Buyers Guide: Hybrid Software Synthesizers

Seven unique synthesized instruments
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Seven unique instruments that provide exciting new timbres

ONCE UPON a time, the division between synthesis techniques within a single instrument was much more clear than it is now. For example, your instrument featured either real analog, modeled analog, wavetable synthesis, additive synthesis, FM, or sample playback. Of course it was inevitable that features from one instrument type would creep into the design of another, but the hybridization accelerated with the arrival of software instruments and computers powerful enough to run them. In this article we look at seven instruments that offer a variety of synthesis methods under one roof.

Humanoid Sound Systems
Enzyme
$49.95

humanoidsoundsystems.com

Humanoid Sound Systems Enzyme Enzyme stands in stark relief to most of the instruments covered here. Judging from the presets, Enzyme’s sounds can be rude, distorted, and biting, often teetering on the edge of chaos—the party crasher in a room of polite sounds. However, Enzyme is also capable of creating sounds of great beauty and subtlety.

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Fundamentally, the synth combines principles of physical modeling with wavetable and FM synthesis. The Enzyme manual doesn’t go out of its way to explain its terminology, but anyone familiar with acoustic principles will find some familiarity with these terms and get an idea of how the synth works.

Enzyme’s synthesis engine may seem a bit abstract, but in essence it works by re-creating the way sound waves are propagated in an acoustic instrument. An exciter (Humanoid calls this the Hammer) generates an impulse that interacts with Springs, much in the way a guitar (for instance) vibrates. Enzyme uses samples to generate shapes of the Hammer, the Springs, and the Nodes. The samples are scanned (you set the scanning positions and frequencies), providing continuous timbral motion. Moreover, you can import your own samples, which considerably expands Enzyme’s versatility.

There’s plenty more in the way of sound-shaping features, including the Connection Matrix—sets of algorithms that determine how the springs connect with nodes and interact with each other. Drum, Random, Circle, Circle1Way, and Bubbles are a few of the algorithms.

The Warp knob can change the connections on the fly in indeterminate, but audible ways. You can modulate practically anything—in fact, any parameter can be modulated many times over (with the caveat that Enzyme can get cycle-hungry). Add FM to the picture along with the ability to choose from several waveforms as modulators, and you can add as much grit as you need.

By and large, Enzyme’s patches seem to cater to EDM and more rough-hewn tones, but the ability to load samples motivated me to invade my Absynth and old Cakewalk Dimension Pro folders, resulting in beautiful and delicate results. Using loops from a construction kit produced rhythmic, vocoder-like effects.

Enzyme’s factory patches and the add-on Activator library make great starting points for developing your own sounds. And despite the manual having some shortfalls, it wasn’t difficult to get stunning results simply by experimenting.

Best Service
Galaxy X
$335
bestservice.de

Best Service Galaxy X Uli Baronowsky produced The Giant for Native Instruments Kontakt, an upright piano whose soundboard was roughly twice the size of a 9-foot concert grand piano and built into a wall. Baronowsky then upped the ante considerably by adding an entire bank of sounds convolved with a library of impulse responses (IR) ranging from piano resonance to industrial sounds, orchestral tune-ups, and reversed sounds. Galaxy X takes the concept and runs with it in ways that are by turns glorious and inspiring, creepy and unnerving, and sometimes just downright unearthly in the best possible ways.

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Best Service’s Engine, a very well-endowed sample playback synth, hosts Galaxy X and bestows a great deal of programmability, including the ability to load your own samples. The hefty supply of IR samples softens the blow that you can’t add your own or third-party IR libraries.

The Galaxy sample library is roughly 17 GB and comprises three main folders: FX, Keys, and Loops. Don’t let the broad categories fool you: You’ll find plenty of intermingled instrument types in all folders including bells, pads, conventional keyboard sounds, wind instruments, choirs, and lots more. These are separate from a vast library of impulse responses, which includes folders of filter sweeps; analog effects, such as the Roland Space Echo; tape recorders; animal sounds, including bees, cows, and cats; acoustical resonances; reversed sounds; voices—the list goes on.

A ton of programming power is available from the Quick Edit page. Here, you can assign samples to each of the three sources and alter sounds with distortion, bit reduction, compression, and a flexible arpeggiator before convolution.

The convolution, or X section, hosts a drop-down menu of IRs and proffers plenty of control, including amount, tuning, size, reverse, and sync. Once you have done that, you can add convolution reverb, filters, and ornate panning schemes—and that’s before you’ve encountered the Pro Edit page, where you can access multistage envelope generators, EQ, more convolution reverb, step-modulators, and plenty of creative presets to try out for each. A serious sound designer could easily get lost in space with Galaxy X.

Native Instruments
Reaktor Prism
$69
native-instruments.com

Native Instruments Reaktor Prism We’ve seen plenty of modeling techniques at work, whether it’s for electric pianos, guitars, percussion, or analog-style synthesizers. Less common is the soft synth that provides the tools to go far afield of specific instrument types.

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Stefan Schmitt’s Reaktor Prism is a Native Instruments Reaktor Ensemble (for Reaktor 5.5 or the free Reaktor 5 Player) based on Modal Synthesis, which basically simulates an exciter (such as a pick, bow, or mallet) generating acoustic energy, which is shaped by a number of tightly tuned bandpass filters. In a manner similar to additive synthesis, the filters generate tuned sine waves, which, together, result in a complex array of partials that emulate the vibrational modes of different instrument body types.

Because the interface doesn’t conform to the typical subtractive oscillator/filter/amplifier conventions or the additive harmonics-and-envelopes formats, familiarizing yourself with its signal flow can be a challenge, but Reaktor Prism lays it out in an elegant and user-friendly way.

Reaktor Prism gives you a multistage envelope for the exciter and another for modulation. Each envelope stage is represented by a fader. Adjacent to each envelope is an animated graphic readout, along with sliders for scaling such things as velocity response, the overall envelope, and the attack response (time and level).

I edited the Singing Stones patch to test the waters. Changing the attack on the Exciter Envelope not only affected the amplitude but changed the overall timbre of the attack, producing a sweet, breathy, flute-like sound with some unusually interesting overtones (reference Audio Clip 1 on emusician.com). Altering the Modulation envelope produced a rhythmic wah-wah effect.

A quick survey of Reaktor Prism’s patches reveal that unlike some of the additive-based instruments in this roundup, a good number of them maintain pronounced, sample-like acoustic characteristics—plucks, scrapes, and strikes—with realistic transients, but without using any samples whatsoever.

There are plenty of sounds in the collection that are emulative in some aspect, but they’re otherwise sparked with moving, sometimes jangly overtones. The guitar-like patches in the Plucked category are good examples: Jazz guitar has elements of a Wurlitzer electric piano; Djangle sounds a bit like a nylon string guitar played with a rotary brush; and Chinese Zither has a metallic attack followed by a quick but emphatic pitch swoop. Reaktor Prism’s pads are not to be missed and I’ll wager you have probably not heard the likes of at least one or two them before.

Linplug
Spectral Synthesizer
$159
linplug.com

Linplug Spectral Synthesizer Combine the seemingly opposite poles of additive and subtractive synthesis, and include waveshaping and extensive cross-modulation (including amplitude, frequency, and phase modulation), and you have the vast palette of sound-design tools found in Spectral Synthesizer. This is readily apparent even from a random sampling of the instrument’s preset library.

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Spectral Synthesizer presents up to four oscillators, each with a pane that illustrates its waveform, as well as a window that shows the levels of its partials. You can zoom in and adjust partial levels individually, or click and drag to reshape the entire waveform; the waveform pane reflects your changes as you make them. Once you’ve built your basic waveform, adjust the symmetry to taste: The oscillator’s waveform graphic follows your tweaks.

Before you even get to the filter, you’ll find plenty of familiar sound-shaping tools, including unison detune, as well as amplitude, frequency, and phase modulation. Cross-modulation destinations include any of the other oscillators and any of the filters.

Each oscillator has its own filter. Click on the filter graphic, and as with the oscillators, you can draw the filter’s frequency response or load a saved shape. You can adjust the cutoff frequency and resonance parameters, as well as superimpose an additional 3-pole, 18dB/octave filter.

ADSR envelopes for each oscillator’s amplitude and filters flank the modulation matrix window. The modulation matrix is extensive, clearly illustrating destinations and sources, which you address from a pull-down menu for each.

On top of that, Spectral Synthesizer includes a flexible arpeggiator and generous effects routing options, with 16 multi-effects slots, each accepting up to seven effects. As you might expect, all of this processing can devour CPU cycles. But looking at most patches, you’ll conclude that you’re provided a surfeit of features; many of the best sounds use only a couple of oscillators.

The overall sound quality of the presets is strong: I often compare additive synths to my beloved Kawai K5000, and there is some sonic overlap here (Clip 2). However, Spectral Synthesizer’s sonic palette is considerably more evolved, as are the options for bringing the timbres to life with controllers (Clip 3).

Spectral Synthesizer’s strong suits are its sparkling, animated pads and expressive lead sounds, although every category presents sonic surprises. Add a logical and friendly user interface, and you could easily disappear for days cooking up new sounds.

Propellerhead
Parsec
$119
propellerheads.se

Propellerhead Parsec Propellerhead’s most recent synth, Parsec, comes in the form of a Reason rack extension. As with Spectral Synthesizer, Parsec’s prime tone-generating engine relies on additive synthesis, although it deploys other familiar synthesis techniques in the voicing process.

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Parsec starts with two Sound Engines (think “oscillators”). Rather than edit the level and envelope of each of the partials (each engine can produce up to 512 partials), a pair of preset modifiers are provided from pull-down menus to define each engine. You can turn the second engine off, if you choose; Parsec has a few nice analog bass emulations using only one engine.

You get a pair of context-sensitive controls based on your choice of modifiers. For example, a PWM modifier logically configures the first knob to set the pulse width, while the second controls the depth of the pulse-width modulation. Choosing Voice produces a knob for sweeping the formant and another for choosing a starting position for the formant (Clip 4). You can even choose Audio In, which will analyze incoming audio to create vocoder effects: Here, the first knob shifts the formant of the signal and the second sets the lag time before vocoding kicks in.

Just below each Sound Engine are Generators, which select the base harmonic content. The single knob changes contextually, although, in essence, it stretches intervals between harmonics to create new spectra.

Parsec also provides presets for simple FM synthesis, where the knob adjusts the FM amount (the frequency ratio is fixed at 1:1); Dual Sawtooth, where the control handles detuning functions; and Sparse Inharmonic, with a Ratio knob to adjust the range between inharmonicity and harmonicity an octave above the fundamental frequency. As you’d expect, different Sound Engines and Generators interact in different ways, producing a vast variety of sounds.

It’s worth noting that Parsec successfully blends its additive synthesis with more familiar subtractive schemes. Rounding out its synthesis tools are a resonant lowpass filter with an adjustable slope up to 100 dB-per-octave, global and individual envelopes, a pair of syncable LFOs, and a rich modulation matrix. All are clearly visible in the center with sources, destinations, and scaling.

The presets provided by Propellerhead are a varied and interesting lot, running the gamut from simple meat-and-potatoes synths to sparkly, animated sounds. It’s hard to go wrong when creating completely new sounds by experimenting with Parsec’s functions and parameters. However, the manual is well-organized, lucid and detailed.

Parsec is truly a blast to play, and it adds wonderful timbral variety to Propellerhead’s already formidable lineup of synths.

Rob Papen
Blue II
$179; upgrade from Blue $49
robpapen.com

Rob Papen Blue II Maybe the first impression you’ll have of Rob Papen Blue II is lushness. Using a range of techniques, it’s capable of creating thick pads with evolving harmonic content, from familiar analog emulations to snarky, comb-filtered digital leads, while providing unusually expressive modulation capabilities. Much of this is due to a complement of no less than six oscillators. But there’s much more at play here.

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Rob Papen refers to the instrument as a cross-fusion synthesizer, and it’s easy to see why. Blue II combines subtractive synthesis, sample playback, FM, phase distortion, waveshaping, and ring modulation, all with the ability to modulate each other in different ways.

A glance through the huge number of preset banks is evidence of the breadth of sound-design possibilities inherent in Blue II: There are 18 banks of ready-to-play patches, not including the bank of tutorial examples that provides examples of the various synthesis engines and how they interact. The last bank is a single, initialized patch for programming sounds from scratch.

Although you can create huge, layered sounds just by resorting to Blue II’s subtractive synthesis engine, the instrument’s six-oscillator configuration should ring familiar bells (wordplay intended) with anyone familiar with the ubiquitous FM synth, the Yamaha DX7. A glance at the tabs at the synth’s bottom window reveals the Alg tab. Sure enough, clicking on it reveals the oscillators configured as an algorithm, with an arrow that lets you scroll through a choice of 32 FM configurations.

However, it’s not an exact replica of the DX7. For one, none of the oscillators have a feedback loop. Nonetheless, the resulting tones sound remarkably similar to the old digital beast. One hugely important difference is that you have a tremendous number of different waveforms for each oscillator, as opposed to the DX7’s restriction to sine waves. Additionally, each oscillator can be subject to phase distortion, shaped by symmetry and phase modulation, and subtractive synthesis, among other powerful programming options. And that’s before considering the synth’s tremendous modulation matrix and its generous supply of effects.

The Blue II manual is comprehensive and well-written. It even references patch examples to illustrate the instrument’s features.

Rob Papen Blue II is a winner all around, supporting a marvelous synergy of synthesis techniques with excellent programming capabilities and the documentation to help you figure it out.

Applied Acoustics Systems
String Studio VS-2
$199
applied-acoustics.com

Applied Acoustics Systems String Studio VS-2 The fundamental process behind String Studio VS-2 is the modeling of the way strings vibrate when they are excited by some kind of performance technique, be it plucked, picked, bowed, or hammered. From there, you can recombine the rest of the stringed-instrument characteristics, which easily moves String Studio VS-2 into the hybrid category.

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The screen real estate in the update appears to be more compact than in the original String Studio, but the GUI redesign is brilliantly laid out and is far easier to navigate. String Studio VS-2 has three main pages: Play, Edit, and Effects. Play is self-explanatory, laying out parameters related to performance, such as tap tempo for clock-driven events, unison and glide, mono mode, and arpeggiator parameters. A step sequencer is arrayed across the bottom panel. Just above the page buttons is a panel where you can make quick tweaks to the effects section.

The Edit button reveals the engine that makes String Studio VS-2 tick, and the GUI intuitively sets up the controls in a way any student of stringed instruments will understand. For instance, the first screen’s buttons access Exciter and Geometry. The Exciter models the gadget that transfers energy to the string—in this case Bow, Pick, or Hammer. (There are two variations of Hammer.) As any stringed-instrument player will tell you, the thickness of the pick, the density of a bow, or the material of a hammer will have a profound effect on the tone and the ease of playing. Here you can alter relevant parameters for the exciter you choose. For example, Plectrum will offer knobs to adjust stiffness, how far the pick protrudes, and other picking behaviors, whereas selecting the Bow exciter will present force and friction.

The Geometry button governs position, among other aspects. Using an assignable Control Change (CC), you can modulate the position at which the instrument is picked or bowed, which is a tremendously expressive feature (Clip 5). You can also add a pickup and edit its position for any of the exciter types.

But where String Studio VS-2 gets really interesting—and where it qualifies with honors as a hybrid instrument—is the Body menu. In conjunction with the Exciter page, you can pick a body from a list of pianos, violins, guitars, or drums, and adjust the size of the body from tiny to huge and play them with bows, picks, or hammers. In the realm of more familiar, conventional synth territory, String Studio VS-2 adds a subtractive-synthesis panel replete with a resonant multimode filter, a syncable LFO, and a global ADSR envelope generator.

The sounds are impressive and unusual, mingling a strong assortment of stringed instrument emulations with wildly surrealistic keyboards, pads, and ambient effects imbued with familiar acoustic overtones. The manual is well-written, providing plenty of information about acoustics and string behavior as it explains the workings of the synth. String Studio VS-2 is a delight to play and program.

Marty Cutler has performed with a range of artists, including Tex Logan, Peter Rowan, and Twyla Tharp, and has designed sounds for Silicon Graphics and Korg.