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Serum [read all reviews]
Reviewed By lsc9x [read all by] on 21st May 2015
Version reviewed: 10.9.5 on Mac
12 of 12 people found this review helpful.
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First off, I own licenses to probably 25 of the "top rated" VST synths on the market, so I've had a chance to work with a lot of the big ones out there, and each are different, they are all good in their own right. I only point this out so people have a reference point.

So first off, almost ALL of the functions in Serum are on 5 screens, and most of the important ones are on 1 screen.

The screens are:

Main synthesis page
Wavetable editor
Effects rack
Modulation Matrix
Global Page.

Serum doesn't suffer from a lot of shortcomings.

First, and often overlooked is the patch browser. The browser has a very "Rob Papen" multilevel style to it. One click gets you access to all of the sound folders in your presets folder, and they are organized exactly the same way on your hard drive.

Next, programming Serum is really as easy as I have found anywhere else, and where it concerns the main oscillators or the wavetables themselves, Serum is HUGELY visual. You can see the wavetable, and see exactly how the oscillator is cycling through the wavetable's frames as it's playing in real time.

Serum also sounds incredible. It's not trying to sound like "real" analogue, but you can get really good analogue sounding results with it. (Like Sylenth1, DUNE 2 or even Diva good.) You can also get sounds that sound NOTHING like analogue because it is a wavetable synth.

The two main oscillators can be set to use a single wave frame (like a saw, or square... or 150+ others!). These oscillators can also be run through the filter just like a subtractive synth. It sounds really good doing this! Next, the unison controls are right there, so you can take a saw, turn it into a super saw, and then play with the DYNAMICS of the super saw's unison voices. It's visual, it's clear. Most importantly, you can have something that sounds amazing in seconds.

The sub oscillator has a much more limited range of wave types at 6, but it's clear that these 6 wave types were picked on purpose to BE the SUB, and are extremely popular in genres such as electro-house (among others), and the genius is that there is bypass function that shoots the (clear) sub signal past the filters and directly to the main sound bus meaning that you DON'T have to stack basses on a track any more! With two great oscillators and a punchy sub that can be routed separately means you can do all your bass patch design inside Serum. The end result is something that sounds great and is usable immediately.

You might expect the "noise" generator to be stuck with white, pink or blue noise, but there are around 100+ 'noises' that you can use for attacks, effects etc. It is a VERY versatile sound generator and is so useful, that it's actually worth using for things OTHER than snare drums or claps. (e.g bass transients).

Between these 4 sound generators there is almost limitless possibility. Add to that the fact that you can load in your own wavetables, and it just gets ridiculous. But all of it is SIMPLE.

Wave table editor.

You can only use the wave table editor with the main two oscillators, but the editor is powerful and easy to use. It has a host of drawing aids to make it easy to build precision wave forms, or you can load your own. I haven't completely dived into this section yet but did watch a tutorial video on it, and like the other parts of Serum, it is hugely flexible while being simple at the same time. You could spend hours in the wavetable editor just playing around. This screen is also BIG and easy to read. It's one of the 5 "main pages" of Serum, and visually it works.

Filters.

Serum doesn't just have one filter, but two, and they are different. One filter is on the main synthesis page for immediate use and easy modulation from the envelopes and LFOs, but there is also a SECOND filter in the actual effects section. This section alone will keep you busy for HOURS because, like the oscillators, there are well over 100 filter presets! (See you next week.)Effects section.

I would say that this section has everything you need, and not anything more (or less) than what you need. By that, I mean that out of the 10 effects that are available, each are kept simple enough that they are EASY to work with. There are only a handful of controls on each, but those controls are powerful as well as simple. Also, routing is easy. You can drag and drop effects in the order you want them processed, and they are processed top to bottom. That's it! Like everything else in Serum, the filters and effects sound fantastic.

Modulation:

There are basically a couple of ways that other synths have put together modulation controls. On a synth like Sylenth1, a lot of it is done via a "modulation matrix" as it is with DUNE, or Albino. But in other synths, like Massive or Zebra, you can drag and drop modulation sources onto modulation targets. Serum has BOTH of these functionalities. Most of the important modulation is directly accessible from the main synthesis page. There are 3 envelopes (including the main envelope) and 4 LFOs. This may not sound like a lot, and it's certainly a lot less than Zebra, but again, the synth gives you what you are likely going to NEED and USE, and nothing to distract you. This is actually a good thing in my opinion because you can assign multiple modulation targets to a single LFO or ENV and keep your sound effects related and consistent.

Of course there are things that you can't drag and drop that you need a modulation matrix for, and that's why Serum has one included. If your style of sound design requires a matrix, you have one, and it's got some nice features like showing (in real time) exactly what your modulation is doing with the aid of some nifty little "dancing lights" that go back and forth over your modulation parameters, and it also has "velocity curves", for lack of a better term, to control how the modulation unfolds over time. Very cool and fun to watch. And it's EASY.

For those people who like Macro knobs, Serum comes with 4. It may not sound like a lot, but if you assign multiple modulation targets to the macro knob, you can get some great effects and again, there is enough for you to use, but not so much that you get distracted. I am picturing here that if you have a controller with 8 knobs on it, you can use those knobs to control 2 instances of Serum live. I think that was the thought behind it. Nice.

Of course there are hundreds of other features and buttons that do various things, but the sections I listed above comprise the bulk of the instrument. Since there are "mouse tips" EVERYWHERE (which you can turn on and off from the global page), it's easy to figure out what something is, and what it does.

Overall, I would say that this synth is very straightforward, hugely flexible, streamlined to keep you on task and not distracted, and it all sounds jaw-on-the-floor amazing.

Now, after having spent two solid nights with Serum, I am in LOVE with this synth! WOW.

Having said that, and in the interest of being FAIR, there are some DOWNSIDES that you need to consider (although not many!)

First, the synth uses a LOT of processing power. I hit a note on a super saw and saw my i7 dual core processor spike at 20%-30%. That's a lot of number crunching for one instrument! This can be mitigated somewhat by using effects to simulate "unison" voices and (MAYBE) using a lower draft quality global setting. It's just a function of math, if you want rich, fat, CLEAN sound, it's just something we have to live with. If your computer isn't beefy, you may have to drop your MIDI tracks to audio so you don't kill your CPU.

Worth the extra steps? You bet! Absolutely worth it.

Another minor nit I have is that the envelope timing is in milliseconds and seconds. Why Steve didn't include a toggle for note values is beyond me, it seems like a no brainer considering everything ELSE he put into this synth, but you can easily to work around by using an LFO instead of an envelope and then just setting the LFO to Envelope mode which cycles it once just like a regular envelope, and you can even set it to stop or set a loop point, so in the end it doesn't really matter.

You can get the job done, easily, and that's all that counts.

Finally, and this is REALLY IMPORTANT to understand, is WHY Serum doesn't have a built in arpeggiator. You would think that Serum, with so much else going for it, would have a built in arpeggiator. Right?! It seems like a massive oversight, but in reality, it's NOT.

Steve at Xfer has another tool that costs about $40 called Cthulhu. I would HIGHLY recommend getting Cthulhu along with Serum because it's also a great tool like Serum (simple, easy and powerful) and Cthulhu is BOTH an arpeggiator AND a chord browser. Using Cthulu in conjunction with Serum will get you the arpeggiation you are likely looking for.

So, that's about it! I keep trying to find out things I don't like about Serum and I'm drawing a blank at the moment. This is an instrument designed by someone who does music and sound design for a living but it's made to be worked with by total sound design idiots like myself. =)

If you are looking for a fantastic sounding synth that is easy as pie to work with, Serum should be near the top of the list, if not on top of that list.

9.9 out of 10.

Pianoteq [read all reviews]
Reviewed By lsc9x [read all by] on 16th August 2013
Version reviewed: 10.8 on Mac.
Last edited by lsc9x on 16th August 2013.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful.
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Before I say anything about Pianoteq 4.51 Stage, I should talk a bit about why I was looking for a dedicated piano plugin. I have Ableton Live 9 Suite with their grand piano plugin, which really does sound pretty good, but I noticed that while the piano sounds good on it's own, it didn't really "work" for the music I am doing. There was something just not right about the sound in my mix, and when I compared it to some pianos found in the music I like - house and dubstep - it just wasn't the same. So, I went in search of a piano plugin that would offer me more options when it comes to piano sounds.

After reading through the forums, and looking into several mainly sample based plugins, I came across Pianoteq and was intrigued by it. The idea of a physically modeled piano seemed good to me. Being able to change or tweak the piano sound in real time sounded like what I needed to be able to match a good piano sound to my mix. Also, I heard really good things about the sound, and that the program was tiny, a mere 20MB compared to some other piano plugins out there that take up to 77GB of hard disk space.

Pianoteq offers up 3 varieties of software: Stage, Standard and Pro. Since I am on a budget, I went with the cheaper of the 3 - "Stage" and added 2 add on pianos, another grand piano (yamaha based) and the upright piano. I figured this would give me a lot to work with.

Now, after having spent several hours playing Pianoteq, I am 100% satisfied with my purchase. This program really does live up to the name. So here is a short list of why I like the program and why you should consider it if you are looking for more piano sounds:

1) INTERFACE: The Pianoteq interface is clean, easy to use, scalable, and offers easy ways to both audition piano sounds as well as to tweak them. While "Stage" doesn't offer ALL of the customization options that Standard or Pro offer, there is still quite a lot of parameters that you can tweak to get almost exactly the piano sound that you are looking for.

2) SOUND: This is where Pianoteq shines. Piano tech sounds clean, and sounds GREAT. Because Pianoteq models a real piano, but synthesizes the sound in real time (as opposed to using samples), this allows Pianoteq to be very flexible, nuanced, and tweakable, and able to reproduce a wide variety of different types of pianos, and even "Stage" offered up at least 6 pianos with many preset options for each, to cover a wide range of uses, and ALL of these pianos are adjustable to get exactly the kind of sound you are going for. Also, the guys who made Pianoteq obviously went to great lengths to capture even the subtle nuances of sound, such as the sound of each key resetting after being released, which further adds to the realism, and the adjustable velocity curve, as well as the many other tweakable parameters and on-board effects allows for a huge range of possible sounds in many different acoustic environments. I found that playing Pianoteq really captures a lot of subtle cues that make it FEEL like you are playing a real piano.

3) PRESETS: In addition to several pianos, Pianoteq Stage also includes some older instruments from the 1600s and 1700s that were precursors to the piano itself. While I wouldn't make much use of these sounds, other people might, and they all sound great as well.

3) MEMORY, DISC AND PROCESSOR: While I found Pianoteq to be a bit more processor intensive than some of my other synths, the quality versus processor usage is a solid tradeoff. The plugin is stable, fast, and as long as you don't go too crazy with your other tracks, there should be plenty of room to run this plugin. The best part about Pianoteq, in terms of memory usage is that there are no samples, so it hardly takes up any space on the hard drive, which is a big plus for me working on a laptop. Also, since no samples are being loaded in real time, hard drive speed is not an issue with Pianoteq.

4) UPGRADES / EXPANSION: I am plenty happy with "Stage", which is Pianoteq's lowest price package, and was very surprised to find out that while you can't adjust things like string length or sound board parameters (to "build" your own virtual piano sound from scratch) you can still tweak many parameters such as acoustic environment, 3 slots for on board effects, including gain, as well as parameters such as action, mallet bounce, EQ and type of sound output: mono, stereo or biaural. When you add all this to the dozens of presets, you get a wide variety of possible piano sound, as well as some sound that you just can't get from a real piano. But if you want to go a step further, you can upgrade to Standard or Pro which will allow you to literally "build" your own virtual piano from scratch, as well as to set up multiple mic positions and room acoustics to get exactly the sound you want. However, this costs more money! If that still isn't enough, there are many add ons to Pianoteq, including even more pianos, and many sounds that aren't even pianos. (Stage comes with church bells and tubes which sound fantastic and which I will be using for something!).

I suppose that there are many piano aficionados out there who might not like the idea of a "virtual" piano, and would be willing to pay a lot more money for a lot larger sample plugin, but I think for my usage, which is having a really good sounding piano that will work in a mix, I'll take this plugin over some others.

The bottom line is that Pianoteq precisely fit my needs: It was relatively inexpensive, it is small, fast, gives me a huge range of piano sounds to work with, is highly customizable, and easy to use, and of course sounds great.

I have no hesitation recommending this plugin, and since I can't find anything wrong with it, it gets a 10.

Hope this helps.

Zebra [read all reviews]
Reviewed By lsc9x [read all by] on 26th July 2013
Version reviewed: 10.8 on Mac.
Last edited by lsc9x on 26th July 2013.
11 of 12 people found this review helpful.
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ZEBRA2 FTW.

Zebra2 is an amazing synth, and it's exactly the way u-he describes it in the manual: A semi-modular synth that is as simple as you want it to be, or as complex as you need it to be. I would add: HUGELY flexible with TONS of features and parameters at your disposal, not the least of which are 4 32 point Multi-Segment Envelope Generators (say goodbye to "ADSR"!), a fantastic OSC creation section with no less than 4 user-CREATABLE wave tables, a full featured arpeggiator, scads of filter types between the VCF filters (like your typical analogue filter with about 10 times as many options) and the XMF filters, and numerous effects. not to mention that the entire synth is a giant cross modulation monster. Almost every parameter in Zebra2 is modulate-able by almost any other section of Zebra. I haven't even scratched the surface of the performance section of Zebra2 and I'm already in love with it.

I am not exaggerating when I say that there may be BILLIONS of possible sounds with Zebra2, at least from a math point of view. From a sound design stand point, Zebra2 is in a category (almost) all it's own (along with Reaktor being another, far more complicated, and less user friendly alternative, imo).

But the genius of Zebra2 is that it makes handling all of those possibilities straight forward, visual, and EASY to do.

Zebra2 can be as simple as creating 1 oscillator, throwing a filter on it and you're done. Heck, you don't even need the filter if you don't want it! On the other end of the spectrum, you have no less than 8 oscillators, (4 custom wavetable OSCs and 4 FM OCS) for sound generation that can be routed many different ways across 4 main buses, and routed into 3 effects buses (1 stereo and 2 auxiliary) in the effects section. That's not even touching all of the other modules you can throw on each of the 4 main busses.

Each section of Zebra2 is like a smorgasbord of possibilities. For example, in most other synths I have tried, if you create or use an oscillator, you often get a boring "tone" that you have to try and wrench into something a lot more interesting. In Zebra2, just playing with 1 oscillator gives you a fully creatable wave table with multiple modes of sound generation, plus you get two on board FX sections, just for the oscillator! You can either pick a wave-table, or DRAW your own! I can't stress the coolness of the multi-segment envelope generators enough! You can draw both the waveform of the sound AND of the filter (and dozens of other things as well).

What does all this mean? Well, for me it means that I can get some really interesting sounds within seconds of firing up Zebra2, and even making small changes in the parameters produce really good, clean, and usable sounds. It takes very little effort to get very good results. And, you are on complete control over the creative process because you aren't just trying to cram a sound through some pre-defined routing structure, you are creating the routing as you go.

You are going to find that your work flow keeps getting interrupted by "Oh my God that sound is awesome! I have to save that for later!" and as you get deeper into it and start playing with various parameters, your sound design goes in whole new directions at every corner. You may start off trying to create a pad, which quickly turns into a crazy bass or some screaming lead. Creatively, Zebra2 is just downright fun, and I can, and have, literally spent hours in it just saving one good sound after another like I did just last night. It might seriously interrupt your music making.

So, as a creative tool, it's second to none in my book. But it's also one of the "cleanest" sounding synths as well. Don't get me wrong, you can get some heavily effected sound coming out of Zebra2, but overall any sound that comes out of it is going to be clean and dry (if those are even the right words) meaning that you have a very NICE signal to work with if you want to throw any other effects on the sound. There aren't any wave-table "samples", the wave tables are made of actual waves generated in real time, which sounds just great.

The arpeggiator in Zebra2 is probably the best I have seen so far in a synth. It is also very flexible, allowing for gating (or note length) as well as other parameters that just don't exist in other synths, but to be honest I spend so much time now using MSEGS that I don't usually bother with the arpeggiator, but it's there in full force if you need it.

In addition to the tons of modulation options directly available on the main screen, there is another complete modulation section which not only allows for more modulation possibilities. You can actually modulate two modulations by another modulator in this section. You get all that? Basically means that you can sweep between two completely different types of modulation by using a 3rd modulation source for the "sweep". (Head explodes at this point).

In addition to all of the "static" features, which aren't really static at all, for live performance, you have 4, yes FOUR complete XY grids that you can assign to almost any parameter in Zebra2 that you would need to. I am not that good at playing keyboards, but if you are someone who IS good at playing a keyboard and using and/or using controllers, the amount of live expression you can get going is really incredible.

Did I mention that there are multiple skins available for Zebra2? And about 8 or 9 different "zoom levels" for viewing the Zebra2 user interface that means you can blow up Zebra2 on a 27" screen and create without straining your eyes to do it? Man is that cool! Most other synths I have to squint to see, but with Zebra2, I can kick back in my chair and just create.

Finally, and this is no small point, there are literally THOUSANDS of free presets you can download for Zebra2 as soon as you get it. You will probably spend a lot of time just listening to the possibilities before getting your hands dirty. I would highly recommend downloading the factory sound banks from versions of Zebra2 prior to version 2.6, but there are some awesome sounds there.

Now, having said all of that, there are hundreds of other features in Zebra2, that I just don't have time to detail in this article, but I'll just give you my bottom line:

If you want a very powerful, easy to learn and use, great sounding synth, that lets your creative sound design juices flow like "the force" flows from a Jedi Master, Zebra2 is an absolute MUST HAVE synth.

Or, if someone told me I could only have 1 synth to work with for the rest of my life, I'd be happy working in Zebra2. (In fact, I kind of want to do an entire song in Zebra2, using it for everything from the percussion, to the pads, leads and basses just to see what it would sound like. Awesome, I am sure.).

If you are even thinking about picking up a copy of Zebra2, it's the right decision. Period.

=).

PS: Thank you SO much, u-He! Wow.