Category Archives: REVIEWS

SPECTRASONICS OMNISPHERE

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test systems: MacPro W3520 (12GB RAM) | OSX 10.9.5 | Cubase 6.5.5 (64-bit) | MacBookAir i5-4250U (4GB RAM) | OSX 10.10.5 | Mainstage 2 | VSTLord

Disclaimer: I am definitely biased when it comes to Spectrasonics, as its founder Eric Persing was the man responsible for some of Roland’s best sounds in the 1990’s. His sounds just work for me, and Atmosphere and Trilogy were my favorite software synths for the longest time.

I have already reviewed Trilogy’s successor Trillian, and now I’ll tell you what I think of Omnisphere, Spectrasonics’ flagship.

This does not aim to be an in-depth and thorough review, there are quite a few of them readily available elsewhere, so I’ll simply share what works for me and what doesn’t.

For the most part, it sounds bloody great, it covers a wide variety of synth sounds and the only thing I could wish for is Spectrasonics’ take on more conventional sounds like run-of-the-mill piano/rhodes/organ/brass etc.

All the good stuff from Atmosphere is included, and I find myself still reaching for them because I already know how they will work in an arrangement and they generally load quicker, as some of Omnisphere’s patches are positively gargantuan in size.

Other than sheer volume, the biggest difference between Atmosphere and Omnisphere is the engine. Atmopshere was powered by the venerable UVI engine, whereas Omnisphere is built around Spectrasonics’s own STEAM engine. While the UVI was very reliable and efficient, it was essentially a sample-player, and Spectrasonics needed more if Omnisphere was to be a proper synthesizer.

Inside my DAW, Omnisphere is great. You get Spectra’s signature sounds in an 8-part multi-timbral package, with insert and send FX on every channel, great stuff. STEAM needs more cycles than UVI, but on a reasonably modern computer it shouldn’t tax your system too much.

So all praise so far, which is boring and what you really want to hear is about the cons, right?

Well, there is one thing: there is no standalone version of Omnisphere. I think this is a regrettable omission, as it makes Omnisphere less ideal for live use. In my particular situation, hosting Omnisphere in Mainstage on my humble 2013 MacBookAir is not really a viable scenario. Thankfully, Spectrasonics support pointed me to the excellent VSTLord freeware host app, and it works really great with that (hardly ever taxing the CPU over 30%).

Also, cheap it ain’t. And Spectrasonics doesn’t do price drops like some of its competitors do, but the upside of that is that you’ll never have to feel duped when you buy it at full price only to see it on sale at half price one week later.

But that’s it. Everything else is great. I have a free upgrade to Omnisphere 2, and plan to install that sometime this year. It’s hard to imagine how it could be better than the original, but I’ll be happy with just as good!

 

 

sE Electronics Reflexion Filter

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I bought this around three or four years ago, when I had my home studio set up in a tiny room with tiled floors, wall-to-wall mirror closet doors on one side and french patio doors on the other.

This thing does what they say it does, so you can’t complain, but it is NOT a one-stop solution for vocal recordings. It will eliminate much (not all) of the room sound, but only with moderate levels. It is defeated as soon as a vocalist belts out.

I spent $299 on it, and in the end I feel it hasn’t quite been worth it. I moved house and now have a decent amount of acoustic treatment in my home studio; in this situation the Reflexion Filter adds little value.

Another gripe I have is its weight: my boom stand got bent at the hinge because of it. In addition, the weight requires you to really screw the clamp on tight, which damaged the rubber grip:

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In conclusion, I’d say that if you have no alternative, this thing can help take quite a bit of room out of your signal. But it is no silver bullet, and I question the wisdom of forking out $299 for this. Perhaps that money is better spent on room treatment.

 

 

 

 

Spectrasonics Trillian

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test system: MacPro W3520 (12GB RAM) | OSX 10.6.8 and 10.8.5 | Cubase 6 and 6.5 (64-bit)

I can keep this review pretty short; like its predecessor Trilogy, Trillian is THE definitive bass sample library. That said, there are certain synth bass tones in NI Massive that I prefer for some things, but as a one-stop-shop bass solution, Trillian is the business.

But as good as the synth bass sounds are, the library’s true strength is its excellent acoustic and electric basses. These are simply in a league of their own, nothing else comes close. Indeed, you’d have to have a pretty great bass-player and premium signal chain to approximate the sound quality on offer here.

Playability, too, is second to none. Most of the stuff feels lively and responsive, although I typically set a MIDI velocity limiter at value 125, to avoid trigger the slides etc. While it is cool and fun to play with, it can be distracting and somewhat restrictive in conjunction with the velocity response of my Roland Fantom X7.

Compared to Trilogy, the tweakability has been noticeably improved. Each sound has a few quick controls assigned to the most relevant parameters, but the old edit pages are still there. Multi-timbral operation is logical and intuitive, and many synth sounds really lend themselves well for exploration beyond the bass register. One of my personal faves is using the Chapman Stick as an electric guitar!

Drawbacks? Nothing much. The new acoustic and electric sounds are huge and can take up to twenty seconds to load (I run them off a dedicated 7200rpm HDD), and I often grab legacy Trilogy sounds because they load faster. Oh and you’ll need a lot of RAM for the new sounds, too.

Otherwise, I really can’t think of anything else, it is that good. Trillian is not cheap, but it sure is worth every penny.

Izotope Alloy 2

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test system: MacPro W3520 (12GB RAM) | OSX 10.6.8 and 10.8.5 | Cubase 6 and 6.5 (64-bit)

Looking at past reviews, I see that I am never enthusiastic about the “good deals” I got. The sweetness of the lower price is not yet forgotten, but I never feel that it was money well-spent.
As I keep saying, my impulse buys are rarely good ones, but Izotope’s Alloy2 is the shining exception. It was not on sale, but the regular price ($199) is extremely fair, considering all that you get.

Alloy 2 has 7 sections: an EQ, a transient shaper, an exciter, two compressors, a de-esser and a limiter. Each of these can be individually switched on and off. The transient shaper, exciter and compressors have multi-band functionality which greatly enhances their usefulness. But you can get the details from Izotope’s site or other reviews, so I’m gonna skip all that and get right down to business.

This thing sounds seriously good. It doesn’t do vintage or classic stuff, but it does digital, and it does digital right.

At the risk of offending legions of pro engineers, the presets in this thing are fantastic. They provide excellent “ballpark” sounds, which serve as great starting points for further tweaking. And not a lot of tweaking is needed, typically it is adjusting thresholds etc. and pretty soon you’re good.

I use it mostly for vocals and drum buss, and it is excellent on both. Most of the presets sound very current and up-to-date, many of them designed to give you that ‘boom, now it sounds like a record’ feeling. To really get it right, you’ll need to dive in there to finish it up to make it ‘sit’, but a lot of the hard work has been done for you and in my case, many of the presets are great time-savers.

For those who prefer to start with a clean sheet: all the different blocks give you an amazingly versatile and superb-sounding tool that allows to sculpt and mold the sound to your heart’s content.

It’s hard for me to think of true negatives; I think the exciter is probably less impressive in isolation. It distorts pretty quickly but at modest levels it doesn’t appear to do much. That said, whenever it is active in a preset it is easier to pick out what it does by switching it on and off, so perhaps it is simply my ineptitude.

Also, this is a modern plugin and you’re not gonna run 500 instances of this on your MacPro. It is not too heavy considering all it does, but it does take cycles, and when you have a lot of instances open, you will notice.

In conclusion, Alloy 2 sounds great, has excellent presets for those who don’t want to be bothered, offers deep control for those who need it, and generally delivers on all counts. I think it is well worth the $199.

 

Camel Audio Camel Crusher

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test system: MacPro W3520 (12GB RAM) | OSX 10.6.8 and 10.8.5 | Cubase 6 and 6.5 (64-bit)

I appreciate you reading my review, but since this is a free plugin, you’d better download it and get busy with it!

Most developers have some kind of free product, and while some are genuinely good and/or useful, a lot of it is just a waste of disk space.

The Camel Crusher is among the best that I know of. If this was $99 it would be good value. For free? Bloody amazing!

It sounds really, really good. I am not a fan of distortion and didn’t think I’d have use for this, but it turns out this little gem is supremely versatile and it goes from subtle but audible coloration to beyond 11 and breaking your speakers.

I find that I can use this plugin on just about anything and it will do something good to it, but it excels at breathing new life and energy into dull or bland sounding tracks.

It is a distortion/saturator/compressor/filter, and it does all of that really well.

Controls are limited but that is actually a good thing. You don’t waste 30 minutes fiddling with knobs only to find out it’s not gonna work.

I’m gonna say it again, this thing sounds GREAT. It’s free. It is better than many plugins I paid good money for. It has a definite “analog” vibe to it.

What are you waiting for? Go get it!

http://www.camelaudio.com/camelcrusher.php

February 17, 2015:

Since Apple bought Camel Audio last year, this plugin is unfortunately no longer available. However, Camel Audio’s flagship product, Alchemy, reappeared bundled with Apple’s Logic Pro X and Mainstage 3, so perhaps this plugin will be included at some point as well. I sure hope so.

 

 

Softube Mix Bundle

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test system: MacPro W3520 (12GB RAM) | OSX 10.6.8 and 10.8.5 | Cubase 6 and 6.5 (64-bit)

A few years back, this bundle got a lot of hype on the net, and when it was on sale (I think it was around $180) I decided to buy into it.
The bundle comprises:
– FET Compressor
– Active EQ
– Passive EQ
– Focusing EQ
– TSAR-1R Reverb
While it is not bad at all, and reasonable value at the price I paid for it, I have once again learned that you get what you pay for. The great-sounding stuff costs way more. That is not to say that this bundle does not sound good, with a bit of care you can get decent results, but it is not the “just turn a knob and go wow” experience.

The best thing about the EQ’s is that the top-end is pretty smooth. You can add quite a bit of gain without it sounding harsh. Still, while you can shape tones nicely with these EQ’s, it all remains pretty bland. There is not a lot of character or excitement.

I keep trying to use the FET compressor, but I rarely get what I’m looking for. It does NOT sound like an 1176 to me, although my experience with the real thing is admittedly limited. Again, not to say it’s bad, just that it fails to blow me away. I have managed to get satisfying results on electric bass guitar with the plug-in, but not much else.

I use the reverb more. Mostly because it is easy to use and you get predictable results. Not a whole lot of flavor, but it sounds nice enough and does what it is supposed to do.

All in all, I don’t feel shortchanged as I got a good deal on it. But for the current retail price of $299 I find it a little underwhelming. I would not say it is bad value, everything works and if you happen to need a compressor/EQ/reverb bundle for that price it remains a sensible purchase. I just never fell in love with it.

Clavia Nord Piano 88

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I don’t know how we happen to be in July already, and I have yet to write my first blog of 2013! But I am happy that my first post of the year is about the Nord Piano. I have primarily reviewed software over the last two years or so, and the NordPiano is the first keyboard I have bought since my FantomX purchase back in 2005.

I have already written about the NP88 here and I can only say that my initial impressions have pretty much stood the test of time. It sounds remarkably consistent on a variety of different speakers and amps, sounds good in mono (except for one occasion where an intricate mono-cum-headphone-out-summed-to-other-mono introduced a nasty phasiness that made the piano sound, well, nasty) and best of all: it makes me want to play.

This review could end right here, because that last quality is one that renders all others irrelevant. Sure, I could blab on about the sound quality, which is good but not outstanding, the action, which is probably the most criticized aspect of this keyboard, and for a reason.

But at the end of the day, the NP88 just feels right to me, and isn’t that the most important thing? I even record with it at home, as the finger-to-sound connection of the board makes me play better than I do with the multi-GB piano sample libraries now hibernating on my hard drive. I don’t worry about the realism of the recorded sound. It sounds way better than any real piano on 1970’s recordings, so it is a total non-issue for me.

My only concerns are a lack of proper pianissimo samples, a minijack input that -inexplicably!- can only be routed to the headphone out and not the line outs, and the absence of layer/split functionality.

The minijack issue is a great example of a missed opportunity, as many solo pianists with restaurant gigs would have welcomed the ability to play along to backing tracks on their iPod/iPhones without the need for an external mixer.

The layer functionality has been added in the NordPiano2, as well as the ability to load up sounds from the Nord sample library, so it is conceivable that I may trade up to that at some point in the future.

But for now, I don’t even look at other digital pianos anymore. The NP88 is not the perfect DP by a long shot, but I am perfectly satisfied with it.