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Twin 3

Reviewed By danbroad [all]
March 23rd, 2009
Version reviewed: 2 on Mac

We're a fickle bunch, we synth users. We're seduced by acres of wood, and anything with a row of bakelite knobs and switches warrants more than a second glance, even if it has no musical relevance whatsoever. And so it goes that for a few decades, we've purchased oddities and esoterica; some excellent, some wanting. Nice but ordinary analog monosynths fetch eyewatering prices on the web..

So, what should we look for in a synth? Or more importantly, what should we look for in a virtual synth? Well, to coin the early synth pioneers, it all starts and ends with the filter. As owners of, say, a sherman filterbank will tell you, with a decent filter, you could run anything at the input and make magic. Fabfilter have a deserved reputation for one of the most characterful filters in the business. It didn't take much to realise that by sticking an oscillator onto the input, you'd have a recipe for a very good little synth. And so it goes, but of course, we're a fickle bunch - we wanted Ring Mod, we wanted FX, we wanted another oscillator...

Fabfilter listened. And, in the process, they came up with not only one of the best VST VA's around, they came up with one of the prettiest. So let's start with the GUI. It's a semi-modular synth - fully configurable, deep-as-you-like, easy on the eye. There are two rows to work with. The top half of the screen is the signal path. Three OSC's feed to two Filters, and the signal can then output dry, or via a twin set of delays [which can run Series or Parallel]. The knobs that you can see are large and move with a satisfying 'virtual inertia', and clicking on them opens up an animated 'submenu' whereby you can adjust the finer details of the knob. It's a clever way of ridding the screen of unwanted controls without having to cycle through pages. Plus, the whole display is geared to mousework - clicking any control and moving does something to the sound, so you don't have to dig through menus if you don't want to. The osc's include the standard waveforms, a couple of noise sources, and sound good even when the filter isn't doing much.

The lower half of the screen is the modular modulation magic. You can add pretty much anything, in any order, and assign it wherever you like. XY controls? Envelope generators? LFO's [random, configurable multistep, cycling, even a piano roll for pitch mod], master controllers - all here, infinite possibilities; all you do is select a modulator, drag to a destination, and you're done. Anything can be selected via a drop-down menu aswell. Inbetween the two screens is an 'overview bar' which you can use to run from left to right, should you have a huge number of modulators. Both top and bottom screens have a 'sweep mouse view' function, too, so that you can navigate to the left and right of both signal path and mods. It sounds comlpex, but in practise is actually very easy.

Anyway, to the meat of the synth - the filter. It's Fabfilter, so don't worry. Not only do you have the wonderful Fabfilter One filter, there are 10 others to choose from, with helpful character descriptions like 'smooth, 'raw', 'hard', 'hollow' etc. Two filters, and the filter section GUI can be dragged anywhere to go instantly from a dual lowpass to swept bandpass, and adjust the resonance of one or both together on the fly. This filter really sings! The resonance is as cutting as you'd like it to be - overall the character of the synth is 'mature', with a nice balanced feel to the sound.

It sounds great. Really great. Maybe up against the sample-input, granular-experimento-extravaganza monsters it appears too simple - but this synth is just designed to be VA, and do it very well. This, Omnisphere and Zebra are my three examples of how software now outsounds hardware beauties in almost every way. And the GUI is probably the simplest way to run a modular synth this side of a wall of cables. It doesn't have FX except its delays - so reverb and Phasers need to be added later in your signal chain. No matter - if you will, it approaches VA in the same way that Nord do; simple, uncluttered, and without compromises at what it does.

If you're in the market for VA, download the demo and try it. Once you 'see' the workflow, you'll throw out a load of older synths...
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Modular V3

Reviewed By danbroad [all]
January 9th, 2009
Version reviewed: 2 on Mac

If you’re into synthesis emulations, then there’s an argument for this even if you never used any of the sounds you created. It’s a history lesson in VSTi form. That it sounds really very good is icing on the cake.

Initially, it’s daunting and confusing – even though I’ve plenty of years experience programming synths, they’ve been of fixed architecture. Here, before you create sonic motion, you have to join up the building blocks to even create a sound. A blank patch will play nothing – you have to connect a VCO through a VCA by way of filters. Of course, the beauty of a modular is that you can throw the rules to the wind!

Its greatest asset is also its biggest weakness; the beautiful GUI. We’re some years in now - so no computer should struggle to render it - but the attention to detail that makes the GUI so enthralling is also the reason it’s so frustrating to program. On a laptop, even on a larger screen, it’s fiddly, where a simple slip if the mouse can unhook a patch cable, or connect wrong, or twist a dial. It suffers the same frustrating portrait aspect as Propellerhead’s Reason. Why not create a landscape alternative to save scrolling up and down?

Some of the virtual TRS/phono jack input sockets become potentiometers once connected. On the GUI, it’s as though you were turning the phono socket itself, as you ‘grab’ the hex-socket edge and rotate. A neat use of space, but finding them to turn using your mouse is a real pain. Once you’ve added in a spaghetti of patch cables, the interface can be cluttered and fiddly. You can remove any or all cables, or ask the cables to move out of the way, but with complex patches then you lose the visual feedback.

Sound is top notch. Initially I didn’t see what the fuss was about, but having used the MMV in some Tangerine Dream-like tunes, I’m a convert. It sits really well in that kind of mix.

Plus, it has a proper, freely configurable analog step sequencer; arpeggiators, no matter how good, can't emulate the feel/imperfection of a free running step sequencer, and so its inclusion puts it into a select band of synths. [Now, I'd like to be able to use the step sequencer to control other VSTi's.... here's hoping..]

Documentation is superb. The manual is extensive, reasonably well written and informative. Every module is dissected and discussed individually. It’s also printed, which deserves top marks.

Included in the box is a USB key – even though I haven’t required using it, the synth is serial-based. Credit and thanks to Arturia for not having the cheek to ask us to buy one separately.n As for support – well, it’s worked well for me, and although updates are infrequent all my Arturia stuff works as described.

So, a history lesson, a useable emulation, and a very decent package. Watch out though – just like the real thing, you can blow your headphones if you inadvertently connect up a ‘sonic explosion’! Perhaps a big panic button would be nice – with your ears bleeding, controlling the mouse on the fiddly interface to remove a patch cable can be a challenge!
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Analog Factory

Reviewed By danbroad [all]
January 2nd, 2009
Version reviewed: 2.2 on Mac

It's funny that we on KVR worry about making things sound 'analog'. We try and instil programmed oscillator tuning drift, when all the time back then engineers and composers were trying every trick they knew to keep oscillators strictly in tune... We lament the passing of the transistor and the discrete electrical component, and yet the invention of the PIC - and later the microchip - revolutionised industrial [and musical] applications, making circuit boards more reliable and less costly than ever before...

But - you'd like to make some music which sounds very much as though it originated in wooden-sided behemoths, with chunky knobs and obscure acromnyms - VCO, VCA, VCF and other obscure reference to Voltage, envelopes, ladder filters. Using the technology of zeroes and ones to create music that sounds forty years old in its inception... I know I do! We have the remarkable benefit of virtual instruments. Firstly, they allow us to own the esoteric, the vintage - but without the huge pricetag these instruments commanded back when they listed new. Secondly, they allow us to integrate their output cleanly within our signal chain - no more messy recording techniques or makeshift, humming, non-filtered interfaces. All kept within the box, on the screen, with stereo and high-fidelity recording the mere click of a mouse away. Thirdly, they allow us to recall complex patches and modulations without the need to take polaroid photos, or drawing frantically on paper-sets. Patch change mid song? We can either click on 'next', or we can spend another virtual fortune instantly, and open up another instance right next door. Try doing that with a CS-80 or Moog Modular system!

Why this meander? Well, it's a brave claim to label anything so obviously virtual - a VSTi - with that hallowed term, "analog". We whisper it, alongside terms such as "vintage" and "classic" - and curse its misuse, criticising anything that dares to emulate historic instruments with anything less than perfection. Analog Factory is, for all its pretence, Arturia's equivalent of the Kore Player from Native Instruments. A closed system, whereby the synthesis engines from their emulation range – the CS80, the Minimoog, the Jupiter 8, the Prophet 5 and VS, the Moog Modular, and the ARP 2600 – classics all – have been made available but with their wings clipped, so you rely on the programming of others for your sounds. The interface seems rather unnecessary until you see the optional bundled hardware, which it mirrors in terms of controls and keybed range. Unless you’re stuck for MIDI control, you’ll likely have a more encompassing MIDI controller, but I understand Arturia’s ‘integrated design’ idea.

A preset player such as this lives or dies on the strength if its presets. With over 2500 sounds, there’s no shortage of quantity.

As with NI’s Kore, the patches are indexed both by synth model and by type; 'short’, ‘decaying’, ‘percussion’, ‘pad’ etc – so that searching through them isn’t the chore that it might otherwise be. There’s a large number of useful sounds here – although at first listen, Arturia’s TAE system offers a ‘plasticky’ tone, in fact this translates well into a final mix, and my impressions of some finished tunes was how genuine they sounded. On their own, some of these sounds are dry and uninspiring – but, as with much older hardware – come alive once inserted into a bus with an effects chain, or some reverb. My major criticism is that some of the ‘sequences’ sounds are fixed in note structure – unlike the Moog Modular V instrument, where an atonal element can be straightened to the correct key or scale, the sequences are fixed in note interval. If the sequence doesn’t fit, then it’s useless to you. The controls available to you are limited, but likely to be sufficient for playing. Filter cut/res, amp envelope and four preassigned macro controls might not seem like much, but it allows for quite a bit of movement in your sounds.

I’ve only played three of the classics listed above, so I’m in no position to advocate or test authenticity of all the sounds. However, I’m guessing that most of the owners of this instrument won’t have either, and for the majority of their needs it would pass muster. As a historical document then, it’s not perfect, but as a quick and dirty way of bringing history into your tracks, it succeeds well. Where it really works is in the best tradition of preset players – in its immediacy. As a musical scratchpad, as an instant source for ‘vintage’ and ‘analog’ sound ideas, it has little comparison at its pricepoint. A well set-up sampler with carefully prepared samplesets would offer the same, but would cost far more. Either way, it’s a grand way of getting sounds and ideas down on [virtual] paper.

Take it at face value and it’s a rewarding instrument, which does offer a variety of ‘analog’ flavours right out of the box. I was more impressed than I thought I’d be!
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Reviewed By danbroad [all]
July 18th, 2008
Version reviewed: 1.0.3 on Mac

It's the bees knees of digital synthesis; FM synthesis made easier by the highly graphic user interface. If you're in the market for FM, then eventually you'll make your way to this, whether you plan to or not.

If you don't mind, I've received quite a few PM's on the subject of 'how do I?' with this synth, so maybe this review could get a little technical.... bear with me, I'll keep the jargon as easy as I can...

For 'oscillators', read 'operators'; instead of subtracting harmonics with cutoffs, you create harmonics by 'buzzing' the original wave using a 'carrier'. Sounds complex? Take an operator, make it whatever wave shape you like, and even if you don't have the first clue about FM, just grab a handful and start experimenting! It's this visual feedback that makes FM7 such a joy to program; one of the few synths that proves indisputably the superior potential nature of software.

Each operator goes beyond the DX7 by including sines, saws, triangles and complex harmonic-rich waveforms. The matrix-style basic interface lets you mingle and mix-up carriers and operators until you end up with a wonderful mess - FM's own equivalent of analog patchwire heaven! You also have the options of noise and a filter section [with adjustable poles], and you can patch this into the mix in whatever order you like. As a comparison, consider it as a 6-oscillator synth where each oscillator can interfere with any other, or even itself....

The real power of FM8 comes with the envelopes, which can be effectively drawn freeform like Absynth. This means evolving 'scapes, pads and leads which can flick in and out of the patch, looped sections which don't have to rely on LFO modulation, and attack/release patches that don't have to hang their hats on the old ADSR principles. Of course, ADSR and LFO's are there too - you can make this sound as simple or as whacked out as you'd like it to!

So, to mention the newer features of FM8 over FM7. I'm not as keen on the white colour scheme, or the fact that any Intel mac owners need to upgrade just to get FM7 sounds back on their machines - but there's no doubt now that the XY patchmorpher and the Kore-type browser have more potential than the simple randomise/sysex browse features of FM7. The FX section's much more comprehensive, too.

Fortunately, they've left in the 'easy edit' page for beginners, and assigning controllers to this page gives some hands-on realtime control. Because of the potentially huge changes that a tiny operator frequency change can have on everything else, sometimes a big 'handful of knobbage' in the analog-style can take your gentle swash pad into a glitch-IDM ear-splitting screech - be careful!!

Having said that, this remains a synth which rewards patient programming, and all the sonic" whoosh and swoop" is best setup as part of the patch rather than something which needs hands-on control to implement. I tend to start by imagining how the end result will sound, and working backwards...

So, the proof's in the pudding - how does it sound?

The answer is like nothing else. It's got that crispy, eerie, digital sound, with a real reputation for pads and motion-filled soundscapes. In my opinion it outdoes Absynth in this regard - FM8 spheres sound more 'musical' and less atonal. It also does a mean set of leads and basses, although if it's capacitor "squelch" you're after, look elsewhere. Even if you don't plan on programming it, there's a huge selection of patches out there - mine included - specifically designed for FM7/8, and thousands of original DX7 patches from the hardware's 20 year legacy of success. In my opinion, some of the best sound designers here on KVR have contributed great banks for this machine, and it's always an education to see just how they've done it. It's a fantastic preset machine!

Expensive? Yes; Worth it? Yes. Hard work? Yes, but only if you intend to really get stuck in under the hood. And even then, it's a learning curve less steep than the one which took you into this VST lark in the first place. Start now, and even five years down the line, you'll still have a relevant and highly rated synth.
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Stylus RMX

Reviewed By danbroad [all]
August 23rd, 2007
Version reviewed: 1.60 on Mac

RMX is still the most complete selection of loops, drum sounds and user configurability on the VSTi market. An industry standard, now powering the soundtracks to most contemporary film and TV scores; appearing on more and more mainstream albums, providing polished percussion and stomp to a hundred stage shows.

It has, with version 1.51 onwards, become fully Intel Mac compatible, and has run without flaw on both my Windows and OSX machines. Amazingly, it never seems to hog huge CPU cycles unless I ask it to [by, for example, max enabling the superb FX busses.]

Just like other Spectrasonics stuff, the GUI is clean and uncluttered. Updates come infrequently, but the synths work well first time out. I want to thank Eric and the team for the awesome 1.5 update, a leap which many other companies would have charged for [probably including Apple, and certainly the NativeBerg types].

The sounds, and this could be criticism or complement, are polished and professional - even the 'lo-fi' sounds have an instantly recognisable RMX sheen. If there's one area where another synth may outshine RMX, it's perhaps in raw, unprocessed analog drums [easily fixed by complementing this with ErsDrum or similar.]

From hi-tech electro to European house, through ambient swashes and kettle drum/tribal war beats, Stylus provides the ingredients, and the chaos/filter/LFO/FX sections enable you to make them your own. With hundreds of chopped loops, and infinite FX/redesign possibilities, there's no two musicians that should sound the same.

The Groove Control feature means that a 180bpm loop slowed to 30bpm should still sound natural, unlike other REX files, where marked tempo variation causes audible untrimmed silences and stuttering.

We all know RMX is the 'daddy', so I'd like to focus on two areas that are often missed in [non-kvr] reviews...

First; the REX expansion makes this VSTi a virtual Akai MPC groovebox. The ability to load up samples from anywhere and chaos/groove/FX them to bits means that you can create whole songs within RMX. This lends itself to live playing, dropping new sections in/out like a self-contained 'Ableton Live' application. Want a Jazz saxophone lick alongside some chopped vocals, with a selection of synth pads, basses and big beats dropping in and out? All done within RMX, swooping, changing on the fly, tempo synced. Using any REX source, the possibilities are great - just remember the REX files aren't as forgiving of extreme tempo changes as the Groove Control stuff. But they are everywhere, and available online - instant free expansion packs!

Second, the Tutorial videos. I've recently been getting back into Logic on the Apple Mac, and found the learning curve steeper than I recall. Eventually, I found some superb online movies which taught me more in a few hours than any manual or workthrough text could in weeks.

This proved two things to me; first, a good tutorial video is worth paying for, just like a good tutor. Secondly, Spectrasonics have given hours of Tutorials free to RMX users. These could easily have been payware; the videos are long, in-depth, logical, easy-going, and demonstrate more advanced features you'd not have discovered quickly. A generous and useful gift from one of the most professional companies in VST synthesis.

Support, value for money and sound quality are second to none, and Spectrasonics have built a loyal customer base with their honest company policy. You get what you pay for.
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Reviewed By danbroad [all]
June 10th, 2006
Version reviewed: 1.2 on Windows

I reviewed Atmosphere on Patcharena after owning it for about six months, and gave it 4/5. I have now owned it for a few years and I'm going to give it top marks. Here's why I feel compelled to amend my initial thoughts.

Initially, my only complaint was that it was too professional, too polished, and stood out too much in my mix. Now computers, software and interfaces have come a long way, and I realise Atmosphere was just four years ahead of its time.

My Access Virus has taken over most of my VA duties, and with such a powerful synth I have taken to weeding my VST arsenal to those that can compete. Interestingly, my default setup is now all Spectrasonics.

I love its clean interface, and for me seeing this blue monster on the screen reassures me of its quality. The LFO sync 1.2 update really helped, too.

Sound quality is still second to none, and the presets are still amazing. Take any lead sound, add your choice of effect, and just play away. Eric Persing is a world class sound designer, and this synth shows that quality input results in quality output. The pads are especially good, and using the computer's power results in some sounds no waveform-based synth could produce. The strings and the ambience drones are still called upon weekly!

Features? Gets 9/10. The basis is still ROM, and as such you cannot alter basic waveforms or deviate too much from the base sound except using filters and simple LFO functions. It's more than compensation that the supplied sounds are so diverse and so impressive. The reason for 9/10 is the hope that any upcoming Atmosphere "2" will add RMX style 'chaos' and 'FX bus' sections.

Documentation has always been good, and this VSTi requires little in the way of manual page-turning once installed. Load a sound, play, eventually remember you're supposed to be recording something! Another issue is the Challenge/Response protection. The website is 24/7, and reinstalls are allowed indefinitely with a minimum of fuss. You feel that the whole setup is geared towards the jobbing professional, where downtime could mean lost revenue. If only all Challenge/Response setups were this simple.

Arguably expensive at £225, but three years of usefulness and more to come, with much lesser ROM based and synth based plugins in the same price range. I can think of a number of 'big name' plugs I feel are overpriced. This is underpriced [but don't tell Spectrum!] With even the benefit of hindsight, I'd pay as much or more for this as I did. And I'm sure Spectrasonics would be as reasonable with upgrade pricing as they were with RMX.

Reliable? This was the first VSTi I bought. I have, like us all, bought many since. Some I still use,but a lot I don't. And this synth has never, repeat never, crashed, blue screened, failed to load, lost registry keys or stalled my host; despite computer changes, hard drive formats, sequencer changovers. That's a 10/10 in my eyes.

No definite word on an update yet, but here's what I'd like to see: RMX style FX busses, more incredible presets, the ability to name your own presets, and the ability to layer more than two sounds. Perhaps even some tempo linked 'variphrase' style sounds from the 'Symphony of Voices' library, if that's at all possible!

Apart from that, this synth keeps getting more relevant to my musical needs. A thankyou to the Spectrasonics team!
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