Seeing its six DVDs of sound content, you might be tempted toduct-tape a key down and let Omnisphere finish your film scoring gig. While the director would probably love the results, you’d be missing out on the real fun. Omnisphere is bursting with perfectly crafted preset sounds. The now 8,000-plus library covers everything from classic synths to rich, cinematic textures so well that, if sound programmers had a union, they’d probably protest. I’m tempted to quickly play through a number of them just so I can start spotting them on TV. But in a release modestly titled “1.5,” Omnisphere hones its true talent: It’s a surprisingly powerful tool for creative sound design when you’re ready to go beyond those presets. We loved Omnisphere’s sound design features when we reviewed it in December 2008. Now it’s even deeper.
by Peter Kirn
Sounds and More Sounds
Once installed, Omnisphere 1.5 passes the “play it without reading the manual” test with flying colors. You can, as I did, easily store its sounds on an external drive. You may want to dedicate an afternoon to that installation, but then you can begin dialing up well-organized presets and start playing immediately. As before, it provides both sampled and modeled waveforms, for all the capabilities of a high-resolution sample playback synth atop a full-blown virtual analog/digital hybrid synth. When you do need documentation, it’s among the clearest and most thorough available, with hours of online video tutorials.
Omnisphere resists the preset maladies that tend to afflict instruments of this kind. Yes, you’ll find endless ear candy and evolving pads. But you’ll also find raw waveforms for building your own sounds, bread-and-butter synths, carefully constructed vintage instruments, aggressive leads, and even utility patches for test purposes. You can let your freak flag fly, or build a Hollywood score, or use Omnisphere as a lead synth. You get basics along with your weird, plenty in between, and it’s all eminently playable.
Granular, Harmonia, and Waveshaper
Hidden amidst innocuous-looking parameters are three soundsculpting sections with radical capabilities—Granular, Harmonia, and Waveshaper—with new “zoom” modes accompanying each for easy editing.
The Granular section is simply mind-bending, even if you’ve used other granular synths (see Figure 1 above). It can introduce subtle, shimmering timbres, as well as more experimental, extreme effects. New Speed and Position modes produce some startling, gorgeous results. Add the unique Glide parameter, and you can make some very odd sounds as the grain pitch swoops from one sound to another. Some parameters have unexpected names: Grain Depth is actually the number of Grains. (Careful with that one—it’s the parameter that’ll quickly bring your CPU to its knees, as with any granular instrument.) Intensity actually modifies grain size and spacing simultaneously. Th e design of the controls is welcome: You’re more likely to get good results because of how Spectrasonics handles the parameter relationships.
Fig. 1. Improved granular editing parameters mean you can make any preset unrecognizable.
The name “Harmonia” might imply a harmonizer, but this is a different animal. This unique sound design tool gives each harmonic component of your sound independent oscillators and synth controls. The results can produce basic chords, but also additive synthesisstyle harmonic motion or new multi-oscillator tones. Each voice has separate controls for phase, shape, symmetry, sync, and even individual waveshapes.
Browsing through Omnisphere’s presets generally shows off a lot of crisp, pristine cinematic sounds. If that leaves you wanting some grit and distortion, head straight to the new Waveshaper. As with the other tools, Spectrasonics has focused on polyphony and the front end of the signal chain instead of just adding effects. For example, when you apply bit-crushing or sample rate reduction, you get fully polyphonic distortion inserted in each voice’s signal chain rather than afterward, which adds dimension to your dirt rather than squashing everything at once. You can even set the Waveshaper effect to process the output of the Specifications Oscillator, the Filter, or the Amplifier, and additional parameters controlling aggressiveness and animating the effect in time give you yet more control.
Fig. 2. Each of Omnisphere’s eight parts has an independent arpeggiator. Drag and drop a MIDI file, and you can lock the timing to any groove.
Omnisphere hides these screens by default, keeping the look clean. Th e new Zoom modes work well, with some caveats: Switching in and out of the zoomed view requires hitting a specific icon, and enable/disable switches often require switching between modes. For instance, if you want to experiment with toggling the Ring Modulation, Waveshaper, and Harmonia modes, you’ll need to un-zoom any one of the panels. That slightly slows down an otherwise slick workflow. It’s a minor complaint— partly because of how well-organized everything is, and the fact that you can add realtime control via MIDI or now iPad (see “Omni TR for iPad”)—but it’s an opportunity for still more refinement.
Control and Performance
Let’s make this simple: If you can do it in Omnisphere, you can probably control it in real time. For adventurous musicians exploring its tabs and zoom screens, there are seemingly endless possibilities for variation. Right-click any one of those parameters, and a pop-up menu lets you easily map MIDI control or host automation. A new feature even clones from one channel to another, useful on sophisticated alternative controllers like the Eigenharp. There’s access to expression pedals and foot triggers from the main edit screen, and Spectrasonics has added polyphonic (yes, polyphonic) aftertouch support to 1.5.
One of Jim Aikin’s few complaints with the original Omnisphere in his December 2008 Keyboard review concerned the lack of latch capability on the arpeggiator, especially since each part has an independent arp (see Figure 2). Wish granted: 1.5 adds new latch options. You can trigger in legato mode, by host song position, or at the start of a note, in the arp page itself or from the Live mode overview. You can also drag in your own MIDI files and lock the arpeggiator’s groove to them, freeing up new possibilities to make the patterns more human.
The modulation matrix lets you control each of six LFOs, key tracking, MIDI control, and the like. It’s all a drop-down menu affair; you don’t get the kind of drag-and-drop graphical interface we’ve seen in tools like Native Instruments’ Massive or Future Audio Workshop’s Circle. But it’s unquestionably powerful and flexible, still another reminder this is as much a semi-modular synthesis system as a multi-gigabyte wellspring of preset sounds.
The interface of Omnisphere’s modulation matrix may look relatively conventional, but the new Orb is anything but. A circular morph pad, the Orb is a do-everything sound shaper that can interpolate between multiple parameters at once, with Lemur-like physics and Kaoss-style motion recording. Using the Orb works with the mouse, but other methods are more fun—you can assign morphing to MIDI, or use Spectrasonics’ Omni TR iPad app.
The Orb’s “Dice” control is far more than a randomizer—it intelligently analyzes any patch and automatically changes parameters as you play, in musically useful ways. Inertia controls the movement of the morph “puck,” and you can record and play back gestures, quantized to groupings of bars if you like. We’ve seen similar-looking interfaces, morphing of multiple parameters, and motion recording in other apps and controllers. Omnisphere, however, is unique in adding realtime, dynamic assignment of parameters for morphing. Of course, you can set these parameters manually if you prefer.
Omnisphere 1.5 is a marvel. It balances easy access to preset sounds with deep sonic control in a way no other soft synth has. If you’re just looking for gigabytes of expertly programmed sonic inspiration, it’s an easy choice. The Orb and other smart controls let you vary those sounds—in large amounts or small—using your ears, without having to delve deeply into the synthesis engine. Or, delve as deeply as you please. With thousands of sounds as possible starting points, this much power is almost frightening. Th at leaves only one big frontier for version 2.0, since Spectrasonics is calling this 1.5: Allow sound designers to load samples of their own. Add that, and you might never have to touch another soft ware synth again. Even without that ability, though, Omnisphere 1.5 is one of the most powerful, deep, and best-sounding synths—hardware or soft ware—in the world, and a definite Key Buy.
PROS Insanely huge sound library gets bigger. Unique polyphonic waveshaping, granular synthesis, and multi-voice harmony. Orb morphing and iPad app. Endless live control.
CONS Some clicking necessary to move between modes. Still no standalone version. Can’t load your own samples.
CONCEPT Mega-soft-synth employing multiple synthesis technologies.
SYNTHESIS TYPE Wavetable (variable DSP oscillators), virtual analog, FM oscillators, and granular synthesis.
MULTITIMBRAL PARTS 8.
SYNTH ENGINE 6 LFOs per patch, 8 multi-breakpoint looping envelopes per patch, 17 filter types, 8 arpeggiators, polyphonic timbre shifting, bit-crushing, waveshaper, ring mod, and glide. Dual filters per layer. Multimixer, aux effects, and mastering effects racks.
COMPATIBILITY Windows 7/Vista: VST, RTAS. Mac OS X 10.5 or higher: VST, AU, RTAS. 32-bit and 64-bit native versions for Windows and Mac OS X.
REQUIRED DISK SPACE 50 GB.
PRICE List: $499
Approx. street: $470
Free upgrade for registered users.
Omni TR for iPad
Far from a me-too gimmick, Omni TR is one elegant remote control—and it’s free at the iTunes App Store. Though it works on your computer with a mouse, the “Orb” controller is far more satisfying when you play it on the iPad’s touchscreen. Omni TR also provides access to multis in both Live and Stack modes, synth edit parameters, and the new arpeggiator latch controls. Launch the app, it finds Omnisphere running on a WiFi network, and you’re off and running. The only problem is endemic to WiFi: You sometimes have to restart the app if the connection is dropped. But prop an iPad atop a keyboard and connect any recent laptop, and you’ll make just about any high-end hardware synth workstation jealous.