Thursday, April 19, 2012

Review: Tone2 Saurus

Product: Saurus Analog Synth
Developer: Tone2
Format: PC (VST) and Mac (VST and AU)
Price: $119
Demo: Audio demos and Downloadable Demo 

Saurus is the newest release from German software developers Tone2.  This time out, their aim is to reproduce the analog sound of classic synths in an easy to program environment and without a lot of CPU overhead.  Let's have a look!

Installation and authorization is as simple as downloading the installer and locating the key file you're issued when you purchase Saurus.  Once you've done that, so long as you don't move or delete the key file, you're good to go!

Documentation comes via a concise, but thorough PDF manual.  No complaints here.

As you might expect, the interface of Saurus is made to look like the lovely knob-laden vintage synths, right down to the dust rendered on the keyboard (a nice touch).  Everything is easy to read and clearly laid out and should be more or less immediately familiar to anyone with a background in subtractive synthesis.

The top left of the interface hosts the patch browser.  Here you can increment sound by sound, select sounds from a drop-down menu, switch banks (which are organized by category), initialize sounds (or just the arpeggiator or mod matrix.  You can also load sounds manually from another drive here.

Below this, you'll find the oscillator section.  Saurus's voice structure consists of 2 analog modeled osciallators, each with it's own dedicated sub oscillator.  All of the expected classic analog waves are found here in addition to some variations similar to some of the waves on the Roland Alpha Juno synths.  The main oscillators include pulse width controls, and the ability to use hard sync or ring modulate.  Additionally, there are the F/A Noise controls.  These allow you to create noisy timbres using FM or AM.  Unfortunately, there is no proper white noise generator on Saurus.  While the FM and AM can get close, the noise that results from these processes sounds a bit more like the digital noise produced by old video game chips.  Cool, but not a substitute for the real deal. [EDIT: Actually, there turns out to be a white noise generator, but it's only accessible from the modulation matrix.  This is very unintuitive and unnecessarily complicated.  A dedicated knob, please.]   In addition to tuning and mixing controls for the oscillators, there is a button to activate the analog drift to simulate the imperfections of analog oscillators.  I'd have preferred an amount knob here to let me control the amount of drift, as it seems a bit subtle at its current setting.

Saurus is equipped with a single multi-mode filter featuring 12 and 24db variations on lowpass, bandpass, and highpass filters.  The expected cutoff, resonance, key and envelope amounts are all here in addition to a drive effect for dirtying up sounds, filter FM, a feedback control, and a dedicated ADSR filter envelope.

There are additional ADSR envelopes for amplitude and an aux envelope for modulating the parameters of your choice. The amplitude envelope section also includes all the voicing controls allowing you to select mono and poly modes, glide, and controls allowing for 2 or 4 times unison with spread control.

Two LFOs are available for modulation purposes including all the standard analog waveforms, phase and frequency controls, as well as an option to sync to note values of the host DAW.

The arpeggiator/step sequencer shares a window with the modulation matrix.  You can switch between them easily using tabs.  The arpeggiator (which can be used as a modulation source) is fully featured and easy to program.  Lots of fun to play with and really more like a step sequencer than a lowly arp (although it does that job well, too).  The mod matrix provides tons of sources and destinations making this a mod freak's dream. A total of 15 slots split across 3 tabs are available, meaning you aren't likely to run out.

Finally, Saurus is equipped with a simple effects section providing chorus, reverb, delay, and tube effects.

I really have to hand it to Tone2 here, as they've managed to find a very nice balance between lots of sound sculpting options and simplicity.  While I never would've recommended a synth like Gladiator 2 to a beginner, Saurus is much easier to pick up and logically laid-out.

I have to admit that when I first started going through the presets, my first thought was, "Well, this definitely sounds like a Tone2 synth."  Now, I happen to be a fan of their previous instruments, so that's definitely a compliment.  What I wasn't hearing, though, was that analog vibe that they had sought out to replicate.  On the contrary, many of the sounds sounded like standard virtual analog to my ears.

It wasn't until I really spent some time with the synth that it's analog nature started to reveal itself. This is a synth that is very capable of creating convincing analog emulations, but it can also go beyond that, and unfortunately for Tone2, I think more of their presets fall into this "beyond" category than do the convincing analog sound.  Don't get me wrong, the non-analog sounding patches sound fantastic, but I think it would've been a wiser decision to restrict the factory presets to sounds that really pop out as sounding vintage versus stuff more akin to a Virus.

The filter of Saurus is the real star of the show in my opinion.  The lowpass filter in particular has the nasty screeching quality the MS-20 had and the drive can really beef up the synth's sound.    The oscillators sound good, although they still sound a bit too perfect to my ears.  There is a "living" quality to the oscillators in FXpansion's Strobe or u-he's DIVA that I'm just not hearing here.  Maybe a little more control over the amount of imperfection would be helpful here.

The modulation capabilities are really generous and open up lots of fun possibilities for eager programmers.  Effects are simple, but sound good and can really add some dimension to sounds.  It might be nice to see some more vintage type effects here like a phaser or a spring reverb.  A simple EQ might be nice too, as I sometimes felt the sounds could use a little more low-end warmth.

Soundwise, it's difficult to compare Saurus to classic instruments.  It certainly can pull off Alpha Juno sounds convincingly.  It can do vaguely Moog-y and ARP-y sounds, but overall Saurus kind of has it's own sonic identity.  I should also mention that Saurus has quite modest CPU requirements, so if something like DIVA brings your computer to its knees, this'll likely work better for you.

Saurus is proof that your first impressions aren't always correct.  The abundance of modern sounding presets Saurus ships with mislead me to think this was just another bog standard virtual analog. If you know what you're doing, though, you'll find there are lots of convincing analog tones in here waiting to be discovered.  So how does it compare to other contenders such as Strobe or DIVA?  I'd say it's not quite at the level of those two, but it's damn good, cheaper than either of those, and less of a hit to the CPU.    If you just want a preset machine that is going to give you tons of vintage tones, you might consider looking elsewhere, but if you like to program your own sounds, you should definitely give them demo a spin.  It's a lot of fun to program! [8/10]


Ronnie said...

Good to see some more useful info on Saurus instead of that dreadful analog vs digital "discussion" over at KVR. I know Tone2 partly asked for it with their marketing tactics, but it's getting so old.

I'm looking forward to checking out this synth myself. I liked a lot of the sounds I heard in the demo tunes at Tone2.

diskounkle said...

I like that Tone2 is original with the software they make, but they stop marketing with the old "sounds like analog" debate and maybe work on a slogan like "Sounds like tone2"