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Review: Access Virus TI Snow

October 1, 2008
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Virus TI Snow

Function keys help to overcome the Virus TI Snow''s size limitation. Press one and an Easy menu of the most commonly used parameters for that function appears on the LCD.

Since its introduction in 1997, the Access Virus has carved a legendary place for itself in synthesizer history. Released at the height of vintage synth mania, just as analog simulation was becoming a reality thanks to inexpensive and powerful DSP, the Virus line quickly garnered critical acclaim for its spot-on emulation of classic analog synth sounds and knob-laden hardware that was fun and easy to use.

As plug-ins began to dominate studio production in recent years, Access introduced the Total Integration (TI) synth line. The revolutionary concept combined a hardware synthesizer with a plug-in interface that could be used exactly like a software instrument. It's a remarkable synergy that adds up to more than the sum of its parts; all the heavy analog emulation number-crunching is offloaded to the hardware, while the software front end provides ease of use and simplified automation inside any VST or RTAS host.

At more than $2,500, the feature-laden powerhouse Virus TI eclipses the price range of many musicians and producers. It's also a hefty unit that is less than ideal for cramped live-performance situations. Access wasted little time responding to those limitations with the compact Virus TI Snow, which offers all of the great features users expect from the Virus synths with pared-down polyphony and a price to match.

A BALL OF FUN

It's hard not to fall in love with the Snow at first sight. It's easy to see that world-renowned German engineering at work. The unit boasts a beautiful but sturdy cream-white metal casing, studded with gray knobs and wonderfully tactile switches, and white LEDs round out the icy motif. A strip of light wood veneer emblazoned with the Access logo adds a nice touch of earthy class to the bottom front panel. Build quality is second to none, and in spite of its tiny stature and cute appearance, the Snow feels like it could easily take the rigors of the road in stride.

The Snow's diminutive footprint is ideal for tabletop use. With a tiny frame measuring only 11 inches long and six inches deep, it's roughly the size of a large paperback. It can fit practically anywhere, so its multitude of knobs and switches are always within arm's reach. The one place it can't hang out is in a rack — the unusual dimensions and lack of a dedicated rack kit make it practically impossible to mount, but it would be a shame to cover up those sleek wooden accents anyway.

A printed Getting Started manual provides a general overview of the Snow's architecture and a basic explanation of the Total Integration (TI) software. The 43 pages of English instructions don't begin to scratch the surface of the Snow's capabilities. A far more comprehensive, 218-page PDF manual lets you delve more deeply into the Virus TI software, and a supplemental 95-page PDF outlines the parameters in exhaustive detail.

Setup requires a 40 MB download of the latest software from the Access Website, and a guided install process walks you through connecting the Snow to a USB port and installing the appropriate drivers. I tested the Snow on a Windows Vista machine and had to disconnect and reconnect the Snow a number of times during installation to get all the drivers running correctly. I also received a notice that the software might be incompatible with my version of Windows, but I never encountered any instances where the Snow locked up or behaved abnormally in Vista.

TOTAL INTEGRATION

As an old-school synth geek who's used to patching in outboard gear with MIDI leads and ¼-inch cables, it felt a little strange connecting the Snow with a single USB cable. But that's all it takes to hook up the Snow to any computer's DAW, which is the idea behind Total Integration.

Access' latest version of the TI software is proof positive that practice makes perfect. Working with the Snow in any compatible DAW is literally a dream come true; just drop the Snow's plug-in on any channel, make any necessary host-based MIDI settings to let you play it from a MIDI keyboard, and you're good to go. A single USB 2.0 cable conveniently transfers all audio and MIDI data. The elegant, easy system worked flawlessly for me in both Cubase 4 and Ableton Live 7. Latency was well within tolerable limits while running an ASIO buffer size of 256 samples, and I never experienced any dropouts, clicks or pops, even when running at 96 kHz. The lack of any extra A/D/A steps in the recording chain offers the extra benefit of keeping audio digitally pristine from synth to speaker. As with any standard VST or RTAS plug-in, you can automate all of the Snow's parameters inside the host DAW without any separate MIDI connections.

The TI software's slick user interface offers an Easy mode that consolidates important parameters onto a single page — a perfect tool for quick studio tweaks or live performances where paging through hundreds of settings isn't an option. These parameters can be changed on a patch-by-patch basis, so you can choose which elements in a patch are most important to you and drop those on the front page.

When Easy mode simply isn't enough, each of the Snow's functions has its own dedicated page that lays out the Snow's guts in detail. Editing within the TI software is the preferred method of patch control — far superior to dealing with the hardware LCD, thanks to the GUI's intuitive graphic displays of envelopes, waveforms and LFOs. Modifying envelope or oscillator shapes is as simple as moving the mouse around on the element's graphic display, or direct numerical entry for finer control.

The Snow's patch browser is particularly well-executed. A split-pane approach allows you to see two patch banks at once, making it a breeze to construct custom banks by dragging-and-dropping between panes, and a convenient quick search function lets you zero in on particular patches by category or name. The browser is fast and easy to use, but I'd prefer a system where patch names can contain more than 10 characters. I realize the limitation of the LCD display on the hardware, but nonetheless it would be easier to organize the thousands of patches the Snow holds in its RAM and ROM banks if that limitation were lifted.

ICY-HOT SOUND

The Snow uses the same sound engine as its bigger brothers, the Virus TI and Virus TI Polar, so there's no compromise in sound quality even though the Snow is considerably smaller than the others. It's a formidable sonic powerhouse with a classic subtractive synthesis layout, packing an impressive array of oscillators ranging from classic analog waveform emulations to unique hypersaw and wavetable offerings.

Two multimode filters offer a basic array of highpass, lowpass and bandpass filters, along with analog emulations of 1- through 4-pole filters that approximate the coveted Minimoog sound. Filters can be run in series or in parallel, and a dedicated filter envelope provides automated control over the filter's shape. Three LFOs with a broad range of features modulate the sound, and the Snow's matrix-style modulation feature makes it a breeze to route each LFO — or any other source — to any destination, making the Snow ideal for creating complex, evolving sounds. Topping off the Snow's formidable patch-construction kit, a comprehensive effects section includes all of the basic effects along with a vocoder, input follower, analog booster and a ring modulator.

When all is said and done, the only area where the Snow really seems to pull up short in comparison to its larger counterparts is polyphony and multitimbral operation. Even so, it's still well appointed with 50 simultaneous voices, which means note stealing in Patch mode (single-part) won't be a problem. Even when operating in Multitimbral mode (four-parts maximum), the Snow still offers an ample average of 12 voices per part.

A FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE

While the Snow's VST/RTAS integration is the killer feature that sets it apart from other synths, the little white dynamo still holds its own as a stand-alone tone generator when VST or RTAS integration isn't required.

MIDI I/O on the back panel offers old-school connectivity for anyone pushing notes to the Snow from a MIDI keyboard or other controller. Perhaps you're a live performer who doesn't need the Total Integration functions; maybe you've seen one too many laptops take a nosedive during a gig. That's okay, because the Snow performs admirably as a straight-up sound module, belting out crisp audio through its ¼-inch jacks.

Programming the Snow via the unit's front-panel switches is certainly possible, but in spite of the Snow's large LCD display, parameters are displayed in numerical form only. There are no graphic representations of envelopes or LFOs; you need the TI software for that. Still, the Snow does offer some convenient tools that make working sans PC a snap; my favorite is the Easy menu that pops up whenever you press a function key, providing immediate access to commonly used parameters for that function.

Similar quick-access tools like this are found all over the Snow's user interface. The search function, for example, lets you filter patches by preset categories such as bass, lead and pad, all without using the TI software. The three soft knobs below the LCD are freely assignable to any parameter on a patch-by-patch basis, and crucial dedicated filter cutoff and resonance knobs sit conveniently at the bottom right-hand side.

WINTER GAMES

All that flexibility is great, but how does the Snow sound? In a word, phenomenal. It delivers the same clarity and pristine fidelity as the larger and more expensive Virus TI models. Playback over USB using the TI software allowed me to take advantage of the Lavry converters in my studio, and the Snow's beautifully lush pads and thick, fat basses thundered out of my speakers with an authority rarely encountered with mere plug-ins. I tested the Snow at a variety of sampling rates, from 44.1 kHz to as high as 96 kHz, and it sounded wonderfully rich across the board. I'm normally accustomed to synths opening up a bit more at 96 kHz, but the Virus doesn't seem to benefit much from the increased sampling rate, which may be a testament to good design.

Many synths are known for sounds in one particular area, but the Snow seems remarkably adept all around, showing an equal aptitude for vicious leads, luscious pads and thunderous basses. I particularly enjoyed the spaciousness and warmth of the Snow's pads, which really showcase the capabilities of its three-oscillator architecture and flexible modulations. Leads also benefit from multi-oscillator layering and the hypersaw's crisp, gritty bite.

Ultimately, there's little to find fault with in the Snow. It's perfect for traveling, factory patches are impeccably designed, and the TI software works just as well with this pint-size bargain as it does with the more expensive Viruses. The onboard audio card performs admirably, and the Snow's sound engine is cream of the crop. It's truly an ideal all-in-one unit for live performers and even laptop DJs. It may not be the least expensive module out there, but without question, it delivers for the money like few others. Take a close look at the Snow if you're seeking a convenient, portable package with tons of sonic character that transcends software-only synths.

ACCESS

VIRUS TI SNOW > $1,550

Pros: Impeccable sound quality. Total Integration VST/RTAS software. Powerful synthesis engine. Atomizer. Small footprint. Built-in audio card.

Cons: Limited to 50-note polyphony and four-part multitimbral operation. Still somewhat pricey.

Contact: www.access-music.de

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

Mac: 1 GB RAM; OS 10.4.6 or later; VST, Audio Units or RTAS host (stand-alone operation also available)

PC: 1 GB RAM; Windows XP SP2/Vista (32-bit only); VST host (stand-alone operation also available)

ATOMIZER

Looking for a quick and easy way to toss a few stutter edits into your tunes? Maybe you're fed up with the tedious slicing and dicing involved in doing it manually, or maybe you're bored with the automatic plug-ins that do all the work for you. Either way, Access has bumped up the Snow's sexy factor with the all-new Atomizer, a free OS upgrade that works in any Virus TI synth to turn it into a real-time beat-slicing machine tailor-made for live performance.

At its core, Atomizer is a smart looping machine that analyzes incoming audio and breaks it up into musically rhythmic sections that can be played back in varying lengths and pitches. Audio fed into the Snow's ¼-inch jacks is analyzed and segmented into individual beats, which can then be subsequently rearranged using a variety of key combinations on a MIDI keyboard or buttons on the Snow's front panel. The default position of Atomizer is to leave incoming audio untouched, so you could play an entire set through Atomizer without anyone being the wiser. However, the real fun begins when you start mashing keys to replace the incoming audio with sliced-up bits of itself.

On a keyboard, keys C#1 through B1 loop incoming audio in half-note to 32nd-note lengths and also provide tools for reversing loops and rhythmic volume gating. Keys C3 through C8 essentially “re-pitch” the audio, so it can be played melodically using the keyboard. Everything is automatically tempo synced, so there's no danger of trainwrecking; I fed Atomizer a variety of loops and dance tunes and never encountered a situation where looping was noticeably off or clunky in any way. The Snow's onboard effects can add even more spice and flair to the Atomizer's output, and pitch and mod wheels provide control over the wet/dry mix, so you can perform smooth fades into and out of Atomized material in a live setting.

DJs will love the Atomizer's straightforward and beat-synced nature — a perfect match for spicing up sets with a little hands-on action that goes beyond the traditional EQ and fader work. Simply drop the Snow in between mixer and P.A. mains, jack in a MIDI controller, and you have the perfect setup for on-the-fly looping and effects that far surpasses the standard tools supplied by CDJs and most DJ mixers. Atomizer's spot-on tempo analysis makes it practically impossible to make rhythmic mistakes.

Atomizer sounds great and is endlessly entertaining. It's tons of fun to control glitch effects by hand, and routing sliced audio through the Snow's onboard effects makes Atomizer a perfect live tool for performers of every style. Best of all, it's free of additional charge, offered standard with version 2.7 and later of the Virus TI software.

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