Zen and the art of plugin maintenance

Electronic musicians are notorious for wanting all the kit – here’s how to Marie Kondo those synths

Unlike most ‘bloggers’, my site is not about me. Regrettably, for the purposes of this article, it’s necessary to talk a bit about myself, and my relationship with music equipment, and synthesizers in particular. Hi. I’m Richard, and I have GAS.

GAS – gear acquisition syndrome – affects loads of musicians; it’s a common affliction and seems to be closely associated with rock and pop music more than, say, orchestral – but for all I know, even the finest cellist spends half a day picking from rows of cellos before heading to the proms, agonising over which bow to use and debating the merits of different rosin on forums to the point of tribal warfare.

  1. All the gear, no idea – not what you think it means…
  2. Hardware control still matters, even with softsynths
  3. You’ll be surprised what you already have
  4. Make a virtual studio as if you were buying hardware
  5. Choose just one of these synths to suit your budget
  6. The preset parade – the Pepsi challenge
  7. Hindsight in 2020

If you’ve got it under control, GAS is not a problem. There are different characters to instruments, and it’s great to explore – you wouldn’t only listen to one band, or only eat one food, so why limit yourself to one synth or guitar?

But for me, there’s a fascination beyond the sound; at heart, I’m a collector. As a kid I collected every Sinclair thing I could, from calculators to C5. I collected MSXs, home computers, cameras, radios, and oh boy, have I collected synths. But I’m not actually a great musician, making full use of a big recording studio (though I’ve had a home studio that many musicians would kill for), and I’m not loaded.

I horse-traded, swapped, repaired, restored, financed my way through everything from Jen SX2000s to SuperJXs, Moogs to Stylophones, JD800s to Virus TIs; rarely taking the time to really find a signature sound after exhausting their capabilities technically.

These days, I have my studio in storage, and just a couple of synths plus anything I’ve borrowed to review. That kit has to go back, so I get to do the obsessive exploration and understanding of it, but don’t have the pressure of having bought something that I must then make use of to justify it.

Turn your computer into a music studio and start playing

The need to make noises is fulfilled by a 2013 iMac running Cubase – yes, it’s as old now as a Sinclair ZX Spectrum+ was when the DSP-equipped Atari Falcon030 & NeXT slab (sorry, NeXTstation) were shiny and new, and the ‘internet’ was just around the corner.

A straightforward Audient ID14 provides audio I/O to a pair of KRK Rockit 5 G4s (and BeyerDynamic DT880 Pro headphones). Add an Arturia Keylab II 61 controller, and that’s the lot for the DAW.

I chose one synth out of storage – the Novation Circuit – and couldn’t resist buying the Circuit Mono Station when it was on sale, a purchase I’m very pleased with.

You don’t even need the hardware synths – everything you can imagine, and some things you can’t, exists as an audio plugin. So the same approach can apply here. Nice and simple, yes? Just choose a software synthesizer and play, and…

VST plug in manager

Oh, yeah. Choose a software synthesizer? Like, choose a synthesizer? Houston, we have a problem.

All the gear, no idea

  • Plugins are just as overwhelming as synths, sometimes more so
  • Finding a sound, while good, isn’t as satisfying as making one
  • The three-string guitar principle is sound here, at least to start

Let’s start with a picture. My studio in 2006 filled one double bedroom and constained at any given time, 13 synthesizers, a 48-channel mixing desk, a high-end Mac with high-end RME audio interface, a set of V-Drums, five guitars, three basses, two pairs of speakers, a rack full of outboard, four vocal mics… and I didn’t record a single finished track; I spent so much time fixing, chasing ground loops and noises, learning how to use effectively a studio console to mix 26 line signals plus extras when I only had two hands and some hold pedals; I was an amateur studio technician with no inspiration.

Throwing that into sharp relief, one track was made back then. A talented, soft-synth-skilled musician popped by, plugged his laptop into a couple of sends on the desk, and set it recording while we noodled for about twenty minutes; it became a six-minute song far better than anything I’d recorded in years…

It wasn’t always that way – when I started, I had a four-track recorder and two synthesizers. I didn’t even have a proper amp, it was an old hifi amp and some speakers from a car boot sale. I recorded bits and mixed them, even had one track on MP3.com overtake an established ambient artist. But the lure of all those lovely sounds was too strong – I got a Roland D-50, a Korg, a Yamaha… it was like collecting computers, but I could do so much more – and less – with them.

With plugins, it’s worse. Imagine what it’s like – being so curious if an Oberheim Xa‘s sound is better than a Jupiter 8’s, or a harmonic sine-wave model is better than granular synthesis, and there being no barrier to exploring those – no space taken up, even no money spent, or small amounts, no repairs – oh, and no postage…

Ultimately, the same issue returns. I’ve got Arturia V-Collection and Roland Cloud, and Korg Legacy, and all these other plugins, and this is only the synths. The effects… how many delays does one need? How many reverbs? A lot of classic tracks are defined by the reverb the musician had at the time!

Most musicians start out with the bare minimum. They don’t fall into a ballpit of sounds, they have something they could afford and they master it and get good at music, not buying & selling kit.

Hardware still matters for softsynths

Plugins or otherwise, you still need to play your instrument. If you want to really enjoy the process and have a limited budget, these days it’s best to focus on the controller. Choosing the Keylab II took ages – I tried everything, desperate to not end up with £400 going on a ‘controller’ – you can buy a whole synth for that!

Obviously it’s the hardware – the metal case, the sliders, the keys, that costs money. If the Keylab had a synth in it, it would be twice as much, and most modern digital synths have electronics analogous to a Raspberry Pi with some fancy audio and I/O,. Hence why desktop modules have become so cheap; the expensive bit is the bit you’re touching and interacting with.

If you don’t want to play keys, great. You can explore sequencers, grid-controllers, grooveboxes, MIDI saxophones – anything – but remember that a lot of the computing power they have is on offer in the DAW, so place how it feels ahead of what it can do technically. Not enough steps, insufficiently flexible time signatures? You’ve got more in the computer…

What have you already got?

Before you start wading through Google, KVR and evertyhing else in search of the perfect plugins, take stock of your computer and software already. If you have an Apple Mac, or iPad, you’ve already got Garageband. It’s a lot more powerful than the cutesy interface implies, and it’s got a diverse set of instruments and effects included.

Spend some money on Cubase or Logic Pro, and you’ll get a load of things you might have overlooked in your haste to get the big branded items and extras.

Cubase’s built in synths

  • Retrologue 2 – Pro, Artist – powerful 3-oscillator virtual analogue
  • Padshop 2 – Pro, Artist – beautiful, lush granular synth full of textures
Steinberg Padshop 2
  • Prologue – Pro, Artist, Elements – polyphonic subtractive synth
  • Spector – Pro, Artist – clever spectral filter synthesizer
  • Mystic – Pro, Artist – physical models and comb filters
  • Flux – Pro, Artist – wavetable synthesizer
  • Trip – Pro, Artist – 3-oscillator virtual analogue with sequencer

You can also download VST Classics 1 for VB-1 and Model-E, and VST Classics 2 for Neon and the Karlette tape-echo delay.

These older Cubase virtual instruments and effects still work on 64-bit systems. Model-E (a virtual Minimoog-esque synth) is definitely worth a play, if only for the sheer efficiency of it. Mostly though, they’re mentioned only for thoroughness, the user interface is tiny on modern, HiDPI displays and naturally, Cubase’s new instruments eclipse them sonically and in terms of user experience.

Cubase also includes some extra instruments:

  • Groove Agent SE – Pro, Artist, Elements – drum machine/composer
  • Halion Sonic SE – Pro, Artist, Elements – multi-engine synth player
  • Sampler Track – Pro, Artist, Elements – a sampler. Obviously.
  • LoopMash 2 – Pro, Artist – loop sequencing, blending and editing
  • Approximately 40GB of samples, loops and textures

All of these are included with the version of Cubase mentioned; you can buy sample packs and presets for them, and there’s an immense library available in Cubase that should cover all of the basics. If you look through the list of synthesizers there, you’ll also spot that there’s little in terms of raw synthesis that’s been left untouched.

What about effects? Cubase Pro has 75 effects and processors. Tempted by a rotary speaker simulation? It’s got one. Want a tape delay? Er… it’s got a multi-tap delay with vintage character, unless you want to dig out Karlette (see above). There are several delays, several reverbs, a bunch of channel strip processors and they’re all quality-controlled by the same brand that lives or dies on the strength of its recording software. In short, try them out before you buy more – because at some point you’re just buying because the brand, or the emulated product, has overtaken the sound you’re going to get out of it.

Logic Pro X – even more surprises

Apple’s Logic Pro X – originally deveoped by eMagic and Cubase’s arch-rival from the days of the Atari ST – is more affordable than Cubase, with free upgrades for the life of ownership too and no USB keys or single-site licence restrictions; you can run it on every Mac you own.

It’s even better value as the Pro Apps bundle, and better still if you qualify for a student discount. Describing what it can do would double the length of this article, so let’s settle for what you get with it.

One aspect of Logic I’m not particularly keen on is the overstyled, and rather dated appearance of the plugins, which resemble late ’90s ‘futuristic’ hardware. And though most can be resized, the UI ends up looking like it’s been drawn on an Atari 800; you get the feeling many of these have not been given much development since eMagic’s days.

Plugins included with Logic Pro X

  • Alchemy – very, very powerful and flexible synth/sampler
  • ES1 – straightforward analogue-esque synth
  • ES2 – more sophisticated virtual analogue synth
  • EFM1 – a quick FM synth
  • ES E – simple subtractive synthesizer
  • ES M – simple monophonic subtractive synth
  • ES P – simple polyphonic ’80s-style synth – like 8 SH-101s at once
  • EVOC 20 PolySynth – a vocoder-based synth/string machine
  • Quick Sampler – a quick sampler. Obvs.
  • Retro Synth – analogue, FM and wavetable models with familiar faces
  • Sampler – self-explanatory
Logic Scuplture audio unit
  • Sculpture – clever physical modeling synth, otherworldly or percussive
  • Studio Instruments – horns and strings, sampled with articulations
  • Vintage B3 Organ – a comprehensive modeled Hammond organ
  • Vintage Clav – go on, guess
  • Vintage Electric Piano – it’s black and chrome and looks familiar
  • Vintage Mellotron – yep, low-fi wobbly tape sounds

What else does Logic Pro X have?

  • Drum Kit Designer
  • Drum Machine Designer
  • Drum Synth
  • Ultrabeat – not a ’90s dance band, but a 24-voice drum machine plus synth, with sequencer

Logic includes 70 effects, but don’t worry – it’s technically beaten Cubase on that score too, as one of those plugins is PedalBoard which includes 35 virtual stompboxes.

When you consider the rival DAWs – from Cakewalk by BandLab to Pro Tools, Ableton, Reason or even Korg Gadget (especially Korg Gadget), they all tend to come with the instruments and effects you need to make music, in pretty much any style that can be made without an acoustic instrument or voice (and they have the effects and processors you need to record and mix those things too).

Sim Studio: Build it, use it

If you’re playing alone or with friends, or a group, this is a good thing to try anyway. Get a rough idea of how you want your music to sound, and pick four instruments – that’s your studio. You’ve got lower register, such as bass, your textures and pads, or strings, your lead voice for the melody, and then some percussion.

What and how you want to play is entirely up to what you enjoy; find a step-sequencer to repeat some bass notes if the drums are what grab you, if you’re not sure about drums let Groove Agent or Drummer, or a simple drum machine do the work and focus on your bass groove or melody.

Kee bass for bass, Groove Agent for drums, D-50 for pads, Arp 2600 for leads... and that's before freezing and changing patches for more sounds

Once you’ve chosen your four instruments, stick with them for a while. Browsing presets is fine, but if you find something that’s almost what you want – try to use the plugin you’ve already got to make it exactly the sound you need, rather than changing plugin and going on another preset excursion.

Breaking the four-track paradigm is easy in DAWs – try freezing a track when you’re happy with it, then recording the same MIDI with a different patch on the same plugin, or making other parts using the same plugin.

Now for the tricky bit. Effects. If you didn’t skip, you’ll have seen that both Cubase and Logic have over seventy effects included, and the third-party market is heaving with low-cost and free variations on the themes.

There are utility effects, such as compressors, for sound reinforcement and control, and then there are effects that can totally transform a sound. If you’ve chosen a relatively simple main instrument such as an analogue synthesizer, pick one delay and one reverb, for example.

A typical hardware home studio might have a multi-effects unit, so you don’t need to be as disciplined here, but if you stick to one and find the limits of what it can do it’ll help get the best out of other effects as well. A tempo-matched multi-tap delay can expand the sound of most simple instruments rhythmically and musically, and too much reverb can just lose everything in mud across multiple tracks.

Adding your existing instruments, guitar or voice

The same logic we’re using for the virtual instruments applies to the compressor, limiter and EQ you use when recording audio tracks.

It doesn’t matter which you’re choosing at this stage, but pick one and stick with it for the duration. Preamp and channel strip simulators are great timesavers for professionals, but for making music in its most visceral, creative form, they’re a distraction.

You can always change that stuff later when you want to give your songs the final polish and character.

Many USB audio interfaces come with bundled ones that complement their preamps or keep a connection to the brand’s best-known hardware – just use those (for example, the Red suite you get with some Focusrite models).

Once you’ve got a four-track – or more accurately, four instrument setup you’re happy with, save it as a template so you can quickly go back in and start with the same virtual studio of instruments and effects. Familiarity will speed up the process of getting ideas into MIDI or audio, and none of it is set in stone – you can change or add more later.

Although this isn’t really the time to focus on the recording, don’t forget that the final shape of the sound is also dependent on the channel settings and EQ. You should really be adjusting that when mixing the tracks together – this article’s aimed more at getting creative, rather than production.

I want a different synthesizer, though – let’s go shopping!

  • You don’t need to install all the plugins from a collection
  • No app? Use a simple VST host to try demos like trying a synth
  • Don’t be afraid to spend a lot on one good one you like
  • Are you shopping for preset sounds, or more flexibility?

So you’ve got to the stage where you know what your DAW’s built in instruments and effects are capable of, and you want something specific. Is it because you want a new distraction, or because you want a specific sound?

Don’t get too hung up on trying to get the virtual equivalent of instruments that an inspirational band used. Chances are, they used it on stage, but not in the studio, or used it on a recording but with so much processing that any attempt to recreate the patch without it will either sound wrong, or be wrong.

Big budget? Look here…

  • u-He Zebra2 $199, Dark Zebra + $99
  • Synapse Audio Dune 3 $179, sound packs $20 each
  • Spectrasonics Omnisphere $499
  • Steinberg Absolute Collection 4 – £429, but wait for discounts

Happy to spend over $250-500? There are three big names in original virtual synthesizers, rather than recreations – u-He, Synapse and Spectrasonics. There are many, many more equally respectable ones, but if you chose any one of Zebra2 (or better yet, The Dark Zebra), Dune 3 or Omnisphere, you have almost any sound you can imagine at your fingertips with just a little work.

That’s particularly true when you consider the plugins already in your DAW. This budget allows you to buy the core plugin and a lot of expansion presets, providing an immense toolbox of sounds. Of course, there are many others, and many other ways of spending that money – but you won’t regret going for any of these, and you will use them

They’re not directly comparable with each other, but they’re all extremely powerful, professional sound creation tools. They’re also rarely discounted, unlike the majority of plugins – the exception being Steinberg’s Absolute Collection, which gets between 40-50% off at least once a year.

...except maybe the bassoon. At least, not in my lifetime

It’s included because for most Cubase owners the combination of immense sample libraries from orchestral to tribal, full Groove Agent, and HALion 6 is better value than piecing together similar tools from elsewhere.

Trying to be sensible? Try these

Given the scope of the plugins included with your DAW, you might have decided not to bother at all with adding more. I admire your willpower! If you want something iconic to throw in and make your own, pick one of these synths.

For players

Sylenth1 – €139, or €9.95/month. Lennar Digital’s Sylenth1 is a powerful virtual analogue synthesizer designed to produce a full sound with all the qualities associated with analogue instruments, plus the flexibility of digital and software.

Lennar Digital Sylenth

The monthly price is instalments, not subscription, so you will own it once you’ve paid the full price. It can sound like an ’80s digital polysynth, a fat analogue modular or a beepy little rave machine and is a great complement to the gentler textures of Cubase and Logic’s synths and samples.

For synth designers

Native Instruments Reaktor – £179. Reaktor isn’t a softsynth, as such, it’s actually a kit for making different softsynths from many different schools of thought – samples, synthesis, unusual processes, it can create an emulated 8-bit chip or generate complex drones, and is extremely versatile but quite involved, meaning once again, it’s quite tempting to rely on other people’s creations. Blocks aims to break that habit with a modular-synth approach.

The Reaktor user library shows just how remarkable Reaktor’s scope is.

It’s a little ‘busy’ as a plugin and for the purposes of Cubase owners, crosses over with the power available in HALion 6. Many of NI’s other synths run in the Reaktor player, and it’s part of Komplete and Maschine suites at different levels.

For sound creators

Arturia Pigments – €199. Unlike the majority of Arturia plugins, Pigments is a new synthesizer that owes much to, but mimics little of, the past three decades of synthesis.

It has two sound engines that can be configured for virtual analogue, wavetable or sample based sounds, and an innovative animated colour-based workflow that makes complex routings and synthesis very easy to understand. Every element of the patch can be seen working at a glance, from envelopes to filters, waveforms to LFOs, and there are a lot of animation possibilities within.

Read the manual!

No matter what your experience level, it’s fairly typical to just dive in and not read the documentation. For most low-cost plugins it’s understandable – you might get some basics on mapping controls and loading preset banks, but very little real advice on how to get the most out of the synth (emulated or otherwise), but commercial products often include manuals and guides that eclipse some hardware, and there’s always independent advice on the ‘net.

Arturia’s plugins, for example, are beautifully documented with full, readable manuals that explain for experts with a balance of education for novices. In the case of most hobbyist emulations you can often find the original synth’s manual online.

Plugin collections – worth it?

In my case, I’ve got three big plugin collections from chasing the ‘old synths I wanted and/or owned’ dragon, and thanks to a 60-day trial for Coronavirus, have been trying Steinberg’s Absolute 4 too.

None of them get pushed to their full potential – there’s too much in there – and I suspect Absolute 4 would have been a perfectly sensible, justifiable expense if I hadn’t spent so much money on the others!

But Arturia, Korg and Roland have packaged all that lovely, now-unattainable hardware into software bundles of nostalgic joy… they’re impossible to resist. And of course, I’ve installed the lot.

In reality, there are maybe four or five plugins out of the whole set that I really want and could use to make different sonic textures and sounds for my style of music. When Zenology arrived, I uninstalled all of the SRX modules – but why did I install them all in the first place? Just to listen to presets? I already know I like the JV Piano & Strings patch. Installing everything in a bundle is FAR too tempting.

V Collection highlights the madness of this nostalgia – everyone making synths in the ’80s basically wanted to give people a certain set of on-trend preset sounds, and most programmers found a way of delivering regardless of the tech. When you have built-in effects and sequencers, and more polyphony than the hardware, it’s even easier.

Of course, Arturia sell each synth individually – but when you can buy sixteen classic synths (plus eight organs and pianos) for €299, vs €149 each, buying the collection is just common sense, right?

Even if it’s better value to buy a collection than to buy the two or three instruments you want in it, don’t install them all. Recently I’ve found some happiness and peace in the creative process by only having one or two in a month, and then changing them over to explore new sounds rather than bouncing around them. In the case of Arturia’s set you’ve always got the preset-based Analogue Lab to fall back on.

And let’s face it. If you were stuck with ‘just’ a Synclavier or Fairlight CMI in the ’80s, you were hardly slumming it.

Presets are great, but they suck

I’m not a skilled programmer, but I’m a firm believer in the potential of most subtractive polyphonic synths to create a diverse set of sounds, many of which can be pretty much identical if the programmer wants them to be.

We never discover just how good they are, as players, because we find the wonderful world of presets. I love ’em – just show me a pack with some neon writing that looks like the cover of a Gunship album, and yep – I’ve just added another 64 sounds I’m unlikely to use to the 5,000+ I’ve never explored, and chances are they’re the same as the factory presets of ’80s synths because that’s what synthwave is copying in the first place…

Once, presets were to be reviled. Four or five buttons on a synth that approximated a sound, and on home models, usually meant no programming. No wild sound effects or clever phasing. Just ‘parp’, ‘honk’, ‘buzz’, ‘clang’ or ‘rumble’.

Then they became a convenience for amazing, sophisticated synths. New technology and skilled, rather than hardwired, half-assed approximations meant they became a stronger reason to buy the synth and never program it, and you get DX7 bass, CZ bass, Jupiter strings Prophet strings, OB-Xa brass and a whole load of typecasting; despite these synths being essentially different approaches to the same problem.

When the Roland D-50 came out and introduced sample+synthesis, the presets became THE reason to buy them; the D-50, Korg M1 and Wavestation‘s factory sounds are all over tracks of the era… not least because there are hundreds of waveforms, and the programming was buried deep in menus.

Korg Triton. Do you need this AND a virtual M1?

Then we got second-gen romplers all trying to copy the success of the first-gen (the biggest change in synthesis since preset storage, really), and presets sucked again, being more of the same but with whole samples included, and MDI phrases and sequences from the songs that made the first ones famous. ARGH.

Feeding the typecast, once a brand got an image for a certain genre/style/fashion, the presets fed back into it. Access Virus and EDM. Wavestations and ambient. Stylophones and blacksite torture camps.

Plugins have turned this issue up to 11. You don’t get 64 in a bank on an expensive memory card, you get 4,000 in a library. Then competing plugins get 512 genre-matched ones.

How many presets?!

When this stuff was hardware and it cost a month’s wages to buy a basic mono analogue synth, if you wanted a fast attack bass or a quirky filtered interval, you programmed it. And the whole point of softsynths is that you can program them.

In the words of the great John Sculley III – it’s time to take the Pepsi Challenge: Listen to these suitably-stereotypical patches and match the sound to the synth. There’s no extra processing (but each preset has some effects built-in), the presets are as they come, recorded from the same MIDI track.

This is, supposedly, the Jump sound from Van Halen’s eponymous track. I’m not playing that sequence, just noodling, but one is a ‘comparable’ preset from a different synth in the same plugin suite (CS-80 V, Jumpin’, programmed by Katsunori Ujiie), one is the original preset on the virtual OB Xa V (credited to Steve Ferlazzo in the VST), and one is a modified patch on a totally different softsynth that just happens to by polyphonic in virtual form – Korg’s MS-20.

Which is the original?

Results

My bad MS-20 programming gave it away, right?
Rather than buying a synth to get a preset, chances are you'd be happy programming something you already had...

#1. Which synth is first?

#2. The second synth is?

#3. And the final synth?

finish

Don’t misunderstand me – there are nuances and subtleties to all these instruments, processes and outboard bits. From any given manufacturer, there’s a good reason for this diversity. If you grok how to really use them to your advantage, that’s great and this article wasn’t written for you. Ultimately though, these plugins – and their hardware equivalents – are competing for the same market, and there’s a lot of overlap in what they can do and how they sound.

But musicians – let your golden-eared, multi-track mixing, deeply patient producer worry about this stuff. Just enjoy playing and getting the beat, melody and arrangement together. Stop chasing the unicorn perfect-sounding plugin (or preset); it’s wasted years of my life and it will yours, too!

In short? Get ideas – not more gear

At the start of this article, I kicked off with a phrase I’ve heard in many circles – “all the gear, no idea“. From photography, to music, to playing WoW, and there’s a common theme to it; a disdain for people who have invested in their gear before they’ve learned how to use it.

There’s another meaning to that phrase, though, and it’s kinder than the sneering elitism or jealous undercurrent. There really is nothing worse than having all the gear, and the knowledge of how to use it, and no inspiration.

Because of own failings (this entire article is based on experience and making poor choices), I’m an advocate of manual film photography, of minimalist synths & instruments; it’s a process that really is satisfying and I try to practice working this way as often as possible, stepping away from the luxuries and convenience of modern gadgets to force finding solutions around limitations.

Whatever it takes for you, take time to find things that push you to create – write down the passing thoughts, record the little melodies, keep turning the words over, don’t be afraid of letting your beat sound like someone else’s at first – or even, like nothing musical until you see it through to the end. Just as photographers are really about their subjects, musicians are about the music and the songs, the messages they want to convey – not instruments.

The kit is awesome and fun, but it’s a journey, not the goal.