Synth gear

My favourite synth gear…

When I started with synthesizers I quickly learned of the existence of so called software synthesizers, “soft synths” in short. These soft synths come in many varieties, but in the end they are usually tied to a so called “Digital Audio Workstation”, or ‘DAW’ in short. Of course this doesn’t mean that every DAW is also a soft synth, but generally speaking most DAW’s can support them.

I decided to go for the software side simply because I think that software will at the very end be more flexible and much easier to expand on than hardware. Of course its possible to extend on hardware as well, for example the so called “modular synthesizers”, but at what costs?

And so, here is a list of my synthesizer gear (‘synth gear’). Its basically a software collection which I control by using a few hardware controllers; that list can be found on another page.

In this list there are three specific software programs which I value the most; I often refer to these as ‘The Big Trio’ since for me these three really define the way I work. I marked members of ‘The Big Trio’ with an asterisk; they have a private web page specifically devoted to them; either click the link shown on this page or select the section from the menu at the top.

Ableton Live ‘Suite’ – (product page here, you can download a demo here). *

My all-time favorite. I started demo’ing it extensively at first, picked up the Akai APC 40 because I didn’t feel like using the mouse all the time and never looked back. The Lite version which came with the APC was quickly replaced by the Suite version and right now I feel that the sky is the limit. Live provides you with a very friendly and easily to grasp interface (which is why I think many don’t take Live as serious as they should; their loss..). But despite its “simple looks” it packs a load of musical power indeed…

Max for Live – (product page here, you can download a demo here). *

Now, officially speaking this isn’t really a “DAW” or piece of “music software” but an extension on Ableton Live. But what an extension indeed! What happened here is that Cycling ’74 has ‘teamed up’ with Ableton (the other way around is probably more likely) and assisted with embedding their Max visual programming environment right into Ableton Live. So basically providing a full blown programming environment which is fully aimed at building audio and video based applications. And with Max for Live this environment has been extended to support native Live devices and controls. Resulting in an extension which allows you to build your own Live instruments, midi and audio devices and effects, and much more. If there is something you can’t do with Ableton Live chances are high that Max for Live (“M4L”) can provide…

VST plug-in extensions – (TAL plug-ins; see here, and the ReaPlugs FX Suite; see here).

My collection of VSTs is rather small since I’ve always been very satisfied with the instruments and effects I had at my disposal within Ableton Live and some of the enhancements I use (Reason, Komplete Elements, etc.). However, there are two specific plug-in collections I’ve grown very fond of in the past years: the TAL plug-ins as well as the ReaPlugs.

TAL is a set of plug-ins developed by Patrick Kunz and these consist of a large variety of instruments and effects. Ranging from excellent synthesizers like the TAL Vintager, U-No and Noisemaker (no, I won’t forget to mention the awesome Elek7ro !) right to specific effects such as the TAL Reverb, Flanger and Vocoder. All in all this is material which is bound to leave an impression on your sound material. Excellent stuff to keep around.

Another set which I’d like to explicitly mention are the ReaPlugs; this is a set of VST plug-ins which are originally provided by Reaper; another DAW. However, these plug-ins can also be easily used in other DAWs and provide specific effects which can be very useful. Effects like a specific compressor, a delay and equalizer right to very specific tools such as ReaStream and ReaJS. The first allows you to stream audio or midi over a network from one DAW into the other, whereas the latter provides a container in which you can program your own effects using Javascript. And all of this is provided free of charge, so in my opinion a very invaluable set of tools to keep around, especially if you’re as much into tweaking as I am.

Propellerheads Reason – (product page here, you can download a demo here). *

Reason is a strange critter in that its not an “official” DAW, yet still an awesome piece of music software. It simulates a 19″ rack in which you can put a large diversity of instruments and effects. Its strength lies in its very flexible setup.. Using a signal to trigger a frequency setting of an equalizer thus creating several odd sound effects? Its possible. Reason allows you to push your music into directions which are uncommon in other DAWs.

Native Instruments Komplete 7 Elements – (product page here, you can download free players here).

Once again this is not a DAW; it’s best described as a collection of virtual instruments and effects which can either be used stand alone or within a DAW of your choice (as long as it supports VST or RTAS plugins).  Native Instruments (‘N.I.’) is all about sound; instead of trying to take on every little aspect involved with music and sound production N.I. mainly focuses on sound creation. While the N.I. instruments can produce very rich and diverse sounds they cannot record or edit data. That is where your main environment should come into play..

Update: N.I. has changed this product, and in my opinion not for the best. In comparison with this version the price has dropped to E 49,- yet unfortunately the original content was also massively cut. Instead of over 2000 sounds you now only get 1000, and did the original library take up 12Gb with ease this has been trimmed down to a meager 3Gb. Where the original provided 4 sound engines its now down to 3 (the Kore player has been discontinued).

I really love this Elements version but the current one is barely more than a paid version of the freely available players. If this page got you curious about the Elements then I’d seriously suggest to reconsider and grab the players instead. The E 49,- Komplete Elements is no longer the great introduction to Komplete which it used to be.

Native Instruments Absynth 5 – (product page here, you can download a demo here).

And again a product which isn’t a DAW. Absynth 5 is a rather specific software synthesizer which can be used either stand alone or within a DAW of your choice (just like the Komplete Elements above; this only applies provided that your main DAW supports VST plug-ins). What makes Absynth stand out are its diverse capabilities. It comes with 3 oscillators, 2 filter slots per oscillator and a master channel which provides for another 2 filter slots and one dedicated effect slot. Next 3 LFO’s, a master envelope, the per-oscillator amplitude envelope as well as the freely assignable envelopes for the filters and modulators. As you can see it’s a complete package indeed.  The oscillators provide 3 different modes; wave table synthesis (ranging from single (monocyclic) waveforms right to double (parallel) up to modulation like frequency or ring modulation), sample synthesis (so using a sample file for regular or granular synthesis) and finally external (used for external audio sources). There are several filter types you can use; regular filters (low pass, high pass, comb filter) right to more complex material like a waveshaper or modulator (frequency shifting or a ring modulator). The effect slot on the master channel is dedicated to applying specific effects like a pipe, multi comb or resonator; 6 different effects are available in total.  All in all one extremely complete put together synthesizer. Even ‘common’ options like selecting a single wave form for an oscillator will provide much more than you may have bargained for: from a “simple” waveform like a sine or saw right to ‘morphed’ waveforms up to ones stored in a library. And if you want you can always design a waveform yourself. As you can see; not an average synthesizer..

Native Instruments Guitar Rig 5 Pro – (product page here, you can download a free player here).

Guitar Rig is a modular effects processor which can be used stand alone or as a plugin inside another host. It provides a wide variety of effects; 17 amplifiers with 27 cabinets, 54 sound effects from specific equalizers, reverbs to LFO’s and specific mixing options for controlling the sounds as precise as possible. Guitar Rig is all about extensive sound processing.

Cycling ’74s Max/MSP/Jitter 5 – (company website here, you can download a demo here). *

Max is a visual programming language developed by Cycling ’74. It has a nearly 10 year history in which it provided a drastic way to program whatever multimedia application you might want to. It allows you to create your own instruments and effects, support and control remote midi devices and play (or process) whole movies…  Its strength obviously lies with multimedia, but that is backed up by a fully capable programming environment.

Magix’ Samplitude 10SE – (company website here).

Now, I’ll be perfectly honest with you guys; the reason I’m using Samplitude 10SE is because I got it for free. No; not in a shady kind of way. Fully legitimate; I participated in a promotion of some German magazine which supplied interested people with free Samplitude 10SE licenses for a short number of time. Do keep in mind that the price for Samplitude 10 at that time had already dropped to approx. $50,-. I participated and it worked; a few hours later I enjoyed my free license. My main usage for Samplitude is for filtering and editing parts of audio (but very sporadically) and mostly for arranging audio parts which I want to put on CD. It truly excels at that! I really came to respect the Magix company for selling Samplitude 10SE even after their latest version had been released months ago. There are very few software companies which do that, which I think is a shame indeed. Because I already have quite a collection of music software I see no reason to upgrade just yet, but this is definitely something I wouldn’t want to be missing out of.

Wavosaur – (main website here, you can also download the software from there).

‘Wavosaurus’ is a free audio editor (at least at the time of writing) which has quite some interesting features. Not only does it support editing of audio (the usual cut and paste) but it also provides recording, conversion and VST capabilities. With native support for ASIO drivers and real-time processing this is an excellent tool. The program doesn’t require installation; just put the executable file somewhere and you’re good to go. I replaced Audacity for this program because of the interface (I think its much more mature) and the way it works with Ableton Live; simple point Live to the executable file to make it work (in the Live preference window you need to select the “File Folder” tab, then simply setup the “Sample editor”)