The ARP 2600 V from Arturia is a cross-platform software emulation of the vintage ARP 2600 monosynth (see Fig. 1). ARP 2600 V works as a standalone program and as a VST, a DirectX, an RTAS, an HTDM, or an Audio Units plug-in within appropriate hosts. It models the original ARP 2600 in every way possible and includes emulations of the model 1601 sequencer and the model 3620 keyboard.
FIG. 1: Like its other classic synth emulations, Arturia''s ARP 2600 V adds modern conveniences such as MIDI, polyphony, and effects.
The original ARP 2600 was a direct competitor to the Minimoog. Like its rival, it served up searing leads, thundering basses, and all manner of special effects. Its design was semimodular, with prewired connections that enabled it to create a variety of sounds without patch cables. To create more complex sounds, you could use patch cables to redirect any output to any input in the style of a modular synth.
ARP 2600 V runs on Mac OS X 10.2 and above, and on Windows 98SE, 2000, and XP. It requires at minimum a 1 GHz processor and 256 MB of RAM. I tested ARP 2600 V in standalone mode running on the Open Labs neKo 64 2 GHz dual-Opteron workstation, and as a DXi plug-in within Sonar 4 on a Toshiba Tecra 2 GHz Centrino notebook. ARP 2600 V behaved well on both.
Looks Like One
As with its other virtual vintage synths, Arturia has modeled ARP 2600 V's user interface on that of the original. I sometimes wish that soft-synth manufacturers would be more imaginative than emulative in creating their user interfaces (as in the case of Arturia's CS-80 V, which is difficult to read). Fortunately, the 2600 V's interface is functional and legible. The ability to trace the virtual patch cables makes the emulated interface a particularly good idea, especially in an educational setting. As on the original 2600, all of the normaled connections are labeled. Clicking-and-dragging from any output to any valid input creates a patch cable to illustrate the connection.
When you click on an output connector using your right mouse button (Shift + click on a Mac), a pop-up Connect menu displays a list of all valid patch destinations. Right-clicking on a connector also lets you remove a connection. You can drag a connection from one destination to another; unfortunately, the same is not true of a source. If you change your mind about the source, you must remove the connection and start a new one from the preferred source — a minor annoyance in an otherwise well-thought-out implementation.
Holding down the Control button while clicking on one of the many sliders (virtual potentiometers) allows you to assign a MIDI Control Change message to automate that slider's parameter, either by typing the value or by using a Learn mode that detects the controller number when you move a physical MIDI control. Such controller assignments are global, rather than patch-specific.
For finer control over any slider, right-click (Shift + click on a Mac) on a slider and drag. A 2600 has only a handful of knobs, and in typical Arturia fashion, you can set a preference to operate them in either Linear or Circular mode. Linear operation is usually simpler, but Circular mode has a built-in graded resolution — dragging in a larger circle yields inherently finer resolution than a smaller circle because of the greater number of pixels involved.
FIG. 2: ARP 2600 V includes software versions of the classic ARP sequencer and keyboard. When all three sections are shown, the window is too tall for most displays, but you can scroll it by dragging any noncontrol area of the window.
With the sequencer, synthesizer, and keyboard displayed together, the window is 1,180 pixels high, making it awkward on all but the largest displays (see Fig. 2). You can display the synthesizer, the sequencer, and the keyboard either individually or simultaneously. It's annoying that Arturia chose to bypass normal Windows functions such as scrollbars and the Maximize function. Once you get used to grabbing the gear with the mouse and dragging it up and down, though, it's not too bad.
You can choose from three different skins for your 2600 V. The first skin features the look of the Blue Meanie, the earliest ARP 2600 produced. The second is the more common dark gray with white labels, and the third resembles the final model — dark gray with bright orange-brown labels that provide increased visibility on a typical computer monitor.
Sounds Like One
I took ARP 2600 V to the Audio Playground Synthesizer Museum to compare it with its namesake. The poor old ARP was feeling its age, so the comparisons were limited. The biggest obstacle was that the original keyboard could not communicate properly with the synthesizer. It was unclear whether the problem was with the keyboard or the synth, but I had no better luck with a contemporary keyboard and a MIDI-to-CV converter. Still, I was able to compare the oscillators and the filter.
The basic waveforms of the 2600 V stacked up well against those of the original 2600. The sawtooth of 2600 V was brighter than the original's. Additionally, 2600 V's pulse (set as close to symmetrical as possible) was a bit richer than that of the original, which had a more nasal quality.
The original synth's filter was difficult to control because of a sticky potentiometer, but as I swept the cutoff on both of them, their general characteristics and ranges were similar. The filter's resonance, however, sounded noticeably different. Arturia's version exhibited a rich complexity that was interesting in its own right but qualitatively different than the original. The 2600's filter self-oscillated more quickly and more dramatically than its virtual cousin.
The similarities were generally remarkable. Arturia has done an excellent job of capturing the character of the classic 2600. Any residual temptation toward sonic hair-splitting evaporated with the realization that I didn't have to spray anything on 2600 V's sliders to get them to operate smoothly.
In practice, it's easy to coax rich sounds from ARP 2600 V. It has bite, warmth, and sizzle, and plenty of options for shaping the sound as you go.
Better than One
Arturia added some features that go above and beyond simple emulation. For starters, bundling the keyboard and the sequencer was a nice touch. The keyboard has controls such as pitch-bend range, portamento parameters, global tuning, and a virtual pitch knob like the one that the vintage synth had. More importantly, you can choose monophonic, polyphonic, or unison operation, and there's a dedicated knob for unison detuning. You choose the number of voices from the toolbar at the top of the window, which is an odd placement. It is in plain sight, but it wasn't where I expected to find it, which is next to the mono/poly/unison switch.
A polyphonic ARP 2600 is a real treat to play. One of the classic patches from ARP's patch book was called Monster Organ, but you couldn't play chords on the original. Arturia's version lets you play as many as 32 notes of any patch. For my money, though, it's 2600 V's Unison mode that really kicks it up a notch (see Web Clip 1). You can stack and detune as many as ten voices for supersize solo synths and bigger, badder basses.
The 2600 allowed you to use VCO 2 as an LFO, but 2600 V's keyboard adds a dedicated LFO. That lets you use all three oscillators while still being able to apply LFO effects such as vibrato.
The sequencer is addictive, and because it can sync to your DAW's tempo, it's also very useful. It can be configured as a 16-step monophonic sequencer or as two parallel 8-step sequencers. Its most obvious use — to sequence pitches — is its less interesting function; it was more exciting to map its output to filter cutoff to create a rhythmically shifting timbre (see Web Clip 2). You can easily mix and match the two functions by taking a pitch-quantized output to the oscillators and an unquantized output to the filter.
Unlike more-modern step sequencers, the virtual 1601 doesn't allow you to store multiple patterns and map out a song with them. If your CPU doesn't experience problems when running multiple instances of 2600 V, however, you could have different patterns in each and switch between them.
The ARP 2600 had two built-in speakers, which obviously aren't useful in a virtual instrument. Controls for a chorus and a delay are cleverly hidden behind the 2600 V's left speaker grille. The chorus features simple rate, depth, and wet/dry mix controls, but the delay is a bit more involved. In addition to wet/dry mix, it offers separate left and right controls for delay time and feedback, and it can sync to your DAW's tempo. The effects add useful qualities to 2600 V, and are well exploited in the included presets.
Behind the right-speaker grille is an innovative tracking generator that you can use to create complex modulation sources. The tracking generator holds four user-created curves (per preset) that you can use individually or in combination to modulate any component with a control input. The graphic editor is simple in design, yet it provides powerful tools for drawing sinusoid, parabolic, square, or freehand curves (see Fig. 3). It even has a noise tool to prevent the modulation curve from being too perfect.
After you've adequately tweaked the curve, you can set, automate, or sync its frequency to MIDI Clock and smooth it to soften its effect. The four curves can be used independently to modify various parameters, or you can patch them through the voltage processor to combine them into a single complex modulation curve.
FIG. 3: The tracking generator lets you draw as many as four independent curves to use as modulation sources within 2600 V''s architecture.
In addition to the 4-pole (24 dB-per-octave) lowpass filter that is characteristic of the vintage 2600, the virtual 2600 features 2-pole (12 dB-per-octave) lowpass, highpass, bandpass, and notch filters modeled after those found in the 2600's predecessor, the ARP 2500 modular (see Web Clip 3).
Gotta Have One
So what's not to like about Arturia's virtual 2600? Aside from nit-picking about the interface (you can't zoom in on any given module for serious tweaking) and a slight difference in the filter's resonance (at least compared with the real unit available to me), I didn't find much to dislike.
The documentation left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, it's hard to argue with more than 90 pages of paper repeated in three languages. On the other hand, the manual's translation into English is spotty, and there are some typos that can be frustrating. Arturia deserves kudos for chapter 6, “The Basics of Subtractive Synthesis,” and for chapter 7, “A Few Elements of Sound Design,” which are well-thought-out tutorials about creating sounds with ARP 2600 V. Brickbats, however, are in order for incomplete and occasionally scattered descriptions of elements such as the keyboard and the tracking generator.
If you can find a vintage ARP 2600 in good condition and can afford to spend some money on the various retrofits, upgrades, and tweaks that are available, knock yourself out. You'll have a great instrument, but you still won't have presets, unison, polyphony, and total recall within your DAW. For the rest of us, Arturia has brought the best of the past and present together in a cool instrument that upholds the tradition of its namesake while living up to the demands of contemporary production.
Brian Smithers is Course Director of Audio Workstations at Full Sail Real World Education in Winter Park, Florida. Special thanks to Joseph Rivers and the Audio Playground Synthesizer Museum.
ARP 2600 V 1.0
OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 4
PROS: Sounds like a real ARP 2600. Broad plug-in format compatibility. Standalone mode. Useful nonemulative features, including presets, delay, chorus, unison mode, and 32-note polyphony. Innovative tracking generator provides custom modulation curves.
CONS: Manual suffers from incompleteness and mediocre translation. Graphical user interface is too tall for most monitors.