Analog monosynths have become quite popular in recent years. These small synthesizers come from long established manufacturers such as Moog and Dave Smith, as well as newer companies with modern designs. One of the more prolific of this new breed of analog manufacturers is the German company Doepfer. Though mostly known for their rack modules, Doepfer have joined the monosynth fray with their Dark Energy synthesizer. At $625, the Dark Energy is a modern monosynth that packs a surprising amount of punch and flexibility for it’s small size.
Features and Design
The core architecture of the Dark Energy is typical to most monophonic synthesizers and includes a VCO, VCF, and VCA. The oscillator of the Dark Energy is based on a single saw/square wave oscillator with pulse width modulation. The filter is a steep, resonant lowpass. Finally, the amplifier is simple yet effective. A single ADSR and dual LFO’s can modulate the above, with multiple hard-wired internal routings.
The Dark Energy expands the flexibility of it’s modulation network through patch cables and patch-points. This system, also known as semi-modular, allows for incoming MIDI key number, velocity, pitch, and one selectable MIDI CC, to be routed via the cables to VCO pitch, pulse width, filter cutoff, VCA level, and gate. In addition, one of the internal LFOs, the Envelope, and external audio can also be patched as modulation sources as well. The Dark Energy is the only synthesizer at this price that offers semi-modular capabilities.
With it’s combined internal hard-wired and external patch system, the Dark Energy makes up for it’s single oscillator design with complex modulation possibilities. Central to this are the dual LFO’s, which by the way seem to be aimed towards frequency modulation (FM) of the oscillator pitch and the filter cutoff. Each LFO also includes a 3-way speed setting, ranging from audible to several seconds. These little switches are effective and add a lot to the flexibility. The ADSR envelope features a speed switch as well. Small details like these add to the flow of the overall design, leaving an impression that the Dark Energy is a well thought out synthesizer.
One thing immediately noticeable when using the Dark Energy is how drastic the sound changes while turning the knobs. The hardware interface and internal sound structure match up well with each other. As a result, working with the sound becomes logical and intuitive relatively quickly. Prior knowledge of analog synthesis theory is always helpful, but if you are new to it, the Dark Energy could be a great way to learn. Better yet, just when you may feel you have mastered the Dark Energy, you will come across a new detail that opens up a whole new facet of sound to explore. Some examples of Dark Energy sounds are below.
The Dark Energy is capable of producing a surprisingly wide range of sounds. It seems to excel at modern sounding saw/pulse-width based lead sounds and more clangorous FM noisy sounds. It’s also relatively easy to combine the two strengths into more noise-based FM lead sounds. These mixture type of sounds also react heavily to the knobs, at times seemingly infinitely transformable. But, like most monosynths in this price range, the Dark Energy can’t do everything. It is possible to product a solid bass sound, but the range of bass timbres is limited. The bass sound it does make is not the stereotypical synth bass sound either. Because of this, the Dark Energy is probably best considered as a second synthesizer.
All in all, the Dark Energy is a fun and responsive synthesizer. When you use it, you feel that it is a machine built to produce sound. Soon after getting familiar with it, it reacts to your whims and desires. It produces a rich and detailed sound that cuts through the speakers with a sophisticated presence. It can’t do everything, but what it can do, it does with a style and feature set that’s hard to beat for the price.
* The original Doepfer Dark Energy which this review is for has now been replaced by the Dark Energy 2. The main difference between the two is that the 2 has a multimode filter and a saw core oscillator while the Dark Energy 1 has a steep lowpass filter with a triangle core oscillator.