Arturia's V Collection software puts a host of vintage synthesizers at your fingertips. The French company is renowned for its True Analog Emulation technology. DW makes some noise.
Call it computer music if you will, but the use of new technology continues to fascinate and shape the way musicians make music.
Instrument and effects plug-ins have been in common use for years. It makes sense, for instance, to create software versions of digital synthesizers from the 1980s and 90s and use them on your computer. For one, it's cheaper than buying the real thing. And technologically, the crossover from one world into the other is manageable.
But the idea of recreating analog hardware in a software environment is one that still takes a bit of getting used to. There are musicians who will painfully track down a vintage synthesizer, or snap one up on eBay, rather than download a plug-in that can imitate its sounds.
Then there are musicians, such as Melbourne-based producer Mat Watson of Other Places, who uses a hardware version of his mainstay synthesizer, the 1972 EMS Synthi AKS, and a software plug-in of the very same instrument.
Perhaps it's a matter of convenience and flexibility. Plug-ins allow you to recall the sounds you have created and use MIDI notation, whereas you can't store sounds on the early analog synthesizers. You could spend hours crafting the perfect bass sound, but it would be gone the moment you switched off the synth. So with a plug-in, you can find inspiration and work on a sound for days, then recreate it on the real machine when you're ready to record.
There are hybrids, too, such as Moog's Sub Phatty…but that's another story.
The V Collection
None of this would be possible if the software sounds weren't right.
And when it comes to Arturia's software synthesizer emulations, there's no point beating around the bush (or the virtual drum pad): they sound great. And they come with high-level endorsements from electronic music artists, such as Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Joel Zimmerman of deadmau5.
Not only does Arturia software emulate the basic characteristics of analog synthesis - and that incredibly well - it also comes with power. There are no weedy, digital sound tools in the V Collection, only a mass of meaty, professional plug-ins that you can use with studio-standard digital audio workstations (DAWs).
We've reviewed Arturia's software before - its iPad apps, iMini and iSEM - mobile emulations of the 1971 Minimoog and the 1974 Oberheim SEM.
The V Collection, by comparison, is meant for use on a laptop or desktop computer. That doesn't mean it's immobile, but it's conceived to allow for more intensive sound design.
It includes 10 software instruments, using Arturia's 64-bit True Analog Emulation (TAE) technology. The technology is designed to "reproduce tone, waveshape, tuning and other detailed characteristics of an analog synthesizer."
One of the main reasons for the full-bodied character of the sound would be the fact that TAE oscillators are what Arturia call "free." The sounds they make are not pre-sampled - that is, an audio recording that you activate when you hit a note on your keyboard. Arturia says this allows them to avoid "the major tell-tale signs of digital waveform generation."
Cheekily, Arturia have also found a way to emulate the instability of analog synthesizers. Vintage synths are infamous for the instability of their electronic circuitry. They can be vulnerable to the changing temperature of a room - and go out of tune - which is not great for a musical instrument! But Arturia says that by emulating this characteristic, their software synths create a "warmer and fatter sound."
And the sound is most definitely warm and fat.
But who cares about the specs when all you want to do is make music? What does the V Collection actually sound like in the studio? There's only one way to find out.
I gave myself three hours to make a piece of music, using nothing but the V Collection. You can hear the track above. It's a bit of a mess - musically, speaking - but you'll get the idea.
These are the synths I used
Mini V: Emulating the Minimoog, a monophonic analog synthesizer, produced in the 1970s and 80s. It was designed as a more portable synth. Up until then, modular synthesizers were large and expensive.
ARP2600 V: Emulating the semi-modular analog subtractive synthesizer. First produced in 171, Depeche Mode used the ARP 2600 on their early records.
CS80 V: Emulating the Yamaha polyphonic analog synthesizer from 1976. Production ceased in 1980. But it's continued to find favor among artists like Daft Punk and Röyksopp.
Jupiter-8 V: Emulating the Roland Jupiter-8, an eight voice polyphonic analog subtractive synthesizer. It was just too early to feature MIDI technology. But its sounds are classic.
Oberheim SEM V: Emulating the Synthesizer Expansion Module (SEM), a self-contained synthesizer module that was originally intended to bolster the sound of the Minimoog.
Spark Vintage: Arturia's own drum sampler interface, incorporating sounds from classic drum machines, including the LinnDrum, the Roland TR-808, TR-909 and more.
End of the session
There's just one problem. I find these software emulations incredibly fiddly. Imagine all the knobs and faders of a beast of a machine, such as the 90 kilogram Yamaha CS80, squashed into a window on your laptop and, well…that's what you've got…a graphical user interface with a lot of graphics - but too much to see - making it highly unusable.
It's not just the size of the buttons. It's the fact that software emulations will never be as tactile as a piece of hardware. And musicians love their instruments to be tactile. Ironically, the iPad's touchscreen allows Arturia's mobile apps to get around this problem - up to a point. But if I'm at home in my studio, I'll always reach for the real thing.