This desktop DSP box runs and offers hands-on control of Creamware's ASB range of synth plug-ins — and it costs under $500. Is it too good to be true?
Once upon a time there was a German company called Creamware. Offering a low‑end hard disk editor and a cheap audio restoration system, they burst upon the scene with exotic claims that they would replace the market leaders of the era. However, reviews were less enthusiastic (see Sound On Sound, September 1995) and the company was not a great success.
Reinventing themselves as manufacturers of DSP cards and related software, Creamware's ability to make inflated claims regarding their products remained undiminished and, while some users liked their products, I was not a fan. Indeed, Creamware Elektra for the Mac was the only product in 20 years that I have been unable to review simply because it did not work. Other developments, such as Noah, failed to appear long after their promised delivery dates and, in June 2003, Creamware Datentechnik GmbH declared themselves insolvent, blaming the late arrival of their own products.
Retaining their staff, the company immediately resurfaced as Creamware Audio GmbH, and continued trading (which is naughty, but legal). Then, in 2005, the company's founder set up inDSP Audio Technologies in Bangalore and moved elements of Creamware's software development to India. Soon after, Creamware achieved modest success by turning its soft synths into products called Authentic Sound Boxes (ASBs) — promising, although somewhat flawed hardware units with control panels that had the look and feel of the original instruments.
In December 2006, Creamware again filed for insolvency, and its intellectual property rights were distributed to two competing companies: inDSP and Sonic Core GmbH, the latter of which was founded in March 2007 by former Creamware employees.
There's no love lost between inDSP and Sonic Core, and Holger Drenkelfort of Sonic Core has gone on record to say that his company does not agree with inDSP's use of Creamware's technology. The reason for this is clear. Whereas Sonic Core has continued to manufacture ASBs, inDSP decided to develop a much lower‑cost product that would allow users to run all of the ASB soft synths (and more) as plug‑ins within a single, affordable box: the Use Audio Plugiator.
Costing just £379, the Plugiator is reassuringly heavy and it feels robust. The rotary encoders also feel firm, as do the rear panel's I/O sockets — stereo quarter‑inch outputs and a quarter‑inch headphone jack, a quarter‑inch microphone input, MIDI In and Thru, plus a USB 1.1 (not USB2) port that carries MIDI and program data from a Mac or PC. My only concern is its external power supply, which is rather insubstantial.
The graphics on the top panel of the Plugiator describe a matrix with the eight available plug‑ins listed down the side and, across the top, the parameters that five of the rotary encoders affect on each. Three further encoders allow a limited degree of hands‑on control over the effects that are common to all the plug‑ins, and the final three do important things such as selecting the plug‑in and patch you're playing. You can also allocate 10 patches for quick recall to the pads running along the bottom edge.
As supplied, the Plugiator comes with the Minimax, B4000 and Lightwave plug‑ins installed in the first three slots. You can also download and install the Vocodizer free of charge and, if you cough up an extra £116, you can install the additional four synth plug‑ins that have recently become available: Pro 12, FMagia, Prodyssey and Drums N Bass. Unfortunately, Use Audio has assumed that everybody is a member of the Ancient Order Of Computer Cognoscenti and has access to a fast broadband connection; fail on either of these points, and installation becomes a bit of a nightmare. There's a knot of voucher codes, serial numbers, activation codes and software keys to unravel, and you have to work out which one is needed in each box in the long sequence of installation screens. Also, it doesn't fill you with confidence when the on‑line registration system demands to know from whom you bought the unit, and then refuses to register it when you click on the 'direct from the manufacturer' option. (It demands the non‑existent dealer address!) These problems are not new; Paul Nagle described Creamware's upgrade mechanism as "idiosyncratic” in his review of the Minimax ASB, which he admitted was a polite way of saying that it didn't work. But eventually it did work, and the review unit hosted all eight existing plug‑ins.
You can use the Plugiator as a stand‑alone box (hooray — no computers on stage!) and this is not as limiting as it sounds. With up to 800 on‑board patches generated by eight significantly different synthesizers, there's a lot to keep you interested. But if you want to fathom the real depths of each plug‑in, you need to use the Plug‑In Manager, which runs on Mac OS X, Windows XP and Vista 32, and takes care of everything from loading software into the hardware box, to editing each of the synths, and providing the on‑screen Help.
Surprisingly, the Plug‑In Manager is not a self‑contained piece of software; it requires Adobe Flash v9 or higher to run. It installs this if you do not have it on your computer, but PC users have reported difficulties if an earlier version is already installed. You will also encounter problems if you try to use the Plug‑in Manager at the same time as a sequencer, because both applications try to grab the host's ports and drivers. The solution is a piece of freeware called a Loop Back Driver, which you have to install and configure before you can run the two together. This is nasty, so I hope that the rumoured VST version of the Plug‑in Manager appears.
Within the Plug‑in Manager you can select the editor for each of the plug‑ins, although only one at a time. This will then present a list of existing patches, allow you to access a library of on‑line patches, download sounds to the hardware itself, and give you an on‑screen GUI for detailed editing. However, if you select an on‑screen editor without switching to the same plug‑in in the Plugiator, strange things can happen, so beware.
Each GUI has a front page that, for the imitative synths, is closely modelled on the original instruments. Behind this, there is a second (and, in a couple of cases, third) page that carries additional functions. Common to all of these are the effects, which are a simple chorus/flanger and a stereo delay line, and these prove to be valuable additions. Unfortunately, there's a bug: invoking the effects significantly reduces the signal level, and this needs to be fixed.
First things first. The Plugiator can only run one plug‑in at a time, offers limited polyphony, and it is not multitimbral. But on the positive side, its 32‑bit internal signal path means that the analogue emulations can be very smooth, with no serious stepping or unpleasant artifacts. What's more, its 176kHz internal sample rate means that there is little or no aliasing. This is good stuff.
Minimax undoubtedly delivers a 'Moogy' monosynth sound. It's not perfect, but some elements of its emulation are very good. For example, the way that the filter self‑oscillation is modified as you sweep the cutoff frequency (which is one of the defining elements of the Minimoog sound) is particularly pleasing. I can see arguments raging about which Minimoog soft synth is more authentic — alternatives such as the Minimonster and Minimoog V come to mind — but Minimax will serve you well. However, I think that it's as a polysynth that this plug‑in shines. Released from the restrictions of emulating the Minimoog, it's free to produce punchy, warm sounds of its own, and it does this very well. Despite some niggles and minor bugs, it can be an excellent source of mono and poly synth patches.
I always favoured ARP synths over the Minimoog, but Odyssey soft synths are rather thin on the ground. Consequently, Prodyssey is a real bonus for me. As with Minimax, the imitation isn't quite perfect, but the character of the Odyssey has been captured and, when used as a monosynth, the plug‑in can sound every bit as edgy as the original. In polyphonic mode, I was also able to extract some excellent string ensembles, as well as a range of polyphonic pads quite reminiscent of the Omni and Quadra. What's more, the Minimax filter is also implemented as an option within Prodyssey, which gives it another, distinct character. Unfortunately, the factory presets are poor; they lack the subtlety of which the ARP is capable, and are almost universally drenched in echo, which is a lazy way to obtain interesting sounds. If you have experience of an Odyssey, start programming, because the results can be delicious.
It always amazes me that people talk about Pro 12 it as if it were a recreation of the Prophet 5. It's not. Its Poly‑Mod and LFO‑Mod sections are more advanced, it offers an ADR envelope mode, and it's both velocity and aftertouch sensitive. The sound generator may be modelled on a Prophet 5, but the control architecture and performance capabilities are those of one half of a Prophet T8. Consequently, Pro12 need not emulate any single model or revision of Prophet perfectly, and a generic nod in the direction of a Prophet‑y polysynth is entirely adequate. Happily, this is what it provides, sometimes sounding very similar to a Prophet, and sometimes (to quote Dave Stewart's review of the Pro 12 ASB) sounding like "a good, solid synth in its own right”. Played from an expensive weighted keyboard it feels and sounds just as we once hoped that big, dual‑oscillator analogue polysynths would.
Lightwave is a very different polysynth with a much wider range of modulation paths and options than the other plug‑ins. But it's not what Use Audio claim. The company describe Lightwave's oscillators as 'wavetable oscillators', but this is incorrect. Wavetables are groupings of related waveforms that you can step through to create evolving sounds. The PPG offered these; Lightwave does not. Instead, a Lightwave oscillator simply draws upon 128 distinct waveforms. Use Audio also claim inspiration from the Prophet VS and they are on firmer ground here, because the oscillator mixer allows the level of each oscillator and the amount sent to each filter to be modulated independently by the LFOs, envelopes and other modulation sources. Unfortunately, the factory presets do Lightwave no favours. If you are approaching it for the first time, ignore these and start programming. You'll quickly obtain sounds ranging from harmonically rich percussive instruments to quasi‑sequenced patches full of movement, and even the wonderful, evolving pads and effects that made the Prophet VS such an excellent instrument.
FMagia is a four‑operator FM synthesizer... except that it isn't; it actually uses elements of the closely related Phase Modulation synthesis system developed by Casio. This is apparent in the sound, which seems warmer and more flexible than any of Yamaha's four‑op synths. Having said that, if you want to create a sound that is undeniably FM in nature there's no difficulty doing so, but be aware that, if you want the complexity of six‑op FM (DX7) or eight‑op FM (FS1R) you'll have to look elsewhere. I like FMagia. It offers a palette of sounds that would otherwise be absent from the Plugiator and its only real drawback is an arcane GUI that left me wanting something more traditional.
The B4000 ASB was not without its faults, most notably in the MIDI department. The Plugiator version is also buggy and, for example, I was frustrated to find that I was unable to switch the rotary speaker speed using any of the usual controllers, and the aftertouch sensitivity promised by the software simply failed to work. (I eventually found the fast/slow switch at MIDI CC#72 which, on my Korg MS20iC, is the Release knob in its HADSR envelope generator!) There are coding bugs, too, such as the way key click is generated and when it's heard, but the fault is too detailed to describe fully here. Nonetheless, the B4000 sounds good and, if the problems can be overcome, it will be a very useable source of Hammond and Leslie sounds.
The Vocodizer is clearly a work in progress. The level meters don't work (or there's something strange going on with regard to levels) and there's even a control on the front panel that is missing from the literature. But dwarfing this, an entire page of controls is missing from the Help, and it's not trivial; it's the dual oscillators, dual LFOs, filter, amplifier and dual envelopes that generate the carrier wave and determine the contour of the vocoded signal! Nonetheless, the Vocodizer appears to work correctly, and it offers a vast amount of control over the vocoding effect. Indeed, I expect many users to stick to the presets, or trust to trial and error to obtain pleasing results, because being able to control the filter matrix, analysis filters, unvoiced (sibilant) detector, and the filter levels and pans is enough to make even the most experienced user stop and think for a while.
If the Help for the Vocodizer is incomplete, that's as nothing compared with Drums N Bass, on which it's entirely missing. Nonetheless, the plug‑in itself (which offers 11 slots for analogue percussion sounds, plus a simple bass synth) seems to be complete. I don't like its user interface but, if I ignore this, I can see that its drum section offers a much wider range of possibilities than most, with numerous initial waveforms and far more parameters than the Roland boxes that dominate this genre. In contrast, the bass synth seems too limited, even though it offers more controls than the famous silver box that defines this type of sound (the TB303). Furthermore, the way that the bass sound is positioned and pitched either side of the octave that holds the drums is weird. Drums N Bass will be excellent value if it satisfies your needs, but I'm not really a fan.
Editing the plug‑ins using the on‑screen GUIs is largely intuitive, but they suffer in comparison with other manufacturers' soft synths by lacking linear and rotary options, as well as (on most) a fine movement option. In addition, parameters often remained attached to my trackpad after I had moved and released them, which was annoying. Hopefully, Use Audio will address all of these issues quickly.
Some users have pointed out that the controls on the GUIs are noticeably quantised. That's true, and it's sometimes a problem — for example, when trying to programme a delicate amount of detune. But if you programme (say) an LFO to control oscillator pitch, the resulting sweep is not audibly quantised. Clearly, the internal resolution of the Plugiator is much higher than that of the GUIs, which is completely understandable.
If you are playing the Plugiator via USB, the MIDI Monitor in the Plug‑in Manager causes a more serious problem. If this is visible and, for example, you sweep the mod wheel, you can't play another note until the monitor has finished displaying the stream of MIDI values. This can take many seconds, during which time the synth is frozen. With the MIDI Monitor hidden, the software is much better behaved, although it sometimes reported the Plugiator disconnected or busy when it wasn't, I was still able to confuse it, and I crashed it on one or two occasions. It also seemed to behave strangely in the presence of SysEx, but I wasn't able to investigate this thoroughly. To be honest, a few bug fixes and refinements would go a long way to making the Plugiator a better product.
From the point of view of audio quality, physical robustness and the authenticity of its imitative synths, I would place the Plugiator in the "not perfect, but rather good” category. However, given the non‑trivial benefits of low CPU load and the low latency afforded by dedicated hardware, this should be upgraded to "rather good with at least two significant advantages over conventional soft synths”. Sure, it's not always the easiest product to use, it's currently a pain to use with sequencers, and there are some serious niggles to address, but this is a very affordable box capable of generating some seriously expensive sounds. I'm really looking forward to Version 2.
It's normal in these pages to place a new product in context by mentioning some of its immediate competitors. I would… but I can't. Sure, there have been previous boxes that run synthesizer plug‑ins, but these have all resided in higher echelons of the pricing scale, and they have all been PCs in sheep's clothing. As far as I can recall, there has never been a plug‑in host at this price point, let alone one based on a dedicated digital signal processor (in this case, a SHARC) and which will operate in isolation from a computer. Marks for innovation: 10/10.
Use Audio have taken the core hardware from the Plugiator and re‑engineered it as an expansion card for the CME UF and VX series of keyboard controllers. For just £246, the Plugiator ASX (Authentic Sound eXpander) turns these keyboards into powerful performance synths, especially since the assignable knobs and faders on the keyboards' control panels can be used to tweak sounds in real time.