Arturia's 'hybrid instrument' teams a custom keyboard with their massive synth patch-library plug-in. Is this the way forward for hardware/software integration?
Photo: Mark EwingUsing hardware controllers with software instruments is often a disappointing experience. The immediacy of hands-on control is disrupted by the mental gymnastics required to remember which controls are linked to which parameters. The solution offered by various recent products is to present a unified hardware and software interface, with the physical controls laid out in the same positions as their software counterparts. Thus Novation's Automap 2.0, NI's Kore, and now Arturia's Analog Factory Experience, constrain and organise controls within an on-screen layout that is mirrored in the accompanying hardware.
With the Analog Factory Experience, Arturia have taken their Analog Factory plug-in and built a keyboard that replicates the on-screen controls almost exactly, providing the clearest possible integration between the physical and virtual worlds. Does the scheme work? And does it leave the keyboard suitable for other applications?
The software-only version of Analog Factory was reviewed in SOS in January last year. John Walden praised the instrument's simplicity and wealth of fabulous analogue sounds, while cautioning that this is not a plug-in for those who prefer to program their own sounds from scratch. Analog Factory is a huge library of sounds from Arturia's 'V' series synths: ARP 2600V, Minimoog V, Moog Modular V, Prophet V and VS, CS80V and Jupiter 8V. In a similar way to NI's Kore 2 (reviewed in the March 2008 issue of SOS), Analog Factory's sounds are generated by the original synth engines, but the full interfaces are unavailable.
To use Analog Factory, you pick one of the 3500 presets and then tweak the sound using the available controls. Dedicated knobs are provided for filter cutoff and resonance, LFO rate and amount, master level, and chorus and delay mix. Four extra knobs are pre-assigned to key parameters in each patch. In addition, four sliders are dedicated to controlling the amplitude envelope.
Unveiling the keyboard was a really pleasant surprise. I have to admit that I expected something plasticky and toy-like (perhaps having Korg's Legacy in the back of my mind), but the Experience keyboard is a solidly constructed metal case with faux wooden end-cheeks. It really is a nice-looking bit of kit, and appeared right at home in front of my iMac. No power adaptor is supplied, but the unit can draw power from its USB connection.
The keyboard features full-sized, semi-weighted keys spanning two and a half octaves from F2 to C5. The keys are not the best, being a bit wobbly, and twanging like a ruler when released, but they feel more 'proper' than your typical budget keyboard controller. All the knobs bar the Level/Search control are smooth-turning continuous rotaries, designed to pick up controls from their current on-screen position (more on this in a moment). The Level/Search knob is 'clicky' when turned (optimised for scrolling through a list) and doubles as a button when pressed.
Before you can use Analog Factory, you need to authorise it via the Syncrosoft eLicenser system. Syncrosoft's authorisation procedure is not exactly intuitive, and there are inadequate instructions in the manual. Luckily, Arturia have quickly realised this and have placed a link to an installation guide on the front page of their web site. After running the License Control Centre utility, you enter your serial number, then download an authorisation key. The key can either be held on a Syncrosoft USB dongle (providing portability between computers) or can be installed on a specific computer without a hardware dongle.
AF's software interface is split into two halves, with the bottom half showing an almost exact image of the hardware controller. The top half of the plug-in window houses the preset manager. To the left of this LCD-like display is the Attributes grid, used to search for patches. In the middle is the presets list, while the area on the right displays information about the current patch, including a line drawing of the instrument used in the patch.
The Level/Search knob, with its integral button, is used to scroll through the Attributes grid and select various combinations of Instrument, Type, and Characteristic. Patches that match any of the selected attributes are shown in the list. Intuitively, I expected to be able to re-focus the knob to scroll through the patch list, but you can only step through the patches with the plus and minus buttons. A dedicated Shift button toggles these buttons between octave banking and preset selection. The consequence of this puzzling double-up of functionality was that when browsing and auditioning sounds, I found I constantly had to switch, and often forgot which state the buttons were in. Similarly, the Search knob doubles up as the master level control: not the best idea, as you can inadvertently send the level through the roof when trying to scroll down the attributes list. In the end, I found I reverted to the mouse for patch searching and selection, which I chalk up as a failure for the hardware integration.
Luckily, most other aspects of the hardware control work well. Because the physical controls are laid out in the same way as the software, controlling Analog Factory is a doddle. Having dedicated controls for particular functions like filter cutoff, with printed labels on the control panel, adds further to the simplicity. The exception is the four Key Parameter knobs, whose functions change from patch to patch, with mappings determined by the preset's author. Unfortunately, there is no display to tell you what the knobs do in the current patch, even when you move them. If you click any of these controls with the mouse, a speech-bubble-style display shows you the mapping. But the whole point is to not use the mouse! Hopefully this can be improved in a future version.
Given the number of available controls, the fixed assignments that have been chosen are probably about right. You inevitably want more, and I would probably have gone for a dedicated filter envelope amount knob in preference to the LFO controls. Having said that, the LFO rate knob is often drafted in usefully to control the tempo of sequenced or arpeggiated patches. Another feature I'd have really appreciated is the ability to use the Shift key to toggle the envelope controls between amplitude and filter.
The problem with building a controller keyboard dedicated to one piece of software is that it may fall down as a general-purpose controller. I was keen to find out how the Analog Factory Experience keyboard worked with other software, especially as it looks so much nicer on my desk than my regular keyboard! Luckily, there's nothing particularly custom about the layout of controls on the AFE keyboard, with its single row of knobs and single row of buttons. A quick check with Snoize's MIDI Monitor utility revealed that the dedicated controls (filter, LFO, effects mix and envelope) all transmit the standard MIDI Continuous Controller values reserved for these parameters. Also, all the buttons transmit momentary CC messages on general-purpose channels, so the whole unit can be re-mapped to any software that can respond to CCs.
The most significant factor for me, however, will be whether or not templates or codecs get created for the all-important Reason and Live, allowing the the AFE keyboard to hook into the sophisticated, fluid, remote technologies in these packages. One concern I have is that there is going to be a firmware update to allow the rotaries to work as relative controllers when Analog Factory is used as a plug-in. Right now, the knobs transmit absolute CC values, but I imagine this will have to change with the firmware update. We'll have to wait and see if this affects the AFE's ease of use as a generic MIDI controller.
The AFE's knobs are continuous rotaries, designed to pick up on-screen parameters from their current position. Obviously, the envelope sliders cannot do this, so (in the stand-alone version at least) the screen shows 'ghost' controls that indicate the current position of the physical controls. The amp envelope settings in the patch do not follow the controller until you 'pick them up' by moving the control to match the on-screen setting. This avoids sudden jumps when moving controls.
Unfortunately, there is a significant problem in the current version that means the smooth pick-up behaviour of the rotaries and envelope controls does not work when one is using Analog Factory as a plug-in. Instead, the controls are sending absolute values, causing sudden jumps as parameters snap to the position of any control moved on the keyboard. Arturia explained that this is a known issue that will be fixed with a firmware update in the future. Other problems I had when using AFE in a host were that the on-screen octave buttons didn't work, failing to indicate the transposition of the hardware keyboard, and the Search knob would only toggle between two adjacent values in the Attributes Grid instead of scrolling through the whole list.
One feature that does work nicely is the Snapshot and Recall system. An unusual feature of Analog Factory is that it remembers its last status. In other words, if you start a new project and insert the AF plug-in, it will open up exactly where it was left when you last used it. I don't think I've seen other plug-ins do this, and I liked it. The Snapshot buttons are used to store and recall different instrument states. Snapshots remember which patch is selected, and the state of all controls. The facility is very simple to use, with the Shift key toggling the eight Snapshot buttons between Save and Recall modes.
The Snapshot system benefits from being so easy to use, although it might be too simple for some live applications. Analog Factory does not support Program Change messages, and the Snapshot and Preset plus and minus buttons instead use general purpose CC (Continuous Controller) values. Snapshot changes can be recorded or sent as MIDI, but not as automation. Perhaps a future version might benefit from the ability to assemble a patch list that responds to program changes.
One of the first questions you're bound to ask about Analog Factory is whether you can load your own sounds from Arturia's other synths. (Answer: you can't — yet). It seemed to me that Arturia had a missed a trick here, and that Analog Factory could have been used as a hub for all your Arturia sounds, in much the same way that Kore works for Native Instruments. Like Analog Factory, Kore contains all the company's other synth engines without their interfaces, but if you happen to own the full version of any of the NI synths, you can edit a Kore patch using the sound source's full interface.
Arturia are apparently ahead of me here, telling me that they consider a bridge between Analog Factory and their other synths a 'killer feature', and that it's in development for a future update. I don't know exactly what this will look like, but hopefully you should be able to open sounds from Analog Factory in the original synths, edit them in detail, and set your own Key Parameter assignments.
As a sound source, I can only reiterate the original Analog Factory review, and say that this is a seemingly bottomless pit of great analogue synth sounds, more rich, varied, and playable than anything you could get with a sample library. My personal favourites are the ARP2600 sequences, which I could play with for hours. Of course, if you're a tweaker you'll find yourself wishing you could open up the sounds in the full synth instead of being limited to the prescribed controls, but that's missing the point of the product, which is to be a simple, consistent front-end to complex instruments. However, I'll be excited to see how Arturia start to integrate the full versions of their Analog Classics series with Analog Factory.
As a hybrid hardware and software instrument Analog Factory Experience is incredibly easy to use, although it suffers from some frustrating '1.0' issues. In particular, Arturia need to make a priority of addressing the fact that the controls don't work quite as expected in the plug-in version.
As well as being a dedicated controller for Analog Factory, I imagine the attractive size and design of the keyboard is going to make it popular as a general-purpose controller in many desktop studios. The keyboard is also very good value, when you consider that it adds just £80 to the price of the plug-in.
All in all, Analog Factory Experience is a mostly successful hybrid instrument with scope to grow into something much more, and it's certainly the most accessible way for players and producers alike to get their hands on Arturia's awesome-sounding TAE (True Analogue Emulation) synth technology. .