Review – Z3TA+ 2.1 by Cakewalk
Cakewalk’s Z3TA+ is a classic softsynth that’s been kept up to date with much enhanced version 2. We look at Z3TA+ 2 in this review.
by Rob Mitchell, Sept. 2014
Z3TA+ 2.1 is the latest version of Cakewalk’s versatile synthesizer plugin. I have used the original Z3TA+ in the past, and really like it. It is included with Cakewalk’s SONAR, and is available separately as well. It is known for its great sound, and can be used in nearly any type of music. This one is definitely a classic that has found its way into many tracks over the years.
With the new version of Cakewalk’s powerhouse synth, it’s a whole new ballgame. Some of the new features include over 1,000 new presets, a new interface, drag and drop effects section, and new filters types.
I didn’t see the exact system requirements anywhere (CPU type/speed and the amount of RAM) but Cakewalk does mention that it will work with Windows XP, Vista, 7, and in either 32 or 64-bit. There is no mention of Windows 8 or 8.1 on the Cakewalk site. For Mac users, you must have OSX 10.6.8 or later, and it is available in VST3 and Audio Units versions.
For my review, I used a 32-bit PC with Windows 7 Professional. Installation was simple, and it uses a serial number for copy protection. There are no instructions in the user guide describing the steps for installation, but it was very easy.
When you first run Z3TA+2, you see the main display page. Nearly everything is contained on two pages, and the second page is used for the effects. You can switch between the two pages by clicking the buttons at the top of the screen.
In the upper-left is the oscillator section. There are six Waveshaping oscillators present, and there is a large selection of waveforms from which to choose. You can also have up to six of your own waveforms to load in as well. To switch between the oscillators, just click the numbered buttons at the top of the oscillator section. It will then show the control settings and waveform that is loaded in for that particular oscillator.
What do they mean by Waveshaping? To sum it up, it’s a function that lets you change/morph the shape of the waveform in the oscillator. Each waveshaper has a slider control to determine how much it affects the waveform’s shape.
There are sixteen different waveshapers available for each of the six oscillators. In combination with the many waveforms included, and modulation via the modulation matrix, this gives you nearly unlimited possibilities. The only two waveforms that can’t be changed by waveshaping are the Generated Sine and Generated Noise.
Besides using the waveshaping, you can click on the waveform in the display, and drag it around to change its shape.
Another feature built-in to the oscillator section is the Mode selection. Some of the mode settings include Normal, Inverted, Synced, Fixed, or Multi mode. If you choose Multi mode, each oscillator turns into eight separate oscillators. If all six oscillators are used this way, you will then have a whopping 48 oscillators per note.
A very nice addition to the oscillator section is the Modulation mode. When you first enable an oscillator, it will be set to the standard mode, which is “ADD”. If you pick one of the other modes in the “GROUP” menu, it will modulate the next oscillator in line. For instance, the first oscillator could be set to Ring, Sync, PM, or FM modes. If it’s set to FM, it will modulate the frequency of the next oscillator. You could then set that second oscillator to Ring mode (for example), and it will ring modulate the third oscillator, and so on.
Z3TA+2 has two filters, and each has ten different filter types to choose from. Some of the included filter types include Band pass, Band reject, Low and High pass, Formant, and Comb filters. There is a slider in the oscillator section that controls how much of the oscillator’s audio goes to the two output busses. Each of the two busses has a filter. The first bus has the first filter, and as you might have guessed, the second bus has the second filter.
There are two modes for the filters, as they can run in a Parallel or Dual mode. If you select Parallel, the oscillator’s sound runs through the first or second filter, or a mix of both. If you set it to Dual mode, there are two filters on each bus running in series. In this case, the signal will go through the first filter, and then continues on to the second filter.
Z3TA+2 has the standard cutoff and resonance controls, but also includes panning, separation, and level controls. A couple of extra features built-in to the filter section are a limiter and a “Reso Boost” control. The latter gives you just what you’d think; a quick boost in the resonance department, and without having to fiddle with the main resonance control.
The link button is very handy. After enabling it, if you move a control for a filter, the identical control for the other filter will move as well.
Envelopes and LFOs
There are a total of eight EGs (envelope generators). One of those is assigned to pitch, while another is for the amplifier duties. The other six can be assigned to nearly anything by using the modulation matrix.
They’ve included a delay control for every EG. This lets you determine when the EG starts to affect the sound after a note-on event. Another useful feature is that the output level on each EG is adjustable, and it can be set to a negative value if so desired.
You can use up to six LFOs (low frequency oscillator) in Z3TA+ 2, and each one has a large amount of waveform choices to pick from. Using your own waveforms with an LFO is possible, and all you have to do is save a PCM audio file to the wavetables folder. The first four LFOs work with all the voices, while the fifth and sixth LFOs can affect separate voices
In Z3TA+2, you can have one or two waveforms in each LFO. The way they work together depends on the LFO Mode setting. There are many useful settings in the Mode menu, but the Time Morph mode is an awesome feature. This lets the first waveform of the LFO morph into the other waveform over a period of time. There also many other controls including Sync, Offset, Phase, and Delay.
Modulation Matrix and Effects
In the Modulation Matrix, you can assign many different sources in Z3TA+2 to various destinations. A few common ways to use a matrix is to map an LFO to filter cutoff, oscillator volume, or pitch. There are 16 slots in the matrix, any of which are available for mapping parameters within your preset.
A range can be set in the matrix for each slot, letting you adjust how much the source can affect the destination. The Curve setting allows you to (e.g.) have less modulation at the beginning of the sound, and it could increase towards the end. This depends on which curve setting is picked of course, and there are twelve different curve types available.
A controller can be added to the same matrix slot as well, so it is in-between the source and destination. For example, a modulation or pitch wheel can control the amount that is passed on to the destination, but the total amount of modulation is determined by the range setting.
One thing I liked about Z3TA+ 2’s matrix is the ability to adjust the minimum and maximum values by left or right clicking, and then dragging left or right. Instead of using a standard 0-100% range to work with, you could set it the way you’d like. The range could be something out of the ordinary, like a minimum of 25% and the maximum setting might be 85%. Of course, it all depends on how you want the preset to be designed.
There are six effects included: Distortion, Modulation, Compressor, Delay, Equalizer/Simulator, and Reverb. You can set them up with a different order by dragging each effect around. One scenario for the signal flow could be that it goes to the equalizer module first, then to the delay, and afterwards, maybe a little reverb can be thrown in. Want to hear it how it sounds with the equalizer added after the reverb? It’s easy, as you can just drag it down below the reverb module.
My favorite effect is the Modulation module. It has nine different modes, many sync settings, and even some EQ modes to choose from.
There is an easy way to disable all the effects. Go to the Options menu, and use the selection “Bypass Effects”. This is much quicker than manually going to each effect module to switch them on or off.
Arpeggiator and Performance Controls
There are a couple of other features I want to mention quickly before I wrap up my review. One of those features is the arpeggiator. There are some various built-in arp patterns to choose from; Up, Down, Up/Down 1, Up/Down 2, and Random. This isn’t a huge amount, and is pretty basic actually, but the arpeggiator also has a MIDI mode. This mode allows you to load in one of the 250 MIDI arp patterns, or the 50 MIDI gate patterns. You can use your own MIDI patterns as well.
Many other controls are on board to give the arpeggiator flexibility. The usual Speed, Octave, and Sync settings are here, but the Z3TA+2 arp also has Humanize, Velocity, Swing, and Sort functions built-in. The only thing I’d add is a function to build a pattern from scratch, allowing the user add notes, and the ability to click/drag them around on the display.
The other part of Z3TA+ 2 that I have to mention is the Performance section. It is tucked away under the “Perform” tab in the same area as the oscillators . What it is does is give you more control over how the pitch bend works, and in many ways that aren’t available in many other synth plugins. It also has four different mode settings for the Portamento.
The Performance section is also where you’ll find an X/Y pad, and it can be mapped to what you’d like in the modulation matrix. You can even use a joystick with it, if you have one connected to your PC or Mac.
The Burst control can add a bit more of a “thump” to the attack part of your sound, which can be used for a percussive type of sound design. The Drift control adds a random amount of that old analog drift, slightly going out of tune as it plays.
One thing I was a little disappointed with is that there’s no FX version like there was with the original Z3TA+. Luckily, if you have the old version installed, it can still work as an FX plugin. There is no conflict between the two versions of Z3TA+ when they’re installed on the same computer.
The only other issue for me is that I wish there were more modulation matrix slots. It’s no deal breaker however, as sixteen slots is a decent number, and I can work with that.
Even though the original Z3TA+ was a great synth, it’s starting to seem a little behind the times. Cakewalk has done a great job adding many new features, improving the sound, and adding an updated, easy-to-use interface. For me, it’s a lot easier on the eyes. The CPU usage was not bad at all, so you can load many instances for your next track. Cakewalk has transformed the original, but they’ve accomplished this without losing Z3TA+’s heart and soul.
Z3TA+ 2.1 is available for PC/Mac, and is priced at $99 USD. If you already own the original synth plugin, you can upgrade for $49 USD.
Its price-point puts it right into the competition sweet spot. Most big name synth plugins are priced a bit higher, but don’t let that fool you. It is very powerful, intuitive, and has a sound that’s tough to beat.
Cakewalk will on occasion have special sales for some of their products, making the price even more tempting. With its low price and large feature set, Cakewalk has created a versatile synth plugin that won’t drain your bank account.
For more information on Z3TA+2, visit the Cakewalk site here: