The French software company Xils lab has recently introduced a soft synth, inspired by one of the first truly portable modular analog synths - the EMS VCS3. The VCS3 has a rich history of users: Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, Aphex Twin and the Chemical Brothers are on the list. The original synth has a reputation for brilliant inconsistencies, and is famous as a quirky sound-mangler as well as a beautiful sounding instrument. Click here to see the original VCS3 in action.
The XILS-3 modular soft synth was created with a large nod in the direction of the VCS3, while taking advantage of modern and more reliable technology.
The XILS-3 is available as a plug-in in all major formats. There is no standalone version, so it has to be used within a DAW. The installation process is a simple download and license transfer. (you need either Ilok or the syncrosoft license dongles to use the XILS-3) The plug-in comes in two forms – one as a virtual instrument, and the other as an effects processor plug-in, that can be used directly on audio tracks in the DAW.
The layout is in the form of two modules: the synthesizer and the sequencer.
The synth module’s GUI is a replica of the original VCS3. There, you will find three analog style oscillators, with level and shape control for sine, saw, triangle and square waves. Shaping the sound waves are 3 low/high pass filters, envelopes (ADSR and Trapezoid), spring reverb, ring modulation, and a noise generator. At the bottom of the module are a signal routing matrix (more details later), and an XY joystick.
The sequencer module has the same retro design style: it contains a 128-step sequencer, and all the associated control elements. On this side of the instrument are also sections for the audio inputs (pitch and transient tracking), a master section (Mono/Poly/Unison, Glide time, etc) and universal effects for the instrument, such as delay and chorus.
For more details on the features of the instrument click here
Upon first play, the instrument sounds absolutely fantastic! The company boasts no aliasing on the oscillators, as they are using their own custom DSP algorithm, and I couldn’t hear any from sweeping up and down the frequency ranges. It certainly sounded warm and crisp. The XILS-3 contains several pre-installed preset banks, designed by some heavy hitters in the audio synthesis world. They are of excellent quality, and are a great jumping off point for deeper exploration into the architecture of the synth. The audio examples give an excellent demonstration of what’s possible.
So this synth sounds great, but there are a lot of software emulations of analog synths out there. How does this one make its presence felt? To me, this instrument really stands out with the modular Matrix. The simple grid layout enables over 450 different signal routing possibilities, without the virtual cable spaghetti you might expect (The vertical axis of the matrix being the source of the signal, and the horizontal axis being the destination, you can place a pin at the intersection between source and destination, and there’s a signal path created). I found it to be an intuitive way of quickly routing sound, and with 16 different sources and destinations, you can get very creative! It’s possible to route the same signal to different places at the same time, which has very unpredictable and sometimes beautiful sonic results. The only slight issue I had the matrix was the relative difficulty of placing the virtual pin exactly where I wanted to, due to its small size. But that’s a minor gripe.
The sequencer is also a great component of this synth. It too has a matrix, and you can route the sequences to destinations other than the oscillators, such as to the filter, envelopes or the reverb.
I also enjoyed using the pitch and transient trackers with various audio loops, to create synth and bass lines that locked in with the groove of the loops used. It took some time to figure out the signal path for using incoming audio, and there is some basic video tuition on the website, but perhaps it could be more comprehensive.
The processing requirements of the synth were quite varied. I was mainly running the plug-in with Ableton Live, on a 2.4ghz core2duo Macbookpro with 4GB Ram. The patches averaged around 10%, but sometimes used up to 40% (Of Ableton’s CPU percentage), especially when the keyboard was on the circular poly setting. So be aware of CPU-intensive patches.
As a part of this review, I imported some presets patches that are available from Soundsdivine, a company that creates sound presets for many of the quality softsynths available today (check out the interview we did with them).
There are two banks available, as part of the package, and they definitely compliment the preset banks that come with the synth. They cover various elements: bass, synth, pad, sequence, and FX patches, and are clearly labelled. The patches are of good quality, a lot of them reminiscent of the sounds used by Boards of Canada, Aphex twin, and Milosh. At $25 they're definitely a worthwhile addition (especially if you'd like to get the most out of this synth without spending too many hours tweaking it). You can check them out here
For someone with little knowledge of synthesis, this instrument could be fairly intimidating. There is a manual, and a quick start section of the website that helps with understanding the layout of the instrument. If you’d like to understand more about synthesis – the web is a great resource. I’ll start you off here.
Price: €149.00 (including tax). An iLok or eLicenser dongle is required.
See above to get a special deal on XILS 3
The instrument sounds absolutely fantastic!
- Sounds rich and warm – a great analog emulation
- Massive depth and flexibility – the routing possibilities seem endless!
- Can be used as a quality effects processor as well as a synth
LOVE-IT OR HATE-IT
- This is a synth for people who love synths. For the preset junkie, pass on by (and miss out). You need to invest time creating. It’s definitely worth it.
- Matrix is a bit fiddly
- Steep learning curve
- Video tutorials could be a bit more comprehensive (Spectrasonics RMX tutorials could be an example)
by Andy Dollerson