Review – VirtualCZ by Plugin Boutique
The Casio CZ line of synthesizers had a great sound in the 1980s. Our reviewer checks out VirtualCZ, and it puts a new spin on the classic sounds from yesterday.
by Rob Mitchell, Jan. 2015
Back in the late 1980’s, I remember getting my first synthesizer to use with my Atari ST computer. What I had decided to buy that day was an affordable, compact, great sounding synthesizer that fit my needs. That synth was the Casio CZ-101. I really liked it as it was relatively easy to use, didn’t take up tons of room, and it had a nice sound. Other models in the CZ line of synths included the CZ-1, CZ-1000, CZ-3000, and CZ-5000.
These synths used a method of synthesis similar to what Yamaha’s DX line of synths were using, which was Frequency Modulation, or FM for short. With the CZ synths, they used a synthesis called Phase Distortion (PD). It basically worked by distorting the phase angle of a sine (or cosine) wave to make other waveforms. They also included noise and ring modulation.
One thing CZ synths didn’t have was a filter. Instead, it used an 8-stage envelope section to change the DCW (digitally controlled waveform) over time. In other words, the DCW’s envelope determines the amount of modulation, and acts like a filter.
The CZ-101 had four-voice polyphony, or you could use it as a four-part multitimbral synth. I liked that aspect of it, as I could use each of the four mono parts on separate tracks in Master Tracks Pro. There were only 32 presets in the CZ-101, with 16 of those being user presets, but you could also get an optional cartridge to save 16 additional presets.
Now that we’ve gone over some background on the CZ line of synths, let’s check out VirtualCZ in more detail. This synth plugin was developed by Oli Larkin, and it emulates the CZ line very well. It keeps the main features that made those hardware synths great, but it also brings it up to date with some new functionality.
It has over 200 presets, and can use up to 32 voices. VirtualCZ is not multitimbral, but you can just load multiple instances into your DAW anyway. One of the great features in VirtualCZ is that it can load CZ patches, and it can be used as a Sysex editor/librarian.
The system requirements for VirtualCZ:
If you have a PC, you’ll need Windows XP or a higher operating system, and a 32 or 64-bit host. They also recommend an Intel i5 CPU (or higher) and 4 gigabytes of RAM. If you have a Mac, you’ll need OSX 10.6 or a higher operating system, and a 32 or 64-bit host. They recommend an Intel i5 CPU (or higher) and 4 gigabytes of RAM.
VirtualCZ is available in VST2, VST3, AU and AAX formats, and there is a standalone version. It was easy to install, and uses a serial number for copy protection.
Without looking at the manual, I wanted to check out some of the included patches. I did check out the manual soon after this, but I just had to hear it first. Navigating through the many presets was pretty simple, and soon after hearing them, it was stirring up some old memories of my CZ-101.
To load a preset, you just click on the two arrows at the top-left. You can switch between presets by using the arrows, or you can click on the preset name in the display. This will bring up a menu where you can select from different banks. Each of them has 64 presets included, except the last one which has 30 additional presets. Bank C is made up of presets that were originally designed for the CZ-1.
They mention in the manual that you can optionally use your DAW’s preset browser. I never use my DAW to do that, but that’s up to you of course. My only issue with this built-in browser is that it is a bit on the simple side, though it does the job.
The banks are organized by the preset designer, instead of by type. When you click on Bank A for example, it will show a list of the presets from that bank in alphabetical order. It would be great if they had an option to sort it in other ways. I’d much rather have it set with categories, such as Bass, Pads, Leads, and so on.
I like the way some other synth plugins have their presets named, similar to this: “LD Big Lead JS”. You can tell it is a lead preset, and then the name of the preset, and finally the initials of the preset designer (John Smith).
To the right of the preset display, there is a menu with some additional functions. From there, you can initialize a preset, load in different formats of presets, and even load SYSEX data. Using that same menu, you can also save a preset in a different format than what you designed it in. Clicking the “S” button lets you quickly and easily save your preset.
The last button at the top section of the synth is for the “Tools” menu. This menu lets you send SYSEX data to most of the Casio hardware CZ synthesizers, if you happen to own one. I don’t have my old CZ-101 anymore, so I was not able to test this feature. Basically, you just set it to the type of synth you have hooked up, and change it to the patch slot you want.
At the heart of VirtualCZ is the oscillator section. There two “lines” available, each of which has two “shapes” you can set. Those shapes are the eight different waveforms that they’ve included; saw, square, pulse, double-sine, saw-pulse, and three hard-synced waveforms with different envelope types.
To get a better grasp of how it all works in this plugin version of the CZ series, I initialized a preset, and then went back to the oscillator section. Once you’ve initialized it, it’s setup with just one line enabled, and both shapes in that line are set to a saw waveform. You can change the two shapes by clicking either of the main buttons that are enabled in that section. When you click on the “A/B” in-between the two main buttons for the line, it’s possible to set them both to the same waveform.
The DCW control below each line adjusts the base-value for its amount, and is similar (in its own way) to a filter cutoff. This control wasn’t included in the hardware CZ synths. Another new control in VirtualCZ is the Phase Reset function, which is found at the top-right corner of the oscillator section.
Clicking the “Mix” button will bring up the choices for configuring the two lines. It can be set with either Line 1 or Line 2 turned on, Line 1 and Line 2 together at once, or Line 1 with a detuned copy of itself. If you change it to the setting of Line 1 and Line 2 together (or Line 1 with a detuned copy of itself), then some other controls will become available. The extra controls are for the detuning between the two lines. They can be adjusted by octave amount or by semitones.
Also included in this section is a Polarity button, which allows you to switch from positive to negative polarity for the detuning. Right below the Polarity button is a Fine tuning control. The last control in the bottom right of the OSC section enables the Noise or the Ring modulation.
Vibrato and Envelopes
To the right of the oscillator section are the controls for the Vibrato. It is an LFO with controls for syncing to the host, or it can be set to a rate from 0 to 99. Other controls include Depth and Delay options. The Trigger mode will change it from being free running to having its phase synced to the host. They have included seven waveforms, and only four of those were on the original CZ synths. The three new additions are Sine, Sample and Hold, and Noise.
The Vibrato is set to only affect the oscillator pitch, and there’s no way to assign it to anything else. It will change the pitch on both Line 1 and Line 2 equally. I’d like it if they added a function to optionally change others parts of the sound, such as the volume, or to be able to assign it to the DCW.
In the first part of this review, I mentioned an eight-stage envelope that was in the original CZ line of synthesizers. This same feature is included in VirtualCZ, and it gives you a goodly amount of control over the DCW and other areas of the synth. There are a total of six of these flexible multi-stage envelopes (MSEGs) for you to use. There is one envelope for each of the Pitch, DCW, and Amplifier sections per line.
The envelopes can be switched to a standard ADSR type of envelope using a button along the right side of the synth display. This is a nice option if you’d like to keep things a bit more simplified in your preset design. I do like being able to switch to the ADSR mode, but I wish each envelope could be enabled separately if needed.
There are a few different controls for the envelopes, and these depend on which type you’re editing at the moment. All of the envelopes have a velocity control, which let you adjust how much the MIDI velocity affects the envelope.
On the two amp envelopes, there is a Level control to adjust the volume amount. For the Pitch and DCW envelopes, there is a bipolar Depth control. This can change the pitch with a range of +/- 84 semitones, and +/- 100%. A Key follow control is also included in the DCW and Amp envelopes sections.
One of the coolest features in VirtualCZ is the ability to change the speed of each segment of the MSEG envelope. This works just like on the CZ hardware synths, so I am definitely glad it is along for the ride. A more modern feature that was not included in the classic CZ synths is VirtualCZ’s ability to loop an envelope.
An addition which helps make preset design easier is the copy and paste function. Click on the top bar of any envelope, and a menu drops down. You then just click on “Copy”, move to another envelope, click on its bar at the top, and then click on “Paste”. This menu is also where you’ll find a handy “Randomize” function.
The Master Section
When you want to switch on unison, or switch the synth to a legato mode, you can do this (and much more) in the Master section at the upper right. You are able to switch between polyphonic, legato, and mono modes. The polyphonic mode has up to 32 notes available.
The Unison can be used in legato and mono modes, and it has up to eight voices available. Using the Detune control, you are able to detune the Unison voices to give it a thicker sound. This section is also where you can set the pitch bend range, portamento time, and master tuning. Two other useful features found here are the Chorus effect, and the Pan Width control.
The Chorus has two different modes, and can be switched to one or the other by clicking on the “Chorus” title above the depth knob. The first one has been modelled after a Roland Dimension D chorus, and the other is much like the one in the original CZ hardware synths.
The Pan Width adjusts how far to the left or right that the notes will be played. It alternates the panning from left to right with each note played.
The Scaling function lets you remap the velocity and aftertouch to the way you’d like. This can compensate between the many types of keyboards that are out there, and the large variety of playing styles of various musicians. You can also select between channel pressure and polyphonic aftertouch in this section, and adjust the amount that either will affect the LFO (Vibrato), Amp amount, and the DCW.
VirtualCZ also supports the .tun format, so you can load in many types of tunings.You are also able to manually adjust the tuning yourself from inside the synth.
Even though the original CZ-101 I had owned didn’t really have any actual effects (such as delay or reverb), I wish they could add a couple more into VirtualCZ. The chorus/ensemble is great, but I think it could use a delay effect, and maybe even a reverb. I would also like an additional LFO that could be assigned to other targets.
Besides the effects, the included browser is one of the only other things that I’d like improved, though I do love the fact that you can work with Sysex files.
With that said, I think VirtualCZ is a brilliant reproduction of a synth classic. It’s simple to use, has a great sound, and is not heavy on the CPU usage at all. Just like with the original CZ hardware synths, this synth plugin is considerably easier to use than the DX line of synthesizers from the past, and it can get some nice pads, leads, and bell-like sounds. If you’re tired of all the virtual analog synth plugins, this will definitely give you a new range of sounds to work with.
VirtualCZ retails for $99.00 USD. You can get more information about it and download a demo version from their site here:
You can find Oli Larkin’s own website here: