What is it?
The Organelle is able to cover so much ground because it runs patches built in Pure Data (Pd), an open-source, visual-programming language focused on creating and manipulating audio. Now, these patches should theoretically run on almost any computer or smartphone (Pd is cross-platform). But thankfully using the Organelle isn’t like using a computer. It is first and foremost an instrument. While it can be connected to a monitor and mouse, it’s designed to be played using the two-octave keyboard and knobs on the front. Once you’ve loaded a patch, it doesn’t feel that different from playing any other portable synth or sampler.
Of course, there are some differences. The most obvious is the keyboard. It has round, maple-wood keys that look great and give the Organelle a fun, quirky vibe but definitely take a little getting used to. They’re no bigger than the touch keys on a Korg Volca (though they’re more generously spaced) and take slightly more effort to depress than your typical piano-style MIDI controller. It’s still easy enough to pluck out melodies and finger simple chords though. And again, they look pretty damn cool.
Dust is a decidedly lo-fi keyboard / synth patch that can go from subtle vinyl crackle to radioactive decay. The LFO can impart a subtle VHS-like warble or go full cartoon meltdown.
The bigger difference lies in how you deal with tweaking your sound. On something like the Volca Keys, for instance, there’s a dedicated knob for everything you can change. On the Organelle, however, the parameters you can adjust are different from patch to patch, and there are a limited number of controls on the front. There’s an aux key, four parameter knobs and one selection knob at your disposal. And each patch can make use of those controls in a different way. On a simple synth, the four parameter knobs might give you quick access to the filter while the aux key triggers the sequencer. On a sampler the aux key might be how you record audio. And on something more complex, the aux key or selection knob might be used to switch through multiple pages of settings. For some patches there can be quite a bit of menu diving. For example, Juno-104 (an excellent emulation of the iconic Juno-106) has eight pages of settings. And while I can turn on that oh-so-1980s chorus from the first page, I have to hit the aux key six times if I want to soften the attack to change from a sharp bass to a pad.
Feeling your way around
This is ultimately the Organelle’s greatest weakness: a lack of consistency. But to be clear, this is not a flaw in the design. It is simply a byproduct of its approach. See, while Critter & Guitari has built dozens of patches itself, part of the allure is that anyone can create their own and share it with other Organelle owners. But there’s no way to ensure that every person who decides to dabble in Pd abides by the same interface rules or implements every feature in the exact same way.
This means that every time you install a new patch, you’ll probably have to spend some time learning how it works. Some are fairly straightforward, but others might require a solid 20 minutes and a cheat sheet to figure out. And you’ll be lucky if there is a cheat sheet. Documentation for many patches is either lacking or nonexistent. Again though, we’re talking about people designing and building software instruments in their spare time and giving them away for free. It’s kinda hard to complain.
What can it do?
By my count there are just shy of 400 patches for the Organelle on Patchstorage.com (a site dedicated to hosting patches for music-making hardware and software like Empress Effects’ Zoia and SuperCollider). Of course, the quality of those patches varies greatly. Critter & Guitari’s first-party patches are all pretty solid, especially the more recent ones. And they all have excellent documentation and demo videos that walk you through how they work.
The community patches are a little all over the place. There are some amazing ones and others that were clearly abandoned after being released, still rife with bugs. They range in complexity from simple guitar tuners to recreations of popular Eurorack synth modules like the beloved Braids from Mutable Instruments. There are even patches that combine a synthesizer with a generative sequencer and effects, so you can set the Organelle loose and it will create its own constantly evolving melodies drenched otherworldly reverb.
My favorite use for the Organelle so far has been to manipulate external audio either as an effects processor or as a sampler/looper. For example, DJ Patch Record lets you capture a sample and then play it back at two different speeds or in two different directions simultaneously. Then the keyboard moves the second playhead around relative to the first to create stuttering, glitchy patterns. It’s especially fun to apply this sort of obviously artificial effect to something organic like an acoustic guitar. The Organelle excels at this kind of experimental audio mangling.
DJ Patch is a looper with two play heads that can operate at different speeds and directions simultaneously. In this demo I start with a simple guitar loop, then bring in the second playhead at double speed. A MIDI controller is also used to “arpeggiate” the position of the second play head in relation to the first creating skips and jumps.
I’m even able to plug my electric guitar into the audio port on the back and get a number of effects that otherwise would require that I buy multiple expensive pedals like Infinite Jets from Hologram Electronics or Particle from Red Panda. Those pedals list for $425 and $299, respectively, so being able to get a facsimile of them in a box that costs $595 is pretty good. Now, these are not 100-percent faithful recreations, but they get close enough. If nothing else, they’ll help you figure out if those admittedly bizarre effects are for you before you throw another couple hundred dollars at music gear.
In general, the sounds you get here are excellent but not quite on par with a dedicated high-end-effects unit. I don’t own an H9 from Eventide, but based on the demos I’ve seen, its reverb and delay algorithms are beyond what has been created for the Organelle (at least so far). That being said, the H9 can cost as much as $699 and is focused exclusively on being a stomp box for a guitar. It simply can’t do the advanced sample manipulation or synthesis that the Organelle can. And if the H9 is missing an effect you want, you’re basically SOL, where as on the Organelle, if you have the coding chops, you can build the effect of your dreams.
Talking to the Organelle
So how hard is it to build your own patches? Well, that all depends on your comfort level with coding in general. The core of Pd is placing objects and then basically connecting them with virtual cables. Building something in Pure Data and its close relative Max is much easier than, say, wrapping your head around C++, but if you’ve never had a mind for programming, don’t expect things to be much different here.
If you are going to dive in, one quick tip: Have a blank template saved, and when you’re ready to start building a patch, launch it from the Organelle itself rather than the desktop. That will automatically load all the correct MIDI mappings, et cetera, for the Organelle’s controls.
A combination of 808 samples recorded to tape and a simple sequencer that’s designed especially for creating complex polyrhythms.
Normally though, if you’re going to connect anything to those USB ports, it’s going to be a MIDI controller or the WiFi adapter that Critter & Guitari includes in the box. Every USB MIDI controller I’ve tried with the Organelle has worked fine. However, I’ll admit the process of getting them up and running could be smoother. You have to navigate a few menus deep, select the controller manually, then scroll down and hit save.
Similarly, getting the WiFi adapter connected to your network is a little bit of a roundabout process. It’s not dissimilar from getting a Chromecast or a smart speaker set up: First you have to connect to the Organelle directly using your phone or laptop, then using a web interface tell it your WiFi credentials.
That web interface is also how you manage patches, and again, the process is simple but a little rough around the edges. Once it’s up and running on your WiFi network, you need to select “start web server” from the WiFi settings menu, then point your browser to https://organellem.local. Here you click “patch manager” and you’re greeted with a simple file manager. If you’ve ever used the web interface for Dropbox you should be comfortable. Last, you upload patches in .zip format and then move over to the Organelle itself to select “Install (fill in the blank).”