Synth-ify Your Life
The layout of Zebra puts the sound generators on the left side of the screen, the modulators on the right side, and the signal routings in the middle.
u-he — Zebra 2.5
U-he is a relatively small outfit that just happens to make really cool synths. Zebra is somewhat unique in that it acts as a sort of virtual modular synth. In other words, you can build your sounds up from scratch by selecting and routing various on-screen synth modules in a very flexible manner.
The front-end of Zebra has three main pages that serve as your interface to the program: Perform, Synthesis, and Patches. The Patches page is pretty self-explanatory. This is where you load patches into the software, and it’s extremely easy to navigate.
The Synthesis page is where all your creative juices come together to build the sound of your dreams. In the middle of the screen is the main grid where you can drag in any number of modules: up to four oscillators, two noise generators, FM oscillators, multistage envelope generators, four VCF (voltage controlled filters), two comb filters, two ring modulators, wave shapers, and more. Lots more! Modules can be added to the matrix, moved around to change their routing, mute, or remove them all together.
No matter how simple or complex your patch might become, the page only shows the modules that are currently being used in the patch. For most soft synths, all the controls are on screen all the time. But in Zebra, you’ll only see what you’re actually using. For all but the most complex sounds, this makes the program visually cleaner and finding the parameter you want to tweak is much easier. Modules that generate sound are on the left side of the screen while modulators that affect the sound are on the right side.
For each oscillator, the initial waveform is a simple sawtooth. But from there, you can actually create your own waveforms in four different methods that make use of waveshape drawing and/or spectrum drawing. Each oscillator can have up to 16 different waveforms that are morphable. Create a custom waveform in slot 1 and another in slot 16, and ask the program to morph between them. Presto! Fourteen brand new waveforms.
Zebra has a huge selection of controls that affect the way voices are triggered and how they sound. There are five different voice modes, including one that emulates a classic “duophonic” analog synth. There are settings for voice drift (slight detuning), microtuning, pitch-bend range, semi-tone, and fine tuning ranges, two different glide controls, and more.
In the effects pantry, Zebra stores all the “usual suspects” along with a number of special spectral effects that you don’t normally see in soft synths, including crossfading even and odd number harmonics, and effects with names such as registerizer, scrambler, turbulence symmetry, trajector, formanzilla, and exophase, to name just a few. In the words of one of my musical heroes, “a little experimentation goes a long way.”
For me, the most interesting aspect of Zebra is the performance window. Here you’ll find the four performance pads. These pads are X/Y controllers that can be programmed to alter multiple parameters of the sound at once (up to 16, to be exact). Pad positions can be moved around in real time by external MIDI controllers, or you can just play with the pads to create variations on the original patch. Oh, and if all this wasn’t enough to get you drooling, throw in a very cool and flexible arpeggiator.
In this screen shot, you can clearly see the spectrogram of the original sound, the selected frequencies, loop points, and control settings.
Izotope — Iris
Izotope is a company well known for its high-quality audio processing plugins, but Iris isn’t a processor, it’s a synth … well, maybe it is … I’m not really sure.
With Iris, an oscillator’s waveform or a simple sample is no longer the initial building block of a patch. Instead, when you load in a waveform, sample, or sound file from your desktop, Iris creates a spectrogram, offering a visual window into the sample’s frequency content and frequency intensity over time. The vertical axis displays the frequency while the horizontal axis shows the sample’s duration. Weaker frequencies are darker, while more powerful frequencies are brighter. Once you’re viewing the image of the sound, Iris offers tools that allow you to highlight or erase certain portions of the sound in a manner that would be just impossible with any type of standard filters.
The editing portion of the program will remind you more of an early version of MacPaint (for those who remember) or other graphic editing programs, as these tools are meant to select different sections of the image, and therefore, different frequencies and the intensity of those frequencies over time. There are squares, ovals, and even a lasso tool to bound and play oddly shaped specific parts of the sonic makeup. Other tools include a magic wand, a paintbrush, and some tools designed to invert time and/or frequency.
Looping is supported so that any portion of a sound can be looped, making it pretty easy to set up patches that offer anything from subtle hints of rhythmic pulsing to beat components. Loop styles include forward, backward, forward/backward, and backward/forward. Izotope also offers the standard synth-style controls that are more commonly used to define a sound. There are the expected envelope generation tools to affect the sound’s attack, decay, sustain, and release. There’s also a pretty sophisticated LFO control that includes waveshape, destination choices, syncing options, and more.
Each complete patch is comprised of up to three of these sample spectrograms (along with their independent edits and loops) along with a sub oscillator that offers the addition of a more standard waveform. With an audio engine this complex, you’d think that it would be impossible to navigate. But the fact is that playing around in Iris is a joy and totally inspirational. It’s surprisingly easy to create bubbling, morphing, swirling, sounds that are completely unique. The program also lets you add some effects as well. When editing each part, the effect knobs act as sends, setting the amount of the signal that will be routed to the effect. Once these are determined, there are master controls that determine all the programmable aspects of the effect (distortion, chorus, delay, and reverb).
It’s a little difficult to know the results of your editing experiments in advance. But, that’s part of the charm of this machine. You can use Iris to create long, flowing soundscapes, or design percussive one-shots from sonic slices of other files. Once you get the hang of it, Iris is an amazingly powerful audio design tool that will give you plenty to work with. So, with that I think I’ve made my decision: It’s a synth!