Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: Tone2 ElectraX

Product: ElectraX softsynth

Developer: Tone2

PC: Windows XP, Windows Vista 32 bit or 64 bit, Windows 7 32 bit or 64 bit, Windows ME; Intel Pentium4 compatible CPU with at least 800 Mhz; 512 MB RAM
Mac: Mac OSX 10.4 or higher; G4, G5 or Intel Mac with at least 800 Mhz; 512 MB RAM

Demo: Audio Demo, Fully functional trial demo with time limits.

Price: ElectraX $199, Voltage! Expansion Soundset $49

Two years ago around this time, I did a review of Tone2's flagship synth Gladiator 2. It was (and still is) a fantastic and deep synth that was perhaps hampered a bit by a cluttered, almost haphazard user interface. Ever since then, I was curious to see what Tone2 would do next in the synth scene. That answer came late last fall when they released ElectraX. Though I'm a bit late to the table with this review, I wanted to make sure I gave it a spin. So let's check it out. (Note that Tone2 was generous enough to include their new Voltage! Expansion Soundset with the review materials, but since I run a patch programming business, I'll recuse myself from comment there. Suffice it to say if you like the presets Elextra ship with, you'll probably like these. Check out the demo on the webpage.


In a word, ElectraX can be described as a Supersynth without being hyperbolic. Imagine an architecture with three oscillators with sync and FM capabilities, 2 freely configurable filters with 23 choices of filter apiece, 4 envelopes, 3 LFOs, a step sequencer (here called the Step LFO), a flexible mod matrix, an arpeggiator and an insert effect. Now take that architecture and quadruple it. So each sound in ElextraX can be made up of essentially 4 entire synths layered/split however you like. This would be impressive itself, but when you realize that each oscillator of those synths can be assigned to Virtual Analog, Sample Playback, Wavetable, Supersaw, and Noise/Fractal modes, you can see the possibilities expanding still further. Add another effect slot at the Master level, and you have ElectraX in a nutshell.


Installation is fairly straightforward. When you buy ElectraX, you receive an installer that is watermarked with your identity, as well as a keyfile ElectraX will look for upon start-up. With the installer run and the keyfile moved to the appropriate folder, you're good to go. You can have installations on multiple machines as well.


First of all, all fears that a synth this complex would have a nightmarishly cluttered interface can be laid to rest. Tone2 has come a long way when it comes to interface design and I can report that this is a much more organized and pleasant to program synth than Gladiator 2. Tabs are used to select displays for items with multiple versions (ie envelopes, LFOs), and the layout follows the signal flow in a much more logical way. The interface also fits on my 13" laptop screen which was an issue with Gladiator 2 when I reviewed it. Multiple skins are selectable to not only allow customization, but to provide a quick and easy way to differentiate between the 4 synth engines within a patch.

If I may make one gripe, before I get into the details, there is one thing that bugs me about this interface. On the white skin, buttons that are selected go from a solid charcoal color to a light grey. While I understand this is meant to signify the button lighting up, I think most people are used to interfaces where light grey indicates something that is off or unselectable, while the darker, more solid options are on or selectable. This isn't a huge deal, but it's a bit confusing at first and sort of flies in the face of usual interface design.

On to the interface itself. The top level of the interface contains the items that make up the simple view of the interface (selectable via the EDIT button). This includes a browser that divides sounds into folders based on categories, Next Sound/Previous Sound arrows, a heart button that allows you to highlight sounds you really like in their own special folder, and the file menu which allows loading and saving options, among others.

In the center, is a window for quickly altering the instrument's volume, a simple 3-band EQ for sculpting the overall tone of a sound, and a modwheel knob, useful mainly as visual feedback when the modwheel is being engaged. You'll also find the HELP button which contains direct links to Tone2 as well as MIDI mapping of knobs, and the edit button which closes or expands the interface from simple to full view.

At the top right, you'll find the Master effect slot with selectable Mix level and various options for the Reverb Hall, Reverb Cathedral, Reverb Room, Delay, Delay Band, Ping Pong, Multitap, Chorus, Ensemble, Flanger, Phaser, Rotary, Trancegate, Compressor, Amp Sim, EQ, Surround Encode, and Vocoder effects available.

Below this basic level, you'll find the sound sculpting guts themselves. The oscillator section is the heart of this. You can select any of the four built-in synths and turn them on or off freely. Each of these contains controls for octave, interval, fine tuning against the other oscillators, as well as a Tone control, which allows you to dial in an overall brighter or duller version of the waveform to taste. In between the three oscillators, you'll find buttons allowing hard sync between oscillator 1 & 2 or oscillator 2 & 3, as well as knobs for FM level for FM effects between oscillator 1 & 2 or oscillator 2 & 3. There are also pulse width knobs that perform slightly different functions according to which synth engine you're using.

The center section is where you assign each oscillator to the Virtual Analog, Ultrasaw, Noise/Fractal, Sample Playback, or Wavetable modes. You can set each oscillator to be either free-running, or to start a particular part of the wavecycle (important for punchy sounds like synth drums, and some basses), as well as get some visual feedback as to how the waveshape changes as you're altering it. Along the top of this section, you can also set key ranges for each synth, so you have flexibility as to how you use those engines. You could layer all 4 synths for monster leads, or you could split the keyboard into four different sounds for use when performing live, etc.

The mix knobs for each oscillator allows the user to select how much of each will be routed to the 2 filters. Serial, parallel, and other combinations are easy to set up this way. Each of the two filters provides controls for cutoff, resonance, drive (with selectable Tube, Soft, Fuzz, Asym, Crusher, and Shaper modes), envelope and key amounts, and a selection of 19 filters ranging from multiple slope lowpass, highpass, and bandpass filters, to EQs, to more esoteric options like comb and vowel filters. Pan and volume controls are available, as is an "Analog" mode said to give the filters a less stable, more organic sound, and a ring modulator allowing you to make all sorts of crazy Dr. Who sounds and beyond.

The bottom part of the interface is devoted to the modulation portion of the synth. Here you'll find a nicely-appointed arpeggiator, a settings section that allows you to set, for instance the polyphony mode, playback quality, velocity mapping, between patch copy and paste options, as well as some nice INIT modes that will start you out with a basic sound of the specific type you're looking to make (ie Subtractive Monosynth, FM, Sync, etc.). This section promises to provide a patch randomizer in a future version, but this is not yet implemented. A shame, as Gladiator 2's randomization is one of the best I've used in terms of getting musically useful results. Hopefully the random version here will be the same or better.

To the right of this, you'll find the insert effect, which is applied to each separate synth. The same options for the Master Effects are available here.

At the very bottom, you'll find tabbed displays for the 4 envelopes, the 4 LFOs (3 normal, 1 step LFO/sequencer), and the two pages of modulation slots. Just about any modulation control you might expect is available to modulate pretty much any destinaton you like. Setting up modulation is as simple as selecting a source, a destination, and an amount. 2 tabs with 5 slots each give you 10 overall slots for whatever modulation madness you care to do. I WOULD like to see audio signals themselves available as modulation sources in a future version, as this would allow for some pretty "out there" sounds.

Now multiply what I just said by four.


As you might expect, a synth with such a mighty architecture is capable of some massive sounds. From thick, ultrafat monosynths, to complex, evolving arps, vocoder drum beats, multi-layered sequences, digital pads, massive tranceleads and everything in between, this is an insanely flexible instrument. The truth is, even sounds using only 1 of the patches built-in synths can yield convincing, solid sounds, so you may find for every day applications, using all 4 separate synths to be overkill.

The overall sound of ElectraX is bright, punchy, and undeniably modern. While ElectraX is capable of "vintage" type sounds as well, this isn't its forte. This is virtual analog (among many other forms of synthesis) with an eye on the future and the clean, present sound you'd expect from that. WIth that quality comes a price, and if you're using the ultra-high quality mode, that price comes in the form of CPU load, especially if you're playing big chords. All things considered, the CPU use isn't as high as you'd expect considering its featureset, and honestly, many sounds will sound just fine at lower quality levels should you need to save processing cycles.

Although ElectraX is a brand new instrument, you can easily see how its been built upon the foundation of Tone2's previous products. Areas that were weak on Gladiator 2 have been renovated and retooled, what worked has been kept, and whole new levels of flexibility have been opened up. If you're looking for a great "do everything" synth, this would be a great place to start, especially given the price to feature ratio. [9/10]


Ronnie said...

Easily one of my favorite synths at the moment.

Steve said...

I'm a huge fan of the Gladiator2, so I'd definitely like to check this out sometime.

Tom said...

@Ronnie - Yeah, it's a beast. I'm looking forward to really getting into programming it. The possibilities seem pretty massive.

@Steve - It's definitely a different beast than Gladiator, but if you like Gladiator, I'd be willing to bet you enjoy this one too