BLUE II - a classic re-booted


Rob Papen is something of a legend in the sound design world. His softsynths have become a stable source of inspiration for artists worldwide, including Armin Van Burren, Junkie XL, Teddy Riley, and film and VG composers Jeff Rona, and Rod Abernathy, amongst many many others.

Blue II is a long-awaited re-boot to the champion Blue synthesizer, and takes the solid foundations created and loved by many, and adds some excellent new parameters and well-thought through elements.

Blue is based on a foundation of 6 oscillators, with a massive amount of wave choice, from analogue emulation, additive, spectral, percussive, vocal and instrumental wave samples. Each oscillator also has feedback, pwm, symmetry, spread, drift and velocity parameters to further shape. If this isn't enough, there is a Phase distortion and waveshaping module that enables you to draw in a wave by hand that by some mysterious algorithm affects the shape of the original waveform. This is definitely more art than science on the surface here, and depending on the shapes you draw, you get some warm husky overtone harmonics to disgusting nasty distortion.

There are 2 analogue modelled filters, set out in a variety of frequency passes, from 6 to 36DB, and comb and formant filtering. Then there's an effects unit - with a ridiculous amount of effect types. Take a breath... delay, comb, reverb, chorus, ensemble, flanger, phaser, ringmod, distortion, lo-fi, waveshaper, amp-sim, autoPan, tremolo, stereo-widener, gator, compressor, noise-gate, fx filter, EQ, bass enhancer, Wah/delay, and auto wah.



For me, one of the strengths of this synth is in the complex routing options available. For starters, you can send any of the 6 oscillators either direct to audio, or send them through a variety of destinations, either through filter or effects, or combinations. Beyond that, the options grow further and deeper

The bottom of the synth GUI is where it gets really interesting. The window contains a variety of modulation options, that enable you to throw the synth sonics into complete chaos. There's a modulation matrix with 32 modulation options, that enable you to use the oscillators as audio, or to modulate the other oscillators directly. If you want to go deeper, you can send a precise percentage of each oscillator to different directions, with a matrix display. There are 14 LFO's, 4 multipoint envelopes, and 3 mod sequencers, that have plenty of destination options within the matrix, to allow for some pretty complex evolving textures.

XY Madness

The XY effect window is taken from previous Papen releases, such as Blade. It's absolutely phenomenal. You can control up to 16 separate elements of the entire synth, by assigning them to control points around the XY window. depending on where the blue dot is in the XY window is how much modulation is occurring from each source. One excellent feature of the XY pad is that you can record your movements, and thereafter, every time you play a note, the movement of the blue dot is repeated along the same lines. The recorded path can be saved as part of the preset, so you don't have to re-record it each time.

Cherries

On top of all this, there's a step sequencer, an arpeggiator, all of which go far beyond the basics, but contain too much information to discuss here. If you want to watch and listen to some of the lovely elements of Blue II, discussed by the creator himself, you wanna check out his video tutorial. You should definitely take a listen to the incredible sounds Blue II can create.



Library time

Wow. We're talking a preset library of somewhere between 3500 and 4000 presets. I spent a good hour playing my way through them, and I honestly didn't find a filler preset - they're deep, and tend to utilize the performance modulation options really well. The sounds are based on some lovely waveforms, and the richness and quality of sounds are all high quality. There are 35 banks of presets running up to 128 presets per bank, divided into instruments, and genres. So with not much effort you're finding the general area of sound that you're looking for. There's a button at the top of the GUI that opens up the full bank across the whole window, and you can quickly scroll across using keyboard arrows, page up and down for preset banks. In my opinion the presets are bread and butter sounds for a wide variety of electronic genres, but also there's a lot of scope there for composers. The built in effects are used well throughout. I particularly liked the tape delay and flange, and the stereo widening effects. They added a lovely richness to many of the sounds, removing some of the sterile digital sound that can be pervasive in some synths. All the while, I couldn't find much that caused a jump in CPU - and it seemed very friendly by all accounts.


Conclusion

It's a big challenge to create a synth that balances the strengths of sounding fantastic, providing a lot of room for creativity, yet having intuitive layout and instant accessibility, all in a compact package that doesn't drain your CPU. I would say that there isn't a synth out there that has this balance as well as BLUE II. Other synths have immense strengths in a particular area or two, yet crumble slightly in others. I couldn't really fault Blue II. It's a workhorse, that covers a lot of genre real-estate. The only gripes I could find (and they're mild) is that I didn't find it very pretty to look at. There are much better looking softwares out there in my opinion. The other is that it doesn't have much in the way of trad analogue synth emulation in the preset bank, other than some 70's sounding keyboard sounds. Like I said, fairly minor gripes. While not actually modular, the routing options are nevertheless plentiful and you could easily waste hours and hours tweaking and fiddling! The combination of oscillators, complex routing options, strong arpeggiator and step sequencer make this a must-have for electronic musicians, while the other elements such as multi point envelopes and absolutely massive preset bank make this extremely useful for composers needing quick access to a large bank of sounds, yet with great modulation options. Highly recommended!

Price
$179, or upgrade from original for only $49



Product page

PROS
  • The presets are unbelievably useful - not much filler there.
  • Jam packed with useful features.
  • Very flexible, and very easy to find your way around.
Buy or walk on by
  • If you're looking for a synth that's intuitive yet very flexible, contains a supply of excellent presets that you'll probably never get through, yet having a lot of depth to create even more; I reckon this could become the workhorse of your synth stable. The only reason to walk on by is if you're dead broke.
CONS
  • The only thing I could think of was that I don't really like the GUI. There's a lot prettier stuff out there. Obviously that doesn't matter sonically!




  • by Andy Dollerson

Animoog for iPad: touching inspiration




Animoog has been around for a couple of years now. We could have featured it in our iPad Music Making Apps: Classic For A Reason series, but we thought it deserved its own spotlight. Animoog somewhat of a godfather of serious synth apps, partly because of the weight that the name Moog carries, but also from the favorable reviews the synth has garnered over its short life span. It’s award winning and highly-regarded synth engine has recently been introduced into Moog hardware (Check out the Theremini at NAMM 2014)

Animoog is a visual wave table synth. Each sound can contain up to 8 wave samples, that are layered one on top of the other in the XY main window of the synth. You can drag your finger through the eight layers, or record the movement of your finger to automatically move wherever through the layers, to create some movement in the sound. There’s a weird touch-plate style keyboard at the bottom of the window that you can play at the same time as dragging your fingers through the different waveforms. You can slide your finger up and down the keyboard, control the amount of glide and portamento on the note, and how centrally you hit the pitch of each note.

Once you have the sound you’re looking for, you can hit the record button, and the app will record your finger movements on the wavetable as you play. Every time you play a note thereafter, the timbre of the sound will be changed by the pattern you traced on the XY window. It will repeat it for each note you play.

On top of this already fun experience, there are a bunch of fx and modulations to the side of the XY window that have the weight of Moog’s sonic prowess behind it - a delicious sounding filter, delay, 2 distortion types, and modulation elements that affect the movement of the sound through the 8 wave layers.

To the top of the window, you can move from the main XY window to other parameter windows. The K/B window lets you choose what scale you want the keyboard at the bottom to represent, and you can choose which notes are in and out of the keyboard. There is an Env/Mod page that lets you assign LFO’s to several different sources, and envelope the sound you’ve created.

The timbres window enables you to select a waveform for each of the 8 layers in the XY window. There are A LOT of waveforms to pick from.

The setup window enables links with the outside musical world - Animoog supports iOS core midi, so you can attach a midi controller and play away. You can also record and loop sounds you create with a digital 4 track, audio copy and paste to other apps if you wish.

Here's a sweet performance using Animoog in a setup:



Standout element

The team at Moog definitely wanted to take advantage of the multitouch possibilities of the iPad/iPhone. The weird keyboard is for me the most inspiring part of Animoog, with it’s awesome glide, portamento and polyphonic modulation capabilities. So with as many fingers as you can muster, you can affect the tone and timbre of each separate note. you can control glide and pitch with each finger, and as you move up and down the key you can control timbre and whatever other effect is routed to the finger position on the keyboard. Therefore each note can be changing pitch and timbre simultaneously. This is very inspirational to me, and obviously stands out from a regular keyboard synth.

Conclusion

The Animoog is one of my favorite apps when it comes to creativity. The sound quality it goes without saying is excellent. But the way it stands apart from me is the excellent way Moog has utilised the touch screen capabilities of the iPad to enable instant creativity in a different way from normal. I use it as an instrument to turn to when I need some fresh inspiration, and the more typical method I use seems tired. Instead of turning knobs or clicking a mouse you have the sweeps and flourishes of your fingers over the large xy window, and instead of the rigid boundaries of keys, you can control portamento and glide directly by sliding between notes. For an iPad app, it's pricey, running at $30 or thereabouts. But this is a simple yet powerful soft synth, which would probably have cost a lot more had Moog released it for desktop computers. I think it's a bargain for what you're getting.

Find out more about Animoog here

It costs $30 on the App store, but Moog has it on offer every now and again, so it’s worth keeping an eye out.

By Andy Dollerson

iPad Music Making Apps: Classics For a Reason pt.1


When talking of iPad music making apps, the focus is often on the latest and greatest, but doing so we often forget about those apps released time ago, as if they were not relevant anymore. Unlike our usual in-depth articles/reviews, in this Classics For a Reason series we'll try to offer a quick overview of "classic" music making apps, pointing out why they represent a worthwhile addition to the sonic palette of many musicians. For those new to the iDevices, these articles may help answering the usual question "what the are the must-have apps that I should install on my iPad"? For those with (too) many music apps, it could be a chance to revisit some of the good old ones.

Korg iMS-20
A veteran indeed, released at the end of 2010, but still totally relevant. Korg has put lots of effort in making this a rich production tool. Featuring an emulation of the MS-20 synth, an analog-style sequencer (based on the Korg SQ-10), a drum machine, song/pattern modes, Kaoss Pad technology, a mixer with FX, the iMS-20 not only provides many hours of fun, but can be also a valid creative tool - on the road and studio musicians (yes, you can export patterns and songs) can both benefit of its quite intuitive interface and powerful sounds.
Like a good red wine, iMS-20 got better with the time, adding features (background audio, Audiobus, Virtual Midi, etc.) and fixing the inevitable bugs. The problem with an analog-style visual interface is that knobs and buttons are quite tiny and not easy to operate, but many users would probably be disappointed in seeing a modern looking MS-20.
Also, the MIDI implementation could be improved, but despite these shortcomings, the iMS is a fantastic tool, especially for electronic/beat-oriented musicians and noise-makers. While it's definitely possible to use the app just with the built-in virtual keyboard, to get better results we recommend connecting an external MIDI keyboard. Let's face it, it's not always fun to play a synth just tapping on a screen.



At ANR we loved the first MS-20 software emulation released several years ago as a DAW plugin (remember the Legacy Collection?). With the iMS-20, Korg merged its circuit-emulation technique with an extra array of new-old sound toys. Its vintage-style sounds, the impressive list of features and a fair price (currently approx. $20/18€) definitely make the iMS-20 one of our iPad music making classics!

iSequence
Another 2010 release, this time by BeepStreet. iSequence is an all-in-one tool, featuring an 8-track sequencer, lots of instruments and a mixer with DSP effects. A high number of good quality, something-for-everyone sounds (you can add more via affordable in-app purchases), a flexible sequencer, a sampler mode that allows you to import WAV or AIFF samples, and a quite intuitive workflow make iSequence a perfect app to start making music with the iPad. Its layout makes good use of the screen estate and it's very easy on the eyes (some may say it's not 'exciting', but we'd rather have this than an eye-candy). Suitable to a more general audience than the iMS-20, it can be a solid sketch pad for beats and sequences. Current price approx. $10/9€.




Auria
 If music is more than just a hobby and you're missing your DAW when using your new iPad, well, then Auria is an app to put on your list. Released in 2012 by Wavemachine (well known for its Drumagog), Auria is a professional level DAW for iPad, with an tremendous list of features (like 24-bit/96kHz recording, up to 24 inputs and 48 tracks, support for VST plug-ins, full delay compensation, time stretching, support for Dropbox, Soundcloud, AAF, and MP3, etc.).
It basically allows you to record, mix and master your music in the same way you're used with traditional DAWs and it boasts an analog-style interface that will look familiar even if you're never used a computer to record and mix so far (anyone?).
Wavemachine partnered with PSPAudioware to offer Auria's users a quality channel strip that features Expander, Multiband EQ and Compressor, and a MasterStrip featuring BussPressor, EQ and Mastering Limiter. These plugs, together with the in-built StereoDelay and StereoChorus, cover all the basic needs, so you can start mixing right away. Sound quality-wise, if you've used PSP stuff in the past, you'll already know you won't be disappointed. Third party iOS effect plugins are supported as well, and they are also available as in-app purchase. Last but not least (talking of plugins), Auria throws in a convolution reverb plugin with an included IR library. Not bad, ah?



As mentioned for the iMS-20, here at ANR we're not big fans (to put it mildly) of analog-looking visual interfaces, and we still think an iOS DAW should try to "think different". While Auria doesn't (see the mixer, knobs, and other elements), we definitely love its touch-based waveform editing, that makes good use of the tactile possibilities offered by a tablet.
Coupled with a good USB soundcard, Auria can become an extraordinary tool for your "mobile sessions". Sure, you'll have to face the iPad's Ram limitation and some stability issues (especially if using other apps at the same time, try not to), but who would have imagined until 2 years ago to have a pro-level DAW running on a 400 grams device?
Auria comes in two versions, normal and LE (with a lower track count and some features disabled), and they are currently on sale for €45/$49 and €21/$24. If those twenty extra bucks are not an issue, we recommend getting the full version, you won't regret it.

Arturia Microbrute review: analog for the masses

In December we asked two of collaborators to test the Arturia Microbrute, a new and compact analog synth, with an attractive feature/price ratio. Here's what they found out (and why they both ended up wanting to keep it, despite some shortcomings).

A short description 
The synthesis part is rather intuitive even for those who have no experience with subtractive synthesis. The oscillator source can be mixed in four waveforms: triangular, square, saw and overtone with their relative symmetry control. The fundamental frequency can be tuned over 6 octaves with the possibility to reach very low oscillation at the edge of the audible range. Three types of filters are available on the filter module: low pass, bandpass and high pass. Other controls in this section are envelope amount control, resonance and a “brute factor” control, i.e. something like a feedback loop which can boost lower frequencies. In the lower part of the dashboard you can find the LFO module, the envelope module, the sequencer, glide and two expression wheels. On the bottom of the dashboard there is the 2-octave keyboard. The keys are, well, tiny as you would expect them to be, but given we're talking of a monophonic 2 octave instrument and you won't play Wakeman-style solos on them, they definitely do their job.

Sound
The Microbrute gives users the chance to get a great analog “vintage style” sound, even though it may require some work to achieve what you have in mind. While playing with waveforms, it is really easy to enrich the sound with higher harmonics. Here is the first limitation: the filter. In order to balance bass and high frequencies one must cut off higher frequencies with the filter, it is the basis of subtractive synthesis. The problem is that by doing this, the filter saturates quickly and the result may be a bulky sound with a nasal character. This means that it may not satisfy the most demanding users, given it is not comparable with the ‘classic’ ones. Also, it may be not that easy to achieve a pristine sound full of bass frequencies and crystalline high harmonics, but once you have a good knowledge of the Microbrute, things will be much easier. The situation changes a lot when you use the LFO or the sequencer to lighten the sound: the cumbersome character becomes less evident. Of course the problem disappears when playing the mid octave or upper octave range.
An obvious remark about the sound: do not forget to tune it. As every analog instrument, it has to be tuned. Wait one minute after switching on the power supply, the tuning is not stable during this time. Another minor issue is that if you tune the Microbrute transposed in another tonality, the tuning is not precise over the 2 octave (about ¼ tone).


Live and the sequencer.
If you are looking for an analog sound extension for Ableton Live, well, you should know a few things first. Microbrute only receives notes via MIDI. That means that you cannot change the sound with Ableton. Microbrute works exactly like other pre-MIDI synths: no storage, no setting banks and no automation. It receives only notes (CV) and bpm (gate). The same remark is valid for those looking for an analog synth to play live with their band, get ready to some waiting time between songs (it can be a good chance for your singer to interact with the audience)! Sound settings can only be stored in your mind or written on the cards which Arturia provides with the Microbrute. These cards can be placed on the instrument. Old school rules!
The Microbrute also offers a new cool feature (not found in its bigger brother, the Minibrute): a sequencer, which is actually more or less like an arpeggiator that can store only notes and rests. It has 8 memories that you can program on the fly or load/save via USB. Playing with the sequencer is really fun and inspiring. It is easy to program and always in sync with MIDI if you are using an external drum machine. LFO sync is switchable.

Interfaces/communication 
The Microbrute offers MIDI(in), MIDI via USB, CV/Gate. The modular matrix can be used to redirect voltages between Microbrute modules, but also to redirect voltages to external CV/Gate compliant machines. That means you can easily use the Microbrute along with your favourite original vintage synth or drum machine. How cool is that? Last but not least, we should also mention the analog input, which allows users to feed the Microbrute with any kind of line-level instrument signal(guitar, bass, etc..) and filter it together with the oscillators.

Conclusion
We both had good fun with the Microbrute and its features and the price makes it definitely a GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) item! We would suggest it to those who want to add an "analog spice" to their 100% digital setup or who want to approach the world of modular synthesizers: the modular matrix is comfortable and intuitive, even if not as extensive as those found in bigger and way more expensive machines. The LFO and the sequencer are fun to use and always in sync with other instruments - like a drum machine. The expert analog synth user could use it as a portable solution. It could also be a cool new "toy" for guitar or bass players who wants to experiment with different sounds. It sounds great, and it sounds even better if you plug it directly into your guitar or bass amplifier.

Price
300$/€ approx.

Product page

PROS
  • Analog fun 
  • Affordable but with features hard to find in this price range
  • Compact
LOVE IT OR HATE IT
  • Good old classic analog approach = get ready to write down your presets!
CONS
  • If you're looking for a Moog bass kind of sound, this may be not your 'flavour'
  • The tiny keys are not exactly exciting, but they do help keeping it compact