Seeing its six DVDs of sound content, you might be tempted toduct-tape a key down and let Omnisphere finish your film scoring gig.
While the director would probably love the results, you’d be missing out
on the real fun. Omnisphere is bursting with perfectly crafted preset
sounds. The now 8,000-plus library covers everything from classic
synths to rich, cinematic textures so well that, if sound programmers had
a union, they’d probably protest. I’m tempted to quickly play through a
number of them just so I can start spotting them on TV. But in a release
modestly titled “1.5,” Omnisphere hones its true talent: It’s a surprisingly
powerful tool for creative sound design when you’re ready to go beyond
those presets. We loved Omnisphere’s sound design features when we
reviewed it in December 2008. Now it’s even deeper.
by Peter Kirn
Sounds and More Sounds
Once installed, Omnisphere 1.5 passes the “play it without reading
the manual” test with flying colors. You can, as I did, easily store
its sounds on an external drive. You may want to dedicate an
afternoon to that installation, but then you can begin dialing up
well-organized presets and start playing immediately. As before,
it provides both sampled and modeled waveforms, for all the
capabilities of a high-resolution sample playback synth atop a
full-blown virtual analog/digital hybrid synth. When you do
need documentation, it’s among the clearest and most thorough
available, with hours of online video tutorials.
Omnisphere resists the preset maladies that tend to afflict
instruments of this kind. Yes, you’ll find endless ear candy and evolving
pads. But you’ll also find raw waveforms for building your own sounds,
bread-and-butter synths, carefully constructed vintage instruments,
aggressive leads, and even utility patches for test purposes. You can let
your freak flag fly, or build a Hollywood score, or use Omnisphere as a
lead synth. You get basics along with your weird, plenty in between, and
it’s all eminently playable.
Hidden amidst innocuous-looking parameters are three soundsculpting
sections with radical capabilities—Granular, Harmonia, and
Waveshaper—with new “zoom” modes accompanying each for easy editing.
The Granular section is simply mind-bending, even if you’ve used
other granular synths (see Figure 1 above). It can introduce subtle,
shimmering timbres, as well as more experimental, extreme effects.
New Speed and Position modes produce some startling, gorgeous
results. Add the unique Glide parameter, and you can make some very
odd sounds as the grain pitch swoops from one sound to another. Some
parameters have unexpected names: Grain Depth is actually the number
of Grains. (Careful with that one—it’s the parameter that’ll quickly
bring your CPU to its knees, as with any granular instrument.) Intensity
actually modifies grain size and spacing simultaneously. Th e design of
the controls is welcome: You’re more likely to get good results because of
how Spectrasonics handles the parameter relationships.
|Fig. 1. Improved granular editing parameters mean you can make any preset unrecognizable.|
The name “Harmonia” might imply a harmonizer, but this is a
different animal. This unique sound design tool gives each harmonic
component of your sound independent oscillators and synth controls.
The results can produce basic chords, but also additive synthesisstyle
harmonic motion or new multi-oscillator tones. Each voice
has separate controls for phase, shape, symmetry, sync, and even
Browsing through Omnisphere’s presets generally shows off a lot of
crisp, pristine cinematic sounds. If that leaves you wanting some grit
and distortion, head straight to the new Waveshaper. As with the other
tools, Spectrasonics has focused on polyphony and the front end of
the signal chain instead of just adding effects. For example, when you
apply bit-crushing or sample rate reduction, you get fully polyphonic
distortion inserted in each voice’s signal chain rather than afterward,
which adds dimension to your dirt rather than squashing everything at
once. You can even set the Waveshaper effect to process the output of the Specifications
Oscillator, the Filter, or the Amplifier, and additional parameters controlling
aggressiveness and animating the effect in time give you yet more control.
|Fig. 2. Each of Omnisphere’s eight parts has an independent arpeggiator. Drag and drop a MIDI file, and you can lock the timing to any groove.|
Omnisphere hides these screens by default, keeping the look clean.
Th e new Zoom modes work well, with some caveats: Switching in and out
of the zoomed view requires hitting a specific icon, and enable/disable
switches often require switching between modes. For instance, if you
want to experiment with toggling the Ring Modulation, Waveshaper, and
Harmonia modes, you’ll need to un-zoom any one of the panels. That
slightly slows down an otherwise slick workflow. It’s a minor complaint—
partly because of how well-organized everything is, and the fact that you
can add realtime control via MIDI or now iPad (see “Omni TR for iPad”)—but it’s an opportunity for still more refinement.
Control and Performance
Let’s make this simple: If you can do it in Omnisphere, you can probably
control it in real time. For adventurous musicians exploring its tabs and
zoom screens, there are seemingly endless possibilities for variation.
Right-click any one of those parameters, and a pop-up menu lets you easily
map MIDI control or host automation. A new feature even clones from
one channel to another, useful on sophisticated alternative controllers
like the Eigenharp. There’s access to expression pedals and foot triggers
from the main edit screen, and Spectrasonics has added polyphonic (yes,
polyphonic) aftertouch support to 1.5.
One of Jim Aikin’s few complaints with the original Omnisphere in his
December 2008 Keyboard review concerned the lack of latch capability
on the arpeggiator, especially since each part has an independent arp (see
Figure 2). Wish granted: 1.5 adds new latch options. You can
trigger in legato mode, by host song position, or at the start of a note, in
the arp page itself or from the Live mode overview. You can also drag in
your own MIDI files and lock the arpeggiator’s groove to them, freeing up
new possibilities to make the patterns more human.
The modulation matrix lets you control each of six LFOs, key tracking,
MIDI control, and the like. It’s all a drop-down menu affair; you don’t
get the kind of drag-and-drop graphical interface we’ve seen in tools like
Native Instruments’ Massive or Future Audio Workshop’s Circle. But it’s
unquestionably powerful and flexible, still another reminder this is as
much a semi-modular synthesis system as a multi-gigabyte wellspring of
The interface of Omnisphere’s modulation matrix may look relatively
conventional, but the new Orb is anything but. A circular morph pad,
the Orb is a do-everything sound shaper that can interpolate between
multiple parameters at once, with Lemur-like physics and Kaoss-style
motion recording. Using the Orb works with the mouse, but other
methods are more fun—you can assign morphing to MIDI, or use
Spectrasonics’ Omni TR iPad app.
The Orb’s “Dice” control is far more than a randomizer—it
intelligently analyzes any patch and automatically changes parameters as
you play, in musically useful ways. Inertia controls the movement of the
morph “puck,” and you can record and play back gestures, quantized
to groupings of bars if you like. We’ve seen similar-looking interfaces,
morphing of multiple parameters, and motion recording in other apps
and controllers. Omnisphere, however, is unique in adding realtime,
dynamic assignment of parameters for morphing. Of course, you can
set these parameters manually if you prefer.
Omnisphere 1.5 is a marvel. It balances easy access to preset sounds
with deep sonic control in a way no other soft synth has. If you’re just
looking for gigabytes of expertly programmed sonic inspiration, it’s
an easy choice. The Orb and other smart controls let you vary those
sounds—in large amounts or small—using your ears, without having
to delve deeply into the synthesis engine. Or, delve as deeply as you
please. With thousands of sounds as possible starting points, this
much power is almost frightening. Th at leaves only one big frontier
for version 2.0, since Spectrasonics is calling this 1.5: Allow sound
designers to load samples of their own. Add that, and you might
never have to touch another soft ware synth again. Even without that
ability, though, Omnisphere 1.5 is one of the most powerful, deep,
and best-sounding synths—hardware or soft ware—in the world, and
a definite Key Buy.
PROS Insanely huge sound library gets bigger. Unique polyphonic waveshaping,
granular synthesis, and multi-voice harmony. Orb morphing and iPad app.
Endless live control.
CONS Some clicking necessary to move between modes. Still no standalone
version. Can’t load your own samples.
CONCEPT Mega-soft-synth employing multiple synthesis technologies.
SYNTHESIS TYPE Wavetable (variable DSP oscillators), virtual
analog, FM oscillators, and granular synthesis.
MULTITIMBRAL PARTS 8.
SYNTH ENGINE 6 LFOs per patch, 8 multi-breakpoint looping
envelopes per patch, 17 filter types, 8 arpeggiators, polyphonic timbre shifting,
bit-crushing, waveshaper, ring mod, and glide. Dual filters per layer. Multimixer,
aux effects, and mastering effects racks.
COMPATIBILITY Windows 7/Vista: VST, RTAS. Mac OS X 10.5 or
higher: VST, AU, RTAS. 32-bit and 64-bit native versions for Windows and Mac OS X.
REQUIRED DISK SPACE 50 GB.
PRICE List: $499
Approx. street: $470
Free upgrade for registered users.
Omni TR for iPad
Far from a me-too gimmick, Omni TR is
one elegant remote control—and it’s free
at the iTunes App Store. Though it works
on your computer with a mouse, the “Orb”
controller is far more satisfying when you
play it on the iPad’s touchscreen. Omni
TR also provides access to multis in both
Live and Stack modes, synth edit parameters,
and the new arpeggiator latch controls.
Launch the app, it finds Omnisphere
running on a WiFi network, and you’re off
and running. The only problem is endemic
to WiFi: You sometimes have to restart
the app if the connection is dropped. But
prop an iPad atop a keyboard and connect
any recent laptop, and you’ll make
just about any high-end hardware synth