The Studio Electronics SE-3X, an intriguing and exclusive analog synthesizer.

May 15, 2024 | Review

Programming the improved classic.

Having been deeply immersed in the world of synthesis for quite some time, it’s not uncommon to encounter synthesizers that captivate your imagination but might not be immediately within reach. For us, the Studio Electronics SE-1 was one of those gems.

Initially, its price tag made it a distant dream, especially as we dived deeper into the realm of virtual analog (VA) synthesis – which was kind of popular around 1995 to 2010 with favorites like the Access Virus series, Novation K- and (Super)Nova-series, Roland JP-8000, Waldorf Q-series and the Yamaha AN1x.

However, when Studio Electronics unveiled the SE-1X as an upgraded iteration, a friend of ours took the plunge and acquired it. Upon our first encounter, it was evident that this was indeed a synth worth coveting. The sound was just amazing to our ears.

Its allure only grew stronger, especially with the introduction of polyphonic Omega and CODE synthesizers, which tempted us with its own charms. Eventually, when Roland and Studio Electronics collaborated to produce a more accessible version of the SE-1X with some Omega DNA, complete with a sequencer and digital delay, we couldn’t resist. Trading in our Dave Smith Instruments MoPho, we eagerly embraced this new addition to our sonic arsenal.

To be honest, we were blown away by the sound and hands on control of the SE-02. The only downside is that the knobs are a bit tiny but apart from that it has the looks and sounds really powerful to our ears. It made us wonder, how would that through-hole design of the SE-1X sound? So again, the SE-1X got again a bit higher on our wishlist. If only it had a couple of more filters like the ATC-X or the ATC-1 from back in the day we would put on the top spot.

Then again a couple of years later we got word that the SE-3X was introduced with – you guessed it – an impressive set of 4 different flavours of filters. But also added paraphony. Tim Caswell and Greg St. Regis also added 2 Fuzz-Models and recently a hardware Feedback mod too. So last year we decided to purchase it. A couple of weeks later the “Limited ‘Feedback’ Edition White” arrived at our doorstep. Here’s what we think of it.

The SE-3X in our studio

What’s new

The SE1 was Studio Electronics’ first original Product. Based largely on the MiniMoog – that they had been rackmounting and MIDI-fying for years – it boasts all kinds of features as seen on other classic analog synthesizers.

In addition to the three oscillators, each offering three selectable waveforms and the ability to mix them, features like oscillator sync, noise, ring modulation, and dual filters (MINI 24dB/SEM 12dB LP/BP) set it apart. The inclusion of four envelopes, with the option to invert two of them, comprehensive MIDI control, a modulation matrix, patch memory, and three syncable LFO’s further expanded its sonic capabilities.

Ten years later, the The SE-1 got an update which was called SE-1X. It got a new CPU board, a much larger Flash ROM and a new CV generator that delivers much smoother envelopes.

However, it was the invaluable input from individuals like Lewis Chiodo from Awave that propelled the SE-1X towards greatness. Initially, Tim Caswell hesitated, but ultimately decided to heed the suggestions. Collaborating with Lewis Chiodo, Marc and Greg St. Gregis, Studio Electronics implemented numerous enhancements, the SE-3X was born.

SE-3X Enhancements

In addition of the aforementioned specifications it received a host of new features:

Software

On the software side, the following features were added:

  • Paraphonic mode.
  • Front panel control for oscillator 2 & 3 fine tune.
  • Front panel control for oscillator levels.
  • LFO gate derived from the Boomstar and MIDIMini v30 synthesizers.
  • LFO gate tempo hold: rate stays steady during program change.
  • SE-02 envelope routines with cleaner attack & decay stages + the original linear & magical quasi-exponential ENVs.
  • Exponential glide routine from the OMEGA and ‘1X linear glide.
  • New front panel screen jumps & shortcuts.
  • Last patch used recall on power recycle.

Hardware

In addition to the external input and ouput – available on TS – and the MIDI in/out/thru on DIN sockets, the hardware changed a bit too:

IEC Power, Audio I/O on TS, MIDI I/O on DIN
Juicy Filters
  • Two added fuzz modes: 70s/subtle & 90s/hard. Front panel switchable.
  • Added filters: 24dB MINI; 24dB ARP; JUNO/JUPITER with 24dB, 6dB, and “Mix Mode”; built-in 12dB SEM filter. Front panel switchable.
  • Limited edition only: Hardware Feedback mod. Where the noise gets traded in for a Feedback loop.

The Oscillators

The SE-3X features three oscillators. Oscillators 1 and 3 offer three waveform options: Triangle, Saw, and Variable Width Square. Oscillator 2 replaces the Triangle with a Sinus waveform. This was first seen on the Nova Musik editions of the SE-1X and great for kickdrums or for some more clean low end without overtones for example. All waveforms output simultaneously. OSC 1 syncs to OSC 2 and 3.

By just playing with a Saw wave of an initialized patch you immediately know that you have something special in front of you.

Noise and Ring Modulation are available as well but we miss the direct control for that. Which brings us to the front panel control.

Front Panel Control

You can sync, tune and control the pulse-width of the oscillators since the SE-1, but since the SE-3X you can also tune and finetune [Shift]-[Tune] oscillator 2 and 3 in cents and have the oscillators mixed on the front panel via [Shift]-[Pulse Width]. Normally you had to enter the – somewhat cumbersome – menu navigation system to set the levels. After a while you get used to this legacy way of working, but nonetheless it is a very welcome feature that speeds up sound design tremendously!

Another neat feature is that you know can exit the menu via [Shift]-[Bank Down] or get in the Utility menu via [Shift]-[Bank Up] and lastly you can activate LFO-Gate mode (to trigger the envelopes) by pressing [Shift]-[LFO3] or sending MIDI-CC #9. Also the new paraphonic mode can be activated via the front panel by pressing [Shift]-[Sync 2>1]. Don’t forget to activate all oscillators 🙂

Paraphonic Mode

Regarding the major new features, the SE-3X offers both monophonic and paraphonic operation. In monophonic mode, the three VCOs are combined to produce a single note. Although, technically, this single note can be configured to play as a chord by adjusting VCO tuning, triggering always originates from a single note.

Paraphonic mode, however, provides you with the ability to assign each VCO to its own note, enabling triads or chords with up to three notes. This essentially transforms the SE-3X into a basic polysynth with three note polyphony. However, due to its paraphonic nature, the synth relies on a single envelope and amplifier it is probably better to call it a mono synth with some poly features.

Modulation

Powerful and tasty!

The envelopes exhibit a moderately fast response, though the original linear isn’t the fastest available, but you have the Omega/SE-02 derived ones too. They are shaped beautiful if you ask us. The envelope times range from 1ms to 10s for the attack phase and 1ms to 20s for the decay and release phases. For certain percussion sounds, the envelope speed is well-suited, providing a snappy response. However, if you’re aiming for extremely fast percussive kicks or bass, a handy trick is to utilize an inverted envelope. By doing so, the Attack parameter can effectively function as a rapid Decay, achieving the desired result.

The first two envelopes control the filter (VCF) and amplifier (VCA), while the third and fourth envelopes can be assigned to various parameters. These include controlling the frequency, mix level, and pulse-width of VCOs 1, 2, and 3, as well as the mix level of ring modulation and noise, and the resonance of the VCF.

The SE-02/Omega derived envelopes offer excellent versatility and with four envelopes and three LFOs available, there’s plenty of modulation potential. The LFOs offer a variety of waveforms and can be synchronized to MIDI clock. We found the ability to adjust LFO rate via the mod wheel particularly useful for certain patches. Destinations for the LFOs include frequency, mix level, and pulse width of the VCOs, mix level of ring modulation and noise, VCF resonance and frequency, and overall volume.

It would be fantastic to have the ability to modulate LFO speed with other LFOs, but unfortunately, that’s not currently possible. Additionally, expanding the range of sources and destinations would greatly enhance the synthesizer’s versatility. A fully-fledged modulation matrix would be particularly welcomed, offering greater flexibility in shaping and evolving sounds.

There is also glide in linear or exponential forms (think portamento) and a musical auto glide.

Filters and sound

As mentioned previously, you have 4 types of filters with 6 modes in total. But how do they sound? We can be really short about this. Fantastic to our ears! Here is why.

We love that you have the ability to drive the filters and the – dual staged – VCA for already a very vibey tone. On top of that you can use both the Fuzz modes (70s and 90s inspired) to crank it up even further. But just the oscillators and the volume knob alone are already so luxurious sounding that we already are dreaming of a new – more affordable – poly synthesizer from Studio Electronics and Roland like they did with the SE-02. Perhaps some day… some day.. some day 🙂

The discrete classic filters also play a big role and we love the ARP and Roland inspired additions to it. The R2 and R3 filter are really special sounding and the ARP filter is great for almost anything! Somehow we believe they were very carefully chosen, because no filter sounds the same and it makes the sonic pallette even more versatile. Notably, the ARP filter maintains a solid low end even at higher resonance levels. Conversely, the Roland filters tend to attenuate the low end slightly, but in our opinion, this only enhances its versatility.

Either NoiZe or FeedBack

Lastly, the ability to have the hardware Feedback mod as an option (it can be done to existing models as well) makes it really versatile. Up to 25% – Feedback/noise level – the effect is subtle, but from 25% and upwards you get really nasty and gnarly sonic destruction.

Editor

Since the SE-1X there is a fully fledged editor available which not only makes editing sounds a breeze, but also acts like a librarian. We highly recommend this editor.

The editor at full glance

Conclusion

The standout feature of the SE-3X is undoubtedly its exceptional sound quality. Musical and intricately detailed, it offers a wide range of sonic possibilities. With the inclusion of two Fuzz modes and hardware Feedback modifications, it can effortlessly transition from smooth and creamy tones to gritty and raw textures, adding further versatility to its sonic palette.

Studio Electronics even made it possible to upgrade your SE-1X to a 3X via an EPROM upgrade.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • The sound
  • The modulation options
  • It is quirky sometimes, but that is its charm
  • It’s paraphonic
  • The filter flavours
  • Feedback mod
  • Did we mention the sound?

Cons or feature requests

  • OS updates can’t be done over MIDI anymore – only via EPROM change.
  • It would be nice to have control over the Noise and Ringmod levels via a Shift-function as well. For example via [LFO-Rate] and [LFO-Mod].
  • It would be really nice to have the ability to control parameters in the matrix twice instead of once.
  • It would also be nice to get an extra LFO via OSC3 for example and have a slighty bigger matrix.
  • An arpeggiator would be nice.
  • A way to indicate which filter and if noise or Feedback was used. Workaround: We indicated it in the patch name of our bank Analog Fusion.

Sound Examples

More Information

For more information about the SE-3X, please visit the product page on the Studio Electronics website: https://www.studioelectronics.com/products/rackmount/SE-3X/

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