If you know your way around virtual analog synthesizers, you're probably familiar with the Access Virus, if only as an object of desire. Now in its fourth generation, the German-made Virus isn't just one synth; it's a product line that has been earning the respect of electronic musicians since 1997. The Virus TI (which stands for Total Integration) is available in three form factors: the 61-key Virus TI Keyboard ($2,765), the 37-key Virus TI Polar ($2,765), and the instrument I had for review, the rackmountable Virus TI Desktop ($1,995). All three models share a common hardware user interface, and for the first time, they offer a software user interface as well.
FIG. 1: Compared with previous models, Access Music''s Virus TI has twice the processing power, more than twice as many memory locations, and loads of new features.
Compared with the Virus C, the Virus TI furnishes many improvements and some exciting new features (for more information on the Virus C, see the August and September 2003 issues of EM, available at www.emusician.com). Most important is the concept of Total Integration, which allows the instrument to serve as an essential element for computer-based recording. The Virus connects to a computer by means of its USB 1.1 port, which carries audio, MIDI, and control data. A software plug-in called VirusControl (Mac/Win) lets you control the Virus from within your audio sequencer. Total Integration gives you a choice of hardware- or software-based control with sample-accurate timing and a connection that automatically compensates for any system delay.
In addition to integrating hardware and software, the Virus TI delivers twice the polyphony of the Virus C, two cool new oscillator modes, expanded modulation capabilities, and a substantial increase in effects-processing power. It stores well over twice as many programs, with 16 rewritable ROM banks and 4 RAM banks, each containing 128 Single patches. Each patch can store its own arpeggiator settings, and you can edit and store Single patches within a Multi patch without affecting the source Singles. The Virus TI can also function as a 16-channel MIDI interface and a 2-in/6-out audio interface for your computer.
Physically, the Virus TI Desktop bears a strong resemblance to the Virus C Desktop (see Fig. 1). Its 160 × 32-pixel LCD can show four lines of text and graphics, and its black-on-white rather than black-on-red color scheme improves viewing from different angles. The wood end panels are mahogany-stained instead of black. A few of the controls have been rearranged, and there are a few more buttons and LEDs; otherwise, the layout is almost identical. A BPM indicator LED constantly flashes the current tempo, and a Tap button has been added. When you turn most knobs, the LCD very conveniently displays the new value as well as the previous setting.
A small but significant addition is a dedicated Shift button; pressing it in combination with other buttons and knobs lets you access supplementary functions, without extra front-panel controls. The labeling for Shift functions is in dark red ink, however, making it rather difficult to read in sections where the background is dark gray rather than black.
Like previous models, the Virus TI Desktop gets its power from a sizable lump-in-the-line transformer. To turn the power off, you must press both Transpose buttons simultaneously, which isn't very intuitive. Pressing one of several buttons turns the power on. Although the Virus TI is in Standby mode as long as it's plugged in (as indicated by a slowly blinking LED), it still takes about 13 seconds to power up.
Instead of the Virus C's Soft Knob 1 and Soft Knob 2, the Virus TI has three assignable knobs labeled Value 1, 2, and 3. By default, they are assigned to either the three most appropriate performance parameters for the current patch or whatever parameters you're editing in the LCD at the moment. Pressing the Shift button lets you use the three knobs to scroll through lists of Category, Bank, and Program selections.
FIG. 2: The Virus TI is the first generation of Viruses with connections for coaxial S/PDIF and USB, in addition to analog audio and MIDI ports.
On the backplate, a USB port and coaxial S/PDIF ports accompany the power connection, headphone jack, three MIDI ports, two unbalanced TS inputs, and six balanced +4 dBu TRS outputs (see Fig. 2). According to Access's specifications, the D/A converters support 24-bit sampling rates as high as 192 kHz, but Mac OS X's Audio MIDI Setup recognized only 16 bits at either 44.1 or 48 kHz.
The module ships with its rack ears unattached. When rackmounting the Virus TI Desktop, you can rotate the rear-panel connections 90 degrees with the aid of a Phillips screwdriver and a hex wrench. The procedure requires a bit of surgery and involves disconnecting a multiport connector. When the operation is complete, the jacks and ports will be on the baseplate, opposite from the front panel, rather than on top when rackmounted. That allows you to easily make connections without needing to leave room in your rack above the Virus.
The Virus TI consumes all the bandwidth on a USB connection. According to the user manual, connecting the synth to a USB hub is not recommended, and in fact, such a connection doesn't work at all. Nor does it work when you connect the Virus to any USB port other than one mounted directly on your computer. Considering that I have 29 USB devices and my Power Mac G5 has only 3 USB ports, connecting the Virus proved a bit of a challenge. Using a powered hub made no difference, so I had no choice but to dedicate one of my computer's ports to the Virus. I ended up disconnecting several devices and reconnecting them individually whenever they were needed.
In addition to Classic mode, which generates conventional modeled-analog Virus waveforms, Oscillators 1 and 2 offer two modes that are new to the Virus family: HyperSaw and Wavetable. HyperSaw is a sawtooth generator that can produce as many as nine waveforms at the same time. You can sync or detune those waveforms and change their number (called Density) in real time, giving you loads of control over the timbre's thickness. You haven't heard thick until you've layered 16 HyperSaw oscillators in Unison mode, each with 9 sawtooth waves, and added 8 suboscillators for a total of 152 audio sources per note (see Web Clip 1).
Wavetable mode works a lot like wavetable synthesis on the Dave Smith Instruments Evolver and a handful of other digital synthesizers. For either oscillator, you can select from 72 preset wavetables with names such as Glass Sweep and Robot Wars. An Index control lets you select one of 127 smoothly crossfaded waves within the wavetable. If you route one or more modulators to scan the wavetable, the Virus can produce an impressive variety of animated sounds that range from glassy and vocal-like to brittle and abrasive.
Previous Viruses had two main operating modes: Single, which produced only one timbre on a single MIDI channel, and a multitimbral mode called (appropriately enough) Multi. In the Virus TI, what was previously called Multi mode is now called Sequencer mode. Whenever you're using VirusControl, the Virus is in Sequencer mode. Instead of referencing Single patches as Sequencer mode does, a new Multi mode lets you edit individual Parts without affecting the original Single patches and then save 16 Multis without any dependencies. This is a big deal because it's very much like having 16 monotimbral synths that you can edit individually without changing any parameters stored within their source patches.
For the most part, the Virus TI's impressive range of effects is identical to that of the Virus C, though happily, you can now control reverb and delay independently. Previously, the reverb, delay, and envelope follower were shared within a Multi, but now each Single patch in Multi mode has its own settings for those effects, greatly increasing the instrument's flexibility. No matter what mode the Virus is in, all effects types are simultaneously available. And thanks to the Virus's audio inputs, the effects can process external sources, too.
Pulling the Plug-in
Access Music gained several years of experience creating software versions of the Virus for Digidesign's TDM and TC Electronic's PowerCore platforms. Like TDM and PowerCore expansion cards, the Virus TI is based on the Motorola (now Freescale) 56000 series of DSP chips. Consequently, writing software to control Virus hardware must have been a natural next step for its programmers. VirusControl borrows several design features and control capabilities from the soft-synth plug-ins, but its user interface is more attractive and sophisticated.
VirusControl operates as a VST plug-in in Windows 2000 and XP and as a VST or AU plug-in in Mac OS X; an RTAS version is forthcoming. The plug-in requires a minimum 60 MB of free disk space and 512 MB of RAM.
Because the Virus's firmware and VirusControl software are updated frequently, I logged on to Access Music's Web site and downloaded the latest version, 1.0.9. Installation was straightforward and required that I restart the synth and my computer. I was using a dual-processor 2.3 GHz Power Mac G5 with 4 GB of RAM running Mac OS X 10.4.5, and my host software was Apple Logic Pro 7.1. (Digital Performer users take note: MOTU and Access Music are working together on a solution to some latency compensation issues.)
VirusControl does something that soft-synth users usually take for granted: when you save a song on your computer, it remembers all your synthesizer settings. It does require keeping the Virus TI in Sequencer mode, however, and it automatically switches to that mode whenever you run the plug-in.
Poring Through Pages
VirusControl 1.0.9 has nine edit pages that give you many perspectives on the Virus TI's programming depth. Every time you make a change on the hardware's front panel, that change will occur simultaneously in the plug-in window. Whenever the cursor is over any knob, button, or menu in VirusControl, an Information Bar at the bottom of the graphical user interface displays the parameter name and its value.
To the left of each page is the Part Control Bar, which determines which of the 16 Parts is affected by changes you make in the nine pages. From the Part Control Bar, you can load, save, and mute Single patches and set their volumes and pan positions.
The Easy page gives you access to the parameters you're most likely to use, such as filter cutoff and resonance, effects sends, and amplitude attack and decay. On the Oscillator page, you can control the same parameters that you control with real knobs and buttons in the hardware's Oscillators and Mix sections. The Common page presents pull-down menus and fields you can click-and-drag to change soft-knob assignments, categories, bend range, and other patch-specific parameters that don't belong on the other pages.
FIG. 3: VirusControl is a software plug-in that integrates the Virus TI with audio sequencers. The Filter page offers control of two filters, two envelope generators, and the amplifier.
VirusControl's Filter page reproduces all the hardware's controls for the amplifier and both filters (see Fig. 3). Envelopes are graphically displayed with breakpoints you can click-and-drag. When you're editing filter parameters using hardware alone, they're shown as text in the instrument's LCD; that makes it especially gratifying to see them all graphically displayed at the same time in a nice, big window.
Likewise, I much prefer changing LFO parameters on the LFO page to using the hardware's LCD, especially when I'm using real knobs with my eye on the computer display. The LFO page supplies controls for all three LFOs and routing for the most common LFO modulation destinations.
FIG. 4: You can specify all the effects parameters on VirusControl''s FX page. Nine effects types are independently and simultaneously available to each Part, but only one Part at a time can use the vocoder
The FX page furnishes knobs, buttons, and pull-down menus for controlling all the effects parameters (see Fig. 4). Each effects type has its own section, giving you instant access to comprehensive controls for the vocoder, ring modulation, analog boost, and seven other effects types.
The Matrix page provides a clear visual interface for routing modulation sources and destinations. It contains six identical slots, each with a pull-down menu for selecting from 27 modulation sources. Additional pull-down menus let you select three destinations for each source. Each destination has a slider to govern the modulation amount, along with a handy bar graph that lets you see that destination's mod depth at a glance.
The Arp page makes creating user arpeggios much quicker and more intuitive than if you were to rely on the hardware alone. Unlike previous generations of Viruses, the Virus TI lets you create user arpeggio patterns, with one user pattern for each Single patch. Using either hardware or software, you can select an arpeggio from a list of 63 presets, and one user pattern as well as its direction, range, beat resolution, maximum note length, and swing factor. If you want to set the number of notes in a pattern, add rests, or individually specify the duration and Velocity of each note, you'll need to use the Arp page's Pattern Editor. One surprise is that when you begin creating a user arpeggio from scratch, the default resolution is a very fast 1/128 note.
Access expects Virus TI software version 1.1 to be available by the time you read this. Until then, one page that's missing is the Remote page, which will allow you to define and edit templates for using the Virus TI as a universal control surface. According to Access, it will allow the hardware to store as many as 32 preset scenes, each with up to 32 named knob assignments. Access plans to provide a library of remote templates for third-party software.
One of VirusControl's most useful features is the Browser page (see Fig. 5). The Browser lets you view and rearrange the 2,560 patches stored in the Virus's memory banks and, thanks to the Public Library function, patches stored on your hard disk as well. You can quickly and easily navigate through the patch banks by clicking or by using your computer keyboard's Arrow keys. To replace a non-ROM patch with a new one, just drag it from one location to another — from a Public Library location to a RAM bank location, for example. Because patch locations aren't associated with their names, however, I do wish that selecting a Part would highlight its assigned patch in the Browser.
FIG. 5: On the Browser page, you can quickly load any Single patch stored in the Virus'' memory or on your computer''s hard disk. To rearrange them, just click-and-drag.
To try out new Virus patches, you no longer need to use your sequencing program to transfer Standard MIDI Files (SMFs) to your synthesizer. Instead, just copy them to the appropriate folder on your computer, and they'll appear in the Browser's Public Library the next time you run VirusControl. You can store literally thousands of patches on your hard drive in SMF format. When you find a keeper, just copy it over to one of the RAM banks. You can find plenty of Virus patches, including Access's complete libraries from previous models, online.
Version 1.1 will introduce two new Browser functions. Sort by Category will automatically build banks of sounds within the same category. Search by Name will instantly find patches on your hard drive whose names match whatever text you type in, no matter how few letters you type.
Access the Future
The Virus sound, as always, is absolutely gorgeous. If you love electronic music, you're sure to love the Virus TI's tremendous range (see Web Clip 2). Its musical points of reference are all over the map, from Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk to BT and the Chemical Brothers, from Pink Floyd and Kitaro to Brian Eno and Vidna Obmana. The Virus does well at imitating analog and digital synthesizers from just about any era, and it makes way for the future. Its palette has something for everyone, but its forte is generating electronic timbres — whether ambient, electronica, or experimental — rather than emulating traditional instruments. Still, some very good acoustic simulations are on hand. However, as with any large patch collection, you'll find plenty of unusable sounds, too.
The instrument's ease of use has taken a big leap forward with the introduction of VirusControl. If you've become as accustomed to using soft-synth plug-ins as I have, you'll probably take to the Virus TI like a duck to plum sauce. You'll really feel as though you're working with a soft synth. The Virus TI Desktop also operates as a normal synth module, of course; for onstage use, you may never need a computer unless you want the convenience of rearranging patches in the Browser page.
I didn't experience many problems during my review. A few times, VirusControl apparently lost touch with the hardware, and I had to quit and restart Logic Pro to continue working. Once, I turned on the Virus and it froze up; it wouldn't play and its LCD remained blank. I had to unplug it from the power supply to shut it down. My only other complaint is that the user manual is too brief and doesn't go into enough detail on some points.
Unlike most hardware instruments, previous generations of the Virus have received ongoing firmware updates for free, so even older models have gained new features. I expect the same will be true of the Virus TI. If history is any indication, the Virus TI will have a hedge against obsolescence — bravo to Access Music for such outstanding service to Virus owners.
The Virus TI outperforms its forebears in every respect. It sounds wonderful, it's easy to use, and it offers some very cool new capabilities that other synths do not. If you're in need of a hardware synth — especially if you do a lot of sequencing — you can't go wrong with a Virus TI.
EM associate editor Geary Yelton began playing and writing about synthesizers in the mid-1970s. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Virus TI Desktop
analog modeling/wavetable synthesizer
PROS: Spectacular sounds. Capacious timbral storage. Hardware or software control. Well-designed user interface. Easy-to-read display. Doubles as external effects processor and audio interface.
CONS: Requires direct USB connection. Manual lacks depth. Some hard-to-read labeling. Software is unfinished.
EASE OF USE
QUALITY OF SOUNDS
VIRUS TI SPECIFICATIONS
Sound Engine analog modeling, wavetable synthesis Maximum Polyphony (80) notes, stereo Multitimbral Parts (16) in Multi or Sequencer mode Memory Locations (16) flash ROM banks × (128) Singles; (4) RAM banks × (128) Singles; (16) Multis Analog Audio Inputs (2) unbalanced ¼" TS, -10 dBV Analog Audio Outputs (6) balanced ¼" TRS, +4 dBu; (1) ¼" stereo headphone Digital Audio I/O coaxial S/PDIF; 16/24-bit, maximum 48 kHz Data I/O (1) USB 1.1, (1) MIDI In, (1) MIDI Out, (1) MIDI Thru Control Inputs (2) assignable ¼" TS pedal inputs (Keyboard and Polar only) A/D/A Conversion 16/24-bit; maximum 48 kHz A/D, 192 kHz D/A Keyboard Desktop: none; Keyboard: 61-note semiweighted; Polar: 37-note semiweighted; Velocity, Channel Aftertouch Oscillators Oscillators 1 and 2: Classic, HyperSaw, Wavetable waveforms; Oscillator 3: (4) modeled analog, (64) digital waveforms; Suboscillator: square, triangle waveforms; variable-color noise generator Filters (2) resonant multimode (lowpass, highpass, bandpass, bandstop); Filter 1 also has (4) analog-modeled resonant lowpass modes LFOs (3) with (68) waveshapes Envelope Generators (2) ADSSR (attack, decay, sustain, slope, release) Modulation Matrix (6) slots, each with (1) source, (3) destinations Arpeggiator (64) presets, (1) user pattern per Single Display 160 × 32-pixel LCD Effects analog boost, chorus, delay, distortion, envelope follower, EQ, phaser, reverb, ring modulation, vocoder; (145) simultaneous Software Component VirusControl plug-in (VST for Windows; VST, AU for Mac OS X) Dimensions Desktop, 18.5" (W) × 3.2" (H) × 7.4" (D); Keyboard, 39.2" (W) × 4.6" (H) × 14.6" (D); Polar, 22.3" (W) × 4.4" (H) × 13.2" (D) Weight Desktop, 7.2 lbs.; Keyboard, 27.6 lbs.; Polar, 19.2 lbs.