For nearly a decade, three strains of the Access Virus — Virus A, Virus B and Virus C — have alternately swept through unquarantined music shops. Now, after a slow incubation of more than a year since its preview, the Access superstrain, the Virus TI, has finally hatched. This long-awaited mutation threatens to spread a fever of Total Integration (TI) between software and hardware.
At first blush, the Virus TI appears to be a stand-alone synthesizer, but a closer look reveals a powerhouse of dedicated DSP that can be tapped into as a virtual instrument from within your favorite DAW. It's also a USB audio and MIDI interface particularly attractive to studio and mobile musicians as a universal control surface for all your software, hardware synths and some outboard gear.
A trifecta of Virus TIs — the Desktop ($1,995), the Keyboard ($2,765) and the PØLAR ($2,765) — share the same sound engine and control surface of more than 70 LEDs, 32 knobs and 43 buttons. The latter — reviewed here — stands out like an iceberg with its arctic-white, 37-note keyboard, aluminum side panels and white LEDs. The Virus TI Desktop module and 61-key Virus TI Keyboard share a new black-on-black matte/gloss paint job with red, white and blue silk-screened labeling, red mahogany end caps and red LEDs. All three models feature a white backlit LCD. It's a gorgeous design all around.
The semiweighted keyboard of the PØLAR is the nicest feeling set of any recent synth. It's not too plastic or springy feeling and not so sluggish as to prevent ripping lead lines. The knobs twist with supremely smooth and robust action, and the chassis is a 20lb., all-metal affair of excellent build. The back panel sports balanced ¼-inch stereo Main outs and two Aux outs, a ¼-inch pair stereo input, coaxial S/PDIF I/O, USB, control and hold pedals jacks, stereo headphones jack, MIDI In/Out/Thru and a long power cord.
‘C’ YA LATER
The Virus TI leaves the Virus C in a cloud of dust with its dual-Motorola DSPs screaming under the hood, which Access claims can provide an average polyphony limit of about 80 notes. Functionally, the TI is vastly different from the previous models and cozily familiar at the same time. Significant ergonomic improvements include several new buttons and knobs, as well as a revised panel layout.
Front and center sits the beautiful new high-contrast 160-by-32-pixel LCD, which shows as many as four rows of text and graphics. In most cases, three parameters are displayed at a time, and momentary pop-up menus are used to compare current parameter values with original settings. With this new visual real estate, there are only a third of the menu pages as in previous Viruses. A strobing bpm LED embedded directly in the LCD bezel makes visualizing your current tempo effortless, as does the tempo-pulsing backlit Virus logo on the back of the PØLAR. That not only looks cool, but it also keeps your bandmates visually locked to the groove. Intensity controls can dim or turn off the bright LEDs and pulsing logo.
As simple as it sounds, the new Shift button is a big deal, because it nearly doubles the front panel's accessibility to the OS, reducing menu surfing. The problem is that it often takes two hands to access more obscure functions (one to hold down Shift and one to tweak). What's needed is an OS update that could make a quick double-click of the Shift button hold its operation, while another click disengages it. Another simple-yet-brilliant new fixture is the Mono button, which toggles between the most recently selected Mono key mode (there are four) and fully polyphonic operation. It's great fun to change a poly program into a mono lead sound during a chorus or a solo, and back out again during verses.
Instead of two, there are now three soft knobs beneath the LCD allowing you to address user-definable editing parameters. I love that pressing the Shift button sets those knobs to browse through Category, Bank and Program, making preset navigation a snap.
Nice additions to the Master section include Tap Tempo, Search, Redo (Shift-Undo) and Shift-Config. The latter will eventually enter Remote mode, turning your TI into a MIDI controller, but a software update is still in the works for that. Access promises 32 user presets and templates for a variety of popular devices with the update.
Even the unit's method for power cycling is new. As a “soft” process, the power is always flowing in the Virus. Pressing and holding down the Transpose Up and Down buttons for two seconds will put Virus in standby mode; tapping either of those buttons will wake it up. That allows the Virus desktop to be powered down even when rackmounted, which was difficult to do before.
All the hallmarks of the Virus sound live on in the three main oscillators, two multimode filters (including the deliciously rich Minimoog-style cascading Analog Mode filter), three LFOs and a 6-slot matrix section. In addition to the classic sine, triangle, saw and square oscillator shapes and the 62 complex, additive waveforms of previous Viruses, the Virus TI introduces two highly interesting oscillator types called HyperSaw and WaveTable.
HyperSaw is a cool, flexible sawtooth generator that allows you to dial in and out as many as nine saws per note in real time. When you dial in the suboscillators, you get 18 oscillators per note, and those subs have no effect on polyphony. The subs are square waves, always an octave below, and their implementation is unique in that if the suboscillator volume is turned all the way up, your note will turn to just the subs for what might be called a HyperSquare sound. With HyperSaw, you can achieve massive sounds with the use of just one oscillator. If you dial in a second and third oscillator per note, you can still expect about 40 notes of polyphony. There's an internal Sync algorithm, so even if you're using a single oscillator, enabling the Sync and turning up the FM amount will actually sync the oscillator to itself.
Each of the 72 WaveTables consists of multiple waveforms based on, but not identical to, the famous Waldorf wavetables. A Table soft-knob control selects one of those shapes, while an Index control sets a nominal position within. Typically, tables contain three or four waves but sometimes more. Though the Virus modulates parameters in 128 steps, the interpolation resolution for WaveTables is infinitely higher and superbly smooth. That allows for far more interesting results as waves morph into one another. Setting the LFO to sweep in time can produce wonderful harmonic and tonal textures. You can combine any of the traditional, HyperSaw and WaveTable oscillators across any number of the Virus TI's three main oscillators — all on one note.
The Single, Multi and Multi-Single modes of old have been streamlined. The new Multi mode doesn't just reference a patch in each of its 16 parts anymore (as most synthesizers do); instead, it embeds all patch data for every part. Sounds can be tweaked and tailored to build stacks without the risk of overwriting a patch that may be used in another song or Multi preset. Sequencer mode is also new. It references single patches directly, so it makes the TI feel like a synthesizer with 16 true single modes.
Whereas the original Virus effects were globally bused, reverb and delay are now independently assigned at the note level — across 16 parts! Distortion, chorus, phaser, analog boost and 3-band EQ are also treated that way. The Virus TI is the first hardware synth to feature True Dynamic patch allocation, allowing for seamless patch switching. When you change the patch, the release phase, reverb and delay of the held patch will not change until you release the final note.
The TI has 21 sound banks, each containing 128 Single programs and comes fully preloaded with 512 MB of RAM and 2,176 ROM presets — many brand new, and many more culled from the existing Virus B and C libraries. TI accepts soundsets from all former Virus models.
Virus TI has also received a major makeover in the audio-quality department, thanks to its 24-bit/192kHz studio-grade D/A converters (+4 dB balanced) it employs at output.
CENTER FOR DISEASE CONTROL
The Virus TI's coup de gras is its ability to integrate with your computer via USB and the VirusControl VST/Audio Units plug-in for Windows XP or Mac OS X. RTAS support was announced at NAMM, but we didn't have it in time to try before press time. I tested the software on two beefy systems: a Mac dual 2GHz G5 running Logic 7.1.1 and OS 10.4.3, and a Pentium 4 3.1GHz dual-core PC running Nuendo 3.2 and Windows XP SP2. I also tested VirusControl on a PowerBook 1.67GHz G4. With the automatic latency compensation running on the laptop, playback was flawless and audio streams were clear while playing in real time with very low latency using a 256-sample audio buffer.
Several Virus TI USB, MIDI and audio drivers must be installed, and you should download the latest software and firmware from the Access Website for up-to-the-minute bug fixes for the VirusControl software. Installing and launching VirusControl for the first time takes about 10 uneventful minutes. Subsequently, every time you call up VirusControl, the TI automatically locks into Sequencer mode until you disable or detach the plug-in.
There are nine page tabs across the top of VirusControl. An Easy page provides quick control over oscillator volume, filter cutoff, resonance and more. The Browser acts as bank librarian and patch selector for dropping in parts. The Oscillator page is particularly well-done in that it provides a real-time, updatable oscilloscope-style window for Oscillators 1 and 2. The Filter, LFO and Mod Matrix pages are welcome, since those are some of the synth's most challenging areas to program. It makes so much more sense to look up a source or a destination from a long pop-up list rather than consecutively pushing buttons. Basically, everything you can do from the TI's front panel is mirrored in VirusControl. The only exception is the incredible 32-step arpeggiator editor, because Access correctly figured that it's just too darned fiddly to accomplish using knobs and buttons. Onscreen, it's far simpler to drag the bars to adjust the velocities and note lengths.
Editing duties aside, VirusControl interfaces with a DAW with sample-accurate timing and a delay-compensated audio/MIDI connection. When connecting the Virus TI to a computer, the system shows two MIDI I/O ports: Virus TI MIDI — for other synths and MIDI devices connected to external jacks on the Virus — and Virus TI Synth — for the Virus TI itself.
In the current implementation, there are two stereo USB audio streams (called USB1 and USB2) between the synth engine and VirusControl. For each of the 16 parts within VirusControl, you can also assign a USB1 and USB2 output to any mono or stereo combination of three output buses directly to your host DAW, or directly to the Virus TI's physical analog outs. I had no trouble using the TI as a 2-channel audio interface and synth simultaneously. The Virus takes 65 to 71 percent of USB1.1 bandwidth for its audio streaming, however, so you must use a built-in USB port; the plug-in will automatically stop you if it detects you're using a USB hub.
GEM OF A GERM
The Virus TI's sound is just plain awesome — easily the best in the virtual analog world. Although the sound engine strangely operates only at 44.1 or 48 kHz, the new D/A converters are immediately noticeable, giving the classic Virus character a more open sound, capable of biting better than before. The dull, vacuous, underground aggressiveness is still there, but the new oscillator types significantly expand the tone palette without losing any identity. Capable of sounding very sparkly, the unique WaveTables give the Virus TI a whole new palette of colors to paint with, and they're full of movement thanks to the interpolation process. The increased polyphony means you can now load Multi/Sequencer patches of full 16 parts — each with independent effects settings — without worrying about note stealing.
As easy as the Virus TI is to program from the front panel, VirusControl is instantly enthralling. It lets you to explore the TI's expanded sound palette in an exciting visual manner. It's great seeing the harmonic sine waves, HyperSaws and WaveTables through the oscillator portholes, and the dual-axis filter editor converges what would normally take much knob-twisting into fluid mouse motions. The ability to quickly navigate, organize and assign patches to parts using the browser, program complex arpeggio patterns and effortlessly modify matrix objects and soft-knob assignments is a revelation.
PØLAR with a laptop is about as close to gigging heaven as you can get. VirusControl manages hardware outs (complete with delay compensation) when plugged in with USB, so you can have it sequenced to loops with sample accuracy. The dynamic patch switching is also a huge live benefit.
Because it's the hardware that produces the sound, VirusControl does not support offline bouncing. Aside from simple part volumes done using MIDI, if you want to process, edit or mix individual instrument tracks in your DAW, you'll have to perform real-time bounces of each track recorded to disk. That can obviously take a long time if you're using all 16 parts, but the current USB functionality restricts bouncing to two channels at a time — the master or sub outs. While the Virus TI's port is a USB 2.0 connection to ensure compatibility with the latest USB devices, it does not support high-speed USB 2.0 throughput.
Virus TI is a competition-buster. It raises the sonic bar extremely high not only for the revered “Virus sound,” but also for all other virtual analogs. The improved sequencing and project-management workflow that VirusControl offers, and the integration of streaming audio and performance data is probably where all manufacturers will be heading.
Nearly every shortcoming or missing feature ever mentioned of the previous Virus series has been addressed with the TI: more notes, a wider oscillator palette, self-contained programs in multitimbral mode, effects allocated per part, programmable arpeggiator, more effects and digital I/O.
It's true that VirusControl has a few updates in its future before it's fully functional, and I'd like to see a longer delay time (TI still has only 0.7 seconds). Some may scoff at the inability to program the arpeggiator directly from the TI, but it's much more fun doing it from VirusControl than it would be on the hardware's LCD. A bright future for the TI synthesizer would be secured if its USB 2.0 spec could be updated to allow high-speed streaming of more audio channels, which is an uncertain prospect. Still, Virus TI addiction is an incurable sickness.
VIRUS TI PØLAR > $ 2,765
Pros: HyperSaw and WaveTable oscillators greatly expand the tone palette. Dual DSPs provide an average of 80 notes of polyphony. Virus Control plug-in. Programmable arpeggiators. Improved ergonomic layout. 24-bit converters. Digital I/O. Rugged build. Completely awesome sound.
Cons: OS and VirusControl aren't complete. Arpeggiators can be programmed only via software. Doesn't support high-speed USB 2.0 bandwidth.