Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review: Linplug CrX4

Product: CrX4 Sample-Based Synth
Developer: Linplug
Formats: PC (VST) and Mac (VST and AU)
Demo: Audio demos and downloadable demo (emits noise periodically) on Product Page.
Price: $149

One of Linplug's earliest products was the CronoX synth, a ROMpler-type synth that mixed samples and synthesis much in the way the popular ROMplers in the 90's did.  Three further revisions and many years later, we have Linplug's latest: CrX4, a radical update that brings this type of synthesis into the 21st century.

You can think of CrX4 as the Swiss Army knife of sample-based synthesis.  Although it has built-in virtual analog oscillators you can use, most of CrX4's sounds come from the manipulation of samples via a number of different specialized sample engines.  To be clear, though, this is not a sampler.  CrX4 generally works using a single sample versus multi-sampled, round robin, multi-velocity layered super samples.  While this sounds restrictive, the different sample engines help you get a lot more mileage out of a single sample than you would imagine.

Installation takes place via your run-of-the-mill installer with authorization coming via a simple serial number system.

The manual is a 70-page PDF file downloaded with the synth.  It's well-written and quite easy to understand.  Although much of the synth will make sense right out of the box if you have a decent grip on subtractive synthesis.

As we've come to expect from Linplug, the layout of CrX4 is clean, easy-to-read, and logically laid out.  As I just mentioned, anyone familiar with subtractive synthesis will feel at home rather quickly with the basic architecture of the synth.  CrX4's architecture is based around 4 "Generators" (each of which can be either a VA oscillator, a noise source, or one of three sample engines), 2 multi-mode filters with dedicated envelopes, an AMP envelope, a free MOD envelope, 4 LFO's, a mod matrix, dedicated multi-effects, and an arp/step sequencer that can also work as a mod source.  So pretty nicely appointed, then.

Let's start out by examining the different types of Generators.  The first of these is the Oscillator Generator.  This is not sample-based and uses waveforms familiar to analog synths that are continuously variable between pulse and saw waves, with in-between settings offering a blend of the two.  You'll find your standard fine and coarse tunings (or even select for the oscillator not to track the keyboard at all), the option to have your oscillators free-running, or always retriggered, and, very cooly, an aliasing amount knob that allows you to add digital grit to your sounds if you feel like recreating the rough sounds of early sample-based synths like the Ensoniq ESQ-1.

The next Generator is the Noise Generator.  Far from just offering a "level" knob, the Noise Generator here has a lowpass filter and a highpass filter (each with independent resonance controls) which can be mixed between using the Mix knob.  As you can imagine, even before you hit the synth's main filters, you already have quite a bit of tone-sculpting options.  There is also a "rough" button that provides a more gnarly, digital version of noise when the tuning settings are set to low values.

The first of the sample-based Generators is the Time Sampler Generator.  This Generator allows you to load a single WAV or AIFF file and alter its length and pitch independently and in real time.  The sample can be mapped to the whole keyboard, or just a range if you want to use each Generator in your patch to create a split zone in the keyboard.

Next up is the Wavetable Generator.  As you can imagine, this uses the WAV or AIFF you feed it to build a Wavetable like you might find on a Waldorf synth.

Finally, we have the Loop Sampler Generator.  This operates more like your standard sampler, allowing you to loop sustaining sounds adjusting sample start, loop start, and loop end, using loop-smoothing, etc.

The Generators all share the same tuning controls, individual volume controls, and filter-routing knobs that allow you to route a Generator to either filter, or a mixture of both.  Many of the generators also offer a "spread" parameter that is essentially a "supersaw" unison type effect that does its thing without eating up extra polyphony.  The sample-based Generators also have optional waveform displays you can view to visually set loops and the like.  The final bit of note is that each set of two Generators can be cross-modulated via AM or FM for some really out there digital sounds.

CrX4's two filters are identical to one another.  They each offer lowpass, highpass, bandpass, and band-reject filters in either 12 or 24db versions.  The Standard filter allows you to select one of the four filter types, whereas the Free filter makes the transitions between filter types continuously variable, allowing you to blend the characteristics of multiple filter types.  Cool!  Each filter includes its own saturation setting for dirtying things up, cutoff, resonance, filter type, keyboard tracking amount, envelope amount, velocity amount, and pan settings.  You can set the balance between the two filters and use dedicated Edit Menu to copy and paste settings in between filters.  You can also select for the filters to run in parallel or serial.

The filters share a dedicated envelope for modulation.  These are Attack Hold Decay Sustain Release envelopes.  What makes them especially nice is that you can select a slope type for the A, D, and R segments of the envelope allowing you to go from linear to logarithmic curves to allow you to really sculpt the envelope beyond the standard controls.

You'll find the AMP envelope up in the MAIN section which includes a number of global controls. Here you can select oscillator precision, Glide settings, the number of voices, and velocity settings.  There is also a Chord Memory function here if you want to store a chord to play back whenever you hit a key.

The MOD envelope has the same design as the others, but can be assigned to modulate any parameter you assign to it in the mod matrix.

The 4 LFO's are identical to one another and are assignable as mod sources via the Mod Matrix. 9 different waveshapes including random are available, as are settings for frequency (syncable, of course), delay, attack, phase, and symmetry to help you further tweak your LFO modulations.  The LFOs can be run in either polyphonic or monophonic modes, as well.

The Mod Matrix offers 10 slots with 30 available sources and 56 destinations, so you can see that the modulation possibilities are pretty extensive.  Everything operates here are you would expect it to with the source on the left, the destination on the right, and the positive or negative modulation amount in the center.

Next, we round things up with a programmable arpeggiator that can be used in the standard fashion, or as a step sequencer to modulate the destination(s) of your choice.  You have up to 32 steps at your disposal and the level of flexibility puts this close to an analog step sequencer depending on how you assign it to modulate.

Finally, everything is sent through the built-in multi-effects which offers bit-crushers, EQ, stereo enhancement, a gater, flanger, reverb, phaser, chorus, 3 types of delay, and a filter.  There are six effects slots in all with each group allowing the selection of a certain number of effects.  This is more than enough to add polish and depth to your sounds and is flexible enough that plenty of customization is possible.  Of course, each of the individual effects have their own range or parameters that can be individually programmed for further customization.

As you can see, Linplug didn't hold back on the features with this synth.  With so many synthesis types on offer and such well-thought-out programming features, you'd  be forgiven for thinking CrX4 is a difficult synth to come to grips with.  On the contrary, thanks to a nicely laid out user interface, CrX4 is quite simple to use once you get yourself up to speed on some of the ins and outs of the different types of generators.

The Sample Generators sound very good and can handle WAV or AIF files up to 24-bit/96k.  It's a lot of fun loading in your own material and twisting them beyond recognition. The Waveform Generators are fine for what they are, but honestly, if you're looking for virtual analog type sounds, you'd do better to look elsewhere.  I found the waveform generators a bit sterile here.  The Aliasing knob is a really nice touch I'd like to see on more synths, though.  Really helps to add some interesting dirt.

The filters sound nice, although, again, they're not exactly full of character. This is more apparent with the synth waveforms, though.  They seem much more effective on sampled material for whatever reason.  Speaking of which, CrX4 ships with over a GB of sample material to get you started.  While there are some acoustic/"real" instrument sounds, most of the sounds are decidedly synthetic and digital.  I like this, personally.  Too many sample-based synths try to be all things to all people and you often end up with a boring selection of the same old sounds every other workstation has.

As you might expect for a synth of this type, it really excels at pads, effects, and evolving sounds.  It's a lot of fun time-stretching a bunch of sounds beyond recognition and setting them off one another.  The built-in effects are also really nice sounding and can do a lot to bring sounds to life.  CrX4 is less successful for bass type sounds.  There are some nice ones, to be sure, but the overall tone of CrX4 seems to be biased more towards the highs and high mids than the low end.  As such, it's a synth that cuts through a mix very well.

If you are looking for a synth that offers some interesting, unique textures and loads of programmability, you should definitely give CrX4 a spin.  In an age where so many manufacturers are laser-focused on recreating analog sounds, it's kind of refreshing to play an instrument that wears its digital sheen with pride!  [8/10]

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