At first glance, Xphraze looks like a standard subtractive synth with a step sequencer placed prominently in the middle of its interface. Looks can be deceiving: Xphraze is anything but standard. The included multipart patches (called Combis) will keep you busy, but don't overlook the programming power under the hood. Once you get your hands on this synth, you won't want to let go.
Xphraze is a VST 2.0 — format soft-synth plug-in for Mac and PC, and as such, requires a VST 2.0 — compatible host. For this review I used Steinberg's Cubase SX 2.0 and Emagic's Logic 6.3.1 (after converting Xphraze to Audio Unit format using FXpansion's VST to AudioUnit Adapter). Xphraze needs a lot of horsepower, so you'll want a hefty computer to make the most of it. My G4/800 MHz PowerBook could typically manage four voices with complex Combis and several more with simpler ones, even after making use of the handy tips in the manual for conserving CPU power.
Xphraze combines two classic synthesis techniques — wave sequencing and vector synthesis. Wave sequencing is accomplished using the Phraze Generator, the front-panel section that resembles a step sequencer (see Fig. 1). It acts as the oscillator for the subtractive-synth-style modules surrounding it. Vectoring is controlled on the Advanced control panel (see Fig. 2). Vectoring determines the relative level of four independent wave-sequenced patches, which, in essence, amounts to vectored wave sequencing.
The subtractive-synth modules associated with the Phraze Generator include a multimode filter and amplifier (each with a dedicated, loopable envelope generator), two additional auxiliary envelope generators, four LFOs, and a multi-effects processor with 24 effects covering the usual bases. The interesting twist here is that the Phraze Generator's output is treated as a single sound source — for example, the entire Phraze is affected by a single envelope sweep. There's a very flexible modulation matrix (see Fig. 3) for routing the envelopes, LFOs, and a variety of MIDI controllers to virtually any synthesis parameter. The same modulation source can be routed to multiple destinations, each with its own polarity and amount. That allows you to do things like pitch-bend patches in different directions, pan outputs apart and together with the same MIDI controller, and modulate envelope attack and decay times with Velocity.
The envelopes and LFOs are especially noteworthy for their flexibility. The envelopes can have as many as 128 breakpoints, and each segment has an adjustable curve. Breakpoint times can be set in note increments or time values with the smallest step being a 128th note or 7.8 ms. Any range of breakpoints can be designated as a loop, and looping can be forward or alternating. As you can imagine, envelopes can get pretty complex, and fortunately, they can be copied and pasted. Other useful envelope features include normalizing and instant halving and doubling of tempo. The LFOs are from Steinberg's Plex plug-in. Each LFO is actually a 16-step sequencer with adjustable smoothing between steps. Shape buttons let you select typical LFO waveforms with full smoothing, and a random button produces a random sequence, which, when smoothing is turned down, acts like a sample and hold.
Xphraze contains four identical synthesizers, each of which can be assigned to any of the first four MIDI channels. Combis usually layer the synths on the same channel, but you can also use Xphraze as a multichannel synth. The File Browser at the left of the control panel allows you to manage presets at all levels, from full Combis to individual synthesizer patches to Xphraze patterns. It is also used for loading your own multisamples into the Phraze Generator.
WHAT'S IN A PHRAZE
The name Xphraze leaves little doubt that the Phraze Generator is at the heart of this synth. It is a 32-step sequencer in which each step plays an oscillator waveform or an audio sample. The key here is that you can change the sound source at each step. For example, you could use different samples (even from entirely different multisampled instruments) at each step to produce a drum, or bass, or lead sequence. You could also use a different waveform at each step to evolve a complex wave sequence or crossfade between extended audio clips at each step to produce long evolving pads and ambiences. Because the step size can range from a 64th-note triplet to 8 bars, you can produce a wide range of effects using almost any kind of audio material.
In addition to having its own multisample or oscillator waveform, each Phraze Generator step has six modulation parameters that can be routed to modulate virtually any parameter of the surrounding synth modules. The sixth parameter slot has an overall-amount control to scale the individual step settings — a nice touch. This control can be modulated by MIDI controllers or by Xphraze's built-in LFOs and envelopes. In short, a Phraze is a whole lot more than a sequence of notes.
Each Phraze Generator can hold four Phrazes, though only one can play at a time. You select Phrazes with MIDI Program Change messages or with MIDI Note messages using Xmode. (More on the live-performance modes, Xmode and Xmix, in a moment.) Phrazes and loops need not be 32 steps — you can adjust the beginning and end as well as the loop boundaries. Because you can easily copy and paste between Phraze buffers, changing end and loop points is a great tool for quickly getting variations of your favorite Phrazes. Phrazes can be looped forward, backward, or alternating with or without repeated endpoints. Looping can be turned off so that each note triggers one pass of the Phraze. Steps can be crossfaded by varying degrees, facilitating smooth transitions for pads and ambiences as well as complete separation for percussive sounds. Finally, the two triggering modes allow Phrazes to be restarted with each incoming note or to pick up at the current Phraze position.
BEYOND THE PHRAZE
Xphraze's Advanced control panel (which you access by clicking the Advanced button to the left of the onscreen keyboard) is used to set up vector synthesis (automated mixing of the four patch slots), create your own multisamples, manage global effects routing and mixing, and activate the performance modes, Xmode and Xmix. Xmode lets you use MIDI notes G, A, B, and C in your choice of octave to switch Phraze buffers for any or all of the patch slots. Xmix (short for Xtended Remix) lets you use the notes between C1 and B3 on a selected MIDI channel to mute and unmute patch slots and to select Phraze buffers. Notes C4 and above on the Xmix channel play normally.
The Master FX section features an independent multi-effects processor for each of Xphraze's four outputs. Those effects offer more controls than the patch effects, but they can't be modulated. Any patch can be routed to any of the four outputs, which means that you could assign each patch its own Master effect. More typically, all the patches would be routed to the same output, and one Master effect would be used to process all four patches.
The multisample editor lets you create your own multisamples as sources for the Phraze Generator. You can have up to 16 user multisamples for each patch slot, and they function exactly the way the factory multisamples and oscillator waveforms do. To create a multisample, you load audio files either singly or in batches into Xphraze's Multisample Mapper. If you load a batch of samples, Xphraze will automatically map them to the correct keys if root-key and key-range information is included in the sample file; otherwise they will be mapped to consecutive keys starting with C3. The automatic mapping worked for all of the samples I tried, but the mapping to consecutive keys when no information was present didn't work in every case. Once samples are loaded into the Multisample Mapper, you can adjust their positions and borders. A more fully featured mapping scheme (with Velocity zones, for example) would be nice, but the ability to create multisamples is in itself a terrific feature.
Xphraze takes an automated approach to vector synthesis. Each corner of the vector-synthesis rhombus (visible on the left side of Fig. 2) corresponds to one of the four patch slots, and the position of the vector inside the rhombus controls the mix of the four patches. You can automate the vector's position using a dedicated envelope generator as well as a mix of the four LFOs from the first patch slot. That allows you to create a huge variety of automated mix patterns. The MP3 example Vectorama (see Web Clip 1) uses envelope and LFO vectoring to control the mix of four ambient patches. The vector-synthesis section can be turned off, leaving individual patch volumes to control the mix. Although you can't control the vector position manually or with MIDI, you can accomplish much the same thing by using the Modulation Matrix to assign a MIDI controller with differing amounts and polarities to the individual patch volumes.
Xphraze is a most unusual synth plug-in. The manual is excellent; the factory Combis include a wide range of building blocks for sound creation. A synth that does this much takes time to learn, but if you have a fast enough computer, Xphraze is well worth the effort and is a great value.
Len Sassocan be contacted through his Web site atwww.swiftkick.com.
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: G4/400 MHz; 70 MB RAM; Mac OS 9 or OS X 10.2; VST 2.0 — compatible host
PC: Pentium III/600 MHz; 70 MB RAM; Windows 2000 or XP;
VST 2.0 — compatible host
Xphraze 1.1 (Mac/Win)
FEATURES4.5EASE OF USE4.0QUALITY OF SOUNDS4.5VALUE4.5RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Unique and flexible synthesis architecture. Broad spectrum of factory sounds. Excellent documentation.
CONS: Requires powerful CPU. Limited multisample mapping.