APPLIED ACOUSTICS SYSTEMS Ultra Analog 1.0.1 (Mac/Win)

The analog synths of yesteryear the Minimoogs and Prophets and their dozens of cousins have earned a permanent place in electronic musicians' hearts.
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FIG. 1: Applied Acoustics'' Ultra Analog is a straightforward emulation of a hardwired analog synthesizer. Although each of the two voice channels has its own oscillator, filter, envelopes, LFO, and amplifier, you can route the oscillators to either filter and route one filter to the other.

The analog synths of yesteryear — the Minimoogs and Prophets and their dozens of cousins — have earned a permanent place in electronic musicians' hearts. Those synths had a great sound, but more than that, their voice architecture has become reassuringly familiar. There's comfort in being able to look at a front panel and say, “Oh, there's an ADSR, and there's the sawtooth wave.”

Soft-synth designers have gone far afield in their quest for fresh sounds, so it's refreshing — in a retro way — to see a new soft synth that eschews such frippery. Ultra Analog, from Applied Acoustics Systems (AAS), sticks very close to the classic analog design. While it goes well beyond the Prophet and the Mini in power and features, Ultra Analog isn't a groundbreaker in any sense. I had to put it under the microscope to find a few minor innovations.

Hey, Look Me Over

When I first tried to install Ultra Analog from CD-ROM to my 3 GHz Pentium-based PC running Windows XP, the installation failed. The program's copy protection uses a challenge-and-response system; the installer refused to finish installing the program until I gave a response, but it gave me no opportunity to go out to the Web and get one. Fortunately, a file called unlock.htm had been tucked away on my hard drive (in the Program Files/AAS/Ultra Analog directory) before the installation aborted. By double-clicking on that, I was able to reach the AAS Web site, get a response, and then run the installer again. This time, the installation proceeded through to the end, and Ultra Analog was ready to roll.

As with hardware-based synthesizers, almost everything in Ultra Analog is immediately visible on the front panel (see Fig. 1). It has no hidden windows to trip up the unwary, and only a few pop-up menus for selecting waveforms, filter modes, and so on. At first glance, the panel looked so simple that I wasn't expecting much, so the power and sheer variety in Ultra Analog's presets took me by surprise. The program responds to Program Change messages; you can use MIDI to select timbres, and you can also specify the program numbers of any 128 presets (see Fig. 2).

Another pleasant surprise was how clean the high register sounded: when I selected a raw sawtooth wave and played notes in the range five octaves above middle C, I didn't hear a trace of aliasing. That trait is vital in a synth that strives to emulate analog technology.

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FIG. 2: Selecting Edit Program Changes from the Edit menu opens a dialog box that lets you reassign presets to whatever program number you choose.

Ultra Analog has a browser pane along the left side of the front panel, which you can use to access and organize the preset files. Operations such as creating and renaming folders are all supported from within the browser. The synth ships with more than 400 factory presets that are neatly categorized into folders such as Arpeggiator, Bass, Leads, Keys, and so on. Normally the presets are contained in a single database file on your hard drive (which makes backup a one-drag operation), but individual presets can be exported and imported if desired.

Using a pop-up box, you can set Ultra Analog's maximum polyphony to as high as 32 notes. Another convenient feature is that each panel module has its own little menu with commands that copy settings and restore defaults. Better yet, Ultra Analog has multiple Undo and Redo, a feature you won't find in all soft synths.

In my tests, Ultra Analog consumed a surprising amount of CPU bandwidth. With all of the modules (except the arpeggiator) turned on, an 8-note sustained chord caused a CPU hit of more than 40 percent of my 3 GHz computer, according to Ultra Analog's own readout and the VST Performance meter in Cubase SX 3. By contrast, Native Instruments FM7 used less than 10 percent of the CPU with 8-note chords. Even Camel Audio Cameleon 5000, which as an additive synth would be expected to require lots of machine cycles, was able to produce eight complex morphing voices with plenty of overtones without peaking above 30 percent.

Voice of the Synth

Ultra Analog is a 2-oscillator, 2-filter synth. The voice design is based on two separate signal paths, one above the other on the panel. Each has its own oscillator, multimode filter, LFO, and pair of envelope generators. But that description is deceptive in its simplicity. Each oscillator's output can be routed to either filter or both filters using an output mix knob, and filter 1's output can be similarly panned between the synth's output stage and the input of filter 2. As a result, series and parallel filtering are available, and you can feed both oscillators into a single filter for vintage-type patches.

When it comes to modulation routings, however, the two signal paths remain separate. LFO 1 and the two envelopes in the upper half of the panel can modulate only oscillator 1, filter 1, and amplifier 1, whereas LFO 2 and the two lower envelopes can modulate only oscillator 2, filter 2, and amplifier 2 — that is a major limitation. For instance, it's not possible to use LFO 1 to modulate the panning of both outputs while LFO 2 mutates the pulse width of both oscillators. Fortunately, there's an extra LFO for vibrato that modulates the pitch of both oscillators, so you don't have to use both main LFOs to get simple vibrato.

Each oscillator has a suboscillator that generates either a square wave or a sine wave one octave lower. Both oscillators will do hard sync, but the implementation is a bit different than on some synths: instead of one oscillator syncing to the other, each syncs to its own hidden master clock. Each oscillator also has its own single-stage ramp generator for creating pitch sweeps on note attacks, and it can be used for classic sync-sweep effects. The depth of the sweep can't be modulated by Velocity, unfortunately.

Though Ultra Analog has a dedicated noise source, either oscillator can also be set to generate noise instead of periodic waveforms. Sine, rectangular (pulse), and sawtooth waves are available — but, curiously, there is no triangle wave. Triangle waves are useful for certain types of patches and are a standard part of the classic analog synth voice, so it's hard to understand why they were omitted. Another limitation is that Ultra Analog doesn't support any type of FM or ring modulation. Nor can an audio-rate waveform modulate filter cutoff, which means that Ultra Analog can't reproduce certain special-effects patches that you can create with a Minimoog or a Prophet.

Ultra Analog's filters are powerful. Each filter has lowpass, bandpass, highpass, notch, and formant modes and can be switched to either 2-pole or 4-pole operation. Six overdrive settings are available for each filter. With overdrive and lots of resonance, the filters will squidge in a very satisfying way, adding fat overtones even to a sine wave input (see Web Clip 1).

Filter 2's modulation inputs can be slaved to those on filter 1, a convenient programming shortcut for certain types of patches. In that situation, filter 2's mod inputs remain active, so both LFOs or both filter envelopes can modulate filter 2 at the same time.

The LFOs offer sine, triangle, and variable-width pulse waves, as well as smooth and stepped random outputs. Here, the sawtooth wave was omitted. Admittedly, sawtooth LFOs are a specialized effect, but why not include the waveform? Start delay, fade-in time, and a switch allowing either monophonic (all voices) or reset (each voice played starts its own LFO cycle) are available. An LFO-start-phase knob is also provided — a welcome feature that many synths lack. The LFOs and the arpeggiator can sync to an external clock or to Ultra Analog's internal clock.

The envelope generators can be looped if you need extra LFOs. (They won't, however, sync to a system clock in loop mode.) Velocity can control attack time and sustain level, but other than affecting amplifier level, that's the only type of Velocity response in Ultra Analog. A switch labeled Legato prevents a new envelope from being retriggered until after all keys are lifted. I appreciated that each of the four envelope generators has its own Legato switch, so you can perform maneuvers such as having each new note retrigger one filter envelope but not the other one.

The Ultra Analog voice has a few other tricks up its sleeve, such as portamento, LFO-controlled panning, a switch for choosing linear or exponential envelope segments, a unison mode with detune, and keyboard loudness scaling of the two amplifier modules. Overall, I'd give the voice design a mixed review — it has plenty of excellent features but some odd omissions as well.

More Features

Ultra Analog's arpeggiator has most of the expected controls: up, down, and up-and-down modes; a Latch button; clock sync; and an octave range control. You can program 16-step patterns in such a way that a given step will be either a note or a rest (see Web Clip 2). The overall length of the play/rest pattern can be shortened, which is useful for polyrhythms. And here's a neat undocumented feature: the keyboard priority setting (High, Low, or Last), which is in a different module, will cause either the lower or the higher arpeggiated notes to be cut off — that is, to play monophonically — while those on the other half of the keyboard sustain to create a chord. You'll hear that only if you arpeggiate a patch that has long release times.

Three effects are offered: chorus/flange, stereo delay, and reverb. The parameters are basic, but each effect has from seven to ten algorithms from which to choose. In addition, four signal routings are available for the chorus and delay. By putting them in parallel, you can send one filter's output to the chorus and the other to the delay.

Controlling modulation using MIDI Control Change (CC) messages is well implemented in Ultra Analog. A single CC number can control as many knobs as you like, and you can individually specify each knob's maximum and minimum levels. If you want, you can set the maximum lower than the minimum, which allows you to program crossfades by assigning two knobs to a single hardware wheel or slider and inverting the control response of one of the knobs. Editing MIDI modulation settings is handled graphically and is easy to manage. What's even cooler is that you can save separate sets of those MIDI Links for different projects or to use when you change controller hardware.

If you are running Ultra Analog in standalone mode, you can take advantage of its handy built-in recorder to record your keyboard performance to the hard drive. Ultra Analog's recorder will not play back existing WAV files; all it does is capture Ultra Analog's output. Most users will probably prefer to use the synth as a VST, DXi, Audio Units, or RTAS plug-in, a scenario in which the recorder module would be redundant.

Is It Ultra?

If you use a computer to make music but you crave an analog experience, Ultra Analog won't disappoint. It sounds very analog and has a wide range of voicing options, as shown by the hundreds of cool factory presets. The filters' distortion modes are especially helpful for fattening up the sound, and the ability to route the two filters in series or parallel adds even more power.

The internal modulation routings could have been made more flexible, but only at the cost of cluttering up the panel. Because the idea behind Ultra Analog was to emulate the analog experience, maybe the one-knob/one-function paradigm was the right choice. I could also quibble about the lack of an audio triangle wave, but I'm going to be too busy making music with this synth to waste a minute worrying about a few missing features. Overall, Ultra Analog is a worthy addition to the soft-synth universe.

Jim Aikin writes regularly for EM and other magazines. To learn more about his varied activities, visit him online


Ultra Analog 1.0.1

software synthesizer


PROS: Great sound. MIDI Control Change modulation is well implemented.

CONS: Could use more flexible routings for internal modulation. CPU hog. Oscillators don't generate triangle waves.

Applied Acoustics Systems