Ever since the release of the first Virus in 1997, German synth manufacturer Access Music has been an industry leader in virtual analog synthesis. Not content to reproduce the sounds of yesteryear, Access has been busy raising expectations for modern-day synths. The newest Access instruments, the TI (Total Integration) series, have moved well beyond their roots, with modern features such as a grain-table oscillator and the Atomizer real-time audio processor.
The TI series pioneers a new level of software-hardware integration with Virus Control technology, which lets you use the synth as a plug-in within your sequencer while retaining the features of an independent piece of hardware. The latest addition to this series is the Virus TI Snow, a portable unit with the complete sound engine of its older siblings.
The Snow may well become a favorite synth of laptop performers and mobile producers (see Web Clips 1, 2, 3 and 4). Its lower price is going to grab the attention of anyone who hasn't previously been able to afford a Virus, and it even comes with a carrying case. So does the diminutive Snow live up to its potential?
Working the Hardware
FIG. 1: The Virus TI Snow''s compact configuration of knobs and buttons provides quick access to programs and their essential parameters.
This synth is a small 11 × 2 × 6-inch desktop unit with a solid feel (see Fig. 1). It has six knobs and 21 buttons, sports the same wintry white-and-gray look as the 37-key Virus TI Polar, and has the same black-and-white LCD. Of the six knobs, one is the master volume and two are hardwired to filter parameters. You configure the remaining three (called Soft Knobs) to control any parameter.
The Snow is surprisingly easy to edit given its small number of physical controls. Presets are organized in eight banks, which you access with two button presses. Once a bank is selected, you can call up any of its 64 patches by typing in the patch number using the two rows of numbered buttons. Anyone using the unit in a live setting will appreciate being able to directly jump to patches this way.
Once a patch is selected, you use the Soft Knobs for basic sound tweaking. In the factory presets, you'll find them doing anything from adding effects to mangling multiple complex parameters. The two knobs to the right of the three Soft Knobs always control the frequency and resonance of Filter 1. When you hold the Shift button, these five knobs control part parameters: volume, transposition, panning, filter envelope, and amplitude envelope.
I found it aggravating that twisting the knobs brought up a window displaying the parameter name and value. The window obscures all other information on the screen, including the labels of the Soft Knobs. A quick trip to the Config menu lets you turn this feature off, but I think the ideal solution would be to display a smaller window that leaves more of the screen visible.
The Snow doubles as an audio and MIDI interface featuring 2-in/2-out, 24-bit audio. Using the Virus instead of an additional sound card makes your portable setup significantly more powerful without adding much weight. Unfortunately, that setup is not suitable for DJ-style cueing because the Snow lacks a second pair of stereo outs.
Under the Hood
You can access any of the Snow's 12 edit menus with two button presses, and the parameter editing setup makes the most of the three Soft Knobs. By default, the edit menus present you with the three parameters deemed most important for the patch you're editing, each mapped to one of the Soft Knobs. For example, if the patch uses the Classic oscillator type, you'll see Shape and Wave Select in the oscillator edit menu, whereas if you're using a wavetable oscillator, the same knobs will control Index and Interpolation.
FIG. 2: The Virus Control plug-in is an essential tool for anyone wanting to do serious sound design on the Snow.
If you prefer to do more-detailed editing, all parameters are available at the touch of a button, or you can make expert editing the default mode. However, for serious synth programmers, the Virus Control plug-in is the best way to get inside this machine (see Fig. 2).
If you're already familiar with the Virus synthesis architecture, you'll feel right at home programming sounds on the Snow (see the online bonus material at emusician.com). The only difference between it and the other TI models is that it uses a single DSP chip instead of two, which translates into lower polyphony (a maximum of 50 voices) and 4-part multitimbral capability instead of the other models' 90 voices and 16 parts.
Fortunately, the sound engine uses processing power dynamically, reducing polyphony as the complexity of the patch increases. Therefore, it's important to identify the more resource-intensive aspects of the sound engine. The Quick Start guide is full of useful information on optimizing your patches, and I advise new users to take some time with it.
FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 QUALITY OF SOUNDS 1 2 3 4 5VALUE 1 2 3 4 5 Access Music
The Snow runs the latest Virus TI software, version 2.7.0, which was still in beta as of this writing. Its new features are the Atomizer real-time loop processor, an additional stereo USB output (bringing the total to three), support for multiple Viruses connected to the same computer, and the Virus Control Center application.
FIG. 3: Virus Control Center lets you burn sound banks into the Snow''s ROM. It can also perform backups and update firmware.
Virus Control Center is a standalone utility you use to back up and restore the contents of the Snow's memory (see Fig. 3). You also use it to burn patches into the ROM banks, which, until now, could not be overwritten. At first I was unable to get Virus Control Center to communicate with the unit, but a restart of both the computer and the Snow did the trick.
The Virus Control plug-in is a pleasure to use. It has a well-designed interface that makes programming clear cut and much simpler than some soft synth interfaces I've seen. You can really forget that you're working with a hardware synth and operate as if it were a soft synth, but with a huge savings of CPU power.
Atomizer is a welcome and unexpected new feature. It works in parallel with the synthesis engine, and its focus is processing audio rather than producing it. When Atomizer is enabled, the Snow passes incoming audio directly through to the outputs, using its Beat Scanner to determine the tempo of the incoming material. (You can also tap in the tempo.)
Incoming MIDI notes determine Atomizer's action. Notes E1 to B1 (MIDI Note Numbers 40 to 47) sample and loop the incoming audio at different rates, D1 reverses the sample, and C#1 and D#1 gate and filter the incoming audio as controlled by the MIDI Modulation Wheel. Notes C2 and above produce high-speed loops tuned to the note's pitch. In an interesting twist, the Snow's effects processor is engaged only when a loop is triggered. So you could be playing a flanged and bit-reduced 16th-note loop, then with a single keystroke return to the unaffected audio. When Atomizer is active, you can use the bank select buttons to trigger the loops and gates, so you can use Atomizer without an external keyboard.
If you're an experienced synthesist, you're probably already familiar with the sounds the Snow can make. From classic and huge to weird and futuristic, there's something here to satisfy most sonic tastes. Even with its convenient front-panel controls, the Snow is not going to be the most appealing synth for those who want row after row of knobs. But for users who make the majority of their music on their laptops, the Snow is an incredibly attractive package. I see it joining my UAD-Xpander in making my two-year-old MacBook a production powerhouse.
Jon Margulies is a producer, guitarist, and DJ in New York who has been performing professionally since he was 11 years old. You can catch up with Jon and his many projects atheatercore.net.
hardware synthesizer $1,550 (MSRP)
PROS: Extreme portability. Great sounds. Virus Control plug-in. ROM banks can be overwritten. Doubles as audio interface.
CONS: A few bugs in the software. A little pricey.
EM review of the Access Virus TI Desktop synthesizer by Geary Yelton