Review – Syntronik from IK Multimedia

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Syntronik from IK Multimedia is a monster of synthesizer sound creation – a monster in a very good way, that is, with its rich, analog character and multitude of presets.

 

by David Baer, Sept. 2017

 

Introducing Syntronik

Syntronik is a sample-based conglomeration of over three dozen classic synths.  It has a massive scope in terms of the sample sound base and the number of presets included, at least for the full instrument.  It can also be purchased in smaller increments and there’s even a free version that’s well-worth having if you’re short on funds.  In short, this is one of the most exciting and substantial software products IK Multimedia (IKM for brevity hereafter) has ever produced.

First let’s get a few essentials out of the way.  Syntronik is 64-bit only for PC and Mac.  It is available in formats compatible with all major DAWs and also provides a standalone version.  An internet connection is required to download and authorize, but authorization is otherwise customer-friendly and requires no dongle.  The full instrument requires approximately 60 GB of disk space.  The full instrument is attractively priced, but we’ll look at the various purchase options at the end of this review.

Before we dive in, let’s address one common topic of controversy.  It seems that any time a significant sample-based synth product appears, a handful of trolls will emerge in the music forums who loftily dismiss the instrument as “nothing more than a rompler”.  They then insist in hanging around on discussion threads belaboring that same point day after day, wasting the bandwidth of people truly interested in the instrument.  Yes, Syntronik uses sample sets (and a huge collection of very good ones, I might add) instead of implementing a conventional oscillator section.  It seems to me that any virtual instrument that offers a repeating waveform (and/or noise) that gets routed through a filter that can be modulated by an envelope, LFO and/or performance gestures, and the output of the filter goes through an amp stage similarly modulated, qualifies as a synth.  If you don’t agree, then fine – this instrument is not for you.  If instead you have no problem with this approach, then read on, because there’s much to like in Syntronik.

 

The Big Picture

IKM had much of the software infrastructure in place even before Syntronik first appeared on the drawing board.  Sample Tank 3, released in 2014, had the sample playback engine and a substantial collection of FX modules ready to be repurposed for a dedicated synth instrument.  Sample Tank 3 is a general-purpose instrument that offers a wide variety of acoustic sounds along with electronic ones.  While it had a respectable amount of synth content, it did not specialize in that.  Thus, Syntronik fills a niche not previously fully addressed by IKM.

What was missing from Sample Tank 3 that was needed for a synth-centric instrument was what was developed by IKM to create Syntronik, and all that came together in an impressively short time courtesy of the Sample Tank 3 base infrastructure upon which to build.

Those missing pieces were mainly three things.  The big piece was the sample content itself.  Then, IKM thought it a good idea to add a sprinkling of vintage fairy dust to the mix in the form of something that introduced some of the charming unpredictability of pre-digital synths.  Lastly, a more realistic set of filters were needed – realistic in terms of mimicking analog originals.  There were a few other things, such as a couple of new FX modules and, of course, a whole new UI.  But the big three just mentioned are really at the core of Syntronik’s character.  We’ll look at all this in detail below.

One other relevant point is that all the new goodies created for Syntronik were retrofit into Sample Tank 3.  I don’t mean the sample content, of course, but owners of both Sample Tank 3 and Syntronik can play Syntronik content in Sample Tank (assuming the latest version has been installed).  There are a few things Syntronik was not intended for, such as multi-instrument configuration using multiple inputs, FX sends, and multiple outputs that Sample Tank can handle but that Syntronik cannot.

 

The Sounds

 

Any list of “Things That Make Syntronik Splendid” absolutely must begin with the sounds.  Above you see a picture of one of Syntronik’s principal contributors, Erik Norlander, who owns most of the instruments sampled.  In fact, he started collecting samples before Syntronik was conceived.  The effort that went into this must have been monumental.

 

We have 38 original instruments involved (listed just above).  The samples, 24-bit where necessary and 16-bit where not, are superbly captured (samples that consistently stay above -30 dB will derive no benefit from an extra 8 bits and just waste disk space, so 16-bit is not de facto second-rate).  A tiny bit of the content was resurrected from Sample Moog or Sonic Synth (earlier IKM products based upon synth analog sound samples).  But the vast majority of the content is new to Syntronik.  I should confess at this point that with 635 different sample sets on tap, there’s no way I’ve had time to carefully listen to anywhere near all of them at this point.

A sample set lives in a single file, a .pak file, which contains main oscillator multi-samples, which might be round-robin multi-samples, and possibly additional multi-samples of a secondary oscillator.  Preset/sample load times vary between under two seconds to about five seconds on my machine.

To give you an idea of the types of files on tap, below is a listing of the sounds in the J-8 sample directory.

 

As you can see most of the files have sufficiently descriptive names from which you can tell what to expect just from the file name.  But here’s the problem.  With Syntronik, you load presets, not multi-samples.  There’s no way you can load a particular multi-sample unless you load a preset that uses it. 

In fact, there is no way in Syntronik to even know what sample file a preset is using.  For that you need to go into Sample Tank 3.  Even there, you cannot change the preset file, but at least you know which one is being used (and whether or not it employs round-robin playback).  The image to the right shows what this looks like in Sample Tank 3 for preset Hollywood Syn String Section.

A sample-based synth cannot do a few things normally expected of a synth.  Notably, pulse-width modulation is off the table as is sync-ed (slaved) secondary oscillators.  On the other hand, when you have such a cornucopia of samples to draw upon, you are hardly short-changed on options.  The sample-based approach does make sound design very much more accessible to the novice, so one person’s limitation is another person’s feature.

 

DRIFT™

The second “personality enhancer” in Syntronik is the feature that supposedly adds realistic vintage character to the sounds.  IKM gives this a trademarked name of “DRIFT”.  That stands for Digital Recreation of Imprecise Frequency Technology.  OK, it really doesn’t – I just made that up.  DRIFT, in spite of being all capital letters, is not an acronym, according to one IKM spokesperson, it’s just a name.

We know a few things about DRIFT.  The main thing is that is does in fact introduce frequency instability mimicking real analog gear.  It also does something to mimic random starting phase in a waveform when a note is triggered.  Supposedly it does even more but there are no specifics available.

We cannot turn DRIFT off in Syntronik, so there’s no way we can try to hear what it’s actually doing.  Is it always fully on or did the sound designers set the DRIFT level on a per-sound basis?  Did the original sampled sounds get pitch-corrected so that the DRIFT wouldn’t lead to excessive frequency drifting in samples that already showed frequency inaccuracies?  It’s all a big secret.

 

Filters

The third component of Syntronik’s realism is supplied by four new filter emulations of analog originals.  There are seven available filters in all.  The Classic filter, originally from Sample Tank, offers low, band and high-pass (LP, BP and HP).  A phaser and formant filter are specialty filters.  The other four are the new emulations (and IKM certainly knows a thing or two about digital emulation of analog circuitry).

The four emulations are:

M-Type – a Moog ladder (a must-have, of course)

R-Type – a Roland classic based on the IR3109 IC chip

C-Type – a Curtis CEM3320 IC recreation (probably best known for its use in several Prophet synth models from Sequential Circuits)

O-Type – an Oberheim SEM state variable filter

The emulations vary in capability.  The various filter pass types and slopes (dB per octave attenuation) available depend upon the type.  Below you can see what’s available (N is for notch filter, the numbers are number of poles: 1 = 6 dB/octave, 2 = 12 dB/octave, 3 = 18 dB/octave and 4 = 24 dB/octave).

M-Type: LP1, LP2, LP3, LP4, BP1, BP2, BP3, HP1, N (slope unspecified)

R-Type: LP2, LP4

C-Type: LP2, LP4

O-Type: LP2, BP2, HP2, N2

Classic: LP1, LP2, LP3, LP4, BP1, BP2, BP3, BP4, HP1, HP2, HP3, HP4

The filter resonance is what really distinguishes the personalities of the four emulations.  With zero resonance, the filters sound pretty much identical.  But with even with a little resonance set, the individual characters start to emerge, and with maximum resonance, the sound can be downright in-your-face.

Key-follow is not available for filter cutoff frequency.  However (and this fairly important detail is omitted from the documentation), there is a built-in, non-modifiable key-follow factor of 50% for the five conventional filter types.  That is, play a note and you get a certain cutoff frequency.  Play a note two octaves higher and the cutoff frequency is one octave higher.  The cutoff frequency is displayed when the cutoff control is being adjusted with the mouse.  As best I can tell, the pivot note (the note whose cutoff frequency actually matches that on the readout) is middle C (MIDI note 60).

Significantly, all filter types are available for all sounds.  If you wish to put an Oberheim filter on a sample originally coming from a Moog or vice versa, nothing’s stopping you.  Have at it!

 

The Original Instruments and the “Skins”

The 38 original synths are packaged into seventeen Syntronik instruments.  These are:

Minimod – based on Modular Moog, Minimoog, Moog Voyager

OXa – Oberheim OB-X, OB-Xa

J-8 – Roland Jupiter-8, Jupiter-6, Jupiter-4

Pro-V – Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, Prophet-10

V-80 – Yamaha CS-80, GX-1, CS-01II

Harpy 260 – ARP 2600

T-03 – Roland TB-303 Bassline

Blau – PPG Wave 2.3

Bully – Moog Taurus I, II, 3

Galaxy – Alesis Andromeda

SAM – Oberheim Synthesizer Expansion Module

String Box – Arp String Ensemble, Elka Rhapsody 490, Hohner String Performer, Roland RS-505 Paraphonic, Roland RS-09 Organ/Strings

Polymorph – Moog Polymoog, Opus 3, Rogue, Realistic Concertmate MG-1

99 – Yamaha SY99

DCO-X – Roland JX-10, JX-8P, JX-3P

Noir – Multimoog, Micromoog, Moog Prodigy

J-60 – Roland Juno-60

Each of the seventeen instruments has its own UI skin, although all instruments have exactly the same controls.  The UI of four of the instruments (SAM, Minimod, Pro-V and V-80) can be seen below.  Click on any of them to see them full-size.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The use of different layouts probably makes sense from a marketing point of view (remember the instruments can be purchased individually), but it is somewhat of a pain if you’re a dedicated preset tweaker.  You must hunt for the controls you want to change since they’re pretty much in a different place on every instrument.

All Syntronik pages are resizable, by the way.  Some of them, like the FX page look like they could not be resized, but IKM did nicely in this department.

To see all seventeen UIs, go to the Syntronik URL at the end of this article.

 

Layers


Up to four instruments can be concurrently active using the layers panel (seen just above).  The letters A thru D in the upper left are used to select the current layer of interest.  When one is selected, that is the corresponding instrument panel that will be seen when returning to the main edit window.

All the instruments loaded in a layer setup respond to the same MIDI channel and send output to the same place (unlike various things that can be done with Sample Tank).  But there is a fair amount of flexibility here.  Keyboard splits can easily be specified as can velocity layer splits.  One feature not there is the ability to define a crossfade across the range of the keyboard.  Of course, simply stacking two or more instruments can produce a very rich, complex sound.  Combining plucks with slow-attack sustained presets also opens up a vast array of interesting possibilities.

Layer volume is specified in the little drop-down box (seen in the image above), which offers a master volume control as well as a layer volume and pan control for the currently selected layer slot.  I would prefer to see all four layer volume controls simultaneously displayed.  Achieving the desired balance can be a pain when continually needing to bounce back and forth between parts.

As you’d expect, layer setups can be saved as “multis”.  A layer slot can be locked so that loading a saved multi will not overwrite it.

 

The Browser

 

With over 2000 presets in the full instrument, you will naturally need some way to find the ones in which you’re interested.  The Syntronik browser, seen just above, is a reasonably handy tool for that purpose.   First, there’s a text search capability.  Type in “glass” and you’ll see all the presets with “glass” in the preset name.

Then there are browsing filters.  The first of these is the left column in which you can click on one or more of the seventeen instruments to filter that way.  The middle column contains a number of different classification types:

Category: e.g. Arpeggio, Brass, Ethnic, Strings

Timbre: e.g. Bowed, Buzzy, Crystalline, FM

Style: e.g. Atmospheric, Classic, Contemporary, Futuristic

Music Genre: e.g. Avant Garde, Ballad, Electronic, Progressive

Mood: e.g. Angry, Bold, Comical, Frightened

The Category filter is certainly useful and Timbre can be helpful.  The rest of the filters I don’t find to be of much use.  Do you trust someone else’s judgement as to what constitutes an appropriate sound for progressive rock?  Is white noise a sound you’d classify as Angry when using the Mood Classification?

Finally there is a Favorite marker.  You may designate any sound as a favorite and filter to see only presets so designated.  This is highly useful assuming you have taken the time to audition a lot of sounds.  At one minute per preset, that would only take you about 34 hours (and no need to worry about listening fatigue setting in, right?).

The biggest omission in the browser, to my mind, is the ability to search for presets based upon sample file name.  It’s true you may not create presets by assigning a sample file to it (you may only modify an existing preset that already uses it), but I believe this would nevertheless be a welcome feature for a lot of users.

 

Modulation

Modulation in Syntronik is limited.  There are two conventional ADSR envelopes hard-wired to filter cutoff and amplitude.  There is a dedicated LFO for vibrato, with the mod wheel as the default vibrato level controller.  You may repurpose the mod wheel for something else (via MIDI learn, described shortly) and by setting the vibrato rate to zero.  But in doing so, no other controller may be reassigned to vibrato level.

There is one general purpose LFO and it’s pretty basic.  It can govern pitch, pan and/or filter cutoff via dedicated depth controls.  It may optionally be synced to host tempo.  There are only five waveforms: sine, triangle, square, up-ramp and sample and hold.  No available down-ramp is a disappointing omission in my opinion, as is a gradually-changing random option (sample-and-ramp if you will).  Of course like so much else in Syntronik, the upside to this simplicity is that the LFO is dead simple to program.

There is no mod matrix.  Furthermore, there is no way to use aftertouch as a modulation control source.  Neither is MIDI-note number available as a modulation control source.

There is no capability for host automation, but MIDI CC control is available throughout.

You can use MIDI learn to make any of the controls respond to MIDI CC information.  You can have a MIDI controller be master to multiple instrument controls.  In a limited fashion, you can specify how much the slaved control will respond to the MIDI controller by using the MIDI assignments panel seen below.


Unfortunately, the Min value may not be greater than the Max value.  So, we cannot have a keyboard control raise one instrument control while lowering another.  This would be especially useful in setting up a layer crossfade.  Hopefully IKM will address this shortcoming in the next release.

 

FX

 

Here’s where things get really fun.  38 excellent plug-in effects are available that offer a wide range of audio possibilities.  Each layer has five insert effect slots as can be seen in the image above.  All but two of the 38 effects were previously found in Sample Tank 3, although delightful new graphic UIs were created for Syntronik use (see the web site to view them all).  The signal chain is simply left to right.

Before Sample Tank 3, most if not all the effects began life as either TRacks mixing/mastering components or Amplitube components.  Although I’ve never used Amplitube, I can certainly attest to the quality of many of the TRacks modules.  The Fairchild 670 emulation, which is available in Syntronik, has become an absolute go-to compressor for me.  I only just acquired the British Channel (modelled on an SSL 4000 E series console), but it promises to be another gem.  The Syntronik versions of both the 670 and British Channel can be seen in the above image.

Two new FX were added to the Sample Tank 3 collection to round out the Syntronik FX line-up.  The first is the British Channel just mentioned.  The second is the excellent Ensemble effect, inspired by several classic string synth chorus ensembles.  It too is included in the above image.

The categories and numbers of effect are:

  • Amps – 4
  • Distortion – 6
  • Dynamics/EQ – 6
  • Modulation – 12
  • Reverb/Delay – 6
  • Filter – 4

Individual effect presets can be saved.  There is no provision however to save a full effect chain.  Hopefully that’s another thing on the IKM Syntronik to-do list of future features.

Details on the individual effects can be found on the Syntronik page on the IKM web site.

 

Arpeggiator

 

Syntronik has an arpeggiator; in fact each layer slot has an arp available to it, so some pretty wild audio animation is within easy reach.  Any of the arps can be locked so that when loading a new sound into a layer slot that has an arp in use, you may keep the current arp setting from being overwritten.

The arp is reasonably full-featured but space doesn’t permit digging deeply here.  Suffice it to say that the manual devotes eleven full pages to it.

 

So What’s Lacking?

Syntronik is clearly aimed at users who are interested primarily in having easy access to a vast pool of sounds that require little or no tweaking for immediate gratification.  In this it largely succeeds.  But there are a few things that could make it significantly more versatile, thus making it attractive to a wider potential customer base while retaining its primary market targeting.

At the top of my list would be improved sound design capabilities.  I would like to be able to build a sound from scratch, starting with the selection of a sample file.  I would like a neutral UI in which to work where the controls remained in one place and don’t move around if I change sample source to a different original instrument.

While that might be a bigger job than IKM would care to tackle, there are a few simple alternatives that would be very nearly as effective.  First, IKM could publish a cross-reference of presets and sample files, sorted by sample file name.  Next, I’d love to see a capability where we could tell Syntronik to use a particular instrument UI no matter what instrument is actually selected, or even better to provide an eighteenth generic UI for that purpose.  Finally, we should be able to lock the FX settings and lock the basic main settings (filter cutoff, filter and amp envelope, etc.).  That would do it.  Sound designers should all become reasonably happy campers!

Near the top of many users’ wish lists will be better control and modulation options.  Aftertouch is certainly a big desire by many, especially as an alternative to the mod wheel in governing vibrato depth.

I’d think a set of macro knobs would also be a welcome addition.  Not only could these be used in the conventional way they are in the many synths that support such a feature, they could be an easy way for IKM to add DAW automation capabilities.

Lastly there are a few small things.  Give us a down-ramp LFO wave form and ideally a gradual-change random capability.  Give us, if not an actual mod matrix, at least the ability to make UI controls move in a direction contrary to that of a MIDI-learned keyboard control.  Give us volume controls where the four layer volumes are accessible at the same time.  Let us send the output of all layer’s instruments to the layer A FX chain.  For future customers, give them a less labor-intensive way to download and unzip all the files that make up the full instrument than that needed at present.

 

Is Syntronik for You?

Let’s talk pricing.  This being IKM, that’s always a tricky subject.  For one thing, there’s the Custom Shop with which to contend – recall we can buy individual instruments, and we can do that right from Syntronik if an internet connection is active.  The list price of the full instrument is $299 USD.  If you are the owner of an IKM product originally costing $99 USD or more, you can get $100 knocked off that price.  Either way, those prices are for the download version.  For a boxed USB drive version, add $30.  Individual instruments are priced at $49 USD, and there being seventeen of them, this is clearly not the most economical way to do things if you want the entire collection.

People frequently express frustration with IKM over the at-times complicated, confusing purchase options.  Items can be acquired with IKM Gear Credits (purchased independently of the actual software), JAM points (rewards for past purchases) and good old cash.  There are occasional sales, sometimes with irresistible discounting going on, but not all payment options are available in those sales.  I have felt this frustration myself at times.  But that gets offset in large measure based on several wonderful customer experiences I’ve had with IKM.  IKM is the only outfit I know of that has an employee imbedded in the major music forums to look for problems and help get them resolved in as direct a way as possible.  Really, I can’t ever stay annoyed at IKM for very long – these guys do seem genuinely interested in having happy customers.

But back to purchase options.  If you’re not in a hurry, wait for a good sale.  One is almost certainly going to come along at some point and you may save hugely.  It’s also probable, based on past behavior, that a group buy will come along in which you can buy one individual instrument for $50 and will end up getting four or five more for free, that number depending upon subscription level.  In my experience, this will turn out to be an extremely good deal, especially for anyone not able to take advantage of the cross-grade discount.

So, hopefully we’ve adequately addressed the “can you afford it?” aspect.  But the other concern is the “do you want it?” aspect.  Well, for starters, if this review has at least piqued your curiosity, then check out the informative video demos at IKM (URL below).  If still undecided, download and install the free version, which contains full functionality and sufficient sound diversity to allow for an informed decision.

I find Syntronik to be an absolute delight.  The sounds are great, but more importantly, there are so very many sounds that are musically useful (somebody on a forum used the term “song-ready”, which is spot-on here).  True you cannot program Syntronik nearly as deeply you can a conventional softsynth.  But it already makes the sounds that most synth players want to make most of the time in the first place.  Plus, tweaking sounds to refine them to your taste is something approachable even by a complete synth novice.  If you use synths in any capacity (and in any genre) this instrument will probably have something for you, and we’re talking a lot of something.  It’s unimaginable to me that anyone would not find at least 50 absolutely go-to presets amid the over-2000 present.  A little creative tweaking could increase that number threefold.  All this and a short learning curve on top it.  So very much to like.

For more information and to purchase, go here:

http://www.ikmultimedia.com/products/syntronik/

 

 

 

 

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