The ARP 2600 has been one of the most revered synthesizers in electronic music since its introduction in 1971, a scant few months after the Minimoog's debut. With all the physicality of moving sliders and the ability to use patch cords, the 2600 was a delight. Nonetheless, it went the way of all analog synths, replaced by newer keyboard synths or, more recently, soft synths running on a computer. Still, over the years, the 2600's legend has lived on.
FIG. 1: TimewARP 2600''s main screen looks just like an ARP 2600, with the addition of the comments field in the lower left and the control bar along the top. The left side of the control bar accesses presets, and the right side has configuration and status functions.
A Soft Alternative
Way Out Ware (WOW) TimewARP 2600 1.15 takes on the legacy of the ARP 2600, attempting to capture its sound and flexibility and fuse it with programmability, MIDI, and polyphony to make something that could be seen as better than the original. And, by gum, it is.
TimewARP replicates the original 2600 in absolutely every sense (see Fig. 1). It's a good-enough knockoff to earn the endorsement of Alan R. Pearlman (ARP), who created the 2600. (The features of the original are well documented, so I won't spend time on them in this review.)
TimewARP can run under Mac OS X or Windows XP and is available in RTAS, AU, and VST plug-in formats. It can also run as a standalone instrument. After installation, two versions of the software show up; the one intended to be used as a plug-in on an audio track has efx appended to its name.
WOW's Jim Heintz emphasizes that TimewARP is fully optimized for Digidesign Pro Tools 7, though it runs just as well under any supported host. In all cases it runs native, so it is capable of putting a hit on your CPU, especially if you play more than one voice.
WOW did its best to capture all the features and nuances of the original, but it also took advantage of the additional capabilities emulation offers. That translates into polyphony: up to eight voices from a single instance of TimewARP. My now-doddering 800 MHz Power Mac G4 running OS X 10.3.9 could barely handle more than one voice at a time, but I would expect a G5 to be perfectly happy cranking out multiple voices, and a quad-core machine probably rocks with TimewARP.
Patch It Up
Patching between “jacks” is accomplished by clicking-and-dragging from one jack to the next; a little virtual patch cord appears to make the connection. One advantage of the virtual world is that running out of patch cables is not a problem with TimewARP.
But though it may seem cute to have little swinging virtual cables, this cuteness comes at the expense of functionality — they obscure panel features and legends just as annoyingly as physical cables do. If there are more than a few cables, as is the case on most presets, you can't differentiate between them when they cross or even when they're just very close. That makes it hard to see what connections are being made. After all, one of the wonderful things about the 2600 was that the normaled signal path eliminated the need for many cables.
A lot of front-panel emulations are equally dumb, as rotary pots make elegant physical controllers but awkward virtual ones. However, in the case of TimewARP, the front-panel emulation might be justified for two reasons (even if the cables are not). First, the physical layout of the 2600's front panel and its graphics were key to the usability of the machine. Second, all of the controls except the preamp gain were sliders, which translate better to the virtual world than rotary pots.
FIG. 2: TimewARP 2600 responds to a wide range of MIDI continuous controllers. Most parameters have a dialog box such as the one shown here to set up MIDI control.
Flexible patching is just the start, however, as you can map all controls to MIDI continuous controllers as well as to Velocity, Aftertouch, and Mod Wheel (see Fig. 2). Each mapping has its own range setting, polarity switch, and a choice of three sensitivity (scaling) curves. Of course, TimewARP can also be played from a MIDI keyboard or other instrument controller.
It's good that assigning MIDI controls is so easy, because it's the only way for TimewARP to catch up to the original in terms of tactile control. Without physical controls to move, it's not really possible to extract the same level of gesture that can be done with something you actually touch. To get out of TimewARP what you could get out of the 2600, you should have a control surface with a bunch of sliders and take the time to do the mappings. Once you do, the map is stored independently of individual patches, so it remains in effect globally. Though not quite as good as being able to reach into the graphic on the front panel, grab a slider, and move it, mapping sliders is an adequate method of gaining expressive control over TimewARP.
When TimewARP is inserted in an audio track, its internal clock and/or keyboard LFO can be synced to MIDI Beat Clock from the host. The Beat Clock sync rate can be defined in terms of 2600-LFO transitions per beat-clock division; fooling around with this setting to obtain different subdivision relationships leads to all sorts of rhythmic fun.
Presets and Preamp
The 2600 predated programmable presets. WOW, on the other hand, revels in them. TimewARP comes with collections of presets from several composers and sound designers, such as legendary electronic musician (and EM author) Robert Rich, in addition to the factory collection (see Web Clips 1 through 3). I found the presets to be a great mix of keyboard synth sounds suitable for bass, lead, or rhythm parts (using multiple voices); classic synthesizer-effect sounds; and examples of just plain twisted sonic imagination. The presets are organized into more or less consistently named folders, which makes for their efficient use.
FIG. 3: Unlike the original 2600, TimewARP 2600 can save presets. Presets are grouped into folders and are accessed from the Patch Manager, shown here.
You access presets through the Patch Manager, whose controls are located in a control bar above the main panel (see Fig. 3). The control bar also contains a drop-down menu for choosing the number of voices, a reset button, a MIDI data indicator, a level meter, and a CPU usage meter. In general, I found the level meter pretty accurate and the CPU meter less so. The latter told me I was in dandy shape running two or even three voices (depending on the patch), though the audio I heard told a decidedly different story.
The 2600 had a preamp that let you process external signals, and TimewARP does likewise (in stereo) using the first two inputs from your audio interface. The efx version of TimewARP also can be inserted on an audio track in a DAW as a processor. This lets you take voice, guitars, drums, tire screeches, or any other recorded source and process it with TimewARP's filter, ring modulator, envelope follower, or other modules (see Web Clips 4 and 5).
I tried TimewARP as a standalone instrument and as a plug-in under BIAS Peak 5 and MOTU Digital Performer 4.61. Once I resolved a small installation hiccup, it behaved nicely in all environments and never crashed. I played it from the onscreen keyboard and from an Alternate Mode malletKAT MIDI mallet controller (that was fun!).
It did reveal one interesting oddity, however. Though the 2600 had no sustain pedal, the malletKAT does, as do many electronic keyboards. I feel sure that there's a way to patch a pedal into TimewARP to produce sustain, but I was not able to find it.
There's very little I've heard in the way of modeling, aside from my Pod Pro and Universal Audio plug-ins, that I really, really like the sound of enough to use if I have other choices. But TimewARP has just joined that exclusive club, not simply because it behaves exactly like a 2600, but because it lacks graininess in the sound, it responds well to dynamic changes and slider movements, and it captures that familiar “analog” sound. Even the onboard reverb sounds good. (Interestingly, I had forgotten how nice the spring reverb in the original 2600 sounded.)
I put TimewARP up against my real ARP 2600, and guess what? TimewARP sounds better. Of course, that's part of the point here: my ARP has 25 or 30 years of wear on it, and I couldn't tell you the last time it was calibrated. TimewARP, on the other hand, sounds now and for always like a brand-new 2600. And from that standpoint, yes, it really does sound like the real thing. (See Web Clip 6 for a comparison between a TimewARP preset and the same sound on the original 2600.)
WOW rightfully emphasizes the importance of the filter sound needed in any emulation of analog synthesis, and the company is justified in claiming that it nailed the 2600 filter. It sounds like a million bucks, even though it costs only a few hundred.
Keeping It Real
Functionally, I really couldn't find anything that TimewARP did differently than the original, even when trying fancy things like audio frequency modulation and patching the same control signal to multiple control inputs on the same module to get more effect. The 2600 struck a balance between getting quick sounds using normaled connections and getting wild sounds with patching, and I found that TimewARP duplicates that balance nicely.
I do have a few quibbles. Most of the patches were extremely hot in level, forcing me to lower the output pots drastically on pretty much every preset to avoid clipping. (WOW says it is working on the problem.) I also experienced some latency playing TimewARP from the malletKAT as compared to playing an E-mu Proteus 2000 (set to an ARP patch, just for fun).
One thing I realized while using TimewARP in Digital Performer was that when working at high sampling rates (TimewARP works at up to 192 kHz), I had to tweak the buffer sizes very carefully: there's a trade-off between using larger buffers for optimal recording and smaller buffers for minimal latency when playing. It would also be nice to have a few default MIDI mappings, at least Pitch Bend, in the presets, and I'd love to have an overload LED for the preamp, even if there wasn't one on the 2600.
In the end, there are a few simple questions that sum up TimewARP's story: does it work like the original? Answer: yes. Does it sound like the original? Answer: yes again. Does it sound good? Answer: very yes. Is it fun to use? Answer: still yes. Is TimewARP 2600 something a synthesizer fan would be delighted to have for his or her software-synthesis environment? Answer: enthusiastically yes!
Larry the O has been an electronic musician since the ARP 2600 was current, and a contributor to Electronic Musician since it became current.
WAY OUT WARE
TimewARP 2600 1.15
FEATURES5EASE OF USE5QUALITY OF SOUNDS4VALUE5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Sounds like the original. Excellent use of polyphony, MIDI control, and presets. Usable as a synth or a processor.
CONS: Substantial CPU hit. No overload indicator for preamp. Presets have very hot levels.
Way Out Ware