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 filters.
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 hear why.
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 else.
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 factory presets.
In the 126.96.36.199 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 results were.
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 love it!”
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 load slowly.
$349list/approx. $250 street, fxpansion.com
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 destinations.
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 online authorization.