If you were wealthy, what classic keyboards would you buy? A Fairlight CMI? Mellotron? Hammond B-3? What else? Now you can own the virtual keyboard studio of your dreams for less than $22 per instrument.
From an electronic musician’s perspective, one of the greatest inventions of the late 20th century was the software instrument. Even though a soft synth is only a computer-generated illusion, it often looks, operates, and sounds like a real synthesizer, but in two dimensions. From early successes like Propellerhead ReBirth to workhorse mainstays like Omnisphere and Kontakt to the latest virtual modulars like VCV Rack and Voltage Modular, in many circumstances, soft synths get the job done as well as hardware and often better.
As vintage instruments age and become more scarce, old hardware is more expensive to buy and difficult to maintain. Soft synths can be easier to use, store thousands of well-organized patches, and take a lot less space in your studio. Many of them offer greater polyphony, too, and they integrate seamlessly with your DAW. And when it comes to cost, well, there’s simply no contest.
Arturia has long been a leader in emulating classic instruments like the Moog Modular and Yamaha CS-80. The Grenoble-based developer now makes synths in both hardware and software form, and they’ve continually pushed the state of the art forward in both areas. Every year and a half or so, Arturia bundles their software instruments in a new version of V Collection, enhances their capabilities, and adds a few new ones—all without raising the price of any of the last three editions. Along with every synth included in previous editions, this year’s version introduces Arturia’s take on the Mellotron, EMS Synthi AKS, and Casio CZ series, as well as a revamped model of the Hammond B-3 and a new collection of presets for most instruments.
All of Arturia’s software instruments run both standalone and as plug-ins. I love that their GUIs are all resizable now, too. Their well-implemented MIDI Learn functionality makes them easy to use with controller hardware. Each has a searchable browser and comes with loads of patches designed by some of the most creative sound designers in the business. Every software instrument does practically everything the original hardware does, and Arturia has extended those capabilities by adding new features. Each instrument supplies a brief interactive tutorial to get you up to speed on its feature set.
Arturia is justifiable admired for its classic synthesizer emulations. V Collection 7 comprises ten vintage analog synths, four vintage digital synths, and a few other keyboards. Let’s begin by focusing on three new additions.
The Mellotron is a notoriously finicky keyboard instrument made in the U.K. Its sound will be forever associated with The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King,” the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years from Home,” and just about anything the Moody Blues recorded in the 1970s. Its specialty is playing samples of orchestral instruments and choirs in a characteristically lo-fi manner that has a certain familiar charm. Unlike later samplers, though, there’s nothing digital about it.
The Mellotron’s design borrows heavily from the work of Harry Chamberlin, an American who invented analog sampling using lengths of recording tape more than 30 years before the first digital sampler. Many of his sampling techniques are still in use today.
Arturia’s take on the Mellotron gives you everything you’d want in a tape-based sampling keyboard. Like the original, Mellotron V has three main knobs for volume, tone, and pitch, and you can vary them during playback. A 3-position rotary dial switches between three tracks on a tape, with each track playing a different instrument, or you can play all three simultaneously. You can also mix two adjacent tracks by positioning the rotary dial between two settings.
Although Mellotron V closely resembles a slightly beat-up Mellotron M400 with the lid shut, opening the advanced panel reveals much greater versatility. An ADSR envelope shapes amplitude, and additional knobs control tape characteristics such as flutter, saturation, and mechanical noise. Easily import any linear WAV or AIFF file and apply those same parameters to make user samples sound as if they’re recorded on tape. If you’ve ever wanted to record an orchestra of kazoos and give it the Mellotron treatment, now you can.
Synthi V is a software version of another classic British instrument, the EMS Synthi AKS. Launched in 1971, the Synthi A was the successor to the functionally similar VCS3. The following year, EMS introduced the KS, a matching 30-note, touch-capacitance keyboard with a primitive digital sequencer. The Synthi A and KS form two halves that fit neatly together as a portable package resembling a briefcase, which EMS dubbed the Synthi AKS.
Like the earlier VCS3, the AKS has three oscillators, a lowpass filter, ring modulation, and a joystick controller for manipulating any two functions simultaneously. It also has the pin-matrix patch-routing system found on most EMS synths, allowing you to connect any two circuits by placing pins at their intersections on a grid.
Although Arturia’s version does most everything the original does, it eliminates the unnecessary inputs, outputs, speakers, VU meter, and card slot in the hardware panel’s top section. It also makes the patch matrix appear larger relative to the other controls, which helps you clearly see what’s connected to what. Arturia designed Synthi V’s sequencer to mimic the original KS hardware, providing a unique experience that’s unlike any you’re accustomed to.
Of course, Synthi V would hardly be an Arturia soft synth without updating and expanding its feature set. Along with patch memory, aftertouch, and velocity sensitivity, Synthi V adds enhancements such as 4-voice polyphony, a 5-stage envelope shaper, sample-and-hold, ten effects, and an animated joystick that lets you program its movements. In the advanced panel, you can create extremely complex envelopes, enable additional modulation sources, and more.
In 1985, Casio unveiled a surprisingly affordable synthesizer to compete with the then-ubiquitous Yamaha DX7. The CZ-101 was the first programmable polysynth selling for less than $500. Although it has minikeys and looks like a sophisticated toy, it sounds very professional and sold quite well in its time. The secret to its remarkable sound is phase-distortion synthesis, which is technically similar to FM synthesis but with a more traditional, analog-like user interface. Casio released numerous variations on the CZ-101 in subsequent models such as the CZ-1 and CZ-1000. CZ V emulates all of them rather than one specific model, and it successfully captures their unmistakable character.
The CZ sound engine has two layers called lines. Each line has a digitally controlled oscillator (DCO), waveshaper (DCW), and amplifier (DCA), and each of those has its own envelope generator. Rather than using a filter to vary spectra, phase-distortion synthesis applies an envelope to the DCW to dynamically modulate harmonic content, morphing from one complex waveform to another. CZ V’s oscillators not only generate the same eight waveforms as the original’s, but they also allow you to draw custom waveforms by clicking-and-dragging breakpoints on a line as you listen to the results. CZ V improves on the original by clearly displaying envelopes and making them easy to edit.
Casio’s hardware has either 4- or 8-voice polyphony, depending on whether a patch uses one or two lines. CZ V is 32-voice polyphonic all the time, which means you don’t have to sacrifice voices for programming flexibility. It extends the original’s capabilities in other ways by adding an arpeggiator, 16-segment envelopes, four effects-processing slots, and an easy-to-grasp 16 x 16 modulation matrix for defining sources, destinations, and modulation amounts.
Modulation sources include four macro faders with user-assigned names on the front panel. Three additional sources called combinatesgenerate a control signal that mathematical combines two mod sources, either adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, or crossfading the value of one source by or from another. Additional mod sources include sample-and-hold, an LFO dedicated to vibrato, two assignable LFOs, and two assignable envelopes dedicated to modulation.
The first classic synth that Arturia modeled was a well-appointed Moog modular system. Modular V has always been a remarkable facsimile and remains so in version V3. Almost anything you could do with a Moog from the ’60s, you can do with Modular V3, but without annoyances like pitch drift and poor intonation.
Another early soft synth was Arturia’s version of the Minimoog. Now called the Mini V3, it’s a plug-in I use on recordings even though I’ve owned a Minimoog Voyager for years. Arturia’s version adds polyphony, a modulation matrix, a motion recorder, an extra LFO, and three types of effects to the original design.
ARP 2600 V2 captures all the character, sophistication, and ease-of-use of the original 2600. It makes it polyphonic and adds the functionality of ARP’s Model 1601 analog step sequencer. Like the original, ARP 2600 V2 is semimodular, with virtual patch cords overriding fixed patch routing
Buchla Easel V models Don Buchla’s Music Easel, another semimodular synth from the early ’70s, and gives it a sequencer upgrade. With functions that include a Dual Lo Pass Gate and a Sequential Voltage Source, Easel V delivers a quirky, West Coast approach to synthesis that distinguishes it from the other synths in V Collection.
Jup-8 V3 and CS-80 V3 are faithful reproductions of two early top-shelf polysynths that once competed for attention, the Roland Jupiter-8 and the Yamaha CS-80. When they were introduced, they were considered their respective manufacturers’ flagship synths, and they’re both still renowned for luxurious analog timbres. With so many controls packed into such a confined space, editing older versions of CS-80 V could be challenging, but the ability to resize V3’s GUI greatly improves its usability. Both originals are now highly prized by collectors, and both reproductions are worthy of the hours you could spend exploring them.
One of the finest synths I ever owned was the Oberheim Matrix-12, which was essentially two Oberheim Xpanders paired with a keyboard. To my ears, Matrix-12 V2 succeeds at delivering the original’s sound and functionality. It’s loaded with all the original’s factory patches and lots of new ones that show off its capabilities.
SEM V2 models the first Oberheim synth, the Synthesizer Expander Module, which was the essential building block for such classic synths as the Oberheim Four-Voice and Eight-Voice. SEM V2 is another of my favorites and one I turn to frequently for the variety of its sounds.
Prophet V3 is unique in that it combines two synths from Sequential, the Prophet-5 and the Prophet VS. Both were groundbreaking in their time. The Prophet-5 was the first true polysynth that stored and recalled complete patches. Its richly analog timbres graced hundreds if not thousands of familiar recordings. The Prophet VS introduced vector synthesis, a technique developed by Chris Meyer to smoothly crossfade between as many as eight oscillators. Prophet V3 gives you the best of both worlds.
Popular music in the ’80s would have sounded very different without the Yamaha DX7 and its various offshoots. At one time, it was the most popular synth in the world, and it helped drive competing synth manufacturers out of business. DX7 V is kind of a cross between the original DX7 and the DX7II. Its user interface makes it much, much easier to program than the original hardware, with both macro controls and the ability to edit deeper parameters with more graphical clarity.
If you ran a well-financed and well-equipped recording studio in the first half of the 1980s, you either had or wanted a Fairlight CMI or a New England Digital Synclavier II. Both had astronomical prices and capabilities far beyond those of mere mortal synths. The Fairlight was the first commercial instrument to offer sampling, and the Synclavier was the first to offer both FM and additive synthesis. Both pioneered multitrack sequencing and other production techniques that we take for granted today. Arturia’s versions, CMI V and Synclavier V, faithfully reproduce their sounds and capabilities without the aggravation of programming the originals.
Organ, Pianos, and More
One of the newest instruments is an upgrade to B-3 V, rebuilt from the ground up with new code. Like all the other instruments in V Collection, B-3 V2 relies on physical modeling rather than samples to re-create the sound and functionality of a real Hammond B-3. This computer-generated tonewheel organ boasts more bonus features than Arturia’s previous version, including stompboxes, a modeled Leslie cabinet, and a Fender Twin Reverb guitar amp.
You also get software versions of two transistorized combo organs made in the 1960s. Originally from Italy, the Farfisa Compact Deluxe was popular for all kinds of pop music and was an essential part of Pink Floyd’s sound in their early days. When you open Farfisa V’s advanced panel, you’ll discover you can control individual harmonics with a row of 48 sliders in the User Wave section, making it a digital additive synthesizer. Unlike a real organ, Farfisa V also lets you choose between paraphonic top-octave division and true polyphony, in which every note has its own attack parameter.
The sound of Vox Continental V2 may be even more familiar because the Continental was also at the core of many hit records in the ’60s and ’70s, especially from groups like the Doors, the Monkees, and the Animals. It has two manuals and a set of bass pedals. Farfisa V and Vox Continental V2 both let you change the tuning of individual oscillators, as well as select stompboxes and choose between a direct sound, a modeled guitar amp, and a Leslie cabinet.
Every keyboard collection needs a fine acoustic piano, and Piano V2 does not disappoint. It realistically re-creates the sounds of an assortment of upright and concert grand pianos. With the ability to tailor its sound to whatever task is at hand, it’s remarkably versatile. You can change physical aspects such as string tension, hammer hardness, and stretch tuning, as well as select its acoustic environment and microphone placement.
You also get models of the most popular types of electromechanical pianos from Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer. Stage-73 V lets you switch between emulations of the original Suitcase and Stage models. The Stage model adds a tube-based guitar amp (the Suitcase 73 has a built-in amp), and both come with stompboxes to complete the illusion.
Wurli V2 takes a similar approach, providing a few modeled effects pedals and a Leslie cabinet and Fender guitar amps. Under the hood, you can control many more parameters than the original 140B or 200A allows.
Two additional keyboards in V Collection aren’t exactly pianos or organs, but no keyboard collection is complete without them. Clavinet V models the classic Hohner Clavinet, best known for its inestimable contribution to funk. On a real Clavinet, polymer-tipped hammers strike guitar-gauge steel strings, pressing them against metal bars that function like frets and bending the pitch ever so slightly to give it that characteristic quack. Clavinet V lets you vary its physical modeling parameters to make it sound more like a model C or more like a model D6. Along with a virtual Fender guitar amp, it also models the stompboxes most often used with a real Clavinet.
Solina V2 emulates a paraphonic keyboard from the Netherlands that was wildly popular in the mid-’70s for simulating groups of orchestral instruments before true polysynths were available. Using top-octave division, the Solina String Ensemble (sold in the U.S. as the ARP String Ensemble) is as much akin to combo organs as synthesizers. Solina V2 affords access to many more parameters than the original and provides an arpeggiator and pitch-bend and modulation wheels. It also supplies presets that manage to make it sound a lot like a Polymoog.
Analog Lab 4
Along with 23 emulations of vintage instruments, V Collection 7 includes Analog Lab 4, a soft synth that sports a different look from previous versions. Its browser can quickly load all the presets of every other instrument, including sounds from Arturia Pigments, which is not included but is available for purchase separately. When you want to access deeper programming capabilities, Analog Lab opens any instrument’s user interface within its own GUI.
Presets are organized into three categories—Synths, Pianos, and Organs—as well as a Multi category that splits or layers two sounds in a single patch. All presets are tagged with keywords, so you can quickly find exactly what you need at any moment. If you want more choices, click on the Store button to download additional banks of sounds. A few are free, but most cost between $4.99 and $9.99.
One new feature in Analog Lab 4 is Concerts, a terrific organizational tool that lets you place as many as 128 presets into a list called a song and save as many songs as you like. Selecting a concert and clicking on the Go to Stage button loads the first preset in the first song and opens Stage mode, which presents a larger view with macro controls, making it ideal for live performance.
V Collection 7 also furnishes a new bank containing more than 800 presets called Synthopedia, which comprises sounds for a dozen soft synths. This bank’s emphasis is on innovative, cutting-edge timbres rather than classic sounds you’ve heard before, and most of them sound musically useful. You can load and play all of them from within Analog Lab 4.
Now What Would You Pay?
Although the price of software instruments has generally fallen over the years, the most sophisticated and desirable ones still aren’t cheap (unless you compare them with hardware). Most of Arturia’s soft synths cost $149 when purchased separately, but that’s still less than half what some of them cost when they first appeared. V Collection 7 furnishes all of Arturia’s classic emulations—14 synths and 9 other keyboards, plus Analog Lab 4—in a bundle that retails for $499. If that sounds a little high, just do the math and consider that each instrument in the bundle costs less than $22. That’s quite a bargain even if you don’t use them all. I’m betting that once you have them, though, you probably will.
In this latest generation, Arturia’s computer simulations sound more like their namesakes than ever before. Because they model the circuitry of the original instruments, they reproduce every function, something that sample-based instruments could never do. The software versions of the DX7, CZ, Synclavier, and Fairlight CMI sound especially close to the originals, because their hardware and software generate their sounds digitally.
Do the analog emulations sound exactly like the originals? I don’t have a vast collection of vintage keyboards to make A/B comparisons, and I doubt you do, either. I’ve owned or played most of them in the past, though, and I can say with complete confidence that Arturia captures their spirit and something approaching 99% of their sound. Will they fool most people (even other synthesists) who listen to your music? Absolutely. Are they flawless reproductions? Probably not. Considering the cost of vintage synthesizers, though, I’ll happily forego spending many thousands of dollars for ancient hardware that requires frequent and expensive upkeep.
If you want to take Arturia’s soft synths for a spin…
You can download the Arturia Software Center (ASC) application from their website [arturia.com/support/updates&manuals] and then download demos from there. Spend some time with them, and I’m sure you’ll be convinced, too.
Visit online at arturia.com
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