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Rob Papen Predator 3: the Synth and Software Review



Jim Aikin has been using the original version. This one has more of everything that made it good.

Yet another great synth from one of the top European instrument developers. I’ve used the original Predator quite a bit, but I skipped version 2. Version 3 introduces very little that’s radically new: it just has more of everything. This synth has a TON of great-sounding patches, but if you’re up for designing your own, you’ll find an almost endless parade of parameters to deploy.

Really, we need a new term for synthesizers that run oscillator waveforms through filters.

We can’t call them “virtual analog,” because so many of the waveforms (183 of them in Predator 3) are unabashedly digital. These days, the term “virtual analog” should probably be reserved for software instruments that explicitly model the sound and behavior of analog hardware.

Predator 3 has oscillators, filters, effects, and so on, in a fairly standard lineup. There’s no physical modeling, additive, or granular, none of that. What makes P3 a powerhouse are the details with which the instrument is fleshed out.

Overview. Let’s start with a list of what Predator 3 has. (This review’s header picture shows the main front panel.) Then we’ll dig deeper into some of the more interesting features.

The lineup starts with three morphing oscillators, each with its own sub-octave generator.

The menu of filter types is so long it flows off the lower edge of the synth.

There are two multimode filters with 38 possible types (see above), four filter signal routing options, and a third filter that just does highpass. Five LFOs, nine envelopes (including two multi-segment), 20 modulation routings in the mod matrix and more that are located elsewhere.

Three effects processors with a total of 34 possible effects. Four 16-step arpeggiator/sequencers that can be linked for longer patterns. An X/Y mouse pad on which you can record (and edit) modulation moves. Eight user-definable waveforms.

A one-finger-chord feature with eight user-definable note offsets. A controllable random patch generator. Audio input for sidechain ducking and ring modulation. Oh, and you can load your own Scala .tun files to play non-standard tunings.

Predator 3 is part of Rob Papen’s Explorer 7 bundle. This $499 package contains several synths, several effects, and also a VST host called Prisma, into which you can load any combination of Papen synths for four-instrument splits and layers. Predator 3 is $149 by itself, so if you haven’t already maxed out your credit card, you may want to consider Explorer 7. There’s a 30-day demo of Predator 3, so you don’t have to believe anything I’m about to say; check it out for yourself.

My only concern about Predator 3 is that in the 1.0 release there is sometimes some quiet popping in the audio output. This happens about half a second after the last note stops and the instrument falls silent. I’ve reported it to the Papen team. I’m hoping the DSP bug can be found and fixed, but you’re never going to hear it in a mix, so don’t worry, be happy.

Presets. It’s hard to say how many presets Predator 3 ships with. There are 75 banks. Some have only 15 or 20 presets, while others have as many as 150.

Just about every preset I tried sounded great; there were only one or two turkeys.

Most of the presets hark back to Predator 1, but there are some new additions.

My issue with Papen’s approach to sound library organization is that you don’t get banks labeled “Lead,” “Pad,” “Plucked,” and so on. Instead, the banks are organized either by developer or by style.

You’ll find banks by JoMal, Rob Fabrie, and Antonio Sage, for example, along with banks for dubstep, ambient, hip-hop, and a couple of other styles. To be fair, there are four banks called “All Basses,” and the names of the presets in many of the banks use prefixes such as “arp,” “lead,” and “pad.” You can add stars to your favorites, which as time goes on will help you find what you’re looking for.

I especially like the preset Manager display, which is found on some other Papen synths. (You can view it at 2:20 in the video.) Instead of prowling through a pop-up menu, you can see a whole panel where upwards of a hundred presets are all listed at once, along with a list of the different banks

Oscillators. Each Predator 3 oscillator has two waveforms. You can morph between them or use FM, ring modulation, or phase modulation to make them interact. Since the two waves in a single oscillator can’t be detuned from one another, the internal FM of one waveform with the other is probably not too useful.

The FM implementation between one oscillator and another is better. It’s fairly simple: Osc 1 can FM either osc 2 or osc 3, and osc 2 can FM osc 3, so you can have two modulators and one carrier, a two-modulator stack, or one modulator/carrier pair with a separate oscillator adding its own tone.

Each oscillator has a unison spread knob and a panning knob, though the panning will depend on the filter signal routing. Oscillators 2 and 3 can sync to 1. Each oscillator has its own control for waveform symmetry and its own internal LFO for modulating that.

With a square wave, the symmetry control gives you pulse width modulation, but there are many other possibilities depending on the waveform. The internal LFO in each oscillator is monophonic; if you need poly modulation of the symmetry, you can use one of the general-purpose LFOs.

If Predator’s library of waveforms doesn’t have what you need, you can draw your own.

The user wave editing (see above) is robust. You can draw waves or specify their partials additively. These waves can either be used as sound sources or loaded into an LFO. Using one in an LFO is perhaps a bit less useful than you might expect: Some sort of auto-normalizing is done to the wave after you draw it, so you’ll get shapes that have little bumps due to the presence of high partials.

Filters. As already mentioned, Predator 3 sports two multimode filters and a separate highpass. There are four configurations for routing oscillator signals through the filter section: one with the filters in series and three with them in parallel but receiving inputs from a different combination of oscillators. The highpass is always in the last location in the chain.

In addition to the expected low, high, band, and notch modes, several of each type with different rolloff slopes, there’s comb filtering, three formant filter types, ring modulation of two oscillators, and a frequency shifter. A simple pre-filter distortion amount can also be dialed in.

While there’s nothing radically new in the filter section, it’s a really effective setup.

The arpeggiator editor.

Arpeggiator. Predator 2 had a pair of 16-note arpeggiators that could be linked for longer patterns. Predator 3 ups the ante to four (see above), and each can have its own length, so if you need patterns in 13/8 time or something like that, Predator 3 will probably be easier to use than just about any other synth. Not only can you link two patterns or all four directly, there’s a 16-item Pattern setup that lets you switch amongst the four patterns arbitrarily, doing setups such as A-A-A-B, A-A-A-C.

The parameters per step are generous. In addition to tuning in half-steps, velocity, and note length, you get ties, slides, a free modulation output that can be used for whatever you like, a bidirectional timing offset for making any step play early or late, and a ratchet setting with 2, 3, or 4 quick notes in a single step.

At a higher level, you can dial in swing, mix the key velocity with the stored velocity, and set the slide time. Several play modes are included, not just up or up/down but also two sequencer modes, which turn the keyboard monophonic so you can play a reliable pattern that’s transposed by each new key you play.

Oddly, the play mode called Modulation is not documented in the manual and doesn’t seem to do anything. Possibly this is a feature that’s unfinished in the 1.0 release and was left in the menu by mistake.

Modulation. There are lots of possibilities here. Papen’s standard envelopes put a fade parameter between the sustain and the release. The fade is a time parameter. When it’s positive, the envelope will rise again from the sustain level back toward full-on, at a rate determined by the fade value. When it’s negative, the envelope will reach the sustain level and then drop toward zero even while the note is still being held. This is a nice implementation.

Each of the two primary filters and the amp section has its own ADSFR envelope, which is programmed using knobs. In addition, there are four general-purpose “free” envelopes in the modulation window. The latter are more complex, as they can be set to restart a number of times with millisecond control or tempo sync applied to the repeat rate.

A multi-segment envelope.

Both multi-segment envelopes (see above) can loop, either free-running or synced to the DAW tempo, so they can be used as LFOs with arbitrary waveforms. Note, however, that none of the Predator 3 envelopes has segment curvature control, which would have been a nice feature.

Both the LFOs and the general-purpose envelopes have dedicated inputs for controlling their amount and rate. If you like making expressive variations in your sound, you’ll appreciate this.

The XY surface is basically two LFOs in one. You can play it live (though trying to use your mouse or track pad onstage is probably not a great idea) or record your move and then play it back, either with or without looping.

The points of your recorded curve can be edited, as seen at 4:15 in the video. You can also save your favorite curves as presets.

Effects. Predator has three effects processors, which can do a lot of things beyond delay, reverb, and chorus. There’s a waveshaper, distortion, a 16-step gater, a compressor, auto-wah, auto-panning, EQ, and sidechain compression and wah-wah from an external audio input.

You can even ring-modulate the external audio with the Predator’s audio. The main limitation here is that the three effects are always in series. It’s not possible to route one filter to one effect and the other filter to a different effect.

Summing Up. There’s a lot to like in Predator 3: great oscillators, great filters, a great arpeggiator, hundreds of great presets, and more. I would have liked to see envelope segment curvature, as it’s not that esoteric a feature. The ability to route oscillator and filter outputs to different effects, rather than having the effects always be in series, would also be a good addition. But those are not major issues.

This is absolutely a fine synthesizer.

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