Operating system: Minimum OS Windows XP, Mac OS X 10.3.9
Formats: VST, RTAS (Pro Tools TDM/LE 7.0 or higher), AU; no standalone version
Copy protection: iLok or Syncrosoft eLicenser
Trial version: Time-limited but full-feature version for iLok or Syncrosoft eLicenser owners, limited feature version requires no dongle (outputs silence periodically; no saving or automation).
Web site: www.xils-lab.com
Street price: $199 (LE effects-oriented version for $49), available from online store
The EMS VCS3 was one of the early, seminal synths from the ’60s. It eliminated patch cords by using a crosspoint pin matrix, with outputs on the vertical axis, and inputs on the horizontal one; sticking a pin at the junction of an input and output connected them. The XILS 3 is more “inspired by” the VCS3 than being a direct emulation, but the main reason we’re covering it here is because it can also be inserted as an effect for processing audio, either from a host track or from a realtime input signal.
This is not a synth for neophytes. Although it includes presets, to get the most out of it (especially as an effects processor) you need to know synth programming—and the XILS 3 isn’t always intuitively obvious, so there’s a learning curve.
The interface has two main panels: The right panel is nominally the “audio” section, with three oscillators, filter, envelope shaper, noise generator, reverb, ring modulation, and one of four virtual pin matrices. The left panel is more about control, with several tabbed views—modules, matrix, keyboard, sequencer, input, and effects (chorus and delay). The other pin matrices control routing for the various control elements.
While the synth is very cool and deserves its own review, let’s concentrate on the input section as that relates to processing external audio signals. The chain starts with a noise gate, then proceeds to a transient detector that provides a trigger signal (e.g., for envelopes). There’s also an envelope follower, and a pitch tracker that extracts the fundamental from the input signal and turns it into a virtual control voltage.
With guitar, the envelope follower did a great job with filtering, while the pitch tracker works about as well as expected—you won’t get glitchless note-to-pitch conversion, but it’s useful for effects. I was surprised at the transient module; it detects plucks very cleanly, so triggering envelopes yields effects like super-sharp decays and attack delays. It’s also possible to use triggers for more esoteric functions, like resetting the step sequencer or LFO. With drums, the gating and filtering can be very effective, and adds another dimension when patched in parallel with the dry drum sound.
If you’re going to use the XILS 3 as a processor, you’ll need to do a lot of tweaking and routing to get what you want—so create a preset when you come up with something cool. You’ll find the manual helpful, but there’s no substitute for spending some quality time to see what this baby can do. In return, you’ll be able to get effects that are unobtainable with conventional signal processors.
XILS 3 isn’t the only synth that can serve as an effects processor, but for hardcore synth fans, it exposes lots of parameters and control options— you can do far more than just throw a lowpass filter on a signal. Beyond the processing, though, this is an extremely capable synth that takes advantage of its pseudo-modular nature to allow a wide range of patches and effects, particularly because so much attention is paid to control sources and routing.
Virtual instruments are becoming less “me too” and more creative, which is a welcome trend. XILS 3 exemplifies that trend, so if you’re looking for something different and occasionally quirky—just like real analog synthesizers—download the demo and start programming.
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