Review – SynthMaster 2.6 by KV331 Audio
We take a close look at a highly capable software synth that would be impressive at twice its price. Synthmaster seems worthy of its name.
by Rob Mitchell, July 2013
SynthMaster by KV331Audio has been getting some great press lately, even reaching #3 in a recent Computer Music reader poll. Some describe it as an all-in-one type of synth, and as you’ll read in this review, it seems they are right. Is it worth all the hype? Let’s dig in deeper, and check it out in a bit more detail.
SynthMaster is a two-layer semi-modular synth, each layer offering two main oscillators, multiple filter types, and a huge set of additional features for modulation. It is available in 32/64-bit, VST/RTAS for PCs, and VST/AU /RTAS formats for Mac OSX. The Factory version has over 750 presets, and there are many optional preset banks for it.
From my own experience with SynthMaster, I can say KV331Audio didn’t pull any punches with their monster synth. It is tough to find something it can’t do, especially modulation-wise: It boasts over 95 modulation sources and a whopping 650 mod targets.
In each of the two layers, you have your choice of a standard Oscillator setup, or you can use an Additive, Wavescan, or Vector oscillator. There is an “Audio In” oscillator you can use to route your own audio through.
Voice-wise, you can choose from Poly, Mono or Legato, and the overall poly count can be set to use up to 64 voices. You also get a Unison to use in your preset design, and it can go up to 8 voices. If you want to change the ways the filters work, you can choose from Split, Parallel, or Series. More on the filters later.
With the standard Oscillator, you get typical waveforms such as Sine, Triangle, Square, Sawtooth, Pulse, and Noise. Plus you can pick from tons of other single-cycle waveforms to load in place of those, or you can load up an SFZ file. It’s easy to load them; you just click the left-right arrows to cycle through the waveforms. You can also right-click on the picture of the waveform, and it will bring up a menu to get at exactly what you want. From that same menu, you can also load in WAV/AIFF files as an SFZ. After importing a wav (or wavs) and it is converted, it will then show up under SFZ Instruments, in the UserSamples folder. You can also drag/drop wav(s) on to the oscillator itself.
With the Additive setting, you can load a different waveform for each of the eight “simple” oscillators. They’re called simple, but they’re still oscillators. They just don’t have some of the extras of the standard oscillators. You can change the volume, pan, detune, and modify frequency of each one of those oscillators. If you set all four as Additive (two additive oscillators on each of the two layers), SynthMaster can have up to 64 simple oscillators. Combine that with the Unison, and you can get a huge sound very easily. You probably won’t ever have to use that much all at once, but it is available.
Wavescanning lets you load up to 16 waveforms, and morph through them in sequence. You could for instance, map the Wave Index control to an LFO, or map it to the Mod Wheel, and control it manually.
Using the Vector oscillator, you can load four separate waveforms and control the mix of them with an X/Y pad if you’d like. You can also individually set the pitch of each one of those waveforms.
In addition to all of the above, there are four modulators, which are actually sub-oscillators. Used in conjunction with the regular ones, you can use these to setup phase, frequency, pulse width, amplitude, and ring modulation. You can load the same waveforms in to these modulators, just like with the regular oscillators.
Filters and Effects
SynthMaster offers ten different digital filter types and nine analog types – no shortage there. The filters vary in sound as there are so many types available. You can get a really smooth Moog type of filter sound, which can self-resonate at high resonance levels. Or use the Dual filter to get some different/interesting results. There is also an optional distortion built-in to the filter section. You can set it up so it’s before, after, or even inside the filter.
There are a good amount of effects to alter your sound. There’s Distortion, Lo-Fi, Ensemble, Phaser, EQ, and even a Vocoder. You also get a Compressor, Chorus, Tremolo, Echo (delay), and Reverb. I thought it was a little confusing the way in which the controls for certain effects are not on the main effects page. To get to some effects, you must click on FX1, FX2, or FX3. This is not a huge deal though, and makes it so the main page of effects is easier to read, as they aren’t all squished together.
There is a great effects routing section with five inserts of effects per layer. Also, a Global Effects section is included, with two busses and up to five effects on each bus.
I found this a very useful addition to SynthMaster. As an added bonus, you can also control effects using the Mod Matrix. Map the Mix amount of the Reverb to the Mod wheel for instance, or the Drive amount in the Distortion section to an LFO, or nearly anything else you want.
Modulation Matrix and Easy Controls
The Modulation Matrix is pretty easy to use. Let’s say you want the filter cutoff to be modulated by an LFO. Easy! Right-click on the cutoff knob, and in “Modulation1 Source”, you pick what you’d like from the selection menu. Then it will appear in the Mod Matrix menu on the right, assigned the correct way. To get it to actually affect the sound, you just turn the bipolar knob.
You could also right-click and assign cutoff (or some other parameter) to an Easy Control. These let you have access to your most used controls, all in one easy to get to spot. You can also label them how you’d like. To get to the Easy Controls, click the Browse or Presets button at the top.
Right-clicking a knob is also how you get to the MIDI learn, and then assign it to a controller.
Arpeggiator, LFOs, and Envelopes
SynthMaster has its own very capable arpeggiator, with up to 32 steps and many modes available. Each step in the arp can have its own note number, length, velocity, hold parameters, and slide. There is also a way to import a midi sequence into the arp.
There are eight envelopes for you to use per layer, including four of the regular ADSR type. In addition, there are two 2-D and two Multistage envelopes, each with up to 16 points each. Four Keyscalers per layer are also at your disposal. To put it lightly, that is a lot of control for sculpting the sound.
With the Multistage Envelopes, you get the same sort of functions as a regular ADSR, but you can have up to 16 points. There is also a built-in looping function in both the 2D and Multistage envelope types.
There are 2 LFOs for each of the 2 layers, plus 4 other Global LFOs. The LFOs can use the regular waveform shapes (Sine, Square, Triangle and Saw), or you can set them to “Step” or “Glide” mode, and you have up to 32 steps for each one of those. You can sync them to your DAW’s tempo, and they also have controls for the phase and speed.
Preset Browser and Partial Presets
There is really just so much in SynthMaster to go over in one review. I like that though, as I’d much rather have tons of options available to me that not enough.
I do have to mention a couple other features: the Preset Browser and the Partial Presets. The Preset Browser lets you look up presets by Author, Style, Attributes and Instrument Type. If you click on Lead, Dance, and Rob Lee for example, it will bring up…you guessed it; all the lead/dance-style presets by Rob Lee. If your DAW is connected to the internet, you can also upload/download presets to an online database of presets. The only thing I think that might be a good addition for the browser is some sort of rating system for the presets.
I really like the Partial Presets option. It offers the ability to save settings for each area of of SynthMaster you’re in. For instance, say you setup a really nice Additive osc with all 8 oscillators set a certain way (pan, detune, etc.) and want to save just that part of your preset. Just click Save, and then you can name your partial preset. Then you can easily load it back up at a later date into a new preset you may have already started. A great time-saver. You can also copy and paste settings from one oscillator to the next, or even between the two layers.
I already mentioned a couple things I’d like to see added or changed, but they are trivial in comparison to the sheer amount of what’s already there. The price for SynthMaster 2.6 is easily a steal, and this is one synth that is too good to pass up.
The quality of its sound is excellent. You can use different quality settings in SynthMaster, each has a different internal sampling rate: The available choices are Draft (*1 sample rate), Good (*2 sample rate), Better (*3 sample rate) and Best (*4 sample rate). The CPU usage is pretty good for most of the standard kinds of presets. Just like most synth plugins; if you use a lot of modulation and have unison going, it can be a little high. I loaded up seven instances and had Battery 3 running as well with no problem, and that’s on an old dual-core PC. Even if the CPU usage is a bit high on a preset, you could always turn the quality setting down temporarily while working on a song. Then you can just crank it back up when rendering out your music.
SynthMaster is also skinable, although I haven’t tried the included editor. There are some optional skins to choose from.
As I mentioned earlier, there are many optional preset banks available for purchase on the KV331Audio website. You can also get some (or all) of those preset banks bundled with the synth as well.
Download the demo yourself, and give it a try with your own system. Also, listen to the great audio demos that are on their site.
What else can I say about SynthMaster? This one should definitely be on your synth shopping list, if you don’t already have it, that is. With it’s awesome feature set, and great price point, it’s a definite no-brainer.