VAZ MODULAR 2.1 (WIN)Flexible, modular analog-synthesis software.
Analog synth-emulation software has recently come of age, with prices ranging from dirt-cheap to a few hundred dollars. Some products are locked into a single, fixed-synth design, but the more sophisticated programs allow you to build your own virtual instruments using a modular approach. (For a roundup of software synthesizers, see "Going Soft" in the July 2000 EM.)
VAZ Modular 2.1, a stand-alone software synthesizer from Software Technology, is a worthy candidate to satisfy your analog-synth cravings. It offers a well-organized environment and more than 60 highly configurable modules with which to build a wide variety of analog and other sounds. Unlike most of its competitors, VAZ Modular shuns screen-cluttering virtual patch cords, opting instead for a convenient and precise menu system to set up connections among its modules. A large number of example patches come with the program and more can be found on the manufacturer's Web site.
ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLYA breeze to install, VAZ Modular takes up a paltry 3 MB of disk space. Configuration is straightforward and includes support for MME, DirectX, and ASIO drivers. If your hardware supports it, opt for DirectX or ASIO, and you'll get much lower latency. This translates into a better feel when playing VAZ Modular as a "live" instrument from an external MIDI controller, and it also pays off when recording to an audio track in sync with existing tracks. (Some sound cards, such as the Echo series, provide lower latency with MME than with DirectSound.)
You can adjust latency time using the buffer size setting in the Set Preferences window. To find the minimum latency time, load a patch and start it playing. Then lower the buffer size until the sound starts to break up, and back it off a bit. You can also choose either stereo or mono output as well as select a variety of sample rates. As with all soft synths, the exact sample-rate options depend on the sound hardware in your system.
The settings for MIDI input are basic but workable. Besides choosing an input device, you can select a MIDI note number to trigger VAZ Modular's internal step sequencer remotely, a handy feature for live applications. You can also configure VAZ Modular to associate a specific sequence with a synth patch so the sequence automatically loads along with the patch.
Documentation for VAZ Modular consists primarily of a Windows-style help file. Pressing the F1 key reveals context-sensitive help, which covers all areas of the program. However, more examples and details would make it easier to use and understand the program. A terse, two-part tutorial included with the software can get you started designing your own synth patches.
IT'S A MOD, MOD WORLDVAZ Modular splits its functions into several dedicated work areas. The Mixer is the key to loading and running multiple synth patches. Open the Mixer window, and by default a new Synth channel appears (see Fig. 1). (In VAZ Modular, a Synth consists of a collection of modules, and a Patch means a specific group of parameter settings for those modules.) To add a second Synth, simply click on the number at the top of a channel strip and a new window pops up. Here you can build a new Synth or load one from disk. The Mixer window has 16 channel strips, one for each Synth in a Bank. Individual mixer settings can be saved and recalled separately from Bank and Patch files. The Mixer also offers two master effects and a single insert effect for each channel.
Synths are built in the Synth window, where you obtain access to the program's extensive sound-generating and processing modules. To open a module, right-click anywhere in the window and a pop-up list appears (see Fig. 2). (You can also reach the modules through the menu system.) A unique aspect of VAZ Modular is its ability to "roll up" individual modules into title bars. This saves screen space and lets you concentrate on just the modules you want to tweak. I would like it even better if vertically adjacent modules would move automatically to fill up vacated space. Similarly, when you "roll down" a closed module, others beneath it become obscured. It seems logical for existing modules to move down to make room. To further aid organization, you can color-code the different modules in a Synth design.
To route a signal to a module, click on its input control and a pop-up list containing appropriate sources appears. In Fig. 3 you can see the list of sources available to the Oscillator module. This quick and precise routing system lends itself to serendipitous, "last-second" choices. Unlike some synth programs in which you drag virtual patch cords between a source and its destination to make a connection, you don't have to search the screen to find a particular source device.
However, the menu has a few drawbacks. For example, you can't see a graphic representation of the signal path in a patch. In addition, there is no easy way to find out what other modules a particular module is routed to. It would be nice to have the option of a display that showed connections graphically.
By default, a Synth responds to MIDI commands on the channel matching the number in its Synth window. This can be overridden by setting the MIDI channel explicitly on the Synth's Master Controller module (more on the modules later). As with many soft synths, you can have more than one patch on the same MIDI channel.
Once you've created a Synth, you can save its Patch settings to a file. You can also save groups of Synths as Bank files, which hold up to 16 Synths. A snapshot feature lets you quickly save the current Patch. Snapshots are immediately available for recall from the main menu, which saves you from having to go through the File/Load dialog. Snapshots are also assigned automatically to the Patch list and can be selected via Program Change commands. One caveat: loading a Patch snapshot also loads the Synth modules that it uses. In other words, the synth modules needed are created, even if the exact set of modules was used in the previous Patch. When possible, use the Speed Load option, which checks if the modules of the new Patch match the current one and if so, just loads the parameters of the existing modules.
Finally, you can trigger Synths in a variety of ways: live from the computer keyboard or a MIDI input, from an external MIDI sequencer, or from the built-in step sequencer. If you want to use a sequencer running on the same computer, you'll need a "virtual MIDI router," such as Hubi's MIDI LoopBack or MIDI-OX. These and many other routers are available wherever fine shareware is sold.
MAKE A NOTE OF THISVAZ Modular's final main work area is the Step Sequencer window. The sequencer is based primarily on the Roland TB-303. Each step has a slider to set the note's pitch, and there are two additional sliders for adjusting the two multifunction controls (Control A and B). These two controls can be used to transmit various types of MIDI data, or for different types of "internal" purposes, such as modifying the tempo of a pattern. There's also a group of buttons that toggle the Double, Rest, Slide, and Accent options for each step. The sequencer supports up to 16 patterns of 16 notes each, and a rudimentary song editor allows you to create a piece of up to 256 bars.
Though you can't type in exact values for a step's pitch, you can program notes by moving the note sliders one at a time (a very tedious task) or enter them in step-time via MIDI. The sequencer offers a completely configurable randomizer, which provides some very powerful options for altering the playback order and content of patterns. Because you can toggle the randomizer while a sequence is playing, it's easy to experiment until you find something you like. You can also loop individual patterns or play them forward or backward. These functions can be toggled in real time.
I'm not a fan of emulating hardware in software programs because the tactile things that make hardware great - such as smooth faders, weighty knobs, or ribbon controllers - often can't be well replicated on a screen. It can be downright clumsy to try to do some things with a mouse that are intuitive and easy in hardware, like turn a knob or move more than one fader at once. That said, VAZ Modular's sequencer is well implemented and easy to use.
Once you have a funky bass line tripping along, you may want to dump audio to a file and use it in a program like Sonic Foundry Acid or Cakewalk Pro Audio. VAZ Modular has a Capture command for this purpose. You'll have to crop the audio file after using the Capture command to remove any unwanted leading and trailing sound data, however.
More user-friendly is the Capture Sequence command. It writes a WAV file from the moment the sequencer starts until it stops. This is a great way to capture loops. If you want to grab individual notes to use in a sampler, set the sequencer tempo to "1" and capture a "sequence" consisting of a single note.
AROUND THE BLOCKSVAZ modules for synth design are sorted into the following categories: Audio Sources, which includes oscillators, sample playback, a noise generator, and line input; Audio Processing, such as filters, EQ, amplifiers, and ring modulator and Modulation Sources, like LFOs and envelopes. You'll also find Mod Processing, which includes the Logic Gate and Sample and Hold modules; Routing, such as the Mixers, Panners, and Routing Matrices; and of course, Effects, which I'll discuss later. Additional modules appear in the Visualization category, such as the Oscilloscope and Meter, and various types of MIDI to "CV" converters are also on hand. (Used internally by the program, these converters are not intended to control external, voltage-based hardware.) There are no arbitrary limits on the number or type of modules in a Synth, a freedom that adds to your creative palette.
At the core of any analog synth lie its oscillators, and VAZ Modular boasts a wide selection. The basic Oscillator module produces either sawtooth or square waveforms. A signal (such as an LFO) fed to the Pulsewidth Modulation control changes the oscillator's waveform over time, adding sonic interest. The Multi Oscillator module generates four waveforms that can be detuned relative to each other. The detune amount itself can be modulated by a control signal.
The Granular Oscillator offers an unusual way of making sound. It takes a 16-bit WAV file as its sound source and breaks the sample into tiny pieces called "grains." It then plays them consecutively, automatically crossfading between them. This allows you to time stretch a sample without altering the apparent pitch of the sound. You can control the length of the grains, the crossfade length, and the starting point of the sample; for example, you can stretch only the last portion of a sample, leaving the attack unchanged.
A CHANGE IS GONNA COMEVAZ Modular offers a huge toolbox full of things you can throw at - and into - your Audio Source modules.
There are very flexible modulation-routing options, and you can modulate nearly any input on the different modules. For starters, there are several variations on the old standby LFO. The basic module has variable Rate and Waveshape controls, both of which can be modulated. Two additional LFOs offer only sine and triangle shapes, along with a single control for rate.
The Multi Phase LFO outputs four saw and four triangle waveforms. You can set the delay between the waveforms (in fractions of a cycle) for some very cool control possibilities. Each output is typically routed to a different destination, but if you want to apply a combined signal to one input, simply route the four LFOs into a four-input mixer and route the mixer's output to the destination. I tried this and quickly came up with an interesting "heartbeat" throb effect with a single-oscillator synthesizer.
In addition to internal modulation sources, you can alter a module's values via MIDI. Setting this up couldn't be easier. Just right-click on a control, choose Learn MIDI, then move the slider or knob on your MIDI device that you want to assign to the control. If you have an external MIDI control surface or if you like to record your automation data in a sequencer, you'll find this feature very useful.
THERE'S MORE IN THE BOXVAZ Modular offers many flexible filters, such as Resonant, Comb, One-Pole, State Variable, and the very cool Vowel filter. The Vowel filter is a 5-stage module, each stage of which offers ten different vowel sounds to shape the input signal. The filter interpolates from one stage/vowel sound to the next for smooth timbre changes. You can also choose from five "voice-type" presets, including male and female speech and singing.
The Waveshaper module is quite interesting but is poorly explained in the documentation. It provides a set of 17 sliders that control how the input-amplitude values of your source will be remapped to new output values. The position of the sliders themselves forms the transfer function, so it's easy to visualize what type of modification you're going to apply to the sound. You can see at the top of Fig. 4 that a diagonal line extending from the lower left to the upper right of the screen produces no change to the sine-waveform source file because every value simply passes unaltered. But the transfer curve shown at the bottom of Fig. 4 will produce some nice distortion. Once you get the hang of it, you'll find the Waveshaper lets you create very complex and rich-sounding waveforms from any input source.
Other Audio Processing modules include the Amplifier, Decimator, Parametric EQ, Frequency Shifter, and Sub Oscillator (which produces waveforms an octave lower than the input).
VAZ Modular also boasts a small group of built-in effects: Chorus, Delay, Flanger, Phaser, and Reverb. These are very basic, and each offers only a few parameters, but the program supports both DirectX and VST plug-ins. In fact, plans are afoot to release VAZ Modular as a VST Instrument. (Software Technologies also expects to release a VST version of VAZ Plus; see the sidebar "VAZ Plus 1.7".)
PATCHMAKER, PATCHMAKERI found it quite easy to create Synth designs and Patches with VAZ Modular. If you're a little rusty at working with LFOs and oscillators or a just a bit green, hone your chops with the tutorial and save a few simple Synth configurations to disk. You can then go back and use these as the building blocks for more complex designs. (It would be helpful if examples of this type were provided with the program.)
The minimum configuration for a playable VAZ Modular synth consists of a sound source, such as an Oscillator module; a CV Converter to translate computer-keyboard or MIDI notes into pitches and control signals, provide arpeggiation, and so forth; an Amplifier module to control output levels; and a Master Controller module where MIDI channels, polyphony, and other settings are made.
Starting from this simple design, I built my first patch in about an hour. I exchanged the Oscillator for a Multi Oscillator and added depth by detuning its four waveforms. Taking a cue from the tutorial, I used a simple ADSR Envelope to shape the Multi Oscillator's output. This gave the sound a more organic feel. Then I dropped in a Mixer module, so I could add a Flanger in parallel with the Oscillator's "clean" output and control the levels of both sounds. I also used an LFO to modulate the frequency of the Oscillator. With just a bit more tweaking, I had a searing lead sound with character and tonal depth and a nasty bite to its attack.
When designing patches in VAZ Modular, you can change any parameter or connection while the synth you are working on continues to play. You can hear your changes as you go, and the Snapshot feature is great for quickly saving promising settings. These interactive capabilities have some serious performance implications though, which I'll discuss next.
COMMAND CPU PERFORMANCEVAZ Modular (like all software-only synthesizer programs) uses your computer's CPU and RAM as resources for sound generation. The demands placed on your system increase with the complexity and number of voices and effects you employ.
Running a single polyphonic voice in VAZ Modular on a Pentium II/366 MHz Celeron-based PC raised no performance issues and left me plenty of untapped CPU power, according to the Windows 98 system monitor. When I created a bank with four polyphonic patches of four voices each, I noticed two things that initially troubled me: VAZ Modular was using a huge chunk of CPU power, even when it wasn't in the foreground or playing any notes. In addition, it grabbed a large chunk of memory and hung on to it until I terminated the program.
Martin Fay, the creator of VAZ Modular, explained that the VAZ synth engine is always "running," similar to the circuits of a powered up analog synth. For example, LFOs are still oscillating, whether or not any notes are being played. This is a conscious design decision on the developer's part and, as it turns out, one with distinct advantages. Among other things, it makes VAZ Modular incredibly responsive in terms of latency and user interactivity. When designing synths, you get instant and constant feedback to the changes and tweaks you make.
On the down side, this "background processing" can have an adverse effect. Screen redraw times, for example, suffer out of proportion to the system load. (I tested with a state-of-the-art AGP graphics card, so the load on the CPU should have been minimal.)
Fortunately, VAZ Modular gives you several options to deal with the processing issue. These include a Mute hot key, which quickly turns off all of VAZ Modular's processing, thereby freeing the CPU for other tasks. (This also closes any open audio drivers.) Also, a Background Mute setting stops all processing whenever you switch from VAZ Modular to another program. Individual synths can be muted through the On button found on each channel strip in the Mixer window, which also lowers the demand on the CPU. This can also be accomplished via MIDI, so with careful planning, you can have many synths loaded but turn them on and off as needed.
THE SHAPE OF SOUND TO COMEVAZ Modular offers an infinite set of design possibilities. Its sonic quality is very high, and the synths sound authentic. (Try the comparison test, which pits VAZ Modular against recordings of actual hardware synths at the company's Web site.)
Another strong point of VAZ is the reuse of components in its user interface. For example, most of the Audio Source modules share common parameters. These include the pitch section, in which you can select a modulation input to control pitch; and the tuning section, which is configurable over six octaves and adjustable in 1-cent increments. This makes it easier to learn the program, a task that can appear daunting at first, given the number of module types available and their apparent complexity.
If you love to get elbow-deep into synth design or require a huge amount of creative flexibility in your vintage synth sounds, VAZ Modular may be the answer for you. However, make sure you have lots of CPU power on hand if you plan to use a number of synth patches or voices at the same time or if you plan to drive VAZ from a digital audio program while playing audio off the hard disk.
If designing synth patches simply isn't your bag, are the modular capabilities of VAZ Modular overkill? Not at all. Even if you never design a synth of your own, the wealth of presets make VAZ Modular a worthwhile and cost-effective tool. It's a great way to expand the sonic palette of your desktop studio.
If you want to get your feet wet with the VAZ style of emulated analog synthesis but don't want to jump completely into the pond, take a look at the budget-priced VAZ Plus 1.7 (Win; $35 download; $40 on CD). VAZ Plus is more akin to a dedicated hardware synth than VAZ Modular; in effect, the signal path of its oscillators and filters can't be altered. You can, of course, modulate any of the audio modules, and VAZ Plus also sports the same internal algorithms as its big sibling, as well as a similar look and feel. What you give up is the modular, building-block approach to synth design that distinguishes VAZ Modular.
What kind of a synth does VAZ Plus offer? A very versatile one, as it turns out. Among the modules are two oscillators, two LFOs, a resonant filter, an amplifier, a portamento control, and a sequencer. The second of the two oscillators offers more parameters than the first; for example, there are more tuning options and the option of wavetable playback.
The complex filter yields loads of options to spice up your sounds. As with VAZ Modular, many controls can be modulated with LFOs or other inputs to give you deep, kaleidoscopic electronic colors. The sequencer window is just like the one in VAZ Modular, minus one or two controls. There is no mixer window, which is no big loss, as VAZ Plus supports only one synth at a time. However, like VAZ Modular, VAZ Plus is polyphonic. The polyphony setting hides in the Preferences dialog - once set, it applies to whatever Patch settings you load.
Want more? There's an arpeggiator similar to that in the full-blown product, with options to select direction, number of octaves, randomization types, and more. Another addition, which VAZ Modular doesn't include, is a list of built-in presets that are conveniently available from the main menu. VAZ Plus was meant to be played and enjoyed right out of the box (or download file, as it were). And of course, you can save and load your own customized patches.
Besides being an inexpensive way to test the VAZ approach, VAZ Plus serves as a viable, inexpensive analog synth that gives you good bang for the buck.