Master Class: Get Intimate with Omnisphere

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FIG. 1: Using Omnisphere''s parameter presets is the key to quickly building new sounds from scratch.

For anyone who enjoys programming synthesizers, Omnisphere may be the ultimate virtual playground. Spectrasonics' flagship soft synth takes you as deep as you want to go while making every parameter relatively easy to find. Its architecture and nomenclature are standardized enough that anyone with any experience using synthesizers should be able to easily navigate its well-organized parameter pages. With envelopes offering an infinite number of stages, dozens of possible modulation routings, and a huge and ever-growing pool of patches and waveforms, Omnisphere gives you plenty of resources for experimenting and developing your own timbral palette. In this tutorial we'll take a closer look at several functions of special interest to anyone who wants to create original sounds.

Build a Better Launchpad

You can approach Omnisphere as you would any other synth, either modifying existing patches or building sounds from the ground up by defining an oscillator-filter-amplifier pathway. Either way, the best place to start is usually the Edit page. The Edit page presents the building blocks of synthesis in sections that provide clear-cut access to the oscillators, filters, envelopes, LFOs, and modulation.

When you first instantiate Omnisphere, the Default patch gives you a predictable starting point for building new sounds from scratch. Omnisphere lets you quickly construct new patches with a minimum of effort, thanks mostly to its ability to save and recall parameter templates. I'll guide you through the simple process of building custom templates you can use as launchpads for creating your own patches.

In the Default patch (reinstantiate Omnisphere to get there if necessary), begin by clicking on the Edit button if you're on a different page. Click on the little triangle next to the Oscillator header, and you'll see a menu that lists the oscillator presets (see Fig. 1). Select Giant Unisync and play a few notes. Drag the Oscillator section's Hard Sync slider until its value reads 0.830, turn the Analog knob down to 0.000, and play a bit more. Return to the menu, choose Save Osc Preset, and name it Giant Unisync 2.

Now let's check out the Filter presets. To hear any changes, you must first click on that section's Power button, located immediately to the left of the Filters header. (Turning off a section's Power button conserves CPU cycles.) After you've listened to a few factory presets by selecting them from the pop-up menu, select Dual Stereo Bandpass from the Specialty Filters.

Next, go to the Envelopes section and increase the amplitude release time slightly by raising the R slider. Select Copy Envelope Preset from the Envelopes pop-up menu, click on the Envelopes section's Filter button, and choose Paste Envelope Preset from the pop-up menu. Reduce the filter envelope's decay to 0.00, and then choose Save Envelope Preset and give it a new name. You have created a simple new patch just by recalling and manipulating oscillator and filter parameter presets.

Oscillator Magic

Oscillators are the heart of Omnisphere, even more than they are in most synths. You might not know it to look at the Edit page, but Omnisphere gives you as many as ten oscillators per Part — one for each Layer, and in Harmonia mode, four additional oscillators per Layer. What you can do with those extra oscillators depends on whether you click on the Oscillator section's Sample or Synth button.

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FIG. 2: Eight additional oscillators are hidden until you enable Harmonia mode, which gives Omnisphere some additive synthesis capabilities.

Starting with the Default patch again, click on the Sample button at the top of the Edit page's Oscillator section and use the Oscillator browser to find the Psychoacoustic waveform Bowlimba. Now click on Mult (short for Voice Multiplier) in the row of buttons below the Oscillator browser display. See that menu that says Unison? Click on it and select Harmonia. Four rows will appear, each with a button on the left, a pop-up menu on the right, and three knobs in between (see Fig. 2). Each button turns its corresponding oscillator on, the menu determines its octave, and the knobs control its level, panning, and fine-tuning. To hear the additional oscillators, click on the Power button immediately to the left of the menu that says Harmonia. Enable all four Harmonia oscillators and try different settings to get a feel for how the Voice Multiplier works.

If you click on the Synth button rather than Sample, little arrowheads will appear just above the knobs. Clicking on the right-hand arrow assigns additional functions to the same knobs — Shape, Symmetry, and Sync — and to the menu to their right. Shape offsets the waveshape relative to the main oscillator; because there's no waveform display, though, you'll have to adjust it by ear. Symmetry is another means to alter the waveshape; when applied to a pulse wave, it alters the pulse width. And the Sync parameter offsets hard sync relative to the main oscillator.

You can assign host automation to control any of these knobs, but you can't apply any modulators as you can with the main oscillator's corresponding parameters. However, you can modulate the mix of Harmonia oscillators relative to the main oscillator in the Modulation section. Just select any modulator you like in the Modulation section's Source menu, and then select Oscillator→Harmonia Mix in the Target menu. If the source is, say, Key Tracking, the harmonic content will grow more complex as you play higher notes of the keyboard. If the source is Mod Wheel or Aftertouch, you can manually control the spectrum to impact expressivity as you play.

Fab Mod Gear

When you want to add motion to your sound by assigning modulation routings, Omnisphere lets you choose the best approach. You have at least three ways to link sources to destinations: right-click on a parameter and choose a mod source from a contextual pop-up menu; define mod routings one at a time on the left side of the Edit page; or go directly to the Mod Matrix Zoom page to simultaneously view and edit as many as 24 mod routings, a dozen at a time.

Let's start with the first method and load the single-Layer Prophet Cycling Lead into the Patch browser. It sounds pretty good, but its only modulation is LFO1 sweeping the sample-start point; the mod wheel and Aftertouch have no effect at all. Let's use the mod wheel to control vibrato depth and Aftertouch to control filter cutoff. Begin by right-clicking (or Control-clicking) on the Pitch A Fine knob near the Edit page's lower left corner. Select Modulate With LFO from the contextual menu that appears, and the next available LFO (LFO2) will be assigned to control pitch. Sounds a lot like a sick cat, doesn't it?

Now click on the LFO Rate knob and raise the frequency to 2.495 Hz. Lower the Depth knob's value to 0.000, and right-click on it and select Modulate With Wheel. You can set the maximum depth that the mod wheel imparts by adjusting the Modulation section's Source slider.

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FIG. 3: Omnisphere organizes all of the modulation routings for both Layers on the Mod Matrix Zoom page. The Smooth slider lets you slow a modulation source''s output; experienced synthesists may recognize this function as lag.

Okay, that takes care of vibrato using the contextual menu. Now let's use the pull-down menus under the Modulation header to modulate the filter. When you click on the tiny triangle to the left of the Modulation header and select New Modulation Routing, the previous routing you defined will disappear from view, but it's still in effect. Select Aftertouch in the Source menu and Filter→Cutoff in the Target menu. (If your keyboard doesn't send Aftertouch, substitute another continuous controller such as Expression.) Enable the filter by clicking on the Filters section's Power button, and turn the Resonance up to 0.240 or so. Now, when you bear down on the keys, you'll hear the filter open up, and you can create a sort of wah effect as you play.

If you click on the plus symbol to the Modulation header's right, your view will switch to the Mod Matrix Zoom page, in which you can see and adjust all the mod routings in one place (see Fig. 3). On this page you can Smooth modulators, causing them to take effect more gradually, and assign external MIDI controllers to affect their depth. You can also tell which modulators affect which Layer by clicking on the Layer buttons at the bottom of the window; routings not assigned to the currently selected Layer will be grayed out.

Pattern Recognition

Perhaps the best way to familiarize yourself with Omnisphere's arpeggiator is to open a few patches that use it and change the settings to see what happens. Click on the Arpeggiator button to the right of the FX button, and then go to the Patch browser and click on ARP + Rhythm. Pick a few patches, play some chords, and pay close attention to the arpeggiator patterns. With the browser window closed, you'll see bars in a portion of the Arpeggiator window called the Rhythm Programmer. Each bar represents a step, and its height represents that step's Velocity, which you can change by clicking on a bar and dragging it up or down. Clicking-and-dragging the bar at the bottom of the Arpeggiator window changes the pattern's length, from as many as 32 steps to as few as 1.

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FIG. 4: Experimentation and observation are the best strategies for learning your way around the arpeggiator. You can vary any step''s duration by Shift-clicking on and then dragging its corresponding bar''s right edge.

Select the patch Astral Visions 2 and look at the pattern. It's different from most because the steps aren't of equal length (see Fig. 4); the first three steps are tied. Lengthen step 9 by double-clicking on the button for step 10. Delete steps 14 and 16 by clicking on their respective buttons, and play a few 4-note chords.

Omnisphere gives you two ways to change step duration. To change the duration of all steps at the same time, adjust the Length knob. To change the duration of a single step, Shift-click on its right edge and drag. Try this by Shift-clicking on step 15 and dragging to the left to shorten it and to the right to lengthen it. Note that you can't lengthen it beyond the 16th step unless you increase the length of the pattern.

Get Down on It

Though fairly easy to grasp, Omnisphere could take weeks to fully explore. In this article I've only scratched the surface, but I hope I've pointed you in a few directions you can investigate on your own. The most recent update delivers an additional 2,000 patches to the previous version, along with an improved browser and a more complete reference guide. If you're an Omnisphere user who's serious about keeping up with soft-synth technology, you should download this free update and continue your exploration of uncharted timbral territory.

Senior Editor Geary Yelton is celebrating his 25th year of writing for EM, which has been in publication since 1985. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and commutes downstairs every day.