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Spectrasonics Omnisphere 1.5

Software Synthesizer
Published May 2011
By Paul Nagle

Spectrasonics bring yet more goodies to the Omnisphere party, aiming to make their highly acclaimed synth even better.

The Orb as it appears from within Omnisphere. Click the ball (or touch the surface with your finger if using Omni TR) and then spin it around the circle to generate timbral changes.The Orb as it appears from within Omnisphere. Click the ball (or touch the surface with your finger if using Omni TR) and then spin it around the circle to generate timbral changes.

Spectrasonics' Omnisphere is a multitimbral virtual instrument whose patches are based on a 40GB collection of varied, often remarkable audio recordings, paired with a powerful DSP synthesizer. Individual patches consist of two layers, each with extensive timbral and modulation capabilities, effects and filters. That's over‑simplifying things a tad, though, and to get a better appreciation, I recommend a leisurely read of the December 2008 SOS review (/sos/dec08/articles/spectrasonicsomnisphere.htm).

In a world where you rarely get owt for nowt, this free update was keenly anticipated. Thanks to enticing Youtube demos of a mysterious "Orb” and details of an iPad application, plus rumours of a host of new patches, we users watched our calendars avidly until the Promised Day in February. When it appeared, 1.5 was followed in rapid succession by two further bug‑fixing updates, so the version discussed here is actually 1.5.2.

Omni Potent

It's surprisingly tough to rank the update's content in order of preference, so I'll start with the most generous: the addition of 780 extra patches, pushing Omnisphere's database beyond the 5000 mark! As the synth's 'STEAM' engine has been boosted (in the oscillator department) by this upgrade, many new patches elect to demonstrate this rather than drawing from the core sample library.

Identifying the members of the latest collection is as simple as typing '1.5' into the patch browser's search box. Conscious that entire afternoons are lost in this way, for brevity's sake I'll confine my observations to just a few instant favourites:

Machine Of Malice: This is a chugging patch layering a 'Brutal Moog' sample with a Harmonia‑rich noise sequence. Put simply, Harmonia is a process that multiplies an oscillator up to four times; here it boosts both of the patch's layers, giving, in effect, 10 oscillators — or a throbbing backing‑track from one finger!

There Will Be Pain: A tense string patch in which members of the orchestra deviate from the path of conventional tuning as the Harmonia oscillators' levels and detunes are modulated. At a touch of the mod wheel, the atmosphere turns positively scary, thanks to the introduction of polyphonic bit‑crushing.

Whispers Of Doom: A drone of epic proportions, this is an ominous soundscape of unsettling groans and whooshes adrift in a dark sea of reverb.

Triplet Wobbler: uses no samples, just a layer of DSP oscillators with the Waveshaper's Crusher and Reducer both drafted in to create a full, hard‑edged wobble bass. The mod wheel controls wobble speed.

Ode To Gary: described as a tribute to Gary Numan, again using only the DSP oscillators, this rich polysynth patch is constructed out of detuned Harmonia oscillators, with further oscillators faded in by the mod wheel.

Complex evolving pads and psychoacoustic atmospherics, addictive arpeggios, every synth type known to man, acoustic and ethnic instruments, spooky choirs... you name it, there are new and stylish examples here. The best database of synth patches I've ever played just got even better.

The Orb

Granular Zoom: This page gathers all the parameters of Granular Synthesis around a central graphic that does a pretty decent job of representing the depth and density of the sample grains.Granular Zoom: This page gathers all the parameters of Granular Synthesis around a central graphic that does a pretty decent job of representing the depth and density of the sample grains.

Next up is the most innovative enhancement. On the face of it, the Orb is a circular control that induces tonal changes to any patch without making demands on the user in terms of understanding. If you don't like its transformations, or if you just want to check out some alternatives, the 'Dice' button shuffles the target parameters under the covers. You are never notified what is being selected for control, but clearly some intelligence is present to weed out unusable results. Although the Orb's motion can be controlled by a mouse, a track pad or other hardware controllers, it really comes alive for iPad owners, thanks to the free App, Omni TR.

Parking the iPad for a moment, the Orb's role is to deliver instant, controllable timbral variations from the heart of Omnisphere's STEAM engine. Its two controls — Angle and Radius — relate to the scenes of parameters and the intensity of the effect. The most dramatic changes occur furthest from the Orb's centre, and if the drama gets too much, the original sound may be restored at any time by hitting Clear.

As a simple means of patch customisation, the Orb proves to be addictive and instantly satisfying. Further adding to its appeal, a few seconds of the Orb's motion may be recorded into a patch, recalling fond memories of Yamaha's SY22 vector synth. The Orb helpfully turns red to show when a recording has been made; if you need more precise control, the movements can be automated in your DAW.

Having captured some Orb action, there are several choices for how its motion is replayed. Pick 'Legato' and recorded movements begin their cycle when the first note of a legato phrase is played. Keep playing legato and the recorded loop continues. Once all notes are released, it will start again when you play the next note. If you favour 'Song position', you can capture Orb movements relative to the bar position; these movements are then repeated independently of notes being played. Whenever you find a motion you like, it can be saved as part of the patch.

Some Orb features, such as inertia, are applicable to mouse or iPad only. Which probably means it's about time we looked at the latter and its multi‑touch, Star Trek‑type glass screen.

Omni TR 1.1

Harmonia Zoom: In this page, all four Harmonia oscillators are active and mirror the waveform of patch layer A, only with different transpositions. Elsewhere in the patch, each Harmonia level is modulated by an LFO, with another LFO modulating the Harmonia mix. The result is a swirly and magical tinkling bell patch.Harmonia Zoom: In this page, all four Harmonia oscillators are active and mirror the waveform of patch layer A, only with different transpositions. Elsewhere in the patch, each Harmonia level is modulated by an LFO, with another LFO modulating the Harmonia mix. The result is a swirly and magical tinkling bell patch.

As an iPad virgin, I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was fortunate enough to borrow one to try. I was doubly fortunate that Omni TR is a free download, and thus I could avoid feeding my credit card number to Apple's App Store. It'll probably get me in the end, though — I suspect that the 'i' in iPad really stands for inevitability!

It takes but a single ticked box within Omnisphere to say 'listen for Omni TR'. Then start the App on the iPad and hit 'connect'. If several instances of Omnisphere are running, you'll see a connection choice for each. When using Omnisphere multitimbrally (generally a more efficient way to use multiple patches), just one Omni TR connection can address every part. It all happens effortlessly and wirelessly, and I was encouraged by the speed of response between iPad and Omnisphere running on my Mac Pro host. Throughout the review period I did experience two or three random disconnections but generally the two‑way communication remained solid.

The app has four areas: Main, Orb, Controls and Jumbo, three of which are fairly standard views of Omnisphere's eight multitimbral parts. We've seen the Orb page in Omnisphere already, and here it's a tastefully‑shaded circular controller whose focus point — like a miniature billiard ball — follows your finger like an inquisitive kitten. Activate Inertia, twirl the ball around the circle and it rebounds or orbits before eventually coming to rest. You can whizz it around at a decent pace to achieve some quite frenzied tonal sweeps. Alternatively, switch off inertia and when you release the Orb, it stops and remains where it is. Needless to say, Omni TR beats 'Orb by mouse' as a user experience, even if you do occasionally wonder how they were able to avoid greasy finger-marks in Star Trek!

A depth slider is provided to set the overall depth of the effect, and the amount of inertia is set with the slider directly underneath. In order to concentrate on different motion recordings, I latched an arpeggio, then periodically hit 'Dice' to audition new parameters for control. Sometimes a sharp percussive pattern would morph into a drifting pad, or a synth‑bass pattern would be transformed into metallic tom‑toms for a portion of the orbit. Pressing Dice does tend to hook you into wondering just what it will do next, and it was interesting how many subtle variations were lined up, the Orb sweeping the filter one moment and hurtling through areas of lo‑fi modulation the next. If you layer several arpeggiating patches in Omnisphere's Live mode, your iPad is an incredibly fast tool for leaping from part to part, introducing changes with the Orb on each.

While the ball is in motion, you can jump to any of the other pages and do more stuff. On the Controls page, there are generously‑spaced sliders, grouped in fours, with which to tweak the Mixer, Filters, Envelopes, and so on. If you're especially dexterous, try getting all your fingers into play to control eight on‑screen sliders.

The Jumbo page is a large and friendly screen showing each multitimbral part or Live/Stack Mode layer, with bigger text that should prove very useful for those who take Omnisphere out to play. The Main page also shows the multitimbral parts and allows selection of individual patches or new multis, while keeping fingertip control of the volume of each.

Omni TR requires iOS 4.2 or above, and there are currently no versions in the pipeline for alternative platforms such as Google's Android. Anyone using Omisphere on Windows should also note that they must install 'Bonjour' from Apple.

Steaming On

With so many wild and unusual audio recordings provided as core samples (burning pianos anyone?) it's easy to forget the power of Omnisphere's STEAM engine. There isn't space to go over the myriad modulation routes, filter and effect choices, or even the versatile LFOs and envelopes. In this update, it's the oscillators that have received all the attention, their Waveshaper, Harmonia and Granular synthesis components gaining Zoom views to consolidate all the details into one screen.

The Waveshaper's new Crusher and Reducer modules are far more than lo‑fi bit‑crushers and sample rate reducers. They occur at the oscillator level, and their output is, therefore, polyphonic. The results are considerably richer and more complex than any blanket effect applied at the output stage would be, especially when the Force and Animation parameters are modulated.

Granular Synthesis has been expanded with a speed and position switch. This may not sound like much, but in practice it's like an alternate granular synthesis implementation, all existing parameters taking on new personalities. In the Granular Zoom page, you specify the behaviour of the sample grains, their directions of travel and whether they glide, or shoot instantly to their designated pitches. Granular Detune has a distinctive, rich flavour I'd have loved to modulate via velocity or an LFO. As yet, it doesn't appear in the modulation matrix but can be controlled directly via MIDI. This update led me deeper into Granular synthesis than I've been before; I particularly enjoyed the 'Granular Visualizer', an informative graphical representation of what's going on.

Finally, with independent modulation of the levels and fine-tuning of each oscillator, Harmonia becomes even more versatile for those in pursuit of lush, dense tones.

Summing Up

There are still a few enhancements to mention, such as the five-column browser in the database and the support for polyphonic aftertouch (for those of you lucky enough to possess one of these rare keyboards). Then there's the 'most recent' browser sort option — self‑explanatory, really — and 'clone part', which translates to faster setup of MIDI controllers over multiple Omnisphere parts. And last but not least: the points of the Modulation Envelope can now be snapped to semitones, making it an ideal tool for precise pitch modulation.

Ultimately, this upgrade is about the eye‑catching Orb and its iPad companion App. Even without an iPad, the Orb functionality kicks your patches into new tonal dimensions — dimensions you wouldn't enter otherwise. With Omni TR under your fingers, you can't avoid the feeling that you're experiencing a fresh slant on hands‑on control. I'm sure we're going to see much more of this sort of thing — and not only in the world of software instruments. Elsewhere, the expanded synthesis functions are much appreciated, as are the many classy new patches.

You might have noticed that I didn't try very hard to restrain my enthusiasm. This is not because I think Omnisphere is perfect and I have no wishes for version 2, but rather because it is the one instrument I can rely on when my inspiration needs a boost. It has, therefore, featured in every commercial track I've recorded over the last year. Then there's the not inconsequential matter that this update is free to existing owners, hopefully putting my 'gushing fanboy' approach into context. Quite simply, I can't recommend it enough.     

Published May 2011