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MEGA-SYNTHS on the Tip of a Chip

Hardware and software of all sorts cross this desk, but the small-package/big-sound index leapt off the scale after I bought a palm-top studio and started

Hardware and software of all sorts cross this desk, but the small-package/big-sound index leapt off the scale after I bought a palm-top studio and started installing some of the virtual instruments listed in this Mix roundup. There are dozens of virtual software instruments listed here that open up a studio’s worth of electronics from a tiny corner of a CPU chip.

Virtual software instruments come in two flavors, each with inherent advantages. Stand-alone synth, sampler and drum machine applications are generally deeper and more powerful than their plug-in counterparts but aren’t nearly as integrated with the sequencing environment most of us dwell in all day long. Plug-in instruments, meanwhile, are plenty powerful and tightly woven into the automated software recording experience but are also fully host-dependent and subject to sharing processor real estate with other native plug-in tools.

Our focus this year is on 40 virtual instrument plug-ins. A list of 35 stand-alone instrument apps and where to find them on the Web is included on page 54. There are even soft synths for Linux, BeOS and DOS devotees below, so check it out and start bleeping and tweaking!

The Access Virus family of hardware synthesizers now includes Access Virus TDM ($795, software that plugs into Mac and Windows TDM systems to soft-model analog synthesis. The first synth plug-in released on the TDM platform, Virus adds software features the hardware versions can only dream about. Up to eight multitimbral Virus synths can be running per TDM DSP chip, 80 Virus voices can be had on a standard Pro Tools|24 MIXplus system, and 150 automatable parameters per synth should keep even the most knob-centric programmers happy for a long time.

Big Tick Software’s Rainbow VST 1.6.3 ( is a sharp little shareware plug-in synth for Mac and Windows users with VST-compatible host apps. Rainbow sports FM, AM, additive and subtractive synthesis techniques, and one of the smoothest interfaces around on either CPU. A bandpass filter and 16-step sequencer are built-in, and Rainbow, tested with Cubase VST 3.7, also runs as a stand-alone, soft-synth application.

BitHeadz’s Unity DS-1 2.0 ($449, is a stand-alone digital sampler for Mac and Windows that has enough third-party sequencer integration improvements lately to deserve mention here among the host-devoted plug-ins. New patch name utilities make it even easier to choose Unity banks and programs from within Cakewalk Pro Audio, Emagic Logic Audio and other popular sequencers without having to first launch Unity. Further, the Unity editor can now audition banks and programs through the sample engine when multitasking Unity and your sequencer of choice side by side. The company’s popular Retro AS-1 stand-alone software synth has a new Windows VST plug-in synth version, Retro AS-1 VST ($199), that’s optimized for G4 and P3 processors, supports Digidesign’s DirectConnect plug-in format and can store multitimbral setups for each MIDI channel using the Save Effect function right in Steinberg’s Cubase VST|32.

Though technically not virtual instruments, Bomb Factory’s ( moogerfooger Ring Modulator and Lowpass Filter pedal-emulation plug-in duo ($399, Mac/Windows) for TDM, MAS, RTAS and AudioSuite host environments adds enough synth-like tones to any track to warrant a mention here. The dual-waveform LFOs and variable 2-pole/4-pole resonant filters are strictly vintage, and all plug-in features are fully automatable. The graphic user interface faithfully emulates the hardware originals from Big Briar, a nice touch.

Most of the 74 VST/MAS plug-ins offered up in Cycling ‘74’s Pluggo suite ($74, are generally signal processors, but three are distinctively instrumental in nature. Laverne is a subtractive synthesizer used largely to demo Pluggo’s MIDI capabilities, but it’s not bad in a pinch for some basic, two-fisted, dual-oscillator work. Sine Bank controls up to 32 sine waves and is ideal for being controlled by one of Pluggo’s many modulator plug-ins. Synth is the first of many Pluggo-sourced soft synthesizers to come: Instead of processing its audio input, Synth spits out grooves controlled by two built-in step sequencers that independently control pitch and filter cutoff frequencies of various waveforms. Synth’s interface is quite intuitive for generating new tones, though it looks as if it were designed somewhere other than on Earth.

SynC Modular from Dr. Sync ($49, is both a stand-alone app and VST plug-in synth for Windows and BeOS. Offering an awful lot of synth-building bang-for-the-buck, the modular SynC approach allows users to create custom oscillators, filters and macros from the ground up and feed 16-part multitimbral MIDI parts to the plug-in version from a sequencer. The stand-alone version of SynC supports DirectSound drivers and can render MIDI files directly.

Digidesign’s Bruno/Reso ($395, is a unique cross-synthesis plug-in duo for Mac and Windows TDM users that turns any audio track into something decidedly synth-like. Users can create some deeply adjustable resonant tone layers with up to 24 voices per plug-in, depending on CPU, and the resulting output can be “played” interactively with an external MIDI controller. Bruno cuts audio into time slices with adjustable cross-fades and velocity-sensitive gain stages, and it can be controlled by an external audio source via sidechain input; Reso generates harmonic resonance that can be switched using envelope triggers or MIDI beat clock.

Emagic ( has released the first two of many planned Logic-based virtual instruments to come: the EXS24 polyphonic sampler ($399, Mac/Windows) and the ES1 virtual synthesizer ($99, $199 TDM). The EXS24 is a great-looking Logic Audio and MicroLogic AV plug-in that sports lowpass filtering with selectable 12, 18, 24 “classic” and 24dB “fat” slopes, self-oscillating resonant filter, and pitch, filter cutoff, volume and pan that can be modulated by two LFOs. Depending on CPU power, up to 16 EXS24s (64 voice) can run simultaneously under Version 4.0 and higher for both applications, and planned support for Digidesign’s DirectConnect will allow Logic users to feed 32 outputs from each EXS24 module into a TDM mixer. Also available for TDM systems, the ES1 subtractive synthesis plug-in is Emagic’s first foray into the world of virtual soft instruments. Up to eight ES1s can be had at the mousetip in Logic Series sequencers, the ES1 integrates nicely into Logic’s internal digital mixer, and all ES1 parameters can be fully mix-automated.

With a name that sounds inspired by those amber waves, GrainWave 3.0 is another shareware synth wonder that far exceeds its $40 registration fee ( for Mac users. GrainWave runs an uninterrupted audio stream in the background, while OMS-savvy sequencer applications use it as a virtual synthesizer slave, and Cycling ‘74 MAX users can generate custom interfaces for GrainWave.

Distributed by Digidesign (, the Koblo Studio 9000 suite ($720, Mac) of TDM-based synths, sampler and drum machine also works with VST 2.0-, ReWire-, MAS-, FreeMI, DI- and OMS-based host applications. The suite also can be used as a stand-alone synth app with Digidesign’s Direct I/O or Sound Manager. Two monophonic analog-modeling synthesizers (Vibra 9000 and 6000), a sample playback module (Stella 9000) and a drum module (Gamma 9000) in the Koblo Studio interface perfectly with Pro Tools via DirectConnect. Vibra 9000 has two stereo oscillators with five morphable waveforms each, three synchable LFOs, and a variety of notch, saw comb and square comb filters; both the Gamma and Stella modules support SampleCell key maps when importing sound sets.

It’s hard to detect a common thread in the company’s product naming convention, but LinPlug from Berlin ( nevertheless deserves high marks for offering a host of drum machine and synth plug-ins for the Windows VST platform that costs little or no dough. The $75 GakStoar Delta 2.0 is an analog-modeling polysynth that’s worth every penny and free to registered LinPlug users; the GakStoar Alpha VST plug-in is a freeware virtual synth with resonant lowpass filters, velocity/aftertouch and three ADSR envelopes; and the Rupsta Gamma Drum Sampler ($30) features 11 drum sounds, up to 24-voice polyphony and the ability to route stereo and six mono outputs individually. And the new RM 2 ($45) builds on Rupsta’s technology and features. Roagine won’t slow up male pattern baldness, but this $25 percussion plug-in is plenty strong when it comes to live performance control; each of the module’s 15 parameters can be controlled by any external hardware controller.

Hailing from the UK, Muon Software ( is another EU-energized family of virtual synth plug-ins in the affordable (i.e., virtually free) price range. Muon Electron ($75) is a powerful 64-bit tri-oscillator synth plug-in for Cubase VST or Logic Audio 4.1 and above for Windows with two user-assignable LFOs, two independent resonant filters that can crossfade, and a slick interface complete with shadowed knobs and a nifty X-Y parameter controller. Muon Atom Pro ($30) is a simple VST synth with oscillator, lowpass filter and amplitude envelope sections, and Muon Tau is a free monophonic bass-line synthesizer that looks like a mini-TB303, features an 18dB lowpass filter and certainly wins the “cutest virtual synth 2001” award for its one-octave keyboard and minimal screen footprint.

The Hammond B3 has perhaps never before been better emulated than by Native Instruments’ B4 plug-in ($199, Mac/Win, The B3 organ and rotating speaker tandem is re-created with loving detail that accurately models harmonic foldback, drawbar crosstalk and loudness robbing, and the B4’s “back panel” view allows users to fine-tune sound and even route external audio inputs into and out of the B4’s NSP technology—the same as is used in Native’s Reaktor soft synth. Dynamo 1.0.3 ($199, Mac/Win) is a synthesizer/sampler/sequencer package with 25 of Reaktor’s synthesizers that works both as a stand-alone and as a virtual instrument plug-in within VST, MAS, Logic and Digidesign DirectConnect applications. Deemed an entry point to Native’s pricier and more powerful Reaktor ($499, Mac/Win), Dynamo comes with 25 instruments from Native’s Premium Library that can be continually upgraded via free instrument downloads from the company’s Web site. Finally, Native’s new Pro-52 ($199, Mac/Win) does a convincing job of re-creating a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer, including the ability to import Prophet-5 system exclusive data to reproduce every sound library in the Prophet family. Cool.

Like several other virtual instruments in this guide, Propellerhead Software’s ( ReBirth TB-338 ($199, Mac/Win) moves out of the sidebar on stand-alones [page 54]. Deeply integrated with Cubase (via ReWire), Digital Performer (via VIP) and other sequencers, ReBirth and its “lite” version (ReBirth One, $69) offer synth and drum modules based on Roland’s legendary TB-303 bass synth and TR-808 and -909 drum machines—instant beat gratification guaranteed.

Prosoniq’s Orange Vocoder VST plug-in for Mac and Windows ($199, VST, MAS, RTAS version due soon; is an all-digital simulation of the classic EMS vocoders from Germany. Orange Vocoder features an 8-voice analog synth bank, reverb, and a highly expressive freeform EQ and filter bank control interface that can subtly harmonize a vocal track or render it unrecognizably robotic.

Steinberg ( has likely been in every plug-in buyer’s guide ever published, and this roundup is no different. The Waldorf PPG Wave 2.V ($199), a VST reincarnation of the original 1982 digital synth classic, works well on both Wintel and Mac machines and produces an aural and ocular virtual equivalent that emulates almost every move the original ever had, and then some. Automation is complete, audio files can be rendered directly from within the plug-in, and up to eight-part multitimbral Wave instruments can be opened in Cubase VST at a given time. The Waldorf D-Pole ($199, Mac/Win) is a software version of the MicroWave II’s lush filter section known for its phat tendencies. The 4-pole filter in D-Pole performs identically to its hardware counterpart and accepts external input to synthify anything. The Steinberg Model-E ($199, Mac/Win) VST plug-in is as close to a real Minimoog as many of us will ever get and about $2,000 cheaper than the best vintage Moog deal around. This soft synth looks and sounds like the real thing and adds polyphonic voices and 16-part multitimbrality to the soup, among other digital advantages. The LM-4 VST Drum Module ($99, Mac/Win) rounds out the Steinfare. It’s a 24-bit drum plug-in that includes two sound kits, each containing at least 18 drum sounds built from any 16- and 24-bit .AIFF and .WAV file collection. Very cool.

Two potent entries into the virtual synthesizer plug-in realm were announced at last year’s summer NAMM show in Nashville by TC Works (, each sporting a gray finish that recalls early modular synths. Spark Modular ($99, Mac) can be used directly in any sequencer supporting VST instruments and includes virtual MIDI keyboard, step sequencer, amplifier, filter and dual-oscillator synth modules that can be mixed, deleted and matched in various combinations that will keep most knob twirlers up all night. TC’s Mercury-1 ($199, Mac/Win) is a monophonic, virtual, analog soft synth with two oscillators and a sub-oscillator for that gut-challenging low end, a 24dB/octave lowpass filter with resonance, oscillator sync, ring modulation and a sample-and-hold module.

Other than some sawtooth dreams and a tendency to now arpeggiate his sentences, Randy Alberts carries on his writing, audio and music business in Pacifica, Calif.


Many of these stand-alone software synths, drum machines, bass mods and samplers adhere to audio connectivity protocol, like Propellerhead Software’s ReWire, Mark of the Unicorn’s Virtual Input Plug-In and DirectConnect from Digidesign, to multitask with sequencing software applications and share audio, MIDI and program info. A number are share/freeware in nature, several work both as a stand-alone and as a virtual instrument plug-in, and all rank high on the bang-for-your-synth-buck gauge. Enjoy!