I’m in danger of losing my credibility as a grouch. Too
many of the soft synths I’m reviewing these days are just fantastic!
Case in point: Blue II, from Rob Papen
. Blue II is not perfect, but even
so, I couldn’t find much to gripe about. The original version, released
in 2005, was already a powerhouse. The upgrade to Blue II (which we’ll
just call Blue in this review) adds massive new capabilities: double the
number of filter modes, double the number of effect types (and four
effects modules rather than two), new oscillator controls, a new X/Y
modulation source, and more.
Blue’s sound engine serves up six oscillators and two
filters. The oscillators can be routed into an FM matrix for old-school
DX7-style synthesis, or through the filters for analog-style subtractive
synthesis—or you can use both synthesis types in a single patch. For
each oscillator, you can choose from a menu containing well over 100
waveforms, including lots of percussion samples. The one thing you can’t
do is load your own samples.
The interface is clean and easy to navigate. In the main
editing page, the oscillator and filter knobs and menus are in the upper
part of the panel, while the lower panel (the blue one) has pages for
envelopes, LFOs, modulation routings, and so on. All of the knobs and
sliders reset to default values when you double-click, and an Easy page
gives you quick access to global settings for things like LFO speed and
FM amount. The PDF manual is launched directly from a Help button on
Blue’s panel, a small but welcome feature.
The patch browser has been redesigned along the lines of
Papen’s Predator synth, with 128 patches per bank instead of the 32 per
bank in Blue I. There are way too many great patches in the factory set
even to begin to describe them. The bank names include both digital and
analog basses, pads, arpeggiator sounds, tempo-based (though
non-arpeggiated) sounds, chord clusters, leads, percussion,
hip-hop/R&B, and a number of more creative banks from individual
The global controls include a one-finger chord mode with a
Learn command, detuned layering of up to six voices per key, and the
ability to load alternate tuning files in the Scala TUN format.
Blue’s legacy as a six-operator FM synth can be seen in
the fact that in addition to the semitone and fine-tuning knobs, it has a
tuning ratio menu for each oscillator. This is less useful than it
might be, as the ratios given are not related to the fundamental as
simple whole-number harmonic fractions such as 1.75. The settings
between 1.00 and 2.00, for example, are 1.41, 1.57, and 1.73.
Also part of the FM legacy: Each oscillator has its own
ADSR amplitude envelope, a feedback knob so it can modulate itself, and
an on/off tracking switch. Using a fixed pitch for an oscillator and
setting it to a very low frequency is a standard FM programming
technique, but in Blue it doesn’t quite work, as the lowest frequency
you can set an oscillator to is about 6Hz.
Each oscillator has a sub-octave amount knob, which can
produce either a sine or a square wave. A spread knob produces two
detuned signals. A drift knob introduces slow, barely detectable pitch
changes, which can be very useful not only for emulating vintage analog
gear but for adding a little life to FM patches. Pulse width modulation
(from a dedicated LFO) can be applied not just to the square wave but
also to any wave. With samples, the results are generally weird and not
useful, but maybe “weird and not useful” is what you’re looking for. A
Symmetry knob “tilts” the waveform, for example, turning a triangle wave
gradually into a sawtooth.
When you twiddle the Shape knob on a default patch, it
seems at first not to do anything. To get waveshaping, you need to drop
down to the lower panel and do a bit of graphic editing to the shaper
curve. Oscillators can be hard-synced to Oscillator A for the classic
analog sync sound, but for some reason sync is disabled when you choose
the more flexible Matrix option for the six-oscillator algorithm
Speaking of algorithms, in the “Alg” page in the lower
panel you can choose either one of the 32 classic DX7 algorithms (by
clicking the Alg button within the Alg page) or a more flexible Matrix
routing, in which any oscillator can modulate any other in any amount.
The oscillators’ output volume knobs and individual envelopes interact
in a straightforward way with the amounts in the Matrix. In addition,
you can choose either PM (phase modulation) or FM. The two are similar,
but different for technical reasons. When you choose FM, the oscillator
output has to be cranked much higher before you’ll hear any change in
Blue’s two filters can operate in either series or
parallel routing mode, and the two filters are identical. The output of
each oscillator in Blue can be routed to filter A, filter B, both
filters, or to any of the effects (bypassing the filters). The filters’
outputs can be routed to any of the four effects individually, to
effects A and B, to effects C and D, or to all effects in parallel.
The filters have 28 modes, starting with the expected
lowpass, bandpass, and highpass choices, with various cutoff slopes.
Comb filtering, formant filtering, and ring modulation are also in the
menu. Curiously, there are eight filter modes (the ones whose names end
with “2”—for instance, 12 LP2) that aren’t explained in the manual. They
sound different; that’s all the information I got from the
The controls include frequency and Q (resonance) knobs,
plus dedicated knobs for envelope amount, velocity sensing, key
tracking, mod-wheel-to-frequency, panning, and output volume. There’s
also a distortion knob, but in spite of the marketing terminology in the
manual (“analogue modeled filters”), the distortion sounds very
digital. Even with maximum Q and distortion settings, these filters
don’t bark or squawk the way the filters on my analog modular synth do.
Blue has a generous 14 LFOs, with the usual basic wave
shapes (including random sample-and-hold). Waveform symmetry, ramp up
and down times, frequency humanize, frequency key tracking, output
smoothing, start phase, and other parameters are provided. Ten of the
LFOs have “hardwired” outputs for vibrato, tremolo, filter modulation,
and so forth, but all of them can be used for other purposes if desired.
Four looping multi-segment envelopes are included in Blue.
Each can have up to 16 segments, with individual control of the
curvature of each segment. The overall speed of these envelopes can be
both edited and modulated, making it easy to use them as complex LFOs.
The graphic editing is not perfect. First, there’s no way to drag a
given envelope point left or right and drag all of the later points
(those to the right of it) along for the ride—a fairly standard editing
feature with multi-segment envelopes. Second, while the envelopes can
nominally be synced to the host transport clock, all the sync button
really does is introduce a graphic grid to the editing window—and the
envelope points don’t snap to the grid. Nor are the rhythmic values of
the grid labeled. In sum, the multi-segment envelopes are certainly
useful, but they could be improved.
The X/Y modulation source, on the other hand, is stellar.
The two-dimensional envelope has up to 128 points. As Figure 1 shows at left,
you can choose a preset shape such as a diagonal or spiral. Instead, you
can record your mouse moves in real time to create a custom shape. The
points can then be dragged around or snapped to a graphic grid. Playback
location can be looped and quantized to the host tempo. The 16 output
routings (eight each for the X and Y directions) are independent of the
main modulation routing matrix.
Velocity and keyboard tracking curves are on tap. One
important difference between Blue and old-school FM synthesis is that
Blue has only one global key tracking curve, not one per oscillator.
The modulation routing matrix itself is simple and easy to
use. There are 20 routing slots. For each, you choose a source, an
amount, and a destination. A handy mute button is also provided for each
routing. Modulation slot amounts are available as destinations, as are
all of the amounts in the FM matrix. Numerous MIDI sources are provided,
including release velocity and poly aftertouch.
Sequencer and Arpeggiator
The sequencer and arpeggiator are mutually exclusive; you
can’t run both at once. Each has 32 steps (twice the length of the same
modules in Blue I). In addition, there are three modulation-only
sequencers, which will run in conjunction with the arpeggiator or
step sequencer. More or less in conjunction, that is—due to a bug, the
mod sequencers gradually drift out of sync with the sequencer and
arpeggiator. (I’ve reported this bug. Hopefully it will be fixed in the
The step sequencer has a few neat tricks up its sleeve.
Each step can be assigned a different waveform for each oscillator, for
some massively funky percussion rhythms. It has to be said, though, that
the editing of waveforms per step is clunky: If you want a waveform
that’s well down in the menu, you have to click on a tiny “+” sign
dozens or hundreds of times to get to it.
Each step has four modulation outputs: velocity, a “free”
value that can be used in the mod routing matrix, and two outputs
hard-wired to filter A and B cutoff. A pitch slide can be applied to any
step. Individual steps can be “tied” to a previous step, but the tie
applies only to retriggering of envelopes: Other settings of the tied
step, such as pitch and waveform, are still used. If you want the two or
more steps to be truly a single longer note, just program them with the
same values and then tie them.
The arpeggiator is also well designed. Each of the 32
steps can have its own on/off toggle, transposition, velocity, note
length, and “free” modulation output amount, as well as a pitch slide
and envelope tie. The swing slider makes every other note longer or
shorter — and because you can also choose the basic rhythm value,
switching from eighth-note swing to sixteenth-note swing is a
no-brainer. A gate length slider, if active, overrides the individual
note lengths of the steps. I was hoping this slider could be assigned as
a destination in the modulation matrix, but it can’t be. Also, the
arpeggiator’s direction menu has a bug: The up and down choices actually
choose the played order (forward or backward) options, and vice-versa.
According to the manufacturer, this is a design flaw of long standing,
and for compatibility reasons it won’t be changed.
Blue serves up a mouth-watering set of 35 effect
algorithms, including both the standard items (chorus, stereo delay, and
so on) and a few that are less common but always nice to see (comb
filter, gator, bass boost, lo-fi, auto-wah, amp simulator, and so on).
The high-quality (HQ) reverb uses a bit more DSP than the standard
reverb, but it sounds great. There’s no fully parametric EQ, but you can
choose a five-band graphic or low/high shelving.
Four effects are on tap at once (see Figure 2 at left), and you
can choose one of eight different signal paths, not just series and
parallel but things like “(A + B) > C > D,” which means A and B
are parallel and their output then feeds C and D in series. When you
factor in the ability to route the output of any oscillator or filter to
any effect, this setup gives you an enormous range of sound design
Each effect module has two modulation inputs. Controlling a comb filter’s frequencies from two slow LFOs sounds wonderful.
It’s clear that Blue II is going to become one of my
favorite software instruments. It has a powerful and versatile sound, as
the hundreds of top-quality factory presets prove, and the features for
massaging the presets are both deep and easy to use. It would be nice
to see a couple of refinements in the mod sequencer and multi-segment
envelopes, but there’s plenty here right now to keep any computer-savvy
musician in a state of bliss.
PROS: Great presets. Two filters. Lots of waveforms, signal
routing options, and modulation routings. Plenty of filter modes and
effect types. Recordable X/Y modulation. Step sequencer and arpeggiator.
CONS: No user sample loading. Only one key-scaling curve. Modulation sequencers don’t sync properly.
Bottom Line: A serious soft synth, whether you’re seeking virtual analog fatness or FM sparkle.
$179 street | $49 upgrade