by Aiyn Zahav
If you’re anything like me you like to entertain the idea that someday you will get your hands on all that classic stuff you've been drooling over despite knowing that to do so would be prohibitively expensive. For a few the investment is worth it, but many of us bide our time until something more affordable comes along that brings these treasured sounds to us. Hopefully in a more convenient package too.
Well, it just so happens UVI have a tasty proposition. For $499 you can have a full rooms worth of classic vintage gear, 36 instruments & 80 drum machines, all condensed into a convenient UVI software sampler. To name a few of the heavy weights (literally): Fairlight, Synclavier, MiniMoog, Korg M1, Prophet VS, Mellotron, Synthex, Emu emulator, Waldorf Wave, Roland 808 & 909 and bunches more.
Now to be clear, these are not VSTi emulations. UVI got their units restored, professionally programmed and then sampled them. Using these samples in their UVI engine they've created hybrid instruments, inspired by the original machines. Fueled by hardware samples, the rest of the UVI engine is fleshed out with analog modelled filters, envelopes, LFO's (usually just one) a sequencer, stereo controls (such as unison) and all the effects you can dream of. And each synth is paired with a suitably modelled analog filter, which is clearly demonstrated by comparing the filter of a UVX-3P synth with the UltraMini.
Because of the underlying UVI engine all of the recreations shame a similar interface structure, with almost all of them sharing the same features, though some have one or two unique functions too. So once you know one of them you will be quite able to find your way around the others despite the widely varying, and well done, aesthetic design. For certain machines, such as the UltraMini synthesizers, we are treated to even more. Waveform shape, detuning of oscillators, mixer driver level and so on. In that respect it’s not far off a complete emulation of the MiniMoog.
In contrast, in the UVX-3P (JX-3P) you cannot access the oscillator section. You can however select some raw oscillator sounds in the preset menu, which you can use as the basis for your own patches. I think I can break down the review into three general areas. Drum Machines, workstation/samplers and vintage synths.
My first dabbling was with the drum machines, and I Immediately perked up upon hearing the sound. In short they sound awesome, really punchy and full. Whether this is down to the chain they used, or the fact that all 80,000 drum samples were mastered by Chris Gehringer at Sterling Sound, I couldn't tell you. But in terms of selection and sound this section is not likely to disappoint.
These sounds are available in kits or categories mapped out over the keyboard (BD menu, SN menu, HH menu etc) and there are also pre-recorded loops on hand which I could drag and drop into Cubase 7.5 (Windows). Just be aware that machines with multiple possible settings, such as the 909 and 808 are sampled at a , so you have ultimately end up with a fixed amount of sounds to choose from, unlike an emulation like D16's Drumazon.
Overall, the choice is fantastic and the way these sounds are presented sound, to me, very authentic 80s. I have to say Bravo. I have seen plenty of well made products with good interfaces, but what really impresses me is when they sound so good I feel I have a slice of not only the machines raw sound, but how the machines were processed by the pros. They sound like a record.
Moving on then to the workstations then, this includes samplers and romplers of ages past. These sound just as good as the drum machine samples, and the presets will suit those who are into the vintage sound. There are some presets that are clearly aimed at modern production too, but for the most part I think the people who treasure this section most are the people who will recognize the presets from various records. I am not too familiar with vintage folklore, but I did know enough to expect the Universe patch on the M1 and I was quite happy to finally have it at my fingertips, along with the famous house organ and piano. It's an empowering feeling to have that "exact" sound from a favourite record. If I ever get called upon to remix "show me love" I'll now be ready!
I enjoyed this section generally, I found it to be a fun journey through time, to another world really. Although obviously the sounds are dated, that's the whole point, they do have a kind of fresh appeal to them and I think it lies in their authenticity. There was something musical about these old machines. Maybe it's that we're used to hearing their sounds on iconic records with masterful production techniques, maybe it's the ethic of design or the sound design of the presets. Maybe it's a bit of all of the above. Anyway, I feel there is definitely a place in my own modern music production for these vintage sounds and there has been a resurgence of 80's synthwave music in the last decade so I can't think of a better way to get your foot into the door.
Moving on to the synthesizers we've got yet another excellent selection. Instruments inspired by the Yamaha CS-M synths, Synthex, MiniMoog (and Moog Voyager), Rhodes Chroma, Prophet VS, Waldorf Wave and others.
This is where things can get a little confusing. Some of these allow extensive manipulation while others are mainly preset players. It's to be expected, sampling is limited and it would be near impossible to sample every scenario. However this does mean you don't get quite the same experience as using the real thing, as is the case with the vector synths for example as they lack user manipulatable vector synthesis.
So whats the upshot? Well UVI say that sampled synths have a more defined character than digitally modelled synths and to an extent I agree with them. Sure the raw waveform can probably be simulated down to the most minute detail, but I still think when the entire signal path is sampled we get a more authentic sound. There are always going to be the minute details, those characteristics of the entire circuit path that are too cumbersome or CPU intensive from a programmers perspective. As a result there is something more robust and authentic about sampled sounds. In my opinion.
There are a couple of issues I encountered. The first one having to do with the sound of free running oscillators (a fundamental character of analog synths). Normally if you have two oscillators slightly out of tune you will hear a soft flanging effect as each oscillator drifts in and out of phase. If you program some basic analog sounds with two oscillators and a bit detune, say in the UltraMini, you hear this phase drift, but it always starts at the same point if you hit the same note. So we lose the smooth free-running phase of the oscillators, and I know analog aficionados might be disappointed with this aspect of UVI’s instruments but it is really to be expected with sampled instruments as the oscillators are not being generated by code.
There are some other issues I encountered. When using the sequencer on the UVX-3P I heard clicks, even with conservative settings, as the destination values jumped about. This is not unusual and there is a smooth parameter which remedies this, but I found even lowest setting on this parameter to smoothes the steps out too much. The number of destinations that can be modulated to be sparse, effecting only a handful of parameters like pitch or filter. But again, this is part and parcel of a limited set of samples.
The Sequencer itself does not trigger steps, but is only a continuous modulation. More like a step LFO. This is not a problem, just something to be aware of. Sticking to the step sequencer, another small issue which is none-the-less annoying is if you reduce the number of steps from say 8 to 2 you will lose all the information in steps 3-8. If you increase the length of the sequencer again you’ll find all your tweaks gone. Maybe this could be fixed with an easy update.
Waveform and unison settings are not updated in real time when you’re tweaking the synth. The drive control on the UltraMini did not always behave as expected. Sometimes the drive effect would be apparent, sometimes it would disappear all while I was tweaking the control. So some fine tuning might be needed.
There is also a problem with Aliasing in the UltraMini LE, the light version of the UltraMini library. This is probably not going to affect most users but it might irritate a few. The non LE version still exhibits some aliasing but it’s quite high up the scale.
There is however a more serious problem with LE versions of the UltraMini. It has two filters but by default It always loads with the resonance setting nearly at max, even though the GUI shows resonance to be zero because you’re infact looking at a top control layer for the filters. Once you select either filter one or two the high resonance setting is shown. The concerning thing here though is if you grab the filter cutoff control with the resonance at max you can hit a certain point, around 3 O’clock that unleashes what sounds like a feedback loop. It’s scary but more serious, I imagine it could damage your hearing if you’re not careful.
Some audio samples of the above (be warned, it's loud)
UVI LE Artifacts.mp3
First non-LE - Almost no Aliasing, then LE - Aliasing present
First non-LE - Smooth filter sweep, then LE - Feedback problem
There is a tremendous amount of classic sound in here. I think it could appeal to a wide variety of producers. Fans of new retro should of-course look into this as well as fans of 80’s electronic & pop music.
The GUI’s are nice and clean and overall the whole thing works well. In my opinion UVI have brought something special to the market. The value of the package will ultimately come down to who buys it and why. If you are seriously into vintage instruments presented here you will probably enjoy it. I would recommend it more for it’s samples of digital instruments than it’s analog synths not because the analog inspired instruments are badly made, but because of the inherent limitations of sampling. Some users might not get exactly what they want.
By far my favourite parts of the collection are the drum samples, the pads from the digital sensations bundle and some of the more unusual sounds dotted here and there. This is a very large mixed bag and like all variety packs there is something for everyone, but not always everything for someone. Or something like that.
I recommend you give each instruments manual or user guide a serious look (their mostly just a couple of pages long) before you take the plunge though, as you might be expecting more flexibility than what is on offer. Also take a look at how many of each preset type is on offer. I would have liked more pad sounds per instrument for example.