Review – Synclavier V by Arturia
Arturia recreates yet another classic, and this one takes after an expensive, legendary instrument from the early 1980s. We check out its feature-laden interface and see how well it holds up.
by Rob Mitchell, July 2016
The original Synclavier was a digital sampling/synthesizer workstation which was first released by New England Digital Corporation in the late 1970s. It was an expensive system for the average musician, way out of reach for most, but there were some well-known artists that had worked with it. Some of these musicians included Chick Corea, Michael Jackson, Frank Zappa, and Stevie Wonder. It used FM, additive synthesis, and sampling technology with sample rates of up to 100 kHz. During the 1980s, it had some competition in the form of another product called Fairlight CMI.
Arturia has just released their new collection of software instruments called the V Collection 5. In this latest incarnation, they’ve added some new products to the collection and updated the interfaces of many of their older ones. The one I am focusing on for this review is a new addition to the collection. Arturia worked out a deal where they were able to use the original source code of the Synclavier audio engine, and mixing this with a new user interface, as well as some new and improved features, the Synclavier V was born.
To install Synclavier V on a PC, you’ll need Windows 7 (or higher), four gigabytes of RAM, 2 GHz CPU, and an OpenGL 2.0 compatible GPU. To install on a Mac, you’ll need OS X 10.8 (or higher), four gigabytes of RAM, 2 GHz CPU, and an OpenGL 2.0 compatible GPU. It works in standalone, VST 2.4 (32-bit/64-bit), VST 3 (32-bit/64-bit), AAX (32-bit with PT 10.3.8, 64-bit with PT 11), Audio Unit (32-bit/64-bit), and NKS.
After you’ve installed Synclavier V, you have to register it with a serial number and unlock code. You’ll also need the Arturia Software Center, which is simple to install and easy to use. The Software Center is what allows you to activate the Arturia plugins you have purchased. It also enables you to download demo versions of other Arturia products, and update any plugins you have already installed.
After you start it in your DAW, or you have the standalone version running, you’ll see the main display. Along the top of the display is the Upper Toolbar. This is where you’re able to save or import/export preset timbres and banks, resize the display (60% – 200% of its normal size), use the browser, and get to many more of the detailed settings. In the original Synclavier, you could use up to four Partial Timbres at once. With the Synclavier V, you’re able to use up to twelve Partial Timbres at once, and together they form a “Timbre”. I will get into more detail on what makes up a Partial Timbre in the review. A full “Timbre” can be just thought of as a preset in Synclavier V.
When you save your own preset timbre, you can give it a name, put it in a certain category, give it attributes (such as Acid, Bright, Short, Simple), and give it a description to let the user know more detail about the preset and how it works. This might be used to tell them that (for instance) the modulation wheel is mapped to a certain part of the sound. They might also use it to describe the general sound of the preset timbre.
When you use the browser to load a preset timbre (over 400 are included), you can filter the results by type (bass, keys, lead, etc.), bank, and/or characteristic. In the middle section of the browser window, you can switch the “Type” column so it will show the sound designer’s name. Other choices for that column are “Favorite” or “Bank Name”. I thought the one that was most handy to use was Favorite, just so I could easily see any of them that I had marked in that manner. “Playlists” can be used to set up sets of presets you want to use for various reasons. One way to use this feature might be for combining all the presets you may end up using if you’re going to play live. Each playlist could be a different song, with all the presets needed, and in the order that you’d like.
On the right side of the Upper Toolbar are a few menu items I will describe shortly. They offer some advanced functions, but I still have to go over the main display first.
This main view you see after starting Synclavier V is called the “Standard Panel Mode”. Here you will find controls to adjust the Timbre settings, Amplifier and Harmonic Envelope Offsets, FM Modulation amount, the Polyphonic modes, Portamento settings, and more. On this Standard Panel, the timbre settings are Global. In other words, if you turn up the volume here, it is the overall level that will increase. That’s basically the way all the controls work on this panel, and the more detailed controls for individual partial timbres are in a hidden panel. I will get to the hidden controls after going over some of the functions on this main display.
One of the controls I wanted to mention isn’t what I thought it would be at first glance. The “Voice Chorus” lets you dial in an additional harmonized voice of whichever partials you have playing at the time. So if you have a guitar-like sound which normally sounds like one string being plucked, you will hear two different pitches instead of one. The pitch of that extra voice depends on how you set the dial. A setting of 0.50 gives it a pitch one octave below the original, and 1.0 is basically the “off” setting as there is no voice chorus when set this way. Using 1.5 will give you a perfect fifth above the original pitch. Starting from 2.0 and up, it will raise the pitch in increments of one harmonic at a time. For instance, 2.0 gives a 2nd harmonic above the original pitch, 3.0 is a 3rd harmonic, and so on. The “Chorus Fine” will tune in smaller amounts, ranging from -0.100 to +0.100.
The Amp Env/Harm Env Offsets controls work much like standard envelope controls. The Attack, Decay, and Release can be adjusted, and as with all the controls, you can see the amounts as they are changed in the display at the bottom-left. Also, that display will show the amount of whichever control you hover the mouse over, so you don’t have to click on a control to see what its exact settings are. The Harm Env Offset works in a slightly different manner, as it changes the character of the sound if it is FM-based. To put it simply, you can think of it as an overall tone adjustment for any FM-based sounds that you work with.
The “Bit Depth” control brings more bit resolution to the sound, as the original Synclavier used eight bits to cover all of the audio territory. In Synclavier V, you can adjust it anywhere from four bits on up to 24-bit resolution. If you want a more aliased/noisy sound, you might want to use the 4-bit setting. As you turn up the amount, it will increase the amount two bits at a time.
Synclavier V also has an arpeggiator, and the controls for it are in the “Repeat/Arpeggio” section. The Repeat button will enable a repeating mode, and it will keep repeating the note(s) that you have held down. Switching on the Arpeggio button will play an arpeggio of the notes you are playing. If Repeat is also switched on at the same time, it will continue playing the arpeggiated pattern. “Sync” will synchronize to the timing that your DAW’s tempo is set to, and speed is determined by the Rate control. There are six patterns you can choose from for the arpeggiator, but you can’t add your own patterns or edit the existing ones.
Extended Panel Mode
Opening the hidden Extended Panel reveals an abundance of knobs and buttons, letting you get even more detailed control over the sound. At the upper-left are twelve buttons which let you select the individual partial timbres. Other handy controls that are available here are Mute and Solo, so you can select one partial, click Solo, and you’d hear just that one partial you selected. If you want to silence one of them, you can just click the Mute button.
After one is selected, any changes you make with the other controls on this panel will only affect that partial timbre. You’re also able to select more than one if you’d like, using the “Shift” key you can select a range of them, for instance 1 through 4. Using Control (on the PC) or Command (on the Mac) lets you pick certain ones out of the 12, such as 1, 3, 5, and 7 for instance. Buttons are also provided to copy and paste from one partial to another.
Across the top are the controls for the Amplitude and Harmonic envelopes. These are similar to typical ADSR envelopes, but with two more stages included. These provide a good deal of control and power for your sound design, as all of these controls are for each individual partial timbre, or a group of them if you have selected more than one. For both of the envelope types, you have controls for Delay, Attack, Peak, Decay, Sustain, and Release. The ADSR stages of this configuration are pretty much typical, but the added Delay stage in the Amplitude envelope is a nice touch. One way you could use it is to have two or three (or more partials) sounding off, but with a slightly delayed attack stage on each. If you time out the delays just right, you could easily get a strummed or arpeggiated effect just the way you’d like it. The additional “Peak” stage is the setting for the envelope level that is right after the attack stage, which augments the envelope’s possibilities.
Similar to the Harmonic Envelope Offset controls I mentioned earlier, the Harmonic envelope on this Extended panel only deals with the FM amounts. The differences are that you have many more stages of control over the sound/shape of the FM, and you can adjust these controls for each and every Partial Timbre.
In the lower-left of this panel are many controls, some of which adjust the volume, tuning, and panning for each partial. The Voice Chorus works like it does on the Main panel, but in this section it is for each partial. Pitch Tracking can be switched on or off for each partial, and FM amounts can be adjusted from here as well. FM Ratio and FM Fine will adjust the amount of the FM modulator, which in turn affects the FM carrier frequency for the selected partial, or group of partials. FM Amount is an overall control for the FM level on the selected partial.
All of these FM controls depend on the settings located within the Time Slices page (more info on this page shortly) as the selected partial will need a carrier and modulator wave assigned for the FM to actually work. That assignment is done on that Time Slices page. “Frame Speed” is a setting which adjusts the crossfade of the Timbre Slice Frames.
Towards the middle of the panel are the “Vibrato” and “Stereo” sections. In the Vibrato section, you’re able to configure vibrato (much like an LFO) for a partial or a group of them all together. Each partial can have the vibrato setup differently. For example, you could have a slow rate on one, and a fast rate on the next, and different waveform types for each. There are six waveform shapes, rate and carrier (depth) controls, and sync. The Link and Modulator basically work together, and allow you to affect the FM with the vibrato. The other controls affect how the vibrato works in many different ways. These include the ability to add a delay before it starts, what note it will start from in the vibrato, setting it to play in a linear fashion, quantizing to a certain semitone, and inverting the vibrato wave itself.
In the “Stereo” section, the panning of the partial (or group of partials) can be manipulated in different ways. Sine, triangle and square waves can be used for modulation. Rate and depth controls let you adjust how it affects the placement, and it can be synced to the host as well. Besides panning, it can be used for tremolo if you set the “Phase” control to either a 0 or 360 degree setting. When it is set in this particular way, you can’t use it for panning, as it will only work in one mode or the other. Some of the other controls are similar to the Vibrato section; as they have the ability to add a delay before it starts, and it can be set to play in a linear fashion.
The Screen (SCR) Page
Now we will get to the extra screens where you can add carriers and modulators, use time slices, make adjustments in the mixer, and more. To get there, you just click the “SCR” button in the upper-right, and a different screen appears. Actually, it pans over to the secondary “monitor” screen by using an animation of sorts. Across the top of its display are many tabs: Envelopes, Key Dynamics, Time Slices, Mixer, and Mods. A bit farther to the right side are tabs for FX and Settings.
On the Envelopes screen, you’re able to make adjustments to the amplitude and harmonic envelopes for the 12 Partial Timbres. You just click on which partial you want to edit on the left side, and either click/drag the points on the envelope itself, or make changes numerically below the envelope. One great feature I really like is that it will show a ghost image of the other envelopes shapes behind the one you’re currently editing. They also added mute and solo buttons for each partial along the left side.
The Key Dynamics screen is for adjusting key splits and crossfades for the individual partials. It’s easy to click and drag the points the way you want, making split points, or adding fades at either side if you’d like.
On the Time Slices screen, you’re able to set the waveforms you’d like to use for the partial. These include sine, sawtooth, square, and triangle waveforms. Alternatively, you can use additive synthesis methods to edit the levels (and phase!) of the 24 harmonic coefficients for the carrier and modulator waveforms, and use that in place of the supplied waveforms. It will display the actual waveform down below the editing section as you are making changes to it. To top it all off, you can use up to 50 Time Slice frames to make adjustments to the waveforms (including the phase amounts) in each frame. This makes it possible to create an evolving sound over time as it morphs from one frame to the next.
Adding a Time Slice frame is easy. You just click on the purple timeline up above the partial editing area, make some changes to the carrier and/or modulator waveforms, click on the timeline again to add another frame, and keep going until you have up to 50 of those frames. They can be dragged from left to right on the timeline until it is set how you’d like. Multiply this by the twelve Partial Timbres available and you can see that this is very powerful.
Towards the middle of the screen are numerical amounts that you can edit. These are for certain parameters including delay time, fade time, volume level, transpose (tuning), volume, and modulation. Each of those can be adjusted on each of the frames that are added, so it not only morphs between the waveforms, it also will morph between each of these additional settings. A couple examples that you could use this for: “Transpose” can be used to sequence some notes, as each frame could be set to a different pitch, and “Modulation” adjusts the amount of the FM modulation per frame.
The Mixer screen is for adjusting levels and panning, FM ratios, and some other parameters. Many of these are duplicates of what is found the Extended Panel, but it makes it easier to have each and every one of them on one screen in this manner. When you can see all the volume and pan levels at once versus seeing only one partial at a time, it can really help speed up your sound design. Also, if you make changes on this screen, it will reflect those changes on the Hidden Panel, and vice-versa.
The Mods tab is for a modulation matrix, with up to 16 columns of sources and destinations for modulation. The sources are the top, and the targets are along the bottom of the screen. There are eight different sources to choose from: Pitch bend, sustain, velocity, mod wheel, aftertouch, expression pedal, release, and keyboard. Some of the many destinations are tuning, frame speed, frame tuning, FM amount, volume, panning, and the envelope stages can be modulated, too. Sliders control the amount for each matrix slot, and there are mute and solo buttons along the left side.
FX and Settings
Synclavier V has six different effects, up to three of which can be loaded concurrently. These include a flanger, phaser, chorus, delay, reverb, and dub-delay. These all work quite well and sound good, I just wish they had presets you could load, or at least let you save presets of your own. One other shortcoming is that you can’t setup modulation for the effects in the modulation matrix. You could automate the controls from inside your DAW, which I did try, and that worked with no problems. Another feature I’d like added is to be able have FX Sends on each of the 12 partials, so you could have certain ones with effects, while some others are left “dry”.
The Settings tab has controls for adjusting the pitch bend range, enabling a normalizing function, adjusting the noise floor, changing the oversampling amount, and the bit depth. The pitch bend range can be adjusted up to +/-25 semitones, and “Timbre Normalize” helps keep all the levels under 0.0 dB. The “Noise Floor” setting adds a level of noisy-realism, as the original Synclavier hardware had a certain amount of low-level noise. The oversampling amount has a default setting of 4X. It has a large range, as it can be set anywhere between 1X to 64X oversampling. The bit depth can set between 4 bits and 24 bits, while the original Synclavier had a depth of 8 bits.
One nice addition in this section is the ability to change the tuning in a few different ways. Using the “Octave Ratio” control, you can dial-in different intervals between the notes. For instance, an Octave Ratio of 2.00 makes a one octave range cover two octaves, so it would then be using whole-tone steps. The individual steps can be fine-tuned as well, so you can come up with some alternate tunings of your own. It doesn’t load Scala *.TUN files however, so maybe that could be added in a future version?
Besides being a great synthesizer, the original Synclavier was also a sampler. This new Arturia product doesn’t have the sampling functionality, but I think most people these days have samplers they can use to cover those types of tasks. This is fine by me, as I already have two sampler plugins anyway. Synclavier V just concentrates on the additive and FM synthesis side of it, and in many ways it easily surpasses what the original could do.
Despite my few minor grievances, this really should be a no-brainer for sound designers. It has one of the easiest to use layouts I’ve ever encountered, and besides being very intuitive, it definitely sounds excellent. To be honest, it’s just plain old fun making sounds with so many options at your command. I never felt like the large number of choices was overwhelming, yet at the same time the instrument delivers a considerable amount of power.
Synclavier V is part of the new V Collection 5 which retails for $399 USD, but it is also available separately for $199 USD. You can get more info and download a demo version from their website here: https://www.arturia.com/synclavier-v/overview