Monthly Archives: September 2015
After 8 years, FabFilter’s long-awaited first major update to the popular Pro-C general-purpose compressor is finally here! No kidding, this could be the only compressor you’ll ever need.
by Dave Townsend, Sept. 2015
FabFilter Pro-C 2
Since its introduction way back in 2007, FabFilter’s Pro-C compressor has become one of the most popular in-the-box mixing tools of its type. For many of us, Pro-C was the gateway drug that led us happily into the FabFilter cult.
Yeah, you can count me among the believers. Pro-C has been my go-to compressor for most tasks since 2008. After this update, “most tasks” will likely become “pretty much everything” for me, because Pro-C is now even more versatile than before, even blurring the lines between compressor, limiter and gate.
Given its long-established popularity, I won’t waste your time with a general Pro-C introduction. It’s been reviewed and discussed so many times, and expertly demonstrated by Dan Worrall’s insidiously-persuasive videos that it’s unlikely you haven’t already heard quite a lot about Pro-C. Instead, I’m going to assume you’re either already a Pro-C user or at least have been thinking about joining the club, and focus on what’s new and improved in version 2 – as well as a couple of minor features that have been lost or deprecated.
What got everybody excited back in ’07 was that Pro-C actually showed you – visually – what it was doing. That scrolling graph was a literal revelation. (Yes, I can hear the “use your ears” naysayers’ chorus of disapproval – I don’t care. Visual aids are fun! And occasionally useful.)
When rumors began circulating that Pro-C 2 was under development, there was plenty of speculation about what new features might be added (most of which we got). But nobody was seriously asking for a better graphical user interface. I mean, what more could you possibly pack in there?
Well, surprise! Those clever Dutch boys did indeed figure out how to squeeze even more helpful information into the GUI. Such as a spectral display for the sidechain filter, a picture of the transfer curve overlayed with signal levels, and – my favorite – the circular level indicator around the Threshold knob (first introduced in Pro-MB).
The basic meat of the levels graph remains the same, which is good because a) I’ve become quite comfortable with it, and b) it was already perfect.
Aside from being larger and resizable (including a full-screen mode), the levels display hasn’t changed much from version 1. You still have three graphs showing input and output levels plus the amount of compression. If you don’t want to see the graphs at all, or need to minimize CPU usage, you can still hide them as before. However, now when the levels graph goes away the whole UI gets smaller, which is great when you have a bunch of Pro-C instances onscreen at once.
Unfortunately, version 2 no longer lets you adjust the opacity of each graph. I guess that’s OK, it’s not a feature I used very often.
The UI is only continuously-resizable in the VST3 version. With the VST2 version, you have a choice of four screen sizes: small, medium, large and full-screen.
Also beware of this potential gotcha: if you choose the large size, and it’s too big to fit onto your screen, the size-selection button slides out of view so you can’t click it to get back to a useable size! If this happens, click the Full-Screen button, which is in the upper-right corner and always visible. In full-screen, the resize button in the lower-right will now be accessible and you can choose a better UI size for your monitor.
The Side-Chain Section
The biggest GUI changes are in the Sidechain section. It now sports a spectral graph over the sidechain filter, and the filter section now has a new bandpass filter in addition to the previous high-pass/low-pass filters. The high- and low-pass filters are no longer fixed at 12dB/octave, but may now be set to one of 9 different slopes, from 6 to 96 dB/octave. This is going to open up new creative possibilities and enable greater precision for responding to specific elements in a track.
The band-pass filter can be either fully-parametric or left at the default “automatic” mode, which positions itself midway between the high- and low-pass filters’ cutoff points and automatically becomes a boost when narrowly focusing in on a specific frequency. Great for quickly targeting a hi-hat that’s bleeding into a snare track.
But here’s the best new side-chain feature: the Audition button. Click this to hear just the side-chain signal, whether internal or external. What you’re hearing is what’s going to the detector circuit post-filter, so if you’re wanting to key in on something very specific such as a hi-hat, a vocal sibilance or a room resonance, it becomes very fast and easy to dial in the sidechain filters.
Mid-side channel linking has been simplified for greater ease-of-use, at the expense of making M/S compression slightly less versatile. It is no longer possible to adjust Mid and Side compression independently without using two instances of Pro-C2. However, the more common M/S scenarios are now simpler – more on that in a moment.
A welcome change is that you no longer have to load specific versions of Pro-C in order to use the external sidechain input. Whereas version 1 came as four separate DLLs (mono, mono w/sidechain, stereo and stereo w/sidechain), version 2 dispenses with the separate sidechain-enabled versions. Pro-C 2 consists of only two DLLs, one for mono and one for stereo.
One of the keys to Pro-C’s versatility was that it featured three separate compressor models (Opto, Clean and Classic). In Clean mode, it was a surgical tool, while in Opto mode it was a quick set-and-forget vocal, bass or drum bus compressor with LA-2A-type soft-knee attack and program-dependent release characteristics. Classic mode is a vintage feedback-style model. (In version 1, Classic mode had a bit of an aliasing problem under certain circumstances, but that is no longer an issue with the new oversampling feature.)
Pro-C 2 takes the modeling idea further, adding five new models to the list. For example, you now have a “Vocal” mode optimized for vocals that uses automatic knee and ratio settings so that dialing it in is basically a matter of tweaking the threshold.
If you’re into EDM or other modern styles that incorporate compressor pumping, Pro-C2 has a special model just for you, called “Pumping”. As a classic rock guy I wondered if this mode would have any appeal for me. Certainly not across the master bus, where I usually go out of my way to avoid pumping. But I’m actually liking it on individual tracks and sub-mix busses, especially the drum bus.
Rounding out the new compressor models are “Mastering” (ultra-clean), “Bus” (for glue, especially drum busses), and “Punch” (quick-acting transient enhancement). Of course, all of these names are just suggestions, so don’t feel that any of them are limited to one application. The Vocal model, for example, works great on bass tracks.
The Basic Parameters: Attack, Release, Threshold and Knee
If you’re looking for the Input knob on Pro-C2, which used to sit to the left of the Threshold control. It’s not there anymore. An odd thing to take away, but no big deal. You can simply use your DAW’s track gain slider instead.
Aside from the missing Input knob, the other controls look the same as before, and you still have the helpful auto-release and auto-gain options for quick ‘n dirty setup. But even these standard controls have acquired a couple tricks and changes.
The range for Release times has been shifted downward. Whereas Pro-C 1 gave us 50 to 5000 milliseconds, with Pro-C 2 it’s now 10 to 2500 milliseconds. That faster release time allows for very fast peak control on percussive material. I haven’t decided yet whether not being able to set release to 5 seconds anymore is a significant limitation – just because I’ve never done it doesn’t mean I might want to someday.
The threshold parameter has been extended, down to -60 dB from the previous limit of -36 dB. What this means is you can have continuous compression happening on even very quiet tracks, useful for leveling purposes.
What I like best about the Threshold knob is the ring-shaped level meter that wraps around it. I find this to be easier for dialing in the threshold setting than the traditional knee graph.
The transfer curve is now quite variable. Whereas version 1 just gave you a choice of soft or hard knee, you can now do anything in between, from an extremely gentle knee for unobtrusive leveling or tape-like saturation to a brickwall backstop for taming peaks. The new Range control further expands what can be done with a custom transfer curve – more on that later.
Attack times can now be much shorter – down to 5 microseconds (previous minimum was 50). That gets Pro-C down into ultra-fast FET territory. Beware, though, that such ultra-fast attacks will cause audible distortion on low frequencies, and increase the likelihood of aliasing. When using very short attack times, make sure to enable oversampling and possibly lookahead.
Speaking of lookahead, this is another advanced feature that Pro-C didn’t have before. To be fair, it’s never been a common feature on general-purpose compressors, being something you’d normally find only on limiters.
If you’re not familiar with lookahead, it’s an added buffer that lets the processor “look ahead” to see what’s coming down the line, allowing more time to react to abrupt changes in signal level. It’s one example of something you can only accomplish with a digital compressor, since it’s very difficult to implement in conventional analog gear. But Pro-C has never sought to emulate any piece of vintage hardware.
You’ll want to use lookahead mainly when using Pro-C2 to control peaks, in particular for very dynamic percussive material. Without lookahead, the plugin may not be able to react fast enough to sudden spikes and might therefore let some excessive levels slip through. Lookahead lets it see that spike coming and figure out how to handle it transparently.
Be aware that when lookahead is enabled, there will be a fixed latency of 20 milliseconds. Normally, Pro-C has no latency, but lookahead necessitates the delay in order to work. There has been some criticism of FabFilter’s decision to fix the latency at 20 ms – some users reflexively hate any latency at all – but having a fixed delay means you can experiment with various settings and even automate lookahead without the glitching that usually results from resizing the buffer during playback. In practice, lookahead isn’t something you’d enable during tracking anyway, and the added latency has zero impact while mixing.
“Hold” is a new feature in version 2, something you’d more commonly see on gates but rarely on compressors. What it does is force the compression amount to remain at maximum for N milliseconds after the sidechain signal drops below the threshold, where N is between 0 and 500 milliseconds.
Normally, when the sidechain signal drops below the threshold, the Release phase is initiated which begins to lessen compression at a rate determined by the Release parameter. In order to prevent pumping, we often lengthen the release time. The Hold feature can be used that way, too, by delaying the start of the release phase and extending the amount of time that peaks are clamped down.
However, it gets interesting when you couple a long Hold parameter with a short Release. Now, the trailing edge of the peak does not immediately trigger the Release phase but instead starts a countdown timer. After N milliseconds’ Hold time, the release phase begins, but because we’ve set a fast release the amount of compression rapidly switches from a high value to a low value, almost like a gate.
Try this: set the hold time to a long value based on the project tempo, e.g. 125ms for 120bpm (quarter notes are 125 milliseconds apart at 120 beats per minute). Abrupt releases will now occur in time with the song’s beat.
The Range Control
This is a new feature for Pro-C, one I’ve long wished for after being introduced to the concept in other dynamics processors. What it does is set an upper limit to the amount of compression that will be applied.
By default, the Range parameter is set to 60 dB. That means Pro-C2 is allowed to apply up to 60 decibels of attenuation. This setting pretty much turns the Range feature off, since 60 dB is far more attenuation than a compressor would ever apply under normal circumstances.
But if you turn the Range down to 10 dB, that instructs the compressor to never apply more than ten decibels of gain reduction, regardless of the signal level or ratio. The transfer curve for such a limited range looks like that pictured right.
What we’re saying is “apply the given ratio up until the gain reduction is 10dB; after that, let it go”.
Now, this might seem kinda wacky at first glance. After all, a compressor’s gotta compress, right? Why put it on a leash? Isn’t that dangerous?
Well, yes. On the wrong material, telling the compressor to ignore the highest peaks could indeed lead to problems.
But think about what this action would have on source material that’s already fairly level: it’s going to make the highest peaks higher in relation to the average signal level. In other words, upwards-expansion. The louder parts get louder. It can breathe life into an otherwise dynamically-challenged track.
Just be careful where you set the threshold. Such expansion can cause audible artifacts such as reverb and cymbal tails dropping off unnaturally, or allowing a higher-than-average peak to jump into the red.
One of Pro-C’s neatest features is the ability to compress just the Mid or just the Side channel. One application is as a widening technique, by compressing only the Mid channel and thus drawing attention to the sides and accentuating L/R differences for a greater sense of width.
Both Pro-C versions can do this. It bears mentioning here mainly because it looks different now. The intention was to make it simpler for users; how successful they were in that depends on how accustomed you were to the old way of doing things. I found the new way disorienting at first, but only for minute, before realizing that the new layout was indeed cleaner and more sensible.
New in version 2 is a Stereo Link Mode switch, which lets you choose between 4 ways to trigger and apply compression: Mid, Side, M>S and S>M. These modes determine whether the detector listens to the Mid (“Mid and “M>S”) or the Side channel (“Side” and “S>M”), and whether attenuation is applied to the Mid (“Mid” and “S>M”) or the Side (“Side” or “M>S”) channel.
Mode Listens To Compresses
Mid Mid Mid
Side Side Side
M>S Mid Side
S>M Side Mid
You can get some interesting widening effects by compressing the Mid channel while detecting the Side level (“S>M” mode). Or help clear the center for the lead vocal by placing Pro-C on a rhythm guitar bus, compressing the Mid channel while detecting the lead vocal via the external sidechain.
Here’s what you lose from version 1: before, you could adjust the Mid/Side linkage anywhere between 0 and 100%. Now, it’s either 0 or 100%, nothing in-between. In my opinion, it’s a trivial loss of functionality that’s justified by the new, easier-to-grasp layout.
In addition to conventional internal and external sidechain triggering, Pro-C 2 introduces a MIDI-triggering option that lets you initiate compression via MIDI notes. It’s a pretty rudimentary feature – any note-on event causes maximum compression to occur. What can you do with it? Mainly, it’s for EDM-style rhythmic pumping effects.
Metering remains a very strong feature, as it is in all FabFilter products, with a lot of information packed into a compact space.
You’ve got several useful pieces of information here:
- Momentary loudness
- Momentary peak
- Maximum gain reduction
- Momentary gain reduction
- Maximum peak
- Maximum peak and gain reduction in decibels
The graph can be scaled from 9 to 90 dB full-scale, and may be displayed vertically or horizontally. All of these features remain the same as in version 1. What’s changed is that Pro-C 1’s meters displayed average RMS (50ms window), while Pro-C 2 now displays perceived-loudness levels based on the Momentary mode of the EBU R128 / ITU-R 1770 standards for loudness measurement.
Upgrading from Pro-C 1
Pro-C 2 is a completely separate product from Pro-C 1. The two versions are not interchangeable, nor directly replaceable, and any existing automation from version 1 will not be recognized by version 2.
However, because they are separate products they can happily co-exist on disk and within your projects.
One thing the two versions do share are presets, so if you really want to replace an instance of Pro-C1 with Pro-C 2 you can save the original’s settings as a preset and Pro-C 2 will be able to read it.
Buying or Demoing Pro-C 2
Doubts about Pro-C? Watch this video by Dan Worrall, perhaps the world’s best plugin salesman:
Download the product from the vendor site here:
FabFilter does not have separate demo versions. The product you download will be a fully-functioning demo for two weeks. When you buy Pro-C 2 you’ll be emailed a license file that activates the DLLs.
This is my preferred form of copy protection: no dongle and no internet connection is required to activate FabFilter products, the plugin won’t stop working if you disable your network card or replace your motherboard, and when you next upgrade your computer you won’t have to re-authorize the plugins.
List price for Pro-C 2 is $179 (160 EUR), but you won’t have to pay that. FabFilter offers discounts based on what other products you’ve previously purchased. Even if this is your first FabFilter purchase, you can still get 10% off by letting another FabFilter customer refer you. Don’t know anyone who’s already a FabFilter user? Post to your favorite online DAW- or music-production forum and somebody will surely volunteer to refer you for the discount, because they get a small store credit for doing so.
Want a piece of electronic keyboard history for a miniscule fraction of the original price? Then maybe Korg’s software recreation of the storied M1 will satisfy that nostalgic craving.
by David Baer, Sept. 2015
The Korg M1 was manufactured between 1989 and 1996. It was destined to become the best-selling piece of synth hardware of all time. Some experts have speculated that there was one quarter of a million of these keyboards sold during the six years it was in production. It was the instrument that dethroned the then-ubiquitous Yamaha DX7, and the reason it was able to do so was, for its time, the breathtaking advances in sound production technology it had to offer.
The M1 was actually much more of a sample playback device than an actual synthesizer, although it had the filters and modulation one would expect in a synth. It sported 4M of onboard ROM memory, in which approximately 100 multi-sampled instruments and half that many drum/percussion hits were to be found. Although we would scoff at such stingy storage allocations by today’s standards, it was a marvel for its time. It was also a testament to the sound engineers that they could cram so much good-to-even-great sound into such a tight space.
The M1 also had slots into which expansion cards could be inserted to increase the sound palette. These offerings included three synth sound expansion cards, an orchestral sound collection, a dedicated piano card, and more. And like all complex MIDI instruments of the time, one needed a MIDI-attached computer running an editing program to accomplish anything but the most rudimentary of sound creation or tweaking.
By my guess, an M1 cost around $5000 in today’s dollars. The cards went for maybe a 100 bucks apiece (street price) and a software editor would probably set you back another 150 dollars (again, in todays dollars). For Korg to be able to sell a quarter of a million of these keyboards is a testament to how great they sounded in comparison to the competition of the time.
I never owned an M1, but I did own the M3R, a baby brother rack-mount version of the M1. In fact, I owned three of them and five expansion cards, since I was so into what they could do at the time. The M3R cost maybe $1800 (again, in today’s inflation adjusted dollars).
So, when I first started acquiring software synths and Korg came out with a software bundle that included the M1 plus the Korg Wavestation, even at an initial price of $200 and requirement for a hardware dongle, I jumped on it. Today, one can get the M1 software incarnation for an everyday price of $50 USD, and Korg wisely dropped the dongle in favor of software authorization. Korg also release a 64-bit version along the way and an iPad version after that. I have no experience with the latter and this review will ignore the tablet software version.
We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, but I should point out that the M1 software version includes all the original nineteen memory expansion cards. But wait, there’s more. A successor to the M1 called the T series had its own set of M1-compatible cards, and these too are included. Since it’s a soft synth, the editor is not an extra-cost add-on but part of the software. So let’s see, a $5000 keyboard, twenty-five (or so) $100 expansion cards and another $150 for the editor totals just over seven and a half grand. Now all of that can be had for $50. Ain’t progress a glorious thing?
The Software Recreation
The initial software version of the M1 was released around 2006, so it definitely qualifies as an oldie. But is it a goodie? The answer will probably depend in part upon your own age. Old timers who owned or perhaps lusted after an M1 back in the day, will more than likely be in the “goodie” camp. How could you not be for the price? But even for all its age, the software recreation is capable of producing some great sounds. Even young EDM whippersnappers may want to get in on this.
The original hardware was capable of 16-voice polyphonic operation. The software version has essentially unlimited polyphony. The original did not have the Multi mode of the software recreation, so that is a major enhancement. The hardware’s on-board sequencer was eliminated – for pretty obvious reasons, I think. We did get one little enhancement in the filter, for which resonance was added. But on the whole, the software version has the same capabilities of the original, but with things much more immediately accessible across the board.
In brief, there are two main modes in which the M1 software synth operates: Combi and Multi. In Combi, individual sounds, called Programs, can be stacked for a variety of purposes. There are eight slots which can be filled to create massively rich, layered sounds, or which can be assigned to discreet keyboard zones. Or one can establish velocity layers. The Multi mode also offers eight slots, but in this case, the programs in those slots respond to different MIDI channels, producing a bone fide multi-timbral capability.
Read the Fine Manual
Although the M1’s operation and signal flow are reasonably logical, there is more than enough complexity here to warrant the admonition: RTFM. One can probably learn one’s way around through trial and error, but in the long run, I think the quickest way to a comfort level with the M1 is the old fashioned way of doing one’s homework. Most of the screens readily reveal up their secrets, but there are a few places in the UI where a less-than-intuitive design was embraced.
I am not going into tremendous detail here about all the nuances of sound programming in the M1, but we will look at a few aspects in some slight detail.
First, let’s get the browser, seen above, out of the way. It’s a decent facility, but not state-of-the-art. First, using the Search tab, we can look for either Combi or Program selections, aided by Instrument and Character filtering qualification, of which multiple selections can be made. One thing you’ll note right from the start: there is an ocean of sounds here. To audition them all would take many hours. Pictured below are all the M1 expansion cards now included in the software version of the synth.
Using the Card tab for program selection is the alternative. The first three cards are the original on-board content. The contents of these are a bit haphazardly organized, so you won’t easily find your way around right off the bat. The M1 expansion cards are more easily directly navigated, given they are instrument-specific (piano, organ, fretted-instruments, synth, etc.).
There are additional empty user cards available for storing custom user presets. In what follows, we’ll look a bit more closely at the various pieces of what makes up a program.
The image above shows the UI when the Prog button in the top row is selected. The right portion of the screen has six tab selections: Easy, Osc, VDF, VDA, Control and Insert FX. VDF and VDA stand for virtual digital filter and amp respectively. A program can be comprised of one or two basic sounds, each with their own filter and amp envelopes. Let’s start with the Easy tab, as seen in the above image.
Here we can select the sample sound, specify the mix level of the two component sounds, the cutoff and resonance settings of the low-pass filters (which can be linked), and the filter and amp envelopes for each of the two sounds. We can also specify what FX goes into the two available slots and their respective send levels. In many cases, everything one needs to throw together a sound is right on this page.
The OSC tab can be used to adjust tuning, pitch modulation and other modulation of pitch-related behavior.
The VDF tab is for fine adjustments of filter behavior, particularly as regards modulation. Envelope segment times can be influenced by key position and even allows for the specification of the pivot key. This was not only pretty advanced for its time, it’s a feature rarely found in the many of the more sophisticated instruments released in recent years. I would enthusiastically welcome more instrument designers to jump on this band wagon. I won’t bother showing the VDA tab, since the VDF tab gives an ample idea of what to expect.
Finally, we have the Insert FX tab. There are two slots within a program for inserting FX. The selections are the usual offerings: delays, reverb, EQ, and so on. Two more slots are available in the Master FX section, where two more FX can operate in a parallel or serial configuration. There’s nothing extraordinary about the FX compared to other contemporary synths. They are all serviceable. If you don’t find them of highest possible quality, we can do what we do in any similar situation. Use a dedicated reverb or delay or whatever as an insert in your DAW track.
Is the M1 Soft Synth for You?
You’ve probably gathered by now that I’m a pretty big fan of this retro wonder. It’s an incredible bargain at just 50 dollars. As I’ve stated earlier, it’s going to be difficult for anyone who dreamed of owning an M1 back in the early 90s to not reflexively reach for their credit card. I hereby proclaim this to be a no-brainer.
Now, that’s not to say that the sounds will compare with today’s sophisticated offerings that have specialized focus. The sampled synths in the M1 are not going to sound as convincing or real as something like LuSH-101 or Zebra. The sampled orchestra sounds are certainly not going to be a substitute for a dedicated Kontakt library of similar fare.
But the sounds in the M1 do have their charm. Furthermore, they can be easily layered to create rich textures that are not immediately identifiable as “antique”. And most of all, there is the sheer number of sounds in the collection.
There are so many sounds, that preset-only musicians will have more than a sufficient selection from which to pick. For sound tweaker/designer enthusiasts, you will be confronted with a modest learning curve, but it’s nothing a few hours spent with the manual won’t satisfy. The documentation (the manual runs 80 or so pages) is not great but I’ve certainly seen much worse. For nostalgia lovers, Korg even makes the original M1 manual available.
I would venture a guess that the original M1 has appeared on more hit albums than any other keyboard ever. The only other one that might make that claim would be the DX7, but my money’s on the M1. So if you decide to add the software version to your collection, you aren’t just picking up a delightfully fun instrument, you’re acquiring an important piece of pop music history.
For more information or to purchase, to here:
A songwriting tool along with a few vocal packs – what else do you need to make a hit? Actually, just a few drum loops.
by Alex Arsov, September 2015
In this issue we would like to present to you two things. The first is an amazing tool that can help you start your song off, helping you chose harmonies and build those essential variations around the progression. It’s ideal for beginners, but also for more advanced users. Whenever inspiration doesn’t strike, it can be just the right solution for you. Next is the new vocal packs from Production Loops. After you finish your arrangement with Sundog Scale Studio, you can add a few vocals from these packs and you’re nearly there. Making a song in just a few clicks, without any instruments. A nightmare for all live musicians.
Sundog Scale Studio by Feelyoursound
It is one of the most interesting and fascinating song-writing tools that I have seen till now. It can help you find just the right chord progression, one that maybe you never thought of. It can help you build a bassline or to find some new melodic patterns. It is a great tool for those that are not familiar with harmonies, ditto for those that just want to explore some other options. In one sentence, it is producer’s best friend.
A stand-alone application that can be connected to your DAW through any virtual MIDI cable, or you can made a whole song inside Sundog Scale Studio and export it as MIDI. After watching a few video clips I felt ready to give it a try. All you need is to set the bass notes and off you go. In a few minutes I arrived at a really cool chord progression, and then tried some other options, like building patterns, basslines, drums and similar. There isn’t a massive number of basslines in the pattern library, and the same goes for arpeggiated patterns, but the good thing is that all those basses and arpeggiated lines could be further edited by pressing a few buttons and building variations, like building a house from Lego bricks. Also, Sundog Scale Studio use the “Microsoft Wavetable Synthesizer” for a General MIDI sound set, so you can easily work anywhere on almost any computer, especially as the program is not particularly CPU hungry, exporting the end result for further usage in your mighty DAW.
The interface is not very complicated, still offering large quantity of options, from velocity and swing settings, solo, mute, octaves, tempo, length in bars and others, along with various options in the main drop down menus. All in all, you can build an arrangement up to 15 channels wide using different internal instruments, or even the ones you have in your DAW when you connect up Sundog Scale Studio through virtual MIDI cables.
Sundog Scale Studio also offers you around 300 different scales to start with, so if you’re into something more exotic, up you go. For just €39 EUR you can get a faithful song-writing dog that will be with you until the end of the world (or at least for as long as you don’t learn harmonies well enough for yourself). No matter how skilled or unskilled you are, this one could help you to push your song writing into some new directions.
On the Sundog Scale Studio site you will find instructions of how to connect it to your favourite DAW, including for our beloved Live.
Back to Vocals
In a previous column we already explained why we cover so many vocal packs. Well, a new issue, and more new vocal packs. Being an EDM/electro musician, you can never get enough these packs. It’s not so easy to find good vocalists these days, and as long as you only need a few phrases to push your instrumentals a bit further, there is no better solution than buying these cheap instant solutions that can help you to get signed.
Producer Loops – European House Vocals Vol 1
Male vocals have become more and more popular lately, so this pack brings a good quantity of not so short male vocal phrases, somewhat longer than you can find in many other packs. Phrases in this pack are recorded in A, E, B and G# minors scales. Along with vocals you also get stems with other instruments – strings, bass, synths and similar – and a few one-shot samples, mainly drums, as well as MIDI takes for some of the instruments. I have to say that I was never too keen on using those pre-recorded instrumental phrases, I’m more after just pure vocal packs, but these are quite rare. One way or another, if you buy this pack just to get a vocal take it is still a good deal. At €41.16 EUR this pack is not the cheapest, but finding a good male vocal is harder than finding a needle in a haystack these days.
Producer Loops – Deep House Vocals Vol 1 and 2
Five construction kits in F, D, C, G and B major scales. Not such long phrases, as in previous packs, but all phrases are really inspiring and still a bit longer than we are used to from some of the older packs. All vocals are recorded by male and female vocalists. We get dry and wet versions along with single vocal phrases with additional sub-directories for Bridge, Chorus and Verse parts. As I wrote for the previous pack, I’m not so keen on using the instrumental parts that come along with vocals, but those that come with Deep House Vocals Vol 1 & 2 are so tempting, that it could easily happen that I break my rule.
Similar story as in Vol 1, just different scales, this time A#, D# twice and F and G, all major scales. If you are into Tropical House or Deep House, there is more than enough material on these two packs to make you happy for a long time, at least until the next issue. Vol 1 and 2 share the same price, €41.16 EUR each.
Free for everyone
It is always nice to find something that is not so abusive on our pockets. Enjoy exploring some quality drum loops, sound effects and music loops. Orange Free Sounds http://www.orangefreesounds.com/ is like a free local market. I’m sure you’ll find something to suit your needs.
U-he has released a new instrument with 2700 presets. All you need to do is to combine those presets with your imagination. It will be the perfect combination.
by Alex Arsov, September 2015
First of all, I’m not a synth expert. I’m a user with average sound programming skills, equipped with a fairly solid knowledge of the basic elements most virtual instruments are made of. I also know how to use and abuse all those controllers and parameters to achieve a satisfying end result – knowledge that I’ve picked over the years, knowledge that, actually, I’m not keen to use. I’d rather spend time browsing through presets than building something from scratch. If an instrument preset browser is well-organized and structured, then getting a good result might just take a minute or two. After all, I’m a producer, someone who is quite good at arranging and composing, so why should I be a better patch maker than someone who is a real expert in that field? As you may remember from our first Essentials article, this series is about “set it and forget it” tools which are made with just one purpose: to let us do what we are good at – making music and not spending our time doing other things that aren’t directly connected with our goal.
Presets For Everyone
Hive has everything – after all, it is a U-he product, a synth from the company that has made some of the best known virtual instruments on the market. But let’s start our story with some facts. It has 2,700 presets. The second advantage is the sound. As you know, every virtual instrument sounds a bit unique. It’s not just a matter of preset programming, but it’s also how the filters, oscillators, effects and other elements sound. There are a few “essential” synths on the market, but some of them don’t have such a versatile set of presets, and others don’t have the pleasing sound that Hive has. There is one well-known instrument that does have the sound, and a versatile set of presets, but it’s blessed with a dongle. I’m using a laptop for my music and I’m not so keen on carrying a set of dongles around with me, constantly worrying if something has happened to them. So, Hive has it all, except the dongle – meaning that it has absolutely everything.
The preset browser is not hard to find, as the button for opening the Browser window is placed in the control bar at the top, slightly to the right, just near the central data display that shows the current preset name. The browser window is populated with all the standard preset categories, the only unusual set of categories being the one labelled “Loops,” where we find various sequenced, gated and arpeggiated sounds. While the “Untuned Loops” directory mostly contains heavily effected percussive loops or looped melodies combined with some percussive elements, it sounds better than it looks. The “Tuned Loops” and “Melodic Loops” directories offer a ton of very good sounding looped combinations, where most arpeggiated or gated sounds are combined with the step sequencer. The preset sounds go beyond the standard set of Arpeggiated or just Sequenced sets of sounds that some of the competitors offer (also way beyond the sounds of that well-known dongled beast). The polished, rich character of those sequences reminds me of the golden era of the eighties, as most of the sounds have that “Spandau Ballet” silkiness where even plucked sounds have a pleasant, full and rounded character. Adding such sound in current pop production could be a total winner. Don’t get me wrong, Hive is absolutely an up-to-date sounding synth. It simply brings the best sounds from the past directly into the future.
The main reason for that unique character, along with a great set of effects and good sounding filters, at least in my opinion, comes from the fact that the U-he team was always a bit “modulation matrix” obsessed, trying to connect and wire up everything that sticks above 0 dB. So, the Hive U-he Mad Matrix team attacked the Arpeggiator, connecting it up with the step sequencer, and as bonus added an option to program the step sequencer with the arpeggiator. You can play a chord through the arpeggiator, recording the output directly to the step sequencer. Anyway, all presets that use the step sequencer in combination with the arpeggiator sounds very unique, but still very melodic. Actually, it’s really hard to find a preset inside the “Loops” directories that doesn’t use a combination of those two elements. Of course, disabling arpeggiator or step sequencer is just one click away – basically most of the functions on Hive are just a click away and it is really very easy to manipulate any selected sound. The whole Hive structure is extremely user-friendly, and even if you are a synth programming idiot it wouldn’t be too hard to change a few basic parameters. Arpeggiator, step sequencer and effects sections are placed in a big central hexagonal window. If you press the Effect button at the top of that hexagonal window, you get a set of seven effects – a fairly standard selection but with the unusual addition of a Compressor. All effects have more or less all the controllers you’ll need to tweak your sound. After all, the quality of the effects is usually more important than a set of additional controllers, and after all, U-he is not a newcomer to the effect programming field.
Oscillator 1 along with mirrored Oscillator 2 on the opposite side of main graphical interface come with all standard waves, octave, semitone, phase, detune, wide and similar trumpery, but more interesting is the additional sub-oscillator with a full set of waves that can be added to every oscillator. This can drastically change the character of the sound. Usually I always have problems figuring out my way with all those sound building elements, but somehow I didn’t have any problems doing that on Hive. Most programmers think they deserve a Nobel Prize for their programming work, but in this case, the graphical designer deserves it. Hive is a perfect combination of implemented elements combined with a very cleanly designed graphical interface. While we are still on Oscillators, we should not overlook the Normal, Dirty and Clean buttons positioned under the main hexagonal window between the Oscillators. These three buttons affect Oscillators and Filters, giving them additional character by affecting detune, envelope, attack, oversampling value and few other parameters, depending on the chosen preset.
All Oscillators and Filters have a small Solo button, so you can hear what and how much you are affecting a sound in isolation. On the left, inside the Filter window, you can see a highlighted box with filter input selectors, where you select which Oscillator or even Sub-oscillator this filter should control, so you can actually control all Oscillators with just one Filter, which is a handy solution for achieving quite drastic results with just one move. Also, by playing with filter controllers in combination with those three Normal, Dirty and Clean buttons you easily get an impression of how those three functions can make a difference. Filter 1 could be linked with Filter 2. Along with the usual set of controllers such as filter types, resonance and similar, we also find some not so common options to control cutoff frequency for a selected LFO or MOD envelope or even controlling cutoff with MIDI notes through the Keytrack function. I think they lost me here, but all the other things are quite logical and as far as I can see – Hive proves to be one of the most intuitive and user-friendly instruments for tweaking and controlling until now (that’s also one of the reasons why it ends up in the Essentials column and not as a regular review).
At the bottom of the graphical interface is an LFO, Amp and Modulation section, with nice number of additional options, my favourite being the “Saw Up”, “Saw Down” and “Random Glide” wave shapes inside the LFO section as those can really make a difference, pushing the sound to a whole new level. A row below the “LFO-Amp-Mod” section we see a small window on a left with a Glide, Vibrato, Pitch-band section, along with a switchable row on the right side where we can choose between two racks of modulation matrix windows or virtual keyboards. The Modulation matrix is quite flexible, but the truth is that those large number of very versatile presets will make you so happy that Modulation Matrix will remain as something that is just a nice-to-have (there are always maniacs that want more), but you will hopefully never use it (come on, you have 2,700 presets after all).
So, Why Essentials?
Hive is a tweaking monster, but no matter how deep you can go with its editing functions or even building sounds from scratch, it is actually one of the most “set it and forget it” additions to our virtual universe. The generally pleasant, well-defined sound character with all that sub-harmonic richness, and with a really impressive, versatile and well-organised preset library that offers sounds for every occasion – with great editing (or, in our case, tweaking) capabilities – offer more than you might otherwise expect.
So, all you need to do is to open a new track, add Hive (which is, by the way, extremely CPU friendly), choose a preset and do what you know best – produce music. Repeat this procedure as often as possible. Hive is one of those rare virtual instruments that sounds so versatile nobody will notice that you made the whole song with just one synthesizer. Download demo, enjoy.
$149 USD. It has it all.
From France with love – we look at the oddest, and at the same time sweetest, delay with countless options and a full bag of presets.
by Alex Arsov, September 2015
Relayer is definitely one of the most unusual delays I have ever seen. After the first “what the hell is this?” impression I realized that most of the controllers are where they should be and that this delay can even act as a normal delay. Actually, when you get used to the workspace, you release how flexible UVI Relayer could be and how odd the results can be, as well as providing all those standard delay tricks we expect from any similar beast. I have plenty of excellent delays in my arsenal and the main difference between this one and all the others is its flexibility and extra visual editors. It covers the whole range of standard delays, from simple delays to complex multi-tap ones, even spreading into chorus, or offering various rhythmical patterns that go far beyond the standard delay functions we are used to in this sort of tool. So, it is a delay that covers a really wide spectrum of delaying tasks, including everything between an ordinary set of delays and an arsenal of the most odd sounding delays I’ve ever heard.
What Do We Get?
Relayer has a really clean interface in which everything is presented so clearly that you really shouldn’t have any trouble tweaking things to sound right, especially seeing that all global mix parameters are right there, on both the left and right side of the interface. But when you come to the window in the middle, called Visualiser, this is where most of the fun starts. You will definitely need a quick look at the user manual. It is a very powerful and flexible plug-in, but you will need some time to master it. Is it worth it? I presume so, as I haven’t heard any other plug-in that can give such odd results and still sound creative and useful (as it’s not so hard to make an odd sounding instrument or effect these days).
Global Mix Elements
The Global Mix part contains all the elements you can expect from any well-equipped delay: delay time, feedback, repeat control, dry and wet knobs and filter section with low and high pass options. Then things become even more interesting with a few additions that are not so common on this sort of plug-in: Input gate, for controlling when the delayed signal should appear, and the Color section, where you can add reverb to the delayed signal. It comes with a nice number of reverb spaces along with a dry/wet slider and a delay time modulation section where you can set modulation amount and rate. That is more or less all about the global part.
The Heart of Joy – Visual Editor
In the center is a big sequencer-like window with 20 steps, and four smaller windows at the bottom where we can see used values for four basic functions. At the upper, main one, we can draw different values for different functions that can be chosen through the menu at the top of that main sequencer window. Time, Gain, Pan, Fx1 and Fx2 can be controlled through this 20-step sequencer window. In theory it seems a bit on the boring side, but in practice you can go totally bonkers. To get started you have a menu with various shapes that you can insert into the sequencer window, a starting point for further tweaking or even drastically changing certain values for each step. Under this shape menu we find a set of Transform buttons for reversing values, or even swapping them from left to right, plus a few more options. Every function brings a few additional options specific for that function, like the Spread button for Pan, or Snap for Time.
If you are an advanced user you can do magic tricks, as described in a video on the product page, but if you are just a “happy user” (to say it politely) like I am, then you can still have enough fun by starting with some of the many presets that you can find at the top of Relayer’s interface and then playing with the settings to make something totally new, or just adapting it for your needs. Plenty of joy even for happy users.
Fx1 and Fx2
The Effects window offers a few different filters directed at different targets. Biquad and Comb filters control cutoff frequency. The Vowel effect modulates between various vowel shapes. Redux controls sample frequency and Waveshaper modulates drive amount. All these effects can be controlled through the step sequencer along with other controllers that are available under the step sequencer and are different from filter to filter. Trying different types it is not hard to notice that Vowel and Waveshaper can add some movement that crawls rhythmically behind the basic delay. 10 out of 10 for those, my dear UVI team. The strongest point of Relayer is that no matter what settings you use (OK, moderate, not extreme maximizing everything like a mad doctor) the end result still sounds very musical.
The last one in the menu is Feedback, allowing you to process the signal before it goes back to the delay, adding a low or high pass filter, selecting various drive types like Tube, Analog and Tape, and also which tap should be effected (if you are not sure there is also a “Last” option at the end of the row with tap numbers).
This is definitely not just one more delay in the market. If you want to use it just as a simple delay, you can, but no doubt you get enough solid, basic delays with your DAW. This one is a Cadillac – you don’t use it just to go shopping. It really shines in a sparse mix where every separate sound has its space and character. It is one of those tools that can send an ordinary, dry piano to inner space. It is one of the most unique delays I have ever come across, and yes, I’ve seen all sorts of them. It offers great flexibility – at some basic level it’s not so hard to set it just right, but it takes some practice when you go a bit deeper. And anyway, it comes with a great set of presets that can keep you busy for the next few years. No matter how many delays you already have, this one is definitely a good choice as it offers much more than any other delay available.
Is There Anything Missing?
The only “it could be better” issue is iLok. UVI offers an option to register Relayer directly to your system if you’re not happy using an iLok. I’m not, since iLok has some issues with Windows 10, and also I’m not so keen to register it only for my main computer because sometimes I also work on my second one. I really prefer a registration key file that you can copy to another computer, a system used in some virtual instruments from U-he, Synthmaster and a few other developers. You can’t beat the piracy, but you can make life a bit easier for the end user that uses a legal copy of the software.
$129 USD. More info, demo audio and video clips at:
Soundiron’s aptly named APE (for short) is a percussion powerhouse. It sounds like massive primordial percussion and jungle drums that evoke strange primal emotions, all controllable via a fantastically designed yet simple GUI.
by Suleiman Ali, Sept. 2015
Those looking for percussion libraries are currently spoiled for choice, with the currently marketed products running the gamut from the 200 plus GB behemoth that is the Evolution Series World Percussion to single instrument focused items like CryptoCypher’s Solo Tabla (2.1 GB). In between these two extremes, there is a lot of variety to be explored including award winners like the 3 Storm Drum incarnations (the latest being 84.7 GB) and Vir 2 World Impact : Global Percussion (12.2 GB).
Soundiron’s primary horse in this race is the Apocalypse Percussion Ensemble, a 24.8 GB monster of a library, which pretty much defines how to nail a focused, useful and elegantly designed percussion library. Like most of the above mentioned libraries this is primarily aimed at professional TV/Film/Game composers with a price tag that reflects this ($249 USD).
So what about the small guys, the hobbyists, the tinkerers, the home recording artists or the garage bands? That is where Apocalypse Elements comes into play. It does not need the full Kontakt but works in the free Kontakt Player, has a much smaller footprint (2.15/4.3 GB uncompressed), mixes down the multiple mics to stereo samples and has a very affordable pricing ($99.00 USD).
Installation and Activation
I used a i5 based HP Laptop with 6 GB RAM running Windows 8 (64 Bit) alongside a Roland Tri-Capture audio interface. The DAW was 64 Bit Reaper version 4.78 and the library itself ran in 64 Bit Kontakt Player 5.
The installer files downloaded fast using Soundiron’s own Connect application. Nevertheless, a reasonable internet connection is required to ensure smooth downloading. The Kontakt library activation went quite smoothly and I was up and running in no time.
Into the Heart of Darkness
Upon firing up Kontakt you can see the Apocalypse Percussion Elements in the left hand “Libraries” browser. Opening the instrument shows two folders in the browser “Lite” and “Master”. Both have the same three sub-folders: “Megamixer”, “Standard” and “Tuned Dual-Layer”. The Lite versions are the same instruments with fewer round robins and lower voice limits, allowing those of us with milder system specs to still enjoy the percussion. The master versions have the whole set of samples including all round robins.
At this stage, it is advisable to open up the included .pdf manual, as it helps immensely in understanding what kinds of instruments are available and how they are laid out.
The “Standard” folder is the one to get started with, as the first instrument in that folder contains all available percussion pieces mapped across the keyboard. It is a good place to test all the available sounds. The other instruments in this folder include less than this .nki, with similarly themed sounds clubbed together in instruments (ensembles offering bass and toms, cymbals, clacks, snares and ethnic drums etc.) as well as solo patches.
These patches all offer two additional features that open in little pop-up windows: arpeggiator and release controls. The release divides the sound into four groups (bass, snares, cymbals and auxiliary) and allows tweaking of the release time for each. Since this elements version has mixed down stereo samples instead of the multi-mic samples/controls of the original, the shortening of release times for various elements is a great way to make the sound less roomy and more immediate.
The arpeggiator is an absolute pleasure and of great practical use. It allows three modes, all of which provide a great way to get rhythmic percussion beds going with minimal effort. With the additionally controls for quantization, randomization, etc., it offers a great way to get things rolling. In fact it is one of my favorite tools in getting the right rhythms going on new tracks.
The Mid/Mapping tab provides instant access to over 400 included MIDI grooves that offer a great starting point in using these sounds. Between mixing and matching the percussion to the grooves, I found some amazing combinations that worked a treat.
This part of the GUI also provides detailed mapping options which can essentially assign any articulation of any instrument to any MIDI note. This has three main sections: presets (where you can save your own), instruments and articulations. So in essence , you can pretty much customize any aspect and get your own comfortable layout going, whether playing from a MIDI Controller or using the on board grooves.
The “Megamixer” folder again contains an “All” version as well as the ensembles and solo instruments and allows limited editing of all the included percussion. I would suggest the user try the different included patches and see which sounds, work flow and GUI is most intuitive for them.
I should definitely mention the FX Rack which is a colorful wonder to behold and allows chaining a number of modern and vintage emulations for those larger than life sounds. In fact, the effects are more than sufficient to transform these grooves into completely unique new and often electronica-friendly sounds.
It would be fair to say that I was quite enamored with this library, and found it an instant and intense solution to quick and dirty percussion needs, whether it’s for a soundtrack or a pop track. At the price, it is a more than fair bargain, and may even act as a first stepping stone for those venturing out in the world of percussion libraries for the first time.
APE Elements is available here:
Can a low cost, easy to use sampled piano plugin hold up to the competition? Our reviewer takes it for a test drive to see if that is possible.
by Rob Mitchell, Sept. 2015
AIR Music Technology has recently released the Mini Grand and the DB-33 in VST and AU plugin formats. Previously, these were both only available within Pro Tools, but now you can use them in your DAW of choice. For this review, I will be covering the Mini Grand.
Like the name suggests, this plugin is all about the piano. Nothing complicated here, as it is just a straight-forward, easy to use software instrument that will bring some great piano sounds to your projects. Since this isn’t a particularly complex plugin, the review will not be very long. I will still try to cover everything it has to offer.
The download for Mini Grand from the AIR website is just over one gigabyte. After I started the installation, it gave me the chance to pick what I wanted to have installed, and where I’d like it to go. I didn’t see any system requirements for it on their website, even though the manual says to check their website for that. The link provided in the manual didn’t lead to a requirements page for the Mini Grand, but I suspect they are similar to some of their other products. It does use a serial number during the installation, and you will also need to have the iLok license manager installed for authorization as well.
Mini Grand worked fine with my PC running Windows 8.1 (64-bit), and I had it loaded up in Sonar X3 Producer. I would suggest that you have at least four gigabytes of RAM installed, as it is a little over one gigabyte when stored on the hard drive. Eight gigabytes is probably a more realistic amount to have, as you will probably have many other plugins loaded in at once besides the Mini Grand. Also, I am not sure if it has any sort of disk streaming built-in, but I didn’t see any settings to change that.
After you load it in your DAW, you will see the main display. Actually, that is the only display it has, but there are a few extra functions that I will get to shortly. Its controls are basically self-explanatory, but you might wonder what a few of them do.
Over on the left side is the “Model” control. This works a bit like a variable filter control, as it changes from a more muffled and gentle overall sound (Atmos setting) to a wide open/bright, and “in your face” kind of tone (Dance setting).
The next control to the right is the “Dynamic Response”, which will dial in the amount of dynamics the piano will have. At the minimum setting, it will play at nearly full velocity, as if you are always striking the keys harder. The maximum setting will have the most velocity range it can muster, so it will reproduce the velocity levels in a more realistic manner. You may want to set it to around the halfway point (12 o’clock) on this control to get a good balance, depending on the style of music you are using it for.
The Tuning Scale has settings for either equal or stretched tuning. “Equal” means that the pitch of the notes in relation to each other is normal and in tune, and “Stretched” means the higher notes are bit higher in their tuning. This makes it so the higher notes are more in tune with the overtones of the lower notes.
Next we have the Room and Mix controls. This section is for Mini Grand’s easy and simple to use reverb. There are a good number of varied room presets, including Soft, Bright, Studio, Chamber, Hall, and Ambient. The Mix control dials in the amount of reverb, but there are no other controls to edit the actual reverb settings. Last but not least is the main output level control, which is located over on the right side.
MIDI learn is included by way of a right-click on whichever knob you want to setup. From there, you can also set minimum and maximum values, and the range can be inverted.
Along the bottom is a keyboard you can use to trigger notes manually, and the preset menu is located below the keyboard. 30 presets are included, and you can save your own creations. Clicking the wrench icon brings up a small display in which you change the polyphony (from 2 to 64 voices), switch to an Economy mode to save resources, and load/save/reset MIDI assignments.
This plugin does sounds great, but it doesn’t have any other options such as microphone placement, or added features that are in some of the other major sampled piano sound sets. Also, it might not have quite as many velocity levels as some of its competition, but then again it is only around one gigabyte in file size. This really is a bonus when you think about it, as it will take up much less room on your hard drive. One other nice quality it possesses is its low CPU usage.
While playing around with the different settings that are available, I found that I could get a decent amount of variation in the sound, especially when used with the various settings for the reverb. Another major selling point for the Mini Grand is its price, as it retails for just $79.99 USD. At the time of writing this review, there is special crossgrade price available. If you’re an owner of Pro Tools 8 or the Air Instrument Expansion Pack, it is now available for $49.99 USD.
If you want a great sounding piano that is very easy to use, then this is definitely a good one to try out. There is a demo version and more information on the Mini Grand located on their website:
SynthMaster lives up to its name in many ways, but nowhere more so than in the power and flexibility of its oscillators. We take a close-up look at them in this in-depth examination.
by David Baer, Sept. 2015
If there was an annual award for the developer offering the most synth bang for your buck, I have a feeling that KV331 Audio would be the perennial winner for its SynthMaster software synthesizer, which is routinely available for well under $100 USD. This is a very deep instrument that easily rivals competitive products costing twice as much.
KV331 quite recently released version 2.7 that contained, among other things, some significant upgrades to the already powerful and flexible oscillators. One thing SynthMaster is unlikely to win any awards for, however, is the comprehensiveness of the documentation. The new features have yet to be mentioned in the manual and the old ones are not covered in much depth in the first place. So a close up look at the oscillators seemed to be a very good idea, and that’s just what we’ll do in what follows.
For those needing an overall introduction to SynthMaster, Rob Mitchell reviewed the instrument (version 2.6) back in 2013. All of what was presented is still relevant, but now there are more features than ever. Read that earlier review here:
We are truly going to focus on the oscillators here and little else. But we must start the discussion by showing where they live within the SynthMaster scheme of things. A preset is comprised of two identical layers (see image right), and in each of these live two identical oscillators in a parallel configuration. An input modulation port for each oscillator allows for audio-frequency modulation of phase or frequency. The output of the oscillator can be amplitude modulated at audio frequency rates as well. The outputs then are passed thru to a filter stage and on to FX, none of which will be subject of discussion here.
The modulators, as such, are not a part of the oscillator but we can hardly ignore them, so we’ll quickly say a few things and move on to the main topic. There are four modulators, which are themselves fairly capable oscillators. They can run any waveform that the main oscillators can, which as you will see shortly means that there are a whole lot of options available (including external audio).
The four modulators can be dropped into any of the phase/frequency or amplitude modulation slots in the combinations you see in the menu to the right. Although the capabilities don’t equal that of a full-blown dedicated FM instrument like FM8 or Rhino, there’s still plenty of FM possibility if that’s your goal.
All about the Basic
But enough of what’s outside the box – let’s go inside the oscillator where things start to get very interesting. Oscillators operate in one of five modes: Basic, WaveTable, Vector, Additive and AudioIn. We’ll start with Basic which is probably the mode that will be used most frequently.
In Basic mode, the oscillator produces a single signal based upon a single-cycle waveform or an SFZ-based sample set, any of which can be your own that you can import. For single-cycle waveforms, there is an extensive list of available waveforms, from basic ones to a vast collection of analog waveforms to exotic waveforms to mayhem. See the (severely cropped) menu image below to get an idea. There are over five dozen waveforms in the Moog category alone.
We need to take a brief timeout to discuss terminology. What we talking about at the moment is using wavetable synthesis for sound production. These days a lot of people think that term, “wavetable synthesis”, implies that an oscillator must be able to morph between different waveforms. But that’s not technically correct. SynthMaster does that kind of multi-waveform morphing as well, and it’s called the Wavetable mode in SynthMaster. But there are other synths, such as Rapture Pro, that do not do the multi-waveform morphing but do, in fact, implement wavetable synthesis. So, now that we have that cleared up … 🙂
The bottom row of the oscillator UI does double duty – it’s effectively tabbed in order to accommodate all the common controls. As can be seen in the Osc tab, we have a Volume, Pan, Course Tune and Fine Tune controls. These are common to all the algorithms (we’ll get to algorithms next). The Remaining two knobs are algorithm-dependent. By the way, all these knobs are modulation targets.
The Voices tab of the lower row is all about Unison mode, and we might as well talk about that now. For single-cycle tone production (but not SFZ), up to nine detuned voices can be invoked, and this feature works in the way you’ve seen in many instruments. What’s interesting about SynthMaster is that a detuned unison operation can be invoked at the higher layer level. So, what – we don’t just have super-saws, but maybe super-duper-saws? OK, probably overkill, but it’s there nevertheless.
There are a number of algorithms that can be invoked that are organized into four categories: Spectrum, Bend, Sync and Other. See the composite menu image below to see all the choices. All the choices do some kind of manipulation of the selected waveform.
Depending upon which is selected, the rightmost two lower-row knobs of the Osc tab provide some kind of control appropriate to the task at hand. I’m not going to detail these assignments, but I’ll throw in a few examples as we go through the algorithms.
For the Spectrum algorithms, we have six filter options which should need little explanation. For the Bandpass algorithm, for example, the two algorithm-dependent knobs are used to specify low and high band frequencies. This set of algorithms should be no mystery. Like all manipulations in basic mode irrespective of algorithm, as one alters the frequency spectrum for the waveform, the waveform image is updated accordingly – a very nice feature in my estimation.
The next category will be familiar to Massive users. We have Bend+, Bend- and Bend+/-. These elongate part of the waveform and squash the other part. A picture is probably best at this point. Below we see the Bend+/- algorithm in three bend positions, all-left, middle and all-right. The middle position is the original, unaltered waveform.
Moving on, next we have the Sync algorithms: No, Half, Cos, Tri and Saw Window. First of all, the waveform is shortened and duplicated, just as happens in conventional oscillator sync processing. But then it’s also bounded by a window as described in the algorithm name. Again, a picture is best. To the right is a waveform synced and fitted into a saw shaped form using the Saw Window algorithm.
Lastly we have the Other options, Pulse 1, Pulse 2 and Bit Crush. Pulse 1 and 2 are essentially variants on conventional PWM operation. Bit Crush is just what it says (although further distortion is certainly available downline in the filters and FX).
There are a few other details before leaving basic-land. The oscillators can be set to free-running or not, so that when in unison mode, there is or is not a consistent timbre at note-on. Pitch key-tracking can be altered from the normal, occasionally useful for FX presets or other strange tuning scenarios. More welcome, to my mind, is the easy-to-invoke pitch deviation control to simulate analog hardware frequency-drift behavior.
You will notice that there are boxes in the second row of UI controls to indicate modulation source for FM and AM. The modulation source can be selected here just as it can in the layer UI window. Change it in one place and it’s reflected in the other.
Wavetable (If You Must Use That Term … ) Mode
I have several minor disputes with terminology in the naming of the oscillator modes. I would definitely have called this mode “Vector”, the name given to the next mode we’ll talk about. But no matter … 🙂
With Wavetable, we have an array of slots into which different waveforms can be placed. The position in this table can be selected using the knob labelled Wave Idx, which clearly begs to be a modulation target. You can use as little as two slots or as many as sixteen. As one scans through the array, the waveforms seamlessly morph between what’s loaded in the adjacent slots. In the screen image, you will see that the Wave Idx selection is midway between slots three and four, and the resultant wave reflects that combination of the two wave shapes.
This mode is similar to capabilities found in other synths like Zebra or Serum. It’s quite straightforward and should hopefully require no additional explanation.
I Have Your Vector, Victor
Vector is similar to the previous mode in that multiple waveforms come into play. However, here we select four waveforms that are placed in the corners (or on the sides) of a square shape (pictorially it’s a rectangle, but all sides are of equal significance). All the wave options available in basic mode are candidates here, including SFZ choices. One can then use the mouse to position the cursor to a location within the bounded control area, and a proportional amount of each waveform will be mixed into the signal based upon that position. Position movement can, of course, be MIDI learned. Needless to say, if you happen to have a joystick control at your disposal, this is a great reason to enlist its services.
One thing to notice is that we have little boxes with numbers in them next to each waveform box. These work as follows. One can specify an integer, in which case it becomes a frequency multiplier. Thus with 1, we get the designated pitch, with 2 an octave above, and with 3 an octave and a fifth above (more or less but the frequency of that exact multiple will not be exactly equal to the tempered-scale note equivalent). Rather than integer multipliers, the other option is to provide an offset in semitones numbering between 1 and 96. These presumable would be equal to the tempered-scale note at that offset.
Vector mode has two options: 1D and 2D. We saw what 2D looks like above. To the right is the 1D configuration. What’s the difference? In 1D you will always have at least two waveforms as part of the resultant signal. With 2D, you can restrict it to a single component waveform by placing the cursor in a corner.
Additive Before Subtractive
SynthMaster is a subtractive synth at heart, so what’s this with an Additive mode? Well, it’s not precisely an additive synth in the way Harmor or Alchemy … a moment of respectful silence for those in mourning, please … is. I’d be more inclined to call it “Mashup” mode. In this mode, we can specify wave selections (again, same ones as in basic mode) in eight slots. Each has a frequency adjustment, just as in Vector mode, that can be a multiplier or a semitone offset.
So, we can do limited pure additive using sine waves and higher partials. But other than some simple organ-like sounds, the pure additive is a bit limited compared to real, dedicated additive instruments that can accommodate many dozens of partials. But this is a very powerful option nonetheless. Think of it as “Mashup” mode instead and I think you’ll see just how far you can take things in this fashion. The combined individual sounds can be tuned, panned and mixed in whatever way makes sense.
The final oscillator option is AudioIn. The sound source is just that: an input audio stream. I assume that this mode exists, in part, because SynthMaster offers a vocoder feature further down the signal chain in the FX stage of the instrument. But it can also be used to turn SynthMaster into an FX processor.
The UI for the AudioIn mode shows some controls on the left that clearly are some kind of envelope follower. On the right, we see an audio trigger for a single MIDI note. There is zero discussion in the manual for how to use this capability, so I can only speculate that the purpose is to allow SynthMaster to be used as a pure FX plug-in without needing to send it a MIDI stream to open the gate. Personally, I have little interest in employing SynthMaster in this fashion. That’s not to imply that the onboard FX options are second rate. Rather, with the wealth of FX plug-ins available on my DAW, I’m going to reach for something from FabFilter or Melda or Plug & Mix or … you get the idea … when I want to add some FX action to a track. So, I haven’t been motivated to pursue the AudioIn option. I’ll just be lazy and … as they say … leave that as an exercise for the reader. 🙂
I hope you have enjoyed this tour of the new SynthMaster oscillators. I was well impressed with what SynthMaster could do even before 2.7 came on the scene. Release 2.7 simply made a great synth even better. If you have yet to experience this powerhouse, you can find out more here:
Directly from a future: a modern aggressive sound with best step sequencer ever and lots of presets from star producers.
by Alex Arsov, September 2015
This is an aggressive virtual synthesizer that sounds quite different from many others. It’s inspiring and has numerous very unique, preprogrammed sequences, ideal for any Electro/Dance/EDM production. It offers numerous “out of the box” preprogrammed sounds that otherwise would require serious programming skills. There are all sorts of sounds, mad riffs, phrases – the type of thing you would hear on top produced electro or EDM songs. Not to mention it also offers a huge number of presets made by well-known producers that give additional value to this wallet-friendly instrument. Actually, this is more or less all you need to know about this synthesizer, as everything else is just detail.
Details, Step by Step (Sequencer)
The thing that makes this synth so unique sounding, along with its sharp filters, is an absolutely unique and very capable step sequencer with which you can build a sequence by combining a large number of various wave shapes for every separate step. This builds a bigger picture and combines those shapes into one big, mad looking envelope which can be further assigned to pitch, volume or cutoff frequency. Setting up a number of steps is also just a one-click story, so after just a little trial and error I found that it’s not so hard to make interesting sequenced lines that would be almost impossible to accomplish just by playing those notes in real time. OK, my sequenced phrases aren’t really up to those you can find in the preset section, but at least it’s not impossible to start toying and enjoying.
The next quite interesting addition that I haven’t seen for a while is a four oscillator structure. All four can be synced together. They come with the standard wave shapes, and the first oscillator has a Frequency Modulation knob instead of Tune, as the other three have. This FM knob gives a more aggressive character to the first oscillator by adding some lower sub-harmonies to original one. According to the manual, “the sync feature generates a screaming effect when adjusting the pitch of synced oscillator.” End of quote. One way or another, it works. Carbon Electra can really bark like a rabid dog.
The relationship between all four oscillators can be controlled through the Mixer window, where you can set the volume for each oscillator, or add some noise to the signal, or even push the overall level an additional 12 dB.
Of course, it would be hard to talk about the general character of any synthesizer without going through the Filter section. Of the most noticeable additions is a Vocal filter which comes with the standard Low- and High-Pass filter types and of course a Saturation switch that can add some extra colour. Vocal filter and this extra Saturation can really make a difference, giving recognizable and unique results.
In the LFO window we can find three almost identical LFOs having different destinations. The first LFO controls the pitch of all four oscillators, the second one is linked to FM1, PW2, PW3, or even LFO1, with an additional resonance knob and a third one to control the general tone, effecting all four Oscillators, plus a cutoff option.
The rest is quite standard. An Effects section with a pretty common set of effects: Chorus, Delay, Phaser, Distortion and Equalizer. The Envelope section with ADSR, additional Amp knob for taming the level of the signal before going to distortion, and an Exp switch for giving the slope of attack an exponential curve. Actually, Carbon Electra doesn’t have a Modulation Matrix section and therefore some of those options that are usually connected through such a section are included directly in some of the basic sections. This is the personal decision of the developer and, one way or another, this synthesizer has other advantages, so you probably won’t miss a Modulation Matrix section much.
The sound of every synth is mostly a combination of the programming skills of developer, a clear idea how internal elements should be connected, along with choosing the right people to do preset programming. Carbon Electra nails all three elements. It’s not an all-round tool, intended for all purposes, but it’s a very specific and unique virtual synthesizer with a very up-to-date modern sound, furnished with a large number of hip electro sounds. After all, who the hell needs just another virtual instrument with that standard set of sounds. This one is definitely everything except standard.
For $91 USD you get a synthesizer that makes a difference. Maybe it’s not a toy for every taste, but being blessed with such great presets, where a good number of them are made by some big electro D.J. names, you can hardly make a mistake buying this one. At least you can download the demo version and give it a chance. I know you can’t buy a new synth every week, but…
Syn’X 2 is an eight-layer monster synthesizer plugin which emulates the classic Synthex. With its great filters and modulation options, this is one powerful synthesizer. Find out more here.
By Rob Mitchell, Sept. 2015
XILS-lab is a French-based music software company with many high quality synthesizer plugins to their credit. These include XILS 4, PolyKB II, and Oxium. In the last issue of SoundBytes magazine, I wrote about their PolyKB II synth plugin. This time around, I am checking out yet another product of theirs called Syn’X 2. It is the newly improved sequel to their Syn’X synthesizer plugin.
Originally this synth plugin was released about four years ago, and it had a slightly different name. Since then, many fixes and improvements have been made. They have also added new features, and have given it many additional presets.
It was basically modelled after the Synthex, which was manufactured in the early 1980s. The Synthex was used by some big names in the music business, such as Jean Michel Jarre, Stevie Wonder, and Geoff Downes of Yes and Asia fame.
Syn’X 2 has eight separate layers, with each layer being an independent synth in its own right. It is also multitimbral, so you can create some intricate/complex presets, or use each layer independently using MIDI. Also, it has two keyboards, meaning you can use two separate zones on your keyboard. Each of those can be set differently, using up to eight layers a piece. For instance, you might setup one patch to use a two layer arpeggiator, and the other might have a three layer unison lead sound.
Syn’X 2 is available for PC and Mac. If you’re using a PC, you will need XP, Vista, or Windows 7, and it is available in VST and RTAS formats (Pro Tools 7.0 and later). If you’re using a Mac, it will need at least OS X 10.4 or higher, and it is available in VST, Audio Unit, and RTAS formats (Pro Tools 7.0 and later).
The minimum system requirements are one gigabyte of RAM, and a 2 GHz CPU. There is no standalone version of Syn’X 2.
Syn’X 2 does require an eLicenser or an iLok for the installation. Since I already had an iLok software licenser set up on my PC for PolyKB II and a few other plugins, I used it again for this installation. XILS-lab has changed it so you don’t need a physical iLok dongle anymore, which is great for me as I still don’t have one yet.
After loading it in my DAW, I wanted to hear what some of the presets sounded like. It basically uses the same menu bar for preset selection that PolyKB II has. Using the first menu button at the top left, you are able to switch to different types of categories. These include Author, Feeling, Type, Style, Bank or Projects. To the right of that first button is a field that shows a list of what’s included in the category you have selected. If you have it set to “Type”, you then get a list with many selections of preset types, such as Init, Brass, Lead, Soundtrack, and so on.
Over to the right are some other features, including options to save your preset. The A/B function lets you hear the changes you’ve made and switch between them. The “Options” menu is where you can change how the pop-ups and the display in general will behave. You’re also able to get to MIDI settings from here, and switch to a higher resolution display. This is very nice if you have a large monitor, as it makes the display easier to read. It will change the display to 2,048 pixels across. I didn’t use that setting, as the regular display size worked well with my 1600 by 900 resolution. I think it might be a good idea to also have a smaller size available. If someone is using a laptop for instance, they might want one in a more useful size.
After hearing some presets of a synthesizer plugin, I usually check out the oscillators. As I touched on before, Syn’X 2 has eight separate layers. Each of those layers has two oscillators. Some of the controls include settings for the octave, a transpose knob (+/-12 semitones), and waveform selection buttons. The two oscillators can be synced, and there is a drift control available. It will vary the tuning slightly between the two oscillators, and will even affect the cutoff frequency slightly.
The waveforms include sawtooth, triangle, square, and pulse. Clicking the labels above the saw and triangle will give you a pulse width variation on those two waveform types. In addition, you can select more than one waveform, so they are cumulative. If you select the pulse waveform, the PWM button will appear to the right of it. It will then be able to get cross-modulation from another oscillator. When setup this way, it will use the other oscillator to adjust its pulse width. Ring modulation can be enabled using a button to the right of the waveform buttons.
The “Width” control changes the pulse width when you have selected the pulse waveform. It can also affect the triangle or saw if those are selected. “Level” is for the output level of the oscillator. To the right of those controls there is a noise generator, which has pink or white noise, and its own level control.
Syn’X 2 includes a multimode, four-pole self-oscillating filter. Filter types include 12 and 24 dB low-pass, 6 and 12 dB band-pass, and a 12 dB high-pass. The usual cutoff and resonance controls are included here, along with bipolar knobs to adjust the amount of the filter envelope and keyboard follow. The “Drive” control will push the filter’s audio with a saturated type of sound, and can be set as either pre-filter or post-filter.
It also has been setup as a 0df filter (zero delay feedback), which can emulate an analog filter in a more accurate manner. One example of how it can help the sound of synth plugin is when a filter is slowly opened up (known as a sweep), and resonance levels can sometimes vary drastically. That type of variance can also happen the other way around. For instance, if you change the resonance amount, and then it may adversely affect the cutoff frequency. The 0df filter really makes a difference in this department. It improves the audio signal by keeping the levels more natural, especially in regards to the resonance.
Envelopes, LFOs and Modulation Matrix
There are four envelopes included in Syn’X. The first one is for the filter cut off, and the second is tied to the output section (VCA). The other two can be used with the modulation matrix (more on this later) to be assigned to different parts of the synth plugin.
The envelopes use a slight variation on the classic ADSR configuration. Each one has an additional “Delay” section right before the attack stage. This will allow you to set a certain amount of time before the attack stage occurs. That same delay time can be synced to the host. Envelopes three and four share the same space on the display, and you switch between them using tabs.
Syn’X 2 has two LFOs with controls for frequency, delay, fade, and depth controls. The frequency can also be synced to the host. The “Delay” will wait a certain amount of time before a fade-in occurs, and “Fade” will slowly fade-in the LFO on the audio.
The “Depth” controls will adjust the amount of modulation, and there are buttons to enable modulation for the oscillators (including pulse width), filter, and amp sections. The waveforms for the LFOs include a sine, triangle, ramp, sample and hold, saw, and square. Just like with the oscillator waveforms, you can select multiple waveforms for the LFO. When they’re used in combination, you will get variations on the standard shapes used for modulation.
To the right of the LFO tabs in the upper-left, you’ll see a couple more tabs: CHAO and RTHM.
“CHAO”, which is short for Chaox, is a special modulation feature in Syn’X 2. In a way, it is similar to the modulation of the LFO, but without the regular, repeating pattern to it. It has four random algorithms to choose from, and you can assign any one of them to a large amount of targets for modulation.
“RTHM”, which is short for Rhythm LFO, lets you modulate certain beats/steps of the audio in different ways. Basically, it is a specialized type of LFO that works in a more musical fashion. It has five different controls you can choose from. For instance, at the 6th step it could have a small nudge on the oscillator frequency by using the “HEXA” control, and you could have the filter cutoff open a bit on the 8th step by using the “OCTO” control. Just like with the Chaox feature, you’re able to assign any one of them to a long list of targets for modulation.
To the right of the LFO section is the Modulation Matrix. This where you can pick from various sources that will affect certain targets. There are six modulation slots available, which may not seem like a large number at first. However, if you consider that Syn’X 2 has eight layers (with six slots per layer), you’ll realize that there are many possible ways to combine all the different modulations into one patch.
The middle of the display contains more settings that I’d like to cover. On the left side, you will find the third LFO’s settings that control the pitch bend and some modulation options. Instead of wheels, there is a joystick which can affect more than one modulation type at a time. Moving it towards the left side will affect the oscillators, while moving to the right will affect the filter.
The amounts for pitch bend, oscillator, and filter are changed using sliders. This works in a decent manner, but I thought that the settings would easier to enter. For instance, I’d like it if I could have right-clicked on a slider for pitch bend amount, and entered in the numeric amount. The way it is now, the small numeric amount pop-ups that it uses will sometimes hang there for a little longer than expected. Also, as you move the slider up or down, sometimes it will not update the amount that is shown.
Layer Upon Layer
The section for the Layer settings has an option to enable an “Easy” edit mode. This is great for when you don’t need all eight layers, and the huge amount of control that goes with them. When it is set this way, it will have basic buttons to select the mode (Single w/Upper and Lower, Split, or Double), and the number of voices for each. You can also copy the settings from the Lower to the Upper, and vice versa.
If it is set to the full edit mode, you will then have access to the eight separate layers. Clicking on each layer button (A through H) will switch between the settings for that particular layer. There are mute and solo buttons below each of the layer buttons, which can help when editing a complex patch.
The “Select All” button will let you edit all the layers at once in the same way. Holding down the Control key and selecting the layers will let you select certain layers to edit at once (i.e. layers 1, 3, and 5), and the Shift key lets you select a certain amount of them in a row (i.e. layers 1,2,3,4). “Toggle” will disable the layers you’ve originally selected for editing, and enable all the others. “Gang” mode is very useful for keeping certain levels the way you want, as it will only increase/decrease them. For example: Unlike the “Select All” feature, using “Gang” mode won’t change all the filter cutoff amounts in every layer to the same amount if you increase layer C’s filter cutoff setting. It will just add to the settings that you’ve already set for the cutoff in each layer.
Arpeggiator, Sequencer and Effects
Syn’X 2 includes an arpeggiator for each keyboard, so you can have up to two of them running at once. The controls for it are on the lower-right part of the display, including up or down modes, a poly mode, as well as gate and swing amounts. Clicking the “Arpeggiator” label brings you to more settings including octave range, voice order, and three additional arp play modes.
The sequencer in Syn’X 2 is polyphonic, and you’re able to input up to four monophonic sequences and have them playback at the same time. The notes can be input using a MIDI keyboard, or by using the mouse. Each of the four sequences can use different voices, and they can have up to 127 steps.
The sequences will each have a different color as they are entered, which makes it easier to tell them apart on the screen. There are controls to zoom in or out, and highlighting or hiding a sequence is easy using the controls on the left side. You can set the rate, or have it synced to the host, and set a gate time for each of the sequences.
Syn’X 2 includes four effects; chorus, delay, phaser, and an EQ. You’re able to access each by clicking on tabs going across the top of the effects area. The chorus is an emulation of the Synthex dual brigade delay. It has a dry/wet control, and settings for the speed, amount, stereo width, and three modes to choose from. This effect sounds very good, and I would love to be able to use this chorus as a separate effect on other plugins. Maybe XILS-lab can also work on an effects version of Syn’X 2?
The delay can be synced to the host, and has separate left/right feedback and delay controls. Those delay times range from one millisecond all the way up to a full five seconds. The phaser has controls to change the speed, amount, sweep, resonance, and stereo setting. Last but not least is the EQ, which has two high/low shelf filters, and includes frequency, resonance, and gain controls.
A great feature they’ve included (and one I always wish for but often missing) is that some of the effect parameters can be used as targets in the modulation matrix. These include the delay time, delay mix, chorus rate, phaser rate, and phaser sweep.
Despite a couple small issues I ran in to with the display, I think they basically knocked this one out of the park. There are just so many features packed in to Syn’X 2 that I couldn’t get to all of them in this review. However, I wanted to make sure I mentioned one additional section of the synth before wrapping this up.
With the Easy setting, there are the three tabs next to the keyboard that I mentioned previously which give you some extra controls and information. When you select the full mode of Syn’X 2, a fourth tab appears called “ADV” (Advanced).
This is where you can select from eight different play modes for the two keyboards, enable unison, pick the number of voices for each keyboard, and you can use what XILS-lab calls the “Guitar Mode”. This is basically a polytimbral mode that you can use with a MIDI guitar, or other device using six MIDI channels. Each MIDI channel can trigger different voices, and they can be voices within different layers as well.
Syn’X 2 really has an enormous number of controls at your disposal. Even if you have it set to the Easy mode, you have a very fine synthesizer plugin at your command, with great filters and modulation options. Speaking of filters, they sound very good. XILS-lab really did an impeccable job at getting the quality of sound that Syn’X 2 delivers. As for emulation of the classic Synthex, I haven’t used the hardware synth before, so I can’t be the best judge of how close it is to the real thing. No matter what, it has great presets, an awesome sound quality and a wealth of modulation possibilities that make this one plugin you have got to check out for yourself.
Syn’X 2 retails for €164 which is about $184 USD. You can get more information and a demo version here: