Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Review: Synapse Audio DUNE

Product: DUNE softsynth
Developer: Synapse Audio
Formats: VST, AU. Windows 2000, XP, Vista/7. Mac 10.4 or higher.
Price: $139
Demo: MP3 demos on product page, as well a downloadable demo version.

If there's one thing I think we can all agree on as electronic musicians, it's that synth and softsynth manufacturers have a peculiar talent for coming up with new buzzwords in an attempt to put a new shine on old synthesis techniques. So when I first heard about Synapse Audio's DUNE (which stands for Differential UNison Engine), it was with a healthy dose of skepticism. Was it just a name or did it offer something legitimately new and unique? Let's find out (and I promise out of respect to Frank Herbert to keep references to the Spice and House Harkonnen to a minimum).

DUNE, on its surface appears to be a fairly standard virtual analog / subtractive synth. But this isn't the whole picture. Beneath the surface, this synth has quite a few cool little tricks up its sleeve that help it stand apart from the dozens of other similarly-minded products on the market. The most obvious difference is in the previously-mentioned Differential Unison Engine. Unison is a pretty bog standard feature on most softsynths these days, but Synapse breathe a bit of new life into the concept by expanding its power significantly. On most synths, the unison function allows you to play several voices at once, with slightly different tunings and positions in the stereo field, resulting in a much bigger, thicker sound. With DUNE, Synapse Audio has taken this concept and run with it allowing each voice in unison to have different settings of almost any of the parameters that make up a sound. You're essentially only limited by the number of modulation slots you have available, and as you can imagine, this allows you to create noticeably more complex unison voices than you could on your typical virtual analog.

Nothing unusual to report here. You install the plug-in via your standard installer program and authorize it with a serial number. Thumbs up for painless installation and authorization! Arturia and Native Instruments could take some advice on this subject...

DUNE's interface is clean, easily legible, and laid out in a fairly logical manner. Most functions can be accessed directly from the front panel via knobs, buttons, and small menus with no need for navigating to different pages. At the center of the interface is a large window that serves multiple functions. It defaults to preset management, where patches and banks can be loaded and saved, as well as given categories and additional notes for easy searching. I'm so glad to see this sort of thing becoming standard on softsynths, because it can be a real time-saver.

The window also allows access to two pages of the Mod Matrix, with twelve slots apiece, and the Arp Pattern section, which allows you program custom arpeggios.

The bottom of the interface can be toggled between an onscreen keyboard, and the Effects section. If I have any criticism of the interface, it's that the Effects section button is a bit easy to miss at first. Once you know where it is, however, it's easy to use.

Each individual voice in DUNE can consist two standard oscillators, a sub-oscillator, and a noise source. These can be stacked up to 8 times via the unison mode which opens the door to some seriously ballsy sounds.

The two standard oscillators offer the usual sawtooth, square/pulse, and sine waves, but also offer a 'SELECT' option where you can choose form 69 different digital waveforms. These are selected via up and down arrows. I found myself wishing that clicking on the digital waveforms name and image would call up a drop down menu to enable me to directly select a wave rather than scanning through all the others to find the one I need. Not a deal-breaker, but I feel it would be a bit more convenient that way.

The square/pulse wave has a variable width, but this must be shared among both oscillators. I'd much rather each oscillator could have its own PWM settings, but to be honest, once I started programming my own sounds on this, I found I didn't really miss it all that much.

Among the standard Semi and Fine tuning knobs, a button to select Oscillator Sync, and a knob for adjusting balance between Osc 1 and 2, are two knobs (1 for each Osc) marked 'Fat'. Increasing the values of these add stacked voices to each oscillator, up to 7 additional, detuned waves. Keep in mind this is before we even get into the actual Unison function, so already you can see the potential for really thick, powerful sounds.

Osc 3 acts as a sub-oscillator in saw, square, or triangle flavors an octave below Osc 1 and 2. A level knob lets you adjust how loud it is. Next door to this, is the Noise section with adjustable Level and Color settings.

Below the main part of the Oscillator section you'll find the Oscillator Common settings which allow you to set the Pulse Width when using square waves, Ring Mod levels, and 3 different types of FM (2 oscillator-based, an 1 filter-based). These open the door to a whole new range of timbres and I am especially glad to see filter FM offered, as I've become a big fan of the sounds this allows recently.

Next to this, you'll find the Unison section that allows you to select the number of voices, the Detune between each voice, and the Stereo Spread between each voice. Additionally, each unison voice can be soloed. But wait a minute, that sounds like the unison mode of virtually every other softsynth out there. I thought this was supposed to be different? This is one of those cases where some of the synth's capabilities are hidden beneath the surface. We'll talk about that in a bit, though. Just know that there's more than meets the eye at work here.

DUNE features a battery of 18 different filter types including the standard lowpass, highpass, and bandpass varieties in addition to comb filters, and split and parallel modes that combine multiple filters (the balance of which is adjustable via the Offset knob). Knobs for cutoff, resonance, keytracking, and envelope modulation amount are present as expected. A few varieties of distortion are available via the Filter Mode selection menu should you need to add some filth.

DUNE offers 3 LFOs and dedicated Filter, Amplitude, and Modulation Envelopes. The LFOs are freely assignable and offer sine, square, saw, and random waveforms. The Rate can either be synced to a note division of your DAW's clock, or freely adjustable. You can also skew the waveforms for further flexibility over modulation shapes, and assign your LFOs a fade-in time if you'd prefer for your modulation to come in gradually.

The one weakness here is that the two main oscillators have to share the same envelope settings. Although the balance knob in the oscillator section generally does a fine job at setting levels, not having individual level settings for each oscillator means they must share the same Amp envelope, for instance. It would be nice to be able to, say, assign the Mod Envelope to modulate the amplitude of Osc 1, while using the Amp Envelope to modulate the amp of Osc 2 if you want to - allowing one oscillator to sound immediately, while the second fades in. Probably not a huge deal for most sounds, but it does restrict you a bit.

DUNE offers a very generous 24 modulation slots allowing you to modulate pretty much every parameter on the front panel. A wide variety of modulation sources are available here as well, giving you tons of flexibility. Remember a ways back where I said the way the Differential Unison Engine works isn't immediately obvious on the surface? That's where the Mod Matrix comes into play. In addition to the Source, Amount, and Destination slots you would expect, is an additional slot with the innocuous name Voice. What this does is to allow you to target a modulation to a specific unison voice, so only that single voice is effected. This allows you to create different, unique settings for each voice within the Unison mode, making each of these voices a bit more unique from one another and significantly expanding the complexity possible within the Unison mode. It's such a simple concept that it's actually kind of surprising that the unison modes on all softsynths aren't like this.

In addition to the Mod Matrix, this window allows you to program custom arpeggios if you are have the Arp mode selected. While the arpeggiator is certainly very flexible, I felt as if it was let down by the interface, which consists of step numbers, and numerical settings for note and velocity values. I would've much preferred this function to be carried out with a visual display of the steps, as this is in my opinion a much more fun and intuitive way to program arps or step sequences. As it is now, it feels a bit like staring at a spreadsheet. Note that the arp can also be used as a modulation source and not just the standard note arp. Nice!

Hidden behind the keyboard display at the bottom of the interface is an effects section offering you access to very simple Distortion, 2 EQs, a Phaser/Chorus, Delay, and Reverb. Each effects block has 4-6 adjustable parameters. The effects all sound quite good, although nothing that's going to knock your socks off in most cases. Something worth noting is that the order of the effects is fixed. It would be nice if the individual effects blocks could be dragged and dropped into new positions to change the order.

In a word: great. DUNE sounds as thick and fat as you'd expect based on its architecture, but what I didn't expect was how clean and precise it sounds. For some, this might be a liability, but I found that DUNE's sounds sat really nicely in a mix with little need for additional EQing. Bass sounds in particular had a really satisfying weight without being muddy. The flexibility of the oscillators allows you to program more digital sounding sounds too. I found that DUNE really excelled more at the modern virtual analog sound, but more vintage results are attainable with some patience and programming. But I think that really misses the point of what this synth's strong suit is.

The filters sound very nice and authentic, while preserving the definition and precision of the oscillators. Combined with the very snappy envelopes, you can get the kinds of bass sounds normally associated with Sequential's Pro One. Punchy and fast!

The generous modulation options (including the Differential Unison Engine) make this a very flexible synth indeed, and can result in some surprisingly complex sounds for such a relatively simple subtractive synth set-up.

Whether you "need" DUNE or not, really depends on what you're after. As you might expect, what DUNE really shines at are big, thick, unison sounds. As such, it's an obvious choice for people producing dance music. In fact, many of the presets demonstrate aptly a somewhat similar sonic character to Access' Virus. To simply write it off as yet another trance machine would be a mistake, though. Beneath the deceptively simple veneer, diligent programmers are rewarded with a very flexible synth capable of surprising you with more than a few tricks of its own. There are areas for improvement, as I've mentioned throughout this review, but with the exception of the Arp interface, none of them really make the user's experience suffer. For me, the biggest selling point for DUNE is the way it sounds. I love how cleanly it fits in a mix. As always, the best advice is to download the free demo version and give it a shot yourself. I urge you to venture beyond the presets, however, as that's where you'll find what this synth is truly capable of. [8/10]


Anonymous said...

Well I guess I'll be the first to at least thank you for this review. I've had my eye on Synapse Audio for some time and although they're hardly ever mentioned in everyday talk of DAW's from what I could tell Orion was decent for those wanting to get into something for a lot less money. I just switched from Pro Tools to Studio One Pro and was searching around for synths to add. I started with Lennar Digital Sylenth 1 and began to look for an inexpensive sidekick...that sounded great as well. As I looked around all my familiar sites I found Dune. THought it sounded great for the money and you've just validated my opinion as well. I agree with your review and would like to say thanks again!

GM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Good review, although one thing isn't really true.
For the oscillator selection part, you don't have to go through all the 69 waveforms by clicking the up/down arrows to find the one you're looking for. Clicking it brings up the pop-up that allows you to select a waveform.