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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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