Rather than using modelling technology to emulate classic synths, Ultimate Sound Bank have created an eight-Gigabyte sample library and packaged it with an accessible virtual-instrument front end.
The recent trend towards repackaging the contents of sample CDs as stand-alone virtual instruments has largely been a good thing. The new formats are accessible to anyone with a compatible computer operating system and sequencing platform, and only those who already have a given collection in an earlier format may have reason to be aggrieved. The library is instantly accessible with no sample player required, and there's no importing, editing or compiling to getting in the way of using the library. However, the concept really comes into its own with the creation of new libraries, where the results can be optimised for use with the player throughout the development process. With DVD as the medium of dissemination, the stand-alone, instrument-shaped sample library can also be much larger than previously was the case.
This brings us to Universal Sound Bank and their enormous, sample-based Ultra Focus synthesis anthology, a product which blurs the distinction between sample collection and synth. The company are behind numerous sample libraries and are the developers of the UVI — Ultimate Virtual Instrument — engine that's been licensed to other developers as a backbone for sample library/player combinations. The development of Ultra Focus started with extensive listening tests that led USB to conclude that modelled simulations of classic synths from the '60s to the '90s didn't live up to the sound of the genuine article. This brought them to the conviction that the only way to present these instruments was via detailed, high-resolution sampling — sometimes every note of a given instrument, often at multiple velocity levels to capture the full range of a given patch or sound.
The result, Ultra Focus, assembles 8.4GB of finely tuned samples into more than 2000 patches and plays them back through a front end that both provides the user with easy access to those patches and allows them to be comprehensively edited. In general, samples are loaded in 16-bit format and converted to 32-bit — for the UVI signal path — on the fly. You can actually save some CPU overhead by switching to pure 32-bit mode, though this requires twice as much RAM.
It should be pointed out that USB haven't gone for the pure, unadulterated output of their vintage instruments. The sampling process involved a range of expensive and esoteric preamps, high-resolution converters, compressors and EQs, so you actually get a rather heightened version of the genuine sound produced by the original synths. This is not in itself a good or a bad thing, but worth noting — and the results speak for themselves.
Installation is straightforward, though it takes a little longer than some other software due to the necessity of copying over two 4GB data files from the double-sided DVD. The software will run on Mac (Mac OS X only, I'm afraid) or PC, and installs plug-ins in VST, RTAS, DXi, MAS and Audio Units formats, making the plug compatible with any current MIDI + Audio sequencer. Authorisation is through challenge and response, and USB give users two installs, which is great. I didn't need to mess about with dongles or multiple copies of the software in order to run it simultaneously on both my Mac and PC.
Once installed, you create an instance of Ultra Focus within your host software of choice and start scrolling through the preset library; its function is identical within each environment. You won't be restricted to the presets, though: not only will extras become available via USB's web site, but you can tweak the front-panel controls as much as you like and save the results as custom presets. About the only thing you won't be able to do is start from an initial 'blank' preset, though you could create one yourself if you desired. Otherwise, just start from any preset in the bank.
Those presets are organised according to themes. As shipped, these are Ultra Focus Master Presets, Classic Analog, FM Formant Synthesis, Wavetables, Vector Synthesis, Additive Sounds, PCM Synths, Analog Modeling, Stack/Chords, Bonus Machines and Pure Waveforms. This doesn't tell the whole story, because in nearly every broad category there are sub-categories, with titles such as Ethereal Atmosphere, Attack Sounds, Synth Bass, Bells and so on. It's within these sub-categories that your find the presets themselves. This makes finding sounds you'd like to use or edit an easy task.
This same hierarchy is used when selecting multisamples for your own editing. In this case, there's an extra level beyond the preset list: each offers one or two programs — essentially a sampled waveform with a set of synth parameters — that you're able to load and then edit.
The UVI synth engine could quite happily work without samples if USB wished, given a modelled oscillator or something similar. But as we've established, the company preferred not to take that route. So, the sparkling, painstakingly assembled sample collection which takes the place of oscillators in this environment is treated to a well-designed, sonically faithful, 32-bit floating-point signal path.
Central to the Ultra Focus architecture is the preset, which consists of two layers, each of which can accommodate a program, in effect a fully featured synth patch. Both programs in a preset have pretty much the same facilities, with only a handful of parameters applied globally to both layers. The preset and program selection pop-ups, accessed in the displays at the top of UF 's one and only window, initially appear the same, but as mentioned above, when selecting a program for a layer, an extra level is accessed so that you can select layers from existing presets for your own use. Don't worry: you're not just mixing preset data, as the multisample collection includes a healthy selection of 'pure' analogue waveforms, sampled without any filtering or other treatments on the original synths. Presets can, of course, consist of just one layer.
Each layer thus has at its heart a multisample, followed by a fairly traditional subtractive synthesis signal path. First up, there's the filter, offering a choice of three low-pass and one high-pass characteristics. The low-pass choices are 'soft', 'musical with powerful resonance' and 'slightly harder'. Cutoff frequency and resonance controls are joined by keyboard tracking, envelope bias (with a negative option for inverted envelopes), and a drive control. The latter adds distortion, and it's possible to make this filter whistle, though it is also possible to hear a stepping effect as you move resonance and cutoff to extremes and at speed. A dedicated filter envelope offers the classic four stages — attack, decay, sustain, release — plus velocity control courtesy of a Sensitivity knob, and an offset parameter which determines how attack and decay will respond to velocity.
A separate amplitude envelope is specified in identical fashion to the filter envelope, bar one feature. A 'sample start' knob lets you offset playback from the start of the sample, which is a good option for some of the more complicated sample sets. It might have been nice to see this under velocity control, though. One further envelope, dedicated to pitch, is much simpler, with just depth and time controls.
A word about envelopes: it'll be in the nature of software such as this that the occasional raw sample will have built into it an envelope shape that UF 's own envelopes won't be able to subvert: you can't make a slow attack snappier if the attack is part of the sample. In this case, have another look at the sample start parameter, as this may well let you 'trim off' the unwanted attack portion.
Moving onto modulation, we get some interesting possibilities. First of all, there are the MIDI-clockable or free-running LFOs. Two are available to each layer, and two to the overall preset, so actually you could be hearing the effect of six LFOs at any one time! The choice of modulation waveforms is comprehensive — sine, triangle, square, analogue square, ramp up, ramp down and sample & hold — and the controls max out with depth and rate parameters. One thing I'd like is to be able to stop the LFO retriggering with every new note: for some sounds, it would be preferable for one LFO cycle to take precedence once a key has been pressed.
Assigning the LFOs to a parameter takes place in the little modulation matrix display. The five targets are pitch, filter cutoff frequency, amp (level) and pan, and each has a depth control. The four LFOs join a host of other modulators: all three envelopes, pitch-bend, note position, a user-definable MIDI controller, velocity and so on. If the list of targets seems a little limited, don't worry: nearly every knob in UF can be tweaked via MIDI control, so automating parameter changes from the host software should allow you to overcome the relatively small list of internal routing opportunities.
The parameter set isn't hugely complicated — in fact, it's remarkably straightforward — but if you find that you'd like to make some quick edits to both layers of a two-layer preset, engage the Link button. Each layer also has level, pan, and coarse and fine tuning controls.
- Mac: 512MB RAM, 1GHz G4, DVD-ROM drive, 9GB hard disk space, Mac OS 10.2.6, plus MAS, RTAS, Audio Units or VST 2-compliant host.
- PC: 512MB RAM, 1GHz Athlon/Duron or Pentium III, DVD-ROM drive, 9GB hard disk space, Windows Me, 2000, NT or XP, low-latency audio hardware, plus VST 2, DXi or RTAS-compliant host.
Parameters that work at the preset level, affecting both programs, include velocity curve, polyphony, octave and bend ranges and glide (portamento). In addition, there's a third, 'master' filter. This features two controls, one of which changes resonance whilst the other changes the cutoff frequency of a high-pass filter (slide to the right) or low-pass filter (slide to the left). A timbre control in this vicinity adds strange filtering and detuning effects without affecting the central pitch of a preset.
Cross-modulation between layers is also provided at preset level. The results very much depend on the source samples, and you need to be prepared to jiggle levels and so on, but the options take Ultra Focus a little further into the abstract and strange. 'Vocoding' allows either layer to be modulator or carrier, and ring modulation modulates layer A with layer B, generating the classic clangorous effect with the right samples.
To keep you informed of the state of Ultra Focus, a couple of displays are provided. The Edit Info display reads out the value of the parameter you're currently tweaking — very useful, and a little too small until you get used to it! — and Memory simply lets you keep track of how much RAM you're currently using. The presence of MIDI activity is shown by the little 'scope display next to the Ultra Focus logo.
UF even manages to offer a handy pair of effects processors, each with up to five parameters and tempo-sync'able where appropriate. They can be switched into or out of circuit at preset level, with a balance control to adjust the wet/dry mix. It's not possible to treat layers independently. A big collection of preset treatments is provided, based on 29 effect types, which you can offset and save as part of a preset. It's not possible to save your own settings independently. Mono, stereo and ping-pong delays are joined by special effect varieties, and reverb treatments offer simple, pre-delayed and gated options. Modulation effects include everything you'd expect: flange, phase, chorus, tremolo, auto-pan, rotary speaker and auto-wah. Treatments range from the standard EQ, gate and compression through to filters, drive, ring modulator and robotiser.
If I was had a complaint it would be that I'd like more than two at once! In many synths, calling up presets that are already heavily effected can give you a false impression of the quality of a sound. In Ultra Focus, however, disabling effects often reveals that presets stand on their own, uneffected, two feet. Credit to the raw sampled material indeed.
Ultra Focus 's handy little user manual starts with a few words about synthesis, discussing analogue, FM, wavetable, vector and additive technologies, plus discussions of PCM-based and analogue modelling instruments. Typical synths are noted at the end of each discussion. Many of these instruments were sampled as part of the UF project, and here is a list of some of them:
- Roland: Jupiter 4, Jupiter 8, SH101, JD800, JD990. Yamaha: CS80, CS60, CS15, CS40M, CS70M, DX1, DX100, TX816, FS1R. Oberheim: Xpander, Matrix 6, Four-voice, OBXa. Sequential Circuits: Prophet VS, Prophet 5, Pro-One, Prophet T8. PPG: Wave 2.0, Wave 2.3, Waveterm B, PRK FD, EVU, HDU, Commander. Korg: PS3200, Trident MkII, MS20, M1, O1W, DW8000. Casio: CZ1, CZ100, VZ1, VZ10M. Moog: Minimoog, Memorymoog. ARP: Odyssey, 2600, Chroma. Waldorf: Pulse, Wave, Microwave XT, Q, Micro Q.
Other instruments sampled included Synclavier II, Technos Acxel, Mellotron M400, Acces Virus and Kawai K5000. USB hint that even this list isn't complete!
Working with Ultra Focus is a breeze, which is amazing considering the sheer weight of raw material on offer. Editing is as easy as it gets, including accessing the individual multisamples. Operation is only occasionally let down by display elements that are a bit small and lacking in contrast. Being able to save edits is obviously a bonus. While I'd expect this facility, the nature of the product — essentially a sample library — didn't make it a foregone conclusion. Be warned that the multi-lingual manual, while not going into fine detail, is useful and clearly written! That's a rare occurrence. Also included in the bundle is a printed fold-out chart of all the included presets — all 2071 of them!
USB's UVI engine is obviously capable of being multitimbral — Mark Of The Unicorn's Mach Five, reviewed last issue, is based on the UVI, and is 16-part multitimbral. UF is, however, not. But of course, if you need more than one Ultra Focus preset in your work, you can simply call up as many instances as you need via your host's plug-in system. This may well be more efficient for most of us, though it does mean having multiple copies of a rather large plug-in to push around the screen. Perhaps some kind of 'minimise' option could be added, so that preset changes and quick edits can be made to a smaller version of the plug-in.
I found Ultra Focus to be not quite as heavy on my computer as I expected, and latency was only fractionally more noticeable than on simpler plug-ins. I would still pay attention to the minimum system requirements though: my ageing 450MHz G4 ran UF well, but there wasn't a lot of overhead left for much else! Life was much more comfortable on my 3GHz PC laptop. In any case, the software can be made to run a little more efficiently by tweaking a few things. For example, turn off the effects if you don't need them, and reduce polyphony to exactly what you need. Be aware that monitoring polyphony may not be as straightforward as you think: a dual-layer preset obviously uses twice the polyphony of a single, but stereo samples also double the actual polyphony count. So it's not just a matter of watching the global 'Poly' parameter. Enabling the 32-bit mode, mentioned above, saves about 15 percent of CPU overhead, and you should disable the multi-mode filter in any layer that's not actually using it. It's also a good idea to be careful with amplitude envelope release time value.
From the start, Ultra Focus feels like an instrument — I'm so glad USB didn't call it a 'sampler' — and the care and attention that have gone into creating the multisamples really shows. It takes an age to audition even a fraction of the presets, but it doesn't take long before you hear a lot of impressive material. It's not always easy to guess where the raw samples came from, but that's not really a problem. In any case, you'll be able to work much of it out: for example, the Pure Waveforms collection's preset and program names include abbreviations such as MiniM, JP, MS and CS. However you slice it, this is a comprehensive sonic archive of synthesizer sounds that saves the user a lot of trouble. Just imagine the work involved in sampling, editing and looping multiple samples at multiple velocity levels for multiple patches on dozens of synths.
My time with Ultra Focus was in all ways positive. Negatives are mainly of the 'I wish the library didn't use so much hard disk space' variety, which, given that it reflects the size of the library, is hardly a con at all. One might find oneself wishing for the import of custom samples, but that's not really in the product's brief. Occasionally, I found myself wanting to just play UF as a stand-alone synth without having to first load up a MIDI + Audio sequencer, but there are plenty of applications that provide hosting and MIDI control to let you do just that. Just two examples are i3's DSP Quattro on the Mac and Brainspawn's Forte on the PC. The former lets me play UF (or any VST Instrument), with loads of extra effects, and sample any textures or performances that might develop on the fly. The latter takes the form of a virtual rack into which loads of VST Instruments and effects can be installed, layered and interconnected, turning your PC into an amazingly flexible live performance synth workstation.
Even if all you do is access the huge collection of presets, you'll get good value for your money — they have such presence, depth and playability. The sheer range of multisamples on offer precludes a useful summary, but the uniform quality allied to a high-calibre playback engine means that 'good' will always be in there somewhere, with quite a few instances of 'excellent'.
Better still, start tweaking the virtual controls and really interacting with the superior-quality multisamples, and Ultra Focus will feel immediately like the best synth you never owned. The control set may be minimal, but because you're tweaking such varied raw material — material that can be layered — the feel is very much more that of a virtual, modelled instrument than one with samples at its heart. That said, there will be some preset types that you won't be able to delve into all that deeply, such as those based on wavetable and additive synths. The samples may be full-bodied and cover nearly every key, but they're still samples.
Because it is sample-based, you'll need to be able to have a lot of hard disk space free for the installation, but that shouldn't be too much of an issue. Large drives are very affordable these days, and current computers are usually well endowed on this front. An equivalent DSP-only plug-in, mimicking this variety of synthesis, would have equivalent issues with your computer's CPU and RAM, whereas Ultra Focus seems forgiving on this front: it's certainly less hungry than, say, MOTU's Mach Five, which is based around the same technology.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that modelling virtual instruments are out of a job as a result of Ultra Focus — too many software synths are capable of too many excellent sounds for that to be true — but it surprised me in the most pleasant way. I expected yet another collection of synth samples, but I got a plug-in that felt like an instrument. I love the sound, and the variety of the synth sample collection. Editing options are just enough to keep life interesting. Perhaps the curmudgeonly amongst you might be muttering to yourselves that it would be nice to be able to add your own multisamples, but with a huge, varied and high-quality collection like this, perhaps you don't have to.
- A great collection of quality multisamples ready for instant playing.
- Enough user editability to move past the feeling of a fixed collection of presets.
- Pretty much all plug-in format bases covered.
- Windows and Mac versions in one box.
- Some on-screen elements a bit tiny.
- Can't load user samples.
- Limited effects.
Judged on sound alone, Ultra Focus is a top collection, and the creators' attention to detail shows in the final product. That it allows users to fine-tune the results is a bonus. It's my favourite virtual instrument of the moment.