Points of Kontakt – Six Libraries from Synth Magic
Synth Magic is a UK company which specializes in interesting samples of synth origin for use in Kontakt. We look at six of them herein.
by David Baer, Jan. 2017
In this installment of Points of Kontakt, we’re going to take a look at several offerings from Synth Magic. This is the first time I’ve given Synth Magic any coverage, but that has certainly not been due to lack of appreciation for what’s on offer. Synth Magic brilliantly targets my favorite kinds of Kontakt fare: interesting/unusual/rare electronica. My dilemma has always been to figure out an intelligent way to review several libraries in a grouping that had a common theme that made sense.
Well, that dilemma was solved for me last October. Synth Magic had very generously donated several bundles to Luftrum’s annual charity drive on KVR – a noble undertaking if ever there was one. Wishing to contribute, I bid on and won one of those bundles. Instant review theme: the good deeds collection. The collection reviewed here consists of two volumes of the ZED-80 instrument and four volumes of the Vector X instrument. All require the full version of Kontakt.
Actually, Synth Magic doesn’t offer bundles as a buying option, so don’t go looking for this one – you would need to acquire the items individually.
Synth Magic is a UK operation captained by Steve Porter. I asked Steve if he could supply us with a little background on himself and his company. Here is his response:
Synth Magic has existed for about seven years and came about after my job in IT had ended. I have been into synthesizers and computers for over 30 years and having some time on my hands (after my job had ended) I decided to embark on a project that I had always wanted to do: to make a sound library from my old ARP Quadra.
Because an ARP Quadra is very expensive and quite a rare find, I had always wanted to make the great sound of the ARP Quadra available to those who could not have access to the real synth. So I set about sampling it. Initially I was going to make a sample pack in WAV format, but then decided on using Kontakt because it is really popular and I liked the idea of being able to provide a graphical user interface that resembled the functionality and look of the real synth. I called the initial version Sounds of the Quarda and it received a great response. So I decided to develop some more products and it grew from there. I updated Sounds of the Quadra many times during its lifespan, however I retired the original Sounds of the Quadra some years later and created a totally new version with new interfaces and scripts and a new and much, much larger sample library and called it Quadra.
I have been developing instruments (mostly based on real hardware) for Kontakt ever since 2011 with the help of two very talented graphic designers: Anders Hedstrom and stjohnbaxter who provide the graphics for the user interfaces. I really enjoy making these instruments and experimenting with my various synths, computers, pre-amps, tapes and old valve pre-amps into the small hours (I’m a night owl). Since Synth Magic started I have made instruments based on Polymoog, Prophet VS, Farfisa Polychrome, Korg Delta and many others, and I’m constantly on the lookout for rare, strange and quirky synths, modules and musical instruments so I can create a Kontakt instrument based on them. I’m working on many new Kontakt instruments and have many new instruments planned for the future.
There’s a common approach to Synth Magic’s products (or at least all the ones with which I’ve become familiar). A collection of great sounds are gathered from some (usually vintage) electronic source. The sounds are captured largely unfiltered and delivered as a Kontakt instrument with typical synth controls for volume and filter-cutoff envelopes, an LFO or two, some mod-wheel and aftertouch modulation options, etc. Some added Kontakt effects are included, of course, and what results is an absolutely dandy sounding synth with righteous oscillators and plenty of sound animation possibilities. This is a winning formula not unique to Synth Magic, of course, but it’s one that has proven itself over and over. As you’ll see, the formula applies to the ZED-80 and Vector X collections.
The ZED-80 libraries use sounds sampled into a Casio FZ-1 sampler, the sources being various 1980s samplers, synths and drum machines. According to the promotional material on the Synth Magic web site: I have been a user of the FZ-1 for many years and love the way it adds ‘that extra something’ to anything sampled into it. The FZ-1 and other older, lower bit rate samplers have a great effect on sampled material – similar to the EMU SP12/SP1200. As a final step preparing the sample sets for Kontakt, the material was run through a series of vintage tube preamps.
The two ZED 80 libraries are identical apart from the sample sets included. If you like one of the collections, you will almost certainly want to own the other. While one cannot intuit what a sound is like from the name, nevertheless, the image below shows the impressively lengthy list of sounds for ZED-80 Vol 1 and Vol 2. To hear a selection of sounds, the product pages for the two volumes have several demo audio clips. Just go to the URL given at the end of this article, find one of the ZED-80 links under Products, and have a listen.
Selecting one of the sounds (some of which are drum-kit-type multi-samples), you can then shape it further with the controls on the main UI page. Anyone with even the most modest experience in sound design will know how to use the controls without requiring a read through of the documentation. That’s a good thing since said documentation in this case is pretty skimpy – but actually, it’s unneeded for something so straightforward.
The other panel is for FX. Again, hardly needs further explanation. The list of reverb impulses (again a generous offering) are shown to the right.
So what’s missing? I must pull out my well-worn soapbox and once again complain that there is no switch on the UI to engage keyboard tracking on filter cutoff. It’s not that I am singling out Synth Magic on this – I have yet to see any Kontakt library provider offer this highly useful feature. But as I always point out, if you have even modest skills with Kontakt programming (what to do after you’ve clicked on the wrench icon), adding keyboard tracking modulation to filter cutoff is quite simple (keeping it to around 11% for one-to-one tracking).
The other thing, also overlooked all too often, is a choice of filters. Kontakt has a nice, varied collection of these and it would always be nice to be able to select which of them you want directly at the UI level and not need to get your hands dirty with lower-level programming. Although in this case, I do approve of the choice of the Pro53 filter for the low-pass filter duties. The Pro 53 is usually my preferred low-pass Kontakt filter.
Vector X is comprised of four volumes but sold as two products, bundling volumes 1 and 2 as a single product and likewise volumes 3 and 4. The four volumes are largely identical apart from the sample sets included.
Vector X is based on the Sequential Circuits Prophet VS. This was sort of a wavetable synth that offered dozens of single-cycle waveforms, any four of which could be combined in the oscillator. A joystick XY controller allowed the four waveforms to be mixed in any proportion. As such, the Prophet VS was rather a unique instrument at the time.
Synth Magic’s recreation offers 28 sample sets per volume, sounds that run the gamut of what the Prophet VS could do. Vector X allows any two sounds available in a volume to be mixed with individual filter setting, envelopes, etc. Below you will see the sounds on offer in each of the respective four volumes.
The main tab of the UI is very straightforward. One thing not obvious is that there are different low-pass filters in different volumes – the ladder LP filter and the Pro 53 are both given the nod, depending on which volume is being used. And, again, there is no key-follow filter cutoff option on the UI.
Two other tabs, seen below, provide modulation routing and FX settings. I doubt that explanation is needed – it’s all pretty obvious and requires no reading of documentation, which is entirely adequate although fairly unnecessary in this case.
Is ZED 80 and/or Vector X for You?
The two Vector X bundles (vol. 1/2 and vol. 3/4) list for £30 GBP apiece. Each volume of ZED 80 lists for an even more attractive price of £20 GBP. All is fairly priced in my opinion. These are excellent libraries that offer a wide spectrum of diverse sound possibilities. The quality is quite good and each offering is immediately useful given the very short learning curve required. A reasonable amount of audio demo material is offered on each product page that should allow anyone to determine if the vibe of the instruments is aligned with their interests. For me, it was pretty much love at first listen.
I have yet to find a Synth Magic Kontakt instrument that disappoints, but then my special Kontakt place is exotic and interesting electronica. Synth Magic offers that in spades – and not just in the ZED 80 and Vector X libraries reviewed here. There are also a few free offerings you can download if you are new to Synth Magic and wish to do a bit of evaluation before spending your money. If Kontakt electronica is of interest to you, by all means get to know this wonderful company and get on their mailing list. Synth Magic can be found here: