SynthMaster: the most powerful soft synth you may not have heard of

April 18, 2014
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Only two kinds of people are likely to love SynthMaster: Intrepid sound designers who enjoy crafting their own patches, and musicians who just want to grab a great-sounding factory preset and play some music. If you’re not in either of those categories . . . well, I’m guessing you are. SynthMaster is not the best known soft synth, but for sheer power, it belongs near the top of any list of great music software. 

PROS: Great presets. Lots of sound design tools, including oscillator types, filter modes, multi-segment envelopes, modulation routings, and arpeggiator tricks.

CONS: Some user interface oddities. Some presets not tuned to standard pitch (though this is easily changed).

Bottom Line: A real sleeper of flexibility and power when it comes to analog-style synthesis.

Basic: $99 street | Standard: $129 street | Everything: $329 street | www.synthmaster.com


 

Overview and Factory Sounds

At the highest level, a SynthMaster preset has two layers, though most sounds need only one. In each layer are two main oscillators, four modulator oscillators, two resonant multimode filters, eight envelopes, a couple of LFOs, four programmable key scaling curves, an arpeggiator, and five insert effects. Five more effects, four more LFOs, and 12 user-definable “easy controls” are available at the instrument level. Many of the sections have their own Save buttons, allowing you to store and recall often-used configurations.

SynthMaster’s three versions differ only in the size of the included preset library. The Everything bundle isn’t cheap, but the developers have enlisted some great sound designers, so if you can afford it, you won’t be disappointed. The preset browser uses a database approach. As a result, many of the presets are found in multiple folders (such as Organ and Keys). You can filter the display using attributes (such as “Arpeggiated” or “Legato”), musical style, or author.

The preset library is far too large to describe in detail. Reasonable electric pianos and Clavinets are supplied, a few drawbar-type organs, lots of synth basses and pads, leads, drums, arpeggiator and step sequencer patterns, choirs, FX, and so on. Because I reviewed the Everything bundle, some of my favorites may not be in the version you buy.


Oscillators

Four oscillator types are available, and they’re all waveform monsters. SynthMaster supplies several hundred single-cycle waveforms, many of them sampled from vintage instruments. These waves can be used for both the carrier and modulator oscillators in the basic, additive, wavescan, and vector modes. (A fifth oscillator mode, “Audio In,” is also in the menu, but its usefulness will depend on how your DAW is set up. As an audio processor, SynthMaster 2.6.9 was not compatible with Image-Line FL Studio 11 on my Windows 7 PC, but it worked fine in Steinberg Cubase 7.0.5.)

More than 100 longer wave samples are also provided in SFZ format, and you can load your own WAV or AIFF files. However, SynthMaster doesn’t qualify as a full-featured soft sampler: It has no facility for mapping multiple samples across the keyboard and no loop editing features.

The four modulators can be applied to the two carriers in whatever combination you may need, and can do FM, PM, and AM (frequency, phase, and amplitude modulation). FM and PM only work with the single-cycle carrier waves, but AM works fine even with long samples. The frequencies of both carriers and modulators can track the keyboard fractionally, which is useful for setting up attack transients and equal-tempered microtonal scales. (SynthMaster also loads Scala tuning files.) FM is implemented in an odd way: The DC Offset knob in the modulator has to be cranked up for it to work.

The basic oscillator mode plays your chosen waveform. In additive mode each oscillator is actually eight separate oscillators, each with its own waveform, tuning, loudness, and panning—all of which can be modulated from an LFO, envelope, or MIDI.

In wavescan mode you can choose up to 16 different waveforms, and the oscillator will scan from one to another, crossfading smoothly. By using a stepped LFO shape to sweep the table, you can easily produce PPG-style wave motion.

In vector mode, you can choose four waves, again giving each its own tuning. Two modulation inputs can be used for two-dimensional sweeping among the four waves, and you can set their balance graphically with the mouse.

You can dial in a slight amount of pitch drift to simulate a real analog synth. This drift is continuous rather than being a fixed random value that’s different for each note, as in some other digital instruments. SynthMaster’s drift is more realistic, in my opinion. 

Each oscillator has its own pan knob, so a two-layer sound can have four oscillators panned to different positions for a big stereo spread. The filters are stereo, too: Two oscillators with different panning can be processed by what is nominally a single filter, and their pan positions will be retained.


Filters

Each layer has two filters, and the layer can be configured with the filters in series, parallel, or “split” (meaning each oscillator has its own filter). Two filter models are provided: digital and analog. Each model has a choice of modes: lowpass, highpass, bandpass, band-reject, low or high shelving, peak, dual, or multi. In the latter two modes, a single filter turns into two filters in series or parallel. The digital filter also has a comb filter mode.

Pre-gain, drive, and waveshaping curves can add overdrive to a filter, and can be positioned either before, after, or within the filter. Oddly, the drive knob is active even when this section is switched off; possibly this is a bug. Adding pre-gain can easily boost the output into clipping territory. The digital filter model has a handy limiter to keep the level in check, thus reducing the chance of clipping. The limiter isn’t active with the analog filter, but a layer can be routed through a compressor in the effects section, which will accomplish much the same thing. With a bit of drive, the analog filter can get quite rambunctious, and that’s a good thing. The comb filter can also output some tasty nastiness when its damping knob is combined with the feedback and overdrive controls.


Modulation

Just about the only hardwired modulation routings in SynthMaster are the key tracking of the oscillators and filters. For everything else, including amplitude and filter envelopes, you’ll need to use the modulation matrix. Fortunately, there are 64 routings. There’s no provision for modulating the depth of one routing from another, but this is no problem because the important modules (oscillators, LFOs, and envelopes) have their own output level knobs, which can be modulated from the matrix.

The LFOs don’t have access to the long list of waveforms; they just do sine, square, triangle, sawtooth, and stepped. A stepped LFO can have up to 32 steps, and each step can either glide to the next step or decay to zero with a mouse-editable curve. The LFOs will sync to host clock, so it’s easy to set up complex rhythms without even touching the arpeggiator (which we’ll get to shortly).

The four ADSR envelopes aren’t fancy, but they have two features you don’t see every day. A bit depth knob reduces the output anywhere from 24 bits (smooth) to two bits. The sync button gives the envelope display a beat grid overlay, making it easier to program rhythmically precise sweeps. When sync is active, changing the tempo will also change the envelope lengths.

Then, the multi-segment envelopes can have up to 16 stages, and can loop. The loop start and end can be set to any step, and the number of loop repetitions can be up to 32, or infinite. The editing of step lengths is entirely graphic, which makes it a bit fiddly. Even so, these envelopes are nicely implemented. The two-dimensional envelopes are similar, but have separate outputs for the X and Y axes. The graphic editing of the 2D envelopes is difficult with envelopes that have a lot of segments, and in fact it once crashed Cubase while I was playing with it. I reported a related bug in this area to the manufacturer, so hopefully you won’t encounter the problem.

Each layer also has four key scaling tables. A table can have up to 16 mouse-editable steps, and covers the entire 128-note MIDI keyboard range. These tables are ideal for things like shaping the amount of FM across the keyboard range so as to craft a more playable instrument.

The modulation matrix display can be filtered to show only the routings from a specific source or to a specific destination. Double-clicking on an amount knob resets it to zero, which is highly useful, as the knobs in SynthMaster are sensitive to small changes. Modulation amounts are bidirectional.


Effects

The effects routing scheme is one of the more confusing facets of SynthMaster. By default, each layer has five insert effects: distortion (a waveshaper), lo-fi (a bit-crusher), ensemble chorus, phaser, and parametric EQ. These are found in the Layer edit area. In addition, each Layer can be routed into two effect buses in any amount, and also to the dry output. The bus effects modules are two compressors, chorus, tremolo, echo, reverb, and a vocoder, and these are found on a different edit page. Any of the 17 effects modules can be inserted in either layer or on either bus, up to a maximum of five inserts per layer and per bus. So, for example, if you need to use both phasers on one layer, you can. 

The effects are generously endowed with parameters. The lo-fi has its own resonant lowpass filter, for instance, with which you can take the edge off a grungy tone. The reverb has ten knobs and also separate EQ for the early and late portions of the reverb image. The compressor has a sidechain input, so you can do tricks like duck a synth sound on Layer 1 from a drum loop on Layer 2.

The tremolo is actually a stereo panner; I couldn’t get it to do surf-guitar mono tremolo. The stereo echo has its own distortion/overdrive, which is applied to the wet output but not to the signal entering the feedback path; this has the odd effect of making repeating echoes get cleaner as they die away. 


Arpeggiator

SynthMaster features a hybrid arpeggiator/sequencer. For each of up to 32 steps, you can define the velocity and number of rhythm steps (such as eighth-notes) that a given step will occupy. There’s a global note duration setting, which can be overridden by a hold button for each step. If the layer is set to monophonic legato, a slide switch in the arpeggiator can activate the glide programmed into the voice. Speaking of which, each layer has both its own arpeggiator and its own mono/poly switch, so complex patterns are possible.

In Sequener mode, the arpeggiator is a monophonic step sequencer. The arpeggiator can load a MIDI file and step through it. The MIDI file can combine chords and single notes, and SynthMaster will follow it faithfully, playing the chords and rhythms. In addition to the expected up, down, up/down, as played, and block chord modes, there’s a mode called “Arpeggiate” that can do some exotic things with note order (see image at above left).


Conclusions

SynthMaster is so good it’s scary. If you’re new to synth programming, you’ll probably want to stick with playing the presets for a while, both because there are a lot of voicing parameters to wrestle with and because some of them interact in odd ways or are hidden in odd places. But playing the presets won’t disappoint, because they’re excellent. Experienced sound designers will find a great deal here to dig into, from the multimode filters and oscillator modes to the big toolbox of modulation sources and destinations. Once you’ve scoped out the editing, customizing the factory sound set is both simple and fun. To paraphrase Frank Zappa, “Just what the world needs—another great synthesizer.”

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