Monday, November 8, 2010

Review: LinPlug MorphoX

Product: MorphoX Softsynth
Developer: LinPlug
Formats: AU, RTAS (Mac-only), VST (Mac and PC)
System Requirements:
Price: $129
Demo: Demo version available for download from the product page. (Audio demos also found here.)

The mod wheel featured on most synthesizers and controllers is a feature that often gets ignored these days. In the old days, it was often used to add vibrato (indeed its function was hard-wired to this on many synths), but as squiggly prog-rock solos became less popular musically, it evolved. Nowadays, most times you'll find it functioning as a filter cutoff control if it has been assigned a function at all. LinPlug seem to have tuned into this with MorphoX, their latest creation. In MorphoX, the mod wheel is transformed into a "morph wheel". What does that mean? Let's take a look.

On the surface, MorphoX appears to be a pretty standard subtractive synth. 2 oscillators (with FM and ringmod), a multi-mode filter, 2 LFOs, 3 envelopes, a mod matrix, a programmable arpeggiator, and simple built-in chorus and delay effects. So what's the big deal? Each sound is actually made up of 2 sub-sounds designated as A and B. By using the mod wheel - er "morph wheel" - you can smoothly morph in between the two sounds, even if they are extremely different sounding. As you might imagine, this allows expression and real time twisting of sounds in a way few other synths can.

Installation is about as simple as it comes. Just double click on the standard installer, and you're done. Copy protection comes in the form of a serial number issued by Linplug. On your first use, you enter the serial number and you're done. Nice and unobtrusive. Having just wrestled with the draconian license manager of another company's product which shall remain unnamed here, I really appreciate this kind of simplicity.

MorphoX features a clean, simple interface that should be fairly easy for most experienced electronic musicians to figure out right away. It's actually split up into 2 sections: the Morphing Area and the Global Area. The Morphing area comprises the majority of the interface, encompassing the oscillators, filters, mod matrix, etc. These all represent items that can be morphed. The Global Area consists of the arpeggiator and the Morph parameters, neither of which can be morphed for obvious reasons. At the very bottom, you'll find an easy-to-use patch browser, open & save buttons, as well as settings for polyphony, MIDI learn for the controls, and miscellaneous global settings for pitch bend amount, etc. There's really not much to complain about here. The interface is simple to navigate and the controls are all laid out very efficiently and logically.

MorphoX features two oscillators and a white noise source. The layout of the oscillators is pretty similar to previous LinPlug synths, so if you've used any of those before, you'll feel right at home. Basically, each oscillator's sound is created by combining 2 different waveforms which you select from drop down menus (you set the wave's frequency here, too). The oscillator then interprets between those two waveforms. You can change this interpolation via the Wave knob that lets you set a balance between the two waveforms, giving priority to one or the other, or balancing them evenly. The waveforms themselves are all simple, basic single-cycle waves ranging from variations on standard saw and pulse waves to the more digitally-flavored spectral waveforms.

Each oscillator can be either free-running, or have its phase reset with each note. Symmetry controls give you some more subtle control over the sound as well. In case two standard oscillators don't sound fat enough for you, they both feature a 'spread' control, which is essentially a simple-to-use unison function. Oscillator 1 features 5 voices in unison, while Oscillator 2 features 3. The spread control allows you to adjust the amount of detuning between these voices. Note that use of the spread control doesn't use up additional notes of polyphony.

Each oscillator also has a control that is unique to it. On Oscillator 1, this is a phase control which allows you to determine where in the waveform the oscillator begins sounding. On Oscillator 2, the unique control is an FM knob. This allows you to modulate the frequency of one oscillator with the other, opening up a wide range of digital timbres ranging from harsh and aggressive to smooth and glassy.

In between both oscillators is a detune knob which - wait for it - detunes the oscillators against one another to thicken up the sound. Finally, right next door to the oscillator section, you'll find mix controls to let you control the individual volume levels of both oscillators, the noise source, and the ring modulator. Levels can be pushed to the point of saturation if so desired.

At first glance, the filter appears to be a fairly standard affair with the expected cutoff, resonance, key tracking, envelope amount, and ADSR filter envelope controls. However, MorphoX has a pretty neat trick up its sleeve. Instead of being a standard lowpass filter, the oscillators on MorphoX are simultaneously sent to a lowpass, bandpass, and highpass filter. The user can adjust the amount of each via the Filter Mix controls. This is an extremely flexible approach allowing you to mix and match the characteristics of each type of filter to your heart's desire. Another nice feature that is somewhat unusual is the Filter FM slider which allows you to modulate the filter cutoff at audio levels via oscillator 1.

Like the oscillators, the sound of the filters is very clean and clear. They aren't the most characterful filters you're going to find, but they sound good and the ability to mix and match various filter types at the same time gives it a bit of its own flavor. Oh, and they will self-oscillate at high resonance settings if that's your thing.

Like LinPlug's previous instruments, MorphoX offers a ten slot modulation matrix with a generous supply of sources and destinations. The most standard of these are the two LFOs. These each feature 7 different waveforms (including random and sample & hold), controls for delay and attack (how long the LFO fades in after the delay), and a frequency control (you can also sync it to note values to match your sequencer's master clock).

Additionally, there is a dedicated Modulation Envelope so you don't have to share settings with a filter or amp envelope. I wish more synths had this, as it's a handy feature indeed. Down next to the arpeggiator you'll also find 2 "global" LFOs, the stair generator and LFO 3. These are simplified modulators with minimal controls and provide yet more options of ways to change your sound over time.

If that's not enough, the mod matrix offers 21 other mod sources from standards like velocity and mod wheel to more unusual ones like the arpeggiator and various random options. Destination-wise, you can modulate pretty much ever parameter aside from oscillator waveforms. I'm not sure if there's a technical reason these aren't available to be modulated, but it seems like it might open the sound of MorphoX to wavesequencing/vector synthesis territory and might be worth considering in the future. Obviously, none of the parameters in the Global Area can be modulated either, but you're unlikely to find yourself feeling shorted on the modulation options here.

If you've found yourself disappointed by other synth's standard "up, down, up/down, random" arpeggiators, you'll want to give special attention to the one included on MorphoX. MorphoX includes these (and many other) modes, of course, but you can also set velocity levels for each note and set rests and ties for more dynamic and interesting arps. You can also freely save and load arpeggiator set-ups which is a great time-saving feature. Standard controls for the amount of steps (up to 16), the amount of octaves spanned, note value, and retriggering mode are also present. The Gate knob represents the only arpeggiator parameter that is morphable, which allows you to change from short, choppy notes to longer sustain ones. I would've liked to have seen a method for programming gate values built into the arpeggiator itself. This would greatly extend the expressiveness of arps and allow one to, for instance, imitate the way a rhythm guitarist might play.

MorphoX includes built-in chorus and delay effects. These are pretty typical in terms of programmability and sound good. The chorus is very nice sounding indeed, and I'm not generally a fan of chorus effects. It would be nice to see a reverb effect as an option here, but that's the only glaring omission effects-wise.

There are a number of other features I'm not going to delve into here including volume control, amp envelopes, glide controls, and the like, but there is one other feature worth noting here which is the Precision paramter. As you might expect, this introduces some irregularity into your signal much the way you might expect an analog synth to. Unfortunately, it only lets you select between 90-100% precision. I'd like to see a wider range available here. If I had one critique of the overall sound of MorphoX, it's that it's very "perfect" sounding. This is great if you're after thoroughly modern timbres, but it would be nice to have the option of to introduce a bit more imperfection. As it is, it's a bit hard to hear the difference between 90% and 100% precision. Come on, LinPlug! Let us get messy!

And at last we have arrived at MorphoX's raison d'etre: its morphing abilities. In the previous paragraphs, I described the architecture of a sound in this synth. That's only half the story, though. Literally. In fact, each patch in MorphoX actually consists of TWO sounds using the above-mentioned layout. Each patch actually consists of both an A and a B sound, which are the sounds you define to morph between. You can select the settings for each sound by clicking on the A and B buttons here, or by selecting Link and moving the on-screen morph wheel forward and backward.

Although it's not mentioned in the manual, there is a drop down menu that gives you options for copying and pasting to and from slot A and B and reversing the slots. Note that you can copy and paste in between patches, so you can freely exchange parts in between patches. Nice!

You may find that the smoothest or most pleasing sounding morphs are not at the extremes of either end of the morph wheel's travel, so you can set minimum and maximum values to restrict the amount of morphing to the range that is most useful to you. Additionally, you can change the curve behavior or the morph so that it morphs logarithmically, exponentially, or any other curve you can adjust.

The one thing that stood out to me immediately about MorphoX is how easy it is to use. In fact, with the exception of how to set up morphs, I didn't find myself needing to crack the manual. LinPlug has found a good balance between simplicity and flexibility and if you're familiar with subtractive synthesis, you'll find yourself up and running with this synth very quickly.

The morphing ability is a lot of fun to play with, and once you understand how it's set up, it's also dead easy. Obviously, some sounds morph smoother than others, but I found myself enjoying it most when it was unpredictable and weird sounding. Impressively, your A and B sounds can have different delay effect settings and morph between them without clicks, pops, or drop-outs. You'll get an odd pitch-warp out of it, but it's smooth as a baby's behind.

Sound-wise, there's really no doubt that you're playing a LinPlug instrument. It shares the same present, modern sound as its predecessors straddling both virtual analog and icy digital timbres with ease. The sound of this synth is consistent enough with prior offerings that if you already own one of LinPlug's synths, it's going to be mainly the morphing ability that decides whether you need this or not. Personally, I'd like to see some more options to dirty up the sounds some more. As I mentioned before, a wider range on the Precision parameter would be nice, and I wouldn't mind seeing the addition more saturation, distortion, or even bit-crushing effects.

It looks like LinPlug has another winner on their hands with MorphoX. It's easy to program, sounds great, and setting up your own morphs just to see how they sound is seriously addictive. Perhaps best of all, they've given us all a reason to get excited about our mod wheels again! [8/10]


Youri Putters said...

Thank you for the wonderful review! Now, I feel tempted to give this synthesizer a shot as well, the demo songs on the page are very impressive.


papernoise said...

I must admit that I initially dissed the "morph" feature as a desperate attempt to add something to virtual synths in a field where everything seems to have been done already. But reading through your review I realized that it's probably a lot more than what it sounded to me. So thanks for the review... think I'll check the plug out!

Anonymous said...

Although I first thought "Oh well, just another soft synth", I must admit that LinPlug have once again created a very interesting, good-sounding and fun-to-use synth!
Especially for the ones who like to tweak sounds to their own liking will much appreciate the very good usability. It's simply fun and fast to program, and I felt immediately "at home" right after firing it up the 1st time.

Anonymous said...

I've bought this synth and really like it. It's a joy to program. Reverb would be nice, I agree, but not necessary. That can always be added with a plug-in. I also like how the oscs can be "driven" into nice distortion.