A few years after I had begun using synthesizers, I wondered what the ultimate synth might look like. I wanted abundant polyphony, complex oscillators, a ludicrous number of filter types and modulation routings, and infinite patch memory. Eventually the list grew to include user-programmable arpeggiators, studio-quality effects, and a variety of synthesis types. When soft synths came along, it occurred to me that what I had imagined might someday become possible. And now that Spectrasonics has launched Omnisphere, that day has finally come.
Omnisphere is the brainchild of Eric Persing, a man who has contributed as much as anyone to the state of electronic sound design. Persing first attracted attention as a sound designer for Roland, eventually founding his own company — Spectrasonics — and developing sample libraries that have helped shape the direction of popular musical genres, from rock to rap and from movie soundtracks to electronic breakbeat. Indeed, many of Omnisphere's sounds originated in earlier collections such as Distorted Reality and Heart of Africa.
In 2003 Persing's company launched three software instruments — Trilogy, Stylus, and Atmosphere — incorporating a customized version of French developer UVI's sample-playback engine. Atmosphere was an especially versatile synthesizer based on a 3.7 GB sound library, with samples taken from the entire lexicon of vintage hardware synths, from the Minimoog to the Matrix-12. In September Spectrasonics discontinued Atmosphere and included all its content in Omnisphere, which in total features a 42 GB sample library — perhaps the largest of any dedicated soft synth, and many times larger than that of any hardware synth.
Welcome to My World
Omnisphere runs as a plug-in in AU, RTAS, and VST formats; a standalone version is not available. The software comes on six double-density DVDs. After installation, you authorize it with an online challenge and response and then download the latest updates from Spectrasonics' Web site.
I ran the AU version in Apple Logic Pro 8.0.2 on a dual 2.3 GHz Mac G5 with 4 GB of RAM running Mac OS X 10.4.12, and the VST version in Ableton Live 7.0.10 on a 2.3 GHz MacBook Pro with 2 GB running 10.5.5. I had to clear some space off my laptop's hard disk to make room, leaving me wishing I didn't need to install the entire 42 GB library of multisamples (called Soundsources). I could have installed them on an external disk if I'd wanted, however.
At its core is a proprietary sound engine (developed in-house) called Steam (short for Spectrasonics Team). Despite its somewhat cutesy name, the Steam engine is an extremely well-designed framework for sound synthesis. If you're familiar with Stylus RMX's groove-focused SAGE engine, you'll have a head start finding your way around Omnisphere's graphical user interface.
A multitimbral setup (called a Multi) comprises as many as eight Parts. All of Omnisphere's settings are presented in the context of a Multi, whether you're working with all eight Parts or only one. Each Part contains a single Patch, and each Patch consists of either one or two Layers. Each Layer has its own oscillator, one or two filters, and envelope generators for filter and amplitude. The two Layers (which can be linked for simultaneous editing) share four modulation envelopes, six LFOs, and up to 24 modulation routings.
FIG. 1: Despite its functional complexity, Omnisphere maintains an intuitive user interface throughout. Clicking on the magnifying-glass icons opens additional pages for deeper editing.
Omnisphere has numerous views you select by clicking on tabs and buttons, some of which allow you to zoom in on certain functions (see Fig. 1). The top of the screen displays the current Multi's name and buttons for switching between the eight Parts, a Multi mixer, and system preferences. A pop-up Utility menu lets you save and clear Multis and Patches, copy and paste Parts and Layers, and access MIDI Learn and online help; practically all that's absent is an undo function (which I frequently wished for).
If a Part is selected, four buttons beneath the Patch name switch between four pages: Main, Edit, FX, and Arp. The Main page offers three views: Visualizer, Info, and Controls. The Main Controls page shows the most useful collection of real-time buttons, sliders, and displays for making quick changes. The Edit page (whose GUI resembles Atmosphere's at first glance) affords deeper access to oscillator, filter, and modulation parameters. A pair of tabs let you toggle between Edit pages for Layer A and Layer B.
FIG. 2: One of three browsers, the Patch Browser makes quick work of finding the sound you need. To avoid the habit of choosing Patches near the beginning of the alphabet, you can shuffle or reverse their order.
With so much content, a quick way to find exactly the sound you want is essential. Omnisphere has three browsers, one each for Multis, Patches, and Soundsources. When it's open, the browser window obscures most other sections; you'll need to close it to see what's behind (see Fig. 2). Because any plug-in is limited to a single-window interface, that's one reason a standalone version would be desirable.
You can categorize, organize, and locate a sound using criteria such as keyword, category, type, and even the first letter of its name. The browser can display information about the sound's author, keywords, and size, as well as playing suggestions and notes on how it was created. You can scroll though lists using your mouse or use MIDI Learn to control selection with MIDI CCs (Control Changes) or keyswitching (see the sidebar “Higher Learning”).
Not Your Average Oscillator
Omnisphere's oscillators are nothing short of amazing. Each Layer has one primary oscillator (along with less obvious oscillators I'll describe in a moment), which plays either Soundsources drawn from its Core Library or DSP-generated synthesizer waveforms. If you select a Soundsource, you can change the sample's start time, apply bit-crushing distortion, or alter the timbre by transposing the sample map without changing pitch.
For synth waveforms, you can choose SawSquare (Fat or Bright), Triangle, Sine, or Noise, with the current shape drawn in a display. SawSquare is continuously variable from sawtooth to pulse wave under the control of the Shape parameter. The Symmetry slider governs width; for traditional pulse-width modulation, just apply a mod source. The Analog knob introduces slight variations in pitch to make the DSP waveforms behave more like real analog waveforms, and the Phase knob affects the oscillator in one Layer relative to the other.
Omnisphere offers a unique approach to traditional oscillator sync; the Hard Sync slider accesses a hidden audio oscillator that slaves to the main oscillator. I had great fun modulating hard sync with the mod wheel, and I got all kinds of organ tones just by applying varying degrees of hard sync to a sine wave (see Web Clip 1).
Also hidden is the modulating oscillator for FM synthesis. Omnisphere's FM synthesis is not nearly as comprehensive as you'd find in a dedicated FM synth, but more akin to the FM capabilities of a good analog synth. Along with the ring modulator, Omnisphere's FM is most useful for generating clangorous sounds.
The oscillators sport some unusual parameters; for one thing, a pop-up menu lets you save, copy, and paste oscillator presets (you also get similar presets for LFOs, envelopes, effects, and other functions). A Wave Shaper section changes a waveform's spectra by introducing polyphonic distortion. You can insert waveshaping before or after the filter or amplifier if desired.
Much more interesting is the Oscillator Voice Multiplier, which has Unison, Granular, and Harmonia modes. Unlike traditional unison mode, Omnisphere's version works polyphonically, each note with up to eight unison voices out of phase, detuned, or octave shifted. Omnisphere's rather comprehensive granular synthesis applies only to samples, of course. I used it to create some truly bizarre variations on some of the more offbeat samples (see Web Clip 2).
Harmonia is a type of additive synthesis that blends in as many as four more single-oscillator voices per Layer. You control the level, detuning, and panning of each additional voice; for synth waveforms, you also control the symmetry, relative phase, and other parameters. You could spend an entire afternoon experimenting with Harmonia mode without exhausting its possibilities (see Web Clip 3). You can save your Harmonia settings as presets, and nearly 30 factory presets are included.
Omnisphere's synthesis capabilities go much deeper than I have space to cover in these pages. If you want to read about the filters, envelopes, effects, arpeggiator, and performance modes, it's essential that you visit emusician.com and read the online bonus material “More Building Blocks.”
A Library Like No Other
To produce Omnisphere's Core Library, Spectrasonics went to great lengths (and, I'd guess, spared no expense) pursuing even the most outrageous ideas in its quest for unique sample content. The burning piano, for example, was legendary even before the plug-in was released, and it sounds much more useful than I expected.
Spectrasonics has managed to breathe real life into most of Omnisphere's Soundsources, and you're bound to find hundreds of sounds you won't find anywhere else. Ever wonder what it sounds like to bow a spinning bicycle wheel? How about tapping a lightbulb and recording the resonating filament? I can scarcely imagine all the sounds that must have been discarded to distill only the most usable source material.
Many Soundsources aren't even used in the Patch library; creating Patches from those ensures that your original Patches will be yours and yours alone. But the easiest way to produce new sounds is to open a Patch and simply swap out one Soundsource for another. If you enjoy exploring new sounds, you could easily spend entire days browsing Omnisphere's Patches; I know I did (see the online bonus material “Timbral Territory”).
Fun for the Whole Family
I was almost instantly impressed with Omnisphere's ease of use, especially considering the inherent complexity of such a sophisticated instrument. Balancing depth with accessibility must have been a considerable challenge for the user-interface design team. Its GUI makes it equally usable for both beginners and advanced synthesists.
In many ways, I consider Omnisphere the Photoshop of sound design. You can go very, very deep, but you can also create new and original sounds quite quickly without ever consulting the documentation. Speaking of which, the Utility menu opens the HTML-based Reference Guide. You can also access online support and download a dynamite collection of tutorial video clips. Some topics covered in the videos aren't mentioned in the current version of the Reference Guide, but Spectrasonics expects an expanded version to be available before you read this.
What Dreams May Come
This was a difficult review to write, mostly because Omnisphere pulled me in the moment I began investigating any of its features. I'd discover something it could do, and before I knew it an hour had passed. I could scarcely believe how easy it was to create cool new sounds from the materials it provides (see Web Clip 4).
With so much sample content, you might expect Omnisphere to be a virtual rompler; it isn't. If you need a gigantic raft of versatile orchestral instruments or drum kits, you'll want to look elsewhere, but what you do get is absolutely outstanding. Omnisphere offers the advantages of both sample playback and traditional synthesis, which you can easily combine in a 2-Layer Patch. Most of its focus is on electronic, often organic, sounds rather than traditional acoustic instruments, but that's what synthesizers are for, isn't it?
Omnisphere comes awfully close to fulfilling my vision of a dream synth, and it's already becoming an extension of my musical persona. True, its additive and FM capabilities won't replace instruments dedicated to those types of synthesis, and its lack of a standalone version is disappointing. (You could run a lean host such as Defective Records' VSTi Host or Brainspawn Forte, but it still wouldn't be the same as a freestanding soft synth.) It wasn't difficult to push my computer's CPU to its limits, and at least once I encountered a redraw bug.
Is it worth half a grand? Undoubtedly, and it's a bargain at that. I'm telling everyone I know: do not walk, run to your computer and order Omnisphere. Whether you want a huge, ready-made selection of first-class synth sounds or you want to build your own timbres from the ground up, I promise you won't regret it.
Senior Editor Geary Yelton's 41-year fascination with synthesizers (since the release of Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach) continues unabated.
Even a function as ubiquitous as MIDI Learn gets the deluxe treatment in Omnisphere. You can assign virtually any function to any MIDI CC message, Note, or Program Change, and you can automate those functions in your host program. You can save MIDI Learn templates and load them into any Patch, display an HTML report of all MIDI Learn assignments, and more. Not every control responds to modulation, but every knob, slider, and button does respond to external control sources and automation.