That’s not to say that you can’t make more traditional music on the System III, it just requires a little patience. (An external keyboard or sequencer doesn’t hurt.) It took me a couple of weeks to start feeling comfortable with the Pico System, but once I accepted its limitations, learned a few tricks and brought other gear to the party, I really started having fun. The sound is unabashedly harsh. You can smooth out some of those rough edges, especially with effects pedals, but by design it’s a bit abrasive.
The System III has two oscillators, each with two different waveforms. Both have triangle waves and a second, slightly more complex option. For example, one has a pulse wave with pulse-width modulation for getting everything from classic bass sounds to video game chirps. The other has a variable shape wave, that careens from smooth triangle to atonal weirdness. And there are frequency modulation inputs for both oscillators, allowing you to get metallic clanks, divebombs and UFO effects. There’s also a noise source in the modulation section that allows you to add some grit if you want, but it’s pretty unnecessary most of the time. Instead, I found the noise much more useful when creating drums and rhythmic patterns.
The random pulse output in the mod section is also worth paying attention to. It’s great for adding dashes of randomness, especially to rhythmic patches, while saying in time. I particularly liked it for putting evolving bass drum sounds underneath a steady snare-ish noise hit.
The primary way you’ll control those oscillators (without external gear) is via the on-board sequencer. But be warned: it’s pretty limited. It has a switch for choosing two, three or four steps… and that’s it. It’s a far cry from the 16-steps often considered the bare minimum. If you think a little creatively though, the sequencer can prove quite useful. It’s not going to be great for building rich melodies or even exciting arpeggios. But it turns out you can clock the sequencer fast enough so it essentially becomes another oscillator. And, since this is modular, you can use the sequencer to control the filter, the time on the analog delay or use it as the FM modulator.
I’m not going to pretend that all of these things will immediately produce mind-blowing results. But it’s necessary to approach the Pico System, and any modular synth for that matter, with a spirit of experimentation. While the 31 knobs and 52 patch points on the front might seem intimidating at first, it’s important to realize it’s almost impossible to break it by connecting the cables incorrectly. The only thing in any real danger is your ears (and maybe your speakers) if you’re not careful with the volume.
The biggest hindrance to getting pleasing sounds out of the Pico is the lack of quantization on the sequencer and the tuning. That means you have to dial in notes by ear or with a tuner, which can be incredibly difficult with these tiny knobs. They have a massive range — five octaves on the sequencer and two on the tuners. And that’s made even larger by the switches that transpose the oscillators between three different octave ranges. Dialing in a simple C Major triad arp, with both oscillators in unison, took 15 frustrating minutes. It was made even more difficult because I couldn’t figure out how to freeze the sequence to dial-in one step at a time. Instead I was stuck trying to tune the notes as they were buzzing by.
Things get much better when you hook up a keyboard or a sequencer that puts out CV (control voltage), like a KeyStep Pro. Being able to play melodies manually, trigger complex arpeggios and change them on the fly opened a whole new world of possibilities. With the Pico System’s sequencer dedicated to shaping timbre instead of playing notes things immediately became more interesting and rich. Though, sometimes, it was nice to use the sequencer for playing arpeggios on one oscillator, while playing bass notes on the other using the KeyStep to create new harmonies.
For further shaping your sounds there’s an LFO module, two envelopes (which have a looping function so they can act kinda like LFOs) and two low pass gates (LPG). If you’re more familiar with Moog-style east coast synthesis, LPGs can be a little confusing at first. They almost act like a combination of a voltage controlled amplifier (VCA) and a filter (VCF). The ones here can actually have a VCA-only mode, so if you don’t want those resonant pings and plucks that are so emblematic of west coast synthesis flipping the switch can help.
The resonance on these LPGs is pretty strong, though. They start to self oscillate pretty quickly. Which, on the plus side, means there’s two more sources of sound here (even though you can’t track them to a keyboard to play chromatically). On the downside, it does feel like the usable range of the filter is fairly limited.