Review – Analog Lab 2 from Arturia
Sixteen quality instruments (synths, pianos and organs) with a massive library of factory presets for well under a hundred bucks? Not impossible, not with Analog Lab 2!
by David Baer, Nov. 2016
Analog Lab 2 houses the engines of Arturia’s entire current collection of software instruments, sixteen in all to be exact. It is available as an individual purchase for $89 USD and also comes with the Collection V bundle (list price $499 USD). It is available in all mainstream formats in both 32 and 64 bit and can be run as a standalone or in a DAW host.
Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately. This thing offers every single preset of every instrument in the Collection V lineup. That’s over 5300 presets. Even at full list price (and Arturia sales have been known to happen), this is a steal.
So what’s the downside? Why buy the full collection when Analog Lab 2 has all the sounds? It should not be a surprise that the instrument presets cannot be changed using Analog Lab. But as you’ll see, there is great latitude to tweak the sounds using front-panel macro controls. However, you, the user, do not get to choose what the macros are – more on this later.
Analog Lab 2 is a second version of an earlier incarnation (but hereafter we’ll drop the “2” for brevity when naming this current version). It was introduced in a recent major wave of enhancements to Arturia’s software instruments that included numerous improvements to that long-lived line, most notably for some users is the ability to resize the UIs. Arturia used to offer a smaller bundle of synth instruments called Collection Classics V, but that bundle seems to have been quietly withdrawn from the catalog with little fanfare since it’s no longer in evidence on the Arturia Products web page. So, now we just have the full collection bundle (but also, all the single instruments are available for individual purchase).
My fellow writer Rob Mitchell has been reviewing a number of the Arturia software synths in recent issues of SoundBytes. You can read about SEM V, Jup-8 V, Solina V, Synclavier V and Matrix-12 V by clicking on the respective links. We will be providing more coverage of more of these instruments in future (I plan to do a review on the marvelous Arturia Prophet V in our Jan. issue).
Let’s start by introducing the lineup of instruments on offer in Analog Lab. All sixteen of the instruments produce sound via computational means – no sampling is involved. To begin with, we have three pianos: an acoustic piano and two electric pianos. Next we have three classic electronic organs: the B3, the Vox Continental and the Farfisa. The other ten instruments are all synths of historic significance.
Let’s start with the synths in detail. I will list the number of Analog Lab presets offered for each as we go through the list that follows.
Two Moog instruments are on offer, one of them being the instrument that arguably started it all, the Modular V (499 presets), which is based on the imposing tower of electronics made famous in 1968 by (then) Walter Carlos with the blockbuster album Switched On Bach. The initial version of the Arturia Modular instrument was reportedly created with the participation of Bob Moog himself. This software incarnation recreates the original monster in a form that must be considerably easier to program, transport and maintain than the original. Like many of the other instruments in the collection, enhancements have been added where it made sense, most importantly perhaps is that limited polyphony (the Moog Modular was a monosynth) is no longer a restriction. An Analog Lab preset must have been programmed with multiple voices if you are to take advantage of that. If it was not, the Analog Lab user has to accept what is in the preset. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves – we will return to these issues later.
The other Moog is the Mini V (469 presets), which is of course based on the famous Moog instrument of that name. Given its size and price, sales of the imposing Moog Modular was a challenge. The response by Moog was the Mini, which became a legend in its own right. Again, the monophonic limitation of the original is lifted in the software version.
Although Moog was the most recognized name in synths in the seventies, the ARP company (ARP being the initials of the company’s founder) actually was the bestselling line in the 1970s, commanding a 40% market share. The ARP2600 V (535 presets) is based on an instrument of the same name, although there were actually several different versions manufactured. The ARP2600 was a semi-modular device that became a runaway bestseller (relative to the size of the synth market at the time, of course).
The Solina V (147 presets) is based on an instrument developed by a Dutch company, Eminent, that was known for its electronic organs. The Solina was able to produce orchestral-string-like (but clearly synthetic) sounds that obviated the need for expensive, unreliable and difficult to transport Mellotron and Chamberlin keyboards. It was actually marketed under two labels, Eminent and ARP, separate companies who forged an unusual alliance that produced a decent return for both.
Oberheim synths appeared on the scene in the mid-1970s and are represented by two entries in Analog Lab. The first is the SEM (496 presets), based on a synth expansion module (thus the name) that had no keyboard. In practice, it was combined with Moog and other keyboards, not just Oberheim instruments. Again, a monosynth by itself, Oberheim combined multiple modules to produce two, four and eight-voice instruments – powerful at the time, but a pain to program since each module had to be individually configured. The SEM V software eliminates this difficulty, naturally.
The Oberheim Matrix-12 was based on the same voice architecture of the SEM, but it was vastly more user-friendly when it came to sound programming (411 presets). Those with a good knowledge of synth history would probably designate the Matrix-12 as the crowning achievement of the Oberheim synth line.
The Prophet was another product of the 1970s. The Prophet 5, manufactured by Sequential Circuits (later, just Sequential) was the first viable polyphonic (five-voice – thus the number in the name) to be commercially available at a not-overly-exorbitant price. Sequential would for a time be the largest manufacturer of synths in the US. Another Prophet model, the VS, came on the scene a bit later in the mid-1980s. Arturia’s recreation of the Prophet merges both the Prophet 5 and Prophet VS into a single instrument (553 presets) for double your pleasure.
The Roland Jupiter 8 is clearly one of the most revered synths of all time (494 presets). Appearing in the early 1980’s, this took the world by storm due to new types of synth sounds it could produce using a relatively easy and attractive top panel layout. It sported a cassette interface that made it easy to save and load patches, something that made it most attractive in performance situations.
The CS80 is the one Yamaha creation in the Analog Lab lineup (520 presets). It first appeared in 1976. Its price put it out of reach of most musicians and it was unwieldy to transport as well. Only 3000 were manufactured. But it had a lush, luxuriant sound that made it famous. The iconic strains of Vangelis’s Blade Runner score were created using this instrument – anyone familiar with that music will immediately understand why this is one of the most desirable synths of all time.
The Synclavier from New England Digital Corp. is the only digital synth in the collection (470 presets). It was absolutely the top-end of the top-end during its time, that being largely the decade starting around 1985. Even the more modestly configured machines had a price in the if-you-have-to-ask-you-cannot-afford-it strata. But the elite musicians of that era, spanning rock, jazz and soundtrack genres, loved it. It offered FM, additive and sample playback (unsurprisingly quite primitive by today’s standards). The Arturia recreation avoids the sample-based features, but fully delivers on the other digital abilities of the original.
The final six instruments are all pianos and organs. As might be expected, the number of presets for them is much more modest than those available with the synths.
The Hammond B3 is the ubiquitous tone-wheel organ that has been around for about 80 years. The Arturia B3 V incarnation (86 presets) is a two-manual instrument and some of the presets recognize input from two different MIDI channels – needed in order to differentiate between the upper and lower keyboards. A great rotary speaker simulation and some optional stomp effects complete the picture.
The Vox Continental (191 presets) was a mod instrument if ever there was one, sporting a slim, vibrantly- colored body and a keyboard with black naturals and white sharps. One models had just one keyboard, but there was also a two-manual with optional pedalboard model. Available starting in the early 1960s, it caught on fast with the “British Invasion” bands of that era and their US counterparts. It was the Vox Continental that can be heard in the immediately-recognizable intro to Light My Fire by the Doors and also was the foundation for The Animals House of the Rising Sun. With its bright timbre, it could hold its own in electric-guitar-heavy mixes. The Arturia version is the multi-manual model and presets may respond to multiple MIDI channels.
The main competitor to the Vox Continental was the Compact Farfisa Deluxe organ (147 presets), made by an Italian electronics manufacturer, which appeared in 1964. Like the Vox Continental, it was far more portable than the bulky Hammond B3. Furthermore, the Farfisa had a number of electronic stops (sounds) like Flute, Trumpet and Strings that made it a less-expensive alternative to the polysynths of the time, so it was more than just an organ. As such, it was a very popular choice of bands for the next three decades.
There were two kinds of electric pianos: those that used vibrating reeds to create the sound and those that used rods, the sound of both being captured by pickups and amplified. The Wurli V (193 presets) is of the first type. Reeds can be thought of as having a brighter but hollower tone than rods and of being a little more capable of cutting through a mix as a result. This instrument has appeared on an uncountable number of rock, pop, jazz and other types of recordings.
The Stage-73 V (77 presets) is a recreation of the famous Fender electric piano, or actually two of them: the Suitcase model and the Stage-73 (there being 73 notes on the keyboard); Stage-73 V can switch between the two models. Like the Wurli, this instrument was used in more places than can be counted. Slightly mellower in tone than the Wurli, it sometimes had a different purpose, being suitable for rhythm-guitar type applications and in more ballad-like contexts.
Finally, we have the only acoustic instrument in Collection V, a piano. More precisely, Piano V (38 presets) offers three upright piano models and seven grands, modelled on everything between traditional construction and the fanciful (glass body, for example). Things like hammer hardness and hammer position are all adjustable giving a fairly wide range of sonic possibilities and extensive flexibility.
For all the sophistication of the on-board sound possibilities, the operation of Analog Lab is quite straightforward. There are several key parts to the UI of Analog Lab. Let’s begin with the browser. When you’ve got well in excess of 5000 sounds, there better be a pretty good way of locating the ones of interest. To that end, there’s a reasonably decent filtered search capability. One can search based on sound type (bass, brass, bells, etc.), characteristics (quiet, short, simple, etc.) and instrument. Multiple filter selections can be made that can produce a reasonably well-targeted list of sounds from which to pick.
There is also a means to mark a sound as a favorite. Although there is no ability to filter on favorites, you can instead sort the list of selected sounds so that presets marked as favorites appear at the top. But there is also a playlist capability, which is one easy way to organize your favorites for easy retrieval.
Speaking of the manual, it’s quite adequate. However, you may benefit from downloading the individual manuals of all the included instruments to better understand their function. This will help in using the macro controls, to be described next.
The browser normally makes up the majority of the UI . A panel of macro controls (knobs and sliders) can optionally be displayed, as can an on-screen keyboard. MIDI learn of all the macro-controls is fully supported.
Once a sound is selected, the main action will be with the macro controls. For the most part, these will remain dedicated to a single invariant purpose for a given instrument. For example, the sliders will always correspond to organ drawbars for the B-3 V organ. Whether altering them will have an effect will depend entirely upon whether or not they are assigned in the underlying preset. In many cases, they will have no effect, and there is no visual clue as to what the situation is. In other cases, the audibility of an effect may depend on another factor. An LFO speed macro may seem to have no effect, but add a bit of mod-wheel which brings up, say, vibrato and you may hear it.
I hesitate to make a big deal of this given how very much you actually get for your purchase dollar, but it can make life a little difficult. If the macros do what you want, you are in great shape. If they do not, you have no control over things and in many cases no understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes.
Owners of any of the full implementations of the individual instruments do have the ability to bring up the full instrument in a mode where programming can be done and results saved. The screen shot below shows the Prophet instrument brought up within Analog Lab.
Another great feature is the Multi capability, which can be used to incorporate two primary sounds as either layered or keyboard split. There is a simple mixer (including panning) and sends to two FX buses. One effect from a nice list of typical synth effects can be placed on each bus, so if the primary sound needs additional FX, this is how it’s done. One may have a multi with only one primary sound loaded.
The last thing I want to mention is the Template category for synths. A lot of the synth presets are … shall we say … rather colorful and complex. If you’re looking for more conventional synth sounds, try using something off the Template list (filter for Template in the browser). Many of these have a good starting point and sufficient macro controls for the most-frequently-tweaked parameters that you may quickly find satisfaction.
Is Analog Lab for You?
At $89 USD, Analog Lab provides a huge return on investment – there are over 5300 sounds which works out to be a little over one and one-half cents per sound. Now, of course, there are going to be a huge number of sounds you will flat out dislike. So what’s new? That’s always true of factory preset collections. But with that huge number of sounds, you are almost assured of ending up with a few hundred go-to presets you absolutely love. Of course, plan to spend more than a couple of hours to find those as you attempt to audition the entirety of the content. I will not pretend I’ve listened to them all in preparing this review.
For anyone just getting started performing with computer-based instruments, Analog Lab would be a great place to begin. You have immediate access to several classic organs (good for rock, jazz, gospel, you name it) and two electric and one acoustic piano (ditto on multiple genre applicability). Then you have massive collection of synth sounds. This is all for less than a hundred dollars. Yes, there are better acoustic pianos and a case can be made that some of the included instruments have better alternatives. For example, it would not be difficult to find someone who would passionately assert that Diva is superior to Jup-8 V for analog realism (as much as a Diva fan that I am, I happen to think Jup-8 V sounds pretty spectacular itself). But there’s simply no way anyone would assemble a collection of such alternatives at anywhere the low cost of Analog Lab. It’s hard to conceive of a better way to get started than with Analog Lab.
For those more invested in computer-instrument performance and who elect to purchase the whole Collection V bundle will also have good reason to appreciate Analog Lab, especially where live performance is involved. Use the individual instruments on your own time to refine and tweak the sounds, and then use Analog Lab play-list-based performance in public – you have the best of both worlds at your disposal.
For more information and to purchase, go here:
Arturia products are also sold by a number of other music retailers.
Arturia products do go on sale, sometimes for quite attractive discounts, so patience may be rewarded, especially if you are going to go full in and acquire the bundle of the entire collection of software instruments (and Black Friday is only days away from the publication date of this review). Even at list price, the bundle comes out to be about $31 per instrument, all of which are quality creations. For anyone desiring the bundle, one strategy would be to purchase and register only Analog Lab. No guarantees, but I’d be surprised if an attractive offer to upgrade didn’t show up in your email in-box within a few months. This has been Arturia’s MO in the past.