If you're a fan of big, fat analog sounds, check out VAZ 2010. Software Technology has taken a subset of its well-respected VAZ Modular's features and served them up in a powerful but user-friendly configuration at a very reasonable price. Although it's available only for Wintel machines, VAZ 2010 offers compatibility with DXi and VSTi plug-in standards, and it also functions in standalone mode.
Despite its fixed architecture, VAZ 2010 offers a great deal of flexibility in designing patches, and with all its complexity, it's still relatively easy on your computer's processor. I tested it on a Celeron 1 GHz notebook with 512 MB of RAM, and seven VAZ 2010 synthesizers tipped Cakewalk Sonar's CPU meter at about 30 percent. The CPU load under Steinberg Cubase VST was similar. When used in standalone mode without a sequencer running concurrently, the overall CPU load would be even less.
VAZ 2010 features 16 synthesizers (see Fig. 1); each one has its own step sequencer. All of the synths run through a 16-channel mixer that supports VST and DirectX plug-ins (on all 16 channels) and also provides a handful of useful built-in effects. With that much going on, you could do a significant amount of work without ever leaving standalone mode.
Two oscillators are available, and a third source can be mixed with them. Options for the third source include ring modulator, noise, the output of the mod amplifier, or an external audio source. You can also set LFO 1 to track the keyboard as a third oscillator. The three sound sources ordinarily feed the filter, but you can use a Post button for each source to bypass the filter.
Available waveforms for Oscillators 1 and 2 include sawtooth, pulse, and multisaw, a combination of four sawtooth waves. The wavetable/sample option is a nice bonus; it allows anything from using an audio file as a waveform to basic key-mapped sample playback. Additionally, Oscillator 1 features an external input, and Oscillator 2 provides oscillator sync, a powerful way to create complex waveforms.
Every waveform offers a variable parameter, and any of a number of sources can modulate that parameter. (In fact, almost anything can be modulated in VAZ 2010, as you will see.) The sawtooth can be morphed into a triangle, the pulse wave's width can be varied, the multisaw can be detuned, and so forth. Each oscillator also has two points at which you can patch in frequency-modulation sources.
Various filter configurations are available, including 2-pole variable- and fixed-resonance bandwidth lowpass, bandpass, and highpass types, as well as another 2- or 4-pole type that offers separation modulation. Separate controls for cutoff, resonance, and bandwidth are provided, along with three points to patch in cutoff modulation sources and one for resonance modulation. If you think that sounds like a lot of power to create dynamic timbres, you're right; VAZ 2010 leaves no excuses for making boring, static sounds.
THE MOD SQUAD
The list of modulation sources is quite extensive and applies to all modulation destinations (see Fig. 2). You can assign a modulation source to any number of simultaneous destinations. Each destination has a slider to control modulation amount and a +/- switch for inverting the parameter's response.
Three variable-rate LFOs are available, each with its own characteristics. LFO 1 offers sawtooth and pulse waveforms; the symmetry of either can be varied. A Trigger switch causes the LFO to restart its cycle at the beginning of each note; otherwise, the LFO cycles continuously without regard to what's being played, lending variety to the note attacks.
LFO 2 also features the Trigger option, but its waveforms are triangle or sample and hold. A variation slider causes a delay in the onset of modulation for the triangle wave and causes the sample and hold to slide from one value to the next. LFO 3 simply offers triangle and sine waves.
The two ADSR envelope generators can be set to one of four modes. The default mode allows for legato behavior for a monophonic synth. In that mode, successive notes with no space between them do not retrigger the envelope's attack, emulating a slurred articulation on a wind or string instrument. The Multi switch overrides that behavior, causing the envelope to retrigger at each new note. Reset forces the envelope to close completely prior to each attack, effectively ensuring that the envelope completes its cycle for each note. Cycle causes the envelope to return to the attack as soon as it reaches its sustain, giving a repetitive effect. Using Cycle mode, it took me about three seconds to duplicate the pinging sound my car makes when I open the door without turning off my lights. Shortening the decay time caused the envelope to recycle quickly enough that it became an audible frequency component.
The three oscillators can be used as modulation sources (for example, filter cutoff could be made to track pitch), as can a built-in noise source or the external input. Accent and two other modulation sources are available directly from the step sequencer, allowing sonic variations to track the sequence's melodic variations. Of course, MIDI Velocity and Channel Pressure are fair game. Moreover, two MIDI Control Change messages can be defined in VAZ's preferences as mod sources. A simple MIDI Learn function allows you to attach MIDI messages to virtually any slider.
Finally, two modulation sources are provided for (are you ready for this?) modulating other modulation sources. The Mod Amplifier allows you to change the amplitude of an LFO or other modulation source, and that amplitude can even be modulated. The Lag Processor effectively smears the shape of any modulation source, with the result that, for example, a square wave LFO would end up more like a trapezoid. The degree of smearing is determined by the Time slider.
When you've fried your brain from working out all the possible modulation routings, don't forget to use the Amplifier section to assign a volume envelope or to create interesting amplitude-modulation effects. Adding a bit of Overdrive lends a satisfying degree of grit to the sound, as you might expect. Synths can be polyphonic with as many as 16 voices, monophonic, or unison, meaning that only one note at a time can sound, but it uses all available voices. Mono and unison modes can use high-, low-, or last-note priority. A rare Duo mode assigns the lowest note to Oscillator 1 and the highest note to Oscillator 2.
Portamento variations include the default always-on mode, an auto mode that slides only between overlapping notes in mono or unison mode, and an exponential glide whose rate increases with the size of the interval. The arpeggiator offers up, down, up-and-down, and two random modes over a four-octave range.
Each synth has a corresponding step sequencer (see Fig. 3). A sequencer allows you to program up to 16 different patterns of 16 steps each, and the Song Editor allows you to chain patterns together and transpose them independently up to a length of 255 patterns. A pattern can have up to 16 independent voices. Various options for controlling and varying pattern playback are available.
You can set the tempo in one-beat increments from 1 to 500 bpm, or you can lock the sequencer to an external source such as a sequencing program. Each step can trigger modulation of synth parameters with an Accent switch and two Control sliders.
Step sequencers are not usually my weapon of choice, but VAZ 2010's sequencers kept me interested for a good long time. They offer enough complexity to build interesting lines, yet they are easy to use.
VAZ 2010 is a snap to integrate with a sequencing program such as Cubase VST or Sonar because it supports the VSTi and DXi virtual-instrument standards. At first, though, I had some difficulty getting VAZ to respond on more than one synth at a time. No matter what channel I transmitted on, the topmost synth in the editor was the only one that played. I eventually determined that it was because the MIDI Auto Thru setting automatically routed any MIDI input to the topmost synth — as you would want it to for auditioning or designing patches. For multitimbral recording and playback, however, MIDI Auto Thru needs to be turned off. (The option is set to off by default.)
Although VAZ 2010 doesn't report patch names to the host application, it does allow you to build a map of 128 patches that can then be addressed by program change messages from your sequencing software. That's simple but time-consuming to set up — fortunately, most users will only have to endure the process once. One cool feature worth mentioning lets you audition patches directly from the Open Patch dialog box. That helps a lot when you're digging through piles of patches, looking for the perfect sound or sequence.
A SYNTH ODYSSEY
In your sequencing program, you can record VAZ 2010's tracks to audio tracks, as you can with any VSTi or DXi plug-in. Sequences within VAZ 2010 can be “captured,” or rendered as audio files that you can then import into your sequencing program.
You can also use VAZ as an effects processor. In Sonar, for example, you would simply assign VAZ as an insert effect and then choose External Input as Oscillator 1's waveform. You could then apply VAZ's filter and any modulation effects to any audio passing through that Sonar track. Any effects applied in VAZ's mixer are also applied to the Sonar track, allowing you to combine DirectX and VST plug-ins on the same track. That provides a handy way to add multiple VSTi plug-ins to a program, even if the program only supports the Dxi format.
The mixer within VAZ 2010 is pretty interesting, with an insert on each synth and two aux sends. One of the built-in effects is a plug-in chainer, which allows you to string together four effects on a synth channel. The other built-in effects are simple but useful — not the sort of thing that will make you toss your favorite VST or DirectX bundle, but appropriate for the sort of sound-shaping for which VAZ is intended.
Just about the only negative I can throw at VAZ 2010 is that its documentation is on the skimpy side. The material that's there is good, but, for example, there is no mention about using VAZ as a VSTi or DXi. I liked the seven one-page tutorials on designing sounds; more of those would be helpful.
Software Technology maintains an online forum for registered users. On the forum, you stand a good chance of interacting with Martin Fay, the brains behind the VAZ family. Scores of downloadable patches designed by fellow VAZ users are available to expand your sonic palette or to use as models for your own designs. That level of support mitigates my complaints about documentation somewhat, but not entirely.
I would have been impressed with VAZ 2010's sound and architecture at almost any price, but at the price Software Technology is charging, VAZ is a no-brainer for anyone with the least interest in analog modeling. Whether you're looking to rock the dance floor with some mondo bass tones or you're itching to build your analog-sound-design chops, you'll get more than you bargained for with VAZ 2010.
Minimum System Requirements
Pentium II/350; 64 MB RAM;
VAZ 2010 (Win)
$171.83 (download only)
FEATURES4.5EASE OF USE4.0QUALITY OF SOUNDS4.0VALUE4.5RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Great analog-modeling sounds. Great bang for the buck. Operates in standalone, VSTi, or DXi mode. Supports VST and DirectX plug-ins along with several built-in effects. Flexible mixer routing. Extensive modulation possibilities. Useful step sequencers.
CONS: Documentation is skimpy. Does not report patch names to the host application.