Review – String Studio VS-2 from Applied Acoustic Systems

String Studio, an instrument from Applied Acoustic Systems, was first introduced about ten years ago. It’s just been upgraded to a new version and there’s much about which to be excited.

by David Baer, July 2014

Applied Acoustic Systems, more frequently known as AAS, is a Canadian development shop specializing in synths that produce sound not from oscillators or sample playback but from mathematical computations that model real-world configurations of objects that vibrate, cause vibrations and/or transmit vibrations.  One of their early instruments, String Studio which was first introduced nearly ten years ago, was devoted to modeling sounds made by a vibrating string.  We’ll get to the specifics of all that shortly, but let’s start with commonly shared experience with the earlier version.

There was a sale perhaps four years ago when String Studio (hereafter “SS”) was made available for a crazy-low no-brainer price.  I grabbed it and so did a great many other people.  I played with it a bit and then largely forgot about it.  AAS introduced a PC/VST-only 64-bit version a few years later and I upgraded to that but still did next to nothing with the instrument.  Based on discussions on the Cakewalk software forum, a number of my friends there did exactly the same thing.  Well (spoiler alert!), it turns out that was a rather glaring error.  Even that first version (aka VS-1) had a whole lot going for it.

So, why are my fellow forum friends and I only just now discovering what we’ve been missing?  Maybe a part of the reason is the tendency to insufficiently respect something that cost so little in the first place.  But a bigger reason, for me at least, was that I was looking for the instrument to do some things it wasn’t particular good at and this caused me to overlook what it excelled at.  Specifically, I think my expectation was for an instrument to do credible orchestral strings (violin, etc.).  When it didn’t deliver impressively on that front, I just moved on to other synths.

What really turned my opinion of the instrument around in the end was a brilliant demo video recently created for SS VS-2 (I’ll direct you to that shortly).  It shows the wealth of stunning presets that you would be hard pressed to get out of a more conventional synth.  But they are not necessarily the ones you might be initially be looking for in something that models strings which are excited by bows, plucks or hammers.


The Basics of String Studio

Let me summarize the essential components of SS sound creation.  I won’t bother to go into great detail because the excellent 67-page manual does it so well (good documentation being a hallmark of AAS).  The manual is available here:

http://s3.amazonaws.com/aas_manual/string-studio-vs-2-manual.pdf

We start with an imaginary string, which can have a variety of properties: how long does it vibrate, how harmonic/inharmonic are the partials, and how the partials vary in level.  Then we need to make the string vibrate.  We do this with a pluck (plectrum, finger or whatever), a hammer (a felt-tipped piano hammer, dulcimer hammer or whatever) or a bow.  Taking the pluck as an example, the stiffness, the amount of protrusion, the velocity of the pluck and so on will govern how the string will respond when excited.

Then there’s an optional resonating body.  This has a size, a shape and possibly some openings.  All these factors govern the characteristics of resonance.  But there does not have to be a resonating body.  Instead the sound could be amplified via a pickup, as in an electric guitar with a solid body.

Additional factors include:

  • geometry (where along the length of the string does the excitement occur?)
  • damping (does the string vibrate unabated until all energy is dissipated or does something silence it when a note-off is received?)
  • termination (do frets like those on a guitar terminate one end of the string or does a finger do it as would be the case on a violin?)

The following illustration taken from the user manual nicely summarizes things:


The above is augmented by some optional additional processing capabilities such as a filter and an ADSR envelope controlling level.  Vibrato may be added via a dedicated LFO, and a second LFO is available to modulate the filter cutoff.


The Play View

Most of what we’ve discussed so far is controlled by tabs in the Edit View (shown at the top of this article).  Additional synth controls reside in the Play View shown below.


The options seen here will be familiar to anyone with experience with synths.  Unison, for example, works pretty much the same as it does on any instrument.  The Play View also hosts the controls for an arpeggiator.  Again, this is largely familiar ground, but SS VS-2 also supplies a mechanism to introduce rhythmic patterns into the arpeggiator playback pattern.

Finally, we have some convenience controls over important effects parameters.  But the detail for effects is found on the third major UI panel, the FX View.


The FX View

SS VS-2 offers onboard effects that include the following: EQ, Compression, Delay, Distortion, Chorus, Flanger, Phaser, Wah (two types), Notch Filter and Reverb.  All but distortion are available in the FX View.  Distortion is to be found in the Edit View, probably just because there was more room for it in that part of the interface.


The effects are all quite good and there’s little more that need be said here.


So What’s New?

Owners of SS VS-1 have much to celebrate with this new release, but especially those Mac or non-VST users, since VS-2 now offers a 64-bit option across the board.  The already generous number of presets in VS-1 has been expanded to a whopping 730 (and over 850 if you include the new Frontiers expansion library that upgraders get gratis).  Some of the effects are new, like the compressor and the EQ.

There are probably no more than 1% of synth users who care about alternate tunings.  But for those who do, this is a seriously important feature.  VS-2 will make those folks very happy with the inclusion of support for the Scala file format.

The new interface has been the subject of some debate on the forums.  Some users, me included, think the new interface is a considerable improvement.  I personally found the VS-1 interface to be a bit obscure and confusing.  Critics are calling the new UI too “tabby” and would prefer all controls visible concurrently.  But no matter what side you come down on in that debate, I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t prefer the new greatly-improved browser.


Zounds, What Sounds!

Let’s come back to the subject of the factory preset library, it being one of the most compelling reasons to own this instrument.  Because physical modelling is something far from the familiar territory of subtractive synthesis, one might be a little reluctant to purchase this synth due to the mysteries of programming it.  Well, simply do not worry.  The vast number of presets included suggests that you’ll rarely need to do more than a little creative tweaking.

To begin with, we have a total of 124 arp sounds.  There are 76 plucked acoustic simulations and 46 more plucked electric ones.  Other categories include Bass, Bowed, Keys, Synth, Pad, Ethnic and Ambient.  There are three categories are called “Signature”; they present some presets by specific designers but the sounds therein seem to be duplicates also found elsewhere.

At the time this is being written, the upgrade path from VS-1 to VS-2 includes a new library of 128 sounds called Frontiers as part of the upgrade price.  For those who are really into String Studio, two other expansion libraries, Journeys and Entangled Species, may be purchased separately.

How well you like SS and how you respond to it will probably depend on your general sound preferences.  SS can do some very convincing simulations of certain types of real-world instruments.  It seems to excel in doing plucked sounds.  Realistic bowed sounds are perhaps its weakest suit.

But to my ears, the non-real sounds are the most stimulating.  I love that many of the SS presets are unabashedly synthetic sounding.  For example, one of my favorite presets is an electro-cello sound called simply “Cello”.  It sounds decidedly “synthy”, and that’s what makes it so stimulating.  It turns out there are an abundance of compelling presets in a category we could label “synthy”.

Of course, your mileage may vary and you will probably have your own set of favorites.  No doubt most people will find much of the SS preset content of little use, but I’d be surprised if most folks wouldn’t find something to delight them here.  SS may not be an instrument that you’ll end up using in every project.  But it can make some gorgeous sounds that cannot be gotten from other synths, and thus it is very special in that regard.

And that brings us back to the demo video created for VS-2.  The keyboardist is a virtuoso from Brazil named Thiago Pinheiro.  He takes us on a breathtaking tour of the sounds in SS and ably demonstrates the diversity of sound available in SS VS-2.

This video is what turned my opinion of SS completely around.  My only criticism is that AAS doesn’t supply an annotated timeline that lists the presets used throughout.  With so many presets, it’s no easy matter to find your way to the ones from the video you are most excited about.


Additional Content

There are three add-on libraries available for SS:

  • Journey by sound designer Gregory Simpson purports to “evoke the essence of other times, places or cultures”
  • Entangled Species by David Kristian “grants exclusive access to the beloved tools, inspirational encounters and living sounds” of the designer
  • Frontier by Daniel Stawczyk is “a reserve of dazzling sounds coming straight out of deep-space exploration” (this one comes free with the upgrade from SS V1).

The sounds in each are varied – all over the map really.  There are some glorious sounding presets in each and some weird-sounding material in each.  If you like the factory content in SS, you won’t be disappointed in the optional additional material.  I have not lived with them long enough to have picked a favorite (frankly, auditioning the factory content alone takes hours given the amount of it – this is going to take a while!).  I can say without reservation that I’m very happy to have all three additional libraries at hand.


Is String Studio for You?

The official list price for SS is $199 USD, but AAS is known to have not infrequent sales offering considerable discounts.  In fact, those reading this review within three weeks after publication can buy a new license for $89.   The add-on libraries, normally $39 USD, are available for $19.  Good deals all around.

Upgrades for SS VS-1 users are a paltry $29 USD and the upgrade includes a copy of the Frontier add-on library.  I hereby declare that to be a no-brainer.

SS VS-2 is available as VST, AU and AAX, in both 32-bit and 64-bit.  It can also be run as a stand-alone application.

If you’re reading this after Aug. 4, 2014, you will sadly have missed the current sale.  Don’t despair.  There will almost certainly be another, so just be patient (and be sure to get on the AAS mailing list so as not to miss out).

Those reluctant to take the plunge might want to consider the less expensive alternative of purchasing just one or more of the expansion libraries, all of which come with the free AAS player.  The player (shown right) just has the ability to choose the preset and adjust the volume.  Most presets also allow mod-wheel control over vibrato depth.  Of course, all the expansion libraries work with the full instrument, so your investment is protected if you decide later to upgrade.  If you are uncertain about how much ROI you’d get from SS, picking up one of the expansion packs to use with the free player is a relatively low-risk way to ease into things, especially at just $19 a pop.

AAS provides a fully functional demo that downloads quickly and installs easily.  Authorization is a trivial process if your DAW has an internet connection.  It’s a tad more work if it does not.

Finally, I want to say something about AAS support.  It’s among the best you will find anywhere.  Yes, as a reviewer you often get treated well in any case.  But I’ve dealt with AAS as a lowly customer and was always impressed at the timely, friendly communications.  They are a first-class outfit by anyone’s standard.

Combine that fact with the marvelous capability of String Studio, and it’s a sure-fire win/win.  Check out this wonderful instrument – I don’t think you will be disappointed.

For more information, latest pricing, etc. from AAS, go here:

https://www.applied-acoustics.com/string-studio-vs-2/

 

 

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