Review – Syn’X 2 by XILS-lab

 

Syn’X 2 is an eight-layer monster synthesizer plugin which emulates the classic Synthex. With its great filters and modulation options, this is one powerful synthesizer. Find out more here.

 

By Rob Mitchell, Sept. 2015

 

XILS-lab is a French-based music software company with many high quality synthesizer plugins to their credit. These include XILS 4, PolyKB II, and Oxium. In the last issue of SoundBytes magazine, I wrote about their PolyKB II synth plugin. This time around, I am checking out yet another product of theirs called Syn’X 2. It is the newly improved sequel to their Syn’X synthesizer plugin.

Originally this synth plugin was released about four years ago, and it had a slightly different name. Since then, many fixes and improvements have been made. They have also added new features, and have given it many additional presets.

It was basically modelled after the Synthex, which was manufactured in the early 1980s. The Synthex was used by some big names in the music business, such as Jean Michel Jarre, Stevie Wonder, and Geoff Downes of Yes and Asia fame.

Syn’X 2 has eight separate layers, with each layer being an independent synth in its own right. It is also multitimbral, so you can create some intricate/complex presets, or use each layer independently using MIDI. Also, it has two keyboards, meaning you can use two separate zones on your keyboard. Each of those can be set differently, using up to eight layers a piece. For instance, you might setup one patch to use a two layer arpeggiator, and the other might have a three layer unison lead sound. 

 

Installation Requirements

Syn’X 2 is available for PC and Mac. If you’re using a PC, you will need XP, Vista, or Windows 7, and it is available in VST and RTAS formats (Pro Tools 7.0 and later). If you’re using a Mac, it will need at least OS X 10.4 or higher, and it is available in VST, Audio Unit, and RTAS formats (Pro Tools 7.0 and later).

The minimum system requirements are one gigabyte of RAM, and a 2 GHz CPU. There is no standalone version of Syn’X 2.

Syn’X 2 does require an eLicenser or an iLok for the installation. Since I already had an iLok software licenser set up on my PC for PolyKB II and a few other plugins, I used it again for this installation. XILS-lab has changed it so you don’t need a physical iLok dongle anymore, which is great for me as I still don’t have one yet.

 

Getting Started

After loading it in my DAW, I wanted to hear what some of the presets sounded like. It basically uses the same menu bar for preset selection that PolyKB II has. Using the first menu button at the top left, you are able to switch to different types of categories. These include Author, Feeling, Type, Style, Bank or Projects. To the right of that first button is a field that shows a list of what’s included in the category you have selected. If you have it set to “Type”, you then get a list with many selections of preset types, such as Init, Brass, Lead, Soundtrack, and so on.

Over to the right are some other features, including options to save your preset. The A/B function lets you hear the changes you’ve made and switch between them. The “Options” menu is where you can change how the pop-ups and the display in general will behave. You’re also able to get to MIDI settings from here, and switch to a higher resolution display. This is very nice if you have a large monitor, as it makes the display easier to read. It will change the display to 2,048 pixels across. I didn’t use that setting, as the regular display size worked well with my 1600 by 900 resolution. I think it might be a good idea to also have a smaller size available. If someone is using a laptop for instance, they might want one in a more useful size.

 

Oscillators

After hearing some presets of a synthesizer plugin, I usually check out the oscillators. As I touched on before, Syn’X 2 has eight separate layers. Each of those layers has two oscillators. Some of the controls include settings for the octave, a transpose knob (+/-12 semitones), and waveform selection buttons. The two oscillators can be synced, and there is a drift control available. It will vary the tuning slightly between the two oscillators, and will even affect the cutoff frequency slightly.

The waveforms include sawtooth, triangle, square, and pulse. Clicking the labels above the saw and triangle will give you a pulse width variation on those two waveform types. In addition, you can select more than one waveform, so they are cumulative. If you select the pulse waveform, the PWM button will appear to the right of it. It will then be able to get cross-modulation from another oscillator. When setup this way, it will use the other oscillator to adjust its pulse width. Ring modulation can be enabled using a button to the right of the waveform buttons. 

The “Width” control changes the pulse width when you have selected the pulse waveform. It can also affect the triangle or saw if those are selected. “Level” is for the output level of the oscillator. To the right of those controls there is a noise generator, which has pink or white noise, and its own level control.

 

Filter Section

Syn’X 2 includes a multimode, four-pole self-oscillating filter. Filter types include 12 and 24 dB low-pass, 6 and 12 dB band-pass, and a 12 dB high-pass. The usual cutoff and resonance controls are included here, along with bipolar knobs to adjust the amount of the filter envelope and keyboard follow. The “Drive” control will push the filter’s audio with a saturated type of sound, and can be set as either pre-filter or post-filter.

It also has been setup as a 0df filter (zero delay feedback), which can emulate an analog filter in a more accurate manner. One example of how it can help the sound of synth plugin is when a filter is slowly opened up (known as a sweep), and resonance levels can sometimes vary drastically. That type of variance can also happen the other way around. For instance, if you change the resonance amount, and then it may adversely affect the cutoff frequency. The 0df filter really makes a difference in this department. It improves the audio signal by keeping the levels more natural, especially in regards to the resonance.

 

Envelopes, LFOs and Modulation Matrix

There are four envelopes included in Syn’X. The first one is for the filter cut off, and the second is tied to the output section (VCA). The other two can be used with the modulation matrix (more on this later) to be assigned to different parts of the synth plugin.

The envelopes use a slight variation on the classic ADSR configuration. Each one has an additional “Delay” section right before the attack stage. This will allow you to set a certain amount of time before the attack stage occurs. That same delay time can be synced to the host. Envelopes three and four share the same space on the display, and you switch between them using tabs.

Syn’X 2 has two LFOs with controls for frequency, delay, fade, and depth controls. The frequency can also be synced to the host. The “Delay” will wait a certain amount of time before a fade-in occurs, and “Fade” will slowly fade-in the LFO on the audio.

The “Depth” controls will adjust the amount of modulation, and there are buttons to enable modulation for the oscillators (including pulse width), filter, and amp sections. The waveforms for the LFOs include a sine, triangle, ramp, sample and hold, saw, and square. Just like with the oscillator waveforms, you can select multiple waveforms for the LFO. When they’re used in combination, you will get variations on the standard shapes used for modulation.

To the right of the LFO tabs in the upper-left, you’ll see a couple more tabs: CHAO and RTHM.

“CHAO”, which is short for Chaox, is a special modulation feature in Syn’X 2. In a way, it is similar to the modulation of the LFO, but without the regular, repeating pattern to it. It has four random algorithms to choose from, and you can assign any one of them to a large amount of targets for modulation.

“RTHM”, which is short for Rhythm LFO, lets you modulate certain beats/steps of the audio in different ways. Basically, it is a specialized type of LFO that works in a more musical fashion. It has five different controls you can choose from. For instance, at the 6th step it could have a small nudge on the oscillator frequency by using the “HEXA” control, and you could have the filter cutoff open a bit on the 8th step by using the “OCTO” control.  Just like with the Chaox feature, you’re able to assign any one of them to a long list of targets for modulation.

To the right of the LFO section is the Modulation Matrix. This where you can pick from various sources that will affect certain targets. There are six modulation slots available, which may not seem like a large number at first. However, if you consider that Syn’X 2 has eight layers (with six slots per layer), you’ll realize that there are many possible ways to combine all the different modulations into one patch.

The middle of the display contains more settings that I’d like to cover. On the left side, you will find the third LFO’s settings that control the pitch bend and some modulation options. Instead of wheels, there is a joystick which can affect more than one modulation type at a time. Moving it towards the left side will affect the oscillators, while moving to the right will affect the filter. 

The amounts for pitch bend, oscillator, and filter are changed using sliders. This works in a decent manner, but I thought that the settings would easier to enter. For instance, I’d like it if I could have right-clicked on a slider for pitch bend amount, and entered in the numeric amount. The way it is now, the small numeric amount pop-ups that it uses will sometimes hang there for a little longer than expected. Also, as you move the slider up or down, sometimes it will not update the amount that is shown.

 

Layer Upon Layer

The section for the Layer settings has an option to enable an “Easy” edit mode. This is great for when you don’t need all eight layers, and the huge amount of control that goes with them. When it is set this way, it will have basic buttons to select the mode (Single w/Upper and Lower, Split, or Double), and the number of voices for each.  You can also copy the settings from the Lower to the Upper, and vice versa.   

If it is set to the full edit mode, you will then have access to the eight separate layers. Clicking on each layer button (A through H) will switch between the settings for that particular layer. There are mute and solo buttons below each of the layer buttons, which can help when editing a complex patch.

The “Select All” button will let you edit all the layers at once in the same way.  Holding down the Control key and selecting the layers will let you select certain layers to edit at once (i.e. layers 1, 3, and 5), and the Shift key lets you select a certain amount of them in a row (i.e. layers 1,2,3,4). “Toggle” will disable the layers you’ve originally selected for editing, and enable all the others. “Gang” mode is very useful for keeping certain levels the way you want, as it will only increase/decrease them. For example: Unlike the “Select All” feature, using “Gang” mode won’t change all the filter cutoff amounts in every layer to the same amount if you increase layer C’s filter cutoff setting. It will just add to the settings that you’ve already set for the cutoff in each layer.

 

Arpeggiator, Sequencer and Effects

Syn’X 2 includes an arpeggiator for each keyboard, so you can have up to two of them running at once. The controls for it are on the lower-right part of the display, including up or down modes, a poly mode, as well as gate and swing amounts. Clicking the “Arpeggiator” label brings you to more settings including octave range, voice order, and three additional arp play modes.


The sequencer in Syn’X 2 is polyphonic, and you’re able to input up to four monophonic sequences and have them playback at the same time. The notes can be input using a MIDI keyboard, or by using the mouse. Each of the four sequences can use different voices, and they can have up to 127 steps.

The sequences will each have a different color as they are entered, which makes it easier to tell them apart on the screen.  There are controls to zoom in or out, and highlighting or hiding a sequence is easy using the controls on the left side. You can set the rate, or have it synced to the host, and set a gate time for each of the sequences.

Syn’X 2 includes four effects; chorus, delay, phaser, and an EQ. You’re able to access each by clicking on tabs going across the top of the effects area. The chorus is an emulation of the Synthex dual brigade delay. It has a dry/wet control, and settings for the speed, amount, stereo width, and three modes to choose from. This effect sounds very good, and I would love to be able to use this chorus as a separate effect on other plugins. Maybe XILS-lab can also work on an effects version of Syn’X 2?

The delay can be synced to the host, and has separate left/right feedback and delay controls. Those delay times range from one millisecond all the way up to a full five seconds. The phaser has controls to change the speed, amount, sweep, resonance, and stereo setting. Last but not least is the EQ, which has two high/low shelf filters, and includes frequency, resonance, and gain controls.

A great feature they’ve included (and one I always wish for but often missing) is that some of the effect parameters can be used as targets in the modulation matrix. These include the delay time, delay mix, chorus rate, phaser rate, and phaser sweep.

 

Conclusion

Despite a couple small issues I ran in to with the display, I think they basically knocked this one out of the park. There are just so many features packed in to Syn’X 2 that I couldn’t get to all of them in this review. However, I wanted to make sure I mentioned one additional section of the synth before wrapping this up.

With the Easy setting, there are the three tabs next to the keyboard that I mentioned previously which give you some extra controls and information. When you select the full mode of Syn’X 2, a fourth tab appears called “ADV” (Advanced).

This is where you can select from eight different play modes for the two keyboards, enable unison, pick the number of voices for each keyboard, and you can use what XILS-lab calls the “Guitar Mode”.  This is basically a polytimbral mode that you can use with a MIDI guitar, or other device using six MIDI channels. Each MIDI channel can trigger different voices, and they can be voices within different layers as well.

Syn’X 2 really has an enormous number of controls at your disposal. Even if you have it set to the Easy mode, you have a very fine synthesizer plugin at your command, with great filters and modulation options. Speaking of filters, they sound very good. XILS-lab really did an impeccable job at getting the quality of sound that Syn’X 2 delivers. As for emulation of the classic Synthex, I haven’t used the hardware synth before, so I can’t be the best judge of how close it is to the real thing. No matter what, it has great presets, an awesome sound quality and a wealth of modulation possibilities that make this one plugin you have got to check out for yourself.

Syn’X 2 retails for €164 which is about $184 USD. You can get more information and a demo version here:

https://www.xils-lab.com/pages/Syn’X-2.html

 

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