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All About Software 
Synths and Samplers

Making sense of the VSTi, DXi Jungle    By Rich the Tweakmeister

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Its like being in a video game these days.  New possibilities everywhere as

Virtual Synths and Samplers

Native Instruments Reaktor 4.0 (Macintosh and Windows)   Tweak proclaims: Is it cool? Oh, dudes, you just don't know what you are missing! I'm gonna tell you the secret one time, ok, so listen up! This is the holy grail of synthesis.  Read up at the Native Instruments site.   Doing industrial, rave, dance? You can't afford to miss this one! 

Native Instruments Reaktor Session  Tweak: Bet you are wondering what the big diff is between "session" and the full version" Essentially, they cut out the "design your own" features of Reaktor.  It's for those who just want to use all the great preset Reaktor synths and access the giant user library, but not roll their own. More info

Arturia Moog Modular V Software Synth (Macintosh and Windows) Ever dreamed of using one of the best synthesizers ever made? Ever dreamed of working with a modular system whose sound is part of musical legend? Arturia, in partnership with Bob Moog, have made it possible with a faithful reproduction of one of the most famous series of synthesizers: Moog Modular.

Native Instruments FM7 Software Synth (Macintosh and Windows)  Tweak:  Better than hardware FM, IMO

 Native Instruments Pro-53 (Macintosh And Windows) The Native Instruments Pro-52 carries on the tradition from the legendary days of vintage cult synthesizers. This virtual instrument for Macintosh and Windows platform combines the sonic properties of the unique originals with the practical requirements of the present day. Tweak: The 53 is great!  BTW, if you have the '52, a free update awaits you at NI.  Do it.

Propellerheads Reason (Macintosh and Windows) Tweak's Pick!
Software synths have been around for almost as long as the personal computer. But somehow, they've never really made the grade. Too demanding on computer resources. Too complex. Too limited. Indifferent sounding. Unplayable. Or simply not cool enough. But now, the first software synth to equal and surpass the power, glory, and attitude of dedicated hardware has arrived. In fact, it's a lot more than just a synth. It's a complete music system. The Age of Reason is finally here

the day of the Virtual Studio has finally arrived. It's here.  It's real. And it sounds excellent.  More and more, my studio is getting smaller.  I realize, as I look at the several tiered racks of equipment surrounding me that I only absolutely need about half of it to make music at the quality I am used to.   And if I really wanted to, I could make a great cutting edge piece with all the hottest sounds using only my computer. Nowadays,  there are often several different ways to obtain an audio result.  More often I am choosing to do audio manipulation on the computer, rather than at the mixing board. Instead of routing a track through sends and returns matrixing sounds with FX processors and compressors, I am opting to record the track as digital audio and mess with it on the screen where I can see as well as hear what's happening.

Time Out!  What is all this VSTi, DXi, Rewire Stuff? 

Here it is plain and simple.  VSTi (virtual studio technology instrument) was developed by Steinberg as a Universal platform for soft synths and samplers.   Not all the companies bought into it.  Logic did,  but also developed it's own softsynths that are built into Logic. You can't use Emagic Soft synths with anything else.  Cakewalk did not go with VSTi, it went with DXi, which is based on Microsoft direct X code.   Rewire is a scheme that pipes digital audio from Propellerhead's Reason and Rebirth and Ableton's Live to other sequencers. An AU stand for Audio Units, which means it is Mac OSX compatible.

Q) Are VSTi and DXi compatible on Macs?

A)  VSTi's can be run on Mac sequencers if the sequencer supports VSTi's.  Logic Mac and Cubase Mac do support VSTi's in OS9.  They cannot as of this writing be run in OS X.   DXi's cannot be run on Macs.


Sequencer VSTi     DXi   Re
Mac AU
Cubase SX Yes Yes Yes No
Logic 5 PC Yes No Yes No
Logic6Mac No No Yes Yes
Sonar  No  Yes Yes No
Soft Synth or Sampler VSTi     DXi   Re
Mac AU
Pro53  Yes  Yes    
Battery Yes  Yes     
B4 Yes  Yes     
FM7 Yes  Yes     
Halion Yes  No    
PPG Wave Yes No    
Model-E Yes No    
Kontakt Yes No    
Reaktor4 Yes Yes   Yes
Dynamo Yes No    
Atmosphere Yes      
Trilogy Yes      
Stylus Yes      
Project 5 Yes Yes Yes  
Reason No No Yes  
Ableton Live No No Yes  
Fruity Loops Yes No    
Kantos Yes Yes    
Arturia Moog Yes Yes    
Rebirth No No Yes  
Emagic EXSP Yes      
Note: the above table may be outdated as the development of soft synths and sequencers changes with every update

I took my first step in this direction by going into SoundFonts. Some of you may scoff and think "that's for game-makers". Read on. SoundFonts are essentially WAV files with synth parameters. They play exactly as a sample based synth does. If you have a sblive card, the quality is as almost as high as an external sample based synth. "Latency" or the time from when you trigger an event to when you hear it, is very low. I am running a full 32 megs of SoundFont banks from within Logic Audio and its all working fine. Its just like having another sampler on the chain. But instead of this sampler costing $1500, it cost me a mere $100. That's not all. It's easy to work with SoundFonts. For example, I am in the middle of a composition and decide I need that Mondo Strings sample that's sitting as a wave file on the computer. I can be playing it from the keyboard in about 20 seconds. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you all that the SoundFont thing is a significant event.  The only issue with SoundFonts is that you need to have an Emu or Creative Labs soundcard.  If you have one of those, you can get everything else you need (Vienna) from Creative's site for free. There's tons of soundfont sites with free sf2 files and you can get a massive library for nothing.  Oh and just a note, some soft samplers will load SF2 files.  Kontakt, the Emagic EXS and Halion will; so you are really not going to lose any work down the road if you start out with good old soundfonts. 

Rewire Applications

The Propellerheads have a massive virtual application for the new millennium called Reason Unlike Reaktor, which is more like an infinitely variable synth/sampler/drumbox you can add to your audio tracks in a professional sequencer like Logic, VST, etc, Reason is like a total software studio in itself and needs no external mother application.  The look is totally awesome. You can turn the rack of synths, drumboxs, effects around and mess with patching cables, doing some very advanced tweaks, like routing control voltages from the synth to modulate parameters in other instruments--hehe, exactly the kind of tweaking many trance artists used. Except in reason, you do it on the screen, instead of crawling behind a 8 foot rack of gear with a flashlight If you like to tweak synths, you have to try it.  Reason records all your knob/fader moves, and you can do incredibly nasty things to drum loops, samples, midi sequences. Take it out for a spin and Download Reason (The demo) Reason does support Rewire, so you can presumably run it from external sequencers.   If you use Rebirth, you'll  love Reason and you can run Rebirth from within Reason and route the outputs through the Reason Mixer and FX.  The most outstanding bit with Reason, IMHO, is the killer sound.  If you want to put some real hipness into your mix, this is it.  Reason is an efficient running program and you can get dense mixes on an average computer.  The program exports to WAV very nicely so you can use other applications to add vocals, master, and further tweak. I have it, and will attest to its intense sound.  After getting Reason, I have taken the coveted Tweak's Pick award from Reaktor and have given it to Reason. 

If you like classic Techno music, Propellerhead's Rebirth is a must have.  It is the classic 808/909/303 all in one program and it sounds utterly authentic.  Knobs and sliders function in real time just like on the original machines and you can watch all your tweaks on playback.  Why mess with loops when you can get awesome results with Rebirth and totally control every note?  If you are serious, you have to have it in your virtual toolbox. Add a bit of delay to the outputs and you are transported to realms that are very psychedelic, grubbing around in a vast techno feeding ground. 

The third Rewire Application is the Ableton Live.  I wrote a review of it elsewhere, so go check it out.  The Ableton Live hooks into your sequencer's mixer and pipes in hit fresh audio loops, perfectly timed to the sequencer's BPM, with it's own killer FX engine.  Can you run more than one Rewire application in a sequencer?  Yep! If your CPU is up to the task. 

Software Synths

 I favor Reaktor, by Native Instruments.  This program is leaps and bounds above any hardware synth out there in terms of sound making potential. Uhhh, go back and read that line again.  I mean every word. The dudes at Native Instruments are cooking some great stuff in the kitchen.  Build your own synth engine from templates and presets.  Add FM, analog, ring mods, fx, samplers, step sequencers...getting the idea?  Make sure you have a relatively fast computer as it works best with the ASIO 2.0 protocol. If you have the latest versions of VST or Logic, your ready.  Congrats to Native Instruments, they have a winner with class!  The thing that got me was, unlike all the other soft products below, the Reaktor modules had me tweaking up sounds I had never heard before in just a few minutes after installing the program.  I had erroneously thought I had heard it all.  Nice surprise!  And the coolest thing is that there are tons of user built synths that are freely downloadable at the Native Instruments site.  These aren't just "patches" but full-hog user-blown total virtual synths! Tweak sez: Visionary thinkers at NI! Check it out at Native Instruments

A truly classic Pro52 (now the pro53) the software clone of the Prophet 5 synth made by Sequential circuits in the 80's.  The Pro52 works as a stand alone synth or as a plugin to logic, Cubase or Sonar, etc., and it has the classic Prophet sound you have undoubtedly heard on classic remixes.  You'd have to pay some pretty big bucks and deal with near non-existent service and parts if you had the real deal.  This allows anyone to get the classic sequential sound for a fraction of what you'd pay.  The program is so tight it will actually read sysex files from the original unit.  Now that is attention to detail!

Time Out!
Are Soft Synths Better than Hardware synths?
A) Well, you will never break your back carrying a soft synth to a gig.  But softsynths will rather quickly degrade your PC's performance as they eat CPU cycles with veracity.  Why is this? The CPU must deal with the soft synths instructions immediately or there will be latency.  Most fast computers can achieve a latency of 5 microseconds (that is 5 hundredths of a second) and when they do, the soft synth "feels" like a hardware synth when you play it.  However, as you build your song and have 10-16 softsynths playing back at this incredible rate, the CPU gets behind in other tasks.  When you add effects on top of these, you might notice clicks and pops and other nasties in your audio.  If you don't heed the warning, suddenly the whole shebang may stop dead in its tracks. 

Hardware synths do not suffer this as it just has to receive midi data on time, which is any computer can do easily.  So you can use your CPU for other tasks, like recording audio, effects, even running other applications. 

Soft synths are a good sounding as many hardware synths, sometimes better. They also can be very specific in their focus.  People don't mind spending $350 for a softsynth that just does pads and atmospheres, but they would mind buying a hardware box that only does this for $2000.  Hardware costs more because making the thing costs more.  Once software is made it is much less of a problem to make 100,000 units. 


What is the difference between a soft synth and a soft sampler?

A Soft Synth mimics a hardware synthesizer with different sounds and waveforms.  Many follow the model of a vintage analog synth with oscillators, filters, lfos and amp envelopes making the sound, other's may use a model of FM, wavetable, or may be modeled after an acoustic instrument.

A Soft sampler works like a digital sampler.  These don't sample sounds per se (you usually need an audio editor/recorder for that). But they do take "samples" (i.e., .wav or .aif files typically) and let you map them along your keyboard, the same way one does in a hardware sampler.  A soft sampler may let you load sample cd roms that are used by hardware samplers which gives you access to a universe of premium sounds.  Once you map the samples to the keyboard, you can then program them with filters, lfos, amps like a soft synth.  One advantage of soft samplers over their hardware rivals is that there is no memory limit to how many samples are immediately accessible--any wave file on the computer is fair game.  Compare that to hardware samplers that have banks which are limited to 128, 256, or maybe 512 megabytes.

So the soft sampler has an open architecture which lets you import any sound.  The soft synth is a closed architecture that allows you to select from a number of supplies internal waveforms. 

Also from Native Instruments is the FM7 and B4 soft synths.  The FM7 is a software clone of the type of FM synthesis that was used in the many version of Yamaha synthesizers, such as the DX7, TX7, TG77, SY99, TX 81Z, TX 802, DX7II.  The FM sound is nothing like the sound of an analog synth, which is by nature warm and fluid sounding.  FM is clean, distinct, a little cold and brittle and cuts through a mix of analog stuff like a laser.  Hence it is popular for basses, FX, bells, mallets, anything that has to be crisp. What is a bit surprising about the FM7 is how good it sounds:  it sounds better than the FM synths I have here.  Sort of like if you died and went to heaven how FM would sound. LOL. Definite 2 thumbs up. 

The B4 is NI's software clone of a Hammond B3 organ.  And it sounds like a B3 in all its blueseyness, churchliness, and more.  Does those killer Emerson-esque tones like were featured on Tarkus, and can also give you that B3 bass notes you may have heard in many dance remixes.  Emagic, ever on NI's heels, has their version of the venerable B3, called the EVB3.  Remember now, emagic soft synths only work in Logic, OK.

Absynth is another heavy NI soft synth.  Extremely powerful, I'm told.  I don't have it yet, but will soon!  As of this writing it is about to be upgraded to V2. (Due June 27, 2003).  I know I am going to love this one.

 The Emagic ES1 once got high marks from me as a Logician. But that was before I got the Emagic ES2.  The ES2 is utterly great, so so flappin' fat sounding, it just oozes with cellulite! Also has a killer randomize function that lets you filter certain things out of the randomizer so you don't get stuff you don't want. It's not going to work with anything else but Logic, so don't try if you are on VST or Cakewalk. The Es1 is good for straightaway analog synths and is easy to program. The interface is streamlined, efficient, and easy to use. The Es2 is a MONSTER Analog  The sound is very animated with automated knobs in Logic 5.  Oh Yes you can do what you think you might do.  The Tweak likes the ES1 and Loves the ES2.  It's truly mind-blowing!  Check out this cool bundle the Emagic Synth collection with the Es1, Es2 and Evoc20 Vocoder!  It's a good deal.  And the Vocoder is cutting! 

Another add-on to the emagic system of soft-wares is Emagic EVP88 Vintage Virtual Piano.  These are high quality pianos that replicate vintage Rhodes, Wurlitzer's and Hohner EPs.  There's some truly astonishing effects possible with a built in phaser, Tremolo, Overdrive and EQ for making EP sounds with bite and intensity or shimmering ethereality.  A nice compliment to logic's arsenal. Now if I could just play like Hancock or Corea, I'd be set.  If you have exacting requirements for authenticity in your EPs--this will satisfy.

Soft Samplers

Another Emagic great addition is the EXS Sampler.  It works exclusively within Logic and is extremely powerful.  Yet, that is its problem.  It only works in Logic. Someday, I hope, manufacturers see the light that proprietary formats only weaken the product in the long run. Software makers, get a clue.  To be fair, Emagic is not the only one doing this.  The Propellerheads are too with their secret NN sample format in Reason, and of course Akai and Emu have been buried in this all through the 80's and 90's.  Now just think had they decided differently. Ok, off the soapbox, the EXS is tight with Logic and the plugins really bring out extreme (buzzword of the newbie) sounds.  I have two hardware samplers but still find a use for the EXS in my music that really makes it standout.  Think for a minute.  Lets say you have Reaktor or Dynamo and you cook up a great CPU intensive patch.  Sample it into the EXS and free the CPU, and then go to town with Logic Plugins on top of that! Now, (we're not done yet) render to an audio track and resample it again! Ok, you see the point, I hope. The point is what's possible. If you like to make wild and contorted noises, nothing satisfies like an over-sampled EXS24 with a rack of plugins.  It can make nice sounds too.  :) As of Logic 5 you can import Recycle files. Dude, you don't know how cool that one feature is.  That is sheer audio power.  Go to my EXS resource page. 

Now that Emagic "letting go" of PC users, you might wonder what to do with all those cool EXS instruments you made.  Will they work in Cubase?  Nope!  Not unless you get an EXSP24 sample player which works as a VSTi and can work in all sequencers that use VSTi's.  It cannot make instruments though. But if you already have them made then....  

But if Cubase VST or Cubase SX is your game and you are starting fresh, you would want to go with a soft sampler like Halion or Kontakt.  Kontakt is getting great reviews and I am just dying to put it in my virtual rack.  Halion is to Cubase much as the EXS is to Logic, so if you are diehard Steinberg, it the path.  As Halion is a VSTi, it will work on other sequencers too--not Sonar though, which only uses DXi's.  Next up is Battery, perhaps the ultimate drum sampler.  Easy as heck to use.  Just drag N drop samples from your hard drive's directories right on a pad in Battery.  Then you play them on a midi keyboard and record away in Logic, Cubase, or Sonar--works well with them all. If you are serious about your drums, give it a go.  Yep, you can use multiple outs in sequencers that support them, like Cubase.

Finally, we get to Kontakt, which, so the ads say, works as a VSTi or a DXi, meaning it's good to go with Sonar, Logic, or Cubase.  I just got it myself and it is impressive. Not only can it play samples really well, it can re-synthesize them with some utterly unique modulators. The folks at Native Instruments set out to make the world's best sampler ever.  I think they might have it. One thing that is cool, you can make "Multis" of sampler instruments--yep, just like a synth, 16 channel multitimbral Multis, complete with insert FX.  If your sequencer supports multiple VST outs, like Cubase SX does, you can route stuff within the multi to different audio channels of you audio interface.  Tres' Cool.  In case you are wondering, it can import soundfonts, Akai, Battery, and Gigasampler.  No it will not import the EXS...yet.  I imported my Mystik Window soundfonts and they came in almost perfect.  I predict a long and happy life for Kontakt at the TweakLab.  You can read my full review. Also check out the new condensed version called Kompact

Take a look at the GigaStudio products formerly owned by Nemesys Systems, now owned by Tascam.  No, I am not ready to toss out my Emu.  But it does things that I would need a stack of samplers to do, like play really long pads.  I does all the things well that you never wanted to tie up your sampler with.  Non-looped Orchestral strings being one.  A massive number of dance loops all set up across and ready to go being two.  Of course you can do this with any sampler, as many as you can fit in your "puny" 128 meg ram.  With the GS the presets are always 'on board',  you just drag them to a channel.  Get the idea?  No more fumbling with hunting through multiple cd roms for the preset you "think" was the sound you wanted.  No more loading, mounting, scsi refreshing, messing with click of death zip disks.  You just open a window and drag and drop.  Comes with a preset editor, no more tiny screens, no more sysex protocols and editing software that only works when its raining.  GS has hooks to your favorite sequencer and wav editor.  You should go out and get a 21" monitor now, and while you are there get a few 30 gig hard drives.  Your computer just got busier.  The Giga products are neither VSTi or DXi.  This is a totally different game.  The application installs a GSIF engine that your sequencer can access by MIDI.  The engine stream audio data from your hard disk.   I think GS works best on a 2nd computer as it is on my system a bit of a hog.  And you should carefully check to make sure it is compatible with your soundcard before you buy, it must be GSIF compatible.  Make sure, ok?  One reason to go with Giga is there are many upscale libraries available used in film scoring.  Tascam is ahead of the game in that department.  Now that computers are getting faster, I am warming up to these again. 

The Bitheadz Unity DS1 is yet another soft sampler that has been around a while.  You can take the DS1 out for a spin by downloading the Bitheadz demo (Try doing that with an Akai S6000!) Lots of cool demos on that page so check 'em out.

Rich the TweakMeister
  Want to Discuss SoftSynths?  Discuss Soft Synth and Samplers here at Studio-Central

recommended reading

Doing it with Digital.  This is a primer that tells you how to make a fully digital recording with as few passes through converters as possible. 

Digital Audio Tricks and Tips

Creative Uses for Hardware Samplers

Debunking Digital Audio Myths, electronic musician magazine, may 2001