D'cota is a VSTi plug-in that offers two unusual kinds of synthesis as well as analog-like capabilities. These allow you to create animated, plucked, and metallic tones that have extraordinary richness (see Web Clip 1).
Except in a few details, D'cota is a stripped-down repackaging of the VirSyn TERA software synthesizer. Steinberg's intent was to offer a simplified version of the program that has the same sound quality but is quicker and easier to use. (For more information about VirSyn TERA, see “Virtual Workstations” in the March 2003 issue of EM, also available online at www.emusician.com.)
THREE IN ONE
D'cota is set up as three separate synthesizers in one VST plug-in. With two trivial exceptions, the three front panels don't interact with one another. Using the blue buttons in the upper right corner of the D'cota window, you can choose the panel you want to see: Analog, Spectrum, or Wave. D'cota is 8-part multitimbral, so you don't have to instantiate the plug-in multiple times in order to use all three synthesis methods.
All three panels share a single set of four ADSR envelope generators, two LFOs, and three built-in effects processors (distortion, delay, and chorus/flange/phase; see Fig. 1). Each multitimbral part has its own effects, which is a big plus.
The Analog panel has three oscillators and a resonant multimode filter. FM, hard sync, wave modulation, and an arpeggiator are available, and you can choose from a list of 64 single-cycle waveforms. This is a beefy-sounding and capable synth. For basses, leads, and pads, it will do the job with power to spare.
Spectrum is a wonderful source for thick, shimmering pads, otherworldly bells, and timbres that are difficult to describe. You have independent control over two frequency spectra using a graphic display, and you can morph between the spectra, sweep them up and down, and use as many as six oscillators with any amount of detuning; large amounts produce truly massive tone clusters. I love this tone generator. No studio should be without one.
Wave uses a simplified version of the Spectrum synth as one of its sound sources (see Fig. 2). Its output is routed through three fast delay lines with feedback — comb filters, in other words. The three filters can be detuned from one another to get beating or tone clusters. In my experiments, this synthesis method proved a bit hard to control. I got some evocative steel-pan sounds and tormented organs, but tweeter-melting overtones sometimes jumped out at me when I played up and down the keyboard.
Filling out the remainder of the Wave panel is a 16-step analog-style sequencer. This only works with the Wave synth; neither Analog nor Spectrum has this type, but that's not much of a loss, because it's not much of a sequencer. For each step, you can choose the MIDI note, Velocity, and one controller amount, which can be used for various types of modulation. You can create up to 16 separate sequences, each of which can be assigned a trigger key on the MIDI keyboard, and each D'cota patch can store its own set of sequences. I was hoping to be able to trigger several sequences from the keyboard at once to get some syncopated polyphony, but it turns out this is possible only in multitimbral operation, because only one sequence will play at a time on any given channel. The sequencer is supposed to be able to create legato steps, but I couldn't get that feature to work. Individual steps can be turned into rests, but the pattern as a whole is always 16 steps long.
Click on the button labeled C to bring up a strip of buttons with which you access D'cota's modulation routings. On the strip are buttons for the envelopes, LFOs, Velocity, and so on. Click on one of these buttons and the knobs affected by the chosen modulation source will get blue or orange shading.
This system is easy to understand, but not so easy to use. You can only view the destinations and amounts for one controller at a time, and you have to close the controller strip before editing the basic values of parameters. When the strip is open, each time you touch a knob with the mouse you'll be editing the modulation amount, not the value of the knob itself. Since it's often necessary to adjust basic parameter values side by side with modulation amounts, I found that I had to open and close the controller strip repeatedly while editing patches, which was a bit annoying.
THE WAVE SYNTH
The idea behind D'cota's Wave panel is simple, yet powerful: take an audio source and run it through three fast delay lines in parallel; allow the user to control the amount of feedback in the delay lines, so that they become highly resonant; put a gentle lowpass filter in the delay loop so that tones can gradually lose their highs while decaying; allow the delay lines to be detuned from one another for chorusing and tone cluster effects; and allow them to track the keyboard so they behave like oscillators. The rich tone colors produced by the Wave synth range from glassy bells to ethereal pads.
D'cota provides two audio sources for this algorithm — a slightly simplified version of the Spectrum (as I mentioned earlier) and a noise source. If you use an envelope with an instant attack and a quick decay, so that the audio input to the delay lines is no more than a quick impulse, you have a classic Karplus-Strong plucked-string algorithm. With a more sustained input, the delay lines function as resonators. And because the noise source (a knob labeled Crackle) can be given its own envelope, you can add a little sparkle to sustaining tones even after the Spectrum Oscillator has provided the impulse and then vanished.
The Spectrum tone generator allows you to draw two independent frequency spectra and morph between them. Up to six oscillator tones can be fed into the input of the spectra, and there are half a dozen waveform choices. A pair of cutoff knobs let you squash some of the highs if you need to. A more exotic knob called Raster lets you skip some of the overtones in the middle of the spectrum.
Modulating the morph knob from an envelope or LFO can provide some spectacular animation. As you detune the six oscillators from one another, even richer effects come into play. Add a little stereo delay and you might discover a dream cathedral organ or the steam pipes from hell. The Spectrum panel is a wonderful resource for anyone who's searching for fresh electronic sounds.
Considered on its own merits, D'cota is a respectable plug-in synth that is capable of a broad range of inspiring tones. (For audio examples, see Web Clips 2, 3, and 4). And during the review period, the software was extremely stable.
In retooling VirSyn TERA as D'cota, Steinberg got rid of TERA's deeper and more powerful features. (For a direct comparison between the two synths, see the sidebar “D'cota vs. TERA: Head to Head.”) If D'cota's price reflected a reduction in features, it would be a worthwhile purchase for those who don't need everything that TERA has to offer. However, the difference between the two programs is a mere $30 — D'cota lists for $249.99 and TERA for $279.
Steinberg justifies D'cota by suggesting that it is significantly easier to use than TERA. For newcomers to synth programming, this may be true. Although mastering TERA's signal routing takes a few minutes of study, the program is very well designed ergonomically. In my opinion, the major increase in power more than compensates for the very minor increase in effort.
If Steinberg were to set a more realistic price for D'cota, I'd recommend the synth without hesitation. For anyone who needs vibrant, expressive electronic sounds, it has a lot to offer.
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: G4/400 MHz (500 MHz recommended); 20 MB free RAM; Mac OS 9 or OS X 10.2; VST 2.0 — compatible host application
PC: Pentium III or Athlon/600 MHz (800 MHz recommended); 20 MB free RAM; Windows 2000 or XP; VST 2.0 — compatible host application
TERA VS. D'COTA: HEAD TO HEAD
So let's say you want to save $30. What will you be missing out on if you buy D'cota rather than TERA, and what will you get that TERA owners don't? Here are the most significant differences:
In the plus column for D'cota, the Wave synthesis page has three delay/comb filters, which can be detuned from one another. TERA has only one, the Wave Delay module. Depending on your processor, D'cota can yield 128 voices and TERA 64 voices. D'cota's Spectrum panel gives you a choice of six waveforms; TERA's Spectrum Oscillator offers only one. D'cota also has a random patch generator.
In TERA, audio-signal routing is user-configurable at such a deep level that it's doubtful many sound designers have fully explored the possibilities. On the other hand, D'cota has major timbral limitations, because its signal routing of audio is fixed. For example, you can't run the output of D'cota's Spectrum or Wave through the filter in the Analog panel. The Spectrum panel has its own cutoff knobs, but the filtering they provide is always lowpass and is not resonant. TERA's Spectrum Oscillator has one knob, labeled Spectrum, that provides lowpass filtering for both the A and B spectra. In TERA, the Spectrum Oscillator and Wave Delay can be run through all three of its filters, in series, parallel, or both at once. They can also be used as a source for FM and ring modulation.
Envelopes in TERA have an initial delay stage that was omitted from D'cota's envelopes, and TERA's envelopes can be triggered by its LFOs. In addition, TERA has four LFOs, whereas D'cota has only two. TERA's method of handling modulation routings is more precise and easier to use than the D'cota method. In TERA, precise numerical values are displayed for the modulation amounts, and you can move knobs on the panel while a modulation-amount box is open.
TERA runs either standalone or as a VST plug-in, but D'cota is strictly a VST plug-in. TERA is 16-part multitimbral and has global reverb and chorus effects in its mixer section. D'cota is 8-part multitimbral and has no global effects. TERA provides multiple banks of 128 programs each, all of which can be accessed directly from pull-down menus. D'cota ships with three banks of 64 programs each, and only one bank is active at a time.
Last but not least, TERA has a unique four-panel mouse-operated control surface (D'cota has none) and a powerful step sequencer and arpeggiator that dwarfs the toylike sequencer and arpeggiator in D'cota.
D'cota 1.0 (Mac/Win)
FEATURES3.0EASE OF USE3.5QUALITY OF SOUNDS4.0VALUE2.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Powerful. Rich-sounding. Unusual types of synthesis.
CONS: Separation between analog panel and other synthesis types significantly reduces timbral flexibility. Less bang for the buck than VirSyn TERA, from which it's derived.