Review – Bazille by u-he
There’s a new synth from u-he – that statement alone should have gotten your attention. This one is a virtual analog model with 80s digital twists, and very flexible patching.
by Warren Burt, Nov. 2014
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, (MY version of the “old analog days”) one of the joys of hardware synthesizers was seeing what capabilities engineers put in each module. Not only, because of the nature of the circuitry, would each module be slightly different, but each designer would build different abilities in. A Moog, Buchla, or Serge envelope generator each had their own unique characteristics. So each module had different musical potentials and one of the strategies you developed was asking, what are the potentials of each module? What unique compositional possibilities does it represent? This was the pleasure of the (analog) hardware synthesizer – of sinking deeply into each module – asking what unique sounds will it produce, unfettered by commercial or “normal” musical desires.
I’ve admired the products of Urs Heckmann for many years, but never had the opportunity to use any of them until now. One of my main interests is in controlling pitch as many ways as possible, so when I saw the multiple methods of controlling pitch offered by Bazille’s oscillators, I was sold. Like many u-he products, it had an extended beta period (They like getting things right at u-he!) but finally version 1.0 was released.
Bazille (pronounced “bat-zilla”) is an analog-style VST2 and AU and AAX format (32 and 64 bit) plugin synth. It is patchable and modular, although it consists of just one non-reconfigurable set of modules. That is, for example, there are four envelope generators, and you can’t pop a fifth one somewhere onto the desktop. This is indeed just like an old hardware synth. However, also like a hardware synth, each module can be used in multiple ways, so what at first seem like limitations are in fact opportunities to indulge in clever patching. This kind of cleverness is one the designers of Bazille encourage, all throughout the manual.
This is a synth which invites patching experimentation. Any output can go to any input, and the results from doing that are sometimes quite surprising and useful. There is no modulation matrix in the machine. Patching happens either with patch-cords or with drop-down menus and control knobs allow for scaling of the inputs instead.
There are four oscillators (which offer a number of abilities of the digital oscillators of the 1980s) and four envelope generators. Each receives the same pitch or note-on information from MIDI. There are two output amplifiers, which can be triggered on from a gate signal or any of the envelope generators. What there does not seem to be is any way to have the synth ON without having an external midi in. If you want to treat the synth like an old-fashioned keyboard-less analog synth, you’ll have to either wedge a key down, or set up a patch which sends a single MIDI pitch with an off/on switch in some MIDI program like ArtWonk, Max, or PD. Although I understand the logic of this, it does strike me as curious that an analog model would not have included the option to do without MIDI altogether.
When you first install it, and play with the presets, you’ll notice that it is rather CPU intensive. The presets are usually where sound designers strut their stuff (Is your CPU big enough to handle THIS one?) However, as they say in the manual, a single layer patch should play OK on just about any modern hardware. I used two machines for my testing. First, an ASUS Tab Vivo Book Windows 8 netbook, powered by an Atom processor. Not the most powerful machine in the world. I also used an ASUS notebook computer with an i5 processor and lots of RAM. This is a considerably more powerful machine. With the netbook, I was able to set up a single layer, monophonic 4 oscillator patch and it used between 25-50% of the CPU. So for using Bazille as an analog emulation, a small computer is indeed fine. I was even able to push it up to two-voice polyphonic operation, and use about 90% of the CPU. Longer envelope tails, resulting in de facto three or more voice polyphony, proved too much for the netbook, even with just a single layer patch. On the other hand, no matter what I threw at the i5 machine, especially with the “Multicore” switch turned on, it handled it with ease. Multiple layer patches with long envelope tails, played polyphonically, seldom used more than 60% of the CPU, usually around 40%. And for a more “normal” use of the machine, CPU usage stayed around 15-25%.
The oscillators have four different ways to control their pitch. There is MIDI in, of course, which also accepts Scala .tun files, so your MIDI input can be either normal 12-note tuning, or any other exotic tuning you wish. In addition, the “Tune” knob on the oscillators can control the oscillator in semitones, overtones, undertones, and hertz. There is also a “Modify” knob, which can multiply the frequency, or detune in Cents, or over a 5 Hz range. Then there is a Frequency Control “CV in,” which can control the oscillator over a 50 semitone range, or a 5 semitone range, or in Cents. Additionally, “MIDI Learn” can be applied to the Tune knob, or the Modify knob, or the “CV in” scaling knob. Interestingly, when an external control is applied to the Tune knob with MIDI Learn, the result is tuning in semitones (or other equally spaced intervals), even if the Tune knob is set to control the oscillator in overtone or undertone steps. This is an interesting resource, to be sure, but I would have thought that external control on the Tune knob would produce the kind of effect the knob was set to. Apparently not. Perhaps this might be a feature to incorporate into a future update.
The oscillators then have four different ways of modifying timbre. First is Phase Modulation, as in the “Frequency Modulation” of the Yamaha DX-series of instruments. There are seven different varieties of this to select from. Then there is Phase Distortion, as in the Casio synths of the 1980s, with eight different waveforms to distort the phase. There’s a unique kind of modification called “Fractalize” which is uses a windowing operation (three different flavors of that), then there’s good old garden-variety amplitude modulation. The basic waveform is a cosine wave, however, with the Phase Distortion settings, this can be modified in many ways, and additionally, the waveform can be set to either of the “Map” settings (more on these later), so the oscillator can work with any waveform specified with up to 128 points. In terms of timbral and pitch control possibilities, this really is one of the most powerful Oscillators available today.
The front panel of the synth is laid out to suggest two sets of two Oscillators controlled by a Low Frequency Oscillator which would go into a Filter and a final Amplifier and an Envelope Generator. But the modules are also designed with many other kinds of modulation controls. Each of the Oscillators, for example, can also function as a Low Frequency Oscillator, and the two Mapping Generators mentioned above can provide very interesting patterns. There’s also a nifty and moderately complicated sequencer for more complex control, and two additional Ramp generators. Plus, one should remember that every single control has MIDI-learn capabilities. So the possibilities of external control are also immense.
In Bazille, what look like duplicates often aren’t. Variations exist between some of the modules. This hearkens back to the old analog days when each hardware module has its own characteristics and abilities. The four Filters, for example, are all made on the same design, but there are three slightly different control capabilities with them. Filters 1 and 2 provide four low-pass, one band-pass and one high-pass filter out – each at different slopes. Filter 2 also provides three different ways of controlling the cut-off frequency. Filters 3 and 4 are duplicates – they only have one output each for low-pass, band-pass and high-pass, and have a slightly more limited set of options for controlling cut-off.
The GUI is rescalable to fit a number of screens. There is also an alternative skin which shows both pages of the normal GUI on a single screen, at the expense of detail.
The Mapping Generators deserve special mention. These are two tables of 128 values, which can be freely drawn or generated with a number of tools. They can be used a number of ways. First, they can function as a drawable waveform for the oscillators. Then, simultaneously, they can be used as control signals, clocked either by incoming MIDI notes, or internally by any number of sources. These Maps can then be used to control most of the parameters of the synthesizer, available either in drop-down menus, or connected with patch-cords.
As well as the Mapping Generator, there is a rather special Sequencer. It’s not designed to act primarily as a normal sequencer, although it can be patched that way, but rather to provide a very complex set of control signals which can work in synch or independently from each other. There are eight sets of sixteen levels which can be alternated between, and the sixteen levels can be divided into a number of subsets to control different things simultaneously. And each voice in a polyphonic patch can have its own instance of the sequencer. There are so many possibilities here you’ll have to play with it to appreciate just how flexible it can be.
In the design of the synth, one can see reflected the dialog between in-sync controls and the desire for all controls to exist at their own rate, making a less-than-predictable composite whole. Fortunately, both options are provided for every control where one might want things either in or out of sync.
At either side of the panel is a small area devoted to auxiliary functions. These comprise two inverters, two Rectifiers, one Sample and Hold, one Quantizer, and four Lag Generators. The Rectifiers make all negative values positive, and can be used to provide interesting distortions if two or more waveforms at different pitches are fed into them. The Quantizer will break a gliding signal into discrete steps, and the Lag Generators provide glides between discrete levels of a stepped signal, with both rise and fall rates independently controlled.
At the bottom of the front page is a panel called “MIDI & More.” This is a group of outputs (and two inputs) which make available a number of MIDI signals for patching, as well as noise, steady state control signals, outputs from the Maps, the Ramp Generators (two auxiliary trapezoid generators), and others. There are also two inputs labelled CV1 and CV2, which make any patch-cord signal available for modulation in the drop-down menus.
Next to the “MIDI and More” panel are four Multiplex modules. These are a combination of unity-gain mixer, controlled gain mixer, CV processor, ring modulator and amplitude modulator. It sounds more complicated than it is – reading the manual will quickly make the function of this very useful utility module clear.
Mention should be made of the Oscilloscope in the top middle of the GUI. More than just eye-candy, I found it to be incredibly useful in designing control sequences, and for seeing that there was a signal when suddenly the sound disappeared – I’d just turned things down into the sub-audio. Oh, if only I could have afforded an oscilloscope during the old analog days!
At the bottom of the second page are four Effects units. These can be arranged in any order, and can be turned on and off at will. The effects are Distortion, Delay, Phaser and Spring Reverb. I’m usually not a fan of amp-modelled distortion units, but this one pleased me greatly. The distortion effects were tasty, and the filterings were effective. I especially liked the “Rectify” setting with the “Guitar Cab 4×12” post-filter setting for (contradiction though it may be) its clean dirty sound. The Delay provides a maximum of 2 seconds delay for left, right and center delays with separate level controls for the side and center channels. The Feedback can be set to 100% for infinite delay repeat without building into distortion. The Phaser is quite effective and can be set to be either in sync or not with the main tempo. The pride of place for the effects though, has to be with the physically modelled Spring Reverb. It really does sound like the spring reverb units in the old analog synths. And best of all, it has a “Shake” control, which really does provide a convincing emulation of that old trick of slapping the side of the synth case to get a “thunder-reverb” sound.
There are so many little tweaks and tricks in each module that reading the manual, slowly, is highly recommended. And the “Tweaks and Tips” section at the end is especially valuable as it contains ideas from lots of users for unorthodox ways to use the machine, or ways to get orthodox sounds which might not appear possible at first glance. And the Manual, by Howard Scarr, should be mentioned. It’s very clearly written, with a welcome sense of humour, and with a lot of information to encourage experimentation with the modules.
What does it sound like? Using the presets on my more powerful machine, it sounds strong, beefy and with a bit of strength and edge. But of course, a synthesizer can sound like anything, so those characteristics probably say more about the sound designers than they do about the machine itself. Some of the presets favor a Europop Kraftwerk kind of sound – understandable, as the machine is a result of Urs Heckmann’s desire to re-create the synths he admired during his adolescence. But many different kinds of sounds are represented in the presets. Once we cast aside the presets and begin to tweak the oscillators, the results give the sense that the machine is solid, stable and clear, no matter what machine it is used on. Even in the densest of cross-modulation textures, I didn’t get the sense that things were “fuzzing-out.”
Overall, I found the sound palette to be very pleasing. I was able to focus on the details of the sound very well – even over headphones and using underpowered loudspeakers.
In sum, this is a very nicely designed machine with a lot of possibilities that you won’t find put together like this anywhere else. It’s clearly a labor of love from an enthusiast. It’s sturdy, well-thought-out, and a delight to play with. It sounds great, and it will encourage you to think cleverly and creatively about how you use its resources. And at $129 US, it is very reasonably priced. I’m going to be having a lot fun with it, and so, I’m sure, will you.
U-He Systems: http://www.u-he.com/cms/