The latest version of this powerful modular software synth adds Mac support at last, includes many new modules, uses less CPU power than previous versions and has a much simplified user interface. What's not to like?
Analogue synths can generate many sounds that mimic acoustic instruments, and sample players can play back static recordings of them, but the only effective way to electronically generate sounds that are both realistic and respond in a similar way to real-world instruments is to physically model them using heavy-duty mathematics. Modern PCs are more than capable of doing this in real time, as Applied Acoustics Systems proved when they launched their impressive Tassman modular software synth back in 2000, with its unique combination of physical- and analogue-modelling technology.
Three years have now passed since I looked at the original Tassman v1.2 release in SOS July 2000, and AAS have used this time to make some fairly fundamental improvements. Even with the first release Tassman already provided a huge variety of physically modelled objects such as beams, membranes, plates, strings, and tubes, for recreating the sounds of real-world (and out-of-this-world!) acoustic instruments, plus a selection of VCOs, filters, amplifiers, and step-sequencers for analogue modelling. However, the software only ran in stand-alone mode using MME or DirectSound drivers with a fixed latency of 69 milliseconds, making it impractical for real-time performance.
Thankfully version 2.0 provided much lower latency, as well as allowing it to be run as a much more flexible VST or DX Instrument inside applications like Cubase and Sonar, and a few months later, version 2.1 added EASI drivers for low latency within Logic Audio, as well as yet more modules.
The last 18 months have allowed AAS to revisit their core processing engine, to improve both CPU overhead and sound quality, and develop a new streamlined user interface and a range of new modules. For the first time, they're also offering a Mac version. Version 3.0, under review here, now runs under both OS 9.X and OS 10.2 (Jaguar) or later, while Windows support has been extended to include XP as well as Windows 2000, 98SE, and ME.
AAS sent me the latest version, 3.0.2, which supersedes the 3.0 release and cures a few problems including some in the Recorder modules of the Mac version, and a minor Windows denormalisation issue. It's a free upgrade for users of version 2.x, while any users of Sonar XL v1.0 still using the bundled DXi version of Tassman v2.0 can also download a free DXi version 3.0.
On my PC I got the option to install the VSTi and DXi versions along with the stand-alone one, and during the install procedure the proprietary protection system requires you to enter your unique serial number, and then a challenge is generated from this and the unique fingerprint provided by your computer. However, in order to complete the installation and unlock your new software you need the appropriate response from the AAS web site — there's no demo period.
A suitable Internet submission page is automatically generated, only requiring you to add your email address, but this is frustrating for those of us who don't have Internet access on our music-only partitions. However, you can save the web page, and then temporarily abandon the install while you reboot and log on to get your immediate response. You can also register by phone or email if you prefer. Thankfully the challenge remains the same however many times you run the install on a particular partition, but owners will need to re-register if they reformat or change their hard drive, change or upgrade their OS, or uninstall the program.
The most obvious improvement in version 3.0 is that the previously rather unwieldy Builder and Player applications have been combined into a single and much easier-to-use interface that you can switch between at any time using the menu or by holding down Control and hitting the 'T' key. This main application window is also now completely resizeable, with vertical as well as horizontal scrolling. Previously, you could only view any three synth panels in the Player at any time.
The VSTi and DXi versions also allow two-way scrolling, and you can still decide how large this will be (on my 1024-by-768 screen I found 80 percent of screen width and 65 percent of screen height let me view three rows of panels).
Down the left-hand side is a new browser that mimics Explorer with its nested folders and files, and it can display every Tassman-related file in your collection. Its width can be adjusted to taste, or you can temporarily dispense with it altogether to provide more panel space. Its four main folders are labelled Imports, Instruments, Modules (the basic building blocks), and Sub-Patches (modules pre-wired into useful assemblies such as LFOs and Effects), and their contents are now context-sensitive. For example, if you double-click on an Instrument or one of its associated Presets, you'll see the Player view in the main window, while clicking on a Sub-Patch switches you into the Builder.
In version 2.x, Tassman used a very confusing four-tier approach to file management, involving Banks, Programs, Instruments, and Presets. The TassmanBuilder application saved your instrument designs in MOM format, while Sub-patches were saved as library files in the HOM format. However, once you launched the Tassman Player, you could create sounds with your new Instrument and save them as separate DXT Preset files, while FXP Programs contained an Instrument and a set of presets, and a Bank contained multiple Programs in FXB format.
However, in version 3.0, you can Import and Export entire Instruments including all their associated sub-patches and presets, since Tassman v3.0 combines them all into a single new TXF (Tassman Exchange File) format, which has a modified XML file structure. This is a far more elegant approach, and makes exchanging Instruments with other users so much easier, especially since any required Sub-Patches are automatically incorporated.
Unfortunately, it has the disadvantage (at the moment at least) that there's no way to import any of the five previously mentioned version 2.x file formats. This is exceedingly frustrating for existing users who created their own instruments in Tassman 2.x, as well as those who relied on some of the version 2.x factory Instruments that no longer exist in the radically updated and improved library (of which more later).
However, AAS technical support recognise that this may cause some problems for existing users, and I've been told that they are currently rebuilding version 2.1 Instruments in the new file format as and when users request them, and that eventually they will all be available via the web site. Despite this, I sincerely hope that an 'Import version 2 Programs' function is eventually added to Tassman v3.0, or at the very least that a conversion utility is made available.
The new Instrument library is sorted into folders labelled Acoustic, Analogue, Drums, FM, Hybrid, Organs, Processing, and Tutorials, while the Modules and Sub-Patches are also sorted into a similar but enhanced range of categories as versions 1 and 2. However, the cryptic icons of previous versions are gone, to be replaced by much clearer colour-coded versions with easily understood text descriptions.
Although it's actually all contained within a single file, each Instrument is displayed in the Browser as a folder containing its various Presets, Sub-Patches, and the MIDI Links that let you allocate the various knobs, sliders and switches to MIDI controllers. You can either double-click on an Instrument to load it, or double-click on one of its other Presets to try out the different sounds available. This is a far easier approach than navigating the mass of separate preset and instrument files of previous versions, especially since your entire library is visible in the Browser at all times. If you've just finished creating a killer new Preset, Tassman 3.0 will also prompt you to save the changes if you try to select another one or a different Instrument, although you can disable this in Preferences if you prefer.
Drag-and-drop operation is supported for sorting your Imports, Instruments and Sub-patches into existing or new folders, although you do have to be a little careful
— while you can drop a preset from one instrument onto another, it doesn't make a lot of sense to do so in most cases, and won't sound right either.
In line with the Browser improvements, the Modules and Sub-Patches now appear as simpler colour-coded blocks with text titles once dragged into the Builder window, which makes deciphering existing Instrument designs a lot easier.
There are also plenty of new modules on offer (see separate box, below), adding fresh options to most categories. Of particular note is the new clutch of sequencer modules, which go way beyond the simple Sequencer of version 2.x, and are visually distinctive with their 'LCD' display windows and 'illuminated' buttons.
The Single Gate Sequencer is a 16-step design with an optional Swing feature, used in such Instruments as 'Sequenced Chords', where it triggers the ADSR in rhythmic patterns. It can use its own internal clock or an external one, and up to 32 patterns can be created and stored, and then played back in forward, backward, pendulum, or two random modes. The first is seeded by clicking on the reset button to generate another sequence, although sadly you can't save any good ones you come across, while the second is totally random. A Dual-gate sequencer module is also available that provides two rows of 16 buttons, variable loop length, and individual Shift controls to delay each step.
The CV Sequencer is more versatile in outputting a different voltage on each step, which you set up via a graphical window like those used by some graphic-equaliser plug-ins. Set to control filter frequency for instance, it's capable of some versatile sample and hold effects, as illustrated by the intriguing 'Full Moon' patch in the FM folder.
The Multi-sequencer is the most comprehensive, with full control over the MIDI note and velocity (plus optional portamento) for each step, plus an integral Song Mode that is also available as an option for the other sequencers. This lets you create chained sequences of different patterns — up to eight songs can be stored, each containing up to 1000 looped pattern events.
The new Compressor is also extremely handy for keeping the output levels of the various physically modelled objects under control, and there's a new 24dB-per-octave voltage-controlled low-pass filter ('Vlowpass4') for filter fans. However, apart from a MIDI-sync'able LFO that will make those who run Tassman as a VSTi or DXi happy, the only new Generator is for white noise.
No new physical models have been developed for this release, but I'm very pleased to report that the existing ones have not only been rewritten and optimised for lower CPU overhead, but that their semitone-stepped pitch-bend limitation has finally been overcome. This involved recalculating the entire structural characteristics of the model at each point, but AAS have managed this to provide smooth and far more expressive bends.
The new integrated Browser/Player/Builder certainly makes using Tassman v3.0 far more pleasurable, and the new optimisations certainly make a difference to CPU overhead. I tested them out by comparing the performance of some instruments that are available in both v2.1 and v3.0, and on my Pentium III PC the CPU overhead dropped to half in some cases — a considerable improvement. However, while Tassman v3.0 is more CPU-friendly, physical modelling is still fairly processor intensive — typical Instruments in the new library with two to four voices still took between 30 and 40 percent of my Pentium III 1GHz processor.
My biggest disappointment was that AAS found it impossible to implement the dynamic voice allocation first seen in Lounge Lizard. This means that the full CPU overhead is taken for the currently assigned number of voices, however many are actually playing at any time. The reason is exactly the same as for NI's Reaktor — while a preset software synth can accurately determine when each voice fades to silence, this is far more difficult to calculate in a modular instrument.
Changing the number of voices on the fly is quicker than it used to be, although it still requires a keyboard shortcut (Control plus 'T') to switch to the Builder, a double-click on the 'Polykeys' or 'Polyvkeys' module, typing in a new 'Number of Voices', and then a further Control-plus-'T' shortcut to jump back to the Player window — I hope a future update will provide a more streamlined approach.
Tassman v3.0 is shipped with 50 new instruments and 1000 presets, and a lot of hard work has obviously gone into them. Some look very similar to those in version 2.1, such as 'E Piano', 'Dulcimer', and 'Harp', but even these benefit from the optimised modules and non-stepped pitch-bend. I got the impression while browsing that given the lower CPU overhead and faster processors now available, AAS have in general created slightly more complex instruments that are capable of a more versatile range of sounds, as well as sounding more 'complete' by adding effects.
Most Instruments also now have the mod wheel already mapped to a suitable parameter to add more real-time expression, as well as controller 7 to master volume, and the MIDI Links now feature a handy Learn/Forget mode that makes allocating further controllers far more pleasurable — just hold down the right mouse button and click on a control, then select 'Learn MIDILink', and then wiggle your hardware control. An 'Edit MIDILinks' option lets you change the settings at will for the entire instrument, while the new Aftertouch module adds yet more possibilities, as displayed in the 'Big Generic Poly' Instrument.
Overall, Tassman v3.0 is far easier to understand than its predecessors, has more options, and uses less processing power. Even with the various optimisations, you'll still need a powerful computer to achieve high polyphony, but whereas Tassman 2.x might bring a modest computer to its knees, version 3.0 is capable of being used alongside other software synths without running into trouble.
Existing users should be overjoyed that this major upgrade is free, although some will be frustrated at not being able to access instruments from the version 2.x library, and more specifically at losing their own 2.x creations. Such is the price of progress it seems, although I suspect that a conversion utility may be forthcoming at some stage.
However, anyone considering buying a modular software synth would be well advised to investigate Tassman 3.0's unique combination of physical and analogue modelling, especially now it's available for Mac for the first time, since there's nothing else quite like it. It certainly gets a thumbs up from me!
Tassman v3.0 presents a completely new face to the world with its intuitive Browser pane, and the fact that the Builder and Player applications have now been combined into one easy-to-use interface. Notice the much clearer Instrument, Preset, Sub-Patch, and MIDI Link icons.