As computer hardware has become more powerful, software synthesizers have become more plentiful. Seer Systems is no stranger to this field; its powerful Reality is a favorite among software synthesis aficionados.
But sometimes you don't want to spend hours tweaking parameters and plotting envelope curves to create a sound. Sometimes you just want to load sounds that other people have created, so you can make music with a minimum of technical gobbledygook. If that's what you're looking for, SurReal may be just the ticket.
SurReal is an easy-to-use software synthesizer that lets you play as many as 16 different sounds at once, with a total polyphony of up to 64 voices (depending on your computer). You can use sounds from SoundFont volumes or Reality Banksets. The program ships with more than 2,000 sounds and includes extra goodies for interfacing with other audio applications. You even get built-in reverb and chorus.
I tested SurReal on a 400 MHz Pentium II, using Lynx Studio Technology's LynxOne card for my audio. SurReal performs best if your card supports Microsoft's DirectSound technology, but the program can handle cards with plain old WAV drivers, as well. An excellent reference on the Seer Systems Web site lists cards that have DirectSound drivers; it also provides some hints on how your sound card will perform with this software.
A SURREAL EXPERIENCEInstalling SurReal was a snap: I was up and running in no time. The program ships with absolutely no printed documentation, which really isn't a big issue for a program as simple as this. At installation time, however, I was given the option of installing SeerMusic but had nothing to tell me what SeerMusic was. (As it turns out, it is Seer Systems' technology for streaming SurReal or Reality music over the Internet.)
Once I'd installed the program, I went through the Getting Started section of the help file and quickly learned what the program could do; all in all, the onscreen documentation is well organized and thorough. Nevertheless, when a company provides no printed documentation, it should provide printable PDF files as well as onscreen help. That way, you can print your own manual if you choose to.
Almost all of the SurReal experience takes place in a single window with no menu bar (see Fig. 1). The window includes 16 identical sets of controls that define the sounds you hear on each of the 16 MIDI channels. Seer Systems calls these modules Picosynths.
In the top left corner, above the Picosynths, four Command buttons provide access to files, the onscreen help, program preferences, and global synthesizer settings (such as tuning and transposition). The top right corner contains master controls for reverb, chorus, and volume, along with meters for the left and right channels and a handy CPU load indicator. The top of the window also includes a simple playback-only MIDI sequencer.
Each of the 16 Picosynths has its own controls for volume, pan, mute, and solo. Onscreen knobs let you adjust the amount of reverb and chorus, and a Vari knob changes the sound in a manner specific to the currently loaded patch. In many cases, the Vari knob simply adjusts the brightness of the sounds; however, some of the special effects change dramatically when you tweak this knob.
A display bar in the center of each Picosynth shows the currently loaded bank, Program number, and Program name. (Program is SurReal's term for a single patch or sound.) If you click on the display bar, it opens a dialog box from which you can pick a new Program. Each Picosynth also includes a simple MIDI activity indicator.
In short, each Picosynth functions as a Program selector with Reverb, Chorus, and Vari knobs; Mute and Solo buttons; a Volume slider; and a horizontal, wheel-like Pan control. Global controls at the top of the window affect all 16 Picosynths, and that-along with a simple sequencer-is about all there is to it. After all, simplicity is the whole point of this program.
IN THE BANKSurReal can have only a single Bankset loaded at any given time. A Bankset is a collection of Programs, MIDI sequences, and settings for each Picosynth and its effects. Because there are only 16 Picosynths, you can have only 16 Programs active at once, but you can load more than 1,000 Programs into a Bankset. This means you can pick other sounds with ease or switch sounds in the middle of a sequence by using MIDI Bank Select and Program Change messages.
SurReal can access Programs from only one Bankset at a time, but you can import other Banksets' Programs into the current Bankset. If a song requires Programs from several different Banksets, you simply open an existing Bankset (or create a new one), import the Programs you need, and save the Bankset under a different name. Because the bulk of a Bankset file consists of the underlying audio (sample) data, you can choose between saving the audio data in the Bankset file (which puts everything in one tidy package for portability) or in a common Wave directory shared by multiple Banksets (which avoids duplicate audio files and thereby saves disk space).
You can also load an entire SoundFont volume at once, although you can't import individual SoundFont programs. Furthermore, you can't save SoundFont volumes within SurReal, so the process of importing SoundFonts is essentially converting the SoundFont volume into SurReal's Bankset format.
If you want to assemble a collection of SoundFont programs from several different volumes, you must first load each SoundFont volume into SurReal, save it as a Bankset, then import the individual Programs from each of these Banksets. It's a bit convoluted, but it's possible.
PLAYING THE NUMBERSYou may have noticed that I haven't described a function for assigning MIDI bank and program numbers to the Programs in a Bankset. That's because there isn't one. SurReal assigns all of the bank and program numbers automatically and tells you what the numbers are by appending them to the Program names.
SurReal offers a choice between 0- or 1-based bank and program numbers, and it changes the display of each Program in the Bankset as soon as you change your preference. I particularly appreciated being able to display program numbers in the Roland style (A11, B67, and so forth). I have a Roland A-80 controller, and it's always a pain to figure out which MIDI Program Change message will be sent when I enter "A75," for example. (The answer is 52, by the way.)
Automatic bank and program numbering seems like an inflexible approach, but it isn't so bad in practice. If you like to mix and match your Programs quite a bit, however, you'll probably want to dedicate a Bankset file to each song you create. Otherwise, when you replay a MIDI sequence at a later date, you might suddenly find that all the bank and program numbers have changed. Also, if you have entered program names (so the sequencer displays, for example, "Wild Swoosh" instead of "Patch 117"), it would be a hassle to reinput the names every time SurReal changed the Program numbers.
Fortunately, SurReal lets you export a Bankset's Program names into the formats used by many popular sequencers. At present, you can export into the formats used by Cakewalk Pro Audio, Steinberg Cubase, Voyetra Digital Orchestrator Pro, Passport Designs Master Tracks Pro, Emagic Logic Audio, and WinJammer Software WinJammer. When I selected the Cakewalk option, SurReal found my Pro Audio application and promptly opened a correctly formatted file right where it needed to be. Try doing that with a hardware synth!
Some people like to organize their sounds by MIDI bank and program numbers. You lose that capability in SurReal, but you gain a couple of new tricks in return. For starters, you can use the Bankset files as a means of organizing Programs. But within a Bankset, SurReal also provides 21 Categories.
The Categories are broken down into instrument classifications, such as Keyboards, Guitars, Brass, Reeds, Pipes, Mono Synths, Poly Synths, Percussive Noises, and Sustained Noises. Separate Categories are provided for sample loops and for sounds that are intended to be parts of other sounds. I couldn't think of a sound that didn't fit into one of the 21 Categories, but I would still like to be able to create my own Category list.
You assign Categories in the Picosynth's Program Selection dialog box (see Fig. 2), which actually serves many duties. In this box, you can view the Programs in a Bankset (organized by Category); rename, recategorize, or delete the existing sounds; and import new ones. Of course, this is also where you select the current Program for each Picosynth to play.
SURREAL EFFECTSSurReal includes a basic collection of preset effects that you select from the Reverb and Chorus displays at the top of the window. As mentioned earlier, each Picosynth has its own set of knobs to control the amount of reverb and chorus, and there are master controls as well, but at any given time, all of the Picosynths must use the same reverb and chorus presets.
Eight reverb and 12 chorus presets are provided, but the term chorus is a bit misleading, because these presets also include flanging, delays, and special effects. The reverbs aren't especially great. (With careful listening, I could hear a looping effect.) They're quite suitable, however, for casual use. The chorus, flanging, and delay effects sounded fine, and the lone special-effects program was, well, special.
The effects section is a bit limited by the small number of presets. For example, you get only three delay effects, which isn't a lot when you realize that the delay time is fixed in each of them. A Vari knob or a control tied specifically to delay time would be welcome in the reverb and chorus effects.
MIDI MADNESSSurReal's playback-only MIDI sequencer is surprisingly useful. A single Bankset can store several sequences, and you can load any one of them by selecting it in the sequencer section at the top of the main window. Simplicity is the name of the game: the sequencer provides only stop, play, and pause controls, along with a numeric indicator and a sliding triangle that shows the current song position.
You can import Standard MIDI Files into the current Bankset, and you can export them again. A Save Song as Bankset option creates a new Bankset that includes only the current sequence and any Programs associated with it.
The sequencer doubles as a "scene saver" for SurReal's Picosynth and effects controls. Selecting the Snapshot command stores the current position of the synth and effects settings into a new MIDI sequence. You can then return to those settings by simply calling up that Snapshot in the sequencer.
SurReal's controls respond to MIDI controller events in a sequence, but you can't record Control Changes in a SurReal sequence or generate MIDI controller messages from the program. (In fact, SurReal doesn't even have a MIDI output.) If you change a control in SurReal, any MIDI messages in the current sequence that correspond to that control are replaced with a single MIDI event indicating the new position. When that happens, a Sequence Edited indicator light lets you know that something has changed.
Moving a single volume control on a Picosynth, therefore, blows away all the MIDI Control Change messages in the sequence, but only on that Picosynth's MIDI channel. This may sound like a rather destructive operation, but it does let you make a quick level or pan change if you need to. In addition, a Restore Sequence command lets you retrieve the original version of your sequence.
Most people will want to use SurReal with a third-party sequencer, and the program provides excellent support for such a setup. A Reality MIDI device gets added to your system during installation, and any MIDI messages sent to this port go straight to SurReal.
Of course, SurReal requires the use of your audio card's outputs, so if you have audio tracks in your sequencer, you may find the two programs fighting for the same audio card resource. SurReal solves this problem by adding a Reality audio driver to your system during installation. With the Reality driver, SurReal accepts the audio tracks from your sequencer, mixes them with the audio coming from the Picosynths, and sends the whole kit and caboodle to your audio card.
SOUNDS GALOREA synthesizer is only as good as the sounds it makes, and SurReal comes with enough sounds to keep you in musical bliss for months. Most of the included sounds are sampled instruments, but you'll find plenty of dance loops and synth programs, too. I particularly like the string and drum-kit collections. The acoustic pianos are good, but not the best I've heard. Incidentally, SurReal lets you audition sounds with your computer keyboard, which really speeds up the selection process.
SurReal's sounds come in the Bankset format, although the program's installation CD also includes several "teaser" banks of commercially available SoundFonts. Generally speaking, SurReal's sounds make excellent use of MIDI controller mappings, and I was frequently able to achieve extra expression or sonic variation by using the Mod Wheel and Aftertouch together. I also found drum kits with Velocity-switched samples and slight pitch variations (also based on Velocity) that created a highly expressive playing experience. Wind-controller players will be pleased to learn that a bank of breath-controlled Programs is offered as a free download from the Seer Systems Web site.
GET SURREALOverall, SurReal performed flawlessly, and I had no problems with latency. I did notice a very subtle delay when playing complex piano passages, but it was much too small to bother me. Because latency is partially dependent on your sound card and driver, your mileage may vary in this regard. If you do have trouble, however, you can fine-tune SurReal's performance with the onscreen controls.
All in all, there is plenty to like and nothing to hate about SurReal. The program has a great set of features, the user interface is intuitive, and the sound collection is phenomenal. This is a particularly attractive program for laptop users (with newer laptops be sure to turn off Power Management), because it eliminates the dependency on cheesy ROM-based sounds. Besides, the price is right. Kudos to Seer Systems for a job well done.
Allan Metts is an Atlanta-based musician, software/systems designer, songwriter, and consultant.