For a few glorious years in the 1980s,
synthesizers were cool. Bands like OMD
and Human League topped the charts, and
grunge was something you scraped off the
bottom of your shoe.
[Click image for a larger, numbered version that corresponds to the legend below. -Ed.]
1.In Cypher, you get eight modulation sources at
once, each with dozens of possible destinations.
2.Three oscillators offer a variety of crossmodulations.
3.The waveform is continuously variable from
triangle through saw to thin pulse.
4.Dual waveshapers can go before or after the
5.Dual resonant filters each have eight modes.
Translation: Serious subtractive sound sculpting.
6.The Visualizer displays envelope shapes, waveforms,
and filter response curves.
7.The envelopes can loop and quantize to host
tempo — you could even have a quarter-note
attack and a dotted half-note delay, for example.
8.Though Cypher has only a basic arpeggiator, Fusor
does much more advanced stepping.
9.Oscillators have wave modulation and FM.
FXpansion recreates the sound of those
days — and reminds us how cool synths
still are — with DCAM Synth Squad, a set
of three terrific-sounding soft synths. All
three boast a rich analog-type tone and
some unexpected old-school features, but
they also have plenty of modern touches to
ramp up the sonic excitement.
Synth Squad includes Amber, Strobe,
Cypher, and a rack called Fusor, which can
split and layer three of the above in any
combination, while adding effects and four
step sequencers. Each synth has its own
sound and voice layout, but they share
some common design features, such as a
very good modulation routing system.
The buzz with Synth Squad is its discrete
component modeling. Instead of modeling,
for instance, an oscillator as a whole (by
analyzing its output signal), FXpansion modeled
each component in the oscillator’s circuitry.
This preserves more of the nonlinear
quirks of the original analog circuit — part of
what gives analog synths their special sound.
Speaking of buzz, I couldn’t hear a
speck of aliasing in any of the DCAM
instruments, even when I dialed in waveforms
with lots of overtones and played
very high on the keyboard. The sound never
degenerated into digital weirdness.
Strobe is loosely modeled on the Roland
SH-101, though of course it’s polyphonic.
The single-oscillator design (see Figure 1 below) may appear basic, but there’s
more here than meets the eye. The Stack
and Detune knobs layer multiple oscillators,
adding a kind of thickness that I like better
than a chorus effect. The Detune knob has
a range of up to an octave, and can produce
perfectly in-tune chord stacks — a
slick digital trick I haven’t heard before. The
sync knob can produce classic hard sync
waveforms and sweeps.
Strobe has an even stronger filter than
the other DCAM synths, thanks to more than
20 modes — not just lowpass, bandpass,
and highpass, but peaking and various
kinds of double peak/notch configurations.
(Audio Clip 1
shows off a few of Strobe’s filter colors.) Like
Cypher’s filters, the one in Strobe has a
drive knob. I wish DCAM’s filter drive
knobs were gain-compensated at the output
stage; as it is, whenever you change
the drive level, you have to fudge the output
level to get back to the right mix.
One envelope does double duty for
filter and pitch, and both (like envelopes
elsewhere in Synth Squad) are strictly the
attack-decay-sustain-release type. But
they have several loop retriggering
options, and also a linear/exponential
curve selector button.
The Analogue knob in Strobe applies a
subtle but pleasing instability to the tone.
This sounds better than the “poor man’s
analog pitch drift” found on some other soft
synths. I’ve always disliked the latter, which
introduces a random amount of pitch offset
at the beginning of each note but does
nothing during a sustaining note. Strobe’s
Analogue instability varies continuously during
the note, which is far superior. There’s
also some added grit, which is typical of
instruments with discrete circuits, especially
vintage hardware that’s, say, 25 years old.
Some of the tones I got from Cypher
reminded me of my very first synthesizer, an
all-analog Serge modular. Cypher is so
powerful that it’s really worth the cost of
the DCAM package by itself.
The three oscillators can operate much
the way they would in other analog-style
synths, but Cypher has some extra options.
Soft sync is provided, with a variable
amount. With low amounts of sync, the
synced oscillator will sometimes sync to a
sub-harmonic of the master, an effect that’s
hard to describe in words, other than to say,
“It sounds analog.”
Each oscillator can construct its waveform
by sampling and holding the waveform
of another oscillator: This is audio-rate
S&H, a feature I don’t recall ever seeing
before. It’s similar to soft sync, and adds
more timbres to your sonic palette. The
Beat knob is a linear frequency offset,
which means you can dial up an amount of
beating between oscillators that will stay
the same across the keyboard for reliable
chorus-type detuning and pulsing patterns.
You’ve got some powerful tone resources
to play with here.
I found it easy to paint with subtle colors,
and just as easy to send the tone completely
around the bend in ear-melting ways. Modulating
an oscillator’s Scale knob (similar to
coarse tuning) with a slow LFO while using
that oscillator to amplitude-modulate
another produced a completely smooth
mutation in the tone — an effect most digital
synths just can’t manage.
Cypher’s dual filters operate in several
ways — in series or parallel, with a waveshaper
before or after each filter, and with
their outputs spread across the stereo field
if desired. Audio-rate modulation of the filter
from oscillator 3 is included. If you crank up
the resonance all the way, FM the filter, and
sweep the cutoff with a slow envelope
decay, you’ll hear real audio-rate sidebands,
just like in a Minimoog. I’ve heard several
soft synths’ filters attempt this feat in the
recent past — Thor in Propellerhead Reason,
for instance, and Waldorf Largo
(reviewed Sept. ’09) — but neither of
them quite nails it. Cypher nails it. As the
Brits say, I’m gobsmacked. Check out
Audio Clip 2 to
The one weakness of Cypher compared
to some virtual analog synths is that it has no
multisegment envelopes beyond the standard
ADSRs. This seems to be a spot where
FXpansion preferred authentic vintage features
to a modern design. The triggering
options add to the envelopes’ versatility,
however. Audio Clip 3 (coming soon) shows off two
synced looping mod envelopes, which are
functioning as filter LFOs.
Amber (see Figure 2 below) is loosely modeled
on 1970s-era string machines, notably
the ARP Omni. These instruments achieved
polyphony with a scheme called “top-octave
divide-down” or “paraphonic” synthesis.
One high-pitched oscillator was provided for
each of the 12 notes in the chromatic scale;
lower octaves were generated by running
these tones through octave dividers. This
was less expensive, though less versatile,
than using separate voice circuits for each
note (a design that achieved great popularity
thanks to the Oberheim Four-Voice and
Sequential Prophet-5). The result was a thin,
bright tone that was reasonably well suited
to string orchestra synthesis, but not much
In a design reminiscent of the slightly
later ARP Quadra, Amber features two
sections, which can be layered or split. Typically,
you’d play the Ensemble section with
your right hand and use the Synth section
for left-hand bass.
Because of the way Amber’s sections
share a pair of ADSR envelopes, some
rather peculiar performance articulations
can pop up. The results depend on the
mode you’ve chosen for the envelopes, on
the setting of the Voices parameter, and on
whether the Retrigger button is lighted.
There are no waveform choices. Both
the Synth and Ensemble sections have 8'
and 4' sliders for mixing octaves; Ensemble
also has a 2' slider. The synth section has a
resonant filter with eight modes, but the
Ensemble section has a different design: a
four-band formant filter. This filter is very
good at massaging the buzzy divide-down
oscillator tone into a variety of expressive
shapes. A built-in chorus with three modes,
amusingly labeled 1975, 1981, and 1984,
adds richness and authenticity to the tone.
In the old days, divide-down circuitry was
inexpensive, so I was surprised to find that
Amber is something of a CPU hog. If you’re
using several Unison voices (detuning and
panning them separately, for instance), plan
on freezing your Amber track.
Cypher and Strobe both have simple
up/down arpeggiators. All three DCAM
synths have MIDI learn and nice browser
windows with patch categories. All of their
LFOs have a unique Swing slider, which
lengthens and shortens alternate cycles of
the wave for swing and shuffle rhythms. All
three have a “Visualizer,” which shows
waveforms, envelope shapes, or filter
response curves — your choice.
The modulation setup is identical on all
three synths. Its brilliant user interface lets
you see all the destination amounts at once
for any routing. All eight routings can be
scaled by a second modulation source,
either for typical effects like controlling LFO
depth from a mod wheel, or for more exotic
sound-shaping. The list of sources includes
not only the expected LFOs, envelopes,
and MIDI inputs, but also a variety of random
signals and (in Cypher) audio signals
from the three oscillators.
An added bit of coolness is that you can
copy the knob and slider settings of any preset
into a modulation routing as destination
amounts. If the source for a given routing is,
say, the mod wheel, patch 1 will morph into
patch 2 as you push the mod wheel up!
You can insert Cypher, Strobe, and
Amber (but not Fusor) in effect as well as
instrument slots in your DAW’s mixer; do
this, and the incoming signal from your track
replaces the synths’ internal white noise
source. Note that you still have to play or
trigger notes to move audio through the
synths. My DAW (Steinberg Cubase 4.5)
can send MIDI notes to plug-in effects, so I
had no trouble adding AM, FM, and filtering
to tracks using the DCAM synths.
Except for the chorus in Amber, the DCAM
synths don’t have built-in effects. The
effects are packed into Fusor (see Figure
3 below). Fusor has three insert channels,
each of which can contain an Amber, a
Strobe, or a Cypher. Each channel then
adds three insert effects in series, and
three sends to the three aux effects. Three
master insert effects add to the fun. At first
glance the effects seem to be the usual
suspects — phaser, reverb, and so on — but
on closer inspection I discovered the 4x
Comb Filter and 4x Delay, each of which is
a set of four parallel processors in one.
The easiest way to use Fusor is to set up
splits and layers in the Key Map page. Here,
four mappings can be routed to any combination
of Fusor devices, and have separate
transpose knobs. For instance, you could
route one mapping to two synths for a layer,
and route the other three mappings to the
third synth for a stacked chord. I couldn’t
get the velocity crossfading feature to work
well, but the velocity curves are excellent.
After loading a synth into a Fusor slot, you
can open its panel and edit the patch as
needed — no need to get by on presets.
Fusor won’t host third-party plug-ins, but
given the tight integration of its components,
there’s no reason to expect it to.
Fusor has its own modulation sources
(four LFOs and four envelope followers),
which can modulate any of the effects. As if
that weren’t a deep enough set of options,
once you’ve loaded a couple of synths into
Fusor, you can use any of the modulation
sources in one to drive parameters in the
other, or use Fusor LFOs and macro control
knobs in the synth. This turns Fusor into
a full-featured modular powerhouse.
The options for Fusor’s four step
sequencers (called Animators — see Figure
4 below) are nothing short of staggering.
Each can be set to up to 128 steps, and
can output notes and velocity, modulation
data, or both. In addition to swing timing
and the usual range of rhythm values, a
rhythm multiplier lets you set up
quintuplets or more exotic step lengths.
Each step can be shifted forward or backward
in time to produce a less robotic
rhythm. Multiply this by four Animators, all
of which can be driving the same synth for
polyphonic sequences or separate synths
for multitimbral operation. Audio Clip 4 at
keyboardmag.com shows off a few of Animator’s
In the 220.127.116.11 release we reviewed,
Fusor presets loaded really, really slowly.
Since no samples have to be loaded from a
hard drive, I’m hoping FXpansion will be
able to shorten the load time in the future.
DCAM Synth Squad is a truly great package,
and unique features like soft sync and
LFOs with swing push it over the top into Key Buy territory. Cypher is a no-compromise
modern software synth with a wonderful
palette of analog sounds, Amber’s vintage
envelope implementation is both authentic
sounding and unlike anything else on the
market, and Fusor adds effects, ridiculously
powerful step sequencing, and fully modular
signal routings to the mix. For any type
of synth-heavy music, I’m betting you’ll
want to join the Squad.
ONLINE EXTRA: DCAM IN CLUB MUSIC PRODUCTION
by Francis Preve
When DCAM Synth Squad first shipped, I
was working on a few projects in Josh Gabriel’s Amsterdam studio. Rob
Stern, an up-and-coming producer in his own right, nudged me one day
and said, “Hey, check these plug-ins out. I think you’ll dig ‘em.”
At first, I admittedly pooh-poohed the idea of adding yet another analog emulation to my arsenal. After all, I have five
real analog synths
in my studio. But Rob was relentless. A few hours later, I fired up
DCAM so Josh and I could listen critically. With two analog
connoisseurs checking these synths out, you can rest assured we were
kicking the tires – hard.
Within an hour, we were
already whipping up an old school techno opus called “Knob,” using
DCAM’s Strobe as the centerpiece for the track.
Our first impression of
Strobe was that it strongly evoked a Roland SH-101, which I own, adore,
and use with increasing frequency these days. But there was more to it
than that. While Strobe included the same blend-able waveforms as the
SH-101, it also included four mixable sub-oscillators, which the SH-101
definitely does not have. Once I got a timbre we both dug, I ratcheted
up the drive on the filter and was pleasantly surprised at how warm the
To give the sound a tad
more “woof,” I applied a bit of envelope modulation to oscillator
pitch. This is the technique Wolfgang Gartner and I used to create the
lead in “Yin” earlier this year. For that track, we used Wolfgang’s
Poly Evolver (from Dave Smith Instruments). After a few minutes, Josh
nodded approvingly and insisted that I continue.
Strobe’s tempo-synced LFOs
are among the best I’ve ever used, thanks to the inclusion of shuffle
and waveform phase controls, so I applied them to the filter cutoff
with a sawtooth waveform and played the rate and phase knobs live as we
recorded the sequence. Josh hadn’t seen me tinkering with the
parameters and asked “How are you getting that weird delay effect? I
Finally, to build up to the
peak of the track, I gradually folded in white noise into the lead as
it reached the crescendo. This is a classic SH-101 technique and it
sounded every bit as good in Strobe.
With the lead done, Josh
took the reins and fired up Amber for the chords in the breakdown. As
the proud owner of three of his own analog string machines (Moog Opus 3, ARP
Solina, and Korg PE-2000), he’s a stickler for
authenticity. While Amber didn’t exactly nail the liquid character of
vintage ensemble effects, the overall vibe was enough to inspire Josh
to come up with some lovely pads that he took into 21st century territory via Amber’s
formant-based filters, playing its scale and resonance knobs live along with the chords.
We dug into Cypher for a
few quick embellishments and its ability to generate warm-and-dirty
FM leads provided the final elements to the track. Admittedly, since
Cypher is so deep and we were pressed for time, we didn’t have time to
fully explore it in the track, but since completing “Knob” we’ve had a
few discussions about how utterly bad-ass the entire Synth Squad package is.
If you want to hear all of
the above in action, look for “Knob” on Beatport in November or December,
courtesy of Josh Gabriel’s imprint, Different Pieces.
Outstanding modeling of analog tone.
Easy patch morphing. All three synths
can process external audio signals.
Audio rate filter modulation sounds
extremely authentic. No aliasing!
Envelopes are only ADSR types, not
more sophisticated multisegment ones.
Amber needs a fast CPU. Fusor presets
$349list/approx. $250 street,
NEED TO KNOW
What is it? A suite of three soft
synths, plus a module for layering them
and adding effects.
What synths are included? Amber, a
vintage string machine model with
left-hand bass; Strobe, a polyphonic,
Roland SH-style model; Cypher, a
three-oscillator virtual analog with
dual filters; and Fusor, a three-space
rack with effects and other features.
What types of synthesis does it
do? Vintage analog divide-down circuit
models, virtual analog with discrete
component modeling, and basic
FM and AM.
Is it multitimbral? Amber has a splittable
keyboard. Fusor does three-way
splits and layers, and can route info
from multiple MIDI channels to different
Can I load third-party plug-ins into
Fusor? No, it’s strictly a host for the
DCAM bad boys.
Plug-in formats: Mac or PC; standalone,
VST, AU (Mac only), and RTAS.
Copy protection: Serial number plus