Review: Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2.0

Review of Spectrasonics' Omnisphere 2.0 soft synth
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Review of Spectrasonics' Omnisphere 2.0 soft synth
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ORIGINALLY RELEASED IN 2008, OMNISPHERE QUICKLY GAINED FAVOR AMONG synth-heads and media composers for its vast library of expertly designed presets, paired with a best-in-class synthesis engine that provided an arguably unmatched level of programmability. Since then, there have only been two upgrades, version 1.5 (reviewed Aug. 2011) and now, finally, version 2.0. Omnisphere has always been considered by many producers and players to be the platinum standard among soft synths. But since its initial release, the market has exploded with VIs that attempt to be “Omni killers.” So at V2, does Omnisphere still have what it takes? Read on.

Overview

While some software upgrades focus on specific features or certain types of users, Omnisphere version 2 is panoramic in scope. Indeed, with Omni 2, Spectrasonics has delivered a huge dose of more across every aspect of the instrument. There are more effects (58 in total, up from 33), more oscillator waveform choices—both samples and digitally modeled—more modulation routing possibilities, more filter types, a bigger, better user interface, and the list goes on. Whether you’re a sound designer, music producer, composer, or synth player, Omni 2 offers something for just about everyone.

Existing users will appreciate that Omni 2 has a similar look and feel to earlier versions. Coming from version 1.5, I found the learning curve to be minimal, and whatever head scratchers I did encounter were quickly solved by digging into the detailed and informative user manual (available in HTML or PDF).

The upgrade can be purchased directly from Spectrasonics as a 20GB download (allow four to six hours depending on your Internet service), which is delivered via custom download software. I’ve had problems with other larger downloads that relied on an Internet browser, but Omni 2’s download manager never skipped a beat and the installation process was a breeze. New users can purchase a download of the upgrade or physical DVDs from an authorized reseller. Once installed, the new version overwrites the previous, and sessions that use earlier versions will load version 2.0, with patches being backward-compatible.

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Super-Sized Sounds

There are more improvements and new features than I could ever hope to cover here. That said, I’ll start by highlighting the wealth of new sound content, since it’s within Omni 2’s 64GB library where you’ll find the most significant additions.

Omni 2 boasts over 4,500 new sounds, including 2,422 patches and 2,150 “soundsources” (Omni-speak for sampled sources that can be used as oscillator waveforms), bringing the total number of patches to more than 12,600. (Fun fact: If you spent 30 seconds auditioning each sound, it would take more than 100 hours to get through them all!)

For the uninitiated, Omnisphere’s synthesis is based on what Spectrasonics calls the Steam engine. Not to be confused with anything to do with video games, this is the underlying software development platform that allows for streaming sample playback, integrated effects, various forms of synthesis including granular, FM and wavetable, sophisticated modulation routings, and a lot more.

Fig. 1. Here I’ve unpacked aspects of “Waiting for the Horizon,” a moody, pulsating patch that uses samples from a synth made from an Altoid tin and a breath sample created with a toy harmonica. Both soundsources are new in version 2 and use the Harmonia feature to increase the number of oscillators and tune them to create simple chords. This makes Omnisphere a unique hybrid sample-playback-meets-virtual-analog synth, which originally relied heavily on samples for its raw textures and oscillator waveforms. In fact, Spectrasonics gained a reputation for the meticulous and mad-scientist sampling techniques employed to create the original Omnisphere soundsources.

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With version 2 the team apparently took their sonic explorations to a new level. Sampled sources in Omni 2 include a synth made from an Altoids tin that was further processed with a Korg Kaoss pad (see Figure 1), circuit-bent pawnshop treasures, mallet and percussion instruments played with electric toothbrushes, custom-built acoustic instruments courtesy of noted sound designer and composer Diego Stocco (Sherlock Holmes, Immortals), stalactites from a reportedly radio-active cave, and a lot more.

Fig. 2. The Soundsource Zoom page shows details of the selected sample, a phrase from Spectrasonics’ Heart of Asia sample library. Note the suggestion to apply granular synthesis—a great way to transform samples into exciting and interesting textures. The new Innerspace convolution effect is otherworldly, too. In addition to new sound sources, a number of phrase samples from previously-released Spectrasonics libraries are now included. When these are loaded into a patch, the associated notes suggest using granular synthesis, which is a great way to turn otherwise “normal” samples into ethereal and evocative soundscapes that defy categorization (see Figure 2).

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Spectrasonics’ website implies that granular synthesis is new to Omni 2, which is not the case—it’s been available since version 1. However, there’s a new granular synthesis algorithm that, according to the manual, “allows for wider sonic results.” To my ears, the new algorithm is capable of producing much smaller grain slices for more extreme effects. In any case, there’s an abundance of patches that use granular synthesis to good effect, and if you’re looking for atmospheric pads that blur the line between music and sound design, start here.

It’s also now possible to import your own audio as soundsources, which is a feature many users have been requesting for a while. Though the implementation is basic—there’s no facility for keymaps or velocity switching, for example—this greatly expands Omni 2’s capabilities.

I brought in a variety of custom samples and applied granular synthesis with varying degrees of musical success. Sometimes I hit the sonic jackpot, other times all I came up with was noise. Regardless, it was a ton of fun working with samples inside Omni 2 and I suspect I’ll discover more ways to create useful sounds the more time I spend with this synthesis method.

Collectively, the new sample sources are highly inspiring, imaginative and musical. The sheer number of sounds is impressive, and the quality is superb. In fact, as I auditioned patches, I kept finding keepers that would kick-start a new idea for a song or cue. It was hard for me to stay focused on writing this review!

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Waves and Tables

In addition to samples, Omnisphere has always offered digitally modeled oscillator waves from Synth Mode in the Oscillator section, but previously there were only four waveform choices. This has been expanded to more than 400 waveforms, many of which are based on classics such as the Arp 2600 and Odyssey, Oberheim OB-8, Roland Juno 60, and Minimoog, as well as recent “instant classics” including Dave Smith Instruments’ Prophet 12 and the Access Virus.

These new DSP waves are organized into three categories: Classic Waveforms, Analog Timbres, and Digital Wavetables. Each category is well stocked, with obvious references under Classics, such as TB-303 Square and MS-20 Pulse. Wave choices under Analog Timbres have more stylistic descriptions like “Sleazy Keys” and “Inglewood.” I found these creative names just as helpful in giving a sense of what you can expect from each waveform.

I tried to learn more about how these were modeled, but Spectrasonics shared only that, thanks to advances in the Steam engine, they were able to analyze and model the source synths’ oscillators in real time. Whatever magic it might be, the net result is an expanded sonic palette that covers considerable territory and should satisfy even the most hardened synth programmer.

Fig. 3. Here, “It’s a TRAP Catwoman” from the new Spotlight EDM patch bank uses two DSP waveforms and Unison with simulated analog drift to create an expansive, rude lead that works equally well in lower registers. What’s more, each of these waveforms can be used as a wavetable, which is a collection of single-cycle waveforms that can be swept through smoothly (using Omni 2’s Shape slider) to create dynamic timbral changes. These changes can be subtle or dramatic, depending on which waveform you’ve selected. You’ll find the most complex waveforms in the Digital Wavetables category, but interesting and expressive results can be had with any of the DSP waves.

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This synthesis method, combined with the improved Unison mode, which now offers analog-style drift, gives Omni 2 a competitive edge over many niche VIs that target electronic music makers. In fact, many patches in the new Spotlight EDM sound set make great use of the DSP waves to create all kinds of leads, basses, pads and effects that run the gamut from down-tempo and ambient to club-ready and aggressive (see Figure 3).

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Effects

Beyond the massive additions to its oscillator section, Omni 2 adds 25 new effects to sweeten and warp your sounds further. Ranging from utilitarian (compressors, EQs) to creative (distortion and stomp box modelers, analog-modeled phaser, flanger, chorus, and more), many of the new effects have been licensed from respected developers like Overloud, Nomad Factory, and GForce. To my ears, the sonic quality of these effects is on par with what you’d expect from high-end third-party plug-ins.

All of the effect parameters are available as modulation destinations, making it possible to create complex sounds involving varying amounts of distortion, for example. Fun stuff. As if this weren’t enough, the number of effects per patch has been increased to 16, including four aux effects with pre/post fader sends. Effect configurations can be saved as Rack Presets for later recall, and in Omni 2 there are hundreds of new effect and rack presets to get your creative juices flowing. The sound shaping possibilities are truly staggering.

User Interface

More than just window dressing, improvements to the user interface make it easier and faster to search for sounds, as well as dive deeper into Omni 2’s synthesis sections with fewer clicks. For example, Harmonia, Unison, and Granular now have dedicated sub pages, all of which are available under the new Oscillator Zoom window.

The interface is now wider to accommodate the new mini-browser, which is always available on the left-hand side. You can switch this to show the modulation routing for a selected parameter, thereby avoiding having to open the entire mod matrix to make changes.

The new Sound Lock feature lets you retain certain aspects of a sound—its envelopes, LFOs or arpeggiator pattern, for example—and apply them to other patches as you browse. This is a quick way to cook up new sounds without working entirely from scratch.

Browser functionality is improved, too, with the inclusion of additional patch categories that make searching more intuitive. For example, the Category column offers more descriptive terms such as “Bowed Colors,” “Textures Playable,” and “Textures Soundscape.” The Sound Match feature is very hip. Found a sound you like in the Patch Browser? Click Sound Match to display a list of similar sounds.

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Conclusions

Omnisphere version 2 is a jam-packed sequel that miraculously manages to improve, in many ways, on an instrument that was already a juggernaut of a soft synth. Existing users shouldn’t hesitate to upgrade, and for anyone who isn’t already a convert, version 2 makes a compelling reason to get on board. It wins our Key Buy award for being the undisputed software synthesizer champion, and is likely to remain in the lead for a long time.

Snap Judgment

PROS Massive library of world-class synth sounds. Deep synthesis features, including comprehensive modulation routing and multiple synthesis types. Highly inspiring, whether you want to play factory sounds or roll your own. Killer built-in effects. Patches load incredibly fast.

CONS Only works as a plugin—no stand-alone mode. No global effects bypass. No Undo function.

Bottom Line

The king of software synths. Period.

$499 street | $249 upgrade from 1.x | $199 VIP upgrade from Omnisphere 1.x, Trillian, and Stylus RMX | Free upgrade if you bought Omnisphere 1.x between Oct. ’14 and May ’15 spectrasonics.net