Zebra 2.7 by u-he
The venerable synth Zebra is now at version 2.7. It continues to wow users with its versatile features, superb sound, and that undefinable u-he vibe.
by Rob Mitchell, May 2014
The German-based software company u-he is the developer of high quality audio software for PCs and Macs. They’re the creators of the softsynth plugins ACE and Diva, both of which have won much critical acclaim. Another synthesizer plugin they created has recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, and it goes by the name of Zebra.
Over the years, Zebra has won many awards, and remains at the top of the “go-to” list for many artists around the world. It is known for its top notch sound, ease of use, and great flexibility. The audio news and production forum at KVR Audio recently ran a poll, asking its members to vote on a variety of subjects. Zebra won the top honors in the categories for Best Overall Instrument Plug-in and Best Synth Plug-in. You can read the results here:
The latest version, Zebra 2.7, includes a new distortion module, 100 new anniversary presets designed Howard Scarr, and AAX support, which has been added for the Pro Tools users out there.
If I had to sum up Zebra’s features in a few sentences, I’d mention it is a four oscillator modular synthesizer for the PC and Mac, and has an easy to use grid to set up its many modules. There are many different screen sizes available, from 412 x 295 all the way up to the cinematic 2060 x 1475. Using its Modulation Matrix and MSEGs (Multi-stage Envelope Generator), along with its many filter and distortion types, the possibilities for sound design are nearly endless.
To get this article moving along, I decided to change things up a bit. Since Zebra has already had many reviews in the past, giving overviews of its basic functions and features, I will take a slightly different perspective. I’d like to take more time to go over one of my favorite parts of Zebra in more detail. It is called the MSEG.
Zebra’s MSEG (Multi-stage Envelope Generator) brings many useful possibilities to your preset design. The MSEG is very powerful, and I thought it deserved a whole section to detail how it functions. There are four MSEGs in all, and each has identical controls and options. It is basically a customizable envelope that can be assigned to nearly anything for modulation.
The MSEG presets you design can be saved and loaded for later use. To load them, left-click on the button on the right-hand side, or right-click on that same button for more options, which includes saving your own creations. As you skim through the Zebra presets that use the MSEG, you will find some very interesting ways that it has been used. Those same presets may help spark new ideas when you are creating your own.
OK, so how does it work? You just click on the “MultiStage EG” button to open its display. It has a grid from left to right, and the envelope is a line with dots on it. Each dot is called a “handle”. These can be dragged up or down, and left or right. You can add up to 33 handles to the MSEG.
The amount of modulation is determined in part by how far up (or down) the handles are placed. The timing on the grid is from left to right, so if you drag a point over to the left, it gives the MSEG less time to get to that point.
To assign it to a certain parameter, you just click on an unassigned control (next to the one you want to modulate) such as Tune or Volume, and select one of the four MSEGs in the list that appears. You then have to adjust the control you assigned it to, or you won’t hear any change to the sound.
Right above the first MSEG button (MSEG1), there are three icons to change how the handles work. The first one, which is called “Single”, lets you move a handle, and the other handles won’t change their positions. The second icon, called “Shift”, will let you move it where you want, but if you move to the right, it will shift all the other handles over in that same direction. The third icon will only allow you move a handle up or down (not left or right), and the others handles are not affected.
The timing can be changed using the controls on the left side. It can sync it to different amounts, such as a Sixteenth, Quarter, or Note. You can also set it to Seconds, which is non-synced. Above that section are more controls that can affect the timing. Even if you have set the timing to Sixteenth, for example, changing the Attack, Loop, and Release can alter the timing as well. You have to set up a loop first, so let me go over that.
In the Loop
You can easily assign a loop start and end point, so then it will just cycle the same pattern over and over. Right-click the first handle you’d like and click “loop start”, and then right-click the last handle and click “loop end”. If you click and drag on the segment in between the handles, it will change its shape. Depending on how far you drag the segment left or right, it will give it a curved shape. Dragging up or down will give it more of an “S” type of shape. Double-clicking on one of the segments will straighten it back out again.
Previously, I mentioned the Attack, Loop and Release controls. If you looped the section between the third and eighth handles for instance, the Attack control lets you adjust how fast it approaches the beginning of that loop. If the Attack is increased, it will go through the first and second handles on the grid at a faster rate. When it hits the third one on the grid (the start of the loop) it will switch back to the regular rate. The Loop control determines how fast it plays the looped section. The Release control works much like the Attack does, but it controls the speed once the loop ends.
To clean up the grid of any unused handles, you can just use Alt-click on the ones you don’t want. Alt-clicking on a segment without handle will create a new one. Double-clicking in a blank area will narrow the viewable area so all handles are visible.
As I mentioned before, the MSEG can be assigned to various targets, a few of which include Tune, Volume, and Resonance. If you assign it to the Tune control, you could use it as a type of step sequencer. Adjusting each of the handles height and placement from left to right can give you a melodic pattern of notes. Another way to use it is by assigning it to volume, and then you could make a gated type of sound. It can also be assigned within the Mod Matrix, which really opens up a wealth of possibilities. It’s really only limited by your imagination.
There are a total of four MSEGs available, and each one can be assigned to different targets. After you have finished with the first one, just click on MSEG2, and begin a new one. A handy feature has been added which lets you see a faint outline of the previous MSEG pattern you’ve created. This continues on in the same way for MSEG3 and MSEG4.
You could also load in a saved envelope into one of the other MSEGs, and it can be altered and saved with the preset. The manual for Zebra mentions a creative way to get around the 33 handle limit of each MSEG, and shows how to build a 64-stage MSEG. You might not ever need that much all at once, but it is possible.
I really like the MSEG capability of Zebra, among its many other great features. While writing this article, I thought of a couple things I’d like added to the MSEG controls. The first would be a “flip” type of control, which would make the beginning part of the envelope the ending part, and vice versa. The other feature I’d like is to reverse the timing on demand, so instead of the time flow going from left to right, it would then switch back in reverse.
The MSEG section is definitely awesome, but I also wanted to quickly mention a few other parts of Zebra 2.7 that are very useful and just plain fun to play with.
Over the years, many new features have been added to Zebra. The XMF filter has a great number of capabilities including built-in distortion, four routing options, and fifteen different filter settings to choose from. The list of Spectral Effects in Zebra is very impressive, and the Phase Distortion is u-he’s take on the Casio CZ-type of synthesis.
The all new Distortion module available in Zebra 2.7 can imitate different types of guitar amp distortion sounds, and a few other types as well. It has six different distortions available; Tube Class, Tube Class AB, Tube 2 Stages, Hard Clip, Rectify, and Foldback. A total of four separate modules can be loaded in any one preset. Dist1 and Dist2 can be used in the main grid, while Dist3 and Dist4 can be loaded in the effects grid. It will give your presets a nice dosage of grit, and if needed, can really help add a heavier quality to the overall sound.
Also included with Zebra is Zebralette; a simpler, one oscillator version of Zebra. There are many impressive presets included, and they show what can really be done with it. Besides being bundled with Zebra, it is also available separately as freeware on the u-he website. Though it is now freeware, this is a great synth in its own right, and has many powerful options thrown in. This really is one of the best free synthesizers ever made available.
Zebrify is also included; it is u-he’s FX version of Zebra. It can be loaded into a track to change the sound of your audio using the filters and other controls available on the regular synth plugin.
If you haven’t tried Zebra, you have got to check it out. It has an awesome sound, it’s very easy to use, and there have been a generous number of useful features added over the years.
Zebra 2.7 retails for $199, and is available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions for PCs and Macs. There are over 500 presets included, and there are thousands more online. Additional information on Zebra 2.7 can be found on their website here:
Prospective customers should be aware that Zebra 3.0 is in the pipeline. Although u-he has not announced a release date, it is definitely an upcoming event of significant impact to the computer sound community. Sales are not something u-he is known for, although introductory pricing is not uncommon. Should you wait for version 3? It’s never a good idea to try to predict u-he’s pricing, although it would not be unreasonable to expect a fair upgrade price when the time comes. You’ll just have to consult the Oracle, flip a coin, or use the Force. Soundbytes Magazine can’t responsible, whatever the outcome.