Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Review: FXpansion DCAM Synth Squad

Product: DCAM Synth Squad
Type: Suite of AU/VST synthesizers
Website & Forum
Platforms: VST for Windows (XP SP3 or above) AU and VST for Mac (Intel-only and OS 10.5.7 or above - I tested it in 10.5.6 and it worked fine for me)
Price: $250 US
Audio Demos: Available at

A few years back, FXpansion released a weird little free plug-in called Orca. It consisted of a handful of presets each with a handful of parameters that could be tweaked via a rather David Cronenburg-esque interface. Most notably, however, it featured a rather convincing analog sound. FXpansion cryptically indicated it was preview of something they were working on. Now we know that Orca represented the first steps in what would become perhaps the most hotly anticipated softsynth collection in recent memory: DCAM Synth Squad.

The 'DCAM' in the name stands for 'Discrete Component Analog Modelling', a technique by which FXpansion claims to have modelled the individual components of real world analog devices in order to create instruments that sound more like real world analog instruments than previously heard. Do they succeed? Read on...

Oh, and this is going to be a long one, so you might want to get some snacks.

DCAM Synth Squad is, as the name might suggest, a collection of 3 softsynths: Amber (modelled on the divide down paraphonic string synths from the 70's), Cypher (modelled on analog-style FM and audio rate modulation), Strobe (modelled on 70's and 80's monosynths), and Fusor, which allows you to combine up to 3 instances of any combination of the 3 softsynths in layers, splits, and apply effects both globally and individually and a whole lot more (not unlike Korg's Legacy Cell on a steroid bender).

The synths install via your run-of-the-mill program installer. In addition to stand-alone and plug-in versions of the instruments, a quick start manual, as well as a more detailed full manual are both installed in PDF format. It also installs an authorization program very similar to the one Native Instruments currently uses where you can manage authorizations for all of your FXpansion products in one place. Please note that this requires an internet connection to run properly, although you can optionally run the authorization through another computer if you don't like to have your studio computer hooked up to the internet. You retrieve your serial number by creating or signing into an existing account on the FXpansion website. I'd like to see more companies do this. Serial numbers are easy to lose, and having a reliable place online where you can retrieve yours in event of an emergency is handy and eliminates the need for a dongle (aka Pure Evil). Enter your serial number in the authorizer, it automatically downloads a keyfile to your hard drive, and you're ready to go.

Put simply, the documentation for Synth Squad is some of the best I've seen for any synth, hardware or software. A quick start guide is included for those eager to dive right in, and even for something meant to just explore the basics, it is extremely thorough and well-written. The layout and design looks nice, too. The full manual is very detailed and not only explains the purpose and function of each instrument and its features in very clear language, but includes small tutorials throughout to demonstrate some of these functions as well. Good documentation seems to be a relative rarity for a lot of electronic instruments (especially those written by non-native English speakers), so I think FXpansion deserves a round of applause for this. Other companies take note.

It's good that the documentation is so well-done because, although these synths share a lot of characteristics of ones you've worked with before, there are some pretty unique and innovative functions that will require a bit of reading to get acquainted with.

The look of the interface is very clean and well-organized. If you're familiar with synth programming, it won't take you long to figure out the basic functions. The more complex stuff will take cracking the manual, though. Or, if reading hurts your brain, FXpansion has some very informative videos on YouTube that will get you sorted out. Each of the three synths features a large 'visualiser' window in the middle of their interfaces. This provides context-specific visual feedback according to which parameters you're tweaking. So, for instance, you can see the shape of your LFO change as you tweak it, or you can see the pulse width change when you use PWM on the oscillator. This is fun to look at at first, but honestly, I didn't find it helped my sound programming at all, since I generally let my ears guide me. Your mileage may vary, but this seemed like a waste of screen space to me and a bit gimmicky.

All of the instruments in the Synth Squad share some common interface elements which helps make for a more unified experience. The first is the patch browser. There are actually several ways you can look for patches. You can click on the left and right arrow buttons to move from patch to patch, you can use a categorized drop-down menu to select a sound, or you can use the excellent patch browser not unlike the one Native Instruments has used in Massive and Kore. You can browse sounds by name, category, author, and search for specific words. I like it when companies give the user a choice of a couple different was to do things. Everyone has a different workflow, and this makes it a lot easier to do things the way you want. Functions for saving your patches, indicators of MIDI and audio activity, and a preferences button are also found here.

This is also where you'll find the rather cryptic Load to Mod Slot function. But to understand that, let's look at the modulation scheme shared by all the instruments first. You have 8 modulation slots available. Unlike a traditional mod matrix, FXpansion's Transmod section allows you to modulate as many parameters as you want from a single modulation slot. Just assign a source to a mod slot and click in the area to either side of a parameter's slider to expand it into a yellow line that lets you set the mod amount and range. Repeat this for as many parameters as you like. Multiply that by 8 and it's not hard to see that this affords much more extreme modulation possibilities than even some modular systems. This makes all of the Synth Squad synths capable of levels of expression and radically evolving sound seldom seen. It's also part of what makes the sound of these synths special. If you never delved into the modulation, the synths aren't that far off from a typical virtual analog. But the Transmod section and some of its less common possible sources, allow you to breathe life into the sounds and add some of the character we generally prize analogs so highly for.

So back to Load to Mod Slot. This function allows you to take the front panel settings of one patch and apply it as modulation amounts to one of the mod slots of another. The result isn't quite morphing between patches - the reality is, it sounds kind of ugly (in a cool way) - but the amount of sonic movement and all out weirdness you can achieve with this is spectacular. Perform a Load to Mod Slot on a sound's mod slot assigned to your mod wheel and there is a whole universe of strange sounds from one one end to the other of the wheel's travel. The potential for complex, evolving sounds here is great. Part of what a lot of soft synths emulating vintage synths seem to miss is how weird and unpredictable they can be. This feature gives you that in droves.

At the bottom of the screen, is a very basic arpeggiator, settings for glide, bender ranges, polyphony, MIDI learn (that can permanently remember your assignments - YAY!), and a small keyboard. Pretty standard stuff except for one especially nifty trick with the keyboard that I haven't seen done before. If you're clicking a little keyboard with your mouse, there's no real way to play at different velocity levels. FXpansion gets around this limitation by having the position on the key you press decide the velocity level. Clicks at the top of the key trigger lower velocity levels and those towards the bottom result in higher ones. Pretty cool. My one wish here would be for the standalone mode to allow you to trigger notes from your computer keyboard like you can in Logic.

So, now on to the meat and potatoes - the instruments themselves.

Unlike many recent analog emulations, Strobe isn't based on emulating any one classic synth. Instead, FXpansion studied many bits of vintage gear and combined what they liked about each into a single synth. If you imagined a hybrid of a Roland SH-101 and the Sequential Circuits Pro One, only polyphonic and with way crazier modulation possibilities, you won't be far off.

Strobe is a single oscillator synth, but with multiple waveforms available (including noise)  like the early Roland monosynths. This might sound like a recipe for thin, weedy sounds, but the oscillator can be 'stacked' and detuned for fatter dual oscillator or even 'supersaw' type sounds. Mix that with some pulse width modulation (for both the pulse oscillator and the pulse suboscillator) and you're on your way to Fatsville. In addition, you have access to up to 4 sub-oscillators (each with different waveforms) that can be individually tuned across a three octave range. So fat, beefy sounds are not a problem. Also worth mentioning here is the Sync function, which allows you to achieve hard sync effects merely by twisting a knob. By using modulation, you can achieve most traditional hard sync type sounds, but even without modulation it sounds pretty nice.

Speaking of modulation, in addition to the previously-mentioned Trans Mod section, many of the parameters on Strobe have hard-wired mod knobs to modulate the parameter with the LFO, the mod envelope, or keyboard position. This is a very nice feature that makes programming a lot faster.

On to the filter section. Nearly two dozen filter types are available including lowpass, highpass, bandpass, notch, and peaking with different slopes and in various combinations. In addition to the expected cutoff and resonance knobs (it will resonate to oscillation, by the way), there is a drive knob which can really add authenticity and balls to your sounds. The character of the filter is probably closest to the Pro One to my ears. You can get some Moogy timbres out of it, but for the most part, the filter isn't as 'chunky' sounding as Moogs generally are. The drive knob can definitely help get you close, though.

Below this, you'll find the various modulation sources. There is a single LFO with a wide variety of waveforms and random modes. The phase & pulse width settings allow further shaping of the waveform which opens the door to some more complex LFO shapes. The tempo can also be synced to various note values (according to your host's tempo). That's handy enough, but there is  a swing amount, too,  that lets you add swing to your tempo synced LFO mods.  This sounds great and really musical.

Next up is a ramp generator (a simple envelope consisting only of delay, attack, and decay settings - perfect for percussive sounds). Not much to say here, but it's a handy source for modulating pitch or the sync knob. Finally, we have a Mod Envelope and an Amp Envelope which are mostly standard ADSR affairs. What makes them really cool, though, is that their slope can be adjusted, they can be tempo-synced, and you can loop them. This can be used to give yourself another LFO or to get instant dub bass wobbles and electro house stuttering basses - lots of fun!

No two ways about it, Strobe is a pretty killer little synth. It's fast and easy to program, it sounds great, and it can make some amazingly weird and extreme sounds if you take the time to program it. How authentic it sounds really depends on how you program it. Contrary to what the manual says, it is absolutely possible to get the super clean sound typical of softsynths out of Strobe. But roll up your sleeves, add some drive and maybe some subtle parameter drift with the modulation and it sounds pretty damn convincing. As you might expect, Strobe excels at bass and lead sounds, but it also can do some pretty insane sound effects and evolving textures that would normally only be possible on a modular. So - the potential for modular complexity with the ease of programming a monosynth? Yep, sounds like a winner to me.

Cypher is a 3 oscillator synth designed to create sounds using analog FM. Not to be confused with the more complex Yamaha DX variety, analog FM is done by using the frequency of one oscillator to modulate another. You can get some DX-7 type sounds, but overall analog FM has a different sound to it and is great for creating dirty, spitty, aggressive sounds that still retain some analog fatness. Cypher can also be used as a straightforward 3 oscillator virtual analog, but Strobe is actually more well suited for this kind of thing.

The signal flow in Cypher begins with 3 oscillators. Waveforms are continuously variable between triangle to saw all the way up through pulse. Oscillators 2 and 3 can be synced to oscillator 1, audio rate frequency modulation of oscillator 2 is possible by oscillator 3, as well as audio rate wave shape modulation of oscillator 3 by oscillator 2, making for a very expansive range of possible timbres.

When using FM and other methods of audio rate modulations, it can be difficult to get harmonically coherent sounds without very careful tweaking. FXpansion takes care of this problem in a very clever way. The pitch of all of the oscillators is controlled by a master Pitch setting. The pitch of each oscillator is in turn detunable by the Scale knob. What makes this different from a standard pitch knob is that it restricts the pitch ratios to values that will result in only in harmonic sounds. Several types of scaling are available and if you actually want stranger, more inharmonic sounds, you can turn it off as well. Another issue with audio rate modulations is that they often produce 'beating', or sort of a rhythmic 'wobble' that varies in speed depending on what key you're playing. Cypher's Beat control will keep this beating constant in rate across the keyboard. Fantastic! Other options in the oscillators are the ability to use them as extra LFOs, noise and S&H functions, and ring modulation for still more metallic timbre possibilities.

Each oscillator can be sent to either or both of the filters in any proportion. The filters are each preceded by waveshapers (although these can be configured to be after the filters as well). Here you can add one of 4 different types of waveshaping and increase the grit factor with the drive knob. If the results have any unpleasant high frequencies, both waveshapers have a simple 1 pole lowpass filter to roll them off.

The two filters each offer lowpass, highpass, bandpass, notch, and peak varieties of varying slopes and in state variable or transistor-ladder flavors. The filters can be routed in parallel or series as well. Dedicated knobs for modulating the cutoff via key position or the two mod envelopes help speed up programming without needing to use up any mod slots. Additionally, each filter has its own drive knob to dirty up the sounds further, and filter FM is available on both for still more audio rate modulation capabilities. Are you beginning to see the possibilities here?

The LFOs, ramps, and envelopes are the same as on Strobe, so I won't go into them here, but Cypher does offer more of them. There are two LFOs (and each oscillator can be made into an LFO), a single ramp generator, two modulation envelopes, and a single amp envelope.

As much as I liked Strobe, I liked Cypher even better. I've always been a fan of audio rate modulation as a way to get unusual sounds and as you can see, Cypher offers you enough different varieties of that to keep you occupied for a very long time. What's best about this is that Cypher 'fixes' some of the issues usually associated with these types of sounds (finding the right tuning ratios for harmonic sounds, the speed of beating changing from key to key, etc), but you have full access to doing things the old way too if you so choose. Cypher can certainly do the delicate ethereal bell and mallet sounds FM is known for, but where it really shines are in aggressive, metallic, hard basses and arps. Industrial and hardstyle musicians are going to eat this one up.

Back in the days before sampling, musicians who wanted polyphonic string sounds without hiring an orchestra had basically two options: they could buy an expensive, not exactly dependable Mellotron, or they could buy a dedicated string synth such as the wonderful Eminent Solina. Since true polyphony was prohibitively expensive back then, these string machines used a method called 'divide down' borrowed from home organs to allow you to play an infinite number of notes at once all sourced from a single synth voice. I'm not going to get into the science of how this works, but the sound of divide down synths is pretty unique and is vital to the emulation of these types of machines.

The voice architecture of Amber begins with two main sources, the Synth section and the Ensemble section. These are pretty similar, offering level controls for various octave voices, with the main difference being that the Synth section offers a noise slider in the place of the 2' octave slider on the Ensemble section. Both sections have simple 1-pole low and highpass filter controls to help you shape the basic tone of your sound before they hit their respective full filters: a pretty standard multimode filter for the Synth section, and a four-band formant filter for the ensemble which allows for various vowel and vocal type sounds.

Because of the way divide down technology works, the sounds it produces can be very thin and uninteresting by themselves. This is why 70's string synths all included built-in chorus units to thicken things up and create some subtle timbral movement. Amber is no different and offers 3 types of chorus dubbed 1975, 1981, and 1984. As it defaults, only the Ensemble section is sent to the chorus, but the option to send the Synth section there as well is available if you want it.

The same types of modulation sources as featured on the other synths are available here in the form of an LFO, a ramp generator, a mod envelope, and dedicated amplitude envelopes for the Synth and Ensemble sections.

In use, Amber sounds absolutely like the real deal. If you're a fan of these types of sounds, you'll find yourself lost for hours playing big, swirling chords and marveling at the spacey sound. Amber is flexible enough that you needn't be restricted to classic string and brass sounds, but honestly, the sound of divide down synths isn't really as flexible as a typical synthesizer and the presets that try to stray from string and ensemble sounds aren't nearly as impressive. But that's what Strobe and Cypher are for. Let Amber do what it does best - making classic string ensemble sounds with the flexibility sample libraries recreating those sounds can't offer.

You may have noticed at this point that there are some features that are generally considered standard on softsynths these days that aren't present on these synths. None of them have built-in effects (aside form Amber's chorus) and in an age where most softsynth feature at least one step sequencer, there are none to be found on any of these synths. Have no fear, that's where Fusor comes in.

As mentioned before, Fusor is similar in concept to Korg's Legacy Cell in that it allows you to combine up to three of any of the previously mentioned synths as layers, splits, or control them individually via different MIDI channels using its multitimbral capabilities. Additionally, effects can be added to each or all slots using individual insert effects, aux send effects, or master insert effects. This is just the starting point, however, as Fusor goes way beyond the features offered in Legacy Cell.

Before I move on, though, you're probably curious as to what kinds of effects are available, so here's the list: Gain, Noise Gate, EQ, EQ Filter, Bus Compressor, Channel Compressor, Delay, Phaser/Flanger/Chorus, Ring Mod, Tin Can Verb (emulating cheap early reverb units), Filter Mod, Frequency Shifter, Bit Crusher, Drive, Freeze (for glitchy granular type effects), Amber Chorus, Amber Formant Filters, Breverb Reverbs licensed from Overload technologies. Additionally, a handful of multi-band effects including Filter, Drive, Comb Filter, and Delay are on offer. The quality of the effects are all very good and add still more depth to already great sounding synths.

Individual sounds can be edited directly within Fusor just as if you were working within the synth itself. Additionally, 8 macro knobs at the top of the interface cab be mapped to control whichever parameters you choose similar to the scheme used in Native Instruments Massive. As if that wasn't enough, Fusor features the Fuse Mod section, which is similar to the Trans Mod section on the individual synths. Fuse Mod takes this a step further, however, allowing you to modulate parameters within each synth or within itself from any control signal you choose (audio can't be used as a signal source, unfortunately). Very deep!

Finally, I want to mention Animator, the step sequencing feature within Fusor (it can also be used as an arpeggiator). Animator is actually comprised of 4 individual sequencer engines. These can, of course, be used to trigger notes, but where I think they are most valuable is as modulation sources. This makes it dead easy to create interesting rhythmic sequences and grooves and give your sounds some further animation. Sequences can be anywhere from 16 to 128 steps long, various step durations are available, and you can add swing to your groove via the swing function. You can save your sequences to use in other sounds if you like, too.

Standard controls are available for when you're in Arpeggiator mode including note values, and octave range. Finally, if you want to get REALLY in depth, you can use the Advanced mode which gives you 12 pattern memories per sequence and the ability to modulate the base value of your sequences via the Fuse Mod section. This last feature can really make for interesting, ever evolving sequences.

Fusor is incredibly deep, but the layout and operation is logical and really just an extension of concepts you're already familiar with via the synths. When you consider the level of modulation possibilities within each synth itself (including Load to Mod Slot), multiply that by 3, add four full featured step sequencers and arpeggiators, a further layer of modulation through Fusor itself, and enough effects slots to choke a horse, your head may start to hurt, but you can at least see that this package offers programming possibilities unparalleled except by true modular environments like Native Instruments Reaktor. And frankly, Reaktor doesn't sound as alive or have as much character as these synths do. That does come at the cost of fairly heavy CPU use, but this is to be expected, and with quad and eight core processors becoming more and more common, it's not as much of an issue as it once was.

So does DCAM Synth Squad live up to the hype? I'm not sure anything could've. Just the frenzied discussion on the KVR forums alone makes it clear that this is an instrument suite people have pretty high hopes for. I'm sure there will be a share of people who aren't going to be impressed and will be easy to dismiss it. There always are. But if you're looking for something beyond the sometimes characterless crop of softsynths out there, you'd do well to start here. Aside from a few nit-picky things, I honestly can't find a single bad thing to say about it. Synth Squad is a synth programmer's dream, offering staggering complexity if you want it, but allowing simple, easy to understand operation if you'd rather keep it basic. Whether you like Synth Squad or not, however, you have to admit that this package is the result of some astoundingly hard work. All of the features seem extremely well thought out and some of the innovations here will make you wonder why nobody came up with them sooner. I can't imagine the amount of time that went into putting these instruments together, but I hope everyone at FXpansion gets a big, fat vacation now. And if you actually made it through my entire review, you deserve one too. [10/10]


fixatemusic said...

Good to see this finally released. Can't wait to give it a try.

cl516 said...

wow, great read man! very detailed!

Anonymous said...

This is the first soft synth that I have been really jazzed about in a long time.

I like that they are not trying to replicate any particular classic instrument and are doing interesting things with the interface and modulation. high marks for trying something different to FXpansion.

Seamus said...

Nice review! Pretty-much sold that one to me, although I gather it's not available yet... Did FXPansion give any indication as to when it would be released?

Tom said...

Some time in the next couple weeks. From what I gather, there was some packaging issue that had delayed things slightly.

line of control said...

er... how much? looks very tasty indeed- will it make me give up on Rob Papen though...

line of control said...

sorry $250. sounds killer.

Anonymous said...

PLEASE lose the Star Wars black background with the white font. It is HELL on your readers' eyes. No respectable blog uses this color scheme. I won't come back until you change to a white background with black text.

DC said...

Does anyone know what kind of spec laptop I'm going to need to get this working well? I want to run live, maschine and DCAM synth squad all at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Today I downloaded the demo of DCAM to give it a try! I really liked the sound of. Tweaking the sounds and making your own from scratch is a breeze, and it has a very analog sound. Too bad that Fxpansion is not offering them seperatly.Martin Frainer Poplab Studios

Anonymous said...

Once again, another commercial synth offering with really bad presets. Really unmusical presets.

Synth Squad may be as good as the author professes, but not without a *hit-ton of work.

I would have liked to see FXPansion ship this thing with good presets that show off the capabilities of Synth Squad. The Amber presets are amazing and I love them, but the Strobe and Cypher presets are god awful.

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5Tone Samples said...

Thanks for the detailed review. I tried the demo and was very impressed by the quality. This synth is cpu hungry as hell (tested on a 8core mac) but worth it! going to buy it soon.

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Well, I don't actually think this is likely to have effect.

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