UFO''s vector-modulation scheme displays color-coded line segments for each automation vector. Segments are created and edited by clicking-and-dragging.
One look at its control panel will tell you that UFO 1.0 ($139) is no ordinary synth. Its overlapping brushed-metal modules, lightning-bolt signal-path animation, and array of x-y controllers scream outer space. UFO stands for Unique Filters and Oscillators, and its creator, Patrick Bastien, calls the algorithms used in his oscillators and filters TransModal Synthesis. You can purchase UFO as well as download its full-featured, shareware little brother, UFO Light, from the Audeon Web site (www.audeon.fr).
UFO is a VSTi plug-in for Windows, and a Mac version is due out by the time you read this. Its four identical synthesis engines, called tracks, can be layered on the same MIDI channel or spread across separate channels for multitimbral operation. On my 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 laptop using Ableton Live 5 as host, running all four tracks with complex polyphonic presets consumed roughly 35 percent of the CPU, which is efficient by any standard.
Sum of the Parts
UFO has a fairly straightforward, subtractive-synthesis signal path consisting of a pair of oscillators followed by a pair of multimode filters followed in turn by a pair of formant filters. The output section contains two basic multi-effects in series: delay, chorus, or flange followed by delay or reverb. What makes UFO different is the unusual design and control structure of those modules.
The oscillators have two modes, called K and V. The K mode has two x-y-controller windows for selecting what is loosely called its waveform. The left window sets the amount of chaos in the waveform (vertical axis) and its brightness (horizontal axis). The right window controls the ratio of odd to even harmonics (horizontal axis) and periodicity versus noise (vertical axis). A slider sets the duration of an attack transient before the waveform settles into its steady state. At the chaotic and bright end of the spectrum, these oscillators are capable of some really edgy sounds.
The V mode has one x-y controller for mixing sawtooth, square, and two narrow-pulse waveforms. Either oscillator can be ring-modulated by the other.
The multimode filters are continuously variable from lowpass to highpass and offer 12 and 24 dB-per-octave slopes. An x-y controller sets cutoff frequency and resonance, and an input slider controls the mix of the two oscillators at the filter's input. A mix of the multimode filter outputs feeds the formant filters, which have yet another x-y controller for managing the formant frequency and boost or cut.
All of UFO's sliders and x-y controllers may be assigned to MIDI continuous controllers using a typical MIDI Learn scheme, but UFO goes one better by offering a robust built-in vectoring scheme that allows a single LFO, envelope, or MIDI message to simultaneously control multiple parameters. Vectoring sources include two LFOs, two ADSR envelope generators, and MIDI Velocity, Note Number, Aftertouch, and Mod Wheel.
Vectoring for each source is set up onscreen, and after setup the vectors can be hidden to reduce screen clutter. When vectoring is visible for a particular source, a small, color-coded cross appears on every eligible target control. Clicking-and-dragging the cross allows you to draw a directional line segment representing the change effected by the full range of the modulation source.
From the Factory
The 127 factory presets amply illustrate UFO's vector morphing, especially using the MIDI Mod Wheel as the source. Conveniently, such presets have a pound sign in their name. Presets load into individual UFO tracks, making it easy to mix and match sounds in multilayered or multitimbral setups. Unfortunately, there is no provision for saving multitrack setups other than as part of the host song.
UFO's presets are divided among six categories: leads, organic, bass, pad, motion, and SFX. Many of the pad, motion, and SFX presets evolve slowly over time and are excellent for creating long layered ambiences (see Web Clip 1). The leads and basses are standard fare and not my favorites. The organic presets are surprisingly natural sounding, especially the voice-based Gregorian and Airy Choir, the Theremins, and the world percussion instruments. The preset collection is not extensive, but it's a good starter set and nicely shows off UFO's capabilities.
As unusual as it is, UFO is surprisingly easy to grasp and to program. The manual is well written and has a getting-started section that will have you creating and modifying presets in minutes. But the bottom line is the sound, and UFO definitely delivers.
Value (1 through 5): 4