What it is: A suite of software synthesizer instruments (Amber, Strobe, and Cypher) which work as stand-alone or plug-in devices (VST, AU, RTAS). A fourth component, Fusor, provides a plug-in/stand-alone environment with mixing, routing, step sequencing, and effects for up to three Synth Squad synths—something not unlike Reason’s Combinator.
Distinguishing characteristic: Synth Squad is billed as not another me-too virtual instrument, but something with the classic sound of analog but the convenience of digital. You know, like every other soft synth out there— except this one lives up to the hype.
Up and running: Painless. Double-click to install, follow the prompts, register online.
First impressions: Stepping through the presets gets the point across that we’re not in Kansas any more. Amber totally nails the vintage string synthesizer sound, but because all DCAM synths use modeling and not sampling, there are a lot more available variations. In fact, string synthesis is just one thing Amber does; for example, it also makes some pretty cool pad and bass sounds.
Strobe is a virtual analog synth with exceptional sonic character. The presets revealed a ton of great basses and other analog sounds, and it’s also very easy to program—I called up an Init patch and had a bitchin’ bass sound being arpeggiated and sounding all electro in a matter of minutes.
As to Cypher, it’s less intuitive than the others so I was really glad I could just call up presets. You can think of it as a multi-oscillator analog FM synth (among other talents) that’s both deep and complex.
Speaking of deep, so is Fusor. However, it’s not particularly complex; although Fusor consists of lots of elements, they’re all fairly common—not unlike being faced with a huge mixing console and realizing it’s just the same basic thing repeated multiple times.
The overriding impression of the package, though, is one of sound quality. DCAM: Synth Squad really does give the character and richness of analog, with emulation that goes beyond the superficial and extends into the sonic character itself.
Going deeper: The deeper you dig, the more you find inventive little touches— like swing on the LFO, arpeggiators on Strobe and Cypher, and a beautiful “eye candy” oscilloscope on all three that shows waveforms, filter responses, envelope shapes, etc. Speaking of filter responses, there are 22 modes in Strobe, and eight in Cypher and Amber— not just lowpass and a couple variations.
The way DCAM:Synth Squad handles modulation is also cool. There are basically “tabbed views” of the interface— a Main View that shows all base parameter values, and eight views that show modulation routings for eight possible modulation sources (chosen from a much larger pool, of course). Unlike a typical modulation matrix, each modulation source can drive pretty much as many parameters as you want.
The preset selection process is also more flexible than most. You can audition sounds from a menu tree, or call up a separate preset window with search criteria and other details. You can also listen to the presets in context as you play—you don’t have to replace the existing preset.
Conclusions: Many soft synths claim to nail the analog sound, and quite a few do a highly credible job. However, I have yet to hear anything that captures the character of analog so well, not just the sound quality. In particular, Strobe’s hard sync is smooth as silk, instead of the step-quantized, aliasing-laden sync found in a lot of soft synths (and even hardware ones).
The tradeoff is CPU usage, which while not outrageous, is not conservative either. Loading up all the synths in Fusor is going to make your CPU earn its keep, but on the other hand, the sound is rich enough that you might not feel the need to load up a bunch of other stuff. And, the Fusor audio plugins will handle most of your needs without having to instantiate other plugs in your DAW. As an added bonus, all the programs run in stand-alone mode if you’re into live performance.
I hadn’t really planned on including any soft synths in this roundup, but a few hours with DCAM: Synth Squad convinced me this is something readers would want to know about. (You can’t download a trial version yet, but there are lots of audio examples on the FXpansion website.) When you combine the extensive library of presets, excellent sound, and creative coding—and get the whole thing for $249 street—it’s a hard package to resist. Not that I want to!
Price: $349 list / $249 street