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Arturia Pigments 5.0 Polychrome Software Synthesizer: the Synth and Software Review



The colors of magic

Pigments are what give paint its many colors, so Pigments is a fitting name for a synthesizer that aims to give musicians lots of different tone colors. And that, in a single broad brushstroke, is what Arturia Pigments 5 is all about.

It has four main synthesis types: virtual analog, wavetable, sample playback (which includes granular synthesis), and something called harmonic, which is Arturia’s take on additive synthesis. Add to that a pair of multimode filters with a variety of filter models, a really beefy modulation section, a sequencer/arpeggiator, and three effects processors, and you’ve got thousands of colors to dial up.

So let’s roll up our virtual sleeves and take a closer look.

Figure 1. The sample engine in Pigments 5 can load up to six samples (shown in miniature as A through F below the main waveform display). These can be distributed using key zones, velocity levels, or other options. When the granular processing is active, the seven darker knobs in the bottom row control the amount of randomness in the grain production. All of the samples share the same granular settings.

First impressions

I always go through the presets first. Pigments has plenty of them, and a lot of them are things I’d be happy to make music with.

The preset browser is super-easy to use. Just click on a name and the preset is loaded, but the browser stays open, which is the way it ought to be. (Other instrument designers, take note.) When you find the one you want, double-click or hit Return/Enter and the browser goes away.

There are two different browsers, in fact. The larger one allows you to filter by the sound type or style or the bank in which the preset is found. When saving your own presets, you can tag them by genre, style, and characteristic. You can even create your own tags.

All the usual sound types are represented, though it has to be said, Pigments is not as strong in the piano department as some instruments. The percussion presets are not overwhelming either, but the basses are great. Many of the bass presets use the function generators (about which more below) to give you a rhythm pattern. The pads range from mysterious and gentle to animated, the keys and leads lists have some unexpected delights, and the templates section will get you started with programming your own sounds when you’re ready to give it a try.

Pigments’ user interface is so slick, I seldom needed to consult the manual. A few things required a little clicking on tiny icons to figure out what was going on. For instance, there may be two or even three separate on/off switches that have to be activated before a given module will do anything. Things that look like module labels may turn out to be drop-down menus, so clicking on anything and everything is recommended.

Figure 2. The upper display in the harmonic engine gives some idea of which partials are being generated. Partials’ amplitudes are affected by the morph and depth knobs. The small contour below the morph knob gives some idea of how partials in the harmonic spectrum are being attenuated.

There’s plenty of visual animation, including little windows for all of the modulation signals. That makes it easier to dissect a preset and figure out what’s going on.

There’s even an Undo history, so you can backtrack through your edits. I thought there was no Undo/Redo at all until I checked in the manual. The button isn’t exactly hidden, but it’s off in a corner where it’s easy to miss.

Engine, engine

To generate sounds, Pigments has two engines. No, wait, there are three. Two of them are quite versatile, and can be assigned to any of the four synthesis types. The third, the utility engine, mainly does noise and a sub-oscillator, but it has an extra trick up its little sleeve: you can send an external audio input to the utility engine and then route it through the filters as well as the effects. Even ignoring that possibility, a lot of layering possibilities open up.

We can’t quite call the engines oscillators, because a single virtual analog engine has three oscillators all by itself. These are standard sine/tri/pulse/saw oscillators, nothing fancy, but osc 3 can FM osc 1 and/or 2, and of course you can modulate the FM amount from any of the modulation sources. Also, 2 can be hard-synced to 1.

Figure 3. Advanced signal routings are available in Pigments’ Combinate modulator. This takes two inputs and processes them using addition, multiplication, crossfading, or other operations.

The wavetable engine gives you a couple of hundred different tables to choose from. In addition to controlling the position in the table, which governs the actual wave that will be used, you can play with FM (either linear or exponential), wavefolding, and a couple of other things. Want just a tiny bit of FM from red noise or blue noise to add dirt to the tone? No problem.

In the sample engine (see Figure 1 above) you can load up to six separate samples. These can be mapped across the keyboard, or to velocity zones, you can switch from one to another in response to a controller input, or they can play in a round robin fashion (useful for subtly varying attack transients) or randomly. The sample start and end points and the loop start and end can be edited for each sample.

And then there’s the granular engine, with which you can turn a simple electric piano tone into a beautiful texture or a stuttering mess. As with the wavetables, Pigments ships with a couple of hundred samples. I’m not going to count them all. Can you import your own samples? Of course you can.

The harmonic engine (see Figure 2 above) implements additive synthesis. Few of us would have the patience to specify the amplitudes of various sine wave harmonics (more correctly called partials) one at a time, so like most implementations of additive, the harmonics engine gives you a set of macro controls with which to simplify the process. You can control the number of partials, balance the strength of odd vs. even numbered harmonics, morph between a couple of on-board comb filter setups to reduce the amplitudes of some of them, add frequency modulation or phase modulation, and so on.

This may be the most challenging engine in Pigments, because its features won’t be familiar to many musicians, but it can create some very pretty animated tone colors.

Figure 4. The Pigments step sequencer has rows for pitch, on/off, probability, velocity, octave, gate length, and slide. Rows can be different lengths, allowing them to loop independently. Clicking the dice button at lower left will randomize the rows according to the randomize percentage set for each row.


Once you’ve got your engines running, it’s time to choose some filters. Calling the Pigments filters “multimode” doesn’t do them justice. There are eleven different filter models, usually with two to four modes each. One of them has 14 modes, but the Mini model has only one (but it also has a drive knob). Comb filter, formant filter, lowpass gate, a state-variable SEM filter, lots to choose from.

Each of the engines can be routed to either of the two filters or to a blend of the two filters, and the filters themselves can be configured in series, in parallel, or in a blend. In addition, each filter can be panned across the stereo field.


Pigments 5 really shines when it comes to modulation. There are 24 different modulation sources, each of which can control any combination of parameters. This is not a matrix, it’s a free-for-all.

Ready for another list? Let’s go for it. The sources include five external MIDI signals (velocity, the keyboard, mod wheel, aftertouch, and expression), three ADSR envelopes, three LFOs, three function generators (which are essentially multisegment envelopes that can loop), three random sources, three math processors, and four macro knobs.

At first glance the LFOs appear to be nothing fancy, just saw/tri/sine/square waveshapes, but they have both a smoothly functioning waveform selector knob and a symmetry knob for biasing the waveform, so quite a variety of shapes is possible. Each of them will also do stepped random.

According to the manual, each function generator can have up to 64 breakpoints. Each function generator can be either an LFO or an envelope generator. Individual segments have adjustable curvature. And yes, they’ll sync to various things and can be triggered by various things. There’s also a nice little menu of useful presets. In envelope mode you can double-click on any of the points to make it the sustain point. This fact is omitted from the manual; I found it by accident.

When you hear “random modulation source,” I’ll bet you’re thinking “noise generator.” But that’s only the bare beginning. Each random source can function, first, as a sample-and-hold with your choice of signal to be sampled and a choice of triggering options. There’s also rise-and-fall smoothing. Second, you can generate a binary random signal with a certain probability of switching from low to high or vice versa, which is good for mixing up a rhythm.

Third, there’s a Turing machine. I’ve never seen a Turing machine in a preconfigured synth, though there are a couple of them in the software modular world. What this device does is generate a stepping sequence that repeats for a while and then changes to a different pattern. Use it to modulate the coarse tuning of an engine, and you’ve got something new in the way of step sequencing.

Here’s another feature you won’t see in a low-budget synth: the keyboard, velocity, and aftertouch response can be given both curvature and a couple of breakpoints. I seldom use aftertouch, but being able to do a bit of keyboard zoning by setting the breakpoints may come in handy.

The three math processors, which Arturia calls Combinates because they combine two source signals, can accept inputs from any two of the other modulation sources in the synth, including either of the other Combinates. (See Figure 3 above.) These two signals can then be processed together using any of nine algorithms: sum, difference, multiply, divide, crossfade, lag, threshold, offset, or remap.

I’m not going to try to describe what those things do. If you’re curious, download the demo version of the software and check it out for yourself. You will not run out of ways to mangle your sounds.


I’ve seen a few plug-in synths with fancier step sequencers, but the one in Pigments (see Figure 4 above) gets the job done. It can function either as a sequencer or as an arpeggiator, most of the parameters being the same.

The sequencer has only 16 steps. For each step you have an on/off switch, a probability setting, velocity, octave, gate length, and slide. Each of these can have a cycle of less than 16 steps if desired, so you can generate longer patterns, for instance by using a series of 16 notes but only five velocities and seven octave switches. You can also randomize each row in various ways.

A few nice features are worth pointing out. First, you can lock the sequencer while changing presets, so if you have a groove you like you can try it out with different sounds.

Second, the sequencer outputs MIDI. I had to switch over to FL Studio to test this, as my usual DAW, Reason 12.7, still doesn’t let VST devices transmit MIDI data to other tracks. (There’s a workaround for this involving a MIDI loopback device, but setting it up is a chore.) The pitch slide data is not sent out over MIDI, but that’s basically a limitation of MIDI, not of Pigments.

Also, each row (note, velocity, and so on) can be set to run at the basic speed (16ths, 8ths, or whatever) or at a divided-down speed. For instance, the pitches could be 16th-notes while the octave switching is moving at a quarter-note pace. I doubt this feature will be used much, but it’s nice to have.

Some step sequencers have one or two rows that are dedicated to sending general-purpose modulation data. Pigments’ sequencer doesn’t have that, but it’s easy enough to create whatever modulation you need using the function generators, so this isn’t a problem. There’s no ratcheting of the gates in a step, however, which is a shame, and the sequencer is strictly monophonic, even when the preset is polyphonic.

In sum, this is a very adequate device, but there’s room for a few improvements.


When I first glanced at Pigments’ Effects page, I thought it had three processors. In fact, it has nine. There’s an A bus, a B bus, and an Aux bus, each of which has three effects in series. Initially I couldn’t find a way to route the first or second engine to one bus or the other, but it turns out this is handled in the filter section. Each engine can route to the first filter, the second filter, or a combination of both. 

The filters, in turn, have two options. First is a choice of series or parallel routing or a blend of the two. The other option sends filter 1 to FX bus A and filter 2 to FX bus B. This is a bit hard to describe in words, but trust me, it’s a very efficient system.

Each effect processor gives you a choice of 18 different algorithms. Some of these are standard fare (phaser, flanger, reverb, chorus, delay, bitcrusher, you know the drill), but there are a few nice surprises, such as a pitch-shifting delay, a filter, and a multiband compressor with three bands. You can put these effects in any order you like; you’re not limited to a fixed order.

One way and another, this is a powerhouse effects section.

Parting shots

As a sound designer’s dream, Pigments 5 is amazing. It will do an enormous variety of things, and the user interface is clean and easy to navigate. I’d have to work to find something to kvetch about, but okay, since you insist, some of the controls are so tiny you may not even notice them. That said, I’ve reviewed at least one high-end synth recently (naming no names) whose user interface was not nearly as friendly as the interface in Pigments. Once you learn your way around, it’s quite slick.

I’m not impressed by the sequencer; it’s just okay. But the modulation section is among the best I’ve seen, the sound engines cover an enormous range of timbres, the filters are very strong, and the effects are beyond excellent. With Pigments, your true colors can come shining through.

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