Roundup: Virtual Instruments
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.|
$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|
“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.|
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
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.
Ivory II American
|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.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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.