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Thorn [read all reviews]
Reviewed By ZaBong69 [read all by] on 30th October 2017
Version reviewed: 1.03 on Windows.
Last edited by ZaBong69 on 3rd November 2017.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful.
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Dmitry Schaes new synthesizer came as a surprise to me, as I was expecting a Diversion 2 rather than a completely new concept. However, having had an intensive test while producing a new track mostly with this new synth, I can say that I am very happy with Dmitrys approach here, none the least with the extremely fast and intiutitive user interface.

But let's start with the sound: Gorgeously digital on stage one. The three spectral OSCs provide a rich sound source, from analog waveforms to totally digital, yet harmonic stuff only digital synthesis can provide. On top of that comes a selection of spectral and real time effects, and a wavetable-like movement between up to 16 different waveforms. In combination with the excellent FM and RM implementation, you already have a very wide selections of sounds to play with. Next comes a harmonic filter, that, while less smooth than the spectral effects when in movement, can also do a lot for sound shapers like me. If you need noise, or want to add a sample, there is a specialised noise oscilator that can provide that very well. Oh, did I mention that there is unison with up to 8 voices per oscilator? But why mention that, as if anybody would dare to publish a synth in this century without the capability to sound like a Hoover in distress.

I would like to highlight that the FM implementation allows you to use the next oscilator as an input, and use the phase of the modulator osc to shape the sound. Great, this is not found on all synths with FM. OSC 3 is modulated by noise, opening up some classic tricks for percussion sound design.

If you are looking for a more warm and anlog sound than what you have seen/heard up to now, look at the filters. There are two of them, and the filter design (zero delay feedback) is state of the art, with one of the best filter distortion/overdrive sections ever found on a software synth. There is a variety of filters found here, all truly different, and all very much useful. Filters can work in parallel or serial, and sound sources can be routed freely, although not in a way to bypass them completely, which would be nice for sub bass oscilators. I would like to see a peak filter in the future, as this is a good alternative to an eq in a two filter design.

The modulators are a basic set of three ADSR envelopes, two LFOs and two flexible multi stage envelopes. As is always the case, I have my reservations about limiting the number of LFOs to two, as I use them freely running in my sound design for adding subtle movement, but there is a vibrato LFO that can be used as a third LFO if needed - but this has no selection of a waveform like the full LFOs. Modulation can be set up quickly by drag&drop, and fine tuned in the accessible modulation matrix - there are 27 slots, so more than enough for even the most advanced sound design journeys. A thing I haven's seen in any other synths is that the modulation targets do include individual steps of the arpegiator and the glitch sequencer. The doors to some serious generative music experiences is open. For sound designers who appreciate the insanity of recursive modulation: each modulation slot can be modulated itself from the matrix.

Apropos Glitch sequencer: This is a new effect, a sequencer that allows you to apply glitch effects of each step of a running sequence. As this sequencer can run with a different step count (up to 16) than the well endowed arpeggiator, this opens a whole world of strange sequences. The arpeggiator can also handle up to 16 steps and does its job very well.

The FX section is implemented as a series of up to nine different effects of good quality that can be ordered freely. It includes a compressor, and the effect parameters can be modulated from the matrix, as is to be expected for an 2017 virtual synth. Apart from the arpeggiator, glitch sequencer, effects and modulation matrix, all this can be controlled from one screen, with the exception of the waveform editors that you can access if you want to draw some sounds in the OSCs wavetables. You can even import waves as part of the spectral wavetables of as the basis of a whole table. The distortion unit is a little bit too heavy handed for many tasks, but if you are looking for raw poert, that is there.

If you have read so far, you probably have the feeling that some of this sounds very familiar. A synth with mostly one screen user interface, nine effects freely orderable, two LFOs and one vibrato - yes, Thorn seems to be Dmitry's interpretation of the One-Screen-Simple-But-Fast idea followed by the dance-and-trance school of synths such as Hive and Synthmaster One. But where Hive only provides basic virtual analog waveforms, Thorn hits home with editable spectral waveforms. And where Synthmaster One leaves us with a sometimes clunky GUI, the workflow of Thorn feels quite speedy and mature. Thorn punches well above its price point with regards to features and sound quality, and may be a good alternative to some producers for using power wavetable synths such as Serum. Thorn is not that light on CPU as I had hoped at first, especially if you use a lot of polyphony, but it is a synth where you can dial in good sounds very fast.

So what am I missing? Not much honesty, as it is clear that the user interface is designed for high speed, some features such as Zebra 2s or VPS Avenger's insane flexibility can be safely ruled out as impossible to square with this particular design approach. Some design decisions may seem to be needlessly restricting, such for instance only two MSEGs when there clearly is enough space in the GUI for two more. A third LFO would have been nice. But then, should I not rather embrace the limitations as given for now and use these restrictions creatively? Well, I always should, but with Thorn I may have found the synth that sits exactly where I need my set of features to be - not too much, but certainly not too few features either.

There currently some very minor bugs, such as the LFOs retriggering when notes do not overlap, but Dmitry is known as a very dedicated developer who polishes his synths such that you will not have for a fix for a year. Considering the current entry price offer of 69$, I can hardly find any reason not to jump into this offer, even if you, like me, already own more than enough synths. Even at full price, this is a bargain. Yes, Thorn is that special synth that may become your to-go-synth, at least up to the time when Dmitry finds some time for a Diversion 2.

VPS Avenger [read all reviews]
Reviewed By ZaBong69 [read all by] on 9th May 2017
Version reviewed: 1.1.2 on Windows.
Last edited by ZaBong69 on 9th May 2017.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful.
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They said "the last synth you will ever need".

And they have a point. If there is one word for the philosophy of this soft synth, it's MORE. It pretty much has everything you may want to see in one synth, overdelivering on many things - who actually needs 8 oscillators in one sound, and what do I want with hundreds of waveforms and 4 Gig of sample/wave content? Well, the answer is: I don't know yet, but I plan to find out.

There seems to be very little this synth can not do... audio rate modulation between oscillators or on filters is missing, and wavetable editing is not (yet?) part of the game, but other than that, a great many synthesis methods and FX are there already. There is a Zebra 2 like flexibility in routing sounds and building layers. The ergonomics are great, I had fun navigating the GUI.

How does it sound: Pretty much like anything you want. It can be digital, it can do analog, it even can do some physical modelling. Warm and fuzzy in some presets, icy cold in others. The filters are good, a wide variety is there. One of the highlights of this beast are the effects - the quality is very high, no need to use external effects. If you really must, you can program sounds that start a whole track with one key press, including a drum sequence.

VPS Avenger runs smoothly on my system, but that system is pretty high end. You are advised to test it on your computer, as some sounds can be demanding.

Highly recommended.

Zebra [read all reviews]
Reviewed By ZaBong69 [read all by] on 9th June 2016
Version reviewed: 2.7.2 on Windows
4 of 4 people found this review helpful.
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It took me a while to appreciate Zebra 2. While it's sound engine still is awesome - a remarkable feat for a synth that was first released in 2007 -, its user interface appears (in 2016) to be somewhat dated. However, using the Massive Modular skin (sold from an independent developer), the GUI instantly goes into Serum territory, with the serious advantage that Zebra's skins are fully scalable, while Serum's GUI is on the (too) smaller side for my taste. My review below refers essentially to this Zebra 2 with improved skin.

Zebra's sound engine is extremely flexible with its semi-modular design. You have access to 4 wavetable oscillators and 4 FM oscillators, as well as 2 comb filters, 4 standard filters and 4 cross modulation filters. As each filter can self oscillate and the comb filters come with three waveforms, you have access to 18 (!) OSCs - per sound! Oscillators, filters and auxilliary sound design modules (including, for instance, ring modulation, frequency shifters, distortion) can be arranged in three lanes and connected. Oh, and then comes an feature rich effect section with its own main path and two sends/returns. You can control all this with with standard envelopes (that not only have four stages, but can also init, delay and are loopable) or go with drawable envelopes. Did I mention that each wavetable oscillators can load your own single cycle waveforms and comes with an incredible set of wave mangler effects on its own? Add a very cool sequencer/arpeggiator, thousands of really cool presets and... well, I will stop here. I should add that Zebra is by no means a resource hog, if you want you can use 20 instance of it or more on a fast computer. I sometimes apply Zebra as a luxury drum synth in Ableton drum racks, with 8 instances just for the drums.

In conclusion, this thing is a sound designers wet dream, if you can not get the sound you want from this, you probably have not tried enough. I would wish that Zebra 3 (annoinced in 2013!) would come this year, but Zebra 2.7 still holds its ground rather well in 2016, more than 10 years after Zebra 1's introduction.

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Philosophy of design: An interview with Roland Lamb from ROLI
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