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Roundup: Virtual Instruments

June 20, 2013
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THE FIRST virtual instrument I ever saw played back one, and sometimes two, voices on a Mac with about 200ms latency. We’ve come a long way, baby . . . between multicore processors, 64-bit operating systems, and some brilliant programming, we now have software instruments whose capabilities not only rival—but in many cases exceed—what had been available in hardware.

Whether you want a sampler with virtually unlimited memory, spot-on emulation of analog subtractive synthesis, re-creations of classic synths, or instruments with capabilities that never existed before, virtual instruments fill those needs—and then some. Lines are blurring, too; it’s getting harder and harder to differentiate between sound libraries and virtual instruments (see the sound library “Roundup” in our March 2013 issue).

The end result is a cornucopia of sonic options, all for considerably less than the price of a single hardware synthesizer. Ready to find out what’s hot in synth-land? So were we . . . and here’s what we found.

 
 
 

 
 
Komplete 9 is the latest version of “the best of Native Instruments,” yet the price remains the same as Komplete 8.

Native Instruments Komplete 9
$559 KOMPLETE 9
($1,099 KOMPLETE 9 ULTIMATE)

We reviewed Komplete 8 Ultimate in the June 2012 issue, and if you were paying attention, you’ll remember how impressed I was with what I called “the mother of all plug-ins.” This time around, we’ll look at Komplete 9 (K9)— the “budget” version of Komplete 9 Ultimate.

Overview Compared to Komplete 8, Battery is now at Version 4 and offers an expanded library; the new Reaktor-hosted Monark is a Minimoog-style mono subtractive synth with a rich sound; and the Solid Series (SSL emulations) plug-ins—which now include features like sidechaining and parallel compression—don’t necessarily need Guitar Rig Pro as a host. The Giant piano and Session Strings Kontakt libraries are also included. While those additions aren’t earth-shaking, they’re definitely useful, and the reasonble update price will likely induce many Komplete 8 owners to upgrade.

You’ll need to decide whether the Ultimate version offers enough extras to justify costing about twice the price; NI makes that task easier with the comparison chart at www.native-instruments.com/en/products/komplete/bundles/komplete-9/k9-vs-k9u/. The standard version has fewer Kontakt libraries: much less cinematic content (no Heavyocity products, and only Session Strings), three Kontakt drum libraries instead of nine, fewer basses, and no Alicia’s Keys virtual piano or George Duke Soul Treasures loop collection. Although you get the “flagship” instruments (Kontakt, Reaktor, and Guitar Rig Pro), the package is missing the Reaktorbased Skanner and Razor and several effects.

Realistically, though, K9 delivers a lot— it’s just that the Ultimate version is . . . well, ultimate. You can mix and match, as most of K9 Ultimate’ components are available individually; however, if you want to add the outstanding Damage ($299) and Razor ($99), you might as well stretch to K9 Ultimate and get everything. Although K9 needs to make no apologies for what it bundles, Ultimate is much more cost-effective if you need even just a few of the extras it offers.

K9 was clearly designed to be a useful product in its own right, not just a “little brother” to Ultimate. Do you really need six bass libraries if you have one really good one anyway? However, another reason for going Ultimate is that it arrives on a hard drive. With K9, you’ll be feeding double-layer DVDs into your computer for quite a while.

Specs and Caveats Plug-in formats are VST/AU/RTAS (Pro Tools 9/10) and 32-bit AAX, which works in Pro Tools 10—but not Pro Tools 11, until they’re updated to 64-bit native operation. Presumably NI is working on that, but nothing official has been announced as of this writing. You’ll need at least a dualcore processor, Windows 7/8 (32/64-bit), or Mac OS X 10.7 or higher. Although Kontakt can stream from disk, more RAM is always better. (Sample attacks are stored in RAM.) I wondered if the Service Center would go crazy authorizing K9’s extras compared to what had already been registered with K8 Ultimate, but the authorization process went without a hitch. The instruments can also work standalone.

Copy protection is quite painless, using NI’s Service Center and online activation. I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll say it again: the Service Center went from being one of my least favorite forms of authorization to a valuable, helpful addition to the authorization process that also notifies you of updates and makes it easy to transfer authorizations to a different computer.

The Gestalt I’ve often said that if you pair your DAW of choice with Komplete, you don’t really need much else. Sure, you may want to pick up some other specific synth emulations, and some “character” plug-ins that can round out what Komplete offers. But if you do the math, you get a tremendous amount of instruments, effects, and content for the price. (And it’s worth noting that without much fanfare, NI has become a source of A-list content as well as plug-ins.)

Another consideration is that Kontakt has become the de facto standard for sound libraries. If Komplete doesn’t have something, odds are some company, somewhere, makes what you need—and offers it in Kontakt’s format.

Komplete 9 isn’t a huge leap forward from Komplete 8, but NI has held the pricing—so like previous updates, you get more for your money. Unless you already have a really extensive collection of plug-ins and effects, it’s hard to imagine anyone whose music productions wouldn’t benefit from having Komplete installed. My only advice would be to stretch to the Ultimate version if you can, due to its huge amount of high-quality content.

 
 
 
 
 
All of Arturia’s vintage synthesizer emulations have been collected into a single, comprehensive suite of instruments
 
 
Arturia V Collection 3.0
ARTURIA.COM
$449 BOXED, $399 DOWNLOAD

“V” for Vendetta? “V” for Victory? With Arturia, “V” is for Virtual—and the company has been at the virtual-instrument game for more than a decade. While their early software sometimes had stability issues as CPU-hungry programs met sketchy processing power, today’s multicore processors provide the right home for these rich-sounding, sophisticated instruments.

Overview This software suite is “Arturia’s Greatest Hits”: the Mini V (Minimoog emulation), Modular V (Moog Modular), CS-80V (the famous Yamaha synthesizer), ARP2600 V, Prophet V & Prophet VS, Jupiter 8-V, Oberheim SEM V, Wurlitzer V electric piano, and Spark Vintage (30 classic drum machines—Linn, Korg, Yamaha, Roland, etc.). Note that the Spark Vintage drums aren’t limited to working with Arturia’s Spark controller; they’re just as much at home with NI’s Maschine or the various keyboard controllers that incorporate playable pads.

In addition to the synths, the Synth Laboratory takes a page from their Analog Laboratory hardware/software combo by providing more than 4,000 presets and 200 “scenes” that feature two synths, drum loops, and arpeggiation. In keyboard synth terms, you can think of it as a “combi” or “performance” as opposed to a single instrument.

Given that the instruments themselves cost $129 each, if you want only three of the synths contained in the collection, then it makes sense to buy them individually. However, the instruments are differentiated enough that the typical user would find at least four or more favorites (although those “favorites” might be different for different players). For example, I find the Modular V to be a must-have (if only because I started my life in synthesis on a Moog Series III but could never afford one— what a great machine!), but I’m also a big fan of the Prophet VS, Spark Vintage drum sounds, CS-80V, and ARP 2600 V. Those alone justify the V Collection, but I use the other synths as well—right tool for the right job, and all that.

Specs and Caveats Arturia added native 64-bit operation (up to 96kHz) to their repertoire, but the 32-bit (or both) versions can be installed if you prefer. Formats are standalone, VST 2.4, RTAS, and AU 32/64-bit. The Oberheim SEM V and Wurlitzer V also support VST 3. As to AAX . . . not yet.

Regarding operating systems, XP and Vista remain supported (which I think is considerate), as well as Windows 7 32/64-bit.

Authorization is done through Steinberg’s eLicenser, which gives you a choice of dongle or “soft” authorization. Given how much I update operating systems and computers, I’ve taken the dongle route and I haven’t regretted it.

The Gestalt What’s interesting about Arturia’s synths is that they start off emulating the originals, but they don’t stop there. Typically, you’ll find features like a step sequencer, modulation matrix, additional modulation sources, categorized browser, and the like. And of course, there’s no reason why mono synths can’t be polyphonic in the virtual world. However, the main attraction is a warm, “liquid” sound quality that truly recalls the great analog synths of yesteryear.

The one caution involves Pro Tools. Arturia’s RTAS implementations have a reputation for hit-or-miss. (They worked for me with Pro Tools 10, so I can’t comment on issues.) AAX hasn’t happened, and now AAX plug-ins need to be 64-bit anyway. Fortunately, all Arturia synths in the V Collection can be downloaded for a 15-day free trial with no limitations, so you can make sure the synths work properly with your host of choice.

If you’re a classic analog synth fan but know you’ll never be able to afford the originals, let alone fit them in your studio, the V Collection is as close as you’ll come to making those classics part of your musical life.

 
 
 

 
When Waves announced they would be introducing their first virtual instrument, people weren’t sure what to expect—but Element indeed brings something unique to the plug-in world.

Waves Element
WAVES.COM
$99

There was a lot of speculation about Element, given that it’s Waves’ first virtual instrument. Expectations were high, but there was some question about what Waves could do to distinguish itself from a crowded field.

Overview On one level, Element is elementary: It doesn’t offer anything you haven’t seen before. It uses a subtractive synthesis engine with two oscillators, filter, VCA, effects (distortion, bitcrusher, chorus, delay, and reverb), four multi-mode LFOs, EQ, modulation matrix with six slots, three envelopes (for VCF, VCA, and modulation), and arpeggiator/step sequencer.

In other words, this is an ideal synth for gear snobs who want to post all over the Internet that it’s boring without ever having played it. But when you play it, several, uh, elements become apparent.

I like to program sounds, and Element has a super-obvious interface. Everything is at your fingertips, controls are the right size, the visuals are appealing, and if you’ve used a subtractive synth before, there’s no need to open the manual to get going. Within a couple of minutes, I had one of those punchy, Moog-y bass sounds (shown in the screen shot). If you don’t like to program sounds, the presets are not made to impress; they’re made for production. Granted, I’m picky about presets, and these were no exception—but the same painless interface for programming is equally painless for tweaking.

Next is the sound: It’s detailed, rich, and pure. Even the hard sync is musical, whether you’re going for a “ripping circus tents” sound, or something gentle. (Yes, it’s possible.) There’s no stairstepping, even when feeding the filter cutoff from an external 128-step MIDI control source. Overall, in terms of “analog feel,” Element has more in common with a Moog Voyager than the typical analog modeling synth.

Dig deeper, and there are lots of things that Waves just plain got right. Granted, Element has only two oscillators with four waveforms, but you have an FM option, sub-oscillator for Oscillator 1, and a Unison mode that creates a thicker sound. It offers a choice of DCO or VCO if you want a little variability in your life, and an eye-candy “oscilloscope” that displays the waveform. The distortion can go pre- or post-filter, and the LFOs (two with rate controls, two with tempo sync) have six waveforms and tempo sync. I also like being able to reverse the modulation signal polarity in the mod matrix.

The Arpeggiator/Step Sequencer is exactly what you’d expect, although it does include swing.

Specs and Caveats Waves has their famous online compatibility spreadsheet (the most detailed in the industry, for sure), but the bottom line is: VST on Mac 10.6.8 or higher and Windows 7/8, AU, VST3 where supported by the host, and native-only for Pro Tools (RTAS and Audiosuite—no TDM or AAX as of this writing). It also runs standalone, and operation for me was rock-solid.

My only caveat is its EQ. Having highpass and lowpass filtering is great, but the EQ’s four bands have fixed bandwiths that are too narrow for general tone shaping, so the EQ is more of an effect. If you want gentler tone shaping, you’ll need to follow the synth with a general-purpose EQ in your DAW.

As Element is a Waves 9 product, it performs authorization via the user-friendly Waves License Center application.

The Gestalt When I first saw Element at NAMM, one of the developers said that it was all about getting the vibe of analog. I assumed that meant the ability to add some grit, and Element can do that. But more importantly, it has analog sweetness. When I first started playing with Element, I assumed I wouldn’t need it, as I have plenty of other subtractive synths. However, the sound quality is in its own world; it’s almost like an idealized version of analog, compared to synths that try for the most accurate analog sound. It reminded me of when I was doing some guitar emulations, and in A-B tests experienced guitarists would often pick the emulated sound as the “real” one— because it was intended not to emulate (for example) a Strat, but the “perfect” Strat sound you heard in your head.

Element is very much a balance of analog purity and digital precision, it’s easy to program, and at $99, it’s priced competitively. Is it for you? Download the demo and find out.

 
 
 

 
There’s more to virtual instruments than synthesizers; Synthogy’s pianos are essentially samplers that are optimized to create acoustic piano sounds. Note the Effects page detail shown below the Program page.
Synthogy Ivory II American Concert D
SYNTHOGY.COM, DIST. BY ILIO.COM
$199 MSRP, $179 STREET

Synthogy has earned quite a bit of acclaim over the years for the realism and playability of their pianos, and they continue to expand their line. Their latest is the American Concert D—a 1951 New York Steinway Model D, which has been a favorite of many concert artists for decades.

Overview A Synthogy piano is not just a piano, but a very flexible instrument. It offers a great deal of control over various parameters (key noise, resonance, stereo width, dynamic range, audience or performer stereo perspective, and more), as well as more than two dozen presets that take advantage of the software’s flexibility. An additional synth engine lets you layer pads along with the piano—it may be a little weird to do your strings-and-piano lounge act with a spot-on concert Steinway, but hey, whatever works.

What’s more, it offers a separate effects page with EQ (high and low shelving with gain and frequency, along with a parametric mid), chorus, and ambience. Again, you’ll find a bunch of presets if you don’t want to take the time to do your own adjustments. A Session page sets up overall parameters— velocity curve, tuning, transposition, memory allocation, number of voices, and the like.

All these pages are presented with simple, clear interfaces; there’s no need for a manual for the instrument itself, although a full-length digital manual is installed automatically with American Concert D, and there are FAQs on the Synthogy website.

Specs and Caveats The American D runs standalone as well as via VST, AU, RTAS, and 32-bit AAX; for Windows, it’s one of those rare breed of programs that supports Windows XP, Vista 32/64, and Windows 7/8 (32/64). On the Mac, it works all the way back to 10.5.8 (Leopard).

There are two caveats: Installation takes a while (86 minutes for me) because the library itself is almost 50GB; the other is . . . iLok. Now, I’ve actually gone from considering iLok a willfully installed virus to getting along with it okay after iLok 2 came out, but knowing how much some people dislike iLok, it needs to be mentioned.

The Gestalt As with Element, I thought I knew what to expect. Synthogy’s pianos sound wonderful, and while to my ears, no sampled piano can match wood and metal vibrating in a beautiful acoustic space, recording a Synthogy piano on a track gets scary close. It will also sound better than whatever “default” piano came with your DAW.

That said, we all get better in our craft, and apparently, Synthogy’s designers are no exception—the Steinway American D is, without a doubt, the best sampled concert piano yet to load on my hard drive (and that’s a lot of sampled pianos). It’s also the closest I’ve come to being fooled into thinking I’m in the studio, listening to a really well-miked piano on headphones. The sound quality is, well, almost sensual.

I think part of Synthogy’s secret (I’m speculating here) is that they don’t “smother” the piano by miking too closely; Synthogy’s pianos have a certain openness that’s not dependent on ambience. We don’t listen to a piano by sticking our ears a couple feet away from the sounding board, and I suspect Synthogy has figured that out. But whatever mojo they’ve put into this piano, it’s exceptional.

At under $200, the American Concert D will probably cost less than hiring someone to move a piano into your studio. If you haven’t bought an Ivory II-series piano, you’ll be glad you waited because to my ears, this one is Synthogy’s best—and they’d already raised the bar pretty high.

 

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