The latest addition to Arturia's Analog Experience series takes their hybrid software/hardware synth concept even further.
When I first read about the flagship of Arturia's Analogue Experience ('AE') series, I wondered whether there would be any demand for another product based on the company's existing analogue modelling technology. My review of the curent two products in the series — the Player and the Factory (see Sound On Sound January 2011) — suggested that they provide an interesting set of facilities in a novel fashion at an attractive price, but what of the Laboratory? Could there be room above the Factory for a bigger and better 'Experience', or were Arturia attempting to slice the virtual analogue soft synth market just a little too thinly? (As we were going to press, Arturia announced a 61‑note version of the Laboratory, but this review will concentrate on the 49‑note model.)
Like its siblings, the Laboratory combines three elements: a keyboard controller, a large library of editable sounds based on the company's existing V-series soft synths, and a separate software package that allows users to configure the keyboard for use with other software.
Let's start with the 49‑note velocity‑ and aftertouch‑sensitive keyboard. This is not just wider than the keyboards supplied with the Player and the Factory; it offers a greater range of facilities and more in the way of physical controls, with nine sliders (two ADSRs and Tempo), 13 knobs, 23 buttons (including 10 snapshot buttons that allow you to recall favourite patches from the keyboard) and four pads, as well as traditional pitch‑bend and modulation wheels. In addition to these, there are six buttons that send MMC messages (Start, Stop, Record, Backward, Forward and Loop) for transport control of hardware and software sequencers. Meanwhile, around at the back I was pleased to find five‑pin DIN sockets for MIDI In and Out, as well as the expected USB/MIDI socket, plus quarter‑inch sockets for no fewer than four forms of control: sustain, expression, 'Aux' and breath control. This is very sophisticated for a low‑cost system and, if you compare this with the 32‑note keyboard that comes with the Factory (which has no MIDI In, no Aux, no breath control input, no pads and fewer of the other controls), let alone that of the Player, it's clear that it's a big step up from its smaller siblings.
Complementing the hardware, the Laboratory contains the latest generation of Arturia's Analogue Experience software, with 3500 preset (but editable) sounds based on the company's Moog, ARP, Roland, SCI and Yamaha soft synths. Once installed, the software appears as VST, AU and RTAS plug‑ins, as well as a stand‑alone application, and will run on OS X, Windows XP, Vista and 7. Getting it up and running on my MacBook Pro proved to be straightforward, although you need Internet access to register it, and a bit of prior experience with the eLicenser system used by Arturia goes a long way toward making the process as painless as possible.
The software seems very similar to that supplied with the Factory and the Player, and it's worth reading my earlier review if you haven't already done so, because almost everything that I wrote about the smaller systems remains relevant. But while it's tempting to assume that the Laboratory version is much the same, with just a bit more of this and a smidgen more of that, it would be a mistake, because, in three important ways, the Laboratory is much more powerful than its siblings.
Although Analogue Experience sounds are based on Arturia's V-series soft synths you have (until now) only had access to a limited subset of their editing and performing parameters. So, for example, the Player allows you to adjust the filter, the LFO and the amplitude envelope of a sound that has dozens of other parameters hidden away 'under the hood'. The Factory is somewhat more flexible, adding access to the effects mixes and four assignable parameters, but it is still unable to edit a sound fully. And, at first sight, the Laboratory is only slightly more advanced, with the addition of a second ADSR contour generator. But if you have any of Arturia's V-series synths installed on the same computer as the Laboratory, something magical happens. Click on the edit button of an appropriate sound and you can open the original soft synth within the Laboratory to edit it, and even create completely new sounds. Strangely, Arturia don't seem to make a big deal of this within its documentation, but I think that it's a huge step forward. It makes the Laboratory much more than just a tweaker and player of preset sounds; it's now an über‑editor/librarian for all of your Arturia synths, integrating them into a single environment that is much more manageable than invoking each of them individually.
The next huge difference is the provision of Scenes. These allow you to combine two sounds; either layered or placed either side of a user‑defined split point. There's also a Multi mode, although this is not the full multitimbral mode that the name implies — it's a duo‑timbral mode that assigns the sounds of your choice to MIDI channels 1 and 2. You can assign sounds to the Upper and Lower parts; select and edit them from the keyboard; transpose, mix and pan them; and assign a 'Melody' (actually, one of 180 preset arpeggios) to one of them. While there's no way to edit these arpeggios, they can be used in conjunction with the library of preset rhythm loops accessed using the pads on the keyboard (or their on‑screen equivalents), which makes them rather useful when using the Laboratory 'DJ‑style' or as a scratch pad for ideas.
Ah yes, the pads... Like much else in the Laboratory, these offer more than is immediately obvious. Far from simply allowing you to play notes or tap percussion instruments (which, of course, they do) each provides three modes — gate, trigger and loop — and can act exclusively (or not) with respect to the others. So, for example, you can place up to four complementary rhythm loops under the pads, select 'loop' for each, switch 'exclusive' off for each, mix their levels to taste, and then play simple or layered rhythms, switching each loop on or off by tapping the appropriate pad. Selecting the loops couldn't be simpler (you drag and drop them from the list in the pads' setup page) and you don't even have to be precise when you play them; adding a new loop to something that's already playing always results in a synchronised rhythm, no matter how poor your timing might be.
The final element in the package is the MIDI Control Centre software installed alongside the Laboratory itself. This allows you to configure the hardware so that every control, when tweaked, sends the MIDI CC# of your choice. You can then store the configuration in the keyboard itself, in effect turning it into a dedicated controller for another synth or software package. Since configurations can be saved on your host computer, you can quickly reconfigure the keyboard for whatever purpose is required, and I particularly like the idea of assigning the nine sliders to act as physical drawbars for a software Hammond organ emulation.
The keyboard boasts a 12V DC PSU input, so that you can use it as a stand‑alone MIDI controller without connecting it to a computer for USB power. It's also worth mentioning that it's a USB/MIDI converter too, and this allowed me to use my Mac to play and control vintage MIDI synths (which have no USB inputs) without the need for a dedicated interface. The only time that this failed to work was when I attempted to play them from the Laboratory's GUI. I confirmed this with Arturia, who admitted that they had not expected anyone to attempt this.
Using the Laboratory could not be much simpler. Load the software with the keyboard plugged in, and everything synchronises and is ready for use. Nonetheless, its capabilities range far beyond simply playing its existing sounds.
To illustrate this, I loaded the Laboratory as a plug‑in within Digital Performer 7, created a MIDI track, routed the input from the keyboard to the plug‑in, and selected a string ensemble patch within it. I then loaded a second instance, allocated this to a different MIDI track and selected a choral patch. I could now click on either of the MIDI tracks and play the instance of the Laboratory connected to each. Moving on, I created a MIDI Group and attempted to play both instances of the Laboratory simultaneously. This worked perfectly, and I now had a luscious 'choir and strings' ensemble under my fingertips. Invoking Scenes on each, I also had access to two duo‑timbral synths with two, independent (but synchronised) rhythm sections. This was getting interesting. Six timbres and three rhythm sections proved to be even more so. As for eight (or 10, or 12...) timbres derived from surprisingly accurate imitations of Moogs, ARP 2600s, CS80s, Jupiter 8s and Prophets, whether split, layered or accessible as a complete multitimbral setup... well, I'm sure you get the picture. I even invoked the full V-series GUIs within these setups, and everything functioned as it should. This was good stuff.
Regarding the hardware itself, I mentioned to Arturia that a couple of the sliders and the mod‑wheel brushed very slightly against the case on the review keyboard. It wasn't a serious problem, and I doubt that many users would even have cared, but they immediately despatched another one to me. This was much better. On both units, I found the semi‑weighted keybed just a little too light for serious playing, but this was not because the action had changed significantly from the keybed that I complemented on the Factory keyboard. It was because my fingers and eyes have different expectations of a keyboard as wide as a Nord Wave's or a Waldorf XTk's rather than one that is clearly intended for use as a small USB MIDI controller.
To be fair, there is still room for improvement in the Laboratory and, in particular, I would like to see the MIDI channel assignment made more flexible in Scene mode. Furthermore, the review was not entirely without glitches, but these were either harmless (such as the 'amazing but easily resolved disappearing GUI trick' that I could perform at will when I had multiple instances running in DP7) or could be prevented by avoiding arcane ways of doing things. (When all else failed, as it did on only one occasion, a suggestion from Arturia's support people quickly identified and resolved the problem.) But these are minor niggles. The laboratory does what it promises, and in general does it very well indeed.
For players who love the sounds of classic analogue synths but have no desire to learn how to wring the best out of complex control panels, the Analogue Experience series, with its huge selection of high quality, easily accessible, and tweakable VA sounds, remains unparalleled. Moreover, within this series, the Laboratory — with its enhanced hardware, scenes and rhythms — is very clearly the pick of the bunch.
But it's more than that. When I concluded my review of the Player and Factory I wrote, "Let's be clear, these are no über‑synths that allow you to create outrageous, never‑heard‑before sounds.” Sure, if you don't own any of Arturia's V-series soft synths, this remains true but, with the synths present, the Laboratory also becomes a powerful librarian and editor that centralises access and control over all of the Arturia synths loaded onto your computer. So I now have the answer to the question that I posed at the start of this review. Is there room above the Factory for a bigger and better 'Experience'? Yes, there is.
Other than the earlier Analogue Experience products, the only previous soft synth supplied with multiple synth models and a dedicated keyboard was, as far as I am aware, the original version of Korg's Legacy Collection. Currently, therefore, the Analogue Experience is unique. What's more, the only other semi‑preset soft synth that allows you to invoke a selection of more powerful soft synths to edit its wide range of ready‑for‑use patches is... well, I can't think of one.
Nowhere have I found a table that summarises the major differences between the three AE products. So I created this one:
|>Number of preset sounds||>1000||>3500||>3500|
|>Sound selection filters||>Instrument Type||>Instrument Type Characteristics||>Instrument Type Characteristics|
|>Editing capabilities||>Filter LFO ADSR||>Filter LFO ADSR Four x Key Parameters Chorus & Delay mix||>Filter LFO Two x ADSR Four x Key Parameters Chorus & Delay mix Four pads|
|>In‑depth editing||>No||>No||>Yes, if the original 'V' synths are present|
|>Scenes||>No||>No||>200, offering split/layer/duo modes, rhythm sounds and loops, and arpeggios|