The latest version of the popular VAZ software synth combines the simplicity and low cost of a preset design with some advanced options from the full‑fat VAZ Modular.
When Software Technology first released their stand‑alone VAZ+ soft synth, many musicians were impressed by how 'analogue' it sounded, particularly in the filter department. Based on classic two‑oscillator/filter/amplifier monosynth designs such as the ARP Odyssey and Sequential Pro One, but with the added twist of an integral pattern‑based sequencer inspired by that of Roland's TB303, its £29.99 price tag ensured healthy sales and many happy customers.
VAZ+ was followed by the somewhat more ambitious stand‑alone VAZ Modular 2 (reviewed in SOS March 2000), whose 66 versatile high‑level modules could be assembled into the soft synth of your dreams. Up to 16 multitimbral synths were available, each with up to 16‑note polyphony and its own sequencer, plus a mixer with its own plug‑ins, and support for other plug‑ins in both VST and DX formats. At £210, VM2 provided fat sounds and wonderful filters, and by this time Software Technology were even providing 'is it/isn't it?' comparisons with classic hardware synths on their web site.
However, an open‑ended design is never as CPU‑efficient as a preset one, as you have to cater for every possible routing option, so with VAZ 2010, designer Martin Fay has combined the best from both products. Like VAZ Modular, 2010 allows you to launch up to 16 synths, each with its own sequencer, and mix their outputs together in the associated mixer. In complexity, each synth falls somewhere between those offered by VAZ+ and the ones that come with VAZ Modular, being a preset design, but with quite a few more options than VAZ+.
Moreover, VAZ 2010 not only runs as a stand‑alone synth, but also as a DX or VST Instrument, or even as a DX or VST plug‑in for processing audio tracks. It has sample‑accurate playback timing, and its new Intelligent Processing System claims to significantly reduce CPU overhead. At £129, this could prove ideal for the musician on a tight budget.
VAZ 2010 runs under Windows 95, 98, ME, NT, 2000 or XP, and has a hierarchy that is very easy to understand. The basic element is the Synth, whose various modules are laid out across five columns, and whose settings can be saved as a Patch. Up to 16 synths can be simultaneously loaded, and each one has an associated step sequencer. Their combined output is fed into a 16‑channel Mixer, complete with insert and send effects, and this entire multitimbral setup can be saved as a Bank.
The main window has a menu strip at top and a status bar across the bottom, and contains whatever synth, sequencer and mixer windows you've opened. Most users will start in the Options menu, which has manual Mute/Unmute and automatic Background Mute functions for stopping and starting sound generation, and also lets you launch the Preferences dialogue, which provides access to the 'engine' controls.
The Audio page lets you choose MME, DirectSound, or ASIO drivers for the program's main audio output, as well as multiple sub outputs if you have a multi‑port soundcard. MIDI preferences include Input Port, an optional MIDI key to start/stop the sequencers, and the option to choose which two controller numbers will become the Controller A and B modulation sources (more on modulation options later).
The Synth page covers Master Tuning and optional Microtuning (a selection of tunings, including equal‑tempered, just intonation, quarter‑note and reversed equal temperament are supplied), as well as offering various other minor options. You can load VAZ+ version 1.6 and 1.7 patches into VAZ 2010, and the Import page lets you tweak some import settings. The final page, Plugins, lets you point to your VST plug‑ins folder, so that its contents appear in the VAZ 2010 mixer.
Back in the main window, there are a few more menus to contend with:
- The MIDI menu has options for global transposition, an Auto Thru that routes all incoming MIDI data to the currently selected 'child' window, details of current MIDI controller mappings for automation purposes, and various arpeggio functions.
- The Patch menu launches a Patch List editor for the currently selected synth, where you can allocate and name patches to be accessed by MIDI program changes.
- The Edit menu is only currently used by the Sequencer windows, and offers copy, paste, clear and randomise functions.
- The File menu always provides Bank Open and Save (as well as New Bank and New Synth) options. However, it also has other options, which vary depending on which type of child window is currently selected. If you're working in a Synth window, various Patch management functions are offered, while the Sequencer page File menu lets you load and save sequences, and the Mixer window File menu options manage mixes.
The status bar mentioned earlier has three sections. On the left are Play and Stop buttons that control all the sequencers, along with a Sync button that either locks the synths to an external MIDI clock in stand‑alone mode, or to the host when run as a DXi or VSTi. On the right is a readout of the current parameter value and CPU overhead, plus a MIDI activity indicator, while the middle section provides quick‑access buttons for the mixer, each active synth, and the associated sequencer for each synth.
Using the quick‑access buttons makes zipping about fairly easy, although once you have half a dozen or more synths and sequencers open, the main window looks very cluttered — perhaps an extra option to display just one synth or sequencer window at a time might be useful? Moreover, the status‑bar buttons eventually become so small that their labels are unreadable, although you can still use the Windows menu options to switch between them.
This page is the most important component of the whole design of VAZ 2010. When I first read that the new synth was to fall somewhere between the simpler VAZ+ and the free‑form VAZ Modular in complexity, I was a little concerned that it might be disappointing to existing users of the latter. With two oscillators, three LFOs, two envelopes, a single filter and a couple of amplifiers, you might expect plenty of 'analogue' sounds and little else — but you'd be wrong. Martin Fay has actually put together an extremely useful synth that is far more versatile than its initial appearance would suggest.
Each of the two oscillators has octave 'footage' buttons, coarse and fine pitch sliders, and two Frequency Modulation sliders, each with a wide choice of possible modulation sources, accessed from a drop‑down menu (see 'Modulation Options' box). All modulation sliders also have +/‑ buttons to select direction. The oscillators can each generate one of five waveforms. The Sawtooth wave can be smoothly morphed through to a triangle shape using the Waveshape slider, and altered in real time using the Waveshape Modulation slider. Switching to the Pulse wave option changes the function of these two sliders to pulse width and pulse width modulation control. The Multi‑Saw wave overcomes the limitations of the synth's two‑oscillator format by providing a combination of four sawtooth waves (this time with variable Detune and Detune Modulation available via the two sliders), for some wonderfully fat sounds. The Sample waveform option is even more versatile — although it defaults to a sine wave, clicking on the Wave Source box launches the Sample Loader window, and using this you can allocate one or more multisamples across the keyboard range. Each multisample can be either one‑shot, looped, or even a wavetable. If the last option is chosen, you can sweep through the wavetable's contents using the Wave Position and Wavetable Modulation sliders.
If you select multiple samples in the 'Load' dialogue, using the Ctrl key, their tuning information is used to map them to suitable key ranges, while a special Drum loading option leaves the pitch alone, and maps each sample to the next available key, starting from the bottom of the selected range. Full details are provided on how to make your own waveshape or wavetable files, as are a few sample files, and Software Technology already have various other free wavetable downloads on their web site.
The fifth and final waveform option is different for each oscillator. The 'Ext' option of Oscillator 1 lets you treat an external audio input through VAZ 2010, and this can be ring‑modulated with Oscillator 2, while the Sync option of Oscillator 2 causes its phase to be reset whenever Oscillator 1 starts its wave cycle, for effective lead synth sounds.
The two oscillators pass into a simple mixer with three sliders, the third having five possible sources for its input. You can mix in the ring‑modulated version of Osc 1 and 2, white noise, a keyboard‑tracking version of LFO1 (which is then renamed as Oscillator 3), the Mod Amplifier, or an External input signal. The Mixer output passes into the Filter module, which has Cutoff, Resonance and Bandwidth sliders, along with three identical ones for Cutoff Modulation. However, the Mode dialogue hides various other filtering options — two‑pole filters are available in low‑pass, high‑pass and band‑pass types, with both variable resonance (Type A) and variable resonance bandwidth (Type B) versions. The Bandwidth slider is only active with the latter choice. The Type C filter again has three options, but this time they're all low‑pass. These comprise yet another two‑pole variation, with a broad resonant peak but passing less of the other frequencies, and two four‑pole algorithms, whose cascaded two‑pole sections have a cutoff Separation slider to generate twin peaks, giving Resonance or Separation modulation options respectively. The latter is particularly effective for creating moving vowel sounds. There's also a Slew Limit Frequency option, which provides better cutoff control but changes the sound of FM patches.
The filtered output is then processed by the Amplifier which, in addition to two Amplitude Modulation sliders, also provides up to 48dB of extra gain to drive the associated soft‑clipper into Overdrive. There are two identical ADSR Envelopes, with some versatile triggering and cycling options, but normally Envelope 1 will be routed to the Amplifier, since this is optionally in charge of the new IPS (Intelligent Processing System). Although each synth can be allocated a fixed number of voices (between one and 16), using the Poly control in the Performance section, IPS is an optional dynamic voice‑allocation system that disables a voice whenever Envelope 1 is fully 'closed', and returns its CPU overhead to the system.
There are three low‑frequency oscillators, which have accompanying Rate sliders with flashing 'LED' indicators. Although LFO1 and LFO2 appear directly below the two oscillators, they are not hard‑wired to them. Instead, they can be chosen as sources by any Modulation control. LFO1 can generate a saw or pulse wave, and has its own waveshape slider, while LFO2 offers triangle and sample‑and‑hold options. A slider associated with LFO2 provides two handy functions, in triangle mode operating as a Delay control (particularly good for delayed vibrato), and in S/H mode as an Output Lag control, to convert the staircase waveform into a ramp. LFOs one and two each have a Trig option to restart the LFO cycle each time you trigger a new note. LFO3 is altogether simpler, with a single triangle/sine waveform switch.
The Mod Amplifier can control the output level of any modulation source, and has its own Amplitude Modulation slider. It's a useful way to control the depth of other effects, especially as there are various external control options, such as velocity, pressure, and MIDI controllers. You could, for instance, select an LFO as source and MIDI Pressure as modulation, and then select the Mod Amplifier for Frequency Modulation, to vary vibrato depth using aftertouch.
The final part of VAZ 2010's synth architecture is the Performance section, which provides Mono, Poly and Unison voice modes, High, Low and Duo triggering options for the Mono or Unison modes, and global control of pitch‑bend range, voice detuning, portamento, polyphony and MIDI channel adjustment. Four buttons at the bottom play a Note, display the associated Sequencer, activate the Arpeggiator, and select arpeggiator mode and range.
To give some idea of the versatility of VAZ 2010, here's the full list of source options available to each modulation slider (in addition to 'none' — no modulation source):
- Envelope 1
- Envelope 2
- Mod Amplifier
- Lag Processor
- Oscillator 1
- Oscillator 1 Pitch
- Oscillator 2 Noise
- External Input
- Sequencer A
- Sequencer B
- MIDI Velocity
- MIDI Pressure
- MIDI Control A
- MIDI Control B.
Each synth has an associated sequencer in a separate window. These will look familiar to existing VAZ users, but there have been various enhancements for the new version, as well as a graphic makeover, with more colours, smarter knobs and switches, and careful regrouping of some controls for an easier‑to‑understand layout.
Up to 16 chained patterns are available from the sequencer, each with between one and 16 steps. Each pattern has a note slider, variable over the 128‑note MIDI range, for setting pitches, plus buttons for Double‑length steps, Rests, Slides (no retrigger between notes) and Accents. Beneath the note sliders are two further rows labelled Control A and B, whose output can be routed to any modulation slider. One popular use of these will be to sync filter cutoff and resonance with note patterns. Each slider row also has a 'Gang' toggle switch that lets you move all controls together (very useful for key changes).
The Pattern Mode area now has a Voice Select section, where you can choose which of the available voices is being edited, and there's a new Mute button alongside the note sliders, to silence every step for the currently selected voice. Two drop‑down boxes let you choose first and last steps for pattern playback (for instance, 1‑4 or 3‑11), while playback order can be forward or backward Cycle, or Random. Global controls are available for Gate Time (momentary to legato), and Accent Level.
The 16 buttons in the Pattern Selection area let you choose which pattern is being edited, and also indicate the current pattern during playback. You can choose the first and last patterns in the sequence, and select various play modes — a single Pattern only, Cycle (forward or backward), Random, or the rather more ambitious Song. A sequence of up to 255 patterns can be created in the Song Editor window, launched by clicking on the Edit button, and every step can have its own transposition value.
Each sequencer has its own Tempo slider, but all are started and stopped in perfect sync from any of the Play buttons, although once the status bar Sync button is active they all lock to an external or host clock as explained earlier.
The 16:2 Mixer has also had a makeover since VAZ Modular, and now has much clearer graphics, although its functions remain largely unchanged. Each of the 16 input (Synth) channel strips has an insert point, overall level fader, On/off button (all synth processing is disabled when this is in its 'off' position), Pan control, and two Aux sends, although (unusually) signal flow is from the bottom upwards.
The Master section is now on the right rather than in the middle, and has two insert points (one pre‑fader, one post‑fader), master faders (plus associated 'Link' button), and the master controls for the two Auxes. As is the case with both channel and master insert effects, the Aux effects are chosen by clicking on their selector boxes, whereupon a list of options appears. The contents of this list include the eight bundled VAZ plug‑ins, followed by whatever VST plug‑ins you have installed on your computer, then all those in DirectX format. Even VST and DX Instruments appear in the list, and can be chosen and launched, although I can't quite see the point of this.
Each insert or aux effect slot has its own Bypass and Edit buttons; clicking the latter launches the plug‑in window itself. Happily, VAZ 2010 not only provides a generic interface for those VST plug‑ins that don't have dedicated front panels, but also lets you access both presets and banks.
Five of the bundled plug‑ins were also seen in VAZ Modular, namely a three‑voice Chorus, stereo Delay, Flange (with positive or negative feedback), Phase (with between two and 12 filter stages), and a Reverb that's surprisingly usable in the context of synth sounds. New to this package is auto‑pan, with shape and position limit controls. Also new are two additional entries to the plug‑in list, although neither modifies sounds in any way. The Chained plug‑in allows up to four plug‑ins to be chained together, and you can change their order at any time. This not only allows more complex insert chains to be assembled, but also more refined global Aux effects — reverb followed by EQ or chorus, for example. The second of the two is the Sub Output plug‑in. As I mentioned earlier, the Preferences dialogue lets you choose multiple sub outputs if your soundcard has spare ones available, and the Sub Output plug‑in is used to route individual synth channels to these. It has its own level faders, and a Thru switch lets you decide whether or not the signal also appears at the main output. You could, for instance use Sub Output plug‑ins with inserts, to patch individual instruments into rack effects or an external mixer, or with one of the Aux sends, to patch in an external reverb for global use.
After a thorough reading of the excellent on‑line help file, I found all aspects of VAZ 2010 very easy to use, as well as quick to set up, and was just as impressed with its sound quality as I was with that of VAZ Modular. The filters really are rich and creamy, and being able to keep chained insert effects associated with a synth really helps in creating polished results.
Perhaps understandably, this rich sound comes at a cost. Running 32 voices on my Pentium III 1GHz PC took 58 percent of my CPU overhead, compared with 45 percent for Steinberg's Model E and 32 percent for NI's Pro 52 soft synths. However, I still managed to run a hefty 52 voices simultaneously on my PIII 1GHz PC, with my Echo Mia running at 4ms ASIO latency, when the VAZ CPU meter was reading 90 percent.
The VSTi version of VAZ 2010 conked out at about 43 voices on my PC, running inside Cubase 5.1, again with 4ms latency, and I managed 32 voices inside Sonar 2.0, with 20ms latency, using my MME drivers. However, the IPS voice‑allocation function worked well, so I'm sure you'd manage more voices in a typical song, without obvious note‑robbing, if you wanted to, although many analogue sounds don't need huge polyphony anyway, especially when pattern‑sequenced or arpeggiated.
There are plenty of options for external automation — both the Synth/Sequencer/Insert Effect chain and the Mixer have their own MIDI Controller Mapping windows where you can allocate any controller number to each parameter. Alternatively, use the MIDI Learn function, by right‑clicking a control and then moving the desired hardware knob. You can also use VAZ 2010 as an effect plug‑in, either by patching in the External oscillator waveform option, or selecting External Input for the third Mixer input, setting polyphony to one, and triggering the synth engine from a MIDI track.
Like that of VAZ+, the preset design of VAZ 2010 is extremely well thought out, but it offers more options at almost every stage, and provides far greater opportunities for creative patch creation than is at first apparent. While some of the advanced features of VAZ Modular (such as the Granular Oscillator and triple Vowel Filter) are missing, VAZ 2010 still provides a vast array of possibilites. This time around, the External Input options also make more sense, as you can use them to treat audio tracks when VAZ is running inside a suitable host application.
There are loads of commercial 'analogue' soft synths available these days, but VAZ 2010 provides many more options than most, without being any more expensive, and it has that highly regarded VAZ 'sound'. It's still more processor‑hungry than many of its competitors, but we can't have everything.
The five sound banks supplied with VAZ 2010 include an impressive Brandenburg Concerto snippet in the style of Wendy Carlos, and an effective Depeche Mode pastiche. However, given the almost total compatibility with VAZ+ sounds, it's hardly surprising that there's plenty on offer in the bundled patch library. The 561 patches are neatly sorted into 18 folders, and range from synth leads, pads, classics and atmospheres, to drums, guitars and basses, plus strings, brass and many other categories.
The Open Patch dialogue can optionally load in associated sequences and insert effects, and has an incredibly useful Audition option that either automatically plays the associated sequence (making wading through dozens of patches much quicker and easier), or lets you play the currently selected patch, using the computer or MIDI keyboard, before you open it. Quite a few different sound authors are credited for their contributions — some of which are very impressive — to the sound library. Here are a few favourites of mine:
- 'Wholelotgoingon', by Ian Webster, in three variations, provides complex and evolving sound sequences, created with slowly‑changing pulse width modulation and rhythmic variation of filter cutoff by the sequencer, an LFO, and oscillator pitch.
- 'Ghoxts' (sic) is a spooky sound that would be ideal for heightening the tension in a Doctor Who episode. It features parallel tuned oscillators with noise and waveshape modulation mixed in with their ring‑modulated product.
- 'Bypass' is a resonant distorted bass sound from developer Martin Fay, surprisingly created by high‑pass filtering followed by plenty of overdrive. This proves that lateral thinking can often generate completely new sounds.
- 'TranceArp' is another Martin Fay creation, starting with a fat, dual‑oscillator, detuned sawtooth sound. He's made it even fatter by selecting two voices and setting them to unison mode, animating them using the built‑in arpeggiator, and then thickening to taste with stereo delays.
- Ja!' generates the Germanic affirmative very effectively, using the special features of filter separation modulation, in yet another Fay creation.