Jim Aikin encounters possibly the most powerful synthesizer he’s ever looked at
I already have way too many software synthesizers, but when I saw that a synth I had never heard of, VPS Avenger, was on sale, I downloaded the demo. Twenty minutes later I whipped out my credit card and bought it.
The discount sale is gone now, I’m sure, but if you’re looking for a high-end do-everything synth to beef up your sound, you just found one. Avenger is the real deal.
It’s packed with features, but that wouldn’t matter if it didn’t sound good. Rest assured, it sounds good. As I went through the factory presets (and there are a lot of them), again and again I found myself saying, “Yeah, I would use that.” The user interface is a little finicky here and there, but there are lots of conveniences. I only had to crack the manual a couple of times.
Also, it will run as a VST2, VST3, AU, or AAX plugin. The fact that VST2 is in the list is of little relevance unless you’re a Reason user (as I am). It’s rumored that Reason is soon going to be updated for VST3 compatibility, but I’m not holding my breath.
Speaking of availability, VPS has a big bunch of expansion sound packs on their website. These are not cheap, so for now I’m sticking with the generous factory soundset. The point is, if you’re not prepared to tackle the depths of sound design, Avenger will take care of you. And if you are into sound design, this synth is an endless five-ring circus, complete with tightrope walkers and lion tamers.
The downloadable demo emits an obnoxious burst of noise every couple of minutes, and it may not be the most current version of the software, but it will give you a good idea what’s in store. There are also a couple of dozen tutorial videos on the VPS website that will reveal more than you thought you wanted to know. For a quick glimpse at the instrument, I recorded a video, complete with random stammering.
Features. Feature lists are boring to read — but oh, my! A single Avenger preset can contain up to eight oscillators (each of which can play a 4-note stacked chord and/or four layered samples), four multimode filters each with its own AHDSR envelope, four VCAs each with its own AHDSR envelope, four waveshapers, four LFOs (plus the eight dedicated vibrato LFOs), eight multi-segment mod envelopes, eight dedicated pitch envelopes (which are also multi-segment and can also be used to control other things), eight arpeggiators, eight step sequencers, six effects buses with up to eight effects each, a bank of triggerable events, and a 12-sample drum kit with its own step sequencer. Also three macro knobs, two macro switches, and a highly configurable modulation matrix.
That laundry list leaves me feeling I really ought to explain, for the benefit of musicians who are new to the technology, what a multimode filter, an AHDSR, or an LFO is. Oh, wait, I did explain all that, not too many years ago. The second edition of my book Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming (https://www.amazon.com/Power-Tools-Synthesizer-Programming-Reference/dp/1480397946/) is still in print. ’Nuff said.
I was able to detect only a few things that Avenger won’t do. There’s no choice of filter topology, so if you assign a given oscillator to two or three filters, they will always be in series, not in parallel. I’m told parallel filter routings will be in the 2.0 release. Also, I couldn’t find any way to load Scala tuning files, but you probably don’t care about that. Oscillators can be given less than 100% pitch tracking of the keyboard, so you can get close to some microtonal equal temperaments by shift-dragging on the tracking knob.
The most radical aspects of Avenger are probably the oscillators and the modulation routings, so let’s start there.
Oscillators. A Vengeance oscillator can operate in any one of eight different modes. When you click above the waveform display, you’ll be presented with a top-level menu containing VA-Shapes, Freeform, Wavetables, Resample, Samples, Special Samples, Granular, and Multi Loops. Each of these has submenus, which contain wavetables or samples. So right away there’s a boatload of content. And a few of the dozen or so knobs in the oscillator may change identity depending on what type of synthesis you’re doing.
But that’s only the start. If you choose Resample, Wavetable, or Granular you’ll get a special editor window, where you can set up a multisegment envelope that dictates how the sample or wavetable will be scanned. This window has its own bank of knobs.
Each oscillator has its own internal filter, so you can dial out some of the lows or highs before you send the signal to the filters and waveshapers. This pre-filtering is a 24-band EQ with its own built-in randomizing modulation for animating the sound. That is a feature I’ve never seen before. The result sounds rather like chorusing, but it can be controlled in different ways.
Some oscillator types will do 4-voice chords (with half-step, fine tuning, amplitude, and panning for each voice). The basic oscillator has bit depth and sample rate decimation, for adding grunge. Oscillators can be assigned to keyboard zones for splits and layers. Last but not least, you can use one of the oscillators as an FM or AM modulator to modulate another. This capability turns Avenger into a full-featured 8-operator FM synthesizer.
Along the right side of the oscillator window you can add input and output routings, switch some of them on or off, and park a shaper either before or after a filter. And up at the top of that column, if you look closely, you’ll see two tabs — Drums and Trig. The Drums tab converts an oscillator into a 12-slot drum machine (complete with its own step sequencer). There’s quite a large selection of modern-sounding drumkits, and also lots of programmed beats.
The Trig section has ten slots for samples. Each sample can be triggered on note-on, or on note-off, or in response to a MIDI CC value, or in response to a macro button. Instead of having it always play, you can specify a single key that will trigger the event. You can give each event a probability as well as a pitch, panning, output routing, and multisegment amplitude envelope. This is probably not the kind of setup you’d use every day, but having a little extra click on a note-on or note-off can spice up an otherwise dull patch. Being able to route the click through its own delay line is an added bonus.
Filters. Everybody knows filters are important — and they are! Avenger’s filters are not a wild innovation, but they’re versatile. There are more than 50 different filter modes, including some vintage models with a satisfying bit of virtual analog instability when the resonance is dialed up.
The interesting tone control is in the waveshapers. You have a choice of 18 different shaping modes. Each shaper has its own amount knob and 2-stage cut/boost EQ. The shaper(s) can be either before or after the filter(s), so you can dial in just as much or as little nastiness as you need.
Modulation. Setting up a mod routing in Avenger is easy, and there are some extra features that you may not expect. Each modulation source has a little grid of dots in the user interface. Click on the grid and drag your mouse to a knob. That establishes the routing. The routing is added automatically to the mod matrix list, and a little triangle appears by the knob. You can drag the triangle up or down to set the amount of modulation, or edit it directly in the mod matrix list.
Each routing in the list has a lag processor for smoothing the modulation signal, and also a multi-segment envelope (double-click to add breakpoints) for changing the contour of the signal.
Avenger’s LFOs can use up to three different user-designed waveshapes. These are also available for each oscillator’s vibrato LFO. The popup shape menu shows the user shapes only as sawtooth slopes, so figuring out how to access them can be tricky until you see the trick.
While the mod envelopes do the same trick, it has more options. The generous set of up to eight mod envelopes offers more than a hundred preset curves, not omitting the Chariots of Fire snare drum pattern. Looping and one-shot, of course. Sync, of course. And a mod envelope can be triggered by an arpeggiator or by a line in the drum sequencer.
The macro knobs and buttons are simple, but handy. If you’ve chosen the rotary speaker effect, for instance, you can use one of the buttons to switch the simulation from slow to fast rotation. After wiring a macro knob or button to several different modulation destinations, you can automate that one knob in your DAW.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. In Reason, only a few of the knobs, not including the macro knobs, seem to be automatable. Automating the macro knobs worked fine in FL Studio, however (and I was careful to test this usingthe VST2 version, not the VST3). This is almost certainly a problem with Reason, not with Avenger.
Fortunately, there’s a workaround. All of Avenger’s parameters are available as CV input destinations in Reason’s VST host device, so you can automate up to eight parameters (which could include the macro knobs) using Reason’s CV8X4, a utility Rack Extension from Aftermath Audio.
Effects. The effects section of Avenger is as generous as you could expect. There are six buses, each of which can house up to eight effects modules, and more than 30 effect types are available. Four of the buses are wired in series, and with these you can drag individual effects up or down to change the order.
There’s also a Send Effects section, where the modules are in parallel. Each oscillator has a send amount for each of the send effects, so you can easily add reverb to one oscillator and chorusing to another, for instance.
Want to modulate the phaser’s sweep speed from an LFO? Not a problem: effects parameters are available as standard modulation destinations.
Stepping Out. With eight step sequencers, eight arpeggiators, and eight oscillators, not to mention the drum kit and drum sequencer, you can set up patterns of almost unimaginable complexity. And these devices are not simple.
An Avenger step sequencer can function as a trance gate, or it can control oscillator pitch, or both at once, but if you want to do both you may find it more convenient to use one sequencer for pitch and the other for gating. Oscillator pitch is just one possible modulation destination for a sequencer; it can just as easily control filter cutoff or anything else. As a trance gate generator, the sequencer’s steps can be contoured with attack and release slopes, and the height of the step determines the loudness of the note. (This is not exactly velocity, as it’s independent of the velocity amount in the VCA.)
Sequences can be up to 32 steps in length, and each of the sequencers has its own length and other parameters, so you can set up a pattern of 7 against 5 or 11 against 17, if you dare. All of the relevant parameters, including the length, can be modulated.
There is one tricky bit with sequences, if you’re using a sequencer to modulate oscillator pitch: getting the steps in tune. The modulation destination “transpose steppy” is tucked away in a submenu of a submenu in the mod matrix. It’s there, and it works, but it’s not mentioned in the manual.
An Avenger arpeggiator pattern can have up to 32 steps, and there are four patterns within a single arpeggiator, so an arpeggiation can actually be up to 128 steps. You can chain or unchain the patterns from a macro button (which might be useful once in a while). In addition to the usual up, down, and random note orders, you can switch on a one-finger chord mode and specify both a chord type and a root note for every step in the arpeggiator. Yes, complex chord progressions from one finger are easy to set up.
Both the sequencer and the arpeggiator have long lists of presets, so it’s fun to try something that might work and then edit it as needed.
The Wrap-Up. If you’re new to synthesizers, editing the factory presets in Avenger could be intimidating, because there’s a lot going on. Still, the user interface is about as easy to navigate as it could possibly be. If you’re looking for a deep and powerful resource for designing sounds, you’ve just found one.
All high-end synthesizers have their own unique features, so I’m not rash enough to claim that Avenger can do absolutely everything — but if I can say this without casting aspersions on Synthmaster2, Serum, Dark Zebra, SurgeXT, or Omnisphere, all of which are amazing in their own ways, Avenger may be the most powerful synthesizer I’ve ever looked at. It’s a remarkable piece of software.