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TC Works Mercury 1

Monophonic Software Synth By Paul Ward
Published February 2001

TC Works Mercury 1

Hardly a week seems to go by without the announcement of another VST instrument, and virtual analogue software synths have been particularly common of late. But when a company like TC Works gets involved, it's worth taking notice. Paul Ward plugs in...

Mercury 1 is a VST‑compatible monophonic dual‑oscillator (plus sub‑oscillator) virtual synth. It is conceived very much along 'classic' analogue lines, with a smattering of standard waveforms and a 24dB/octave filter. Each loaded instance of Mercury 1 actually consists of four monosynths, with four‑way splitting and multitimbral capabilities.

Installation is relatively straightforward, if registration is not. Mercury 1 uses a hard‑disk installation based on a challenge/response mechanism. When you try to access Mercury 1 for the first time it offers a seemingly random list of short words. This string of words, along with your serial number, can then be entered into the registration page at the manufacturer's web site, or sent as an email. They then usually respond within two days, sending you another list of words with which to respond to the authorisation challenge. Once you type these words in, your hard drive is authorised to run Mercury 1; in the meantime you have 21 days' use of Mercury 1 in its unauthorised form. I have to say that this was all a bit of a palaver, and is reliant on the buyer having convenient Internet access, which I know is not always the case. To be fair, though, I did receive my registration details within 24 hours.

Loading Mercury 1 into your host application is just as for any other VST Instrument; I ran it with both Cubase VST and Logic with no apparent problems. The manual also gives details of how to load Mercury 1 into TC Works' very own (Mac‑based) Spark editor, but not having this piece of software, I can't comment on how well this works. Once you've loaded Mercury 1, you can then access its editing window, which is where all the fun is to be had.

I'd say that Mercury 1's editing panel is very reminiscent of an old Roland SH‑series synth, even down to the chunky silver knobs for oscillator waveform and footage. An improvement over such old hardware, however, are the small blue 'LEDs' under each control that display a digital reading of the control's position. These are of a '1‑127' nature, and personally I would prefer to read dB, Hz and milliseconds, but they are very welcome all the same.

The Plug‑in Window

The nested MIDI modulation menus found under the Ctrl button.The nested MIDI modulation menus found under the Ctrl button.

The accompanying documentation refers to each of the Mercury 1's four monophonic, dual‑oscillator synths as a 'Voice'. Oscillator 1 presents a palette of sine, sawtooth, square and noise waveforms, whilst Oscillator 2 has a choice of square, pulse, sawtooth and triangle waveforms. Additionally, a square‑wave sub‑oscillator is tied an octave below Oscillator 1's pitch. When using Oscillator 2's pulse waveform the pulse width can be modulated, either by a static amount, by the LFO, by Envelope 1, or an inverted version of Envelope 1's control value. However, there's no way to mix varying amounts of each of these modulation sources. Similarly, oscillator pitch may be modulated by one of LFO, Envelope 1, or inverted Envelope 1. Footage for each of the oscillators is selectable over a range from 32 to four feet. Oscillator 2 can be interval tuned in semitone steps over +/‑1 octave and detuned by +/‑50 cents to thicken dual‑oscillator patches. Oscillator sync and ring modulation are provided — and can both be used at the same time if required.

Glide is a simple fixed‑time implementation with a single rate control; a fixed time/fixed rate option would have been nice. There is no option to produce legato‑fingered glide for TB303‑style switched portamento. Neither did Mercury 1 seem to respond to portamento on/off MIDI messages.

A simple mixer allows for the volume of both oscillators and the sub‑oscillator to be balanced before passing into the filter.

Mercury 1's filter is a 24dB/octave low‑pass type, which is pretty much the standard for classic synth emulation, although an option to switch in 12dB and 18dB variants would have been nice, allowing for more accurate emulation of typical Oberheim and TB303 filter characteristics. Resonance goes right up into self‑oscillation — and very authentic it sounds too. Cutoff frequency may be modulated by either of the two envelope generators, the LFO and key‑tracking in simultaneously variable amounts. Whichever envelope generator is chosen as a modulation source can be used in its normal or inverted state.

The envelope generators are simple ADSR types. Envelope 2 is selectively triggered from key presses, or from the LFO for 'pulsed' sounds. Attack, decay and release are fully variable over a 1 millisecond to 10 second range. It's a small point, but the scaling of the envelope controls felt very natural to me, which is not something I usually find to be the case with virtual instruments.

In typical Roland monosynth style, the Amplifier section offers you the choice of a gate or envelope to open the amp. When you are stuck with a single envelope generator, applying the gate to the amplifier can be very useful (I use this trick often on my S9), but since Mercury 1 offers two envelopes anyway I wonder how often I'd turn to it. A Drive control pushes Mercury 1's output to create a pseudo‑distortion effect, using TC Works' proprietary SoftSat analogue emulation. And quite well it works too, although high settings have the habit of being a little unpleasant on the ears. A Volume control at the right of the Amplifier section sets the overall level for the patch.

The LFO is supplied with control sliders for rate and delay. Sine, sawtooth, square and sample and hold waveforms are available. Rate can be set to a free‑running speed or be synchronised to the MIDI Clock supplied by the host application. When in MIDI sync the rate slider controls the timebase (ie. whole, half, and quarter notes), and the results are effortlessly inspiring. The LFO can also be set to return to the start of its waveform cycle on receipt of MIDI note events.

In the centre of the control panel is a drop‑down menu labelled 'Ctrl'. Behind here are a series of nested menu options (see below) that open up a host of MIDI modulation features accessible to velocity, mod wheel and aftertouch. Modulation amounts are shown in percentages, which can be specified as any amount to two decimal places, although +/‑25 percent stepped values are instantly accessible from the menus without having to do any typing.

Mercury 1's keyboard, pitch and mod wheel may be accessed via your mouse, which is handy for checking settings away from your physical keyboard. Maximum pitch‑bend amount is set in the LED above the virtual pitch wheel here. There is no option to hide the keyboard away, which would be useful when screen space starts to get cramped.

Looking at the top of Mercury 1's Edit window, you notice a set of four 'voice tabs', one for each of the four assignable synths. By clicking on one of the tabs you get to see the current control panel settings for that particular Voice. Each Voice may be muted (this frees up processing power) or soloed for closer checking during edit sessions and a MIDI indicator lights to show activity on each Voice. MIDI channel is selectable, or can be set to 'A' for 'All'. Each Voice has a definable transpose, key and velocity range, which makes for a very flexible set of options for key and velocity switching. Pan position is set here, as is the pair of outputs for each Voice to use. Mercury 1 offers four pairs of stereo outputs, which will appear in your host program's mixer, just like any other audio channel.

Presets

The Program Browser gives easy access to all preset sounds.The Program Browser gives easy access to all preset sounds.

Named presets are selected in the tab area. The currently chosen preset name for the other three Voices can be seen at the top of the window, even when they are not the actively chosen Voice — this is a very well‑thought out aid to editing. You can scroll through presets using a pair of up/down arrows to the left of the current preset name. It would be a useful feature to be able to click and hold the preset name to see a list of presets, because clicking through the names one by one becomes a bit of a chore — and quite why the preset names are duplicated both on the tab and on the line below the tab, I don't know. Nor do I understand why you can no longer move to a new preset by using the up/down arrows once a preset is edited, because the arrows disappear! Help is at hand, because presets can also be chosen within the Program Browser (see right). The Browser is accessed from a (strangely placed) button in the centre of the main control panel. In here you can page through preset names, load, save, copy, paste and rename presets to your heart's content. I feel it would have been better to open this browser from a double‑click of the preset name, or at least place the button in the same vicinity.

Mercury 1 transmits MIDI data from its control panel and these changes may be recorded into your sequencer for playback, whereupon your ministrations will be faithfully replayed. The manual provides a list of MIDI controller number assignments which will help anyone wanting to use a hardware controller to edit Mercury 1 on the fly.

I did find Mercury 1 to be fairly processor‑hungry. I ran a simple four‑part sequence within Cubase VST and assigned the four parts to each of Mercury 1's voices. This used up around half of my Mac's processing power. I found that my computer 'choked' every so often, even when soloing a single Mercury 1 patch, and I then had to stop and restart the sequencer to get things moving again.

I can't finish this review without mentioning the manual, which is OK for anyone familiar with analogue synthesis, but doesn't seem to offer much help for newcomers. Many of the explanatory notes for individual controls are no more than a single sentence; I would really have expected a little more in the way of examples and guidance. I'd suggest that one of the main reasons for buying a plug‑in synth such as this is because, for one reason or another, you do not have access to a hardware equivalent. Surely, you are therefore less likely to be familiar with the architecture and terminology of analogue synthesizers?

Conclusion

Mercury 1 certainly sounds good — very classy, in fact. There's plenty of warmth there and I found some superb results in the bass registers. I usually find it a good test to attempt to emulate the sound of my Moog Taurus bass pedals — and in this instance I got pretty close! The envelopes seem very responsive and at minimum values produce sharp, clear transients, and the filter is exemplary. I'd say that the overall sound lies somewhere between a Sequential Pro One and a Korg Mono/Poly — and that's not bad company to keep. Furthermore, there is a wealth of MIDI modulation options hiding under the control menu, and the voice velocity/key splitting will be of great use to many.

But the amount of processor load does seem disproportionate to the sophistication of the control surface. This may be indicative of the calculations required to produce such an undoubtedly rich sound — that's certainly TC Works' justification — but we are only dealing with a monophonic synth emulation here. I tried loading up four instances of Native Instruments' Pro‑Five and found that I could seemingly run these polyphonically for the same processor load as Mercury 1's four monosynths.

The placing of some of the controls is also odd, in my opinion. Why, for example, are the controls for Oscillator 2's Interval and Detune down alongside the mixer? Why does the Program menu live in the middle of the control panel? Why do I have to go to the Program Browser to move away from an edited version of a preset? These are minor niggles, admittedly, but I just don't get the same sense of immediacy and ease of use that I experienced with the likes of Steinberg's Model E, or Waldorf's Wave 2.V PPG emulation, for example.

If your primary concern is sound, then Mercury 1 is a worthy contender, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it on that basis — but you need to make sure your computer is up to the task before you part with your cash. Try downloading the demo version from www.tcworks.de and see how it fares in your setup.

Mercury 1 — Key Features

  • Four‑part multitimbral monophonic virtual analogue synthesizer.
  • Two oscillators plus sub‑oscillator.
  • Sine, sawtooth, triangle, square, pulse (with PWM) and noise oscillator waveforms.
  • Oscillator sync and ring modulation.
  • Resonant 24dB/octave low‑pass filter.
  • Two envelope generators.
  • MIDI modulation capabilities.
  • LFO synchronisable over MIDI.
  • Sine, sawtooth, square and sample & hold LFO waveforms.
  • TC SoftSat drive for analogue‑like distortion possibilities.

System Requirements

MAC OS:

  • Power Mac G3/G4.
  • 64Mb of RAM (128Mb from Mac OS 9).
  • Mac OS 8.6 or higher.
  • VST Instrument‑compatible sequencer such as Logic Audio or Cubase VST.

WINDOWS:

  • Pentium II or better.
  • 64Mb of RAM.
  • Windows 95, 98, 2000 or NT 4.0.
  • VST Instrument‑compatible sequencer such as Logic Audio or Cubase VST.

REVIEW MACHINE:

  • Power Mac G3 300MHz with 256Mb of RAM.
  • Mac OS 9.0.4.
  • Korg 1212 soundcard.
  • Steinberg Cubase VST v4.1 rev2.
  • Emagic Logic Audio v4.61.

Problems With Emagic Logic Audio

The following known problems occur when using Mercury 1 within Emagic's Logic Audio sequencer:

  • Only one MIDI channel can be used per instance of the Mercury 1 plug‑in.
  • Logic Audio does not currently support MIDI sync, so LFO sync will not work.
  • If more than one Mercury 1 synth is assigned the same MIDI channel, they must share the same audio output.
  • Edited presets are not automatically saved with a song.

Pros

  • 'Authentic', rich analogue sound.
  • Lots of easily accessed MIDI modulation options.
  • Song sync‑able LFO.
  • Velocity and key‑splitting available.

Cons

  • Four pairs of stereo outputs.
  • Needs a fast processor for practical multitimbral use.
  • User interface could do with a few tweaks.
  • Monophonic only.

Summary

Mercury 1 is a little demanding on processor power, and its layout and implementation are occasionally irritating, but it is capable of some truly inspirational sounds. Make sure you try before you buy to see if your computer is up to the task.

Published February 2001