Koblo Vibra 9000

Software Synth

Published in SOS December 1998
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Reviews : Software: ALL

Derek Johnson and Debbie Poyser explore a well-specified virtual monosynth from newcomers Koblo.

Good stuff seems to come out of Scandinavia: IKEA, The Cardigans, Propellerheads (creators of the superb Rebirth RB338), the Nobel Prize, Pippi Longstocking, Abba, TC Electronic (makers of top-quality signal processors such as the Finaliser and the Fireworx), Hedy Lamarr, The Moomins, Clavia (source of the excellent Nord series of virtual analogue synths), Ingmar Bergman, Ingrid Bergman... and now Vibra 9000.

Danish company Koblo are hoping to add an extra sheen to Scandinavia's hi-tech music reputation with their small family of software synthesizers. Vibra 9000, a monophonic virtual analogue synth, is currently top of the Koblo heap, but the company have ambitious plans for the future. Their two founders, Emil Tin and Max Grønlund, started out by spending three years developing a "visual real-time programming language", called Tokyo. It's Tokyo which has provided the basis for development of the Vibra family of software synths, and the language/operating system itself will be released next year for other developers to use. Other Koblo planned products include drum and percussion synths, sampling and hard disk playback synths, mixing consoles, effects processors, multitrack hard disk recorders, testing and measuring instruments, and step and pattern-based MIDI sequencers -- all in software, of course, and all running within the Tokyo operating system. Meanwhile, Vibra 9000 is in constant development and is currently standing at v1.5.1.

Green Screen

Vibra 9000 makes an impression the second it appears on the Mac's screen (it won't be appearing on PC screens until early 1999). The reason should be clear from the accompanying screenshot: it's luminously green, with touches of high-contrast red and white here and there. The graphics are sculptured, the knobs look like little green frogs' eyes, and the result is very individual and rather cool, which is always a bonus with software.

KOBLO VIBRA 9000 £99
pros
Fully featured analogue-style monosynth.
Varied and convincing sonic potential.
Great graphic design.
Includes arpeggiator.
Reasonable price.
cons
Needs fast computer for best results.
Currently requires OMS to integrate with other software, which may not suit everyone.
summary
An excellent analogue monosynth emulation from a promising new independent software house.

The really important thing, though, is the spec, and as a monosynth Vibra 9000 doesn't disappoint. It's a two-oscillator job, with a multi-mode filter section, three envelope generators, two LFOs, an arpeggiator, and, of course, a full MIDI spec. Vibra 9000 can be played and controlled remotely by MIDI hardware or software, using OMS (the Opcode-developed Open Music System) as an intermediary. To interface Vibra with software running on your computer it's necessary to create a dedicated IAC (Inter-Application Communications) buss within OMS; this provides the control and sync pipeline to other OMS-compatible software. Programming and tweaking is done with the mouse, using the on-screen knobs and switches, and every knob responds to its own preset MIDI controller. The program is ideal for operation via a software mixer map or hardware MIDI control surface; our recent review of Kenton's new Control Freak MIDI control unit (SOS November 1998) used Vibra 9000 in a step-by-step example illustrating this latter option.

Around 75 preset sounds come with the software and, obviously, the number of edits that can be saved is unlimited, which is one distinct advantage of running a computer-based synth. Though it's not immediately obvious how, Vibra 9000 patches can be selected over MIDI, using Program Change commands. At present, patches are numbered according to their alpabetical order, so if you save a new patch it'll upset the numbering of patches following it. Koblo are planning improvements in this area, including the provision of Bank Select commands.

Plans are also afoot to build in support for various PCI audio cards: Sound Manager support is already available, a Digidesign Direct I/O driver is being added to v1.6, and Koblo are working on Audiowerk8 support. They also plan a Cubase VST plug-in, which will link Vibra 9000 to any software that supports the VST plug-in format.

A nice feature is that the software's output can be saved as an audio file in SDII format, so multiple arpeggiated parts, for example, could be imported into a MIDI + Audio sequencer and layered. This option could also be useful if your Mac isn't powerful enough for the software to be played via MIDI without delays. While we're on this subject, it should be pointed out that Vibra 9000 does need a pretty powerful machine (especially to run at the same time as a sequencer). When we contacted Koblo to mention the delay we were experiencing between hitting a key on a connected MIDI keyboard and the Vibra 9000 sound triggering, their response was that our 250MHz, 6500 Power Mac was too slow, and that the synth runs fine on a G3. According to Koblo, it's not a MIDI problem, but a Mac/Sound Manager latency problem, and they point out that once they have drivers in place for specific soundcards, latency should cease to be troublesome.

  Vibra 6000  
  Vibra 6000 is a single-oscillator synth that should be even cheaper than 9000 (price yet to be finalised). The oscillator has its own EG, as does the filter, which is cut down but still pretty good, with controls for cutoff frequency, resonance and velocity-sensitivity, plus switches for high-pass, band-pass and low-pass operation (all three can be used simultaneously). The arpeggiator is identical to the 9000's, MIDI knob control and SDII export are provided, and there are Volume, Pan, Portamento and Bend Range controls. Vibra 6000 also offers a choice of stereo or mono operation, with the mono option requiring just half the DSP load of the stereo.

Limited demos of Tokyo and the Vibra synths are available on the Koblo web site (www.koblo.com). You can also download the even more miniature Vibra 1000, which is totally free. The 1000's arpeggiator is the same, but its oscillator and filter are even more simple -- a choice of three waveforms with octave setting and a decay parameter for the former, and just cutoff frequency, envelope amount, attack and decay knobs for the latter.

 

On paper, Vibra 9000 is a stereo synth: everything is doubled -- oscillators, filters, the lot -- and the doubled oscillators are slightly detuned for "a fat sound". In practice, the audible result is of a wide stereo image over which the user has little control. A pan control moves the entire sound to the left or right of the stereo field, but that's it.

Going In Deep

What you see in Vibra 9000 is pretty much what you get. All activity is conducted on one main page, which is divided into clearly-labelled sections -- Osc (oscillator), Env (envelope), Filter, LFO, Modulation, Arpeggio, and Global. Let's take a look at those in more detail:

Osc: each of the two oscillators has the same choice of waveforms, namely sawtooth, square, triangle, sine and noise. Each also has an Octave Range (transpose) knob to set a range of -5 to +5 octaves. From here on, the two oscillators differ, in that Oscillator 1 also features controls for Amplitude Modulation, where the pitch of Oscillator 2 modulates the amplitude of Oscillator 1, and Frequency Modulation (FM), where Oscillator 2 modulates the frequency of Oscillator 1. The result of the latter, as you might expect, sounds very 'FM', but can be driven to give quasi-ring modulation effects. Oscillator 2 has two additional controls: the first of these is a Keytrack knob, which at one extreme prevents Oscillator 2 from responding to keyboard pitch, causing it to play instead at a fixed pitch, and at the other extreme allows it to respond fully to keyboard pitch, with a range of response in between. The second control is a Semitone Offset knob that transposes Oscillator 2 by up to an octave in semitone steps. There's also an overall oscillator Mix control and a Detune control, for setting up the relative levels of oscillators and detuning them against each other.

Filter: Vibra 9000 offers five filter types (2-pole, 4-pole, 2+2-pole, self-oscillating comb filter, and second comb filter with negative feedback). There are also three filter characteristics -- Low-pass, Band-pass and High-pass -- which can all be used at the same time, and balanced with Amount knobs, to allow the creation of a slightly out-of-the-ordinary filter effect. Controls are provided for Cutoff Frequency, Resonance, Keytracking and Separation. This last option comes into play when working with the 4-pole and 2+2-pole filters: each comprises two pairs of 2-pole filters, the former connected serially and the latter arranged in parallel. Both sets of filters have their own cutoff frequency; the Separation control alters the difference between the two cutoff frequencies, and can be used to create vocal-like timbres.

Env: the three envelope generators are standard ADSR (Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release) types, with adjustable velocity-sensitivity for intensifying or reducing the effect of the envelope on a sound, and an inverse envelope option.

LFO: two Low-Frequency Oscillators each have a choice of six waveforms (rising sawtooth, falling sawtooth, triangle, square, sine and noise) and a rate (speed) control, with an optional simple attack/decay envelope.

Modulation: this is an 8-way matrix where modulation Sources -- the envelope generators, LFOs and a handful of MIDI data (mod wheel, aftertouch, note and velocity) -- can be assigned to Destinations such as various synth parameters and other Sources. Destinations include the amplitude of either or both oscillators and the pitch of either or both oscillators (for instant Pitch EG effects, using an EG as a Source), as well as parameters such as Pan, Filter Cutoff, Resonance and Separation,
Low-pass, High-pass and Band-pass filter amounts, FM and AM values and the rates of both LFOs. The use of other Sources as Destinations allows some pretty complex cross-modulation patches -- à la Sequential Pro 1 -- to be set up.

  Other Mac Software Synths  
  Bitheadz Retro AS1: £150. Contact Turnkey +44 (0)171 379 5148.
Syd, by Jim Bumgardner: Freeware. Go to www.jbum.com/jbum/ or www.harmony-central.com/Software/Mac/
Integral Productions OutOfPhase: Freeware. Go to www.harmony-central.com/Software/Mac/
Grainwave 2, by Michael Berry: US$40 shareware. Go to www.harmony-central.com/Software/Mac/
Steinberg ReBirth RB338: £149. Contact Arbiter +44 (0)181 202 1199.
 

Arpeggiator: a simple control set creates quite complex arpeggiations. There are two pattern knobs: Pattern 1 controls the order of played notes in each octave transposition -- rising, falling or rising/falling -- and Pattern 2 controls the order of octave transposition -- again, rising, falling or rising/falling. The Rhythm control selects a velocity-based rhythm pattern; there are 16 patterns, each 16 steps long, but as yet no user pattern definition. Likewise, there are 16 preset 'Slide' patterns, for TB303-like portamento effects. A Tempo control provides a range of 0-300bpm, although the arpeggiator can of course be clocked to incoming MIDI sync (set the tempo to 0 for this option), via OMS. Finally, the Range control transposes arpeggations over up to eight octaves.

Global: this section presents information on the overall status of the synth, and also hosts global Volume, Pan, Tuning, Portamento and Bend-range controls. A virtual LED display shows the value of any knob being tweaked, together with its MIDI controller number, and there's a bargraph-style output level meter.

The Vibe

Soundwise, Vibra 9000 is more than satisfactory. It has a precise, almost clinical quality that is somewhat reminiscent of ARP's 2600 or Korg's MS20. It sounds analogue, certainly, but without the fuzzy, rounded edges of something like a Minimoog -- though this isn't to say that it lacks power or depth, or the ability to sound really wild. The 100 presets are a varied set, though there's a slight leaning towards techno-flavoured sounds. On the whole they give a decent idea of what the synth can do, and many make very good starting poin

"Vibra 9000 makes an impression the second it appears on the Mac's screen."
ts for your own programming. User-created patches, by the way, appear in a drop-down menu along with the factory presets. This menu is hierarchical, and presets can be grouped into folders, although the folders must, at present, be created and organised in the Finder rather than Vibra 9000.

While we're talking about programming, Vibra 9000 makes it about as easy as it can be. You can see and readily tweak everything, just as on a hardware analogue, making it simple for even those with no synthesis background at all to produce effective patches -- just tweak until you hear something you like. The user interface is friendly and instantly comprehensible, the main drawback being knob-tweaking with a mouse: only one synth parameter at a time can be altered. The only way around this is to use a hardware MIDI controller box, and now that Keyfax's Phat Boy is around at a reasonable £150 this may be a possibility for more people -- especially given that Vibra 9000 costs just £99. The effect of complex, multi-parameter alterations could also be achieved by recording knob tweaks in multiple passes into a sequencer.

In general, there are few problems with the user interface. At present it's still necessary to define your MIDI input device at the start of every session, but a Preferences file due in v1.6 should remedy this problem. Some users may not like OMS, preferring a direct link to their software; this may happen, but depends on input from developers of other software. The version reviewed also couldn't save output as an SDII file -- this was working fine in v1.3, but has gone AWOL in v1.5. According to Koblo, the facility is back on line in v1.6.

  System Requirements  
  Koblo specify a Power Mac running at 100MHz or higher with Mac OS 7.6.1 or higher, and OMS. However, as mentioned in the main text, our 250MHz machine was still a little sluggish for Vibra 9000, so the faster the Mac, the better.  
Playability is a nebulous concept: in the real world of hardware synths, it centres on such intangibles as the 'feel' of a keyboard, the responsiveness of control knobs, and so on. Here in the software world it's not such an issue, since the virtual Vibra 9000 is played from your main MIDI synth, and knobs tweaked via mouse or hardware MIDI controller. However, the sluggishness of the software's response on slower Power Macs may be infuriating for some -- definitely a point against on the playability front. Recording a Vibra 9000 part into a sequencer reveals the latency (especially when the part is being arpeggiated), but it can be remedied inside the sequencer by simply moving the whole Vibra 9000 track backwards until the notes play in sync with the rest of the sequence.

Wherever they appear, arpeggiators are fun, and Vibra 9000's is excellent, though it would have been nice to see some way of latching an arpeggiation and then transposing the result from the attached MIDI keyboard, in a similar fashion to Roland's SH101 and many other analogue synths. Koblo are apparently planning to add this feature to a future update. There is a 'Trigger' button in the global section, but this merely sends out a continuous middle C (great to have for testing sounds during programming, though).

Conclusion

Commercial software synthesis is still in its infancy, but is making great leaps with the increasing availability of powerful, fast computers. Vibra 9000, strictly speaking, is not the most comprehensive of the current crop of Mac-based software synths; that status would probably have to go to the polyphonic, multitimbral Bitheadz Retro AS1, reviewed in November's SOS, which also features built-in effects. However, Vibra 9000 is certainly among the hippest and most fun, reminiscent in some ways of Rebirth RB338 -- and it's around two-thirds the price of the AS1. It's a recipe for success, and should help Koblo to bring home the (Danish) bacon.

 information
£99 including VAT.
Turnkey
+44 (0)171 419 9999.
+44 (0)171 379 0093.
www.koblo.com

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