FIG. 1: Cakewalk Z3ta''s Effects panel includes an amp simulator (at the bottom of the EQ module), distortion, chorusing, compression, reverb, EQ, and three delay lines.
Some people say that the filter is the most important component of a synthesizer. It's true that good-sounding filters are vital, but that thinking goes back to the early days of synthesis, when oscillators could produce only a few harsh and uninteresting waveforms. Oscillators today are far more versatile. With a few good oscillators, you can make amazing sounds and never go near a filter.
Cakewalk Z3ta+ has good filters, to say nothing of its respectable effects section, morphing LFOs, and other strong features. But the oscillators are what set this instrument apart from the rest. Waveform programming has rarely been so easy, and real-time modulation has seldom sounded so good.
Z3ta+ is now distributed in the United States exclusively by Cakewalk and requires only a serial number (provided on the CD case) for installation. No online authorization is required. The program is compatible with Windows XP/2000. It can operate as a standalone unit and as a VSTi or a DXi plug-in. In standalone mode, it is ASIO-compatible for low-latency operation.
As if to emphasize the importance of its waveform palette, Z3ta+ can use as many as six separate oscillators per patch. Six LFOs and eight envelope generators are also onboard. The dual resonant multimode filters can run in series or in parallel. There are ten filter modes, including lowpass, highpass, bandpass, notch with various slopes, and formant. The effects section (see Fig. 1) includes separate modules for distortion, chorus-flange-phase, compression, delay, reverb, and graphic EQ. It also has an excellent amp simulator from which you have 25 models to choose.
FIG. 2: The X-Y Pad outputs two control signals at once, and moves can be recorded in a host sequencer.
The modulation matrix, which allows as many as 16 routings, is powerful. One of its inputs is an X-Y Pad (see Fig. 2), which can be controlled using the mouse. Well-implemented real-time MIDI control gives you external access to some important parameters that aren't available in the modulation matrix. There's also an arpeggiator with 150 preprogrammed rhythms.
Z3ta+ ships with 768 factory patches, all of which are instantly available from a menu — there's no need to individually load 128-program banks. When Z3ta+ is instantiated as an effects plug-in, an envelope follower that tracks a sidechain input signal is also available as a modulation source.
Draft, Normal, and High audio output modes balance CPU efficiency with sound quality. A 2X Oversampling option adds a lot of presence to some patches. There's even a scratch pad WAV file recorder.
Fans of alternate tunings will be happy to learn that Z3ta+ is Scala-compatible, which means you can create your own tunings or load any of the 200 supplied tunings. (For more information about the Scala tuning-definition standard, visit www.xs4all.nl/~huygensf/scala.) The synth also features a Hermode tuning algorithm, which dynamically retunes individual notes as needed to produce more consonant chords. (See Web Clip 1 for a description and Web Clips 2 and 3 for audio examples.)
The user interface is clean and generally easy to navigate, though a few details are oddly implemented. For instance, the range sliders for the modulation matrix are sometimes blank even though a range amount has been set. The printed manual is sketchy and will probably frustrate musicians who are less familiar with the deeper aspects of synthesis.
One undocumented problem had me baffled for a while. The normal installation puts all Z3ta+ files in your preferred VST plug-ins folder and the Cakewalk folder (for DXi operation). When I first tried to create my own arpeggio patterns, they wouldn't play back because I was working in the wrong folder. My pattern appeared in Z3ta's menu even though it wasn't actually there, because the arpeggiator patterns were named arp001 through arp200, and the numbers for which there was no file in the folder weren't grayed out, as they should have been.
I spotted only one bug while using Z3ta+. When a delay effect is synced to the host's tempo, moving the mouse above either of the delay-time sliders (without clicking on the slider) causes the delay to lose sync. I'm told that that bug will be fixed in the next update.
MIDI Control Change assignments are global to all patches, and Z3ta+ lacks an easy method for storing or loading alternate sets of assignments. Because Z3ta+ has hundreds of parameters that you might want to control — far more than MIDI has Control Change parameters — that is a limitation. There are, however, two work-arounds. For live use, the MIDI assignments are stored in a separate file on the hard drive, so you can create multiple setups and tuck the one you want to use into the MIDI folder before launching Z3ta+. In the studio, automation data for all sliders, switches, and pop-up menu selections can be recorded into a host DAW by moving the Z3ta+ controls with the mouse.
If you're not feeling adventurous, you can use the Z3ta+ oscillators much the way that you would those in any other synth: choose one of the more than 50 factory waveforms, set the octave and semitone transposition, set the level, pan the output somewhere between the two filters, and you're ready to go. Any of the waveforms (except sine and noise) will also respond to pulse-width modulation. But that's just the beginning.
Each oscillator has mode and group settings. The group parameters let you listen to an oscillator in the normal way or send its output on to the next oscillator for frequency modulation, phase modulation, ring modulation, or sync. For instance, you can use the six oscillators as three carrier-modulator pairs in an FM algorithm. Using the mode settings, you can choose whether the oscillator will restart its waveform on each Note On, whether it will be set to a fixed frequency instead of tracking the keyboard, or whether it will be transformed into a group of eight detunable oscillators for truly fat sounds.
You'll find a deeper level of oscillator programming in the Shaper window. You can use the Shaper window to subject any waveform (except for sine and noise) to 14 transformations. The results are instantly visible and audible (see Web Clip 4), and 12 of the 14 transformations can be assigned to real-time MIDI control. Except in extreme cases, the results of modulation are free of glitches, artifacts, and other audio weirdness. Additionally, each oscillator can respond differently to MIDI control inputs, so the possibilities for expressive waveform shaping are endless. Waveshaping is also handy for adjusting a waveform until a patch produces exactly the overtones needed for a Z3ta+ track to sit well in a mix.
Z3ta+ can load six user waveforms into any patch. Each waveform can be as long as 64 KB — long enough for short percussive noises and single-cycle waves. The user waves always loop, but you can shut down the amplitude envelope before the loop is heard, making Z3ta+ a usable source for drum sounds. All oscillators are deployed across the entire keyboard, however, so you can't create key zones with different sounds.
Envelopes and LFOs
The eight envelope generators in Z3ta+ are not just ADSRs; they have delay, slope-time, and slope-level sliders. The attack, slope, decay, and release segments can be individually set to linear, convex, or concave curves. (The pitch envelope generator is set up differently and lacks selectable curves.) The envelopes lack sync and loop facilities, but a far more significant limitation is that individual envelope segments, such as attack time, can't be modulated from MIDI Velocity or Note Number. Segments can be controlled by MIDI Control Change messages, but the lack of Velocity control is a stumbling block for expressive keyboard playing.
Each LFO can have two waveforms and will morph from wave 1 to wave 2 at a rate controlled by a slider. Four of the LFOs are global (all voices use the same LFO) and two are local (separate for each oscillator). All of them can be synced to the host tempo and will start reliably with reference to the number of beats that have passed since the beginning of the song.
The most difficult part of Z3ta+ programming to grasp is the modulation matrix. Each of the 16 routings has settings for Source, Range, Curve, Control, and Destination, so there's a lot of power. The Control parameter, for instance, is where you assign LFO depth to the Mod Wheel, to another MIDI control source, or to an envelope generator.
The dozen Curve settings include unidirectional and bidirectional, slow and fast, and so on. The slow curves are concave, whereas the fast curves are convex. For mathematical reasons, some Curve settings will double the apparent rate of an LFO. You don't have to select a curve — the modulation will still be active without it. Overall, the interaction of the Curve, Control, and Range parameters is mystifying. For one thing, the Range sliders can be given minimum and maximum values, but when no control source is specified, changing the minimum value has no effect. Also, the outputs of the envelope generators can be inverted and scaled down in the envelope generator itself and in the modulation matrix, which makes it harder to troubleshoot a modulation that isn't doing what you envisioned it to do.
The heart of a synthesizer is its sound palette, and Z3ta+ has a rich one, thanks to its superior waveshaping, plentiful modulation sources, and capable effects. The MIDI control options, while not complete, are powerful. The support for user waves, arpeggiator patterns, and alternate tunings are welcome additions to the package. The modulation matrix needs more work and better documentation, but it's fully usable now, so that's not a reason to wait for the next release.
For leads, basses, pads, textures, and effects, especially in aggressive electronic styles, Z3ta+ is an excellent choice. The more I use it, the more I appreciate its strengths.
Jim Aikin writes regularly for EM and other music magazines and Web sites. His latest books are Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming (Backbeat Books, 2004) and A Player's Guide to Chords & Harmony (Backbeat Books, 2004).
PROS: Powerful waveshaping resources with real-time MIDI modulation. Plenty of oscillators, envelopes, and LFOs. Rich-sounding amp simulator. User waveforms and arpeggio patterns.
CONS: Envelope segments can't be modulated by MIDI Note Number or Velocity. No envelope or LFO control of waveshape. Documentation is marginal. No CPU meter. No undo feature.
EASE OF USE