Review – u-he’s Diva
Diva is u-he’s magnificent homage to the world of analog synthesizer gear. It begs us to ask the question “who needs hardware?”. Find out why in this close-up look.
by Per Lichtman, Mar. 2015
The increasingly competitive software synthesizer section of the virtual instrument market asks each product one deceptively simple question: what makes you special? For u-he Diva ($179 USD), the answer starts with “sound quality.” Diva meticulously models the eccentricities of the core components of several of the most desirable vintage (and in the case of “Digital” mode, somewhat more modern) synthesizers in the form of their oscillators and filters (typically low-pass and high-pass, but there’s variation) at a level that few other plug-ins even attempt, let alone succeed at. If you’ve never used zero-feedback filters before, you are in for a treat. It follows that up by offering features not found in the emulated synthesizers (for example continuous waveform variation in one case and FM in another) and by adding the ability to use up to a 6x stack (unison) mode on the oscillator output section (which means a max of 18 voices per note if you’re using the Triple VCO mode, for example). It further builds on this by offering an arpeggiator tab and several FX, all without leaving the main screen – while several more advanced options (like oscillator drift) are quickly accessible through additional tabs. It’s fast, it’s fun and it sounds really great.
Let’s take a look at where each oscillator draws its inspiration from. The Triple VCO section is based on a MiniMoog with some important additions and differences (which I could probably talk about better if I had spent more time with the original).
The Dual VCO mode uniquely offers “ideal”, “analog 1” and “analog 2” variations of its waveforms, so it possible multiple synths were used as models for the emulation. The oscillators appear to be drawn from a Roland Jupiter 6 or Jupiter 8 but I lack experience with the original hardware, so I cannot be completely sure. Confusingly, Dual VCO really has nothing to do with Dual VCO Eco – one of the very few counter-intuitive design decisions I came across (a point I’ll address shortly in the respective section).
The DCO section appears to take its cues from a Roland Alpha Juno, and users looking for that sound will do well to avail themselves of the chorus options in Diva’s FX section since the Juno’s chorus played such an important in part in many of that synth’s sounds. Additionally, those looking for further chorus variations can independently supplement Diva’s own chorus options with the free Tal-Chorus-LX chorus effect from Togu Audio Line (taken from their own Tal-Uno-LX synth), which emulates the chorus options of the closely related Roland Juno-60. I enjoyed the variety of colors that combination gave me.
The Dual VCO Eco oscillators bring the sound of the Korg MS20 (originally an analogue synth with its own patch bay that almost seemed drawn from a more traditional modular) into a simpler semi-modular environment. As the manual explains, “Eco” does not refer to CPU savings (as modern virtual instrument users might expect) but rather to the economy of the original unit being emulated.
Initially I overlooked the power of the “Digital” oscillator section since it was added in an update and I made the mistake of assuming that “Digital” might mean simply “idealized waveforms” (which might have lacked the individuality of the many other synths Diva emulated). Instead it turns out that the Digital oscillator section emulates the Roland JP-8080, including the well-known SuperSaw sound. As a quick note on the SuperSaw, the oscillator section includes controls to manipulate it without using Diva’s supplemental stacking mode (and in my testing I found that CPU usage went up rather intensely if both were used together, so I would suggest disabling stacking when using the SuperSaw). If you want to hear a comparison of Diva’s Digital oscillator mode and the Roland JP-8080, you can hear how close they sound in Sadowick Production’s YouTube video “JP8080 vs U-He Diva – Real World Trance Lead”. I won’t say they sound exactly the same (among other things, the filter models being used in that example differ notably in character) but the oscillators are surprisingly similar in sound and I was definitely impressed by the authenticity.
For any oscillator module except Triple VCO, there are four high-pass filter choices available: Feedback, HPF Post, HPF Pre and HPF Bite. Feedback mode bypasses any filter and simply offers a knob to control the feedback level.
When using the Triple VCO oscillator module, the HPF module is replaced by a Mixer module that shows five knobs and one switch. On the left side, there are three volume knobs to control the level of each of the three oscillators. Rather than using labeling to identify each of the volume knobs, the group as a whole is simply labeled “volume” and each knob is simply placed directly to the right of the oscillator it controls. To the right of these three knobs you’ll find feedback and noise knobs, with a rocker to switch between pink and white noise below it.
For each of the remaining modes, the controls vary from mode to mode. HPF Post is the least flexible, offering five cutoff frequencies: 3, 2, 1, 0 and boost (with boost actually accentuating the lows rather than cutting them). HPF Pre offers continuous cutoff. HPF Bite has the most controls by far, offering cutoff, peak (resonance/Q) and bi-polar modulation knob (mapped to envelope 2 by default but re-configured via drop-down menu) and a menu to switch between Rev 1 and Rev 2, from the respective Korg MS20 models.
VCF Filter Section
Let me start by saying which filter originally pairs with each oscillator section. Multimode pairs with DCO, Cascade pairs with Dual VCO, VCF Ladder pairs with Triple VCO, Bite Pairs with Dual VCO Eco. The wildcard is the more recently added Uhbie; I’ve heard other users say this emulates the OB-X/SEM, but I don’t personally have the experience to confirm or deny that. As such, it probably pairs most naturally with the Digital oscillator section, but should sound different from the JP-8080 filters. Anyway, these are the pairings to use when you are trying to most accurately emulate the sound of a particular piece of original gear as authentically as Diva can. However there’s great fun to be had in mixing and matching.
Diva is a synth that really encourages you to get your hands on it and start tweaking. The preset library features many different sounds, but it was when I start molding them to my own tastes that I discovered both how quick and easy the process was and yet how deceptive that simplicity was at the same time. You see, even if you put both the high-pass and low-pass filters into Bite mode, you still have individual control over whether each one emulates a “rev 1” or “rev 2” incarnation of the Korg MS20, and simply changing one of them between Rev 1 or Rev 2 drastically alters the character of the sound, even with identical settings (and that the VCF section has variable FM), there are innumerable permutations from the Bite modules alone. Once you start getting into swapping the VCF for Ladder, Cascade, Multimode and Uhbie options (each of which has a quite audibly distinct character) you realize each seemingly simple swap offers access to a huge range of sounds (not to mention that a high-pass filter has almost as many modes). Diva really gets how important filters are to the sound and it’s difficult for me to give it enough kudos for its excellent execution, which is among the best I’ve ever tested to date. Hearing the zero-feedback filters do their magic with the “divine” accuracy settings selected and extreme resonance really helps show off what the engine can do.
Let me walk through an early highlight for me. In Triple VCO mode with the VCF ladder, I enjoyed using about 63% FM in the oscillator section and 100% FM in the VCF section, with the feedback and pink noise cranked up to 100% in the mixer. With those settings, I turned down the volume, turned up VCF emphasis to max and then swept the cutoff while listening to synth sequence. As mentioned above, this is one of the scenarios where you will really hear the difference between the accuracy modes, and divine does a great job of rendering the extreme settings, making the filters feel far more grounded and smooth than the lower accuracy/CPU ones. Perhaps the greatest accuracy mode gap is between “draft” and any of the others, so if you have the CPU, I would strongly advise using “fast” or higher, unless you want to use the less natural sound of “draft” as an effect.
At the very top we find a maroon strip with a handful of controls that stay the same, no matter what’s being worked on. Starting from left to right we find the patch save button (which calls up a save dialog), the Diva logo (which can be clicked to change the skin scheme or overall GUI resolution/size), a MIDI activity light. Continuing right, we find the streamlined version of the best patch browser (with both a list that can be accessed by clicking the patch name as well as left and right navigation arrows) – this is also where Diva initially displays your registration info and the software version number when you first open an instance of Diva. Note the bulk of the review was written using Diva 1.31 Rev 2165. To the right we find undo and redo arrows for patch editing (which work even if your DAW doesn’t offer the capability), an overall output level knob (the position of which is saved with each patch) and a clickable u-he logo with links to the various company sites and social media pages.
Moving downward, we come into the black area, which is where you’ll find the primary synth controls. This black area is divided into four columns (with envelopes sub-divided into two parts), allowing for a semi-modular approach. From left to right, we usually find the oscillators, high-pass filter and the main VCF section and then the two envelopes. Notably, the Triple VCO oscillator mode replaces the high-pass filter module with a mixer that includes controls for the oscillators, as well as noise and feedback. Additionally, the modules are always shown in the same order from left to right, even if the actual filter routing order changes (as some models do not place the high-pass filter before the VCF).
The bottom section goes back to the maroon color. Here we find (in the top row, from left to right) “LFO 1 (vibrato)”, Tuning, Amplifier and Pan, and Effect 1 (Chorus, Phaser, Plate, Delay and Rotary modules are offered, many with several modes to choose from). In the next row, there’s “LFO 2 (Mod)” on the far left and Effect 2 on the right (which is an additional slot that can choose from the same effects as Effect 1). These are all of the most basic sound-shaping parts, but between LFO 2 and Effect 2 there are three panels. The first includes several patch settings: play mode, note priority, voice count, stack count, real-time accuracy and offline-accuracy settings and a multi-core switch (which lets Diva use multiple cores at once instead of relying on your DAW to distribute the cores among different VIs). The next sets the division, clock multiplier and swing for the arpeggiator. Finally, the third houses the arpeggiator controls, including an on-off switch (looks like a light) mode pull-down, octaves pull-down, progression pull-down and sequence restart trigger pull-down.
Beneath the aforementioned controls, toward the very bottom, are five black tabs. The above descriptions are what you see when the leftmost “Main” tab is highlighted, but to the right are four more tabs: Modifications, Trimmers, Scope and Patches. Each of these only changes the controls housed in the maroon section between LFO 1 and Effect 1, except for Patches. When Patches is selected, the situation is reversed, and everything except that central maroon section changes to show the patch organization.
Scope is an oscilloscope of the current playback with update frequency and vertical amplitude scaling controls. Trimmers lets you adjust many manner of minutiae to fine-tune the sound of the synth: oscillator voice detune, voice map modulator, detune amount, voice drift, stack tuning, reset phase, transient mode, bipolar noise and variance (for cutoff, envelope, pulse width, and glide) – oddly, LED color is also modified here but I’m not sure where else it would make more sense either. The modifications tab is where most of the modulation options are and is divided into two rows: the top maroon row has five knobs and menus provide access to VCO, Filter and Feedback modulation sources; the bottom black row modifies the values of the top row using modifiers best explained in the manual.
To the right and left are wood panels and in the lower corner is the version build number. In the DAW Cockos Reaper, I sometimes found it necessary to click on these wood borders in order to regain keyboard control of the DAW transport since in certain modes highlighting the Diva window would cause all computer keyboard input to control Diva navigation (even when the Reaper setting “Send All Keyboard Input to Plug-In” was not selected). I mention this in case any other users experience similar issues and benefit from the workaround, especially when navigating patches.
The Patches Tab
Patches are divided into several folders on the hard drive and Diva makes it easy for the user to move them around at will individually, rather than relying on a monolithic database system. When a folder is selected in the lower left pane, the large patch list shows up on the black background near the top, while patch information is highlighted on the right. Right clicking on the patch list or in the lower left pane’s folder will bring up helpful context sensitive actions. For the patch list, these are Make Favorite, Mark as Junk, Select All, Deselect and Show/Hide Junk (it’s a toggle) and “Reveal in Finder” for OS X users, with an equivalent command for Windows users. For the folder list, the right-click commands are Refresh (which displays any changes to folder structure you may have made), Create New Folder (allowing you to create sub-folders if you choose or new ones entirely) and Reveal in Finder (with the Windows equivalent on respective systems).
The emphasis is on working quickly with this system, rather than on advanced tagging or sorting. The save dialog for a preset fields for Preset Name, Author Name, Preset Description and Preset Usage, so additional info can be entered here. However, the information is not searchable, unlike virtual instruments designed around large libraries, like Omnisphere or Kontakt. I didn’t really find this to be much of an issue, since the patch library was of a size I could take the time to browse through comprehensively (especially since the patches all consist of synth settings and didn’t require taking time to load large sample sets).
In short, the patch organization system is rather quick and simple but overall more on the functional side rather than a selling-point.
The “Hype” Question
If you’re used to certain other soft synths, you may find Diva’s sound is less “hyped”, with comparatively less of an emphasis on the highest frequencies. Depending on the specific synth being used for comparison, I found this often came down to one of three factors: the absence of an exciter, anti-aliasing and the specific waveforms used.
Several soft synths use internal exciters, for example the much older reFX Vanguard (which I first used over a decade ago) offers a switchable exciter that many users leave on for a brighter, hyped sound that Diva users would need an external exciter plug-in to emulate. It hopefully goes without saying that while such a hyped sound may be pleasing, it is not representative of most of the synths Diva seeks to emulate. In addition, some other synths have an “edgy” high end from aliasing that you won’t get out of Diva when using the “Divine” real-time or “Best” offline modes, since those modes in particular do such a great job of preserving audio fidelity and preventing and controlling artifacts. Equally important, the waveform signature of most synthesizers provide significant variation spectral balance and their respective waveforms, so while the waveform of softsynth like Sylenth1 may tilt a bit more towards the upper end than an “idealized” waveform, while the output from Diva goes the opposite direction and often emphasizes the fundamental or sub-harmonic frequencies in a given oscillator, lending the synth a warm sound that more directly mirrors the original sound of the synths it draws inspiration from. At this point I’d like to thank my friend Ernest Cholakis at Numerical Sound for his assistance in my oscillator research as I worked on this section of the review.
So what does all of that mean? It means that by default Diva gives a warmer, analogue sound that more directly follows in the footsteps of the gear it mirrors but that you can give a brighter sound through exciters, enhancers, EQ or whatever else you might like if you so desire. Consequently, I found Diva to be both full of character and flexible in a mix.
Not a Jack of All Trades
Diva is primarily designed for creating great sounding analogue (and Roland JP8080 style) sounds that use a simpler envelope structure, like a standard ADSR for example. While it augments this several modulation options, those looking primarily for powerful envelopes and routing or more digital timbres would be better served by other offerings, something u-he readily acknowledges through its variety of other available instruments. And while Diva comes with many patch presets and there are many more available from third parties, at a fundamental level, this synth tries to do something different from workstation synths like reFX Nexus and Spectrasonics Omnisphere, both of which offer varied sampled sound libraries for playback (though Omnisphere offers live VA as well). It should be noted that conversely, Diva offers more accurate emulations of the dynamic control of the vintage synthesizers it draws inspiration from than workstation synths like that, especially the filters.
While I personally am more concerned with how Diva models the eccentricities of the oscillator and filter sections of the synths from which it draws inspiration and I appreciate the modern additions and flexible “mix and match” approach, I know that some people want more “one-to-one” emulations. The first one that springs to mind for those users would be Togu Audio Line’s TAL-UNO-LX, which offers a strikingly accurate emulation of just one of the synthesizers to which Diva pays homage (the Roland Juno 60) at a lower price than Diva. On other hand, I will note that while I certainly haven’t heard every vintage emulation out there, exempting the aforementioned TAL-UNO-LX, many of the emulations fall far short in emulating the gear from which they draw inspiration and pale audibly in comparison to the oscillator and filter stages Diva offers.
I know that many vintage synth users enjoyed routing external audio through their synths, and this another segment to whom Diva doesn’t currently cater. However, if you read through the manual, you’ll notice that u-he gives special thanks to Andrew Simper for his knowledge of zero-feedback filters. Andrew Simper also happens to be the author of Cytomic The Drop, a dedicated filter effect plug-in that covers some of the very same models. I met Andrew Simper at NAMM a couple years ago and can happily say that his passion for filters exceeds even my own. Given how much I like the filters in Diva and enjoyed my brief demo with The Drop, I definitely hope that I get the chance to put The Drop through with Diva at some point in the future. For now, I can only say that my separate experiences with each lead me to believe they could be quite compatible in sound.
Finally, in regard to the specific models emulated, between the Korg, Moog, Oberheim and Roland modules on offer, Diva covers many of the most commonly requested virtual analog sounds, but there are certainly others users may go elsewhere to find. For instance, you won’t find models of other analog synths from Sequential Circuits or Dave Smith offerings, nor Yamaha’s classic the CS-80 or an OSCar – on the VA side it doesn’t model Clavia or Access offerings either. At the same time, in the past I saw virtual instruments that charged as much for one model as Diva does for a whole variety and every model Diva does include really has a lot of character, so it never feels like they are simply interchangeable. So basically, unless you have a very specific model you’re looking for outside the ones already offered, I don’t see this as an issue at all.
The Bottom Line
Diva’s high quality sound, ease of use and strong character makes it the sort of soft synth that I wouldn’t be surprised to keep finding on my tracks years from now. I’ve enjoyed using it on many tracks and plan to use it on many more. It offers some of the best analogue emulation that I’ve ever heard in a virtual instrument and the ability to really change a sound simply by swapping a filter or oscillator section without ever tweaking another setting. This is a process made simpler thanks to surprisingly intelligent parameter equivalents between many of the modules, especially the filters. If you want the sound of vintage analog synths or a great emulation of parts of the Roland JP-8080 sound, this is simply one of the very first soft synths you should look at.