Arturia built their reputation on software recreations of classic synths, now they're back with one of their own.
Arturia have been in the virtual instrument business for 20 years. Their first product was a complete software music studio called Storm, but it wasn't until they began to focus on software recreations of classic hardware synths such as the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Roland Jupiter 8, ARP 2600 and Moog Minimoog that the company really took off. Since then they've successfully moved into the hardware market with synths, drum machines, MIDI controllers and audio interfaces. Storm has long since been retired, but now Arturia are returning to their roots with a software synthesizer entirely of their own design.
Pigments is a plug-in and stand-alone instrument available on Windows and Mac OS X in all the usual formats. It is what I like to call a 'big synth' (OK, not the most inspired name): a behemoth that bestows many tools on the sound designer. Not something you'll master in one evening, but something that could become a go-to instrument for a wide variety of sounds. Fundamentally, Pigments is a wavetable synth. It can do virtual analogue too, but it does not focus on faithful recreation of analogue timbres. For that you can look at Arturia's other offerings.
After installation and authorisation Pigments will prompt you to set up your audio and MIDI settings and then you're ready to go. The interface is clean and well designed with nice use of colour to differentiate between modulation sources. The top half of the screen can display Synth, Effects and Sequencer. The bottom half is permanently dedicated to modulation sources, which are deep and plentiful.
The first order of business after installing any new instrument is to peruse a few presets — over six hundred are included. The preset browser will assist in navigation using a combination of categories, tags, favourites, playlists and a search function. Each preset contains a description from the sound designer, which often includes details on what the four Macro controls do, as well as any peculiarities inherent to that particular sound. There's even a feature called 'Sound design tips' in which sound designers can highlight certain controls which work well with the current sound.
Overall the included presets are excellently curated and the preset designers have done a great job of showing what the synth is capable of, although it would have been nice if more of them used aftertouch.
A patch is made up of two engines, which can be in either Wavetable or Analog mode. The star of the show is the Wavetable engine, which comes with around 120 wavetables in five different categories, plus the option to import your own. There's a lovely graphical representation of the wavetable available in either 2D or 3D, which shows the wavetable position very clearly. Further timbral mangling is possible with linear or exponential frequency modulation, phase modulation, phase distortion and wavefolding. There's also a Unison mode with up to eight voices, plus a 'modulator' oscillator, which can used either as a straight analogue-style oscillator or as a modulator for the various frequency and phase modulation options. Overall, the wavetable oscillator design is excellent and capable of producing a wide variety of tones.
The Analog engine is fairly predictable by comparison, comprising three oscillators which offer sine, triangle, sawtooth or square waveforms. There's also a Noise source which is variable between red, white and blue (how very French!) and a Modulation section which allows you to frequency modulate with a blend of osc 3 and the Noise source. The Analog engine doesn't feel as developed as the Wavetable engine, but when you consider that stacking two of them will give you a six‑oscillator monster, it's still no slouch.
Both oscillators have a variable mix output to send the signal to Filter 1 or Filter 2 or anywhere in between. The two filters can be routed parallel or serial, again via a variable control which allows for blending between the two. Each filter can work in a number of modes. There's a standard multi‑mode which gives you the biggest choice of filter shapes. Then there's SEM, Matrix 12 and Mini modes which presumably come from Arturia's recreations of those classics. Finally, there are the more specialist Surgeon, Comb, Phaser and Formant types. The filter section is certainly well stocked.
Clearly Arturia are very proud of their new modulation system, and rightly so. Along the middle of the screen is a row of slots, each containing a different modulation source. If the source is being used in the current patch, a colourful scope shows you an animated visual preview. This is great for quick confirmation of what's going on in a patch and I like the fact that unused modulation sources stay dark until you assign them to something.
The workflow is simple. Select a modulation source slot and the middle section of the screen will change to show you all the destinations which that source is currently modulating. You can add to the list by simply grabbing the outside of any control on screen. A coloured ring will appear around that control to show the amount of modulation. It's a commonly adopted modulation system nowadays and works so much better than the modulation matrix of old.
Modulation sources include three envelopes, three LFOs, three Functions (multi‑point tempo‑sync'ed envelopes), three random sources, four macros, the usual MIDI standards and two maths sources called 'Combinate', which allow you to apply mathematical functions like multiplication, summing, offsets and even lag to one or more sources. The sources are grouped behind six tabs along the bottom of the screen that reveal detailed editing parameters and larger graphical representations of each source. The thought that has gone into making potentially complex modulation sources easy to edit is impressive. For example, the multi-stage envelopes (aka Function), so often requiring Shift modifiers or right‑click menus on other synths, are blissfully simple to edit using just mouse clicks. I was pleased to see that you can save your custom Function shapes too.
One niggle is the un-analogue behaviour of the envelopes. This is something that crops up often with digital synthesizers. The envelopes always start from zero even in Mono and Mono Legato modes. That means that recreating SH-101 style leads with long envelope releases is not possible because analogue envelopes will always pickup at the level they left off between adjacent notes, whereas the Pigments envelopes will not. It's a small thing and not necessarily a problem for many people, but those that enjoy analogue envelope behaviour will sadly miss it in this synth.
A feature that crops up a lot across the various modulation sources is the Trigger options. Envelopes, LFOs, Functions and the Sample & Hold random source can all be triggered by a comprehensive list of other modulation sources. This makes Pigments a rhythmical playground capable of everything from percussive rhythms to long, evolving, tempo-locked textures, especially when you get the Sequencer involved.
To further sweeten the ear candy there are three effects busses. Each bus can contain up to three effects, making a total of nine on a single patch. The effects on offer comprise filter, EQ, compressor, distortion, bit-crusher, chorus, flanger, phaser, auto‑pan, reverb and delay. Nothing too flashy there, but the effects themselves are quality offerings. They sound better than your average built-in synth effects. Also, almost all parameters, including routing and send levels, are wired into the modulation system, which means that there is plenty of scope for the experimentally inclined sound designer.
The three effects busses are designed to be used as two insert busses and a send bus. The two insert busses, labelled Bus A and Bus B, can be routed in serial or parallel, and each have their own volume control, which means you can perform tricks such as crossfading between two completely different effects chains. The Send bus takes its input from the synth and is clearly meant for time‑based effect like reverb and delay. It's a shame you can't route the Send signal from the FX Bus A or Bus B, though — if you want your reverb or delay to be a post-insert effect, you'll need to include it in the insert bus itself.
The last tab is dedicated to the sequencer, on the surface a simple 16‑step affair, but with some nifty tricks up its sleeve. There are dedicated value lanes for pitch, octave, velocity, probability, gate length and slide. By enabling PolyRhythm mode, each lane can have its own separate length, which means you can program sequences much longer than 16 steps by combining different lengths for various elements.
Another tool to keep things becoming repetitive is the Randomise feature. Each lane has a small dice icon with a percentage value next to it. That percentage sets how much each lane of the sequencer will randomise whenever the master 'Regen' button is hit. For example, you might want to randomise the Octave by 10 percent, giving each step a small chance that it will shift up or down by an octave. You might then add 100‑percent randomisation to the Velocity lane, so that each step is given a random value across the entire 1-127 range. By far the best thing about the Randomise feature is the ability to 'Auto Regen', which presses the Regen button for you at an interval of your choosing. So, you might set it to randomise only Notes by 5 percent every two bars. This is such a great little feature for keeping sequences fresh and evolving over time. Every sequencer should have one!
As well as the step sequencer, there's also an Arpeggiator mode. Rather cleverly, this makes use of all the Sequencer lanes except pitch, which is dictated by incoming MIDI notes. This is one of the better sequencer and arpeggiator combos I've seen in a synth in quite some time.
It's difficult to decide whether Pigments has its own sound. It has such a wide palette of tones in its oscillators, and the filter choices and effects open out the possibilities even more. The factory sounds are, on the whole, quite clean and digital sounding, which is not a criticism. I suppose I would describe it as classy, detailed and modern, but the tools are there to make whatever sounds you like: dirty, lo-fi, vintage sounds, enormous cinematic textures, modulating techno sequences, you name it. I never felt like there was anything stopping me creating a particular sound. As a 'big synth' it can become whatever you want it to.
Above all, I think it's the design and presentation which impress the most. Pigments is an absolute pleasure to use and never feels confusing or intimidating thanks to its excellent interface. Yet there is still enough depth and thoughtful, musical features to keep the most demanding sound designer happy. Hats off to Arturia — I hope they will continue to develop software of their own design.
The competition is stiff in wavetable-land. Native Instrument's Massive has been the industry standard for many years, but is starting to show its age. Massive X, the next incarnation, is due to drop in June this year. Xfer Records' Serum offers a similar approach without Pigments' beautiful modulation system, but it does offer a built-in wavetable editor. Waldorf Largo and PPG WaveGenerator are also worth a look if you want to see what two legends of hardware wavetable synthesis offer in the software world.
- Deep and very capable wavetable synthesizer.
- Capable of VA, FM, phase‑distortion/modulation synthesis too.
- Complex without being overwhelming.
- The clearest approach to modulation I've seen in a soft synth.
- Fun and very musical sequencer.
- Other than the envelope behaviour in mono mode, none.
Wavetable synthesis is more popular now than it's ever been and Arturia's take on it offers a wealth of flexibility and fun, whilst being a pleasure to use thanks to its excellent design and graphical interface.