Review – Omnisphere 2.3 from Spectrasonics

 

 

We look at the latest release of Spectrasonics flagship virtual power synth, the elegant, potent and amazing Omnisphere 2.3.

 

by Per Lichtman, Sept 2016

 

Omnisphere 2.3 is the latest update to Spectrasonics flagship power synth virtual instrument. The update is free to all Omnisphere 2 users ($499 USD MSRP from www.spectrasonics.net or third party retailers for new ones) and expands the product’s ability to uniquely cater to a wide variety of users and settings with some small additions that show a strong understanding of current usage while setting up new ways to work – more on that in a minute.

In this review, we will initially focus on the new features, but for those completely new to Omnisphere, we look at the big picture after that.

 

The Patch Library Update 2.3 Update

Like previous updates, Omnisphere 2.3.0 is split up into multiple parts: the 2.3.0h software update and the 2.3.0c patch library update. The patch library update covers three parts: new impulses responses (which are generally used to change the timbre or reverb of a sound) for compatibility with Spectrasonics new product Keyscape (which can be used in Omnisphere or on its own), tagging improvements and velocity curve presets. I can’t speak to the improved tagging (as the nature of the improvements wasn’t specified) but the velocity curve presets are much easier to check. To access the velocity curve presets you go the “Main” tab in the patch menu, then press the magnifying glass next to the “V-Curve” button – then click the downward arrow to the right of the word “Velocity Curve Zoom.” This gives you a list of a variety of popular MIDI keyboards – so if a model close to yours is available, you can load a preset designed to be used with that keyboard and the patch should sound close to the designer’s intent. The list of keyboards covered is as follows.

  • Akai: MPK49, MPK88
  • Kawai: M8000
  • Korg: Kronos
  • M-Audio: Keystation 88, Keystudio, Keystudio2
  • Novation: Launchkey, SL MkII
  • Roland: A-50, A-80, A88
  • Yamaha: Montage

 


Since I used a Yamaha keyboard for this review, I loaded the Montage curve and compared it to a default linear curve (as well as the other presets). The curve seemed well tailored to the heavier touch of many of the Yamaha keyboards (as compared to many other manufacturers), switching from the default curve on many patches (a slight downward swing) to a slight upward swing that made it easier to hit the higher velocity ranges. It’s not a groundbreaking new feature, but it’s a simple and effective way for people to get the most of their keyboard controller without having to spend time doing editing and trial and error. If you modify the curve you can either copy and paste it to another part, or you can save it and load it at any point in the future using the pre-existing Omnisphere functionality. Here, as in many other areas, I appreciated how Omnisphere offers many different ways to do similar things and caters to them equally well. Omnisphere rarely forces you to think of things in a different way, it tries to make it easy to do it the way you naturally would – and do it quickly.

 

The Software 2.3 Update

The software update covers a longer list of improvements: compatibility with Keyscape (which can be used from within the Omnisphere interface once purchased); redo/undo functionality, collapsing and expanding the Mini Browser; Mini Browser ratings; streaming improvements; note stealing improvements; progressive loading improvements; the addition of a “Custom Tab Reset” user preference button in the system pane; the addition of the ability to modulate the Aux Rack FX returns and several unspecified fixes and improvements. Keyscape was released shortly before this review published, so my colleague David Townsend will be reviewing Keyscape in a future issue, so I’ll save any discussion of that aspect for now.

For me, one of the silent heroes of the update is the deceptively simple “redo/undo” functionality, which lets you undo or redo several actions without having to rely on host support. While this may potentially be useful to other users, it seems especially helpful for those running Omnisphere in a live performance setting – making it much faster to get back on track if you make a mistake and less stressful to try tweaking things. It’s not the sort of “innovative feature” that generates a lot of buzz – it’s the sort of modification that makes the software faster and easier to use in the real world. Spectrasonics has been great at focusing on that in free Omnisphere 2 updates, both in the Omnisphere 2.3 update and the 2.2 update earlier this year.

 

The mini browser improvements are quite helpful, too. You can have Omnisphere 2 take up less horizontal space by pressing the right arrow to the right of the mini-browser to hide it, or toggle the arrow back when you need it again. This worked perfectly in my VSTi 2 host and does not require VSTi 3 support in order to intelligently resize. The browser ratings change is similarly easy to work with: you don’t have to go to the full browser page anymore to sort by ratings – just click the sort button in the lower left corner of the mini-browser and select “Ratings.” Once the ratings are displayed, you can change the number of stars just like in the main browser. The emphasis, again, is on making it easy to use the software however you want – helping to make it both easy to learn and fast to use in a real world setting.

The Aux Return modulation update worked as advertised: open a patch, click on the FX pane and increase the “aux send” level in the upper right corner of the A, B or Common tabs. That sends the signal to the Aux tab, where you can modulate just about any parameter now using the existing functionality available elsewhere, including LFOs of course. Omnisphere 2 already had ample modulation support and it’s great to see another layer being added.

There’s isn’t too much I can say about some of the features. In regards to the streaming improvements, note stealing improvements and progressive loading improvements.  In my experience those areas was already transparent and painless before the update. It worked great before the update and the update overwrites the earlier Omnisphere 2 version, so I can’t compare. “Custom Tab Reset” button seems to have been introduced primarily for compatibility with Keyscape (which has the exact feature) and Trillian (which is older but offers Custom Control support). Since I don’t have either Trillian or Keyscape to test with, I’ll quote the Keyscape manual for a description of the feature.

When enabled, this function will ensure that when you change from one Patch to another, the Main Custom Control Tab is selected.  When disabled, if a Patch has a different Tab selected, Keyscape will continue to display that Tab when another Patch is selected.

 

The Bigger Picture

The updates in Omnisphere 2.3 help to further refine what is, in my opinion, one of the most intuitive, easy to learn, efficient to work with and flexible user interfaces I’ve encountered. Omnisphere doesn’t do everything and isn’t meant to handle every need, but it is extremely flexible. Want to load a self-contained multi-timbral track? Grab a multi. Want to just try different presets and simple sounds? Use the patch browser – where you can also search for sounds using any number of criteria. Like a patch but want to change the sound? Go to the A or B layer of your patch and swap the oscillator to one of thousands of “sample” options or hundreds of “synth” ones. Like some aspect of the patch but not others? Use patch lock to keep the aspect you like while the others ones change each time you load a new patch. Like everything about the patch but want to hear it dry without the FX? Since the 2.2 update, you can just click the blue light beneath “FX” to enable or disable it. It’s all very fast and very easy.

Digging a little deeper into why things are so easy, it’s worth looking at how the system is setup. The tagging/metadata system is one of the best I’ve seen in a plug-in with great support for custom fields, making it great for organizing (and finding) sounds with the simple ability to add your own fields. There’s also the “Sound Match” feature that lets you display a variety of patches that share several characteristics with the current one. Of course, none of that would mean much without a library of sounds and Omnisphere 2 has a robust one. Each “sample” in the oscillator tab is actually anything from a single sample to a robustly mapped, velocity-switched and round-robin implemented multi-sample.

Omnisphere 2 does not offer the ability to create your own multi-samples and is not a replacement for software like Kontakt, but it is exponentially quicker and easier to swap an Omnisphere 2 “oscillator” multi-sample set than it is to dive into the file system of Kontakt and similar samplers and try to do something similar. In both cases, loading a patch is easy – but Omnisphere makes it a lot quicker to do mid-level editing, in part by eschewing the ability to go deeper. That said, Omnisphere 2 does support loading a single sample of user audio (with no file size limit specified) and dropping it into the oscillator level of a patch. Combined with Omnisphere 2’s granular synthesis (which is one of the most stable examples of granular synthesis I’ve used) this makes it easy to add custom textures using your own recorded sounds, just not build multi-samples out of them.

 

Fractal Detail

As mentioned earlier, Omnisphere 2 makes it easy to work the way you want to, with the option to dive progressively deeper as you want to. The primary paradigm for this organization is the magnifying glass. When you are in a given tab and want to edit something more deeply, just look for the magnifying glass with the zoom in symbol to do just that. Want to go back to looking at more of a macro level? Look for the magnifying glass with the zoom out symbol. At any level of magnification, a context sensitive right-click menu is available with a host of options to modify what you’re working on. Although the sampled recordings used in the Spectrasonics library span decades from the 90s to present day, the interface is exceedingly modern, always appearing to opt for the fastest route the designers could find for the users to navigate around, rather than being concerned with emulating the look of vintage gear.

 

What It Is, What It Is Not – Some of the Competition

Omnisphere 2’s large library of sounds (responsible for the bulk of the 64 GB installation size) covers a lot of ground. Choirs, strings, unusual custom instruments and (above all else) a large library of thousands of sampled synthesizer sounds – among other things. The sounds consistently have a full and glossy sound to them, making them especially useful for filling the soundstage against other recordings with a “grainier”, “thinner” or smaller sound. This aspect of the aesthetic is just one of the reasons why it complements, rather than replaces, so many of the other libraries I use. The name of the game is variety: with a few notable exceptions, you won’t find a lot of “deep sampling” (with lots of dynamic layers, round-robins and articulation switching) but you will find a wide variety of well recorded sounds.


For instance, since Omnisphere 2 features the overwhelming majority of Spectrasonics back catalog, you’ll find most of the sounds from their 90s “Symphony of Voices” and “Vocal Planet” series, giving Omnisphere the widest variety of choral sounds that I’ve ever seen in a single product anywhere. The choirs do not have word building, legato sampling or in many cases even multiple dynamic layers (unlike modern offerings from Virharmonic, Strezov Sampling, Soundiron, 8Dio and many others) but many of these sounds simply have not been recorded with similar ensembles elsewhere. As such, I frequently layer Omnisphere choral sounds alongside dedicated choir libraries, especially the Omnisphere Japanese Children’s Choir. There’s a similar story for guitars, mandolins and electric sitar – with the sounds coming from Spectrasonics 90s library series “Hans Zimmers Guitars”. Omnisphere is not meant to compete with ethnic instrument collections like Quantum Leap Ra or Best Service Ethno World, though there are few such patches on offer, especially in regards to plucked strings (including some from the aforementioned guitar library).

Regarding the original recordings and programming, the quality control and programming is quite consistent – you don’t really need to worry about running into bum notes or having patches break, which is fairly rare in this industry. Many of the older samples, like some of the choirs, have fairly short loop points (which is part of the reason why layering them is especially useful), but this is not an issue with the newer content.

Omnisphere is not intended as a dedicated orchestral plug-in. It has samples from two great large ensemble string sustain sessions that can be great for sketching, layering or using as pads. Look elsewhere if you need individual string sections, multiple orchestral articulations or other instruments from the orchestra. You won’t find the library caters to orchestral brass or woodwinds at all, and the percussion on offer isn’t really aimed at orchestral use either. You’ll need a dedicated library for these types of sounds instead.

If you want rhythmic sounds and textures, Omnisphere 2 has them in spades – and makes it unusually quick and easy to addition the same rhythm with multiple sounds. No other virtual instrument I’ve used makes it quicker to construct a synth rhythm section. Similarly, there is a huge collection of pads and atmospheres – and the modulation system gives you a lot of power to make them evolve over time. There are many less expensive competing synth virtual instruments, but none of them offers the volume of content that Omnisphere 2 does.

Like the competing Cakewalk’s Rapture before it, Omnisphere 2 also offers a large variety of DSP waveforms for native synthesis (the Spectrasonics manual says Omnisphere 2 added over 400 new ones) with extensive modulation support, but Omnisphere 2 makes it much faster and easier to find and load the sounds you like and organize your library. The flip side is that each Omnisphere 2 patch can have fewer oscillators loaded at once – but the flip side is that you can stack up to 8 patches in a given Omnisphere instance.

Omnisphere 2’s most frequently compared competitor is reFX Nexus 2 (which our own Alex Arsov reviewed in 2013), but there are big differences between the two. For starters, the starter Nexus 2 package ($249 USD MSRP) has 2,250 presets and uses 13GB of samples, compared to over 12,000 presets in circa 64 GB for Omnisphere 2. The full Nexus 2 package (which contains 98 expansion) has a $3,919 USD MSRP and contains over 12,500 presets and over 100 GB of samples. Clearly we are dealing with two very different beasts here – but you can learn a lot more about it by reading Arsov’s review.

 

Real-Life Workflow

Omnisphere 2.3 is a case of the whole being much greater than the sum of its parts. Once you know what it’s good at and what it’s not intended for, it’s extremely quick and easy to integrate into almost any project. I’ve used on tracks ranging from classical choir pieces, to EDM, to 90s style trip-hop to progressive rock and many other genres. There’s rarely a track that it can’t contribute to in some way and I never have any hesitations about using it since I don’t have any problems with loading times, crashes or wasting time on dealing with technical issues. It’s worked very consistently for me in a real-life production setting, both on my original tracks and when arranging for others. With that in mind, here are a few things I learned to make it faster to work with.

Adjust Omnisphere to the way you are working. By default, Omnisphere is setup to be very velocity-control centric. That means that if you are using the choral or string patches in Omnisphere in an orchestral or scoring context and want to work with them more like modern libraries, you should take the time to customize them slightly. For instance, I normally start by setting the velocity curve to flat (not linear) so that I control the level entirely using either expression or the mod wheel controllers. Also, in some cases the amplitude or filter envelopes may be very dramatic – feel free to simply or rein them in so that you can vary the level dynamically exclusively using the controllers.

Use Sound Lock as a Starting point. Unless you really want to, it’s rare that you actually need to start from scratch when making a sound. Start by finding a sound that’s “in the ballpark” for at least one aspect of the sound you want (like the Envelopes), then use sound lock to lock that aspect. Browse through the presets until you find another aspect you like (like the LFOs). Keep going this way to build your perfect sound – or copy it to another part, set the same sound lock settings and then go looking for another sound. This can make it easier to layer sounds than when all the settings are divergent for each part.

Experiment and layer. Omnisphere makes it easy to stack lots of sound onto the same MIDI channel, making it easy to create fat sounds or complex arpeggiated patterns. Don’t be afraid to disable FX, and remember that there’s a veritable plethora of presets for just about any aspect you might want to work with – so don’t be afraid to spend time browsing.

There are a lot of FX. I mainly rely on my extensive suite of external effects in general, but I do have to note that there are so many FX included in Omnisphere that you’re bound to find times when one of them will be perfect for what you’re looking for. Don’t ignore them and check out the Innerspace impulses under the Creative heading in particular.

Don’t underestimate Groove Lock. If you have a groove MIDI file in your project already, dragging it into the Groove Lock section for a given arpeggiator tab (or opening it using the file browser) can get your arpeggiated part synced up really quickly. Then just use “Copy” and “Paste” Arp Preset options for each part and use Sound Lock to make sure that different parts stay in the same pocket. It will sound a lot less chaotic than if every arpeggiator instance has its own swing setting, etc.

 

Is Omnisphere 2.3 Right For You?

Omnisphere 2.3 is a unique product. It’s extremely quick and easy to work with, highly stable and able to both do a lot of modulation and editing but also to quickly and easily browse through a massive library of presets. It’s got one of the best user interfaces and development philosophies I’ve seen in a synthesizer. It’s a great product and it is very, very fast and easy to use. Did I mention it was fast?  It’s definitely an extremely frequently used tool in my own workflow that has saved me time when it counted most, and I’ve created entire tracks using it by itself. So the question, is it right for you?

That depends a lot on both your intended application and your personal aesthetics. Some people prefer a less glossy sound than Omnisphere offers, or feel like some of the sounds take up too much space. I can understand that perspective, but personally I go to the virtual instrument looking for those very things. If you want to make things bigger, grander or fuller or even put sounds more in your face, this aesthetics here will likely appeal to you.

The synth has a lot to offer in terms of sample playback, subtractive synthesis, some waveshaping and one of the more stable granular synthesis options I’ve seen – but you’ll want to look elsewhere for robust additive or FM synthesis options. If you are looking for the most authentic recreations of particular vintage synths (or just modules from them), there are other options on offer, like U-He Diva or Togu Audio Line TAL-U-NO-LX, both of which cost less. But none of them offer sample playback libraries.

If you are mainly looking for a library that emphasizes deep sampling and multiple articulations, you should probably look elsewhere. If you exclusively need orchestral sounds, there are better options for the money. But if you primarily want synth sounds, or a wide variety of vocal sounds, the library is a cornucopia – and I haven’t seen any other virtual instrument that offers the combination of variety and modulation options on offer here. It’s a very different product from its closest competitor, reFX Nexus 2.

Omnisphere 2.3 is a great option both as a bread and butter tool and for adding supplemental textures to existing projects that I wouldn’t want to be without. Read the description and check out the demos. If they perk your ear, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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