Virtual synths have become a cornerstone in modern music production. They are affordable, very portable and perfect for computer based music. Thanks to the power of computer based graphic environments, they’ve also developed many unique features absent from hardware units which are setting them apart, not only in terms of versatility, portability and convenience, but also in their own powerful and unique capabilities. This two parts article series will explore four of our favourite virtual synths of 2020.
Released in 2014, this synth developed by Xfer Records has soared meteorically to become one of the most popular and widely used synthesizers in 2020 due to the excellent quality of its oscillators, effects and filters, as well as the simplicity, ease of use and speed boosting capabilities of its intuitive user interface. Serum has also pioneered the use of advanced wavetable synthesis techniques such as resynthesis and morphing as well as waveform generation, edition, processing and rendering and the inclusion of custom samples as an extra sound source.
The modulation system is incredibly fast and easy to use with drag and drop connections available between modulation sources and targets that reside on the main interface at a very close proximity to each other. This proximity between parameters and modulators makes it possible to create numerous modulation routes in a fraction of the time needed in other synths. Apart from this onboard drag and drop system, the synth also includes a dedicated Matrix section for more advanced and in-depth modulation settings such as curves, direction and auxiliary sources.
Serum includes a vast array of filter types including rare types such as Flangers, Phasers, and Comb filters with key-tracking, as well as Dual types that allow you to morph between different pairs of filter types. A pair of forward and backwards buttons allow the user to traverse the whole list of filter types, which allows for extremely rapid switching, ideal for quick and agile prototyping. All six parameters of the filtering section can be modulated with a simple drag and drop gesture with the modulators right underneath it. This makes it really easy to add complex motion to the sound very quickly.
The effects section is also remarkable, not only in the quality and variety of the effect processors, but also in their seamless integration with the rest of the engine. All the effects parameters are fully modulable with the same quick and easy drag and drop system available for the main parameters, which enables an extra layer of evolving sound design techniques programmed on top of the dry sound coming from the main section.
Phase Plant is a virtual synth developed by Kilohearts that builds upon some of the features already introduced by Serum, such as real-time wavetable manipulation and edition, fast and easy drag and drop modulation, and custom sampling. Despite the similarities, the implementation of these common features in Phase Plant feels a bit more robust and polished, and loaded with more controls and options as well as some unique features.
The synth is incredibly easy to program, with a semi-modular architecture based on menus that allow you to stack different types of modules in a very flexible and powerful manner. The interface is divided into three sections where the three types of modules: generators, effects, and modulators, can be inserted. The different modules can then be grouped, routed, modulated, and stacked in many ways through simple drag and drop gestures.
The generators area allows you to add modules one by one to gradually build up your sound. The modules in the generators section are divided into three categories: generators, effects, and utilities. The generators include Analog, Noise, Sampler, and Wavetable, and are used to produce the basis of your sound in different ways. The effects category includes Distortion and Filter, which are used to process the waveforms produced by the generators by adding and subtracting harmonics from them. Lastly, the utilities category offers four different modules called Group, Aux, Mix, and Output for grouping and routing purposes.
One of the most groundbreaking and unique features of the generators section is the option to use the level, pitch, and phase output of each generator as a modulation source to shape and modulate the waveform of other generators in the stack. Also remarkable is the ability to send each generated signal into three different effect lanes for independent processing, and even use an additional sidechain modulation bus for effects compatible with sidechaining.
The effects section contains a huge list of audio effects that can be stacked in three independent lanes, to which each generator's output can be routed for parallel processing. Another unique feature of Phase Plant in this area is that it allows all effects to run in polyphonic mode, where the effects processing is done for each voice separately, instead of on all voices mixed together.
The modulators lane lets you insert modulators from three different categories: Shapes, MIDI, and Utilities. The Shapes category includes classic ADSR and LFO modulators plus and S&H style randomizer. The MIDI category offers a set of modulators based on MIDI messages like note, pressure and velocity, whereas the Utility category contains a few modules such as Max, Min, and Multiply, that can be used to modulate modulation signals.
So here you have our first two favourite virtual synths of 2020. We think that these two synthesizers have contributed greatly to the advent of a new era of software synthesis by harnessing the unique strengths of computer based environments instead of just walking the trodden path of classic hardware emulation. Both in their own way, are pointing towards new forms of expression and sound design techniques without losing their ties to their hardware antecessors legacy. In the next part we’ll be reviewing another two synths with similar feature sets to these two but with some unique features of their own, so stay tuned for the next one.