Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Review: KV331's Synthmaster 2.5

Product: SynthMaster
Developers: KV331 Audio
Format: Windows (VST, RTAS), Mac (VST, RTAS, AU).  32 or 64 bit.
Price: $129
Demo: Available on the website.  Demo disables saving patches and begins sounding random notes after ten minutes.  Audio demos also on the product page.

I want to start this review out with an apology to KV331 Audio.  They were kind enough to send me a review copy of SynthMaster late last fall when my band was out on tour.  However, the case is this is quite a complex synth, and I knew it would take me quite some time to put it through its paces, so rather than deliver a lazy, quick review, I wanted to take the extra time to make sure I got things covered. Once you read the review, I think you'll see why it took so long!

SynthMaster might best be described as a synthesizer jackknife in that it provides a semi-modular environment for multiple types of synthesis.  What types?  How about virtual analog, additive, wavetable, wave-scanning, FM, phase modulation, physical modeling, and SFZ sample playback?  Combine this with both analog and digital modeled filters of various types, 11 types of effects, and extensive modulation capabilities (over 650 modulatable parameters), and it’s clear SynthMaster is an ambitious synth.  So does SynthMaster live up to its potential, or is this a case of “Jack of all trades, master of none”?  Read on…

To install SynthMaster, download the version you need and run the installer.  When you’ve purchased it, you will receive a serial number which unlocks it.  That’s it.  You’re good to go.

Documentation comes in the form of an illustrated 41-page “QuickStart Guide”.  If you own a few softsynths and are generally familiar with subtractive synthesis, you'll likely only need to crack it for some of the more esoteric features (of which, to be fair, there are quite a few).

 As I said before, Synthmaster is a seriously deep synth with a lot of features, so you'd expect the interface to be complex and overwhelming.  Happily, that is not the case and through good use of multiple pages and tabs, KV331 has managed to squeeze everything in in a manner that is nice to look at and easy to navigate.  Synthmaster is also skinnable, should the default look not be to your liking.

The top of the interface consists of a series of buttons on the left that control what is displayed in the bulk of the screen.  It's here that you can select one of SynthMaster's two layers, controls for the 4 global LFO's, the Global FX section, a patch browser similar in feel to the type Native Instruments tends to favor, and the "Preset" page, where you can categorize, add author information, and comments to patches.  

To the right of this is name of the current patch, buttons to scroll through patches one by one, a panic button in case you get stuck notes, and saving options.  A parameter display resides beneath this, as do settings for Quality (lower settings help save CPU), Buffer and Polyphony, as well as the velocity curve for the current patch.
The main part of the interface is split into four squares, each of which houses a different function.  Each of these windows is tabbed to allow you to quickly switch in between further pages.  One thing that is especially awesome is that each of these areas has a Save function allow you to save just the settings to that particular set of parameters.  That way, if you have a specific type of envelope setting you use a lot, for example, you can save it and then recall it whenever you need to use it programming a new sound.  Very handy!

The top left section houses tabs for the structure and settings for each layer.  Here, you can select whether a layer is in Mono or Poly mode, change the pitch bend range, turn unison on or off, turn the arp on or off, and choose a mode for the routing of the two filters with Split, Parallel, and and Series options.  A nice display shows the structure of the layer and allows you to quickly turn parts in the voice path on and off, as well as setting wet/dry levels for the Layer's effects.  At the very bottom, you can add two different kinds of Portamento and control the specifics of the Unison mode.
A click of the tab switches us over to the controls for the layer's Arpeggiator.  This was the one area where I wished the display was a bit larger.  It's workable, but the Glide and Hold buttons for each step are pretty damned tiny.  The Arpeggiator consists of multiple different modes, up to 32 steps, Glide and Hold settings per step, and your options for the note value of the arpeggiator.  The Volume knob allows you to set the Volume of all the steps at once if you need them to be uniform.  Duration controls the Gate time for each note, and Swing adds - wait for it - swing.  Just about everything you might want in an Arpeggiator.  And if that wasn't enough, it can alternately be used as an analog-style step sequencer, opening up the door to all manner of cool rhythmic modulations.  This switches the display to a display similar to the piano roll sequencer in your DAW, making it extremely easy to program melodies. Very nice!  MIDI sequences can also be imported if you prefer to build sequences that way.
The next three tabs feature controls for each layer's Layer Effects.  These consist of nicely featured Distortion, Lo-fi, Ensemble, EQ, and Phasers.
The bottom left consists of the Oscillator related controls.  Each layer offers two independent oscillators.  Each of those oscillators can use a variety of different synthesis types.  The display above is the Basic mode.  This is the mode for your tried-and-true virtual analog sounds.  The standard sawtooth, sine, triangle, pulse, and white noise options are available, but that's not all.  There's also an insanely generous selection of sampled single-cycle waveforms sourced from all manner of classic gear, and if that's not enough, you can load in full samples in SFZ format.

A "Pitch Drift" function allows you to simulate the imperfections that make analog synths so appealing.  Of course, you can also abuse it into Boards of Canada like warbling at higher settings. You can also control how the oscillator's pitch is tracked across the keyboard, set the oscillator's Volume, Tone, Phase, Pitch, Pan and more with a series of knobs along the bottom.
The Additive mode allows you to combine up to eight different waveforms, each with its own volume, pan, frequency, detune levels.  Although additive synthesis is typically performed with sine waves, you can use any of the previously-mentioned waveforms or samples.  Since 8 partials is not a lot by additive standards, the ability to use different waveforms is helpful in trying to create more complex timbres.  Of course, if you stick to traditional analog waveforms, you can simulate the voice structure of old Roland synths like the SH-101, where you can add different amounts of saw, pulse, sine, and noise to shape the tone.

Fancy a little Wavetable synthesis?  Just switch the Oscillator Type to "Wavetable" and you can build your own scannable wavetables by combining up to 16 different selectable single cycle waves (most of which are actually different than the previous types).  Couldn't be easier, and done well, it can sound fantastic.  Maybe it won't totally quell your gear lust for a Microwave or PPG, but it's a lot of fun to play with and rewards experimentation with some sounds you could never get out of those classics.
The final mode (there is an AUDIO IN, but this is the last synthesis type) is Vector Synthesis, the style famously championed by the Sequential Circuits Prophet VS.  You can select up to 4 waveforms or samples that can be smoothly crossfaded.  They can each have their own tuning as well.  X and Y indices can be independently modulated.

The Basic, Additive, and Wavetable oscillator modes all offer FM, PM, and AM for further sound-mangling capabilities with 4 dedicated modulators (read: LFOs) that can also be used to control things like pulse width for PWM type sounds.  Additionally, in Basic mode, Oscillator 1 can be hard-synced to Oscillator 2.

The right top square houses SynthMaster's twin filters per voice.  Lowpass, highpass, bandpass, bandstop, low and high shelves, peaking, multi (allows you to smooth transition from one filter type to the another), and dual (a filter with two sets of peaks) modes are all offered in both Digital and Analog flavors with selectable Slope controls.  One of the really nice features here is the display.  If you click and drag within it, you can quickly tweak the filter's cutoff and resonance at the same time.  A simple distortion can be applied before, inside, or after the filter, and a simple limiter is available to keep those crazy resonant peaks on your next acid jam from getting out of control.  The difference between the analog and digital modes is most noticeable in how they handle resonance.  The analog ones will go handily into self-resonation, while the digital ones will not.  A Comb filter  is also available only in Digital mode.
The fourth square holds the settings for SynthMaster's multiple Envelope types, the LFOs, and Keyboard Scaling.  The first four envelopes are your standard ADSR affairs with the interesting additions of a Bit Depth control (which sets the 'resolution' of changes in levels), and a Drift parameter, which introduces random fluctuations to the envelope level.
Two "2D" Envelopes are next.  These are multi-stage envelopes offering up to 32 stages, each with their own length.  However, unlike a standard multi-stage envelope, this envelope is in two dimensions and outputs an X and a Y for use in modulation.  They are also loopable.
Two "traditional" Multi-stage envelopes are available with settings identical to the 2D envelopes, but they only output a single value for modulation.
The two layer LFOs offer not only the expected analog waveforms, but also a Step mode with up to 32 steps, and a Glide mode with is similar, except that it smoothly glides in between values as opposed to the hard transitions of the Step mode.  LFOs are syncable to your host's tempo with controllable phase and speed.
The Key-scaling modulator offers 4 different key-scale maps for modulating parameters according the position of the key played on the keyboard.

At the far right of SynthMaster's interface you'll find the modulation matrix.  This is about what you would expect allowing you to assign a source, destination, and amount.  Alternately, you can assign modulation by right clicking on a parameter and choosing your source.  This will automatically add the modulation to the Matrix, which is a much more stream-lined way of setting up modulations in such a complex synth.  A tab allows you to open up some Global Settings for the synth, and knobs at the bottom let you set the master volume, as well as the volumes of each individual layer.  Bypass switches allow you to switch a layer on and off, and the Tune control allows you to tune the instrument as a whole.

Now, keep in mind what I've just long-windedly described is just ONE layer of the two available and you can start to understand the depth of programming Synth Master offers.

Switching away from the Layer 1 and 2 controls, if we select the LFO tab at the top of the interface, we gain access to four additional LFO's.  These are identical to the Layer LFOs except they operate at the Synth level and not just the Layer level.

Beneath the LFO tab, we find the FX tab which lets you set up global effects that operate on the entire sound as opposed to the layer-specific effects.  Available effects include a Vocoder, Chorus, Echo, Reverb, Compression, and Tremelo. The right column allows to control the FX routing for both layers and globally, and lets you control the wet/dry balance of the global effects.
Finally, we have the Browser tab.  This allows you to sort through your patch library according to Instrument Type, Attributes, Music Styles, Author, and Bank.  At the bottom are 8 "easy knobs"that can be assigned to modulate any parameter, with the idea being that if your are overwhelmed by the thousands of modulatable parameters on offer, 8 of the most useful controls can be assigned to these knobs and that's all you have to deal with.  What makes it most useful, however, is that you can assign multiple modulations to a single Easy Parameter knob, allowing you to make quite drastic changes in the sound with the turn of a single knob.  Two X/Y modulators are also available for assignment. 

As you can imagine, there are a lot of variables that come into play in regards to how much of a CPU hit SynthMaster delivers.  Simpler voices and low voice counts will definitely result in lower, barely detectable CPU drain.  But more complex patches can eat up enough to max out my Mac Pro Quadcore if I play two-handed chords.  Fortunately, SynthMaster offers multiple quality levels [Draft, Good, Better, Best], each upping the sound quality, while requiring more CPU power.  So even if your machine isn’t state of the art, you can build your arrangements  in Draft mode and bump the quality all the way up when you render your tracks down.  It would be nice if they offered the ability to set separate quality levels for just screwing around and for the actual rendering.  U-he’s DIVA offers this feature, and that kind of “set it and forget it” convenience is something I’ve come to appreciate.

I wonder how many people will skip the wall of text above and just get to this point.  I can't say I blame you, but I always strive to be in-depth with my reviews and the amount of firepower this synth offers is pretty obscene.  Before I even get to the sound, I want to emphasize how well thought-out and designed this synth is.  As I was learning to use it, I found myself uttering the phrase "Man, they've thought of EVERYTHING".  Just the sheer amount of THINGS you can alter about the sound will send hardcore synth programmers into a state of pure geek lust.  I get the sense that KV331 really studied what was available in the synth market, adapted some of the features they liked, and invented new ones where they felt there was an absence.  But what is most astounding about this synth is that it manages to cram all these features and parameters in a package that is easy on the eye and not nearly as overwhelming as it could've been.

Soundwise, SynthMaster is a beauty.  It has a very clear, hi-fi sound to it with a mostly digital sheen to it.  That's not to say it can't do analog sounds well.  It can.  But I found these took a bit more coaxing to sound convincing than other sounds.  Fortunately, SynthMaster provides an abundance of ways to coax, as should be clear now.  But buying SynthMaster to use as a virtual analog is missing the point a bit, I think.  With multiple types of synthesis combinable in a single patch and such depth of programming offered as a whole, this is a forward-looking synth with an eye on the future.

I see SynthMaster especially to two different types of users.  Obviously, the amount of features and synthesis types gives this a hard to beat bang to buck ratio, so people who want lots of different types of synthesis without having to buy a separate synth to do each one are going to want to check this one out.  But who I really see this appealing to are the hardcore synth geeks.  If you like to program your own sounds, there aren't many options on the market that offer the depth of programming SynthMaster can.  Little touches like being able to individually save parameters for each section of the synth to import into new sounds are fantastic time-savers and are the types of things I really appreciate as a sound-progammer.

If you already have a ton of different types of softsynths residing on your hard drive, you might not find you "need" SynthMaster, but I'd encourage you to check it out and spend some time with it anyway.  While it's true you probably already have tools that can individually do things that SynthMaster can do, but you'd be hard-pressed to find it all in one place and with such an elegant interface.  

I'll admit, I underestimated SynthMaster.  When I first heard of it, I listened to some demos and thought it sounded pretty decent, but it kind of faded into the background noise of all the other synths on the market.  Upon rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty with it, however, I am seriously impressed.  I like it when synth designers trust me.  Instead of playing it safe and eliminating features "you'll probably never need", I like when they give me the whole 64-Crayon pack to color with.  And that's what KV331 have done with SynthMaster.  [10/10]


Unknown said...

The only drawback I've run into so far is the amount of I've spent getting distracted and creating new sounds. Even at that, SynthMaster has become my main go to. I absolutely adore it! Good review!

Anonymous said...

I've just bought this, (they have a 50% special offer for thanksgiving 2013 and I must say my first impressions are this is excellent!! I started to skip the preset bashing and rolled my sleeves up, lost two hours and created some really amazing sounds! At this price it's a no brainer

Elenesski said...

Some people might think I'm crazy, but I considered Sylenth1 and Synthmaster and studied both for a very long time. Yes, Sylenth1 has a lot of presets, but it struck me that Synthmaster had the ability to do everything that Sylenth1 was doing but with dozens of other options. For example, I could take a WAVE file and use that as an oscillator input.

When I considered the support and the number of complaints that users had over Sylenth1, and especially the ongoing issues with the 64-bit version, I decided that Synthmaster was my next synth to acquire. It may have it's problems, but at least there is support and updates occurring to it.

My only disappointment so far is the overwhelming complexity of the interface. It's biggest drawback is that I cannot tell what parameters are being modulated via the interface in a visual way. They are listed in the panel to the right, but there are so many variables, it's hard to know how to translate what the grid listing is telling me vs. where that parameter actually is in the interface. Recoloring the dial would be useful. Right clicking a menu should show me, with checkboxes, which item is the modulation source, stuff like that. Maybe in a future version.

Anyway, cost to me was never an issue. It wasn't about whether Sylenth1 more or less expensive. It's about the time needed to learn all those options. I decided that Synthmaster had more to offer with more features and more things to do to get that lush sound I couldn't seem to get from Sylenth1.