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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Napier

OS·MO·SE - the process of gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge, etc.

So, after 3.5 years, my Osmose finally arrived.

I think I ordered it on day two of the initial offering. Ordering it then (November 2019) guaranteed me a substantial (40%) discount off of the final MSRP. Delivery was supposed to be in the first half of 2020, but the world sort of stopped in the spring of 2020. It took Expressive•E three years to sort through the parts supply, assembly, testing etc. But they did it. And so here it sits...

The Osmose is a 49-key synth with the EaganMatrix by Haken Audio as its "digital modular" sound engine. As the blurb over at Sweetwater says: "What makes the Osmose such a hallmark of synthesizer engineering .... is its uncompromising approach to total polyphonic aftertouch, enabling three-dimensional control of each key across multiple axes."

The Osmose can use MPE and MPE+ to communicate this information to other devices and programs. MPE is a Midi standard for multi-channel performance controllers, but it is missing a few essential features required to make full use of the Osmose and the EaganMatrix. (For example, the Osmose has a faster and more accurate sensing system than other controllers.) MPE+ is Haken Audio’s extension to MPE, and it allows the Osmose to transmit and receive this additional information.

I've owned a few ROLI devices over the years (a ROLI Seaboard Rise and Seaboard Block, several Lightpads). They were quite novel, and were a nice intro to some of the possibilities of MPE. But they were always niche equipment...things I would pull out for a very specific purpose and then put away again...nothing that I would ever consider making a permanent fixture in the studio.

The Osmose is different in that respect because I am making it my primary keyboard. That means that MPE – its setup, recording, use, and impact on workflow – are front and center.

I've only had it a few days, and I'm working like a dog to get an audiobook finished, so I have not had very much time with it. I did manage to set it up, update my audio and midi system set up, and update my templates in several DAWs.

When you plug the Osmose in, two midi ports ('1' & '2') show up in Audio Midi Setup. The manual briefly goes over what the two ports are, but doesn't go into much detail on how they affect setting up your DAW. One thing that I figured out through trial and error: I need to set up two instances of Osmose in the DAW. One instance uses port 2 for recording midi and other MPE+ info for use with the internal EaganMatrix engine. The other instance uses port 1 for sending and recording midi info (MPE or "regular") for control of MPE softsynths or non-MPE instruments. I'm still not clear on whether these two ports can be used simultaneously or if doing so creates any weird data loops. Still testing the waters.

So far Logic and Bitwig are the easiest DAWs in which to get the Osmose’s MPE/MPE+ stuff working. I eventually got Studio One to work, but it was a lot harder to set up, and the editing of data seems to be a bit of a visual mess compared to Bitwig or Logic. Granted, I haven’t read the Studio One manual about MPE and, once I do, it will (hopefully) make more sense. I note however that I didn’t have to read the manual with BWS or Logic, and the visual aspects of editing MPE data are pretty easy to grok in both of those DAWs.

One thing that surprised me: When I did some test recordings of midi and controller data in the DAW, I found that the additional data recorded for MPE – and there was a lot of it – just adds an additional layer of complexity to everything. Now maybe it’s because I’m crashing to complete that audiobook and I’m just TIRED, but jumping through additional layers of data just to edit a performance sort of makes me groan. That reaction surprised me. (I usually geek out about such things.)

OUTSIDE OF DAW WORLD, the experience of playing the Osmose is mesmerizing. A reviewer said that with the Osmose each preset becomes like an instrument and that you really need to “learn” to play it to get the most out of it. There is some truth to this statement. The "in the moment" expressivity of a simple patch is f*cking awesome. It really forces you to slow down and explore it. As a live/performance instrument, Osmose finally brings the keyboard fully "into the club"and moves it beyond the simple on/off switch paradigm of the keyboard. It's a deeply expressive, multidimensional instrument.

For a crappy keyboard player like myself, it helps me make monophonic or duophonic lines with instruments and textures come alive. It also demands real control and skill to play well polyphonically. The most common problem that I have experienced (as has my daughter who is a budding young pianist at this point) is that at the end of key travel your fingers tend to have enough lateral movement to cause a bend in the note. Since each note can send this data separately and the amount sent for each note will be different, it can sound like a bit of a mess pretty quickly.

This can be addressed with a bit of time spent with the instrument. (I notice that my daughter now tends to depress the keys with a lighter touch and doesn’t ‘dig in’ to the keybed as much.) You also can dial down the sensitivity of the Osmose so that a larger lateral move is required to activate pitchbend (or whatever you have assigned to that axis). If you dial it down all the way, you have a standard keyboard (and there is a “keyboard” preset available that turns it into a run of the mill synth controller). That was smart of them to include.

In fact, there’s a lot of little clever things like that in Osmose. I think the delay caused by the pandemic actually helped Expressive•E by giving them more time to develop and tour around with the thing and discover and implement tweaks and refinements.

All in all, I think it’s a tremendous instrument. I’d still recommend a Novation Summit if you want a polyphonic all arounder that can span genres and fill in a lot of different positions really well. The Osmose is suited for the live player or as the ultimate MPE controller for a mad studio scientist or media composer.

It’s a bit of a pain to set up though, and I have not tried to edit anything in the Haaken editor software yet…

Stay tuned.

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