Virtual Instruments, Real Musicians

Feb 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By John McJunkin

Virtual this, virtual that. It seems like virtually everything is “virtual” these days. And with good reason. Ever lug around a Hammond B3 on tour — with a Leslie cabinet? Not fun in any way, shape or form. I once had a suitcase Stage 73 Fender Rhodes that was heavier than a Volkswagen and a homemade “flight case” I built for my old Roland Juno-6, which weighed twice as much as the synth! What a difference a decade makes!

Soft synths are not all that new, but hyper-realistic emulations of vintage instruments are relatively novel at this stage and very welcome. They are also an exciting option for those of us who have only dreamt of owning certain vintage classics. If you can even locate an operational Minimoog, for instance, then be prepared to drop some serious cash. The same is true for most classic synths (and usually, older equals more expensive).

The earliest virtual versions of classic products typically exhibited a photo-realistic visual interface, but the sound was not quite exact. In most cases, the genuine article had bugs and idiosyncrasies. For example, none of us would carry on about how “fat” Minimoogs sound if their oscillators didn't drift ever-so-slightly out of tune due to temperature fluctuations. Computers tend to emulate reality a little too perfectly, and thus, can be easily discerned from reality. Just watch computer-animated films and you'll see what I mean. The developers of the new generation of virtual instruments have been taking the flaws into consideration, and the results have been dazzling. Let's take a walk through a gallery of great products and marvel at the work of these modern masters.

YE OLDE PIANOFORTE
Many backaches, headaches and some enormous cartage charges have resulted from touring with pianos, usually of the “grand” variety. An examination of available sample pianos (either as ROM-based sample hardware players or as files for various sampling instruments) could fill an entire book, so we'll limit the discussion to two “virtual” piano instruments.

The first is Steinberg's (www.steinberg.net) The Grand VST 2.0 instrument, which uses piano samples but in a much more sophisticated way than usual. There are powerful samplers that enable tremendous performance control, but The Grand is essentially a sample player equipped with unique features that are specific and exclusive to a piano. There are four master timbres: natural, bright, soft and hard. Velocity curves are easily edited to accommodate touch, and it features very realistic emulations of pedal and hammer action. Probably the most important thing is that the samples are not looped, preserving the natural decay of all harmonics. The Grand does indeed sound very good, and at $199, it's a very practical solution for touring musicians and studios alike.

Our other virtual piano is the storied Maxim Digital Audio (www.mda-vst.com) Piano, a freeware VST piano that has been a part of my arsenal for several years now. It does not sound like a perfect acoustic piano, but for a virtual emulation, it is truly impressive. Moreover, if I really need a true acoustic piano sound for jazz or classical purposes, then I'll either choose a real piano or a quality sample (or Steinberg's The Grand, for that matter). For most pop music, on the other hand, the piano ends up EQ'd, compressed, chorused and otherwise brightened and punched up, particularly for areas like house music production. MDA's Piano plug-in is perfect for this type of use. It has a handful of parametric controls such as decay, release, stereo width, velocity sensitivity, muffle and hardness. It offers up to 32 voices of polyphony, adjustable for optimum CPU usage. One very powerful feature is random tuning, which helps make the sound a bit more real. MDA's Piano would sound great even if it cost $100 or more, but it doesn't. It's absolutely free!

POWERED PIANOS
Virtual instrument developers have made huge strides in electric pianos. Let's look at three stunning examples.

The EVP88 ($199; Logic or TDM systems) is E-magic's (www.emagic.de) more sophisticated entry into the virtual electric piano field, eclipsing the EVP73's singular ability to emulate the Fender Rhodes. The EVP88 can actually emulate 12 different vintage electric pianos, including Fenders, Wurlitzers and Hohners. This is a true virtual instrument that uses modeling instead of samples, and it features very realistic EQ, phaser, distortion, chorus and tremolo effects. The first time I fired up an Emagic EVP73, I was blown away by the sound's realism and stereo image. With your eyes closed, this instrument sounds just like you're sitting in front of your heavy, old Stage 73. As a matter of fact, it's a little weird, because most MIDI controllers simply cannot emulate that heavy, lumpy action of traditional electric pianos, so when you play, it sounds perfect, but the perfection just feels odd. This is true when playing any of these three products we're discussing.

Applied Acoustic Systems' (www.applied-acoustics.com) Lounge Lizard EP-2 ($199) is another shockingly realistic electric piano. We've already mentioned many reasons why a virtual instrument is preferable, but AAS gives us several more. Imagine if your suitcase Stage 73 had 10 parameters to control the mallets alone, or six parameters by which to alter the forks, or five parameters to alter the nature of the pickups. There is a multitude of control parameters for release, wah, phaser, tremolo and delay. In fact, a physical version of this piano would require something like 38 knobs and 13 switches to sculpt the sound. You can realize timbres here that are not possible with the genuine article. And the sound is simply smashing. Lounge Lizard supports ASIO, WDM, MME, DXI, VST, RTAS and AudioUnits.

Our final electric piano is MDA's ePiano. Once again, this is a freeware VSTi that truly shines. MDA modified the engine of its piano plug-in and used electric piano samples to arrive at a great sound. With parameters to control decay, release, hardness, treble, pan/tremolo, LFO rate, velocity sensitivity, stereo image, tuning, detuning and overdrive, an enormous amount of timbre sculpting is yielded. Polyphony is user-selectable to optimize the CPU load, as well. This is a tremendous amount of power for a free product, and the sound is truly excellent.

TO B3 OR NOT TO B3
Electric and acoustic pianos are heavy and unwieldy, but the legendary Hammond B3 organ has caused its share of back pain and sore muscles. There have been some pretty good samples of tone wheel organs available during the years, but all of the inherent difficulties with samples resulted in a less-than-realistic performance. Here are three virtual organs that use modeling to achieve a wonderful organic sound that can't be done with samples.

First, Native Instruments' (www.nativeinstruments.com) B4 ($235) features modeling of deep attributes like harmonic foldback, drawbar crosstalk and loudness robbing. Bet you never put much thought into things like that while listening to Booker T nailing down “Green Onions”! But NI's engineers did, and the result is a realistic and punchy emulation that can usually fool all but the most strident B3 experts. This instrument features a great-looking, photo-realistic interface. If you really want to get crazy, then you can set up two MIDI keyboards and use them in the dual-manual fashion with a foot-pedal rig to play bass, just like the genuine article. You can set up MIDI faders to control parameters like Leslie speed and drawbars, and a swell pedal is a nice addition, too. The Leslie and scanner vibrato emulations are astonishing and can be used like a plug-in for any signal you like (fun for imitation of Pink Floyd-esque female backing vocal effects!). NI also offers alternate tone wheel sets to enable emulation of the Vox Continental, a Farfisa and even a Harmonium. The B4 sounds incredible and makes it so easy to add a nice Hammond to your tune. NI apps are VST 2.0, ASIO, Sound Manager, Direct Connect, MAS, AudioUnits, RTAS, DXI, MME, CoreAudio and CoreMIDI compatible.

Emagic's people also dug deep to capture the nuances of the B3 with its EVB3 ($199; Logic and TDM systems). The modeling takes very subtle things into consideration, and the results are dazzling. The EVB3 is virtually indistinguishable from the genuine article, even when soloed and with no effects. Once mixed in, it's nearly impossible to tell the difference. All of the noise and grit that you'd expect are there. Like NI's emulation, the Leslie, scanner and tube overdrive DSP are available for other signals, as well. Also, the MIDI implementation enables you to create a true dual-manual organ with bass pedals, a swell pedal and faders to control the drawbars.

Hot off the presses! Just a few weeks ago at the Winter NAMM show in Anaheim, Calif., Ultimate Sound Bank (distributed by Ilio, www.ilio.com) introduced Charlie. Billed as “The Retro Organ Module,” Charlie is an all-new, all-organ virtual instrument designed to bring the sounds of your favorite classic electric organs to the desktop. Powered by USB's award-winning UVI-Engine, Charlie's 3GB sample library delivers authentic organ sounds, as well as CPU efficiency. All of the samples are available with and without a rotating speaker effect, allowing the user maximum flexibility without needing a sampler. Hundreds of drawbar combinations are provided, along with real-time crossfade control between presets and speaker effects. Charlie's parameters include percussion, classic synth controls and reverb. MachFive compatibility is even included. Charlie retails for $299 and is available for the PC (VSTi), Mac OS 9 (MAS, RTAS and VST) and Mac OS X (MAS, RTAS, AudioUnits and VST).

JUST LIKE STEVIE
The clavinet occupies a very important place in pop music production, and while not quite as large and unwieldy as other keyboard instruments, it can still be cantankerous. Emagic offers a portable and high-quality solution in the EVD6 ($179). This realistic clavinet emulation enables parametric control over tuning, stretch tuning, warmth, filtering, stereo imaging and damper control. Excite and Click controls also grace the interface, along with seven different parameters to control the virtual strings. This instrument not only emulates the clavinet but also stringed instruments like harps. High-quality phaser, chorus, flanger, wah and distortion effects are also present, enabling near-perfect emulation of the famous funky clav sound of the 1970s. The wah wah and distortion effects are available as DSP for external signals, as well. Modeled changes in the physical placement of the pickups are also adjustable by the user. This thing sounds great, too — not only for clav sounds but for the harp, too. The EVD6 supports Logic and TDM systems. SYNTH YOU ASKED
There are literally hundreds of soft synths available today, so we have limited our examination to products that emulate real physical products. This is an exciting area, as operational vintage synthesizers can fetch a pretty penny (if you can find them) and they can be difficult to maintain and/or repair when problems arise. Here we look at eight computer-hosted and nine hardware-hosted virtual synths.

Arturia (www.arturia.com) introduced the Moog Modular V (MMV) several years ago and stunned the world with how truly realistic a virtual emulation could be. Even Bob Moog signed off on this one. It sports nine oscillators, three filter slots (into which a filter bank may be placed with 14 different bandwidths), two LFOs, six ADSR envelope generators, 18 VCAs (16 with modulation inputs), a 24-step sequencer and a handful of non-Moog features such as stereo delay and chorus. Featuring 64-bit floating-point precision, the MMV allows sampling rates up to 96 kHz and exhibits no aliasing from 0.1 Hz to 16 kHz — an absolute necessity for a realistic emulation. Although the MMV can operate in monophonic mode, true to the original synth, it also enables polyphonic function. (I'll bet Wendy Carlos would have loved that!) It can also create some nice soft clipping, like real analog circuits do. Many traditional Moog Modular power users have publicly praised this product. The kicker is the price. You couldn't even rent an original for its going rate — $329 (for VST, DXI, MAS, RTAS, HTDM, Direct Sound and CoreAudio).

Arturia also announced its new CS-80V ($249) at the 2003 AES show. This emulation of the legendary Yamaha CS-80 is every bit as realistic as the company's Moog instrument. When the CS-80 came out in 1976, it was a breakthrough, bringing polyphony to the world. The virtual version gives us two oscillators, four filters, two LFOs, four ADSR envelopes, two VCAs, a suboscillator (an LFO dedicated to vibrato), an arpeggiator, a stereo delay, a chorus and a ring modulator. Obviously, some of the attributes go beyond the original product's feature list. Likewise, expression and sustain pedals are here, along with a ribbon controller, polyphonic aftertouch, multitimbral capabilities and, in the “modulation matrix,” a choice of 12 sources and 38 destinations. As a kid building PAIA modules, I used to dream about this! Once again, Arturia nails down every tiny detail with this synth.

Native Instruments broke into the “virtual emulation of a real product” market with its Pro-Five, which imitated the classic Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 that was first introduced in 1981. A subsequent upgrade, the Pro-52 brought improvements, and NI ultimately nailed down all of the original characteristics of the Prophet 5 and made a few improvements with the Pro-53 ($199). It has two oscillators per voice, each with pulse, triangle and sawtooth waveforms, and they can be detuned or synchronized. The filter exhibits a slope of 24 dB per octave, resonance and self-oscillation, with an additional highpass filter mode. Discrete ADSR envelopes are dedicated to the VCA and VCF, and the VCF envelope can be inverted. An LFO with multiple assignments enables an envelope retrigger function. Polyphony is limited only by CPU horsepower, and the product ships with 576 programs, 64 of which were developed by John Bowen, an original Prophet 5 developer. The original unit had no velocity sensitivity, but that feature can be switched on or off in the Pro-53. Real-time MIDI automation of all parameters is available, as well. Effects include chorus, flanging and echo, and all are MIDI-synchable; external audio can be piped through the effects. One feature that clearly demonstrates the depth of this emulation is the fact that original Prophet 5 SysEx data can be introduced, allowing users to import all of those patches so lovingly micro-tweaked back in the '80s.

The Pro-53 is a great example of pure emulation, warts and all. The original oscillators suffered some pitch drift, which lent to the warmth of the sound. NI allows for two operating modes: analog warmth, which includes the inaccuracies of the original synth, or digital accuracy, which represents the synth with perfect circuits that never drift. The Pro-53 is so sophisticated that it allows variable control over the amount of analog inaccuracies. This is a truly great virtual synth, and I use it in some way in almost every project.

NI's other entry is the FM7 ($299), an emulation of the classic Yamaha DX7 introduced in 1984. The FM7 can reproduce the programs of many Yamaha FM synthesizers, including the DX11, TX81Z, DX21, DX27, DX100, DX200 and TX802. Unlike the original DX7, there are no fixed algorithms, which allows for much more sophisticated programming. The synth has full matrix frequency modulation with six regular waveform operators, a distortion operator and an “analog” filter operator. In 1985, many a DX7 programmer would have killed to have graphical editors like those present in the FM7. Graphical envelope editing yields an unlimited number of stages and looping. An effects section with chorus, flanging and delay can accommodate external signals in addition to those generated by the synth. I'm pretty sure that every record that came out in 1985 (even country and metal records) used a DX7 somewhere. The Dyno Piano patch defined the ballad sound for the rest of the decade, and the wild, growling lead patches helped people like Don Henley and Howard Jones top the charts. The FM7 is VST 2.0, ASIO, Sound Manager, Direct Connect, MAS, AudioUnits, RTAS, DXI, MME, CoreAudio and CoreMIDI-compatible.

GForce (dist. by Digidesign, www.digidesign.com) won a considerable amount of praise a couple of years ago with the introduction of Oddity ($249), the virtual version of the ARP Odyssey for VST and AudioUnits. This was one of the first hyperrealistic virtual synths. It features two synchable oscillators with sine, square and PWM waveforms, with white and pink noise also available. Resonant lowpass and highpass filters are onboard, along with an LFO that can sync with the host. Like many 1970s synths, the Oddity also sports Sample and Hold, and Portamento. There are two envelope generators, and modulation can be routed very flexibly. The original Odyssey was a duophonic instrument; the virtual version is the same. No polyphony here, a true-to-life emulation.

The Mellotron has proven one of the most important instruments in pop music history. This was the original “sampler,” with keys that literally put tape heads in contact with tape loops. The string and choir sounds of hundreds of records from the '60s to the current day have come courtesy of this mechanical beast. GForce has given us the M-Tron ($69; VST and AudioUnits), which is a relatively unsophisticated virtual instrument, essentially a sample playback unit just like its ancestor. With controls for volume, tone, pitch, and attack and release times, it's not superdeep, but that's not necessary. GForce makes three additional “tape” libraries available, getting into some nice orchestral instruments, organs and percussion, among other things. When you need that Mike Pinder string sound for your Moody Blues sound-alike or that Kraftwerk human choir thing, dial up the M-Tron!

GForce's most recent foray into the virtual synth world is the impOSCar ($179.95), which owes its existence to the classic British synth, the OSCar. With impOSCar, GForce is getting on the bandwagon with other manufacturers that enable the virtual synth to accept SysEx data to import patches. But the company goes a step further by allowing patches stored as modulated-carrier audio on tape to be imported via .WAV files. Very cool! The synth features mono, duo and four-voice modes, with two oscillators and a choice of 13 waveforms. A programmable, additive wave matrix made the OSCar very powerful; it's here, as well. There are nine filter types in the unique filter section with drive, cutoff, Q and separation. Two envelope generators are present, along with an arpeggiator that works in a monophonic, duophonic or polyphonic fashion in four different modes. There are five keyboard triggering modes, along with extensive LFOs that can be synched to the host. An astonishing six portamento modes are available, and like most virtual synths, effects that didn't exist in the original have been added. GForce ships the synth with more than 500 patches, some developed by original OSCar users. GForce once again nails down a hyperrealistic virtual unit. The impOSCar is available for VST and AudioUnits.

One of the earliest specific-product synth emulations was Waldorf's (www.waldorfmusic.com) virtual PPG Wave 2.2 ($199; VST 2.0), which nicely emulates the wavetable synthesis that Wolfgang Palm pioneered in the early '80s with PPG. Unlike the genuine article, the virtual version is eight-part multitimbral, with 32 wavetables available and two oscillators per voice. A resonant lowpass filter, an LFO and three envelope generators are available (two ADSR and one AD). Graphical editing of the envelopes is a nice touch, too. Polyphony can get as high as 64 voices, and all parameters are MIDI-automatable. Among the hundreds of patches shipped from Waldorf are the original factory presets from the early '80s. I found myself saying, “Oh, yeah, that sound was in that song by…” This is an excellent virtual synth that you must have if you want the ability to create wild, new sounds.

HAPPENIN' HARDWARE HOSTS
All of the virtual synths covered so far are intended to be used with Mac or Windows computer hosts. There are two dedicated hardware-hosting systems that bear mention here. CreamWare (www.creamware.com) makes a rackmount unit that not only hosts virtual synths, but also handles all kinds of digital audio-oriented tasks. Known as Noah ($2,075), this two-rackspace box adds a lot of power to a system. CreamWare also offers the SCOPE Fusion Platform, a PCI card with similar functionality. With either unit, there is a wonderful collection of quality virtual synths and keyboards. The B-2003, as you might imagine, is a virtual B3. The Minimax knocks off the Minimoog, of course. A slightly more obscure vintage synth, the Prophet VS, is parroted in “Vectron Player.” Another classic Sequential product, the Pro-One is also emulated. And if GForce's Oddity isn't the ARP Odyssey emulation for you, CreamWare has the Prodyssey. Finally, Roland's Juno-6 is virtually portrayed by CreamWare's “U Know 007.” Hardware-hosted soft synths are particularly appealing because they do not have CPU overhead; all processing is handled by third-party hardware, leaving your CPU available to handle all of the DSP, mixing and signal routing you can throw at it. CreamWare has partnerships with a number of third-party organizations that develop software for these units, and you can expect even more virtual synths in the future.

Roland (www.rolandus.com) has a rackmount digital audio hardware host — VariOS ($1,495) — with two virtual synthesizers available: the VariOS-8 and the VariOS 303. Quite obviously, the VariOS 303 is an emulation of the much sought-after TB-303 Bassline, and it accomplishes the job very effectively. The VariOS-8 is best described as an amalgam of Roland's collection of vintage Juno and Jupiter synthesizers. It's nice to have a high-quality virtual representation of a group of synths that would be quite expensive to purchase if you could even find them. Expect that Roland, like CreamWare, will continue to develop more virtual synths for its hardware platform.

As of this writing, Korg (www.korg.com) is showing a preview trailer on its Website of new products due out in spring 2004. Namely, the company will introduce the “Legacy Collection Volume I,” which includes virtual renditions of the classic MS-20, Polysix and WaveStation, among other things. By implication, there will also be Volumes II, III and so on. This will be the first time that the virtual synth is not developed by a third party. Stay tuned!

IT'S A VIRTUAL CERTAINTY
The writing's on the wall. I predict that within the next five to 10 years, you'll be able to purchase multiplatform virtual emulations of nearly any favorite old instrument you like. It will still be very chic and prestigious to own rooms full of hardware, but if space, upkeep and cost (above all) are issues for you, virtual instruments may solve your problems and give you a powerful toolbox to accomplish your musical dreams.

John McJunkin occasionally (but rarely) emerges from the laboratory/studio of Avalon Audio Services in Phoenix, but may take a virtual vacation soon!

TUBE PRE'S FROM SPEAKEASY VINTAGE
Virtual instruments continue to improve in terms of dead-to-rights perfect emulation, but they're not all there yet. One way to help add real analog punch to your software electric piano, organ or even synthesizer is with an instrument preamp. Speakeasy Vintage Music (www.speakeasyvintagemusic.com) makes a line of tube preamps intended to provide some real warmth and fullness to any signal, but particularly for both real and virtual keyboards. From the Speakeasy Shotglass at $249 designed specifically to warm up digital organ clones with tube circuitry modeled right out of the original Hammond B3 preamp, to the Rhodes Vintage Suitcase Tube Pre-Amp System at $819, an entire line of tube-based amps are available to punch up your signal. The Shotglass model simply amplifies the signal and adds tube warmth, but subsequently more sophisticated models add tonal controls and stereo tremolo, among other things, with all units delivering Class-A output. Units that are specifically intended for organ even ship with multipin Leslie connections (or Motion Sound control, for that matter). While there are wonderful plug-ins that approximate the effects of quality tube amplification, there's nothing quite like the real McCoy, and Speakeasy makes it available.
John McJunkin


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