The latest instrument plug-in from IK Multimedia and Sonic Reality packages eight Gigabytes of samples, mostly from a huge range of classic synths, in IK's Sampletank front end.
When IK Multimedia's Sampletank hit our computers a few years ago, its novel aim was to function as a plug-in alternative to the standard multitimbral sound module. Few other plug-ins provided such a broad-based sample collection, organised to give users the basic sounds necessary for day-to-day sequencing work. As a result, IK's software has won an enthusiastic customer base.
Initially at least, editability was not a high priority, and the basic samples were not upgradeable by the user (the XL version offered basic Akai sample library import, though), but the system wasn't exactly closed. The engine itself became a vehicle for other IKM and third-party sound sets. For example, American sample-library wizards Sonic Reality released a collection dubbed Sonic Synth back in 2002. This all-new set of samples and patches came with a playback version of Sampletank.
Fast-forward to now, and not only has Sampletank morphed into an even more serious instrument — version 2 offers improved effects, many more editing options, comprehensive user sample import and some funky loop-manipulation options — but we discover that Sonic Reality's relationship with IKM has grown rather more close. You might call it a 'strategic alliance' if you were writing their press release. The first result of this closer relationship is Sonik Synth 2, one of an impending series of specialised sample and patch sets created by SR that are played back by a modified version of the latest Sampletank engine. The focus of this first release is classic synths: a veritable museum of instruments has been sampled during the creation of this set. But a healthy selection of bread-and-butter sounds is also provided, also all new and created by Sonic Reality. In all, 8GB of samples is provided, on two DVDs (the cross-platform installer has its own CD-ROM). That's a lot of samples!
You can track the evolution of Sampletank and Sonic/Sonik Synth yourself by tracking down the SOS reviews. The first Sampletank review was in August 2001:
Sonic Synth was covered in November 2002:
And finally, Sampletank 2 had its outing in February 2004:
Whereas the original Sonic Synth just looked like Sampletank, the new product has its own look and feel, beyond swapping a 'c' for a 'k' in its name. Sure, the basic layout is very much like the parent product, but subtle graphic tweaks have been made, the most obvious being the colour scheme — gone is ST orange. All the basic elements are there, though the virtual 'display' has been utilised slightly differently and the editing knob scheme has also been modified. The engine, however, is exactly the same, excepting that SS2 does not offer sample import: the system is closed when it comes to its basic sound set.
Briefly, then, Sonik Synth 2 is a 16-part multitimbral playback synth module with a large sample ROM, eight stereo 'audio out' pairs, a decent effects complement, and plenty of editability. It even implements Sampletank 2 's three 'synth engines', of which more soon. The plug-in runs on both Mac OS X and Windows XP/2000, and supports all major standards: VST, DXi, RTAS and AU — the installer CD is cross-platform, and the user has three authorisations. Practically any modern sequencing environment will accommodate one or more of these standards.
The Sampletank family graphically mimics hardware synths, right down to the large 'display' that dominates its operating window. Half of Sonik Synth 2 's window is taken up by the 'Combi' display, which lists the plug-in's 16 multitimbral or layerable parts, in two switchable banks of eight. There is a confusing mixing of the words 'instrument', 'voice' and 'part preset' in the manual and software, but all effectively refer to a 'patch' as most of us would use the term: a multisample and its attendant synthesis and effect settings, saved under a unique name. Each of Sonik Synth 2 's 16 parts can have one of these Instruments assigned to it, and is equipped with a set of basic mixing and other controls: mute, solo, pan and level are pretty standard fare, and the display also indicates how much memory the currently selected Instrument requires. Additionally, the user can alter the MIDI channel (parts are layered by assigning them to the same MIDI channel), polyphony and stereo output pair. This multitimbral Combi can be saved by the user, and the healthy collection of themed presets supplied is worth exploring.
SS2 has nearly 6000 individual Instrument patches. IK Multimedia's solution to the potentially tricky problem of selecting patches from such a large collection is the browser window, to the right of the Combi display. When the software is first installed, and if you've copied all the factory material to the relevant place on your hard drive, the display lists 10 folders; click on the white arrow to the left of each folder name, and you'll be greeted by sub-folders. Click another, and you'll see a list of patches. Most patches also have an arrow next to them, and clicking on this produces yet another sub-list. In this case, the list shows saved variants, including user edits, on the selected patch.
The main folders are titled Synths, Keyboards (electric and acoustic pianos, Mellotron and organ), Guitar + Bass, Drums + Percussion, Orchestral Textures, Vocal Textures, SFX and Elements A and B. As an example, the Synths folder subdivides into Motion Synths, Synth Pads, Synth Bass, Synth Leads and Misc Synths. Few of the categories are strict, with interesting ready-sampled layers and massed sounds appearing in most categories. Raw waveforms, with no effects and little editing, are supplied in the Elements folders, to assist in building your own patches.
Manually navigating folders and sub-folders is not a drag, in spite of the huge number of patches available, but if you've an idea of what you're looking for, try the keyword search function. Hits are speedily displayed in the browser window, and it's easy to toggle back to the full list.
Users can save edited Instruments, but you can't start from scratch: user edits are always based on factory material, though when working with Elements presets, you have plenty of space for creativity. Note that even if you don't take advantage of the option to save Combis and Instruments, any changes you make to SS2 will be saved from the host software in the song in which the plug-in is being used.
In the preparation of Sonik Synth 2, patches and raw waveforms were sampled from a huge range of vintage synths, some well-known, some more obscure:
- ARP 2500, Quadra, Odyssey and Solina.
- Chroma Expander.
- EML Electrocomp 101.
- EMS VCS3 and Synthi AKS.
- Emu modular.
- Gleeman Pentaphonic.
- Korg CX3.
- Moog Minimoog, Taurus I and II, Polymoog and 900 series, 920 series and 3C modulars.
- Oberheim SEM, OBX, Matrix 6 and Four-voice.
- OSC OSCar.
- PPG Wave 2.0, 2.2 and 2.3.
- Roland System 100 modular, VP330, Jupiter 4, 6 and 8, Super Jupiter rack, Juno 60, Juno 106 and D50.
- Sequential Prophet 5 and Prophet VS.
- Serge modular (with 60 modules).
- Steiner-Parker Synthacon and modular system.
- Voyetra 8.
- Yamaha CS80.
Phew! Non-synthesizing electric keyboards are also represented, courtesy of Wurlitzer, Rhodes, Hohner and Yamaha electric piano and Clavinet sets. Various organs appear in the general sound set, too, and a Mellotron 400 was comprehensively sampled, as was a rare disk-based Vako Orchestron. The patch list suggests that related tape and disk-based machines, such as the Chamberlin, Novatron and Mattel Optigan, were also part of the sessions. Drum machines have not been left out of the picture, and classic Roland examples are part of the SS2 sound picture: TR808, TR909, TR606, CR78 and SR120.
Voice editing is very much based on an analogue-style subtractive synthesis signal path. A multisample serves as oscillator, which is processed by a resonant filter, two envelopes and two LFOs. There are more than 50 parameters available to tweak SS2 patches, but only eight knobs in the Synth Edit section. Synth editing is thus broken down into eight button-selected sections: which parameters the knobs control, and how many knobs are active, is determined by the button you've pressed.
There are two LFOs, each offering a choice of waveform, plus control over speed, depth and how much LFO is applied to level, pitch and/or filter cutoff frequency. LFO1 has a useful delay control, for gradually bringing in the modulation effect, and a 'free run' option which syncs the start of modulation to a key press or merely lets it run freely. Initially, it may also appear not to function, but don't worry: it's hard-wired to the modulation wheel, so there's no LFO effect till the wheel is moved. LFO2 has one extra destination: pan. If I miss anything here, it's the option to sync LFOs to tempo, which appears to be missing from the basic Sampletank engine.
The two envelope generators are also largely similar: Env1 is routed to level only, whilst Env2 can be routed to filter cutoff frequency and/or pitch. Otherwise, they feature a fairly standard AHDSR curve. Usefully, all the curve controls are calibrated in milliseconds and seconds (except for 'sustain', whose level is calibrated in dB). The maximum time any element in the curve can last is 30 seconds, which is great for the development of evolving patches, especially in layers. I did rather miss an option for an 'infinite' release, though, which is something I often use when creating purely abstract sounds.
The resonant filter is a simple affair, yet rather effective. Low-pass, band-pass and high-pass types are selectable, and slopes of 6dB, 12dB and 24dB are available. Cutoff frequency and resonance controls are also provided, and that's it! It's a fairly robust filter, capable of cone-flapping or tweeter-friendly resonance. A lot of the depth of Sonik Synth 2 is as much down to its filter as it is to the quality of the raw samples and the fidelity of the playback engine.
IK Multimedia have been quite forward in pushing Sampletank as a playback medium. The company have also made available freebie versions of their plug-in, with a fixed set of sounds, with more available for download on their web site.
The same tactics are being followed for the new synth plug-in: Sonik Synth 2 Free can be downloaded for Mac OS X or Windows 2000/XP, along with about 20 voices. More will downloadable in future, making this a great 'try before you buy' option. Most functionality remains the same, though saving is disabled; that said, any panel tweaks the user makes can be saved within the host song, and all parameters can be controlled via MIDI. What are you waiting for?
As I mentioned earlier, SS2 has a choice of three synth engines, accessed via the Synth button. The most basic mode is called 'resampling'; don't get excited, since this merely means that multisamples are played back in ordinary fashion — samples are played faster or slower as they're transposed up or down by the keyboard, with 'chipmunking' artefacts occurring as the transposition moves out of an acceptable range. Three parameters are available in this section: coarse and fine tuning, and pitch-bend range.
The second synth engine, labelled PS/TS (for pitch-shift/time-stretch) is best suited to allowing sampled loops to be played back at different pitches without affecting their length and different tempos without affecting their pitch. There's no way for you to import loops into the plug-in, but there is a range of looped material included with the software; I'm not entirely sure this is DVD space and sample-editing time well spent, but many users may welcome this extra material. The percussion loops are a varied selection, and a certain number of textural loops are useful in abstract sound design.
The final synth engine is dubbed Stretch (for Sampletank Time REsynthesis TeCHnology). The process is aiming for a similar effect to Roland's Variphrase routines, allowing changes in pitch and tempo to be made without disturbing the original sample's harmonic series. The process has to be applied manually — which can take a little while if a chosen multisample has many samples in it — though once done, it doesn't need to be applied again. Sonically interesting more than convincing, the effect is organic though not often completely natural. Stretched audio sounds obviously processed, and this may or may not be a problem for you. But the process does allow material to be played or pitch-bent well outside the range where chipmunking artifacts would normally become obvious. Two parameters — Harmonics and Tempo — allow you to be a bit creative with the effect, by manipulating the harmonic spectrum of a multisample, and adding a 'granular' edge to the result.
Incoming velocity can be routed to amplitude, filter cutoff and resonance, pitch, LFO1 depth and envelope 2 sustain; the user has control over the velocity response curve, too. Some Instruments also feature Macro controls, which make up to four parameters are accessible in one window for quick tweaking — they tend to duplicate parameters already available elsewhere, handily collected in one window. Sadly, it's not possible for users to make Macro assignments themselves, which would have been a useful option for quick on-screen tweaks.
It's to Sonic Reality's credit that a lot of raw material within Sonik Synth is largely un-effected, to allow the creative user access to pure sound in order to work up from basics. But sooner or later, effects will come into the picture — and with no fewer than five effects available in a full-on Instrument-level insert configuration, why not? One of those effects will always be a 'channel strip' offering three-band EQ and compressor, but the remaining four can be chosen from a 32-strong list of modelled reverbs, delays, distortions and so on. Some extra value is added through a number of effects algorithms that are derived from IK Multimedia's excellent Amplitube and T-Racks signal-processing plug-ins.
Effects become an integral part of Sonik Synth 2 voices: every patch has its own set of effects, which are edited through a dedicated set of knobs, with up to eight provided for each effect. The signal path is (alas) fixed, with audio moving from the top of the selector list down. You're free to choose whichever effects you like for the four empty slots, though, so anything apart from parallel processing will be achievable.
Effects are the same as in Sampletank 2: good, and varied. Reverb treatments are simply presented but effective, with a good range of room sizes and decay times; I liked the Ambience algorithm, for small spaces, and spring reverb for retro boinginess. A single delay effect is supplied, but it offers a range of options between mono and left/centre/right multitap algorithms. Modulation effects — chorus, phase, flanger and so on — are here in force, along with distortion (Lo Fi is particularly good), filter (including funky envelope filter and overkill multi filter), amp simulation, and panning/rotary speaker effects. Modulations go the extra mile, including AM and FM treatments that move more towards sound design than strict signal processing. I was sad to note that the LFOs were not tempo-sync'able, but several effects are: delay, filters, flangers, auto-pan, tremolo and the rhythmically chopped slicer effects can all be sync'ed. Mix/mastering effects are also part of the arsenal, with the parametric EQ, limiter and channel strip producing a rather more sophisticated sound than their limited controls might first indicate.
Some might have a small whinge about there being no global send/return effects within Sonik Synth, but in any case, it can't be used as a stand-alone instrument, so any processing that you feel would help a mix to gel could be applied via your host application's mixer and effects.
Sonik Synth is well endowed in the area of MIDI control and automation. An innocuous button labelled MIDI CTL is clicked, followed by any on-screen synth or effect edit knob; up pops an assignment window. Choose a controller number, minimum and maximum parameter values and that's it. Assignment made. In addition, part volume and pan, and the four Macro knobs, have fixed assignments (though the user can override these).
You're never far away from a Combi: all operations start in this window, and you're always editing a patch that's assigned to one of the 16 Combi parts. Once you've created or collected a bunch of sounds, either on their own MIDI channels or layered on one channel, the result can be saved for recall later. Neatly, any parameter offsets made to an Instrument in a Combi are saved with the Combi: the Instrument itself isn't affected and doesn't need to be saved.
Be aware that layering can be mixed with more standard multitimbral usage — create a super pad out of four Combi parts, and you still have 12 channels for other parts to play. It might be nice to see some way of nesting layers onto one channel, though, so no multitimbral compromises are made when creating layers. That said, a second instance of SS2 could be plonked into your host application for more voices, if your computer can handle it!
One on-screen item seems to promise more from the Combi: a button labelled Zone at the bottom of the display implied to me some way of creating key splits for layered voices. This isn't the case, since key splitting of layered voices doesn't yet exist in the Sampletank universe (though it is planned for an imminent update). Enabling the Zone button just shows the key ranges of individual samples in the multisample used by the currently selected voice. This may not seem all that useful, initially, but highlighting a single sample or keygroup in this way allows synth parameter tweaks to be applied to just that sample. This would be great, perhaps, for customising the individual drum samples in some of SS2 's drum kit voices (though voices can't be routed out of the Instrument individually). More creatively, different keygroups in a multisample could be given drastically different LFO or filter settings, or respond to velocity in different ways.
It's at Combi level that individual Instruments are routed to one of the 'individual out' pairs. There are currently eight pairs, although this will soon be expanded to 16. An option in SS2 's preferences determines how many of these outs the host software sees: the host automatically creates enough mixer channels for whatever choice you've made. The exception here is Pro Tools, though a fix is apparently on the way.
The user has control over level, pan and polyphony from this window; the plug-in has a maximum polyphony of 256 notes, though this figure is, of course, CPU-dependent.
I was able to use Sonik Synth 2 on both Mac and PC with a number of software packages. And there should really be no current sequencer that can't host the plug-in: VST, RTAS, Audio Units and DXi are all supported, for example. Whether your computer can handle it will be a different matter. My ageing Mac could run the software, but the host software could do little else.
In my tests, Sonar 4 on the PC and Cubase SX on both platforms accepted SS2 's ability to use up to eight stereo audio output pairs flawlessly: when creating an instance of the plug-in, the correct number of audio ins is created for the relevant mixers. Playing the plug-in multitimbrally was simply a matter of creating MIDI tracks and assigning the right Sonik Synth parts. There was a problem with Pro Tools LE, though: it can play Sonik Synth 2 multitimbrally, but does not handle its multiple audio streams. This problem is currently being addressed.
Conceptually, it might be fair to put Sonik Synth 2 in the same basket as Ultimate Sound Bank's Ultra Focus (reviewed in SOS January 2005). Both packages are based around a huge collection of sampled classic synths which cannot be expanded by the user. Comprehensive voice-editing facilities are provided in both instances, mimicking the familiar subtractive analogue synthesis signal path. Large libraries of patches are supplied, with the option for the user to create and save even more. There are differences, of course. The playback engine is the most obvious difference, and the thinking behind sample acquisition differs between the developers of the two products, with Ultra Focus offering more detailed multisamples. SS2 scores heavily by being 16-part multitimbral; Ultra Focus is not, though it is capable of dual-layer patches. Layering in SS2 uses up two channels of multitimbrality, but SS2 lets you carry on layering until all 16 parts are used up, and that equals some pretty serious sound design options!
Unlike Ultra Focus, SS2 also includes a fair number of workhorse sounds. In general, I'm glad these have been provided — many of them are excellent, especially the drum kits — but it seems a bit of a shame that so much of the sample library has been taken up with them. After all, SS2 can be crossgraded to Sampletank 2 (which can load all SS2 sounds) if you want a generic synth workstation. Ultra Focus may well be excessive in the length and number of its individual samples, but it will never be mistaken for anything but a synth plug-in!
Nevertheless, Sonik Synth 2 still manages to supply solid, good-sounding examples of a dizzying number of classic synths, some of which most of us have little chance of encountering in the flesh. How can you sum up the sound of such a massive library? Isolating one or two Instruments, or even Combis, for comments for or against wouldn't be representative. If I was to apply the broad brush to the sample collection, I'd have to say it's well-recorded and varied — sampling is what Sonic Reality do, after all! One surprise I did get after doing some initial evaluation on headphones was the kick and depth of SS2 's audio when routed to a decent monitoring system. Nothing too overpowering, but where a sound was meant to have bottom end — synth basses, drum kits and so on — the plug-in makes no compromises at all. This is especially good news for the varied collection of electronic and acoustic drum kit patches on board.
I went almost immediately to the Instruments contained in the two Elements folders, because I wanted to hear raw samples from the fabulous collection of synths contained in SS2. I was not disappointed, though inevitably it was when layering Instruments using two or more Combi parts that things really got going for me. It was at this level that I found that there weren't as many keygroups per multisample as one might like, but you're rarely aware of this audibly: it becomes more apparent because of that Zone button! I also thought some samples rather obviously short, though this was seldom conspicuous in the context of a patch or song playback. Such efficiency means that the user has access to a lot more material in their 8GB than might otherwise be the case.
Some of the individual Instruments are big and involving, with loads of movement, because that's the sound that was sampled; sometimes, there aren't quite enough multitsamples, so any periodic movement inherent in the samples become obvious as they're played at higher or lower pitches, or as a note is held and the movement is lost during the loop. To a certain extent, these artifacts can sometimes be overcome by using the Stretch engine. Alternately, you can move to the Elements folders, examine some of the many 'raw' Instruments and create your own layers from scratch.
Operationally, all is pretty straightforward, though I encountered a couple of bugs on both Mac and PC. Sonar 4 had a tendency to crash when saving Instruments, and sometimes when selecting effects; trashing the ST2Instr cache file helped with this problem. And the Instrument search and save functions didn't work within Pro Tools on the Mac. Both these issues should be addressed by the time you read this. Personally, I found some on-screen elements to be a little tiny at normal screen resolutions, and feel that something more definite, graphically, should be done to help you position the mouse pointer over the tiny Combi part parameters. But Sonik Synth is an improvement over Sampletank, which displays all 16 parts in the same space that SS shows eight.
Older computers may not be able to handle the plug-in, but that's the story for most current, serious synth plug-ins. And top marks to all concerned for providing a paper manual — it's a comprehensive and compact affair that covers all the basics. An 'installation' manual is mostly concerned with copy protection and authorisation: if you're wondering where the data on the sound collection DVDs goes, check out the little PDF that appears on those discs.
Sonik Synth 2 is great value for money, sounds excellent, and integrates nicely with host software. Sound-editing options are just right, and given the reservations noted above, I loved the accessibility of so much audio material from so many classic synths: if you're familiar with the originals, then you'll appreciate having their sonic signature in one package. At this price, what choice do you have?