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Spectrasonics Atmosphere

Software Synthesizer [Mac/PC]
By Paul White

Spectrasonics Atmosphere soft synth.

Spectrasonics' massive sample-based soft synth promises to be the ultimate source for pads, atmospheres and textures.

It's probably not out of order to describe Spectrasonics' Atmosphere as 'eagerly anticipated', especially following the success of Stylus, which was launched earlier this year. However, while Stylus offered some radically new features, Atmosphere is, on the face of it, a very straightforward software implementation of a sample-based synthesizer. I say 'on the face of it', because even though Atmosphere is based on existing synthesis methodology, its core sample library is simply vast. To give you some idea of how vast, most multitimbral workstation synths have between 8 and 32 MB of sample ROM to share between all their core sounds, which in turn means that the samples are often data-compressed to save space, and looped samples are often much shorter than is desirable. By contrast, Atmosphere has a 3.7GB core waveform library covering a fantastic range of sounds, and though it was originally conceived as an 'atmospheric pads' instrument, it is also capable of recreating many types of synth lead and bass sounds.

In a nutshell, Atmosphere's waveforms are organised in such a way as to offer 1000 different sounds, and that's before you start to make changes to the filter, envelope and modulation settings. Furthermore, each patch can comprise two layers, each with its own core sounds, filter, envelope and modulation settings, which means there are one million possible sound combinations, even before you start tweaking the settings.

Supplied on six CD-ROMs, Atmosphere works on both Windows and Mac OS platforms; it is not currently available for Mac OS X, although Spectrasonics say that both OS X VST and Audio Units versions are in development. It can run in VST 2.0, MAS or RTAS environments and has full Pro Tools HD compatibility. You will need a fast machine to run it, and as well as needing almost 4GB of hard drive space to load it, you need plenty of spare RAM, especially if you want to open multiple instances. Recommended minimum computer specs are Pentium III 600MHz (Windows 98, 98SE, ME, 2000 or XP) or Mac G3 500MHz (OS 9.04 to OS 9.2.2). Heavy users may need around 300MB extra RAM over and above their usual requirements. I tested Atmosphere on a Mac G4 800MHz with three-quarters of a Gigabyte of RAM and had no problems at all, either during installation or operation.

Though it is presented as a virtual instrument, the terms of use treat Atmosphere more like a sample library than a synth: only the original purchaser may use it (studios can't make it available to clients, for example), no samples for commercial or Internet distribution can be created using it, and the software may not be resold. Given that so much work went into producing the core sample library, this perhaps isn't surprising as the samples form the bulk of the product, but you need to be aware of these conditions if you're in the habit of letting other people use your synths, whether hard or soft.

Authorisation is via Spectrasonics' own Internet challenge and response system, which provides the necessary unlock code instantly, and there's no problem getting new codes when you want to change computers. Spectrasonics are also pretty flexible, and will issue a second code so you can run Atmosphere on your main computer and your laptop. As delivered, the program will run for two days before requiring authorisation.

Interface

Like Stylus, Atmosphere is based around a customised version of an audio engine developed by French company UVI, and I have to say that the user interface is amongst the most clear and intuitive designs I've seen. Everything is accessed from one main window, where A and B buttons select which of the two layers is currently being worked on. You can either set all the parameters differently for both layers or engage the Link button so that both layers are adjusted together.

Conceptually, each layer of the sound is handled much as it is in any other software sample player. The sounds are loaded directly from the hard drive into RAM via a menu system in which the sounds are subdivided into a number of categories for easy browsing. You can either load a ready-made patch, which can have one or two layers plus all the necessary settings, or you can create your own by loading any of the 1000 sample sets into each layer and then making your own settings. There's no hard disk streaming option.

Level sliders and pan pots are provided for the A and B layers along with independent coarse and fine tuning, while the modulation section includes four separate LFOs, each with speed and depth controls. Modulation destinations within the modulation matrix are pitch, filter, amplitude and pan, and there's a pitch envelope with depth and time controls. A separate envelope generator controls pitch over a four-octave maximum range, where the time knob controls the envelope's decay time.

As in Stylus, there's a resonant master filter (adjustable low-pass to high-pass) for the whole patch, plus separate, multi-mode resonant filters for the layers, each having its own ADSR envelope generator. The usual keyboard tracking and envelope depth controls are provided for the filters, plus there's modulation of the filter attack/release via velocity. A small button selects whether velocity will modify the attack or decay setting, and the amount is controllable.

Similar facilities are afforded the amplitude envelope, though an extra control has been added that adjusts the sample start offset so that you can move the start point to anywhere in the waveform before the loop point. This control is extremely powerful as slow-attack pads can be modified to become fast-attack lead or bass sounds, so experimenting with it is crucial to getting the most out of Atmosphere.

Global controls include a choice of four velocity curves, a Preview button for auditioning sounds without a keyboard and Solo, which engages a mono legato trigger for monosynth emulations. In Solo mode only, there's also a Glide control for creating portamento effects.

Because every voice used increases CPU usage, there's a master voice number selector as well as a master octave switch and a window for setting the MIDI bend range. It's also possible to set your own Continuous Controller assignment for the CC Mod option found in the modulation section, and you can also select 32-bit high-quality playback mode at the expense of RAM overhead. Most sounds are perfectly good with 32-bit mode turned off, but some of the more delicate sounds are arguably smoother-sounding in this mode. Presumably because of CPU loading, you are limited to two layers per patch, not the four or eight offered by some workstation synths.

As with most plug-ins, there's the facility to use dynamic automation with the various controls using MIDI Controller information. Some host audio programs, such as Pro Tools and Logic, can't automate these functions directly from their own automation systems because Atmosphere doesn't declare its parameters to the host application, but you can use an external MIDI controller and then record the changes. Alternatively, in the case of Logic, Hyperdraw may also be used to automate Controller tracks. A complete MIDI Controller chart is provided in the Atmosphere handbook.

Using Atmosphere

You only need to look at the panel controls to realise that Atmosphere isn't going to be difficult to use. The large central window is used for selecting patches from the categorised sub-menus in a manner not unlike the way Emagic's EXS24 works, while the smaller window below it is used for calling up parts to be used in layers. The layer menu takes the same form as the main patch menu except that every patch is further broken down into its two components (where a layered sound is used) so you can select waveforms at core level.

The main sound designations are Ambient, Belltones, Big Swells, Evolving Moods, Noises, Pads, Solo, Strings, Sweeping, Synth Bass, Vinyl and Wave Utility, the last comprising things like tuning tones, test tones and noise (white and pink). These subsections are, in most cases, further divided into even more sections making it very easy to locate specific types of sound. Edited patches can be saved for future use.

With 1000 sounds on offer, it's not easy to give a short description of what Atmosphere actually sounds like, but anyone already familiar with Spectrasonics products won't be surprised to hear that some of the pads have a distinctly Distorted Reality feel to them, even though all the sounds used here are new. There are also more traditional sounds, such as supremely lush analogue and hybrid strings, analogue and digital pads and evolving textures. In addition to the more 'musical' sounds, there are also pads and drones, some of which are very 'filmic', processed noises and sonic effects. Eric Persing and his team have used an impressive array of instruments, software and sound-bending devices to create the core sounds: there's granular synthesis, Metasynth, vintage processors, vocoders and even some acoustic sound sources, including orchestral strings, voices, natural sounds and a number of ethnic and unusual instruments. They've also employed just about every plug-in you can think of, plus a raft of vintage keyboards — but as you might expect, the real success of this product comes down to the imagination with which these devices have been used. I'm not going to pretend I've played with every one of the 1000 patches, let alone their million permutations when layered, but I have visited a lot of them and spent several happy hours experimenting with my own combinations and parameter settings.

Atmosphere doesn't entirely replace a hardware workstation synth, as you don't get all those acoustic pianos, electric pianos, slapped basses, orchestral instruments, guitar samples and so on, but the pad and analogue synth side is very well represented, and to a very much higher standard than is possible with the limited RAM available to hardware instruments. And after all, if you want good orchestral sounds or pianos, you need look no further than your software sampler and a suitable library.

Atmosphere's ability to recreate classic monosynth and polysynth sounds is pretty impressive too, and with a choice of four different filter modes, the tonal range of the original instruments can often be exceeded. To my ears at any rate, the filters sound pretty sweet, and they will self-oscillate at maximum resonance. Most of the analogue synth sounds are convincingly organic with suitably huge, hard-hitting basses where appropriate. Eric and chums have also come up with some pretty imaginative names to go with their patches, but might I suggest 'Jurassic Flatulence' to go with the more raspy of the analogue bass sounds?

Operating Atmosphere is dead simple, though don't forget to experiment with that sample start offset parameter, and if the sounds aren't rich enough for you as they come (and most of them are plenty rich enough), you can always feed them through a few plug-ins. Though you can't load your own samples, it should take quite a while before you exhaust the possibilities of all the core sounds.

It's hard to criticise any aspect of Atmosphere when you get so much for around the same price as a standard plug-in synth or a decent sample CD library, though I'd have liked even more Wavestation-type evolving textures (of course it might only be myself and Martin Walker who keep asking for these!) or maybe more rhythmic processing (ideally linked to tempo) built-in. However, Spectrasonics promise that updates will be forthcoming, and say that these could include not just new facilities but more core sounds too — so if there are more Wavestation fans out there, keep lobbying!

In sum, Atmosphere is everything it promised to be and more. If you're a fan of Spectrasonics samples and you use a lot of pads or non-emulative synth sounds, you will want Atmosphere — it's as simple as that. Atmosphere is easy to use, but once you've heard it, I think you'll find it hard to do without.

Second Opinion

You might think that releasing a 'sample + synthesis' VST Instrument would scarcely raise an eyebrow nowadays. So why has Spectrasonics' Atmosphere been one of the most eagerly awaited soft synths this year? Well, as with all 'must have' instruments, it's down to what it sounds like. The vast 3.7GB Atmosphere soundset has been largely created by Eric Persing of Distorted Reality fame, whose sound libraries must have featured on more albums, film and TV scores than anyone else's. And, by adding a soft-synth engine to access his sounds, he's opened up new possibilities as to what you can do with them.

Installation on my PC was painless, and the Spectrasonics web site gave me an instantaneous response to my challenge. If you store the soundset on an separate data partition you only need it once on your hard drive to access it from various Windows partitions, although you will need to go through the challenge/response hoop again for each one.

This was my first experience with the Spectrasonics soft-synth interface, and I was impressed by how intuitive it was. I doubt that some people will even need to open the manual, but do make the effort, since it's not only very well written, but also contains suggestions, tips, and tricks, plus a fascinating equipment list.

The sounds are truly inspiring, and span a huge range from hard analogue through lush acoustic (there are some remarkably expressive string ensembles) to the softest of digital. If you like evolving sounds, as I do, having two layers, each with a long but different loop length, means that some combinations may still be meandering after several minutes, especially once you add slow modulating filter envelopes.

But Atmosphere isn't just about pads: the solo and synth sounds are rich, fat and fruity, making most other soft synths in my collection sound positively anaemic by comparison — try 'Bloated', for instance, from the Solo folder. The only ones that came close were Reaktor and VAZ 2010, but then these don't have the atmospheric pads.

CPU overhead is also modest, since like the Wavestation many of the patches are so complex that five-note polyphony is perfectly adequate, and these took under 10 percent of my Pentium III 1GHz processor, while even the string pads seem happy with 12 voices. Whacking up a typical dual-layer patch with multiple filters up to 32 voices took 57 percent, compared with 50 percent for NI's Pro 53, but the beauty of Atmosphere is that its sounds are already 'complete'. While many soft synths sound raw until you pass them through a plug-in or two, adding extra overhead, Atmosphere sounds wonderful by itself, with perhaps a quick dab of global reverb to sit it in the mix.

Some musicians will grumble that you can't sync the LFOs to the host tempo clock (this is promised in a future update), while I'd like to see a relative link mode to supplement the current absolute one, so that you can modify a parameter on both layers simultaneously without immediately forcing both to the same value. However, these are tiny points. Just as GigaStudio encouraged many musicians to abandon hardware samplers altogether after hearing the stunning realism of its acoustic libraries, Atmosphere is for me the first VST Instrument that will do the same to hardware synths. Anyone who uses pads must buy this —it's as simple as that. Martin Walker

Pros

  • Straightforward user interface.
  • Vast range of high-quality core sounds and textures.

Cons

  • You need plenty of spare RAM and hard drive space to use Atmosphere, not to mention a relatively fast computer.

Summary

Atmosphere is a superb-sounding and affordable product that's a must-have for anyone who uses a lot of pads, non-emulative synth sounds and evolving textures.

information

£225 including VAT.

Time + Space +44 (0)1837 55200.

www.timespace.com

www.spectrasonics.net

test spec

  • Apple Mac G4 800MHz with 768MB RAM, running Mac OS 9.2
  • Tested with: Emagic Logic Audio Platinum v5.3
Published February 2003