Spectrasonics' ambitious new sample–based power synth explores the realms of psychoacoustics and organic synthesis while running on a Steam engine — what can this all mean? Let's find out...
Wouldn't it be nice to live in a universe where the unexpected always happened? A place where water flowed uphill, money grew on trees, fish wrote poetry and fireflies directed the traffic? An alternative reality in which football managers made surprising statements like, 'for the game with Surreal Madrid we'll be playing with 10 goalkeepers and a lone daffodil up front'? A brave new world where politicians kept their promises, drummers kept perfect time, rock guitarists played at reasonable volume and TV talent show judges talked sense?
Eric Persing lives in this universe. The founder of Spectrasonics has always created products which defy expectations, whether they be the eclectic world–music excursions of Supreme Beats and Heart Of Asia, the Distorted Reality series or the hip, funky swirling beats on Liquid Grooves and Ethno Techno. Persing's imaginative streak was always harnessed to musical practicality, as evidenced by the huge collection of instantly usable, bang–on–the–money grooves found in Metamorphosis, Retrofunk and Backbeat. The quest to combine the unpredictable with the highly functional culminated in the first quarter of 2003 with the popular trio of virtual instruments Stylus, Trilogy and Atmosphere. Though all three have helped many a record into the charts, the sample–based Atmosphere synth seems to have made the biggest impression (possibly because prior to its release such lush, layered pads were the exclusive preserve of owners of several expensive keyboards and a posh reverb unit).
After five years topping the pops, Atmosphere has finally been discontinued and replaced by a far more ambitious instrument. Its name is (cue drum roll...) Omnisphere. Things have moved on since Atmosphere's heyday, and while Paul White's assessment of its 3.7GB sample database as "vast" was a fair comment at the time, Omnisphere's 42GB core library rather puts it in the shade. This 1000 percent increase in sonic firepower is merely one indicator of the new synth's superiority.
Spectrasonics have not left users out in the cold: Atmosphere owners wishing to buy Omnisphere are entitled to a significant discount which grows bigger if they also own Trilogy and Stylus. To further ease the pain of upgrading, Omnisphere incorporates Atmosphere's entire sample library as well as painstakingly recreated versions of all its factory patches. The only snag is that due to its new design, Omnisphere can't import Atmosphere user patches; to continue using those you have to either manually recreate them in Omnisphere, or simply carry on using Atmosphere (which will happily run alongside Omnisphere inside a project). Either way, Spectrasonics advise users to keep Atmosphere installed to recall older projects.
While Atmosphere, Stylus & Trilogy ran on a customised version of an audio player licensed from the French company UVI, Omnisphere is powered exclusively by Spectrasonics' all–new, ironically named Steam engine. This move towards proprietary player software mirrors a pan–industry trend which arose partly as a response to the rife piracy of libraries issued in unprotected third–party sampler formats such as the now–defunct Gigastudio. The Steam engine retains the earlier player's ease of use and benefits from a similar clear, intuitive design, but it also contains amazing new hidden depths and a host of programming subtleties which will delight dedicated synth tweakheads.
One limitation is that Omnisphere will not operate as a stand–alone instrument on your desktop — you have to run it as a plug–in inside a VST 2.4, RTAS or Audio Units host. For most people that will mean using it as a plug–in inside a sequencer. However, if you prefer to install Omnisphere on a different computer from the one which houses your sequencing software, a number of inexpensive VST hosts are available which can run multiple software instruments and samplers. (I often use Forte on my PC for this purpose.) Omnisphere runs on Mac OS 10.4.9 or higher and Windows XP SP2 / Vista, and requires a minimum of 2GB of RAM and 50GB free hard drive space for the samples. Spectrasonics recommend a minimum processor speed of 2GHz for Macs and 3GHz for PCs, and Intel Macs and G5 Power PCs are both supported.
Omnisphere ships on six double–layer DVDs in a blue cardboard box which can be used as a novelty hat once the contents have been safely removed. Having installed the player software and sound library (which took about 90 minutes) onto my Mac's external Firewire drive, I was ready to authorise Omnisphere. The procedure is straightforward: first open it as a plug–in inside your sequencer (in my case, Logic 7), then follow a simple on-line challenge–and–response routine at Spectrasonic's web site which asks for your serial number and then issues an authorisation code. All this worked without a hitch, and within minutes I was theoretically ready to rock. However, the rocking had to wait while I downloaded a patch library update which fixed a loading fault in the DVD version. Ho hum, such is modern life...
Though Omnisphere has powers well beyond those of the average 'rompler', its sound generation is based on the familiar double whammy of synthesis and sample playback. The synth section's basic building blocks are real–time DSP oscillator waveforms which faithfully emulate those of analogue synths. The sample department houses a gigantic collection of 2740 multi–sounds which Spectrasonics call 'Sound Sources'. Many of these are full multisampled instruments in their own right — orchestral string ensembles, electric and acoustic guitars, vintage keyboards (Rhodes electric piano, Mellotron, Optigan), old organs (Hammond, Farfisa, Vox Continental), voices, choirs and various acoustic and world instruments — while others are multisamples of the raw waveforms of classic synths like the Prophet 5, Yamaha CS80, Roland Jupiter 8, Oberheim OB8 and PPG Wave.
In addition, there are a large number of complex, evolving textures, beds and atmospheric sound effects. Though some samples are taken from the Spectrasonics sound libraries Symphony Of Voices, Vocal Planet, Hans Zimmer Guitars, Bizarre Guitar and Distorted Reality, the vast majority were specially created for Omnisphere. Ranging from the serene to the extremely violent, some of these imaginatively chosen sound sources are exotic to the point of being unclassifiable, but they're none the less usable for that.
An Omnisphere patch contains two layers, each of which can contain either a synth oscillator or a sample–based sound. Up to eight patches can be combined in a multitimbral 'multi'. Stack mode allows you to layer or split multiple parts and add crossfades, while Live mode enables players to instantly switch between or stack up to eight patches via program changes, CC commands or keyswitches. Perhaps the biggest godsend of Live mode is that the sound doesn't cut off when you change a patch — release trails and reverb decays continue uninterrupted through patch changes, and you can even hold down a note on Patch 1 while switching to Patch 2. This is a terrific asset for performers.
There are currently 2019 factory patches (1027 of which are the original Atmosphere patches) and 144 factory multis, with the prospect of more to come from Spectrasonics. You can save limitless numbers of your own patches and multis. The only thing to watch out for when first saving a patch is that Omnisphere may ask you to create a user sub–folder on your hard drive — if this happens, you will have to spend a minute or two working out where the program stores its data on your drive so you can create a sub–folder in the same location!
As every keyboard player knows, auditioning 2019 patches and 2740 samples in one sitting isn't really feasible, especially if the pubs happen to be open at the time. To help navigate its lists, Omnisphere offers separate directories for Atmosphere, Omnisphere and user sounds. It also has three built–in browsers which can filter items by category. You can narrow the search further by selecting up to three extra keywords: having opened the patch browser and selected the 'keyboards' category, you can search by 'type' (electric pianos, organs and so on), 'genre' (ambient, high energy, film, old school) and 'complexity' (low, medium and high) and end up with a shortlist of possible patches which meet the selected criteria. Alternatively, if you want to see every single one of the available patches, simply set the main category to 'all'.
The various category names (aka tags) applied to a patch or multi can be edited by users, so you can add your own search terms and create your own lists of favourites. You can also append personalised text notes, for example: 'Don't play this patch when grandma is in the room'. Spectrasonics supply copious notes on the origins and suggested usage of their sounds. They also incorporated images for each one, so when you select the multisample 'Stylophone' you will see a colour photo of Rolf Harris, which I trust will not dampen your mood.
My only criticism of the patch browser is that its large window completely obscures the STEAM player's controls and can't be budged out of the way. I therefore found myself continually opening the browser to load a patch, shutting it to fiddle with the controls, opening it again to load a new patch, and so on. I feel a movable window would be a lot more convenient.
A good idea of the sonic character of Omnisphere's enormously diverse sound canvas can be gleaned from Eric Persing's account of how the new samples were put together. His goal was "to create new sounds that have never been heard before", and though manufacturers always say the same thing of their new workstation, sample library or electric banjo, Spectrasonic's creative approach to sampling certainly shows a healthy commitment to sonic innovation.
An international team of sound designers were given the brief of creating sounds from acoustic sources, using no plug–ins or synths. One interesting angle was to focus on the hidden frequencies of a familiar sound; for example, the dull clink of a tapped light bulb conceals a tiny, inaudible rattle made by the bulb's tungsten filament. After many stages of enhancement this micro–sound was transformed into a metallic, slightly wheezy pad sound which mutates into gigantic spacious chimes when played down a few octaves. The makers describe this uncovering of 'the sound within the sound' as 'psychoacoustic' sampling (a term used to describe the study of the perception of sound). While innately suspicious of industry buzzwords, I have to admit that the organic approach has certainly yielded some interesting results! The quest to avoid the obvious has produced many unusual samples: steel drums and piano recorded in a cathedral, an awesome–sounding sawtooth wave derived from a 20,000 Volt Tesla coil, a Tibetan singing bowl with an orange rolling around inside, a table full of children's toys, a Yamaha grand piano played with an E–bow and so on. Most dangerous of them all was the burning piano: for reasons best known to himself, sound designer Diego Stocco sampled a piano which he had just set on fire, thereby making himself a folk hero to legions of teenage boys. The Italian madman explains: "It was a nice day, you know, just a little bit of wind, and I, er, decided to burn my piano." (Kids, don't try this at home.) All I can say is, give that man a job at Steinway & Sons. I'll leave it you to imagine how a burning piano sounds, but the video of the event is pretty interesting.
The synthesis facilities on offer in Omnisphere are a programmer's dream. As mentioned earlier, both layers of a patch can have their own oscillator; the five basic oscillator waveforms are triangle and sine waves, two types of 'sawsquare' whose shape can be adjusted to anything from a sawtooth to a square wave via all points in between, and good old noise (continuously variable between white and pink types — why no turquoise?). These waveforms have shape and 'symmetry' (equating to pulse width) controls. I was hoping that the pulse width could be made so narrow that the audio disappears altogether (a useful facility for certain esoteric synth programming techniques), but have to settle for it being fairly thin at its most extreme setting.
The instrument's oscillator sync is an improvement on old two–oscillator synths — on those, sync was achieved by slaving one oscillator to the other, resulting in the loss of one as a master oscillator. Omnisphere gets round this limitation by providing a hidden, dedicated slave oscillator for sync purposes. I also feel duly obliged to mention the obligatory 'analogue' control which introduces the oscillator tuning deviations which were, frankly, the curse of old synths. (Use sparingly.) A 'phase' control offsets the start point of one oscillator against that of the other, which subtly enriches the waveform.
There are two filters, which can operate in series or in parallel — both have 17 possible types (including low-pass, high–pass, band–pass, notch and 'metal pipe'). Eric Persing being a keen fan of vintage synths, it comes as no surprise that the filters sound warm and fat and generate no digital 'stepping' when the cutoff is adjusted. Some filter types can self-oscillate, but (unlike on my old Prophet 5) the oscillation occurs at a civilised volume, thus safeguarding the hearing of future generations. Once you've adjusted the filter(s) to your satisfaction, the settings can be saved and recalled.
You can creatively mess up the sound of the oscillators by activating ring modulation (beloved of certain '70s jazz–rock keyboardists) and/or frequency modulation: both are useful sources of clangorous, DX7–style timbres, and the latter can also be applied to Omnisphere's samples. If pushed to the limit, ring modulation can produce some great '50s sci–fi effects. A 'wave shaper' is also on hand to distort the waveforms in various musically pleasing ways. If you want to introduce vibrato, tremolo, automated filter sweeps and auto–pan effects (or as we call them in the trade, wobble, shudder, wah-wah and shimmer), each patch has six independent syncable LFOs with a choice of nine waveforms.
A powerful unison mode instantly transforms a single–oscillator sound into a massive stereo sonic event. 'Harmonia' is an alternative, powerful multi–voice mode which allows you to stack up to four extra oscillators per patch layer — each one has its own level, tuning and pan settings. For the more adventurous, 'granular synthesis' can be applied to the samples (but not to oscillators). The manual describes this as "a powerful method of fragmenting pieces of sound into very small bits of audio called 'grains'. It's a useful technique for everything from evolving soundscapes to edgy, gritty glitchiness." That sounds exciting, but I must confess my initial attempts just made everything sound out of tune. Oh well, back to the drawing board...
Many musicians have a negative view of envelopes, seeing them only as drab brown paper containers that gas bills arrive in. However, envelopes are a source of joy for serious synth programmers, and Omnisphere's multiple envelopes will make that sector of the musical community very happy. In an Omnisphere patch, each layer has its own amplitude and filter envelopes. There are also four additional 'mod envelopes' which affect the whole patch. Any of these can be infinitely adjusted by users on a very cool–looking 'envelopes zoom' page — here you can add extra points to the envelope, re–model its curve shapes and alter its timing response.
If you check out the videos at www.spectrasonics.net/omnisphere_teaser/explore.html you'll hear (and see) how mod envelopes can turn a regular sustained synth sound into something irresistibly funky. Spectrasonics have supplied a large number of 'rhythmic envelopes' for this purpose, Diego Stocco's 'Plastic Boy Groove' being one of the outstanding specimens. I'm no dancing fool, but I have to say these wicked syncopated synth beats certainly set my toes twitching and my nostrils flaring. If you fancy a more random approach, constantly shifting 'chaos envelopes' generate unpredictable rhythmic results. The current version of the manual has no information on envelopes, but there's an excellent video tutorial at http://support.spectrasonics.net/instruments/omnisphere–tutorial–videos.php.
Omnisphere's modulation facilities are so extensive that the company dreamed up a special name for them: Flex–Mod. (Hmm, needs some work.) Basically, you can modulate just about anything with just about anything else: 28 possible modulation sources (LFO's, velocity, pitch wheel, aftertouch, random, mod envelopes, and so on) can be applied to any one of over 60 modulation targets, including coarse pitch, unison detune, sample timbre, oscillator symmetry (useful for pulse width modulation effects), filter cutoff, pan, and so on. Twenty-four simultaneous modulation routings are available per patch — you can see and edit them all in the 'mod matrix zoom' window.
A good example of modulation at work is the patch 'Workin' The Synthetic', which adds seven modulation sources to a huge–sounding distorted solo synth. The combination of modulators constantly changes its pitch and timbre, producing a driving, aggressive, hard–edged Nine Inch Nails–style riff. Though such sounds are somewhat labour–intensive to program, they're instantly gratifying to play.
As I hope I've indicated, Omnisphere can legitimately be seen as a fully fledged synth with deep programming facilities and also as an enormously diverse, atmospheric and entertaining sample library. The fact that it manages to be both at once is very cool indeed. The ability to import one's own samples would be the icing on the cake — the makers realise how attractive that would be, and say they haven't ruled it out for the future.
I'm happy to say that this product more than upholds Spectrasonics' fine tradition of providing beautiful, creative, practical and playable sounds. I expect it will win admirers for years to come; if you're thinking of buying it I suggest you don't hang about, as the rest of your allotted three score years and 10 may not be enough to explore all of the wonderful sounds lurking under its bonnet.
Some of the unique sound sources created for Omnisphere include a machine made out of a typewriter and metal guitar strings — built by Diego 'I Burned My Piano' Stocco, it sounds uncannily similar to the plucked string sound manipulated by BBC Radiophonic composer Delia Derbyshire to create the iconic bass line of the original Doctor Who theme music. The keen arsonist also constructed a mad contraption consisting of a clothes–drying rack connected to two acoustic guitars: when played with a cello bow, the rack's strings make a variety of noises which veer alarmingly between juddering double bass arco notes and set–your–teeth–on–edge, high–pitched bowed cymbal screeches. Heavy processing was used to remove the front end of the noise, revealing a pleasant timbre which, against all the odds, sounds like a mellow–toned Caribbean steel drum. This too reminded me of Delia Derbyshire's pioneering work — especially her mid-'60s 'Blue Veils & Golden Sands' piece which was created by recording a struck metal lampshade, cutting off its sharp attack, amplifying the resonance and replicating its complex harmonics with oscillator tones. Is Omnisphere's sampling approach a case of 'into the future with the past'? Eric Persing seems to think so, as he cites the techniques used by American experimentalists Harry Partch and John Cage as influences on the project.
Here are some of the Omnisphere factory sounds that caught my ear...
Sound Design & Texture Patches
* Atmosphere library patch.
Eric Persing has been messing around with arpeggiators since the first one appeared on a Roland Jupiter 4 keyboard. His inspiration for Omnisphere's arpeggiator appears to be the Roland TR808, which allowed users to program in rhythm patterns of up to 32 steps. Though that might appear little restricted, the ability to tie notes together and change their octave range, velocity, duration and degree of swing gives the new arpeggiator a lot of musical power. Stylus users will be pleased to find that its MIDI files can be dragged and dropped into Omnisphere's arpeggiator — the arpeggiated pattern will then conform itself to the beat of the Stylus groove, thus avoiding the kind of 'train wreck' which occurs when you try to play a straight 16s 4/4 keyboard pattern over a 12/8 drum beat. This extremely handy facility is known as 'groove lock'. When you consider that an Omnisphere multi can hold eight patches, each with its own dedicated arpeggiator, you begin to get an idea of how musically rich and complex this instrument can be.
If I had more space, I'd wax lyrical about Omnisphere's superb effects rack, which contains 33 super emulations of mouth–watering vintage gear such as tube limiters, compressors, parametric EQ, phasers, flangers, chorus units, delays, reverbs, amp simulators and the like. These effects may tax your computer's CPU, but they're worth the strain.