Review: Spectrasonics Omnisphere

ONE ORBIT IS NOT ENOUGH FOR THIS NEW PERFORMANCE MEGA-SYNTH
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No other product at last January's NAMM Show generated more buzz than the preview Spectrasonics Omnisphere, which many observers touted as nothing short of an epic achievement. Omnisphere's new Steam synth engine will be the basis of future Spectrasonics instruments, just as S.A.G.E. currently drives its groove-based products. The core software is flexible, allowing patches to be shared across hosts and computer platforms, and open to accepting future expansion packs. All Spectrasonics instruments based on S.A.G.E. and Steam technologies can fully interact with one another in musically useful and creative ways.

Perhaps most crucially to the future of Spectrasonics, Steam completes the transition from earlier virtual instruments based on the UVI Engine licensed from UltimateSoundBank. Spectrasonics now has the hands-on control needed to add features and respond quickly to industry-wide changes, such as the recent move to 64-bit computing, and major computer OS changes.

ENGINE TUNE-UP

You can think of Omnisphere as a “themed” instrument; its exact theme can be hard to pin-point, though it picks up nicely from where the now-discontinued Atmosphere left off. (There's an attractive upgrade for all Atmosphere customers at Spectrasonics' online Tech Shop, http://techshop.spectrasonics.net.)

Atmosphere always felt like a collection of great-sounding samples whose programmability was held back by a basic ROMpler engine, but Omnisphere is first and foremost an extremely flexible synthesizer. It combines synth- and sample-based variable DSP oscillators with several forms of digital and modeled analog synthesis — all of which can be applied simultaneously.

Omnisphere's core library is 10-times the size of Atmosphere's, and features more than 2,700 exciting new multisamples (“sound sources” in Spectra-speak), including unique psychoacoustic and morphed sounds you have to hear to believe. These sound sources can become infinitely more complex and animated than Atmosphere or any other soft-synth I know. The 8-part multitimbral Omnisphere has a robust mixer section, integrated aux and mastering effects, and several unprecedented performance control options.

The brilliant new Live mode lets you switch between up to eight patches instantly, without cutting off their sound. This is great for becoming your own conductor and performing elaborate cues or evolving multi-instrumental soundtracks live from a single controller. You can move through them with a mouse, assigning them to keys on your keyboard, sending program changes or by using MIDI Learn with a MIDI controller.

Similarly, Stack mode lets you layer or split multi-parts, assign them to specific velocity ranges and sweep between them using MIDI messages — all from a single MIDI channel. Crossfade options let you soften the transitions.

IGNITION

After installing six jammed-full DVDs, I grabbed the update to 1.02d online, which included a handful of small software fixes and several new features, patches and sound sources. There are also hours of terrific video tutorials posted at the Spectrasonics site, available free to registered users. The core sound source library tops at 42 GB, which can reside on any one of your system's hard drives, partitions, or a fast USB or FireWire external drive. Comparably slower Ethernet drives are not recommended because Steam uses high-resolution streaming sample playback for fast patch-loading and RAM conservation.

LIFT-OFF

At its deepest, Omnisphere is nearly as complex as a host sequencer, with 15 pages to explore and thousands of possible settings. Thankfully, the interface is well-thought-out and kept rather simple on the surface, making it accessible to any user. In sections with more parameters, a magnifying glass icon opens a pop-up window with further graphic options. Even the browser is context-sensitive; you can search by author, complexity, gender, genre, pattern, timbre and type categories.

Omnisphere patches have two layers — A and B — each having up to five oscillators per layer. These can be purely sample-based or synth-based. Sound sources range from simple raw “cycled” and wavetable-style waveforms, to fuller psychoacoustic samples and textures that use the company's proprietary Composite Morphing Technique (CMT), morphing the harmonic characteristics of one instrument to another.

You also get slightly more meat-and-potatoes-type fare, including acoustic and electric guitars, vintage keyboards and analog synths, and an assortment of Spectrasonics' award-winning sample libraries. The only area Omni doesn't cover is drum sounds.

The Synth mode oscillators — SawSquare Fat, SawSquare Bright, Triangle, Sine and Noise — are not modeled on any particular hardware, but instead have great individual character. The Steam engine goes way beyond traditional synths by including further sets of dedicated “hidden” oscillators under each of four sub-pages. The FM sub-page, for example, provides a single hidden oscillator that serves as your modulator; it can be set to sine, triangle, saw and noise. Same goes for the Ring Modulation page, which is polyphonic, meaning that you can achieve more useful results than typical ring mods because the pitch isn't fixed. The Wave-Shaping page comes with four different algorithms, which vary from small distortion to überchaos.

The Voice Multiplier page has three distinct operating modes, each working under the same basic principle of multiplying the number of main oscillator voices to achieve different types of sonic enrichment. Polyphonic Unison mode can put up to eight additional voices out of phase with each other, from slightly shifted to full 180-degrees, with a modulatable Detune parameter that can be finely or coarsely set ±2 octaves and spread across the stereo field. Harmonia mode adds four additional oscillators to the layer that you can pitch to create harmonies, blending each harmonic part's volume, pan and detune settings. When a main oscillator is set to Synth mode, each Harmonia voice can have its own waveshape — essentially creating five unique and independent oscillators per layer. Finally, the Granular multiplier provides a method of fragmenting sound into very small pieces, with control over pitch, duration, amplitude, envelopes and position in stereo field — all for creating wildly overlapping tonal soundscapes. Up to eight voices of granularity are available per layer — powerful stuff.

Because each of these synthesis modes can be toggled simultaneously in any combination, it's possible for a single patch to have as many as 24 oscillators. And Omnisphere gives you the opportunity to change the timbre of a sound source with Timbre Crush, which bit-crushes the sound and highpass or lowpass filter; or Timbre Shift, which transposes the mapping of the samples in one direction and changes the pitch in the opposite.

Omnisphere offers two multimode stereo filters per layer, routable in series or parallel. You get 17 filter types, including 10 lowpass filters, two highpass filters, a bandpass, notch, all-pass and two complex stereo comb filters that produce flangerlike metallic overtones. Together with dedicated amp and filter envelopes, you also get four freely assignable mod envelopes. On the Edit page, envelopes appear as typical ADSRs, but once you zoom in you find a fully programmable infinite-stage representation with loads of additional parameters. You can change a looped envelope automatically with the new Chaos button, randomizing the stages every time the loop retriggers (syncable to song tempo).

Six independent LFOs are available per patch but not per layer. Shapes include sine, triangle, square, rounded square, ramp, reverse ramp, sample and hold, “heartbeat” (based on a human heart rhythm) and random noise. Rate can be host-synced or manually set. Trigger modes include Free Running, Note-Restart, Legato (retriggering only occurs when you play staccato notes) and Song Position, where an LFO tracks the bars and beats of the session. As with the filters and envelopes, LFOs come with several useful presets and the option to save your own.

The main page handles a bevy of polyphony, voicing and performance controls. Omnisphere can use different tunings, including Arabic, Gamelan, historical temperaments, microtonal, modern, Western and user-created scales. You can tailor response to your controller through adjustable velocity curves, octave switching, pitch-bend range, part-level/mute/solo, legato play, polyphonic glide and more. The included effects — reverb, chorus, compression, distortion, delay, etc. — can be used and modulated at the patch level and post-multimixer level in four aux channels or the master channel.

HERE, THERE AND EVERWHERE

With 28 sources and 60 possible targets, there are thousands of potential modulation routings in Omnisphere. The Flex-Mod system simplifies connections by providing a quick list of mod sources in a menu when you right-click on a control that you want to make a destination. Most commonly used sources are listed first, and if there's more than one source available of a given type, the next available source will be used automatically.

For example, when “Modulate With LFO” is selected, the next available LFO will automatically route to the target parameter. This means if LFO1 is already a modulation source, then the Flex-Mod system automatically assigns LFO2. This approach saves a lot of time because you can assign routings as a direct extension of the way you're typically handling a given control while tweaking a sound, rather than having to stop, analyze and draft up a chart of unused sources in your mind.

A complete list of all the modulation sources is at the bottom of the Flex Mod menu for you to make manual selections. Once assignments are made, all routing pairs are selectable one at a time under the modulation section's simplified view, which includes sliders for controlling source and destination parameter on each mod pair.

A traditional mod-matrix provides more precise control for the hardcore sound designer. A wonderful mod-matrix secret weapon, the Smooth control, allows you to, for instance, round off the hard edges of a square-wave LFO. The full matrix view presents all 24 modulation slots available on just two pages, but clearly distinguishes those being used in Layer A from those in Layer B through highlighting. Because Omnisphere's modulation can get extremely complex quickly, this makes for an ideal trouble-shooting page.

ARP'N MADNESS

The arpeggiator interface — a very flexible rhythm programmer capable of up to 32-step patterns — is clean, simple and intuitive. Clicking on or click-dragging across any of the steps lights up their vertical velocity drawbars in bright blue and turns on their TR-808-style step buttons below. A slider along the bottom controls pattern lengths. Extending note lengths is as easy as double-clicking on an adjacent step to tie into the previous step, resulting in a longer blue block. Shift-clicking on a block's edge lets you precisely set that note's duration in fractions of a step — great for nudging timing ahead or behind, as well as creating extremely short notes or staccatos.

In the upper-left corner you have selectors for modes, trigger and clock. Notes can be played over ranges of one, two, three and four octaves; and arpeggiate as chords, up, down, up/down, down/up, as played, repeat 2x and repeat 4x. Clock divisions range from whole note to 32nd note (all capable of simple swing), and there are trigger options for legato and syncing to the host. A Length knob shortens all steps uniformly and simultaneously. As with virtually every Omnisphere module, you can save presets of your patterns.

An extremely cool feature called Groove Lock allows any of Omnisphere's eight independent arpeggiators to match the feel of a Stylus RMX drum loop. By lifting the groove from Stylus RMX's browser, you can literally drag-and-drop it into Omnisphere's MIDI file area at the bottom of the arpeggiator. (You can also drop in any standard MIDI file.) While it's a simple feature, it's extremely powerful to apply relaxed, human drum rhythms to typically hard arpeggios, and it inspired boundless ideas for genre-bending remixes.

SKY'S THE LIMIT

Straight out of the box, Omnisphere can sound like the lushest classic analog synth ever made — or never made! It can also be the meanest virtual analog, the dreamiest wavetable pad machine or the downright coolest-sounding hybrid synth you could conceive.

The psychoacoustic sampling that's gone into creating much of the core sound source library is jaw-droppingly cool. Imagine setting an upright piano on fire and capturing its exploding strings and snap-crackling embers, and then being able to play it. That's but one example of the lengths that Spectrasonics went to.

There are also meticulously captured tones and custom patches created on classic hardware like the ARP String Ensemble; Elka String Machine; Mellotron and Orchestron cello, violins, choir and flute tapes, as well as Chamberlin string tapes; Farfisa Combo Organ; Hammond tonewheel organs; Roland Juno 60, Jupiter 8, Super JX, D-50 and JD-800; Oberheim OB-8; Sequential Circuits Prophet-5; Moog Model 55 modular; Korg Z1; Access Virus Indigo; Waldorf Q; and the highly distinctive additive synthesis of the Kawai K-5000.

Combining such a wide variety of vintage synths with Steam's ability to manipulate them with synthesis methods that are close to the original makes it feel like you have a ton of historic hardware at your disposal. But Omnisphere is much more than a must-have upgrade from Atmosphere. It is without a doubt going to be a game-changer in every genre of electronic music and every aspect of synthesis, composition, sound design, production and live performance. This really is an epic synth that breaks completely new sonic ground.

SPECTRASONICS (DIST. BY ILIO) OMNISPHERE > $499

Pros: Sounds like nothing else. Extraordinarily powerful and versatile synth engine. All major synthesis methods covered. Up to 10 oscillators per patch with a dual-filter architecture per layer. Excellent modulation facilities and eight independent arpeggiators. 42 GB core library. Sounds based on unique psychoacoustic and composite morphing. Thousands of killer patches and multis.

Cons: Can be extremely CPU-intensive, especially the multis.

Contact:www.spectrasonics.net

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

Mac: G4, G5 or Intel/2 GHz or higher; 2 GB or more RAM; 50 GB hard drive space; OS 10.4.9 or later; Audio Units, RTAS or VST 2.4-compatible host software

PC: Pentium/3 GHz or higher; 2 GB or more RAM; 50 GB hard drive space; Windows XP SP2/Vista; RTAS or VST 2.4-compatible host software