Yamaha’s DX7 digital FM synth was one of the most popular synths of all time. Signaling a radical departure from the warmer, but often less detailed and unstable analog synthesizers of the day, its crisp, bell-like tones and glassy electric piano emulations saturated the airwaves. The instrument was not without its drawbacks, however; sounds were often thin and brittle, its programming architecture oblique and confusing, and real-time modulation was relatively primitive. As a result, the instrument’s popularity gave way to sample-playback and analog-modeled instruments.
In the software domain, however, there has been a renaissance in FM synthesizers. Software developer u-he recently released Bazille (pronounced bat-zill-la), which takes the concept of digital FM synthesis and runs with it, departing from the DX7 paradigm on many counts, most significantly, producing sounds of tremendous depth and real-time malleability. But wait, there’s more: Each of Bazille’s oscillators can also deploy phase distortion, a process similar to FM that allows you to create more complex modulating waveforms, and consequently, more complex sonorities.
Bazille is a download from the u-he website containing AAX, VST, and AU versions, but no standalone version. I tested Bazille in hosts supporting all three plug-in formats.
FACE THE INTERFACE
If you are an experienced DX7 wrangler, you may need to reset your conceptions a bit. Bazille is a modular synthesizer and takes a tip from u-he’s earlier synth, ACE—primarily, the ability to drag patch cables from virtually any output to any input.
Bazille is studded with inputs (silver colored) and outputs (red). Similarly, Bazille’s four-oscillator architecture might lead you to expect more pallid sounds on the order of Yamaha’s FB-01. But a closer look at the oscillators—and the formidable modulation, filters, and additional processing that surround them— will change your mind.
The top left of Bazille’s Header section accesses the three main working areas. The Synth page presents most of the programming interface (see Figure 1). An oscilloscope sits in the center of it all, instantly reflecting any changes to the resulting waveform in real time. You can independently zoom in on the display’s time and frequency domains to zero in on waveform details.
The oscillator is rich in modulation options. For example, the Phase-Modulation section lets you patch in another oscillator for audio-rate frequency modulation. The PM knob has settings for altering output level and frequency, and a knob to alter the phase of the modulating waveform. By dragging a patch cord from the oscillator output to its input you can cause an oscillator to modulate itself. It’s remarkable how rich a single oscillator can sound, and this is just the start.
The phase distortion (PD) section has a knob (and an input) for regulating the amount of PD modulation, and another to adjust the amount manually. At its default setting, the knob can move between a cosine wave (an inverted sine) and a sawtooth wave, but two pull-down menus let you choose other waveforms; selecting two different waves will cause them to alternate. The selector menu lets you choose one of the two Mapping Generators or the default cosine wave as modulator.
FRACTALIZED FAIRY TALES
Fig. 2. A close-up of the of the Fractalize effect on a sawtooth wave. Note the repetition of the waveform in decreasing size (amplitude) within an overarching sawtooth-wave shape. One of Bazille’s other unique features is the Fractalize section, which crams multiple cycles of the waveform in decreasing amplitude into cycles of a superimposed waveform of your choosing. When you sweep the amount, the effect is somewhat of a cross between resonance and oscillator sync (see Figure 2).
In addition, it features an oscillator volume knob with input and output jacks, and of course you can send these directly to the output or one of Bazille’s half-dozen filter types. Tones become complex and interesting here, and you’d be tempted to deploy the synth as a subtractive instrument, with no interaction between the oscillators, but that would be akin to ordering a hot dog at a gourmet restaurant.
Fig. 3. More than just a simple location for quick adjustments, the Tweaks and Effects page also holds the plug-in’s formidable Mapping Generators. Technically speaking, in addition to relatively minor tweaking tools such as voice allocation, glide, and tuning controls, the Tweaks and FX page holds fairly significant components of the instrument’s sound-shaping apparatus that would have been prohibitive to shoehorn onto the Synth page (see Figure 3). Here, you’ll find a pair of Mapping Generators, which can serve as auxiliary LFOs or as alternate waveforms for Bazille’s phase-distortion engine, envelope-and ramp-generator controls, and parameters for the output-stage filter. Below that lie controls for Bazille’s four effects processors—distortion, spring reverb, delay, and phase shifter, which has a setting for flanging effects. I would have appreciated chorus as well, but each oscillator affords plenty of opportunities to thicken sounds and create natural beating.
Arguably, the Oscillator section is at the heart of Bazille’s rich and wonderful complexity, but a ton more features distinguish the instrument, including an eight-snapshot, sixteenstep modulation sequencer, a pair of Lag Generators, four ADSR envelope generators, a pair of CV inputs that accept any of Bazille’s sources, white and pink noise generators, four multiplexers to multiply and distribute modulation sources and destinations—the list goes on.
The factory presets run the gamut from familiar, nasal FM-type tones; to cloudy, rich, and enveloping pads; to raunchy; to animated effects and drones, and harmonics-spitting leads. It’s hard to conceive of anything that this synth can’t do.
If this all sounds a bit elaborate, it is: Bazille is a complex synthesizer capable of complex sounds—but don’t let that put you off. For all of its complexity, Bazille is logically and elegantly arranged, and best of all, its GUI is scalable: You can make a section of the instrument occupy the full screen, switch text aliasing on and off, and adjust the instrument’s brightness. If you’ve ever beaten your eyes into astigmatism over a fixed-size display with tiny controls and parameters, you’ll be singing Bazille’s praises for a long time.
Bazille is the rich offspring of multiple synthesis types and, as such, it invites discovery and experimentation. Despite its seeming complexity, it will draw you in, inviting everyone from modular and FM neophytes to jaded professionals into its deep sound-creation engine. I can’t think of a better reason to own it.
Tremendously deep oscillator section with multiple synthesis types. Rich modulation capabilities. Scalable GUI with antialiasing text. Multichannel MIDI support.
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