McDSP Synthesizer One Version 2

Jun 1, 2003 12:00 PM, BY ERIK HAWKINS

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There are plenty of native virtual instruments in a rainbow of formats, but the development of software instruments for TDM has been largely neglected. Recently, a handful of TDM-based instruments have cropped up. One such instrument is McDSP's two-oscillator wavetable synth, Synthesizer One (or SynthOne for short).

Version 1 of SynthOne debuted in March 2002. The latest release, V. 2, takes the instrument up several notches. Several significant bug fixes and major enhancements were made, including a third analog-modeling oscillator, an entirely reworked user interface and onboard effects. (Version 2.01 was about to be released as I put the finishing touches on this field test. It adds OS X support, faster load times and a more integrated Performance Generator, among other improvements.)

SHINY NEW GUI

SynthOne requires a Pro Tools Mix or HD system. With V. 2, you can get up to eight voices on a MIX SRAM chip or 10 voices on any HD chip (because they are all SRAM). Different versions of the plug-in are available from your plug-in menu: mono or stereo; and four, six or eight-voice. However, you are limited to two instances per chip on a Mix system. The paradigm is a little different with HD: A pool of eight voices is shared when there is more than one instantiation on a chip. SynthOne is not multitimbral, though this is not a big problem because you can always open another instance, assuming that you have the available DSP power.

Copy protection is via standard challenge/response or iLok USB dongle. Authorization can be installed on the iLok either by license card or directly through your personal account at the iLok Website.

The plug-in's new user interface is much easier on the eyes: The knobs have been redesigned and there are no more yellow parameter labels. Losing V. 1's green and yellow color scheme is a welcome change.

PARAMETER HAPPY

SynthOne comprises eight different pages; a handy area on the main page's left side is reserved for quick access to its most basic parameters. Examples of Quick Page parameters include clock source, bender range, glide time, filter freq and ADSR. It would be nice to see a Quick Page for the new effects, too. But despite this omission, it really streamlines searching for rudimentary parameters. Users who are uninterested in serious programming and just want to fine-tune a preset will appreciate this feature.

Wavetable oscillators 1 and 2 and analog-modeling oscillator 3, along with controls for mixing and filtering these sources, are found on SynthOne's first page: the OSC Page. There are numerous waveforms to choose from — sines, squares, triangles, saw up/down — and you can capture your own wavetable using the included Synthesizer One Wave-Capture Audio Suite plug-in. Oscillator 3 tracks the pitch of oscillator 1 and can be detuned two octaves down. An external audio source (from the aux or audio track where the plug-in is inserted) can be mixed with the oscillators for some really cool effects processing.

There are three LFOs on the LFO page; each LFO's shape is created by combining two waveforms: waves 1 and 2. The same shapes available for the oscillators are available to the LFOs. When you combine two waveforms, the resulting shape is drawn next to the LFO — a nice touch. There are attack and release parameters for each LFO, but LFO delay is missing. The envelopes can be assigned to a variety of modulation targets throughout the plug-in's pages (like in the Mod Matrix section of the System page). All of the LFOs can be synchronized to each other or an external MIDI Beat Clock.

Two VCFs (virtually controlled filters, rather than voltage-controlled filters because they are virtual) and two assignable VCAs make up the Filter and Envelope page. Both VCFs are two-pole, 12 dB/octave with a choice of either low, high and bandpass, or band stop filter types. Filters can be used in serial, parallel and modular routing. Both VCAs are ADSTAR (attack, decay, sustain time, attack on key release and release) for serious envelope control.

The Wave Edit page is where you create your own wavetables. Up to eight custom wavetables can be stored with a preset and then recalled via the OSC and LFO waveform shape pop-up menus. You can use a variety of algorithms to generate and customize your waveshape, capture your own shape (up to 256 samples) with the Wave Capture plug-in, or simply draw one freehand. The ability to capture your own wavetable is an amazingly powerful feature that adds new dimensions of depth and realism to your sounds.

All 128 MIDI controller numbers can be assigned to any of SynthOne's nearly 300 parameters. The assignment menus are spread out over two pages: 0 to 63 and 64 to 127. Being able to assign any of Synth-One's parameters to a MIDI controller number is wonderfully empowering. However, the pop-up menus used to select the instrument's parameters are too long and not alphabetically organized, which makes finding the parameter you want to assign difficult. I'm sure that there is a better way to organize these menus. Note that new MIDI controller assignments aren't remembered until you save your preset; this is a bug that McDSP says will be fixed shortly.

Global functions (like note-stealing protocols, number of unison voices and velocity response), effects, modulation sources and MIDI-performance controllers are found on the System page. Again, any of SynthOne's nearly 300 para-meters can be assigned, two at a time, to the performance control sources. The Mod Matrix contains four assignable sources and targets, with an amount of modulation control for each pairing. The Effects section is a basic delay: rate, depth, delay, feedback and mix. Nothing too special, but it works well to thicken up presets. Delays can be locked to incoming MIDI Beat Clock at standard note values. And, if you just need a touch of EQ to perfect a preset, a stereo EQ is selectable between highpass, low or high shelf.

The plug-in's final page is dedicated to a unique Performance Generator. More than an arpeggiator, you can sequence custom patterns of up to 16 events. Each event can have its own interval (relative to the Performance Generator mode), velocity and duration (in standard note values). You can create your own pattern or choose from a preset; patterns can be locked to an external MIDI Beat Clock. Pattern Generator is a lot of fun: Write crazy arpeggiation sequences or use it to automatically generate bass or lead lines to your chords. (Version 2.01 allows the Performance Generator to continue playing even when the plug-in's window is closed.)

ONE SYNTH TO PLAY

When I first tried SynthOne, I was not impressed by its sound quality: I found it rather thin and boring. But I soon realized that this was not the instrument's problem, but instead the fault of wimpy presets. Though SynthOne has some great-sounding presets, the contents of the first folders I visited were lackluster. SynthOne needs a root folder that's packed with presets that sell the instrument and create the “Wow, I've got to have this!” response. For example, P5 Pad 3 is a big sweeping pad that sounds wonderful. It's in the Prophet 5 folder, inside the Sampled Wave folder in the Presets folder. And there are several fat-sounding bass patches in the Bass Sounds folder, which is in the JW Presets folder inside the Presets folder.

But despite SynthOne's poor preset planning, V. 2 does offer a new and unique patch-organization feature called Virtual Cartridge, which stores up to 64 patches that can be accessed via MIDI patch changes. I love the ability to automate patch changes and flip through presets using increment/decrement keys on my control keyboard — the only problem with Virtual Cartridges. I hope this is fixed soon.

Version 2 is a big improvement over V. 1, not just in features but in overall sound quality. I did not find that SynthOne's limited polyphony and lack of multitimbral operation were problems. The types of sounds that it excels at — vintage synth pads, bass and leads sounds — don't generally require many voices. If you're looking for a new TDM synth to add to your sound module arsenal, then SynthOne is definitely worth a listen, especially if tweaking parameters, capturing your own wavetables, lots of MIDI control and solid vintage synth emulation excite you. And to close the deal, its retail price has been lowered from $695 to $495.

McDSP, 650/320-8452, www.mcdsp.com.


Visit Erik Hawkins' indie label at www.muzicali.com.






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