Hot on the heels of the recent Virus C comes the Virus Indigo 2, now upgraded to include the new Virus C synth engine. And what a difference it makes!
Is it really just 16 months since I reviewed the first incarnation of the Virus Indigo? So much seems to have happened in that time: wars, terrorism and famines, the World Cup... Yet here we are again, and before me sits the Indigo 2; still sleek, still metallic, still covered with bright blue LEDs, but now beating with the more powerful heart of Access's latest Virus C synthesis engine.
Assuming you can still recall the era of the original review (see SOS June 2001) you'll recall that — if you ignore their TDM plug-ins — Access offered a product range that looks little different from today's. The flagship was the Virus Keyboard, accompanied by its desktop equivalent, the Virus B, the obsolete Virus A, the Indigo itself, and the (then) soon-to-arrive Virus Rack. At first sight, this appeared to be an inclusive range that allowed you to choose the machine format most suitable for your needs, but things were not as simple as they seemed. The number of oscillators, the polyphony, the multitimbrality and the effects structure changed from model to model, as did the latest useable OS revision. This meant that you could not simply decide which physical format was most suitable; you also had to ask yourself whether the synthesis engine in that model was appropriate for you.
Happily, Access have now rectified this, and with the launch of the Rack XL (and, I suspect, the imminent disappearance of the original Rack), the new range, comprising the Keyboard C, Virus C, Indigo 2 and Rack XL shares a single synth engine. So now I can ask you; how would you like your Access Virus C engine, OS revision 5, served? If the answer is 'argent and shiny', read on.
One of the nice things about the standardisation of the Virus range is that (in principle) if you know one Virus C, you know them all. This means that I can direct you to Nick Magnus's review of the desktop Virus C in SOS August 2002, and this will tell you what you need to know about the guts of the machine. I happen to agree with almost everything that Nick wrote, so rather than regurgitate the bulk of his article, I thought that it would be more informative to refer back to my comments about the original Indigo, to see how the new model improves upon its predecessor.
If I remember correctly (which I do, because I checked), I made several criticisms regarding the Indigo. Some of its deficiencies were relatively inconsequential, but I felt that some spoilt what would otherwise have been an excellent synth.
Of the relatively inconsequential criticisms, one was physical: I disliked the position of the modulation and pitch-bend wheels. I still do. Given Access's desire to make the Indigo as compact as possible, I understand the need for this; I just don't like it. More significantly, I complained about the (lack of) quality of the keyboard, particularly when compared with the far superior Virus Keyboard. I have bad news and good news here. Firstly, the Indigo 2's keyboard still feels cheap to me. However, it now responds to aftertouch as well as velocity.
I'm a devoted advocate of aftertouch, partly because I find it far more expressive than any other modulation controller, and partly because my 'other' hand is always occupied with other tasks. So, although the keyboard on the Indigo 2 remains rather lightweight for my tastes, I am delighted by the addition of channel pressure and its associated parameters. This makes the Indigo 2 expressive in exactly the way that the Indigo wasn't, removing it from the 'very nice, but no thanks' category and placing it within the far superior 'very nice; how much does it cost?' class.
I had further criticisms regarding the original Indigo's effects section. Ever since Access launched the original Virus in 1998, they have rather unnecessarily inflated its specification by calling voicing parameters 'effects'. In their marketing for the Indigo, they claimed that the model offered 82 simultaneous effects, but I stick by my assertion that the ring modulators and 'boost' parameters have been included in the list as a marketing ploy, adopted to make the spec look more impressive than it would otherwise be. The situation is now even worse in this respect, with Access claiming that the Indigo 2 offers no fewer than 98 simultaneous effects! However, the additional 16 really are welcome; they're three-band EQs, one for each of the Indigo 2's 16 multitimbral parts.
I've long been a fan of dedicated EQs on synths. This is because they allow you to shape patches in ways that conventional filters cannot. Shaping can be subtle (helping a sound to sit in a mix, for example), or it can be radical, completely changing the character of the sound.
Each of the Indigo 2's EQs offers a low-shelf, a high-shelf, and a parametric mid-band that allows you to select centre frequency, gain, and Q. The low-shelf offers up to 16dB of boost or cut (though I suspect the cut won't see much action in these bass-crazy times), and an oddly chosen lowest shelf frequency of 32.57Hz. The mid-band boasts an extravagant range of 19.69Hz to 24kHz, a Q of 0.28 to 15.41, and a gain of ±16dB. This allows you to sculpt sounds radically. I like it.
On the other hand, I remain disappointed by Access's reliance upon a single reverb/delay section sitting across the outputs of all 16 parts. I've said this before, and I'll continue to do so until all synth manufacturers take note... Ever since Korg paved the way with the Trinity in 1995, a synthesizer can no longer be considered truly multitimbral unless it offers a multitimbral effects section. The Indigo 2 goes a long way towards this by offering independent choruses/phasers/overdrives and EQs for each part, but given that Access were prepared to redesign the hardware for the Virus C engine, you have to wonder when they will increase the DSP power further to provide properly multitimbral reverbs and delays. If they did, the Indigo 2 could compete head-to-head with the various flavours of Novation Supernova II, and would certainly rank as one of the best multitimbral synths yet developed.
On another positive note, the changes to the control panel — while minor in appearance — make a huge difference. Sure, an increase from 32 knobs, 31 buttons and 62 LEDs to 32 knobs, 35 buttons and 69 LEDs seems far from radical, but, by redistributing their functions, Access have significantly improved the useability of the Indigo. If I quote a few of my concerns from the review of the original Indigo, you'll see what I mean. Back then, I wrote, "why not find room to give the third oscillator and arpeggiator their own controls (they're still buried in a menu), and bring some of the effects to the front?" Well, Access have responded. With more immediate access to Oscillator 3 and the effects, you can now tweak sounds in real time more easily than before. Of course, the knobs and buttons provide only limited control (you still have to plough through the menus to access the fine detail of the patch) but this is a step in the right direction nonetheless, especially when playing sounds such as running arpeggios... it's perfect for the Krautrock at which the Virus excels. Equally welcome are the LEDs that display the LFO usage and tell you which modulation slots are in use. On the other hand, the arpeggiator has gained merely an On/Off button, and I feel that additional controls are necessary for an instrument that leans so heavily on arpeggiated sounds.
Returning to my original Indigo review, I also commented that, "... it's all very well having 32 modulation sources and 97 destinations, but you need more than three source and six destination slots in the onboard modulation matrix if you're going to take full advantage of this." Again, Access have responded; the Indigo 2 now boasts six sources and nine destination slots. Very nice.
Now, what of the 768 ROM sounds promised for Virus OS 5? I have criticised Access in the past for what I feel is a paucity of imagination when programming their presets, but unless my memory is playing tricks on me, the Indigo 2 has an improved selection, with a better balance of classic, as well as dance/trance/techno patches. I defy you not to find numerous sounds that tickle your fancy and get the creative juices flowing.
But what's this...? No matter what I try, I can't access ROM banks E to H! Despite Access's claims to the contrary, the Indigo 2 I had for review has 512 patch memories, not 1024. A peek in the manual suggests as much, stating that Virus OS 5 offers banks A to D or A to H. What's going on?
The answer is that, to access the full memory, you must download an upgrade to the OS from www.access-music.de and then load the two, large SysEx files into the Indigo 2 via MIDI. This increases the memory from 512 to the promised 1024 patches.
But why? Can anybody explain to me why Access would knowingly ship a synth with half of the advertised memories? And what of users who have no access to the Internet or to the necessary tools to perform the upgrade, particularly given that the Indigo 2 has no other means to import data? Sometimes, I feel that when it comes to the art of shooting oneself in the foot, Access could give lessons.
Next, there's the manual that I criticised in my last review. No improvement here, I'm afraid. I can forgive the lapses into Germlish ('oszillators' crop up at frequent intervals) but not the fact that, with the exception of some control-panel illustrations, there is not a single figure or block diagram anywhere within its pages. Given the increasing power of the Virus engine, this is unwise. Equally embarrassing is the lapse into completely untranslated German (see page 49 of the manual) and references to the wrong pages. And, you may ask, why do I object to the references to the 'Key Follow pot'? Because the Indigo 2 doesn't have one, that's why.
At this point, I would again like to raise the issue of self-oscillating filters. In the true analogue world, this is one of the factors that differentiates classics such as the Moog Minimoog, ARP Odyssey and Sequential Prophet 5 from lesser multi-oscillator synths. Without filter oscillation, the Virus is forever limited in this area.
Penultimately, on the subject of things that might have been upgraded or fixed in Virus OS 5 but weren't, I find that you still can't create your own sound categories for easing quick access to particular types of sound. Shame. Finally, I would remind the company that it would be useful to be able to copy parameters (particularly effects) from one patch to another. OK... you should be able to do this using the accompanying Mac and PC Sound Diver software (see box below) but I would still like to see this facility included in the Indigo itself.
I have stated before in SOS that analogue die-hards who decry virtual analogue instruments are at best misled, and at worse audio bigots who should be sent to bed without any tea. I am confident that I could create 'analogue' patches on the Virus C engine that would fool anyone, so I would entreat you, if you still have any lingering doubts, to jettison them. Whether producing analogue-type sounds, digital sounds, electronic percussion, or arpeggios, the Indigo 2 sounds superb.
In addition to its fine sonic qualities, the Indigo 2 is also a fashion statement. You don't need aluminium cheeks or pricey blue LEDs to create music, any more than you need designer labels on your clothes in order to keep yourself warm and dry. However, if these cosmetic niceties push your buttons, that's fine; I have no problem with them.
So, ignoring the ornamental and concentrating on the functional, where does the Indigo 2 fit into the synth ecosystem? Well, clearly, it's not a performance polysynth. 37 notes are almost useless for multitimbral polyphonic use, unless they lie in the middle of a larger keyboard. But with its new control panel and aftertouch, the Indigo 2 is a first-class pressure-sensitive monosynth — for which use the 37-note keyboard is much less of an issue. It also makes a great MIDI expander, and although it takes up more space than the forthcoming Virus Rack XL module, the immediacy of the Indigo's controls more than compensates for this. Think of it as a desktop unit with the bonus of a diddy keyboard attached, and you won't go far wrong. Thirdly, it's an excellent 'live' source of arpeggiated sounds and effects, the playing of which rarely (if ever) requires more than the 37 notes provided.
To be honest, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Indigo 2... much more than I did with its predecessor. While the changes between the two models may appear superficial, they are not. Indeed, the entire Virus C range is a big step forward from the Virus B and, with the standardisation of the range, you can now choose the Virus that suits you best without sacrificing facilities. For players who have no use for the 61-note keyboard provided by the Virus kC, the Indigo 2 saves space and, in the UK at least, is also £70 cheaper. On the other hand, you could argue that for just £70 more, the kC provides two extra octaves and a superior keyboard — but I'll have to leave you to weigh that one up.
The bottom line? The Virus Indigo was a good synth. Once brought up to full spec, the Indigo 2 is a much better one. A much, much better one.
Included with the Indigo 2, the bundled Sound Diver software should provide a powerful means for editing sounds and for creating custom libraries. However, the copy included with the review model did not recognise the Indigo 2, and treated it as a Virus Rack running Virus OS 4.xx. This meant that it lost the ability to edit all the new parameters and routings within OS 5. In other words, it was all but useless. What's more, there is (as I write this in late August) no update available on the Access web site. Come on chaps... get your act together!