Review: Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2 - EMusician

Review: Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2

Even More Powerful Soft Synth Pushes the Envelope
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Spectrasonics’ flagship plug-in is one of the most acclaimed synthesizers ever made, software or hardware. Previous versions have proven themselves to be deeply expressive, remarkably versatile, and genuinely inspiring in ways that other virtual instruments too often fall short. When the job calls for a soft synth, there’s very little that Omnisphere can’t do.

So, when Eric Persing and company announced a forthcoming upgrade in January, I began wondering how Omnisphere 2 could augment my musical and timbrebuilding capabilities. The list of updated features is tantalizing, including morphing wavetables, better granular synthesis, the ability to import user audio files, and literally thousands of new patches and Soundsources. Additional enhancements include new filter types, new effects, new modulation possibilities, an updated arpeggiator, and more realistic analog emulation.

The sheer volume of new content is downright awe-inspiring, and unsurprisingly, its quality is top-notch. New Soundsources include samples from circuit-bent toys to custom-built acoustic creations, as well as a collection of musical phrases derived from sources around the world. An entire library of new patches is devoted to the EDM (electronic dance music) genre. No matter whether your music is traditional, experimental, or anything in between, you’ll find plenty of useable material, and the variations you can create are genuinely infinite.

SPHERE OF INFLUENCE

Once I had downloaded and installed the software and patch library updates, I opened Omnisphere in Logic Pro X and began exploring the new sounds. More than 4,500 new patches and Soundsources (bringing the total to well over 12,000) kept me happily occupied well into the first night.

Updates to Omnisphere 2’s graphical user interface are subtle enough that it’s still familiar to previous users. The plug-in window is wider to accommodate the mini-browser, potentially speeding up your workflow while retaining most of the full browser’s functionality (see Figure 1). Clicking on the magnifying glass icon opens the full browser, which is larger than before and affords access to additional functions. As with the previous version, you get separate browsers for Soundsources, patches, and multis.

Available in both the mini-and full browsers, Sound Match is a simple concept that’s exceptionally useful. Whenever you find a sound you like in the library, invoking Sound Match displays a list of sounds with similar parameters and descriptive keywords. Sound Match can help locate patches that may be interchangeable or at least sound good together. I use this command a lot, and it’s definitely a timesaver.

Sound Lock takes a different approach to helping locate sounds. Let’s say you’ve found a patch with an arpeggiator pattern you like; engaging Sound Lock applies the same parameters to any other patch you select. You can choose from 13 parameters that include filter settings, modulation matrix, and effects, selecting as many attributes as you like. Any parameters you choose will not change their values when you select a different patch. Spectrasonics points out that the Sound Lock process essentially creates a new patch (with all the parameters you’ve selected), which you can save and recall later. Omnisphere’s browsers do everything you’d want a synth browser to do, and they do it more efficiently and thoroughly than any I’ve seen.

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SOUND MAKING MACHINERY

I’m particularly excited about Omnisphere’s enhanced synthesis capabilities. As with previous versions, each patch has two layers, and each layer has a single oscillator that lets you choose either synth or sample-playback engines. Previously, synth mode furnished just four basic waveforms and noise, but now you also get more than 400 DSP-generated wavetables divided into three types: classic (raw) waveforms, analog timbres, and digital wavetables. Many wavetables emulate waveforms produced by specific vintage and modern synths from Moog, Roland, and other manufacturers. You can manually select wave positions within each wavetable using the Shape slider and use modulators to sweep through them dynamically. Having so many choices provides tons of fodder for expanding your tonal vocabulary.

Engaging the synth engine’s Analog knob causes random variations in pitch and phase resembling those of real analog oscillators. The Unison Drift slider produces similar variations when you’re playing polyphonic voices in unison. The result is a dramatically more convincing emulation of voltage-controlled oscillators.

Switching to the sample-playback engine, at long last, you can import your own audio files. Simply select User Audio from the Utility menu and choose as many mono or stereo WAV or AIFF files as you want, or just drag-and-drop audio files into the Soundsource browser. Once imported, Omnisphere treats user audio like other Soundsources, and you can use them to create patches. Although a few audio files I tried failed to import, after I opened them in Adobe Audition and resaved them, Omnisphere imported them easily, no matter how large they were.

Spectrasonics emphasizes that Omnisphere is not a sampler, however. Unlike a sampler, it limits user-audio-based patches to one sample per layer, so you can’t map samples to specific zones or create velocity layers within a patch. Most of the included Soundsources are multisampled, though. You can specify and even modulate the start points of user audio files, and although you can’t specify loop points without an external audio editor, Omnisphere plays looped files correctly.

Fig. 2. Omnisphere 2 lets you use your own recordings as source material and save and recall granular-synthesis presets. Despite Omnisphere’s new granular synthesis algorithm, the Granular pane hasn’t changed much in version 2 (see Figure 2). The sliders are identical to the previous version’s, and the new Range menu lets you switch from Normal to Wild, boosting the Pitch Grains and Detuning values. You also get a Preset menu for saving and recalling Granular settings; four presets are included.

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After seeing Spectrasonics’ “Introducing Omnisphere 2” video, I wanted to import my own audio files and turn them into something strange and beautiful with granular synthesis. I spent a couple hours manipulating the controls and conjuring up sounds that were definitely twisted, but finding anything musically useful was akin to programming original sounds from scratch on an FM synthesizer—possible, but challenging. I had the best results starting with either simple source material or the included factory phrases.

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One of Omnisphere’s six unusually versatile LFOs can operate polyphonically, independently modulating every note. Eight new filters include resonator and formant types for emulating physical objects and vowel sounds. In addition, the filter’s new Variant parameter shifts the cutoff in opposite directions on both sides of the stereo field.

Omnisphere 2 comes with 25 new effects types, including guitar-amp models, stompbox emulations, and quad resonators, bringing the total to 58 diverse processors. Some effects use technology licensed from Overloud, Nomad Factory, and other developers. One especially intriguing effect is Innerspace, a convolution processor that supplies hundreds of impulse responses sampled from unusual sources such as bowed cardboard, melting metals, and dry rice falling on glass. By superimposing impulses on the patch you’re processing, Innerspace lets you generate unique timbres that would otherwise be difficult or impossible.

Omnisphere’s arpeggiator more closely resembles a step sequencer than ever before, letting you trigger and transpose patterns or individual steps by pressing a single key. You can also modulate playback rate in multiples of the host tempo in real time—something I’ve never seen before.

THE RETURN OF THE KING

Whenever someone asks, I recommend Omnisphere because of its massive and unique sound library, flexible sound engine, and extensive programming possibilities. It’s one of the few truly multitimbral plug-ins around, and real-time control options like the Orb and morphing modulation give it hands-on expressivity.

Version 2 delivers more of everything that makes Omnisphere so formidable and adds impressive features that include hundreds of wavetables and interesting new multisamples, as well as innovative ways to locate and process sounds. One of my favorite enhancements for live performance is progressive loading, which lets you begin playing a patch almost as soon as you select it, before it’s fully loaded into memory. However, I’ve been hoping for a standalone version that wouldn’t require a plug-in host. A plug-in is limited to a single window, and I’d rather view multiple windows at the same time. I often wish I could undo any edit, too.

When I reviewed Omnisphere in the January 2009 issue (online at emusician.com), I called it a bargain at the price. I own a dozen hardware synths that cost more than Omnisphere, and dollar for dollar, it outshines them all. If you’re still using an older version, you should upgrade today. Because Omnisphere 2 is backward-compatible with the previous version, all your past projects will load exactly as before. The upgrade alone is worth more than it costs, and it will keep you happily exploring and creating for years to come.

STRENGTHS
More powerful synthesis engine. Unmatched sound palette. Useful browsers. Terrific effects processors. Imports user audio. Eight-part multitimbral.

LIMITATIONS
No general Undo function. No standalone version. Manual is online-only. Can’t specify loop points without a separate sample editor.

$499 MSRP
$479 street
$229 upgrade
$199 VIP upgrade
spectrasonics.net

Former senior editor Geary Yelton has been reviewing synthesizers since Electronic Musician’s very first issue. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and Nokomis, Florida.