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Applied Acoustics Systems Ultra Analog VA-3 Review

Marty Cutler



A classic Canadian soft synth doubles your pleasure and ramps up the fun.

One great advantage of virtual instruments is their tremendous potential for radical revision and refinement. Applied Acoustic Systems Ultra Analog VA (for virtual analog) is now in its third iteration. As good as the earlier versions have been, this new version sparkles with an updated, streamlined user interface, bi-timbral capabilities, new filters and effects, and superb patches.

Right in Front of You

A tantalizing corner-view image of a synthesizer decorates the instrument’s Home page (See Fig.1). Below that is a pitch lever and four macro knobs labeled Modulation, Timbre, Envelope, and Effect. These knobs link complex chains of real-time controls (more about them later). The header holds the patch-selection menu and a main volume slider.

Figure 1

At the very top center, a click on the tiny chevron reveals your registration data, a link to the Applied Acoustics website, and an option to open the PDF software manual. That makes the manual unobtrusive and very handy when questions arise in the midst of programming. The strip of tabs just below navigates between the Home page and the Browser, Editor, and Settings pages. Another pair of buttons navigates through the history of your patch edits. At the panel’s bottom-left, next to the virtual keyboard, you can access audio and MIDI settings and view a readout that gauges the instrument’s CPU hit.

Packing Them In

Ultra Analog VA-3’s Browser section reveals a massive count of synth patches divided into 17 packs featuring the work of sound-design notables such as Richard Devine, Jerry Kovarsky, and Daniel Stawczyk. Other packs supply a huge factory set and legacy patches from VA-2. You can browse by pack, sounds, categories, or creator (See Fig.2).

In the Sounds section, you can just dive in and sort the entire library by name, category, quality, creator, pack, or date. This may seem redundant, but it’s a great way to skim through patches. The main Categories window lets you filter by patch types such as brass, pads, and others. Click on Creators, and you can filter patches by the contributors. A search engine with the ability to use keywords would be a great boon for a library of this size; I hope this will be considered for a future update.

Figure 2

Rev Your Engines

Ultra Analog VA-3 stages the programming interface for a pair of dual-oscillator synths—layers, in VA-3 lingo. They appear side-by-side on a single page in the Editor section. That minimizes shuttling between multiple pages and lets you quickly adjust timbres and balances for each synth (See Fig.3). Tabs for Modes, Synth, and Effects top each synth layer, with a Master Effects section to the right of the synth parameters. You can create splits as well as layer the two synths.

The Modes section programs the performance aspects of each synth, including monophonic or polyphonic response, unison mode, legato and glide behavior, and assignments of the four macro knobs gracing the Home panel (See Fig.4). Although the macro knobs are titled consistently throughout all patches, they are by no means hardwired; you can assign them however you like.

You may assign as many as five controls for each macro to any parameters you wish. For instance, you could use the envelope macro to modulate LFO control of pulse width, filter cutoff, LFO rate, and delay feedback simultaneously. Click on any parameter, and a pop-up window lists a multitude of choices. You can save your custom macros for use in any patch.

Figure 3

Aural Patterns

With its rhythmic pattern editor, the Arpeggiator module is a welcome holdover from earlier versions of the instrument. It takes on additional value with VA-3 because each synth has its own arpeggiator. You set the note values and pattern length for each; consequently, you can build independent motion and intense polyrhythms. The intriguing possibilities multiply if you assign one or both arpeggiators to play chord patterns.

Plenty of patches take advantage of the rhythmic independence, and they make great starting points for your own variations. You can latch each Layer independently, which is very useful for editing arpeggios on the fly. A swing function would be a nice addition in a future update.

Synths You Asked

Ultra Analog VA-3 lays out its inner workings in the instrument’s logical signal flow, from the VCOs to filter envelope to filter and from the LFO to amp envelope to output-stage mixer. In order to contain both layers on a single screen, a few tabs either hide or disclose features as needed. Likewise, the VCOs have buttons that disclose additional parameters, such as oscillator sync.

Figure 4

The choice of oscillator waveforms doesn’t go beyond your typical analog synth menu: sine, saw, square, and noise. A pulse-width knob moves the square wave’s duty cycle from 0 to 50%, achieving a range from sharp and nasal to satisfyingly hollow. Surprisingly, you can choose a triangle wave for the LFO, but not the VCOs.

Each oscillator has its own filter. You can choose two- or four-pole versions of lowpass, highpass, bandpass, notch, and ladder filter types, as well as two varieties of formant types. You can arrange them in parallel or serial configurations, of course. Modulating the formant filter’s resonance shifts the waveform between vowels—excellent when mapped to the mod wheel or aftertouch for singing leads. You also get several variants of symmetrical and asymmetrical drive to provide rich, saturated tones and extra girth. Each oscillator gets its own ADSR envelopes for filters and amplitude.

Another Listen

Even a hasty skim through the libraries reveals terrific sonic diversity: sweeping, graceful pads, intense rhythmic motifs, splendid analog drum kits, and plenty of lead timbres. They range from trenchant, snarling tones to expressively plaintive, and—especially in the Richard Devine set—unabashedly dissonant electronic backdrops. Overall, VA-3 is a lively and intriguing upgrade from its previous versions. FM and AM for oscillator pairs would multiply the sonic options tremendously.

Ultra Analog VA-3 is somewhat of a shapeshifter. It’s capable of reproducing a wide variety of vintage analog synth sounds as well as modern, animated tones or hybrids of your choosing. It’s a truly versatile synth, supremely easy to navigate and program. You can download a fully functional demo from the Applied Acoustics Systems Web site. What are you waiting for?


Supported platforms: Mac/Windows; standalone, VST2, VST3, AU, and AAX

Price: $199 (now on sale for $99)

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