REFX Vanguard 1.04 (Mac/Win)

Vanguard ($89.99) is the latest creation from reFX software-instrument wizard Michael Kleps, author of the classic plug-ins Slayer2, Beast, PlastiCZ,
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Vanguard''s control panel keeps everything up front. Only the LFOs share the same controls.

Vanguard ($89.99) is the latest creation from reFX software-instrument wizard Michael Kleps, author of the classic plug-ins Slayer2, Beast, PlastiCZ, and quadraSID. Although Vanguard is a synth plug-in that emulates vintage analog synthesizers, its complement of filter types and oscillator waveforms extends beyond traditional designs. Vanguard ships with three factory preset banks (384 presets) that illustrate a broad cross-section of its capabilities, and it is easy to go beyond those because programming Vanguard is a snap.

Vanguard is a VST instrument for Windows, Mac OS 9, and Mac OS X. In addition, it is reFX's first Audio Units (AU) plug-in for Mac OS X. You can download a time-limited demo from the the company's Web site.

Path of Least Resistance

Vanguard's signal path starts with three oscillators, which can be relatively tuned in semitones and detuned with a Fat control. Unlike vintage gear, Vanguard offers 31 waveforms ranging from sine, sawtooth, and pulse to a variety of digital waveforms that have several flavors of noise.

Modulation options are available for several waveforms. The PWM (pulse-width modulation) settings of the LFOs and envelope generators control modulation depth, even when pulse width isn't the parameter being modulated. Examples include morphing between sawtooth and triangle waveforms, applying frequency and amplitude modulation to a sine waveform, and randomizing the pitch of a sine waveform (called R2D2).

The oscillators are followed by a filter section featuring 13 different filter types. Lowpass, bandpass, highpass, and notch are available with varying roll-offs. The filter complement is rounded out with a formant filter and several combination filters: dual bandpass, notch with lowpass, and bandpass with waveshaping. All filters are resonant and have separate controls for key and velocity tracking. There's nothing startling here, but plenty to add shape and contour to Vanguard's ample selection of waveforms.

The signal path ends with feedback-delay and reverb effects you can turn off to save CPU cycles. An output amplifier offers guitar-overdrive emulation and a Spread knob, which determines how far notes alternate between the right and left stereo channels, ping-pong style. The delay effect has four modes: Mono, Stereo, Cross (ping-pong), and Widen. Widen, which delays the left channel relative to the right for a fattening effect, is particularly useful. All delay times are set in tempo-synced note divisions, except in Widen mode, in which the delay time is set in milliseconds.

Vanguard has three triangle-wave LFOs and two ADSR envelope generators. Each LFO targets the pitch and modulation of its like-numbered oscillator. Interestingly, each LFO can also target filter cutoff, creating complex modulation patterns when different LFO speeds are combined. Nonetheless, it's a bit confining to be limited to a single LFO waveform with only the oscillators and filter cutoff as destinations. Both envelope generators can control filter cutoff and pulse width, again offering interesting complex patterns. The first envelope can also modulate level and detuning, whereas the second can modulate resonance and pitch. A third multistage envelope generator would be a nice addition, especially in a typical analog-style setup, in which one envelope is used for level and the other for filter cutoff.

Vanguard's two other modulators, Trancegate and Arp, more than make up for its LFO and envelope shortcomings. Transgate is a 16-step gate effect with controls for mixing the gated and ungated signal and for controlling the gate's attack and decay times. The gate step size is set in note divisions, and turning on adjacent steps results in longer gates — very handy when you're using Trancegate with the arpeggiator. The arpeggiator (Arp) offers the standard modes: up, down, alternating, original order, and random. Speed and note duration are set in note divisions, and the arpeggio can be extended to four octaves. Using Arp and Trancegate together with greater arpeggio speed than gate step size can produce extended pitch and rhythm sequences (see Web Clip 1).

In Simple Terms

Vanguard's charm is that it does what it does — producing classic synth sounds — very well and very simply. The oscillators and filters sound great, and you can begin building your own sounds or tweaking the generous collection of factory presets in minutes. The control panel is clearly laid out; the three LFOs share Speed, Detune, PWM, and Cutoff knobs, but otherwise, all the controls are always accessible. The effects add icing to the cake, and Vanguard is CPU efficient. If you are looking for a vintage synth emulation, the price is right, and Vanguard is definitely worth checking out.

Overall EM Rating (1 through 5): 4