Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review: D16 Group LuSH-101

Product: LuSH-101
Developer: D16 Group
Format: Windows (VST) and Mac (VST and AU)
Price: $199
Demo: Audio demos and Demo version available on the product page.

“Vaporware”.  It’s a term any reputable software developer dreads having associated with one of their projects.  If you’ve never heard of it, it refers to a product with a development time so long after its initial announcement, that  people begin to doubt it will ever see the light of the day.  After about 3 years in development, many people were beginning to write off D16 Groups’s promised “SH-101 on Steroids” as just that.  To make matters worse, the product was initially saddled with the truly awful name “SH101ter”, which somehow suggested a goiter filled with feces.  Thankfully, though, LuSH-101 (the product’s new name) has finally seen the light of day .  Was it worth the wait?  Let’s find out!

Describing LuSH-101 as a mere emulation of the famous Roland SH-101 monosynth sells it short significantly.  Instead, D16 have used the 101 as a starting point and re-imagined it in a 21st century version.  Building on the 101’s rather basic synthesis functions, LuSH-101 adds new features like extra envelopes and LFO’s, oscillator sync, unison, Supersaw, a mod matrix, built-in effects, and the ability to create monster sounds by layering up to 8 synths (or splitting them… or using an instance multi-timbrally).

Installation is your run of the mill affair.  Authorization comes in the form of  a key file you can locate anywhere on your hard drive and point the software to when you authorize it.

As is pretty standard today, the manual comes as a PDF file.  The illustrated manual weighs in just under 100 pages, which hints at how deep things can get with this synth.  Your basic synthesis functions are easy enough to figure out on your own, especially if you’ve used an actual 101, but some of the less obvious functions such as building layered patches and the like will probably require you to crack the manual once or twice.

The interface for LuSH-101 is beautifully rendered replica of a 101 crammed full of extras.  The standard white skin looks pretty slick, but if you want it in a different color, a la the real 101, a future update will make the interface skinnable.

At the very top of the interface you’ll find the preset browser and settings section.  There is also a section that allows you to select which layer you’re working on, that lets you mute or unmute layers, and even “padlock” layers to prevent accidental changes, which is a nice touch.  This is also where you can select which “page” for programming you’re on… the synthesis section, the mod matrix, or the mixer.

Beneath this, you’ll find the layer settings that allow you to quickly transpose, detune and pan the current layer.  You can also set a key range for the layer if you want to build a split.  Additionally, there is a Unison function and an insert effect which offers options like decimators, vowel filters, ensemble choruses, distortion, and more.

The basic building block in LuSH-101 is called a Timbre.   This is a single sound.  Up to 8 Timbres can be combined per patch.  They can be layered, split, or set up to respond multi-timbrally to different MIDI channels.

The first synthesis functions are the Pitch/Sync controls.  Already we can see an expansion on the original 101 architecture.  Along with standard controls for pitch modulation and frequency, this is where you set up oscillator sync, a feature not found on the original 101.  LuSH-101 achieves this via a “hidden” oscillator in conjunction with the square and sawtooth oscillators on the front panel.  Sync can be modulated with either an LFO or envelope, and an adjustable mix slider lets you find a balance between the synced sound and the original.

To the right of this you’ll find the controls for PWM, which again can be modulated via any of the envelopes or LFOs.  The Source Mixer is found next door to this and allows you to mix different amounts of saw, square, suboscillator, and noise (available in several colors!  Nice!).  The suboscillator offers more waveshapes than the original as well.  This is also where you’ll find the controls for the Supersaw mode.  Different in sound and function than the Unison function, this is a nod to Roland’s JP-8000 and helps beef up the sound significantly without using additional polyphony.

Next to this, you’ll find the filter section.  Expanding on the 101’s original low-pass filter, you’ll also find highpass and bandpass options here.  All filters can either be in the rather well-behaved “Normal” mode, or the “SH-101” mode which gives the filters the squelchy, acidic resonance the 101 was known for.   Modulation amount sliders for all the envelopes and LFO’s are available, as well as keyboard tracking modulation.  Resonance can also be modulated independently via Env 2 and/or LFO 2. The main filter is followed by a simple highpass filter (no resonance) which can be useful in thinning out sounds and creating more high-frequency type sounds like bells and airy synths.

On the next row down, you’ll find controls to modulate the VCO or the VCF via either (or both) the pitch wheel or mod wheel.  Beside this you will find LuSH-101’s two envelopes and two LFO’s.  Both envelopes have reversible polarities, and multiple trigger modes, including repeating modes using the LFO, helpful for making instant-sequenced sounds.  The LFO’s offer 6 different waveshapes including random and noise.  A nice additional feature is the keyboard tracking of LFO frequency.  Applied to pitch modulation, this opens the door to very simple FM-type sounds.

Finally, we have the Arpeggiator and Gater sections.  The arpeggiator is a fairly standard, although well-featured host-syncable arpeggiator with a number of available modes.  You can expand the types of rhythms you can get with this with the gater that lets you trigger a gate in just about any rhythmic pattern including ties for extending note values.  These two form a powerful team in coming up with interesting patterns at the touch of a key.

The Mod Matrix gives you 9 sources and over 50 destinations (although not all destinations are available for all sources).  You simply add a mod slot by pressing the “+” button, assign a source and a destination, and then use the bi-polar slider to select a modulation amount.  Nice and simple.  One note, there is a destination for panning that is misspelled as “paning”.

The third available page for creating sounds is the Master Mixer.  Remember how I told you that a LuSH-101 sound could be comprised of 8 different timbres?  Not content to just provide you with basic controls over the balance of these, D16 has provided a full-fledged 8-channel mixer.  You’ll find standard volume and panning controls to adjust the balance and stereo position of sounds, but each channel also has its own compressor, three-band EQ, and effects sends for the reverb, delay, and chorus effects, whose controls reside next to the mixer.  This kind of attention to detail is what tells you D16 made good use of the long development time.  Indeed, just about every aspect of this has been so obviously obsessed over and tweaked to perfection, the development time suddenly makes sense.  They weren’t dragging their feet, they were honing this synth to a razor’s edge.

In a word, LuSH-101 sounds spectacular.  The lows are warm and organic, the mids punchy, and the highs sharp and clear.  To my ears, they’ve pretty much nailed the sound of the 101, but beyond that, they’ve really nailed the early Roland sound in general.  The oscillators are lively, the filter beautifully squelchy, and the envelopes are snappy.  Add the amazing-sounding insert and send effects, the additional synthesis features, and the ability to layer 8 instances of the synth engine into a single patch, and you’ve got a monster on your hands.

That monstrous sound comes at a price, however, and that comes in the form of the CPU usage.  Obviously, this depends on the polyphony you’re using and how many layers your sound is made up of, but only u-he’s DIVA really compares in how much CPU it uses.  Even firing up the plug-in without playing a note put the CPU meter in Ableton Live on my 13” Macbook showed between 7-9% CPU use.  Fortunately, there are lower quality modes that will allow you to work out arrangements before rendering.  I do hope, however, that future versions will work on making things a bit less processor-intensive.  On the one hand, processors are getting faster all the time, and I think the amazing sound quality is a fair trade off for the processor load, but a more efficient version would certainly be more practical to use.  And this is a really versatile synth you might really find yourself wanting to build entire arrangements with, so the ability to use more instances at once would be a big bonus.

I had high hopes for this synth when it was first announced.  As a former owner of a 101, I really did miss its sound, but as I find myself working in the box more, I also wished I could have that sound with all the conveniences of instant recall, automation, and the like.  After spending some time with LuSH-101, I no longer regret selling the real deal.  LuSH-101 not only captures the sound of the 101, but jettisons it into the present day and expands on the sound significantly without losing the original character that makes that simple synth such a classic.  Three years of development may seem like a long time to some of us, but after working with LuSH-101, the painstaking detail and design work that went into this synth becomes obvious.  I only ran into one possible bug in my time working with the it, which was in Live.  Using my laptop keyboard to play notes stopped working the moment I changed any parameter.  D16 has already issued one update, however, with new ones already planned and announced on their webpage, so I trust that any bugs that arrive will be squashed quickly.

Simply put, this synth is a beast.  If you’re a fan of the classic Roland sound, this should be a no-brainer.  They’ve nailed the sound and opened up whole new worlds of sound with the added features and immaculate-sounding effects.  I was a bit skeptical when I initially saw the $199 price-point, but after putting LuSH-101 through its paces, I feel like that’s a bargain.  Just buy it, already!  [10/10]


Ronnie said...

Nice review, Tom. I love this synth, I just really need to get a faster machine, but that's alright. Time is on our side I reckon ;-)

Computer Controlled said...

This is, indeed a great sounding synth! Really does have that Roland sound.

Made In Machines said...

Which is the spec of the macbook you own?

Oliver Schmitt said...

Great, detailed review, Tom! I reaaaaally love this beast, too! It stands out...

Best, Olli / SOR

Lifer said...

You guys must have different ears to me.. I thought it didn't sound good at all! It sounded thin and spiky to me unless heavily layered. I really dislike that there is no overall control for more than 1 layer at a time either.
Sounds NOTHING like my all..

Tom said...

Made in Machines - My Macbook is a 2.4 gHz dualcore.

Avalon-Zone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Avalon-Zone said...

Sorry I cannot agree with your 10/10... 10/10 is perfection and the LuSH-101 is really far from being perfect... Do you find normal to get aliasing with a 149€ synth in 2012 (44.1kHz & Quality:High) Even a free synth like the Tyrell Nexus 6 is alias free at 44.1kHz...

networkace said...

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