Disco DSP Discovery 2
Formats: PC VST
Whilst you wouldn't glean any clues from the name, Disco DSP's Discovery VST synth — now at version 2 — is clearly an unabashed homage to a rather more modern beast than are most virtual-instrument recreations: the Clavia Nord Lead 2. Apart from a few variations here and there, Discovery boasts the same principal feature set, and a blue paint-job doesn't entirely obscure the resemblance of its attractively rendered interface to that of Clavia's synth.
For those not familiar with the Nord's format, Discovery is a fairly conventional subtractive synthesizer with a little bit of FM thrown in, the main architecture consisting of two oscillators, two LFOs, a modulation envelope and a single multi-mode filter. That's not to say it doesn't have some distinctive capabilities, most notably in the form of a 'morph layer', which translates as the ability to make every continuous parameter respond to either velocity or the mod wheel. This provides a great deal of expressive potential, since it's possible to morph between two almost entirely different patches if need be. A particularly nice touch is that, unlike on the hardware synth, you can actually keep track of the morph status visually, with a 'ghosted' knob indicating the amount of morph sensing on each parameter.
Another feature familiar to NL2 users is that which allows the stacking of up to four patches as a single program, enabling the creation of some really huge sounds. Though Discovery is not able to be deployed multitimbrally (a forgivable omission when multiple instances are available), each patch is otherwise completely independent, facilitating some nifty multi-arpeggiator action across several layers. (Yes, Discovery actually includes a built-in arpeggiator — that feature so ofted neglected in soft-synth design — albeit one that doubles as the second LFO.)
Sound quality struck me as very good. Whilst not seeming blandly digital, there's a notable smoothness to the sound, and I certainly wasn't able to distinguish any unpleasant aliasing characteristics amid much automating and twiddling of knobs. If threatened with a pointy stick, I'd say that the 24dB low-pass filter sounds rather weedy when swept at high resonances, but the rather cool formant and phaser modes (which you won't find on the Nord) do go some way towards compensating for this.
Even without layering patches there's plenty on offer for thickening up the sound, including two types of distortion, a simple phaser/chorus, and a stereo delay. Add to this the extra sonic scope granted by the simple FM implementation — the second oscillator modulates the first — and you have a fairly versatile beast at your disposal, but one which nonetheless remains straightforward to program. Should you run out of ideas there's also a handy randomise function, which I found useful for exploring a few of the more bizarre possibilities provided by the morphing facility.
One feature likely to be of interest to Nord owners is the provision to import Lead 2 SysEx patches, albeit with no guarantee of them sounding identical. The good news for everyone else is that this allows Disco DSP to ship their synth with 26 patch banks, comprising over 2500 individual sounds, so you shouldn't find yourself short of inspiring starting points from which to get programming. Included among these is a dedicated percussion bank, though sadly it's not possible to map different sounds up the keyboard as it is on the Lead 2.
The main drawback with Discovery is a shopworn gripe, but not an insignificant one: it seems to demand a lot of CPU power on a voice-per-voice basis, and this can really become burdensome when taking advantage of the patch-layering facility. You'll want to keep that VSTi 'freeze' function at the ready if your host program provides it. This caveat notwithstanding, Discovery 2 acquits itself as a great-sounding synth that's beautifully presented and easy to use. Given the very reasonable 80 Euro price and the fact that it comes with literally hundreds of good patches, I'd definitely recommend heading over to the Disco DSP web site and downloading the demo. Mike Bryant
Cutter Music Revitar
Formats: PC VST
Cutter Music advertise Revitar as a PC-only, VST-based guitar synthesizer. In fact, this probably does Revitar a bit of a disservice, as it is capable of producing quite a broad range of plucked-string sounds, from clean guitars through basses and into the more exotic realms of the Japanese koto. There are no samples involved in the sound generation at all. Instead, Revitar attempts to simulate (amongst other things) the string vibration, velocity, position of the pickup and the string type. Revitar also includes a Chords function, although this is not something to challenge Virtual Guitarist 's ability to generate strumming patterns in a range of preset musical styles.
Revitar is available as an 800k download from the Cutter Music web site. The download includes the DLL file and a PDF manual. To install, the DLL file simply has to be copied to the VST plug-ins folder. The plug-in will run in a demo mode with some features disabled, and on registration, Cutter Music supply a suitable unlock code. I tested Revitar v1.1.3 under Cubase SX v1.0.6, and it seemed both stable and responsive.
Revitar includes some 17 rotary controls. Each of these can be adjusted via the mouse or a MIDI controller (the controller numbers are listed in the manual) — and the latter worked perfectly via the hardware controllers on an Evolution MK249C keyboard. Other controls include switches for a distortion effect and note sustain. The distortion control interacts with the gain setting (more gain gives more distortion), while the sustain simulates the natural decay of a guitar string. The Quality and Poly switches do pretty much as expected, and their settings also dictate the CPU load.
Revitar is provided with some 30-odd preset sounds. These include a range of clean guitars, distorted guitars, basses and some less guitar-like sounds (for example, Drum, Edge Pad and Chaos), although the 'string' nature of the instrument does tend to come through. The sounds themselves are decent enough, and there is plenty of scope to tweak the presets, given the number of controls. The Damping controls, for example, allow the synth to be suitably tamed to create some tight, solid bass sounds. This said, don't expect anything too wild or adventurous as the basic synth engine seems to be a fairly simple affair. However, by adding a little filtering or modulation from another VST effect, some very usable results can be obtained.
The Chord function is quite good fun to experiment with. This essentially produces a full chord from a single MIDI note. Major, minor, fifth, sixth and seventh chord types are all available and, if your MIDI keyboard stretches to octave six, the chord type can be changed on the fly. The other controls in this section specify the strumming direction, the rate of the strum and the chord voicing. Slowing the strum rate down basically produces a chord arpeggio, and if matched to the tempo of the song, this can create some really good results.
At about £30, Revitar is unlikely to break the bank, and can be evaluated in demo mode prior to purchase. I'd hesitate to describe it as a 'must have' purchase but it can produce decent sounds and has a simple interface. John Walden
Kjaerhus Audio Classic Series
Formats: PC VST
You know how it is when you have a spare hour and spend it surfing the 'net looking for free stuff. Normally such trawls come up short, so I was pleased to stumble across new Danish software developer Kjaerhus Audio's web site. In addition to their commercial products, they have produced a series of six (Windows-only) VST plug-ins — a reverb, a limiter, a flanger, an EQ, a compressor and a chorus — branded as their Classic Series and all free to download.
So are they any good? Well, they're certainly easy on the eye. The user interface is simple and uncluttered, with eight or fewer controls, and rather reminiscent of half-rack hardware units like the Alesis Nano-range. Each plug-in also comes with a range of presets to cover most uses, none appears to gobble up great chunks of processor power, and all respond to full VST automation.
Looking quickly at the set individually, we'll start off in alphabetical order with Classic Chorus. Sporting a fetching purple interface, this unit has just six controls: Delay Time (from 0.625 to 320 ms) with a separate fine adjustment, Modulation Rate (0.1 to 10 Hz), Depth, and finally Mix and output Level. The presets are usable, covering the usual guitar and vocal applications, and I especially liked adding the bass preset to a deep synth tone, which created some nice warmth and movement.
Moving on, we come to the compressor which again features a very easy-to-use front panel containing the usual compression (Threshold, Ratio), time-constant (Attack, Release) and output controls. In addition, Kjaerhus have included both hard- and soft-knee compression, adjustable from a single rotary control. Compression is very much a personal taste, but I thought the sound quality was fine on jobs ranging from gentle vocal processing to heavy pumping.
Next up is the seven-band stereo graphic EQ, featuring switchable 'warm' and 'saturation' algorithms. Each slider provides up to ±10dB gain, with the left and right channels adjusted independently or linked and monitoring via a row of virtual LEDs. The presets cover standard jobs like panning, the ever-popular radio effect and adding 'air', whilst the EQ in general is both warm and responsive.
Classic Flanger has rotary controls for delay Time, modulation Rate (0.1 to 10 Hz), Depth and Feedback, and Mix and output Level. Unsurprisingly, most of the presets are set up for guitar, and they work well, with very little unwanted noise, even when pushed hard. As well as guitar, pads, strings and drums all works well with this unit, but it's easy to fall into well-trodden effects that sound rather cliched.
Pehaps the simplest of the Classic Series to use is the limiter. A serious shade of slate grey in colour, it sports only a single rotary threshold control ranging from -20dB to 0dB and a peak level meter. Designed to be used on whole mixes, the limiter couldn't be easier — just turn down the threshold to increase the overall loudness. When used subtly, the limiter works well, keeping definition without colouring the mix, but is all too easy to overdo.
Finishing off this collection of effects is Classic Reverb. Room Size is adjustable from 0.62 to 640 square metres, with an adjustable pre-delay of ±150ms and a simple rotary Damping control. The filter section contains a Hi Damp dial and adjustable Lo Cut (20 to 1000 Hz), whilst output controls cover the relative levels of the early reflections, wet/dry mix and overall level. The included presets cover most sizes of room, from shower to grand hall, keeping a reasonably natural response without sounding too harsh, but where this plug-in really comes into its own is on drums. By using the low cut to keep the bass-frequency rumbles under control and high-frequency damping to adjust the brightness, it's easy to get some good effects, from subtle colour to massive-sounding beats.
With the Classic Collection Kjaerhus have come up with a solid set of good-quality plug-ins that are quick and easy to use in just about any production situation. Although these effects may not have the flexibility or user options of other commercially available programs, they get the job done with a minimum of fuss and effort. Out of all the above effects I've found myself returning to the compressor for a quick solution to a thin or quiet sample, and the reverb which, although it won't be to everyone's taste, works well on my preferred style of drum sound.
This collection would also provide a good, user-friendly introduction into the rather confusing world of effects and processing, or just a speedy, quick fix when you'd rather concentrate on the job of making music than get bogged down in effects programming. And since they're free to download, there are very few reasons not to give them a go. Oli Bell
Formats: PC Direct X, VST & RTAS; Mac OS X Audio Units, VST & RTAS
Over the last few years PSP have quietly built up an excellent reputation for the quality of their plug-ins, and Easyverb looks set to continue that trend. As its name suggests, Easyverb provides reverberation effects, but aims to make life easier for the user by replacing most of the traditional parameters such as shape, diffusion, room size, pre-delay, and so on by just two main controls and a choice of algorithms. The two controls in question are Time, which determines the decay time and hence the 'size' of the space, and Damp, which lets you add high-frequency damping to taste.
The clever part is that each of the nine algorithms — Ambience, Room, Chamber, Club, Hall, Arena, Cathedral, Spring and Plate — has its own virtual acoustic construction, complete with different source and 'mic' positions, giving each one a completely different build-up and spread of early reflections, reverb tail and overall sound. A small icon is displayed for the current choice, which helps greatly in understanding the shapes or technologies being simulated.
Ambience provides a short burst of early reflections ideal for livening up drum sounds and the like without adding obvious reverberation, and can be difficult to create with reverb plug-ins that use a single generalised algorithm. Room mimics small rectangular spaces, while Chamber has a slightly more complex dual-sloped ceiling to provide a richer set of reflections. Club is a 'multi-room' with a small stage attached to one end of a larger theatre or club space.
Hall is one of the most complex algorithms, simulating a multi-sloped environment, but like all the others I found it to have a very smooth and non-metallic tail. Arena is a huge hemispherical dome with lots of early reflections but far fewer obvious late reflections due to the lack of hard surfaces, while Cathedral provides the very smooth decay of a huge angular space with lots of hard reflections. Spring models the lumpier dual-mono sounds of multi-spring studio reverbs very effectively, while Plate models the considerably smoother mechanical studio devices of yesteryear, and does so far more convincingly than the other native reverb plug-ins I compared it with, other than the very much more expensive Waves Rennaissance Reverb.
To fine-tune your spaces there are the usual Mix and Output level controls, an Over LED indicator, and Proc(ess) bypass button, plus a very useful two-band shelving EQ section with fully variable turnover frequencies that lets you create darker environments or those sizzling special effects.
Easyverb comes with 51 useful presets, providing all the usual options from tiny rooms through to vast sacred spaces, with a fair sprinkling of extras including various ambiences, guitar amp springs, and plates of varying dimensions. None really take advantage of the EQ section, so there are plenty more new colours left to explore.
PSP have done an excellent job with their varied algorithms, and I judged Easyverb's reverb quality close to (although rather less versatile than) Waves' Trueverb, and significantly more smooth and dense than both TC Works' Native Reverb Plus and Wave Arts' Masterverb. The various rooms and halls are wonderful, even when compared with the far more expensive Waves Rennaissance Reverb — an exceptionally good result for a $69 plug-in.
Donning my nitpicking hat, I did notice some tiny anomalies part way into long Cathedral tails, and subtle whip-like flanging when testing the plate algorithm in mono, but these were subtle in most real-world situations, and in the extreme case of the Phat Drums plate preset the flanging turned into an appealing special effect. I did also miss having adjustable pre-delay, but no doubt that will reappear on PSP's forthcoming and rather more upmarket Mixverb.
Easyverb's rich and smooth sounds do require significantly more CPU overhead than most of its competitors, and this varies quite a bit between algorithms, taking between 4 and 9 percent of my 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor at 44.1kHz. Those with significantly slower machines than mine should bear this in mind (PSP recommend a P4 2GHz processor or faster), but those wishing to work at 96kHz won't be in for too much of a shock, since Easyverb employs downsampling at all sample rates above 50kHz to keep CPU overhead within reasonable limits.
As you have probably gathered, I was very impressed with Easyverb, and it's superb value for money at just $69. It's rare to find a plug-in that's as good at ambiences and small rooms as it is with larger halls and cathedrals, but PSP's individual algorithms do all this with panache, as well as providing far more realistic plates and springs than many other reverbs can manage. Overall, Easyverb certainly lives up to its name — it may be easy to use, but it's not hard to like it! Martin Walker
$69 (EU customers are also liable for VAT).