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U–he Bazille

Software Synthesizer
By Paul Nagle

U–he’s Bazille is a complex synth capable of an astonishing variety of sounds.

Bazille is Urs Heckman’s latest creation and a part of U–he’s ongoing ‘Berlin Modular’ experiment. This stemmed from fond memories of a Roland System 100M and bore early fruit in the powerful ACE (Any Cable Everywhere) soft synth. Taking a different tack to other modulars, Bazille is equipped with four digital oscillators that dispense Yamaha–inspired FM alongside Casio–style PD (Phase Distortion). These souped–up technologies from the ’80s are accompanied by the intriguingly named FR (Fractal Resonance) and the architecture features no fewer than four multi-mode filters, two LFOs, two ramp generators, four envelope generators, a step sequencer and a host of, often multi–functional, utility modules. Unlike some virtual modulars, Bazille has a finite number of each component, all fixed in position.

Those with a smattering of German will opt for the pronunciation ‘batzilla’, while others might not have progressed beyond ‘Ba–siiil’, as bawled by Sybil Fawlty. Fortunately there’s way more to Bazille (it means bacterium) than how you say it.

Modular Mash–up

Available in VST 2, AU and AAX formats (32– and 64–bit), Bazille (like Diva before it) is no lightweight. To do it justice you’ll need a fairly recent PC or Intel Mac; a multicore CPU with SSE2 (Sandy Bridge architecture) or newer is recommended. My six-year-old Mac Pro mostly coped as long as I kept a tight rein on polyphony, but with elaborate patches, I occasionally had to sacrifice ‘high quality’ in order to remain crackle free.

Bazille’s patch cables aren’t too obtrusive and their appearance can be adjusted to taste. Note that a  source can connect to multiple destinations. Bazille’s patch cables aren’t too obtrusive and their appearance can be adjusted to taste. Note that a source can connect to multiple destinations. Having established that Bazille is not a synth to be taken lightly, I took a moment to get my bearings. Using the default skin, all tweakable parameters are spread across two pages: the ‘Synth’ page, where most of the action takes place and the ‘Tweaks & FX’ page, which serves as an overflow. A third page acts as a repository for the many excellent (and instructive) factory patches and, more importantly, your own growing library. One tip I’ll offer at the outset is to always save your work from the Patches page. It’s the only way you can be sure which folder it will end up in!

Braver souls than I may wish to try the alternate skin (‘gear porn’), which rams everything onto a single page. Whichever look you prefer, with over a dozen resolutions on offer, there should be a perfect fit for any monitor.

Sticking with the less dense layout, you can instantly see that it is based on the grey tones and wooden end cheeks of Roland’s 100M, although with knobs prioritised over sliders to better fill the available space. In pride of place is a neat waveform display offering a dynamic view of the output. Not only does this look perpetually cool, it’s of educational value when getting to grips with U–he’s oscillators. At a push it can be pressed into service as a general–purpose oscilloscope for examining modulation shapes and suchlike. Next to the ‘scope are the ‘HQ’ and Multicore switches, which you are advised to try if Bazille doesn’t run as smoothly as it should. Even with High Quality active, the oscillators aren’t completely alias–free, but they consist of a careful balancing act between top quality and excessive CPU consumption. I doubt this will be an issue for most users and, compared to any hardware FM or PD synth, the oscillators are impressively well defined and in–your–face.

Beneath the oscilloscope is the filter block in which two of the multi-mode filters are represented in all their glory. The second pair are reduced to I/O and to access them in more depth you must flip to the ‘Tweaks & FX’ page, which is a small compromise, all things considered. The rest of the synth is divided into two halves, with two oscillators, two envelopes and an LFO on each side. The division is intended to reduce the need for excessive cabling that would otherwise obscure the panel, and it works well. If two LFOs don’t seem generous, you needn’t fret. The second page houses twin ramp generators and a pair of mapping generators (about which more anon). If this still isn’t enough, the envelopes can be made to loop and any regular oscillator can function as an LFO.

The keen–eyed amongst you will have noticed the panel’s two halves aren’t perfectly symmetrical. The two processors have twin lag generators, an inverter and a rectifier (all useful modules) but the left panel adds a sample and hold, while on the right there’s a quantiser. A lag processor smooths the signals it’s fed while a quantiser does the exact opposite, making it ideal for carving discrete values from a continuous input, to offer just one quick example.

Phasers On Stun

If there’s a key to Bazille’s distinctive character, it’s found within the four digital oscillators. The manual does a great job, but as it’s primarily a practical document, its references to FM and PD synthesis are kept (rightfully) external. Boning up briefly, I was reminded that Yamaha’s inscrutable and briefly dominant FM synthesis is actually best described as PM, or phase modulation. Whatever the nomenclature, FM is back — with knobs on.

Bazille–style FM shown here on the alternate ‘gear porn’ skin. Bazille–style FM shown here on the alternate ‘gear porn’ skin. The oscillators are divided into five main sections: pitch, PM, PD, FR and amplitude. Each has a modulation input marked in grey with a bi–polar control. All output sockets are red and, as in U–he’s ACE, audio and control voltages can be freely interconnected, although as a CPU–saver Bazille’s control voltages are updated more slowly than audio signals.

The oscillator’s primary tuning control can operate in any of five modes: Semitone, Overtone, Undertone, Hertz and Clocked. If you select either of the last pair of modes, the oscillator is deactivated from keyboard tracking, creating a complex LFO. When set to Semitones, the knob offers a nominal shift of two octaves upwards, but this range, as is generally the case, can easily be extended. Select ‘Overtones’ and the oscillator is calibrated to the first 24 harmonics of the overtone series. Undertones give you sub–harmonics, but no teenage kicks.

The Yamaha DX7 springs briefly to mind as we enter FM (PM) territory. U–he’s slant on FM is direct and visual, offering a genuine opportunity for intuitive operation (at least compared to the DX7’s ‘complex synthesis through a keyhole’ approach). You’re free to choose traditional sine waves as FM operators but other waveforms reap their own weird rewards, one of which is to provide the cleanest impression of a Yamaha TX81Z I’ve ever heard. With more phase modulation options than we can realistically contemplate and every self–oscillating filter capable of throwing another sine wave into the pot, Bazille’s eight-operator FM could lead to the most fun ever associated with this type of synthesis.

If accessible FM is a novelty, having knobby PD is arguably even better. The technology was Casio’s attempt to counter Yamaha’s dominance. Here, PD is charmingly described as ‘another way of skewing sine waves’. Its output is the result of two wave selectors with a PD amount knob on hand to sweep between wave shapes. These shapes include familiar waveforms, plus a series of ‘res’ waves that produce transitions with similar characteristics to resonant filters.

The shape parameter refers to the basic waveform before distortion and, for kicks and giggles, the default shape (‘cosine’) can be replaced by either of the two mapping generators. These have a maximum of 128 values and are therefore of relatively low resolution. It means the end result will contain more aliasing, for an authentically retro–digital feel. You can redraw the map as the waveform plays and receive instant real–time feedback, which is strangely addictive.

Brimming with the refreshed glories of Yamaha and Casio, the oscillators have a further twist in the form of Fractal Resonance. FR isn’t a new pseudo–science dreamed up by Rupert Sheldrake, but a passable impression of oscillator sync. It operates rather differently, requiring no master oscillator, but as one waveform is ‘packed’ into the confining shape of another, the effects are audibly sync–like.

Finally, any oscillator’s output can be amplitude–modulated by another oscillator or shaped by the various control sources. As modular oscillators go, Bazille’s are massively versatile, but hands on too!

Further Processing

From Zebra to Diva, U–he are responsible for some of the best–sounding modelled filters of the last few years. While Bazille doesn’t offer a huge selection of different types, having four multi-mode filters from such pedigree stock adds a luxurious shine to already well–polished waveforms. The first two filters have no fewer than six simultaneous outputs, and if you run out of signal or control inputs, four multiplex units offer mixing — and much more. Actually, it isn’t immediately obvious until you read the manual, but the ‘much more’ part includes ring modulation and amplitude modulation, plus the crossfading of audio or control signals, and even the unglamorous role of humble ‘multi’.

Turning to the bottom left-hand corner of the main screen, we see ‘MIDI & More’. If Bazille were a physical chunk of hardware, this would be the point at which the internal MIDI-to-CV converter translated incoming data for use throughout the modular. It would distribute controller data such as mod wheel, pitch–bend and aftertouch, as well as incoming pitch and velocity. Those are present as expected, alongside Bazille’s various signal outputs such as the map and ramp generators. We’ve already seen that the map generators can be used as PD waveforms, but another possible function is as user–tailorable control curves. If you’ve ever wanted to set a different cutoff frequency for every note on the keyboard, map generators are Bazille’s innovative means of achieving it.

The mapping generators can be used in a  variety of ways, from audio waveforms to complex modulation sources. The mapping generators can be used in a variety of ways, from audio waveforms to complex modulation sources. Amongst the other sources there’s a +5V output, used to extend parameter ranges or simply act as a DC offset. There are sources of pink and white noise too, plus a totally random value calculated for each voice. The panel isn’t exclusively for output, it has two general–purpose CV inputs. These can be fed by any voltage source and made available to those modules that, instead of voltage input sockets, have a fixed list of sources selected from a pull–down menu. Examples of these include the modulation rate and depth of the LFOs and envelopes.

It’s on the second page that you draw the mapping generator shapes and adjust the Ramp generators. This latter pair are clockable Attack/Hold/Decay envelopes that doff a respectful cap to the EMS VCS3’s trapezoid. Also, on this page you’re able to specify individual voice tuning for stacked (unison) patches, assuming your CPU and monitor speakers are up to the task! Finally, Bazille can read microtuning tables in the .TUN format, so if microtuning is your thing, it’s an easy matter to incorporate as many tables as you need.

Sounds Like?

A trawl through the supplied patches is quite bewildering, especially if you are trying to sum up Bazille in a few sentences. It’s capable of DX–style electric pianos and pounding sequences that groove like a Moog modular. Alternatively, it can serve up a subtle and diverse collection of pads and sound effects or conventional solos and basses. Ultimately, Bazille is a sonic chameleon that’s hard, harsh and digital one moment, warm, fuzzy and damn–near analogue the next.

Effects & Tweaks

Positioned after the modular environment is an effects block. The effects themselves aren’t modular, but they can be dragged into any order. In common with all controls, their parameters can be allocated to MIDI CCs. This means that any tweak deemed vital to a performance can be captured in your host DAW.

It almost goes without saying that the effects are of high quality. The distortion’s tube simulation is paired with EQ or speaker-cabinet simulation to superb effect. The ‘stoned’ phaser is seriously thick and swirly and its optional flanger mode is equally convincing. The stereo delay synchronises to the current tempo, its divisions represented, rather unhelpfully, by numbers. Precise integers equate to 16ths but you might need to think for a moment when you require a delay time in dotted fourths or triplets. Thank heavens this philosophy wasn’t applied to the LFOs! Anyway, like much of Bazille, the effort is worth it. The delay has independent times for the left, centre and right taps, plus a superior tape-wobbling algorithm you’ll cheerfully adopt. Lastly, when shopping for reverb to add to a modular synth, I’m pretty sure a spring would top most want lists. In this emulation, the Shake slider produces a realistic boing that’s guaranteed to have EMS VCS3 and Synthi lovers smiling. It’s yet another spot–on emulation and it comes supplied with a tension control so you can switch your spring between tight and droopy, as the mood dictates.

Conclusion

Digital synthesis that’s ultra–friendly and processed by beautifully modelled filters and effects — what’s not to like? Strictly speaking, the architecture is semi–modular because some connections are hard–wired and the effects are kept apart, but in most cases the choices made are sensible and they do reduce clutter. One potential gripe concerns the small amount of aliasing, but I have to say I found this pretty unobtrusive and usually invisible in the context of extravagant patching.

It wasn’t love at first sight, however, and I confess there were times when I felt like a blind man trying to grasp the dimensions of a briefly fondled elephant. But as long as you’re prepared to roll up your sleeves and experiment, or work through the tips and example patches, the rewards are there for the taking. Eventually, I began to relish my growing collection of surreal, evolving patches and sound effects that seemed to echo from the far reaches of the cosmos, plus sequences, inevitably.

As a fan of U–he’s Diva, I never expected quality modelling to come free, so it wasn’t a surprise that I could only run a couple of instances on my system. I heartily recommend firing up the demo version to test the CPU hit on yours because Bazille is a versatile, superb–sounding monster of a synth.

Sequencer

The 16–step analogue–style sequencer looks simple, but it isn’t, quite. Ordinarily you’d expect to connect it to the pitch input of an oscillator and trigger the envelopes from a clock output rather than the keyboard. However, Bazille’s envelopes don’t have trigger inputs since they’re connected internally to incoming note events. Fortunately there’s a workaround on the FX & Tweaks page that allows the sequencer’s voltages to drive the envelopes. It isn’t ideal, though, because it eats up valuable steps, plus you still need to hold notes to hear the sequence’s progress.

To program regular musical patterns, you’re advised to set the oscillator’s modulation range to 50 semitones and then think of each slider as a pitch offset in double–units. To obtain a fifth interval, the slider’s value should be 14, an octave is 24, and so on. It’s not too confusing once you’re used to it.

The sequencer is polyphonic with a fresh sequence generated for every note played. Unusually, the 16 steps can be broken into four sections, the split achieved simply by inserting cables. These tapped–off parts are of fixed length but can run at independent speeds.

If this were the whole story, Bazille’s sequencer would be confined to relatively simple patterns. U–he’s Snapshot Dial is the solution to this, capable of storing eight discrete sets of sequencer values. By clicking any snapshot on the outer rim you can program a new riff into the sequencer. Then, using the Rotate control, you can automatically advance through the patterns, or devise more complex motion via the modulation input.

Pros

  • A deep, flexible modular with a unique multiple–synthesis architecture.
  • Includes some excellent analogue–sounding filters...
  • ...and classy effects.

Cons

  • Resource hungry.
  • Can be intimidating at first.
  • Some aliasing.

Summary

Bazille is a unique virtual instrument with oscillators that are pumped–up digital polymaths and filters that are smooth, assured and convincingly analogue. A synth with many identities, all of them worth exploring.

information

£100.91 including VAT.

www.u-he.com

Test Spec

  • Mac Pro running OS 10.8.5, 16GB RAM, 2x2.66GHz Quad–Core Intel Xeon running in 64–bit mode.
  • Logic 10.0.7 in 64–bit mode.
Published February 2015