Venom is a bit of a landmark for M-Audio—it's their first synthesizer; a 12-voice virtual analog model, with three oscillators, a 49-key keyboard and audio interface. It takes 41 waveform samples from classic synths (and 53 from drum machines), then applies typical synthesis elements such as waveshaping, oscillator sync, frequency modulation, arpeggiation and audio effects. There's nothing unusual about these ingredients, but it's what Venom does with them that makes it interesting.
The Venom package is simple. You get the synth, a USB cable, a 9v power supply and a disc containing installers and manuals. Venom's interface has just four control knobs, a handful of buttons alongside the pitch and mod wheels, and a separate group of audio controls, with clipping indicators, while a large green LCD screen gives up necessary info about preset and parameter status. There's a stereo headphone jack at the front, and the rear bears 1/4" inputs for microphone and mono instrument, left/right line-level aux in phono jacks, and left/right outputs on 1/4" jacks. There are also two inputs for sustain and expression pedals.
Venom operates standalone with its own power supply, or into a Mac or PC via USB (it still needs that power supply, though). There are two play modes: Singles lay a synth preset across the entire keyboard, while Multis play up to four instrument parts at once, split across the keys—meaning an individual preset can contain beats, basses and leads, each with their own arpeggiator patterns and audio effects. The Pattern button lets you toggle and browse arpeggiator patterns, while the Arpeggiator buttons can latch patterns, and the right-hand button is used for tap tempo input—or hold it down, and turn the Value knob to enter a specific BPM.
Venom's sounds are organised into two banks of Multis and four of Singles. Each bank has 128 preset slots, but be aware that only Multi B and Singles C and D are user editable. There's no sophisticated search functions, just press the Bank and Mode buttons, and turn the Value knob to cycle through the presets, which is where the surprises start. Venom doesn't sound like you might expect, and it definitely doesn't sound like it looks—white and nice and clean. It's buzzy and nasal and pretty much in your face.
Preset names like GameOver, UltraNasty and Crawler might give you a clue. Crawler is a Multi that includes an FM drum loop, Oberheim-style saw bass and an arpeggiated bit lead; typical of the Venom philosophy. I've heard it said that Venom sounds "thin" and I did notice that the lead portions of some Multis were a tad weedy, which is strange, because there are good sounds on-board. It could also be a function of the blatantly chiptune influence behind some of the tones. Nonetheless, there are a lot of useable sounds present, as well as some suitably seedy drum kits. Multis exploit Venom's theoretically-restricting 12-note polyphony to the max, and the Multis are what Venom is all about, in my opinion—they're what makes it fun to use and a viable performance tool.
If you want to tweak a sound without using a computer or other external gear, your options are limited to using the Performance Control Matrix. The four knobs on top depend on up/down navigation buttons to scroll through six rows of parameters, including filter cut-off and resonance, envelope attack and LFO speed. Use the four Multi Part buttons to select which element the Matrix applies to. For hands-on access to the other synth parameters under the hood, I connected an Axiom Pro via MIDI so I could make use of its faders, knobs and drum pads. That would be a bulky combo in the long-term; something smaller could be equally useful, maybe even an iPhone connected through MIDI Mobilizer.
Venom's controls feel solid enough, and the keyboard is of typical synth/controller quality, though it doesn't come across as particularly velocity sensitive, somehow. The definable velocity curves in the Vyxez Editor helped with this, though (more on that later).
A microphone or instrument connected to the rear inputs can be routed through Venom's filters and effects. Five knobs at the left of Venom control input and output volumes. Everything is mixed to a single stereo stream, whether it's through Venom's audio outputs, or down to a computer through USB. The audio effects themselves are not particularly amazing, but they're at least functional, and the filter works very well, especially at more extreme settings.
I moved on to connect Venom to a MacBook Pro running OS X Lion, and launched Ableton Live. There were no problems getting audio into Live, through the external inputs, or from the synth itself. It was also simple to send notes, CCs and Program changes from Live's MIDI clips.
Venom is a cool standalone preset machine and it's cool with a DAW, but something's missing until you fire up the Vyzex Venom Editor software. At this stage total control is achieved, from selecting waveforms and setting up LFOs, to adding audio effects and choosing arpeggiator patterns. There are pages to edit Singles and Multis, broken down further with tabs for Osc/LFO/Parts, and so on. A MOD Matrix lets you choose one of 16 sources and destinations for modulation—for example sending Mod Wheel to Osc 1's Waveshaper. The global controls let you set key and velocity zones, essential for getting those Multis working efficiently, and settings for other traditional synth stuff like glide/portamento and voice management. There's also a great Patch Collider which mashes together your chosen Venom patches to create new presets.
Changes made on either the synth or editor are automatically reflected on the other (this can be deactivated), but don't forget to save the edits on Venom itself, otherwise they'll be lost when the connection is broken. Another caution: Multis are built by pointing to their source Singles, so if you edit a Single that is used across several Multis, they'll all change.
A separate control panel, installed at the same time as the drivers, handles MIDI file upload; this is how you can customise Venom's arpeggiator patterns and beats, a key feature in using Venom for your music.
Within the boundaries of its personality, Venom is versatile enough—newbies can figure the Performance Control Matrix in minutes, the intermediate user can go deeper, controlling it via MIDI from their DAW, and the more ambitious can go all the way with the Vyzex editor. I would say an extra MIDI hardware controller is ideal, as mentioned earlier.
I like Venom's sounds and I'm comfortable with using the editor to create presets (there's a plug-in version of the editor coming, which will make things even better). The external audio processing is useful and with the tap tempo function, could make Venom a very useful DJ tool. The only serious negative I had was regarding the manual, which badly needs a quick "Here's How To" section. Other than that, Venom scores highly for sound and versatility provided that you have realistic expectations about what it is. It sounds great and will work in any setup.