PART 2: THE SOUNDS YOU NEED, Section 2: Virtual electronic instruments
Section 2: Virtual electronic instruments
Elsewhere on this site we’ve detailed the software emulations of many of the ‘real’ instruments that you can buy at Dolphin. Here it’s time to look at some of the electronic variations, so in the following section you will find software recommendations for classic synthesisers, new synthesisers, drum machines, samplers and virtual workstations. In short, this is where the sonic creativity really starts as you explore the worlds of classic and cutting-edge synthesis, create your own beats and master your samples. We’ll kick things off with soft synths, both old and new…
1. Classic Synth emulations
Synthesisers were pretty much the first instruments to be emulated in software, simply because they were the easiest. The original hardware comprised boxes that made sounds with electronics so it was easy to put this digital processing into the digital environment of today’s powerful Macs and PCs. Well, when we say easy… Initially companies focussed on recreating some classic hardware synths in software and it is those that we will cover first.
Korg are one of the finest synth companies in the world so when they produced software versions of some of their classics, people knew they were going to be good. The Korg Legacy Digital Edition (£119) has a soft versions of the company’s mighty M1 and Wavestation synthesizers and about 4,000 presets for them and represents superb value.
GMedia/GForce are widely regarded as producers of the most accurate synth emulations about and they have a great range of synths available. The ImpOSCar (£99) is a faithful recreation of the classic British analogue synth and features no less than 500 patches and a whole new feature set to update this masterpiece of synthesis. The Oddity is a great version of the ARP Odyssey in soft form, and has all of the characteristics (oddness included!) of that classic synth and retails for just £79. The M-Tron (£89) is a brilliant version of the Mellotron, one of the defining musical instruments of our time. Think Beatles and a whole lot more besides! The Minimonsta (£139) is a fine emulation of the MiniMoog synth made famous by Wakeman, Emerson, Numan and a host of other synth pioneers ending in ‘n’. Finally from GForce you can get their whole range in one pack called the GForce Future Retro Pack which at just £279.99 represents a saving of £126!
Arturia are a French company that specialise in producing classic analogue synths in software and their Vintage Collection (£299) has four of their classic synths together in one box for half the original retail price! You get a CS-80, and ARP and a couple of Moogs (all, also available separately from £139) so it’s a must for fans of analogue and any budding Jean Michel Jarres and Vangelis’ out there! Not included in that collection is Arturia’s Prophet V (£139), with detailed emulations of two of the best synths of all time, the Prophet 5 and Prophet VS from Sequential Circuits. Also from Arturia is Analog Factory (£149) which has 2,000 presets from this synth range (including the synths from Vintage Collection plus their Prophet emulations) all wrapped up in an instrument that also offers control over the sound as well. It’s like a ‘best of’ with added extras! There are also single and education editions of Arturia’s range available at Dolphin from £139.
Way Out Ware produce just one emulation but it is a great one. The TimeWarp 2600 (£149) is possibly the most accurate recreation of the classic ARP and will have you burbling and squeaking to musical nirvana.
Novation revolutionised the world of hardware synthesisers when they bought out an affordable synth called the BassStation in the mid 90s. It attempted to recreate the sound of the legendary TB-303 which was in high demand at the time for dance music. Now the BassStation is available in software form for just £69 which is a great buy for the cash. One of the fattest little synths ever produced for its size was the Novation K-Station and you can get its virtual equivalent, the Novation V-Station for just £99.
Native Instruments are one company who have spent the last decade revolutionising music production and were among the first to produce classic synth emulations. Their Pro 53 (£109) is fashioned after the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and is packed full of useful presets. One of the best emulations of any classic is NI’s FM7, a phenomenal recreation of the Yamaha DX7 synth and at just £79 is a must have. Also worth noting is the NI Express Keyboards bundle which comprises cut-down and playback version of Pro-53, FM7 and the B4 organ for just £59.
2. ‘New’ Synths
Of course, on top of the emulations of classic synths described above, software allows the creation of completely new synths never produced in hardware, and there are loads available…
Great all rounders
Native Instruments Absynth 3 (£99) sounds amazing, with a huge range of sounds from sweeping atmospheres to rhythmic elegance. Mark Of The Unicorn’s MX4 (£195) is a subtractive-based synth that is equally at home producing classic basses and leads as it is contemporary electronic sounds. It also features a great interface, making it easy to tweak or create your sound. Cakewalk’s Dimension Pro (£169) is a recent release from the SONAR experts and features a huge library of content for its audio-based synthesis engine and a great set of sounds and audio mangling tools. Also from Cakewalk is Rapture (£169) which again uses a set of audio waves as the basis for its synth engine but this time they are much smaller but still results in powerful sounds, particularly the basses and leads. Both synths have possibly the easiest interfaces to get to grips with in soft synth land. Rob Papen is considered a celebrity in synth programming circles, so much so that his name adds clout when it comes to selling soft synths. Rob Papen’s Blue (£99) and Albino 3 (£129) synths (developed by Linplug) both offer exceptional quality and varied sounds and some of the best sonic flexibility going. Also from Linplug is Cronox3 (£99.95), a sample-based synth with 2,000 sounds and oodles of control. Yellow Tools Independence (£259) stretches the definition of a synth by being mostly sample-based (there’s 18GB worth included) but like the Spectrasonics range of ‘players’ you also get some sonic control over the sounds as well as easy preset management. Finally Steinberg’s D’Cota has three synthesis engines, loads of sonic flexibility and on board effects and is just £69.
Build your own synths
Some packages allow you to construct your own synths using software emulations of the component parts. Native Instruments open the proceedings in this category with what is arguably the mother of all synths, Reaktor 5 (£269). With it you can produce, from the core electronic components upwards, pretty much any instrument you like. And if that sounds complicated (and it can be) don’t worry, because Native Instruments have produced a whole load of finished instruments for you as have many thousands of other people and those with Reaktor can tap into this huge on-line community of third party developments. There’s a whole world of synthesis to explore with just this package…
Applied Acoustics have their very own Reaktor-like instrument creator in the form of Tassman 4 (£249), a very flexible piece of software that basically allows you to create any synth and effect you like. For the lazy user, though, the software comes supplied with a library of ready-made ones that you can pretend you created…
Off the wall!
Native Instruments Electronic Instruments Volume 1 (£69) and Volume 2 (£59.99) are the best-kept secrets in the world of soft synthesis. You get a set of fully functional, unusual and hugely characterful synths and instruments for an incredibly small outlay. Shh, don’t tell anyone! Also from NI is Vokator (£169) which is a vocoder, granular sampler and synth all in one. Steinberg’s X-Phrase (£99) is one of the more unusual synths out there, and all the better for it. At its heart is a set of phrases and effects that make up some stunning pads, shimmering rhythms and more off the wall goodness. Hartmann’s Neuron synth was a hardware giant that attempted something truly new in synthesis. The Hartmann Neuron VS (£499) is the software version although it comes with a Nuke controller that offers knobs and a stick controller to change parameters. If you want to be different than everyone else, then this is the synth to go for. Last but by no means least is Antares Kantos (£230), a synths that thinks its an effects box, or vice versa. Basically you can put any audio through this and use any of the many on board controls to create all sorts of weirdness, from simple vocoding to scary rhythmic effects.
Doing one job… well
Spectrasonics might well have the drum market sown up with Stylus RMX but they also have two great packages in the form of Atmosphere (£199) and Trilogy (£169) concentrating on pads and strings and bass sounds respectively. They are not synths in the strictest of senses but both offer oodles of high quality presets and some control over them so are well worth their inclusion here.
They’re not based on any particular classic synths but these offer great analogue sounds anyway. From AAS is Ultra Analog VA-1 (£109.99) that has high quality, physically modelled analogue sounds and a simple interface to access and control them. The Digidesign Hybrid (£176) synth is an analogue modeller which promises exceptional classic analogue sound quality together with the flexibility and control of a modern synth. Unlike most of the other multiplatform synths we talk about here it’s ProTools only but if you use that system then count yourself lucky as this is a great synth. Bitheadz Unity AS1 Retro (£170) has 1,500 analogue type sounds, effects and loads of routing options. Software Technology weigh in with two packages here. Firstly VAZ Modular 2 £220 enables you to construct your own analogue synth from the included modules and also features emulation patches from various classic synths. VAZ 2010 (£129) is another analogue emulator with modern digital additions like a mixer, effects and on board sequencer. Like the Modular, it is very flexible and sounds as analogue and classy as anything else here.
3. Electronic drums and drum synthesisers
We covered some acoustic percussion instruments in the Virtual Acoustic Instrument section on this site. On top of those you can get some electronic variations and drum synthesisers suitable for dance music, electronica and more off the wall beats and breaks. Indeed some packages are so wide-ranging that they appear in both sections! Spectrasonics Stylus RMX (£133) is one of those, full to the brim of both electronic and acoustic drums in a 7.4GB library and there’s even a limited synth interface. There are five S.A.G.E expansion packs available at £53.99 each with Metamorphosis being the most ‘electronic’ of the lot.
Fxpansion’s Guru (£139) is a powerful beat box and loop mangler with a step sequencer and 2GB library. It’s capable of producing all sorts of styles, from funk to glitch but concentrates on less acoustic material, leaving that to the company’s excellent BFD (£179) software.
Linplug’s RMIV (£99) looks pretty much like a virtual rendition of a hardware drum machine. It has 18 pads and 170-odd acoustic and electronic kits to play with them. Similar in the pad concept is Native Instrument’s Battery 2 (£135), which is another great sample player, complete with a cool interface and 3.5GB of sounds. Also available on the Battery front is the Studio Drums (£69) expansion pack, which has 1.1GB of very high quality acoustic samples. Similar in concept but very different in terms of sound is Synthetic Drums 2 (£79) which is a quite outstanding collection of electronic blips, beep and beats.
Steinberg’s Groove Agent 2 (£145) is a mix of old and new in terms of styles, with more than 70 on offer although the emphasis in the latest version is on more modern beats including hip hop and R & B.
4. Virtual Workstations
The synth workstation used to be a hardware box that attempted to be, well, everything really. Drum machine, sequencer, synth, piano… any instrument you can think of, in fact.
Software workstations attempt the same (minus the sequencer) and often consist of huge libraries of sounds with simple interfaces. Here’s the selection that we sell here at Dolphin…
Steinberg’s Hypersonic 2 (£229) is one of the easiest pieces of software to use and has 1,800 presets covering a huge variety of instruments. In terms of putting ideas together for complete tunes quickly and easily, it’s hard to beat. Also from Steinberg is the Virtual Instruments Collection (£89). It’s not exactly an all-in-one workstation but you do get a wide variety of instruments as it basically consists of cut down versions of Steinberg instruments including The Grand grand piano, Groove Agent and Virtual Guitarist Electric Edition.
IK Multimedia were one of the first companies to offer virtual do-it-all workstations in the form of SampleTank (£259). Now at version 2XL it contains 4.5GB of sounds spread over 1,500 presets. SampleTank software is completely expandable by way of various packs of samples including Guitar Collection (£45), Piano Collection (£79) and Acoustic Drums (£79). Sonic Synth 2 (£275.99) is also from IK and concentrates on recreating different synth sounds from a variety of machines so is a workstation of sorts. But more interesting is the fact that you can buy it and SampleTank 2XL for just £275.99 for a limited time. Great value indeed!
Yellow Tools Independence (£259) is an 18GB collection of sounds with an intuitive user interface and a lot of sonic control. It’s fast, powerful and a great performer.
East West’s Colossus (£429) really is just that! A massive 32GB of audio makes this one of the biggest virtual instruments around and within that collection you will find just about every instrument you could possibly ask for. Just make sure you have enough free drive space…
M-Audio’s Key Rig (£59.99) might not be quite as big but goes for quality keyboard sounds instead, offering stage piano, synth, organ and GM module instruments in one easy to control virtual ‘rig’. Similarly Drum And Bass Rig (£59.99) is the equivalent for, you guessed it, drums and bass. Combine both M-Audio rigs and you are well on your way to a full workstation set-up…
Cakewalk’s Kinetik 2 (£69) is an all-in one module/compositional tool, this time concentrating on classic Roland sounds (over 1,000 of them) and with a simple interface to control and record them. Arturia don’t just make analogue synth emulations. Storm 3.0 (£99) is a complete studio in software and includes synths, drum machines and effects at quite a price. Like Storm and Kinetik, Propellerhead’s Reason (£239), Image Line’s Fruity Loops (£89) and Cakewalk’s Project 5 are perhaps the truest of workstations in that you get supplied sounds and a sequencer to assemble complete songs. However, they are really complete soft studios so we’ve included more details about them in Part 1 of this Computer Music Guide.
Hardware samplers are what we used to use to play back and record audio samples but most people now use software samplers to manipulate their audio in a desktop studio environment. You could look at many of the virtual instruments we’ve talked about in this section essentially as software samplers tied to a library of sounds which they play back and manipulate – in fact many use a Native Instruments Kompakt/Intakt sampling front end to do this. But you can still buy software samplers as separate entities which can grow with your sample collection. They are, therefore, much more flexible than the ‘playback only’ virtual instruments described above as you really can tailor them to do what you want as they don’t need to be tied to just one collection of sounds.
(£269) is one of the most flexible pieces of software out there for handling audio and almost became something of an industry standard sampler. It comes with lots of controls to shape your sounds plus a 2GB library. Kompakt (£118) is the streamlined version with less controls but a 2GB library nonetheless. Mark Of The Unicorn’s Mach 5 (£220) is a Mac-only sampler but is otherwise very flexible and features one of the best sample management systems around. Steinberg’s Halion 3 (£219) is another standard and was one of the first soft samplers on its release back in 2001. The latest version features surround sound and a completely new interface. Finally we have Tascam’s Gigastudio 3.0 which is widely regarded as one of the most accurate sampling instruments. It is available in three different versions: Solo (£95), Ensemble (£175) and Orchestra (£245). Solo offers 95-voice polyphony, Ensemble 160 voices whereas Orchestra is unlimited.
Phew! And that’s it for virtual instruments!
The Dolphin Music Beginners Guide To Computer Music by Andy Jones
- Part 1, Sequencers and software studios.
- Part 2, Section 1: Virtual Acoustic Instruments
- Part 2, Section 2: Virtual Electronic Instruments
- Part 2, Section 3: Virtual effects
- Part 3, Section 1: MIDI Keyboards
- Part 3, Section 2: MIDI Controllers
- Part 4, Sound Cards & Audio Interfaces
- Part 5, Monitors
- Part 6, Extra Power