Review – Rob Papen Synth Bundles
Two synth bundles from Rob Papen nicely cover production needs for EDM and Urban genres and offer a good value in the bargain in our reviewer’s estimation.
by Jon Carroll, Jan. 2014
In the spring, Rob Papen released two ‘Limited-Edition’ synth bundles – the EDM Synth Bundle and the Urban Synth Bundle. In order to review the bundles, we’re going to need to look at what goes into both of them.
The EDM Synth Bundle is intended for artists creating Electronic Dance Music (henceforth, EDM) and includes three Rob Papen products: Predator, their front-line polysynth suitable for “analog” type timbres, Punch, their software drum synth, and Blade, their newer additive synth.
The Urban Synth Bundle is for… well… Urban genres. Like the EDM bundle, it has Predator and Punch, but trades Blade for SubBoomBass, Rob Papen’s bass-oriented synth.
Before discussing the bundles as a unit let’s look at each of the component synths.
Predator is a three-oscillator virtual analog synth.
There, that sums it up, OK, what’s next?
More seriously, that is the basic description for Predator, but it is so much more. The feature set for Predator can be – and often is – compared to an Access Virus and rightly so, because it can do anything a Virus can, and more.
Three virtual analog oscillators, each featuring 128 waveforms, ranging from typical analog-style saw, sine, square (with PWM) and triangle, to more exotic harmonic and inharmonic waveforms. This helps it to extend the sound available beyond standard “subtractive synth” sounds. All three oscillators can be set to be free-running, and oscillators two and three can be synced to oscillator one. Oscillators can be set to modulate other oscillators, giving classic cross-modulation effects, ring modulation, phase modulation and FM, as well as min, max and other modes. Each oscillator also has its own sub-oscillator, a square wave set one octave below the oscillator’s pitch.
The ‘Spread’ function gives you the equivalent of a ‘supersaw’ or ‘hypersaw’ on each oscillator and is not dependent on oscillator type. It can be adjusted from anything ranging from a very subtle thickening of the oscillator all the way up to a full-blown trance polysynth sound. This is on top of (and can be used in conjunction with) Predator’s 2, 4 and 6-voice Unison modes.
Predator is in possession of two multimode filters, with filter one having 6 dB low and high-pass filters; two different flavors of 12 dB low, band, notch, and high pass filters; 18 dB low and high pass filters; two different versions of 24 dB low, band, notch, and high pass filters; 36 dB low and high pass filters; negative and positive comb filters; a vox filter; and two and four band formant filters. It also has a pre-filter distortion stage with “Edgy” and “Smooth” modes plus an amount control. Filter two has all of the above filter modes plus two extra split modes where filter two operates separately from filter one.
The filter section has its own dedicated, tempo syncable LFO with ten waveforms including sample & hold, an amount control that can be set to multiple different modulation sources including the mod wheel, midi CCs and internal sources like the noise generator, and three modes of operation. It also has its own dedicated envelope.
Located in one corner of the filter section is the amplifier section, with volume, pan, and velocity to volume translation controls, and the dedicated amp envelope.
Predator’s modulation section is where you can really bring out the sounds you create in the synth.
First, there is a dedicated syncable Pitch Mod LFO, with Amount and an Amount Control that, like the filter LFO, can be set to a variety of sources, with the same variety of LFO waveforms as the aforementioned LFO.
Then Predator offers two additional “Free” envelopes to be router according to the user’s wishes. Both feature a huge list of destinations above and beyond the two dedicated filter and amp envelopers.
Next, there are two “Free” LFOs that are routable just like the Free Envelopes, with all the same options as the Filter LFO.
Lastly, there is an eight-position modulation matrix with literally dozens of sources, destinations and available amount control sources. This can become very helpful if you need to take something from one of the free envelopes or LFOs and route it to an additional destination because although there are some “group” destinations, those controls cannot be routed to more than one destination without using the modulation matrix.
Hidden on the flip side of the modulation section are the arpeggiator settings. Predator features a programmable arpeggiator with between one and sixteen steps – so instead of the standard “up, down, up/down, random” arps, you can set it to play more complex sequences. It can be adjusted to run at from ¼ to 4x the host’s BPM speed, programmed by key entry, and arp patterns can be saved separately to move between programs. The “Free” spot on the arp is a modulation output from the arp available for routing in the mod matrix, allowing you to set things like filter tweaks as part of your programmed arp.
Tucked in above the mod matrix is the effects section, Predator has three effects channels and a variety of effects that can be applied. Some are definitely the standard effects you’d expect while others can be labeled as technically additions to the synthesis engine. Multiple types of delays, distortion, flangers, and others are joined by things like a waveshaper, another filter (allowing another filter to be applied after filter 1 and 2, a “Low Fi” effect that acts as both a bitcrusher and decimator, a separate comb filter, and both an amp sim and cabinet sim. Predator sounds pretty good sans effects (especially after using the “Advanced” menu to turn up analog detuning, letting the oscillators bead against each other, see below) There is also a two-slot mod matrix dedicated to routing external controls to the FX section. The fact is we’re used to hearing synths with effects and the presence of a generous and good-sounding effects section is a major plus.
Play Settings, Portamento, and Advanced Settings
And down in the lower right corner are the Play settings, where things like arp, unison, legato, and portamento are set. Predator supports 2, 4 and 6-voice unison – which when combined with oscillator spread, can give some truly massive sounds – three mono modes, two legato modes, and four different portamento settings.
On the flip side of the preset browser are the Advanced settings, where you can tweak the analog-style detuning of the oscillators (thus allowing oscillators and voices to be subtly detuned against each other, resulting in a richer sound), global tuning, oversampling rate (default is 4x, it goes as high as 32x, and 32x only increases CPU usage by about 25%), and the slope of various response curves. Adjusting the slope of response curves, especially on the envelopes, can be seen as a vital element in imitating the sound of certain synthesizers as their envelope shapes were rarely linear between stages, and their concave or convex shapes varied between manufacturers and the exact way the envelopes were implemented. You can also set guitar-like strumming here.
Preset Section and Preset Manager
The preset section and the preset manager feel like the weakest sections of Predator. Presets are stored in banks of 128, like the hardware synthesizers that Predator is trying too hard to emulate, with no less than forty-six banks coming with the plugin, with presets for various genres and types of sounds. To really browse the presets, you need to hit the “manager” button and view the complete file manager … and to look at what is going into that sound you have to flip back to the main window. Thank goodness the plugin can still be “played” while browsing presets, so you don’t have to flip back to hear it … and like the front panel, the file manager has a “preview” button that plays a C3 note so you can immediately audition sounds.
However, the system for organizing and managing presets has a purpose: Predator supports MIDI bank and program change messages. This feature would be very helpful in live setting if you’re playing Predator from a laptop and need to switch sounds for the next song – assuming you aren’t using something in the vein of Mainstage to handle your song presets. The back panel – made to look like the underside of a hardware synth – is where these features can be turned on or off. You can also set the tuning for A above middle C, and load alternate tuning scales here.
Predator can create new sounds by morphing between two different presets, thus making a quick and easy way to create new sounds by creating a hybrid of two existing ones. A neat feature to include, but unfortunately the morphing is static and you can’t use it to dynamically move between two presets (like, for instance, an AN1X).
Overall, Predator is a great sounding synth capable of an amazing variety of sounds. It features easy programmability, with deeper structures just a click away. At first glance, Predator may simply look like a poor man’s Virus in plugin format (specifically, it graphically seems intentionally reminiscent of a Virus C, but its synthesis features match up better with a TI), but there are points where it can go further. On a relatively modern CPU (I tested Predator on a Core2Quad 8300 PC) it isn’t very processor-intensive, so running multiple instances to get all of your synth sounds in a project is not unfeasible. Predator also comes with “Predator FX”, which is a version of predator designed to apply effects and filtration to external signals – a very tempting prospect especially for those of us with old filter-less digital synths that we still like the sound of.
Our look at Punch (and the other two synths) in this review is going to be brief because we hope to have a separate full review of it later.
Punch is Rob Papen’s drum machine. It features both virtual analog and sample-based drum sounds, and you can import your own samples on top of that. Instead of the typical 12 drum sounds, it features up to 24. The step sequencer used to sequence the drums is reminiscent of the arp programmer in Predator, with the addition of the drum programming oriented ‘Flam’ setting.
Each of the drum types (bass, snare, etc.) features multiple models for the analog oscillators. These are likely to be emulating the characteristic sounds of certain analog drum machines, but I’d leave the decision of which is which to the reader (and to my associate doing the in-depth review of Punch.) On top of that, there are samples of classic drum machines, and additional drum samples … and your own samples … and filters of multiple types … and effects … oh my.
An interesting thing about how drum sequencing is implemented in Punch is instead of just having several linear sequences, Punch has four “Grooves”, and four “Breaks”, each of which has four tracks for separate Punch sounds. You can create, for instance, your basic bass drum/snare sequence on Groove 1, a hi-hat pattern on Groove 2, a different hi-hat pattern on Groove 3 … and then you bring these grooves and breaks in and out of your overall drum sequence just by holding the appropriate keys on your keyboard. Punch does also, of course, support playing the drums directly, responding to MIDI notes below the Groove and Break sequences for each of the separate drum sounds in the preset.
Blade is the newest of the synths included in Rob Papen’s bundles, and is a bit difficult to quantify – for good reason. Blade attempts to put a user-friendly face onto the difficult concept of additive synthesis. Since it includes a filter, it can be said to be both an additive and subtractive synth, but additive is its primary aim.
Blade’s “oscillator” is called the Harmolator, and builds its waveform off of up to 96 partials. Unlike other additive synthesizers which allow you to set the level and motion of each separate partial, Blade uses a set of different timbres, including vocal sounds, to give you your starting sounds, plus 12 controls for shaping the timbre, including a sub-oscillator that can be set to several different positions both above and below the primary timbre. The timbre can then be animated using the “ripple” (not an LFO, the LFO is separate), and run through a distortion, multimode filter, and two-slot effects module. The additive oscillators can be further shaped and animated using the huge X-Y pad that dominated Blade’s interface, which can be set to modulate the oscillator and filter in different ways, and then play recorded X-Y motions with each note, or respond to live movement. If you even needed a touch screen for your PC … anyway, it keeps the sound from being very static.
Blade also gives you a representation of what the harmonics (or the waveform, if you prefer that setting) looks like for your sound. If you set this to “Dyn” it even shows that representation in full motion, so you can see what the animated changes to the timbre is doing.
Blade also has an envelope and LFO that can be routed to various timbre properties in varying amounts (hence the little bank of knobs under the more traditional envelope and LFO settings) and on top of that it has both a complex (multi-page) modulation amounts section and a four-slot mod matrix.
Blade excels at creating the kind of sounds that additive synths are probably best known for – glassy sounds, long evolving pads, and the like – but also can be made to sound surprisingly analog if that is what you’re looking for. The presets seem to come with a large number of dubstep-oriented “wobble” sounds, but those are contrasted by “trancey” contributions from authors like Rob Lee, and more industrial sounds from other contributors.
The Urban bundle replaces Blade with SubBoomBass, a two-oscillator VA bass synth. Its interface is an orange-yellow color that may possibly be taken as a reference to a recent analog monosynth … or not. Though similar to Predator superficially, it does have some features that Predator does not (and vice versa) so the two complement one another. It has one less oscillator and lacks many of the filter modes of Predator, and lacks many of the spectral waveforms, but includes several sampled waveforms that Predator does not have. Both the filter and the amplifier have their own dedicated envelopes, the filter has its own dedicated LFO, and then there is a “Free” Envelope and LFO not dedicated to anything.
SubBoomBass has two sequencers instead of predator’s one, and Osc 1 and 2 can be sequenced separately. So you can make a squelchy 303 bass line with Osc 1 and use samples playing on Osc 2 to play a drum loop… there are a couple presets that literally do exactly this. SubBooomBass’s flip panels on the front can also expose of hide the more complex parts of the interface as required, which can give it a cleaner and simpler feel.
And is it very good at basslines. Seriously. But don’t discount its ability to do leads, or to create synthesized drum sounds either, as it is also clearly made with those in mind.
The two bundles have minor differences – namely, Blade in one and SubBoomBass in the other – but either one represents a very good deal. The bundles are $349 for a $179 synth (Predator), a $179 drum synth/sequencer (Punch), and a third synth that is either $119 (SubBoomBass) or $139 (Blade). You’re paying less than the price of Predator and Punch for all three together!
As for the sound?
This is a quick test track created using Punch and Predator. The pad, bass line, and drums are all slightly tweaked presets. Effects are the ones that come with the plugins, with some EQ applied (Reaper’s ReaFIR in EQ mode). Nothing amazing but not to shabby for a couple hours’ work.
The items in each bundle complement each other and while yes they are genre-targeted, it was done by people with a good grasp of the genres involved. They represent a good packaging and good value for great sounding plugins that can be used for any genre not just the ones listed… just making up your mind which ones you want may be difficult. Of course, if you’re really having that problem, you may want to look at Rob Papen’s Explorer II bundle, which has all of his products in a single bundle.