Elta Music's Solar 50 is a self-described Big Ambient Machine: a drone/ambient synthesizer designed for long-form sonic exploration. A quick glance at its features reveals that it is highly capable: it has a lot built in. It features 50 sawtooth oscillators organized into 10 banks of 5. Each of the 10 banks has its own volume, attack/release envelope, photosensitive orb that modulates the pitch CV, and a touch plate that triggers the voice. In between the touch plates is a circular contact mic that picks up the sound of the metal body, additionally producing a gate and envelope for patching to any of the patch points on the instrument. All audio goes through a 12dB Polivoks low pass filter (complete with self-oscillation, if desired), before ultimately going through the cartridge-based effects section...which allows you to switch effect algorithms simply by swapping the inserted cartridge. Two LFOs, two audio inputs, separate left and right outputs, as well as a dedicated effects out makes integrating it into a larger studio for processing quite easy.
So, as we said before—that's a lot of features packed into a single instrument, and no controls are hidden behind menus: everything is on the front panel, so this thing has a huge number of knobs, switches, jacks, and more. With so many sonic options available, it might at first seem overwhelming, however, with the right mindset, you can conjure up some amazing sounds. Let's take a deeper dive into the unique ecosystem that is the Solar 50.
Beginner's Mind + the Elta Solar-50
Every instrument that we take for granted was once born of a desire to create a sound and interact with the sonic universe in a new way. With the advent of electricity, this desire has continued and made it possible for more esoteric and strange instruments to emerge—the synthesizer, as common as it is today, was once revolutionary and strange. Computers, once giant and inaccessible, are now in everything we interact with. Well, almost everything: Elta Music's Solar 50 is one example of a device that eschews computers and control in favor of creating an ecosystem that encourages musical investigation.
Specifically designed to be an intuitive, self-contained instrument, the Elta Solar 50 has virtually no influence from the outside world. The oscillators are idiosyncratic and must be manually tuned, and there's no MIDI or CV V/Oct control to fall back on: you must rely on your ears and feeling. This can make the playing experience slow, with a lot of time spent manicuring the sound to taste. The payoff is that you form an intimate relationship with the device, morphing its sound and function to your individual taste. Just like any instrument, the more time you spend with it, the more you develop an understanding of its temper—and the more it becomes part of you.
Playing the Solar 50 can feel like a remedy to modern life, which all too often feels like it is moving too quickly. Methodical and deliberate, the experience is like being inside the Dream Syndicate: extended drones with minimal fluctuation that induce a trance. Each of the 10 touch plates will hold the oscillator sections indefinitely, but each section also has a Hold switch to keep it engaged. Indeed, if you just use the Solar 50 for drones, you are expressing its purpose just as a bow on a cello allows it to sing. It's designed to encourage this type of durational musical expression, but it can also be pushed beyond that.
While there aren't that many CV patch points, the several that exist are quite helpful in adding a dynamic feel to the instrument. 10 photosensitive orbs in each of the sections can be engaged on a per oscillator basis to add pitch modulation at the wave of a hand. The frequency CV control for the Polivoks filter is a great place to add an envelope out from one of the oscillators, or use the built in trigger triangles for an extreme jump; two built-in LFOs can also be utilized for added modulation. For a more subtle expression, the envelope follower attached to the built-in piezo can yield exceptional swells by quickly rubbing the disc and increasing pressure. Using this technique when patched into one of the three effects patch points, particularly when using the Magic cartridge's pitch shifting or the Infinity reverb to create lush swells.
The raw sound of the oscillators can move from small sporadic buzzing to gigantic walls of thick sound. Each of the 5 oscillators in each of the 10 sections are tuned a little differently giving you a wide range of pitches and a section-wide pitch knob detunes the entire section while. Below about 10 or 11 o'clock, the oscillators start to introduce FM to their neighbors adding wiggles and moans. Further shaping of the oscillators is possible via the cartridge effectors which have specific functions—the Solar-50 ships with twelve of these cartridges, providing a wide range of processing options. These swappable effect cartridges are each unique and organic-sounding, ranging from psychedelic delays and reverbs, to glitchy, bit-crushed modulation. Each effect cartridge contains multiple algorithms (detailed in the images below), and as mentioned above, each algorithm offers three paramters with dedicated knobs and CV inputs: a nearly endless number of sonic options at your fingertips.
For some, the Solar 50 is perfect—but it is not for everyone. If you are looking for something that excels at generating the unexpected and can create elaborate, thick sheets of sound, then this is a device for you. Are you trying to find a good way to add ambient textures and don't need to be in tune with anything? Then please, enjoy the atonal and just intonation offerings that the Solar 50 can grant you. However, if you need control and have to work with other devices or instruments, this might give you some frustration. Having said that, this instrument should be explored by everyone provided you go in with an open mind free from expectations and allow yourself to simply play.