Virtual String Machine beefs up the effects from its hardware predecessors. A 6- or 12-stage phaser includes speed, depth, frequency and resonance controls, while the chorus lets you choose 2-, 4-, 6- or 8-voice ensembles.
Unable to afford a Mellotron when it was first released, British keyboard player and engineer Ken Freeman is credited with inventing the polyphonic string synthesizer in the late '60s. The Freeman String Symphonizer (aka Cordovox CSS) had two oscillators per note that achieved what we now recognize as the classic “ensemble string” sound. It spawned a new genre of instrument and a decade's worth of copycats. Some 150 variations on the string synth appeared from dozens of companies; the distinctive sound of instruments such as the ARP Solina String Ensemble and Crumer Performer is heard on classic recordings by Kraftwerk, Pink Floyd, The Cure, Joy Division, Morrissey, Tangerine Dream, New Order, Air and countless others. Despite their popularity then and now (used vintage hardware units are priced absurdly high), there have been few commercial attempts at producing a virtual string synth — until now.
DARE TO COMPARE
Nearly simultaneously, G-Force has released Virtual String Machines (distributed by M-Audio) — a note-for-note sampled collection of hard-to-find string ensembles and polysynths — while Musicrow took a purely modeled approach in Vintage Strings MKII, an update release to its PC-only VSTi plug-in.
Specifically designed to closely emulate the simplistic divide-down oscillator design that Freeman borrowed from early combo-organ voice boards, Vintage Strings MKII couldn't be more rudimentary, both visually and operationally. You start with two main oscillators (Osc B plays notes one octave higher than Osc A), each with seven sawlike suboscillators that can be detuned. The Fat knob controls the detune amount. Each main oscillator also has simple modulation, volume and on/off controls, so you play a single voice or both for true “ensemble” string mode.
Located center-panel, a Mod Rate knob determines the modulation speed of both oscillators equally. Like many of the early classic string machines, the envelope section provides only Attack and Release settings, along with a timbre section using a resonant filter to adjust brightness and give the sound some edge. The brightness control has also been hardwired to the modulation wheel, but there's no Aftertouch assignment. The final stage includes a chorus section with Rate, Depth, Delay and Mix parameters, as well as a newly added Reverb fader.
Virtual String Machines (VSM) runs on Mac or PC in stand-alone mode or as an RTAS/VST/Audio Units plug-in and has an attractive interface that's actually way more flexible than its appearance implies. The entire unit is divided into two independent oscillator layers, A and B, with controls to the right. Controls light up red when layer A is selected, and green for layer B. Link mode lights up all controls in aquamarine and allows you to edit both layers together. Oddly, Link applies changes identically to both layers, forcing the target layer to snap to your edited values absolutely. I'd prefer a latch option, allowing you to alter layers relative to one another.
Whereas the old string machines typically gave you a push button for violin or viola, another for Ensemble mode and that was it, VSM lets you layer any two string synths from the past to create authentic-sounding hybrid string ensembles. More than 2.5 GB of data across 66 sample sets captures an enviable collection of 17 classic and rare instruments, including ARP Omni, Solina and Quartet; Crumar Multiman (but not Performer); Elka Rhapsody; Eminent 310; Freeman String Symphonizer; the ultrarare Russian Junost 21; Korg PE-2000; Logan String Melody; Oberheim OB-8 and Xpander; Moog Opus 3 and Polymoog; Roland RS-202; and Yamaha SK-15 and SS-30. Each set features 49 notes — individually sampled and looped — and similar to the company's successful M-Tron Mellotron model, they include vintage blemishes, as well.
You're not strictly confined to straight sample playback. A flexible subtractive synthesis engine can be applied as much or as little as you like to augment the real-life sampled timbres. Each oscillator can be tuned up or down by as much as an octave, or finely detuned, panned and adjusted in volume. Each layer contains a main pitch LFO, adjustable in speed and amount (but not shape), which can be synced to host bar counts. The resonant lowpass, highpass and bandpass filters are loosely based on the Oberheim OB-8. They purposely do not self-oscillate, which is smart, given that string machines can be quite abrasive anyway. Balancing between modern features and the original Freeman concept, GForce didn't include filter LFO as it would have taken VSM outside the realm of simplicity.
Several other thoughtful twists include the full ADSR filter and amplifier envelopes, as well as filter aftertouch and velocity controls for each layer, providing the dynamic control necessary to bring these classics up to speed with today's sound-design needs. Using the Range slider, you can divide or overlap the layers — handy for creating bass/lead splits or solo/ensemble combinations. This is also where having controls separate for each layer is handy because it allows you, for example, to take the decay off a string bass or adjust its velocity response relative to any pad you have on top.
GForce went deeper with its effects section — including chorus ensemble and phaser — than Musicrow did, so it deserves a closer look. A big improvement over the simple one-button provisions of early Eminent, Roland and Korg units, you now have the selection of 2-, 4-, 6- or 8-voice choruses with wet/dry mix and detune amount, plus a choice of 6- or 12-stage phaser modes with control over speed, depth, center frequency and resonance. The 6-stage phaser was suitable for most patches, but switching to 12-stage and slowing it down sounded a lot more ethereal and swirly; together with copious amounts of detuning, it can be numbingly beautiful. The phaser's LFO has a Sync button for locking to host. Finally, just beneath the Master volume knob, a Width button applies a few samples of delay to one of the channels just prior to output.
Hidden perhaps inappropriately beneath a dark shadow to the left of the keyboard, the all-important MIDI Learn button can open a whole world of very cool possibilities to take VSM over the top. You can apply hardware controls to parameters in each layer separately or in combination, as well as assign a single physical knob to as many functions as you want — an exhilarating live experience that took me back to playing with the Morph function on a Clavia Nord Lead 3 for the first time.
The only thing missing from VSM, which Virtual Strings MKII includes, is a modeled spring reverb, which was often employed on string synths to achieve a deeper sound above and beyond the ensemble effects.
Both of these instruments have their strong suits. Vintage Strings MKII is built lean and mean, consuming roughly 6 MB of memory and barely tickling the processor of my 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 machine. As a true synthesizer not limited to the pitch of a sample set, it spans the full MIDI note range with pleasing results at both extremes. Comparably, VSM limits you to the note pitches as they were recorded, and patches load at an average of 35 MB per layer.
Perusing through VSM's 700-plus preset library, it's quickly apparent that the sky's truly the limit for sonic choices, flexibility and potential combinations. For example, you could layer an ARP Quartet Cello with a Solina Viola, an Opus 3 string bass patch with an amazing Polymoog lead sound or an Eminent 310 with an Elka Rhapsody for a truly monster moment. You get the picture. The multimode filters, modulations and layers upon layers of drifting effects can create some of the coolest glassy strings you've ever imagined. And a VSM sample expansion pack is already in the works to include some even rarer instruments.
Vintage Strings MKII produces a largely convincing sound, perhaps better with lush warm string pads than lead sounds whose notes stand in relative isolation. For leads, I prefer the complex harmonics and authentic artifacts clearly heard in VSM. Vintage Synths MKII is downright useful, but in staying as faithful to Freeman's minimalist design, it becomes a bit of a one-trick pony. The added filters and effects help in tonal sculpting, but without the ability to pick from different oscillator models based on famous brands, the synth isn't quite as flexible as you may expect. I'd also like if the chintzy look and somewhat clunky feel of the interface were fixed. Still, the price is right for those looking to add the qualities of a vintage string synth without the modern bells and whistles.
GFORCE (DIST. BY M-AUDIO) VIRTUAL STRING MACHINE > $149.99
Pros: Highly authentic sounds with modern add-on features. 66 sample sets cover 17 classic and rare string ensembles and polysynths for a wide range of characteristic sounds. Two sample sets can be layered to create hybrid ensembles. Great real-time controller mapping.
Cons: Nothing worth holding back a purchase.
Mac: G4 or Intel/1.25 GHz; OS 10.4.x; 512 MB RAM; 5 GB hard-disk space; VST 2, RTAS or Audio Units host application
PC: Pentium 4 or AMD/1 GHz; Windows XP SP2; 512 MB RAM; 5 GB hard-disk space; VST 2, RTAS or Audio Units host application
MUSICROW VINTAGE STRINGS MKII > $39
Pros: Largely convincing string-synth sound based purely on synthesis. Very low system impact. Very affordable.
Cons: Bit of a one-trick pony. Not very flexible for a modeled synth. Chintzy graphical interface at times feels clunky. No MIDI Learn. VSTi and PC only.
PC: Pentium 4 or AMD/1.5 GHz; Windows 95/XP/Vista; 256 MB RAM; VST 2 host application
GForce Virtual String Machine Musicrow Vintage Strings MKII
Synthesis Type Sampling+synthesis Digital modeling Effects Ensemble chorus, phaser Chorus, spring reverb Envelopes Amp ADSR, filter ADSR Amp attack/release Presets 700+ 50 Platforms Mac/PC as stand-alone, Audio Units, RTAS, VST PC only as VST 2.0 Price $149 $39