Interface)
When I tested out the Futuresonus Parva, I had done a temporary trade with a friend. My Mutable Instruments Ambika for their Futuresonus Parva. It took me no time to say “I hate this. I don’t want to go through with the trade.” The layout of the synthesizer is that on the left, you have a column of encoders. Rotating the knobs lets you access different parameters (e.g., oscillator 1, 2, and 3 or envelope 1, 2, or 3, etc) that are visible on the OLED screens adjacent to the encoders. Once you have selected the parameter, you may quickly press the encoder to enter the menu and now that encoder is used to scroll through the parameters inside the menu (e.g., access ADSR settings, routing options, etc). To exit the menu, you must long-press (1 second?) the same encoder. This aspect frustrated me. It felt very unnecessarily dense. To finish explaining the Parva’s user interface, on the right side of the OLED displays (and yes, there are multiple, in fact – FIVE), there are encoders that quickly modulate the parameters that are listed underneath them. This is straightforward. On the bottom row, you can access the mod matrix, perform tuning operations, load/save patches, perform firmware updates, etc. And yes, you must enter and exit all of these sub-menus using the press (enter) and long-press (exit) interface I described above.
I did not go through with the trade with my friend. Instead, I decided to just outright buy his Parva. Back to my annoyances about the UI. For some reason, I was able to overcome my grievances. I realized that, while there is a deep mod-matrix, I rarely need to access it. In many of the menus you can access, you are able to select sources or destinations, making it fairly simple to use on this front. And honestly, I’m not exactly sure what a better system would be. Perhaps a single, larger OLED with contextual displays, with buttons to navigate? Sure, but then I suppose you’d also lose some of the curb appeal of the Futuresonus Parva.
A pearl among synths (a discussion of Parva’s aesthetics)
Ok, I am a huge sucker for white synthesizers (Virus TI polar, MI Ambika, and now Futuresonus Parva)… and blue synthesizers (of which I own zero). This starts me off with a lovely bias. I think the Parva is just visual gold. Looks lovely and sleek and all sorts of other good sounding adjectives you can conjure up with your more advanced catalogue of euphemisms. Not only that, but I quite enjoy the thin font style. I use something similar (but clearly different) for my album fonts. The developer of the Parva (Brad Ferguson) had mentioned that the overall aesthetics/design of the Parva was what he was most proud of. While I think it sounds great, I think it also looks great too. And although this seems like it’s not worth considering, there are some synthesizers out there that sound great, but look awful.
“I think a servant of the Enemy would look fairer and feel fouler.” – Frodo Baggins
This sort of discussion reminds me of my Roland System 8, which just looks awful. I spend so much time thinking of ways to modify it (replacing the LEDs or covering them with fluorescent paper, or buying better knobs). Not only that, the System 8 feels terrible. The Parva, on the other hand, feels extremely nice to the touch. The knobs are on par with the great synths (ala Prophet 5/10). Thick, chunky, metal. The metal enclosure itself is also great. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to have manufacturers make nice looking, nice feeling synths. I’ll honestly probably take a somewhat poor sounding synth (it’s all subjective, I have love for the lowly MC-303 which is a spectacular synth, but doesn’t sound Earth-shattering today) over a cheap feeling synth that sounds amazing. Yes, I’m strange.
Eulogy and considerations
The Parva is no longer produced. Sadly, it did not endure a long-lived campaign and it’s life ended abruptly, to a degree. Obviously, there are still units out there working, so its story is not over. It is also possible that Brad will develop something new, something better. I’m not entirely privy to what happened regarding its short life and won’t delve into any personal details, but its development came at the perfect time when there weren’t a lot of affordable all-analog circuit polyphonic synthesizers, especially those that acted as USB hosts or had MPE support. However, the ‘perfect timing’ also coincided with the emergence of other analog synthesizers, especially the Behringer DeepMind 12 (a 12-voice analog synthesizer) that decidedly brought back affordable analog synthesizers into the market. This development (I think) had a huge impact on consumer cravings for the Parva. Personally, I don’t really care for the look or feel of the DeepMind. The keys have this pasticky feel and thickness about them, but I suppose it sounded ok. I won’t get into that any further.
So what does that mean for those considering a Futuresonus Parva in the future? Well, I’ve seen plenty available on the grey market, so there’s no shortage there (although I don’t believe many were made to begin with – the Kickstarter page suggests 90 people supported one. I’m not sure there were more sales beyond the kickstarter).
Voice cards do apparently fail as well. However, it is not so much that they fail but that the OS seems to crash on them. They are repairable. Also, Brad did manage to send me some extra cards to replace the two that were bad. The voice cards are notably simple to remove and replace. There are 8 cards. Voices 1 – 8, with Voice 1 closest to the I/O. Only 4 screws on the front and back (not the top or bottom, which contain either the knobs or feet, respectively) stand in your way of entering the PCBs and Voice cards.
There also appears to be on the Futuresonus forum a way to replace the OLED screens… I don’t know if they do or did go bad, but that’s not something I would look forward to replacing some day if I had to.
Brad said his inspirations for the Futuresonus Parva were the Oberheim Matrix 1000 and Dave Smith Prophet 08. Yet, the Futuresonus Parva doesn’t sound anything like them (to me at least), in a good way. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE my Matrix 1000, but the filters are absolutely and completely different. While I owned the DSI REV2 (updated Prophet 08), the filters were just not to my liking at all. Even though the Prophet 12 (which I do own, and enjoy) has the same filters, I think it actually sounds better than the REV2 for some reason. Speaking of other synthesizers – after testing the Sequential OB-6, I was struck by how I realized the Parva sounded like how I wanted the OB-6 to sound.
I’m guessing he was more inspired by the circuitry, mod matrix, and other aspects as inspiration, rather than sound directly.
If I could have a wish list, it would be short. 1) Any way to simplify entering/exiting the menus; 2) Onboard arpeggiator – it’s a want, not a need; 3) Allow Env 2 to control both filter 1 and filter 2 when they are in split mode (suddenly, ENV2 which did modulate the envelopes no longer does and has to be activated separately within; 4) bugfix oscillator 1 sawtooth wave which gets quieter as you track up the keyboard; 5) somewhat unstable oscillator tuning.
Overall – we’re talking about a really incredible synthesizer, with a sound that matches its outward beauty.