Okay, I'll admit it — I'm a cheapskate. My aversion tospending money is almost pathological. So when the idea of an articlelooking at inexpensive soft synths was bandied about, I jumped at thechance. There are plenty of amazing virtual instruments available toanybody with a big bankroll, but what's out there for those of us whodon't want to spend an arm and a leg? I'm happy to report, my fellowskinflints, that there's a lot of good inexpensive stuff to be had.
There's so much, in fact, that whittling the list down to amanageable size was quite a challenge. The virtual instrumentsdiscussed in this article are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, asampling to whet your appetite for the larger world of lesser-known andless costly synth plug-ins. Many interesting and deserving instrumentsdidn't make the cut, so I encourage you to check the listings at placeslike www.kvr-vst.com and www.synthzone.comand uncover additional gems.
So what's included? First and foremost, the synths examined hereinare instruments that I found particularly great-sounding, innovative,fun, or just plain useful. A subjective test, no doubt, but that's thenature of this thing we call music. I further restricted the list toone instrument per manufacturer, so check out the rest of the productline where applicable. Also, all of these synthesizers are just that— they synthesize sound rather than triggering samples or loops.Last but not least, these are practical, mainstream, utilitarianinstruments that you'll use frequently: analog-modeling synths,electromechanical-keyboard emulations, and a couple of guitarsimulations.
If the list seems a bit Windows-heavy, that's not for lack oftrying. There just seems to be a lot more Windows-based developmentactivity in this price range. In particular, the world of inexpensiveAudio Units soft synths is sparsely populated right now, but havefaith, Mac fans, because this is bound to change before long.
SYNTH YOU'VE GONE
Interest in analog-modeling synths shows no signs of abating, andthis is particularly evident in the under-$100 class (all prices listedare for download versions). It may be because the principles ofsubtractive synthesis are well-known and therefore more accessible fordevelopers without deep pockets, or it may be due to the insatiableappetite for new synths that meet the expectations of certain musicalstyles without sounding exactly like last week's hit.
Whatever the reason for virtual-analog synths' popularity, thefollowing four specimens only hint at the variety ofsquare-wave-slinging instruments out there. Whether you're after fatbasses, searing leads, spacey pads, or special effects, you don't haveto take out a second mortgage to fill the bill.
Fat-Ass Plugins BCG Monosynth 1.0 (Win; £15 [about$27]). What else would you call a company whose premier product wasa bass synth with a big bottom? BCG Monosynth is Fat-Ass's VSTi forkeeping the subwoofers busy. It's not the fanciest synth on the block,and it's not the most flexible, but it's easy to use and does exactlywhat it sets out to do.
BCG's primary interface consists of only eight sliders and threeswitches (see Fig. 1). The switches toggle between square andsawtooth waveforms and also determine the instrument's root octave.There's an octave-up switch and an octave-down switch, and it took me aminute to figure out that they can cancel each other. Having bothswitches off yields the same result as having both switches on.
The sliders control transposition, glide time, cutoff, resonance,filter-envelope amount, attack, decay, and overdrive. BCG is a goodexample of an interface made simple by making good default assumptions.For example, there is no fine-tuning slider, but the transpositionslider can be set to fractional values down to 0.001 semitones bytyping a value into a number box. Glide (portamento) between notes canbe varied from none to way slow, and it occurs only when notes overlap.Lousy keyboard player that I am, it took me only seconds to be able tocontrol when gliding happened. Only one filter type is available, butit's a sharp lowpass with resonance that self-oscillates at its highestsetting. The simple 2-stage envelope doesn't let you sustain a noteforever, but the Decay curve at its highest setting is shallow enoughthat it resembles about a 2-second hold before decay actuallybegins.
One key to BCG's ability to get your attention is its Drive slider.It provides a nice bit of overdrive distortion that lends heft to anybasic patch. Another key is the built-in chorus. I must admit a generalbias against built-in effects, but BCG's chorus has an aggressivecharacter that is perfectly suited to its overall attitude. In fact, anumber of the presets lose a lot of guts when you turn off the chorus.The delay is a nice touch, too, but it loses something by not syncingto the host's tempo. Every control has an assigned MIDI Control Changemessage, so you can tweak on the fly or automate tweaks in the hostsequencer.
If you're into fat bass lines, BCG is definitely worth a look. It'sprobably not the instrument you're going to use on every track, butwhen you need that big bass sound, it delivers.
MHC Voxynth 1.5 (Mac/Win; $89). If ethereal is your bag,you'll want to check out MHC's Voxynth (see Fig. 2). As the namesuggests, it's useful for sounds suggesting choirs, particularly of thesurreal kind. Its primary weapon for achieving this end is a formantfilter that can be modulated by an envelope generator or directly fromyour MIDI keyboard. For $89 you get a bundle of synths (called theStudio Setup) including Voxynth, Fatsondo, and Space Synth, along withseveral standalone effects plug-ins. The bundle is available in twoversions, one for Windows VST hosts and one for Mac OS X VST or AUhosts.
Voxynth provides three oscillators per voice. Each oscillator offersfour waveforms: one sawtooth, one square, a pulse wave whose symmetryis neither explained nor adjustable, and an undefined“distorted” wave that is hard to categorize. (Thedocumentation lists “sine wave” instead of distorted wave,but this is incorrect.) The distorted wave is said to be useful foradding a breathy component, and indeed it has more fizz thanfundamental.
The heart of Voxynth's vocal character is its formant filter. Theformant filter is designed to emulate the sonic character of variousvowel sounds, thereby lending a human quality to the synthesized tones.Twenty formant modes are available, each representing a“morph” from one vowel to another. For example, a soundcould start as an e and change to an o. The filterdoesn't let you choose any morph you want (which would be nice), butthe 20 modes provide a good deal of variety. The entire spectrum offormants consists mainly of bass vowels but also includes some alto andeven countertenor vowels. Additionally, there are fictives,formants not found in nature that nevertheless contribute a vocalquality, and a few formants that have been frequency-shifted foreffect.
If you're looking to make your keyboard talk or trying to create anelectronic Carmina Burana choir, you'll find that Voxynth is notthat articulate. It's not trying to be a vocoder — it's subtlerthan that.
The formant filter can be controlled by a single ADSR envelope. TheEG's affect on the filter is variable, and it can be inverted — anice touch. The bandwidth of the formant filter can be tweaked with theQ control. Furthermore, Voxynth puts the formant filter under thecontrol of “performance keys,” namely the C0 octave of yourcontroller. These keys raise and lower the frequency of the formantfilter, giving you real-time control over the brightness of the effect.A Glide control determines whether the change is abrupt or gradual.
Voxynth's toolkit is rounded out by pitch modulation, left and rightdelays, and an Ensemble switch that essentially layers detuned clonesof the basic program to thicken the sound. Voxynth is a one-trick pony,but it's a decent trick. For the money, it ranks high on the valuescale, but be aware that its siblings don't stray too far fromVoxynth's sonic turf. Watch for a revamped version with new graphicsand additional features around the time you read this.
Muon Software Electron 1.2 (Mac/Win; $80). Electron is a3-oscillator synth with dual multimode filters, two envelopegenerators, and two LFOs. It runs as a DXi or as a VSTi under Windowsor Mac OS 9 or OS X. At first glance, it's a straightforward,unassuming instrument. But when you consider its flexibility, you'llstart to see its potential.
For example, its filters can operate in parallel, in series, orlinked, or you can opt to use only one filter to save processing power.With the filters running in parallel, you can use the Mix slider tocrossfade from one filter to another to shape the sound in real time.Although EG1 is always assigned to Electron's final output volume, itcan also control other parameters at the same time. EG2 is assignable,as are the two LFOs. Available LFO waveforms include sine, square, saw,and triangle, and rate and depth can both be modulated by Velocity,Aftertouch, or Mod Wheel.
Interestingly, Electron's oscillators offer fewer options.Oscillator 1 is always a sawtooth wave (although it does sync toOscillator 2 or 3), and Oscillator 3 is always a square wave.Oscillator 2 is a pulse wave with variable pulse width, which can bemodulated by either of the LFOs or EGs.
Perhaps the coolest thing about Electron is its x-y controlpad. Click on the X-Y button at the bottom of the window, and the usualknob-based interface disappears, revealing a virtual touch pad thatgives you real-time control over two parameters simultaneously (seeFig. 3). You can choose from 28 parameters for each axis andthen drag your mouse on the pad to tweak them. This is the answer tothe age-old problem of trying to adjust cutoff and resonance at thesame time with a mouse.
Electron's sounds range from bright leads to tense pads andarticulate basses. They are generally colorful, but not inherentlygutsy. I solved this quite easily by running Electron through Sonar'sdefault Tape Sim plug-in. The sound was immediately warmer and morecompelling. I'm sure that a bit of experimentation with your favoriteamp-simulation or tube-simulation plug-in would prove mostrewarding.
All of Electron's knobs have preassigned MIDI controllers, includingthe very cool Mix slider. You can opt for circular or vertical mousemovements to adjust the knobs and can choose whether the current valueis updated while the knobs are being moved. Muon gets high marks for atweakworthy interface.
Software Technology VAZ Plus 2 (Win; £50 [about $91]).Where do I begin? VAZ Plus is simply one of the best-soundinganalog-modeling synths you could ever hope to buy for under a hundredbucks. From fat to smooth to gritty, its lively and malleable timbresleave no doubt as to why subtractive synths remain popular acrossgenerational and stylistic divides. Its feature set is every bit asimpressive as its sound, with flexible modulation routing, anarpeggiator, and a step sequencer packed into an efficient andaccessible interface (see Fig. 4). It runs under Windows as astandalone synth, a VSTi, or a DXi.
VAZ Plus features “only” two oscillators, but they'repowerful. Oscillator 1 gives you a sawtooth wave that can be tiltedinto a triangle wave or a variable pulse wave. Oscillator 2 adds amultisaw, four layered sawtooths (sawteeth?) with variable detuning,and a multisample. Both oscillators support frequency modulation, andoscillator 2 can sync to oscillator 1. Each oscillator's frequency andwaveshape (triangle) or pulse width (pulse) can be modulated by any 1of 15 sources, including LFOs, EGs, Velocity, and more.
Between the two LFOs you can find just about any variation you couldwant. LFO 1 can be a variable sawtooth or a variable pulse wave, andLFO 2 can be either a triangle or sample-and-hold. LFO 2 lets you delaythe onset of the modulation, and both LFOs let you retrigger thewaveform at the beginning of each note. Only a single filter isavailable, but it offers eight different modes and variable resonance.Cutoff can be modulated by up to three different sources, and resonancecan also be modulated. Two ADSR envelope generators and a flexibleamplifier section with overdrive round out the feature set.
VAZ Plus can be operated in Mono, Poly, or Unison mode with high,low, “duo,” or last-note priority. Duo assigns the lowernote to oscillator 1 and the higher note to oscillator 2. Pitch-bendrange can be as high as two octaves, and portamento can be set to occurall the time or only when notes overlap.
Every control slider can be modulated by 1 of the 15 modulationsources and can have its modulation source inverted, so that, forexample, an EG assigned to cutoff could start wide open and get lowerthrough the attack stage. Virtually every control can be modified byMIDI, either by using the Controller Mappings page or by right-clickingand invoking MIDI Learn. Yes, you can even change from Mono to Polymode or change pitch-bend range in the middle of a solo.
As if that weren't enough, VAZ Plus gives you an arpeggiator withfive modes (up, down, up/down, and two random modes) covering from oneto four octaves, as well as a full-featured step sequencer. You cancreate 16 different patterns of up to 16 steps and 16 voices each, andthen you can chain together up to 256 individually transposablepatterns. Better still, each step gives you 2 control sliders that areamong the 15 modulation sources mentioned earlier. I'm not easilyimpressed by step sequencers, but this one's a doozy.
Great sound, cool features, easy to program, and fun to play —not bad for the bargain basement. Download the demo and see if you'reas impressed as I am.
KEYS TO MY HEART
Models of electromechanical keyboards (electric pianos and organs)are equal to analog-modeling synths on the utility scale but way aheadon the number-of-hernias-saved scale. Sure, analog synths can be bulky,but they're nothing compared to a Rhodes Suitcase or a Hammond B-3.
The field is not as thick with competitors in this category, butthere are nevertheless some worthy contenders. These three virtualkeyboards cover a lot of sonic ground without breaking the bank.
Big Tick EP-Station 1.0 (Win; EUR 40 [about $50]). That'sEP as in Electric Piano, of course, and for not a lot of cashyou get a standalone or VSTi plug-in that covers an awful lot of bases.EP-Station layers up to three different electric-piano models takenfrom a library of 97 different models (see Fig. 5). The resultis a flexible and usable set of Rhodes and Wurlitzer emulations that,although they probably wouldn't survive direct comparison with theirrole models, are quite rich and satisfying.
Each of the three layers can be fine-tuned extensively. The balanceof the three is variable, and each can have one of three Velocitycurves: linear, exponential, or inverse exponential. The layers can betransposed and detuned. The Velocity response of the volume andharmonics of each layer can be tuned independently, so that, forexample, you could have a piano whose volume tracked Velocity but whosetimbre stayed constant or a piano whose volume stayed constant but gotbrighter with higher velocities. Each level's decay time and overallbrightness can also be adjusted, as can the overall decay of thepatch.
The basic models sound quite good, but the built-in effects add alot to the realism. Tremolo and autopan were always part of the classicelectric-piano arsenal, and EP-Station provides good versions of both.Speed and depth are adjustable in each. What else comes to mind whenyou think of classic EP sounds? Why, phaser and chorus, of course, andEP-Station delivers the goods here as well (a standalone VST version ofthe phaser effect also comes with the software). Each of the effectsbrings a little more character to the emulation. I confess to being abig fan of suitcase-style autopan and tremolo, and EP-Station covers itnicely.
With so many electric-piano sounds covered and the flexibility to gobeyond mere emulations, EP-Station is a lot of fun to play. I found itlacking in only two ways. First, I could not get it to run instandalone mode at low latency, but since it worked perfectly as aplug-in I didn't lose any sleep over that. My other gripe is that itssustain is too long, yielding a bit of a synthy characteristic whennotes are held for long times. Even when I shortened the decay time,the shape of the decay seemed slightly off. These are minor quibbles atany price, and at EP-Station's price they're more than forgivable.
DASH Signature Combo Sister 1.4 (Win; $30). Too often when wethink of organs we think only in terms of the Hammond B-3. But the B-3isn't the only organ with a place in rock 'n' roll history.Transistor-based combo organs such as the Vox Continental andinstruments from Rheem and Farfisa had their own personalities, andCombo Sister is a VSTi tribute to these workhorses. It represents ahybrid of the various transistor organs and can cover a broad range oftheir sounds.
Combo Sister's interface is about as straightforward as they come(see Fig. 6). In addition to six drawbars and a handful ofknobs, it features the same sort of rocker switches that characterizedcombo organs. You build a sound starting with the two oscillatorswitches marked Osc and Bass. These determine the basic waveforms, andthen the stops build the sound at harmonic intervals. The 5⅓-footstop has two alternate modes, Hp1 and Hp2, that control two higherbanks for additional brightness. The timbre stops Add, Strings, Reed,and Flute provide additional control over the color of the sound.
Percussion adds a bite to the sound's attack, and Sustain rounds offthe release of a note. Booster emulates analog saturation and can beswitched on and off and varied in intensity. There's a Soft knob to“smooth” the tone and a Transistor knob to add noise andkey click. Vibrato and Tremolo are available independently and can bevaried in both depth and rate.
Combo Sister can be set to recognize Velocity or to ignore it, asetting that is remembered at the patch level. Assigning controllers isa snap with the MIDI Learn function. Just right-click on any controland move the desired controller, and Combo Sister will attach thatcontroller to the selected knob, switch, or stop. If you paint yourselfinto a corner, there's a MIDI Forget function that will take you backto square one.
The sound of Combo Sister is just what you remember from classicrecordings, and it's a great complement to the more common B-3 sims. Itwon't take you long to start playing sci-fi themes and reach for atheremin to overdub. You'd have to be a curmudgeon or a zealous B-3purist not to get 30 bucks' worth of pure fun out of this one.
Linplug daOrgan 2.01 (Mac/Win; $49). Speaking of B-3s,daOrgan, a VST instrument for Windows or Mac OS X (10.2 minimum; AUsupport is planned) gives you a single manual of a B-3 emulation, withMIDI-controllable drawbars and a rotary speaker (see Fig. 7). Ifyour host supports multiple MIDI inputs, you could easily fire up twocopies of daOrgan, split your keyboard, and have a dual-manualinstrument in no time. (If you launch a third instance for pedals,you're far more coordinated than I am!)
DaOrgan offers control of virtually everything you need to makerealistic Hammond sounds, including variable key click, drive,percussion, and even motor noise. The Vibrato section lets you vary thespeed and depth of the effect and includes a tremolo dial to addintensity variation to the pitch variation.
You can choose to have daOrgan respond to Velocity or not. Ofcourse, “not” is the realistic choice, but who says realismis always your goal? This choice is saved with presets, so you couldhave Velocity and non-Velocity versions of the same patches if youwanted. Interestingly, most of the included presets have Velocitysensitivity turned on; keep that in mind when auditioning sounds.
The Leslie rotary speaker is an instantly recognizable part of theB-3 sound, and daOrgan includes a rotary function to complete thepackage. It offers fast and slow modes, each of which can befine-tuned, and separate low and high zones with adjustable crossoverpitch. Even the speed at which it accelerates and decelerates can betweaked.
MIDI control is extensive, with a learn mode (called ECS) that letsyou set up knobs and sliders easily. All speed controls in the Vibratoand Rotary Speaker sections can be synced to the host sequencer's tempoat up to 32nd-note resolution.
If all this doesn't quite get you there, dial in the Spread optionto play five slightly detuned organs simultaneously. DaOrgan is awell-thought-out, great-sounding instrument. Combined with a MIDIcontrol surface to help you mold the sound on the fly, it'll almostmake you wonder why your back isn't hurting.
GETTING PICKED ON
Our tour of the low-budget virtual bandstand ends with a pair ofguitar simulators. They take different approaches, but both strive tomodel the behavior of strings being picked or strummed. Using akeyboard synth to create convincing guitar parts is always a challenge,but these instruments attempt to resolve some of those difficulties inorder to help you come closer to the real thing.
ReFX Slayer 2 (Mac/Win; $90). Slayer 2 is a VSTi for Mac OS9, OS X, or Windows that covers almost every aspect of a guitarist'sbag of tricks. From string and pickup characteristics to amp andcabinet models to pick position to stompboxes, Slayer 2 has it covered(see Fig. 8). Its sounds range from good to great, and it evenincludes some intelligent performance features, strum patterns andpower chords among them.
Slayer 2 gives you nine string models from which to choose, up totwo pickups with adjustable position, variable pick position, andvariable guitar size and material. All of this runs through any of fiveamps and five cabinets. Two effects bins — one before the amp andthe other after — let you line up any of 16 stompboxes. Effectsinclude wah-wah, distortion, chorus, flanger, EQ, harmonizer, and more,and they can be reordered with drag-and-drop ease. All this flexibilitywould mean nothing if it didn't sound good, but it does.
Achieving convincing guitar articulations is always a challengewithout a guitar controller, but Slayer 2 includes several performancemodes. It will automatically arpeggiate a chord in any of five patternsat an adjustable speed. Similarly, five strumming patterns withadjustable speed are available. Slayer 2 will also generate powerchords — you get either root-fifth-octave (for example, C-G-C) orroot-fourth-octave (as in C-F-C) from single-note triggers. TheAutochord feature offers complete strummed chords created fromsingle-note triggers. Each octave of the keyboard creates a differentchord type, so with planning and practice you can play a wide varietyof chord progressions.
The more I dig in to the various performance modes, the more usefulI find them in creating authentic-sounding guitar parts. Slayer 2'sMIDI implementation extends the potential even further. Virtually everycontrol has a controller assignment. You could, for example, changepick position and strum speed in real time as you're recording a rhythmpart so that the strum isn't predictable and static.
It's easy to get a number of basic guitar figures happening withSlayer 2, and it's deep enough that some research and practice will payoff with even more realism. The sounds are very useful, and theperformance modes add a good deal of realism. Last, and certainlyleast, there's a Hue slider that lets you change the color of theonscreen guitar body.
Synapse Audio Plucked String 4 (Win; $49). Plucked String 4is a much simpler guitar emulation than Slayer 2, but it has its owncharms (see Fig. 9). Available in VSTi and DXi versions, itsstrength is acoustic and clean electric sounds. It has no amp effectsor stompboxes, but it offers a great deal of control overarticulation.
You get five models to choose from, although their names won't domuch to help you decide which one to use: Noise, String, Gourmet,Nylon, and Acoustic. In addition to coarse and fine tuning, you havecontrol over timbre, strength, and pluck. A simple filter section letsyou control cutoff and damping for muted sounds.
A 3-stage envelope provides control over attack, decay, and release,letting you transcend the literal behavior of a guitar string andcreate interesting not-quite-a-guitar sounds. A vibrato sectionfeatures independent control of rate, amount, and the too oftenoverlooked delay. Once you have your basic sound dialed in, you candouble or triple it with panned detuned copies for a choruslike effectthat sounds quite good. A fine-tuning parameter lets you control theamount of detuning.
It would be nice if Plucked String had built-in strum capability,but I was able to accomplish the same thing running it through someMIDI plug-ins. Similarly, it responded quite well to a couple ofamp-simulation plug-ins. Its essential sound and attack characteristicsdo a nice job of conveying the feel of a pick on a string.
It's a good time to be a penny-pincher, as this is just a smallportion of what's out there. Most of the companies mentioned here haveadditional offerings that you should check out, and of course there aremany more folks waiting for you to discover their offerings. Aninexpensive tool that does one or two things well is a great value, andan inexpensive tool that covers all the bases is a thing of beauty.Every instrument discussed has a demo version waiting for you at itsmaker's Web site, so why not give them a try?
Brian Smithers is Course Director of Audio Workstations atFull Sail Real World Education in Winter Park, Florida.