Synapse Audio's Orion has roots as a software synthesizer workstation offering pattern-based MIDI sequencing, a few software synthesizers, and a basic set of effects. The application has continued to evolve over the years and now provides multitrack audio recording, more than a dozen sound generators, and compatibility with other software instruments and effects using VST, DirectX, and ReWire.
EM reviewed Orion in the January 2003 issue (available at emusician.com), so I'll cover the basics here only briefly. The program is no longer offered in multiple versions with different price points and features; the lone offering now is what Synapse Audio previously called the Platinum version. Though Orion isn't intended to replace a high-end DAW, you get a remarkable amount of music-making power for the money.
FIG. 1: Orion provides more than a dozen sound generators, lots of effects, and capabilities for sequencing, audio recording, and mixing.
Orion is remarkably intuitive (see Fig. 1). You insert sound generators (software instruments) into your project and create patterns for each generator to play. You can record patterns in real time or step time, or enter them with the mouse in a piano-roll display. Each generator gets a channel in the mixer and a track in the Playlist. The Playlist determines which patterns play as your song progresses.
Orion is a bit more “hardwired” than some of the other offerings out there. To change the generator associated with a pattern, you have to cut the pattern data out of one generator and insert it into a new one. Your options for mixer routing are also fixed; each channel supports two insert effects, four effects-send buses, and routing to four mixer subgroups in addition to the master channel. You cannot add or delete effects buses or subgroups.
In practice, though, I found it extremely refreshing to have fewer menus to dig through and fewer choices to make. Orion's simplicity is arguably its greatest strength, because it allows you to focus more on making music and less on dealing with the configuration settings.
Orion furnishes many more slots for plug-in effects than its configuration of channels and buses might imply. The send buses, subgroups, and master channel can each accommodate four effects (as opposed to the two slots available in the mixer channels). What's more, two of Orion's effects are actually holders for other effects.
Orion has two types of effects holders, BandFX and MultiFX. MultiFX can accommodate four effects in either a parallel or serial configuration; when used in a parallel configuration, a convenient x-y controller lets you determine how much of each effect will be applied. The BandFX holder splits your signal into three frequency bands and provides two effects slots for each band. The frequency breakpoints are configurable, and each band has a dedicated gain control. Orion's effects holders provide an intuitive and powerful mechanism for adding just the right effects to your project. I was even able to put one effects holder into the slot of the other effects holder without any complaints from the program.
FIG. 2: Orion''s convolution reverb is a relatively new addition to the program. Several other reverbs are available if you''re short on CPU and don''t need the convolution capabilities.
More than 40 effects are available. Some of the newest include virtual analog distortion, a saturation effect, convolution reverb (see Fig. 2), and a peak limiter modeled after the Universal Audio 1176LN. Also new are autotracking EQs, which can boost or cut as many as four partials of the input signal's frequency (obviously, an effect like this works best on monophonic source material). The autotracking EQs can save you from having to instantiate multiple EQs to address problem frequencies relating to a moving bass or lead line.
The effects sounded great, and I appreciated the inclusion of processors — such as the pattern- and sidechain-controlled filters — that can automatically infuse some movement into your audio. Orion covers all the bases, with one notable exception: when trying to dial up a good guitar sound, I had to resort to a third-party VST-based amp and speaker simulator. Orion has tube-based and analog distortion but nothing that can make your guitar sound just like it's coming from a Fender Twin.
In addition, many of the effects aren't as graphically detailed as those you'd find elsewhere. You often see only knobs to set the configuration, as opposed to flashing indicators with moving graphs and meters. I didn't miss them too much, though, and I appreciated the extra screen real estate (with fewer distractions).
A Creature with Features
Orion's software instruments use a variety of synthesis techniques. Check out the online bonus material at emusician.com for descriptions of my four favorite generators and a link to an audio clip created with the program.
The Plucked String generator provides numerous variations, including approximations of nylon and steel strings. If you're looking for realistic instrument emulations, you'll probably have more luck with a good set of samples in the sample player, but I found the plucked-string module's sounds to be quite pleasing (albeit slightly electronic sounding).
Screamer specializes in saturated, sometimes distorted, lead sounds. It's a 2-oscillator monophonic synth with extra settings for Saturation and Rage. Also available is a monophonic bass synthesizer with a basic set of oscillator, filter, envelope, and portamento settings.
If you're looking for something a little less realistic than the sample-based drum synth, you have two alternatives. XR-909 emulates a Roland device with a similar-sounding name, and Tomcat creates excellent-sounding renditions of electronic kicks, toms, handclaps, and rim shots.
Two more sample-based synths round out Orion's collection. Wavefusion offers wavetable synthesis using three oscillators, three LFOs, a filter stage, and three envelope generators. And Ultran uses four oscillators to provide wave morphing using a variety of transition techniques. Both synths are great for evolving pads, textures, and arpeggiated passages.
A MIDI Out generator provides a convenient interface for linking external MIDI gear into Orion. Here you have access to the same sequencer window and arpeggiator as the software synths, but the synth parameters are replaced with port and channel assignments for the external connection. You can also specify patch and bank settings, and automate as many as eight MIDI controllers using the same parameter event recording and editing capabilities that the generators have.
Orion's arpeggiators are powerful indeed. Each generator gets its own, with complete control over the direction, speed, notes, rhythm, and duration of the arpeggiated passages. You can specify a total of eight different chords (root and chord type), and the arpeggiator will cycle through them as it generates notes. The arpeggiator's output can be written to the pattern in case you'd like to edit it (or have more control over what gets played).
Audio recording is straightforward in Orion. You begin by inserting the Audio Track generator into your project. Audio tracks don't have property pages and piano-roll pattern editors like the synths, but they do appear in the mixer and song Playlist. Once it's in place, you can arm the track and record in a manner similar to DAW applications. And you can apply effects in the mixer just as you can with the other generators.
Recording isn't the only way to bring audio into Orion. You can also import WAV files into audio tracks, or use the sample-player generator to trigger audio phrases as you need them. Orion supports sampling rates up to 192 kHz and bit depths as high as 32 bits.
Once your masterpiece is complete (or ready for refinement in a full-fledged DAW), you can stream everything to one or more files. In addition to setting the export format (MP3, Ogg Vorbis, or WAV), you can choose whether to generate a single file, a file for each generator, or a file for each mixer channel (some generators, such as the drum machines, can send their output to multiple mixer channels).
To the Stars
Orion is an excellent environment for music composition and recording. If your work is primarily MIDI based and you're comfortable building your projects as a collection of generators and patterns (keeping in mind that patterns store a maximum 10,000 steps), Orion may be all you need. Other users will eventually need the extra features that a more complete DAW application provides. But even if you already use a major sequencer, Orion can be a terrific tool for composing your song's initial tracks. There's much to be said for its intuitive environment, which lets you compose quickly without getting in the way (unlike some DAWs I've used).
The program's documentation is adequate, though it isn't searchable or context sensitive and a few of the newest features aren't yet covered. I'd certainly appreciate a PDF-based alternative to the help file.
Overall, though, I found Orion a joy to work with. Download the demo today and experience it for yourself.
Allan Metts is an Atlanta-based musician, software/systems designer, and consultant. Check him out atametts.com.