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Review: Arturia Analog Factory Experience 2.0 (Mac/Win)

August 1, 2008
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Arturia enjoys an established reputation for authentic-sounding and detailed software replicas of classic synths. Many computer musicians, however, prefer straightforward access to vintage synthesizer sounds with a less complicated approach to customizing presets. Enter Analog Factory, which subsumes the sounds of Arturia's vintage instruments and provides simplified sound-design options in a remarkably easy-to-use soft synth.

Analog Factory Experience (AFE) bundles the software synth with a hardware keyboard controller that duplicates its virtual knobs, buttons, and sliders. The keyboard also has navigation facilities that obviate any need for the mouse. Version 2.0 software adds Jupiter-8V sounds to the collection of vintage instrument timbres, many of which include the arpeggiator and sequencing features of the instrument's Galaxy module (see the online bonus material at emusician.com). In this review, I will focus on the hardware controller and its integration with Analog Factory software.

Keys to the Factory

In addition to the standalone versions for Mac and Windows, Analog Factory software supports AU, RTAS, and VST on the Mac and RTAS and VST in Windows. The software authorization procedure has changed slightly — and for the better — in that you now have the option of authorizing a single computer or purchasing and authorizing a Syncrosoft USB hardware key, in which case you can install and run the instrument on any machine of your choosing as long as you have the key inserted.

Analog Factory Experience''s keyboard controller

FIG. 1: Sporting real wood side panels, Analog Factory Experience''s keyboard controller eschews a graphical display in favor of the immediacy of old-school knobs and sliders.

The absence of LCDs or LED displays and the controller's sturdily constructed 32-note keyboard with wood side panels underscore an old-school, analog ethos. Its weighty, solid form factor assures stability when sitting on your desktop (see Fig. 1). The full-size, Velocity-sensitive keys have a nice, springy, synthesizer-action feel. I wish the keys were also Aftertouch sensitive, but at AFE's price, it's hard to complain. Above the keys on the instrument's left, notched pitch-bend and modulation wheels are easy to reach and feel solid, with a strong spring-action return for the pitch-bend wheel. Likewise, all knobs, sliders, and buttons feel securely ensconced in the unit, with no wobble.

Factory Work

categories and presets

FIG. 2: When the Shift button is lit, you can rotate the Level knob to quickly scroll through categories and presets. Pressing down on the knob lets you select any criteria that fit your needs.

Some controls perform more than one task, and secondary functions are operative when the Shift button is lit. Those controls name their secondary function on a stenciled tab with a light background, with its primary function in a dark background. For example, the Level knob normally controls the instrument's gain, but when Shift is engaged, you can navigate through Analog Factory's browser and define criteria for patch selection by pressing down on the knob (see Fig. 2).

Pressing Shift turns the Octave plus and minus buttons into patch-selection buttons for any of the sounds you had previously delimited. Likewise, the eight buttons that select snapshots let you save snapshots when shifted. The ability to shift between functions is sensibly laid out, although I occasionally forgot and found myself selecting patch criteria when I wanted to adjust the volume, or transposing when I wanted to move through the presets (a red LED in the Octave button flashes with increasing frequency as you transpose downward).

Next to the Level knob are the Filter section's cutoff frequency and resonance knobs. These integrate smoothly with the software instrument; I never heard a trace of zipper noise. The knobs need to reach the programmed value of the parameter before the parameter actually updates, but I prefer that to a radical jump to a new value. It's also helpful that Analog Factory shows the preset knob position onscreen, so you get visual feedback as you make the tweaks.

The LFO section lets you adjust rates and levels, but it is often difficult to know beforehand what parameter the LFO is tied to. In some cases it is oscillator frequency, and in others it is filter cutoff or amplitude.

The four Key Parameter knobs, because they relate to several different synthesizer architectures and many different patches, follow suit in their unpredictability. In one instance, a knob might invert a filter envelope, or it could scan Prophet VS wavetables. In other patches, it may detune oscillators by slight degrees or in intervals. It's probably best to familiarize yourself with Key Parameter knob assignments on a patch-by-patch basis. According to Arturia, a forthcoming software update will display onscreen the parameters assigned to each of the four knobs. Handily, the aforementioned Snapshot buttons sit just below the LFO and Key Parameter sections, allowing you to store your favorite tweaked sounds or eight instruments whose controls you have memorized, simply by hitting one of the eight buttons with Shift active.

Don't look for anything fancy in the FX Mix section. All you can do there is dial in the amount of chorus and delay you'd like for a patch.

Four sliders in the controller's upper right corner control the patch's amplitude ADSR. As noted in EM's review of version 1.2 (see the March 2007 issue, available at emusician.com), the lack of access to the filter's envelope generator is a bit of an impediment to more powerful sound shaping, but in general, the Key Parameters are sensibly assigned. It's important to remember that Analog Factory Experience emphasizes simplicity.

To the Rear

FIG. 3: You can choose an optional 12V DC adapter to power the AFE keyboard, or draw power from your computer''s USB connection.

FIG. 3: You can choose an optional 12V DC adapter to power the AFE keyboard, or draw power from your computer''s USB connection.

On the rear panel, the power switch sits within easy reach behind the pitch-bend and modulation wheels. A jack for an optional 12V wall-wart power supply is to its right. The USB 1.1 port provides bidirectional MIDI communication as well as a power alternative to the wall wart (see Fig. 3). A pair of jacks accept sustain and expression pedals.

Capping off the rear-panel connectors is a single MIDI Out jack. I wish that the controller had an In and a Thru port, as many keyboards do. Anyone wishing to switch to an alternate controller, such as a MIDI guitar or drum pads, would need an additional MIDI interface to accommodate the extra inputs.

Wish List

I found a couple of other missing ingredients in the controller's MIDI capabilities. It currently offers no way, either through a hardware switch or SysEx messages, to change the unit's transmitting MIDI channel. That can be a problem when the keyboard needs to address multitimbral hardware or software instruments. For me, this was particularly problematic in Apple Logic 7.1, which does not normally rechannel incoming MIDI data (without tinkering with its Environments). To be fair, most other sequencers let you easily redirect MIDI input to other channels.

When I'm working with synthesizers, I often change the Pitch Bend range; unfortunately, AFE offers no facility — hardware or software — that lets me do that. To complicate matters, the range varies from one preset to the next — sometimes a whole step, sometimes a minor third, and sometimes a couple of octaves. Such issues may never be a problem if you want to use AFE as a standalone controller-and-sound-source system, but the larger issue is the controller's integration into an existing MIDI and sequencing setup.

Arturia is really on to something with its combination of vintage synth emulations and a specialized controller. I do wish the hardware's MIDI implementation were a bit deeper. Despite the fixed MIDI-channel transmission and unalterable Pitch Bend values, though, the package strikes a terrific balance between sonic flexibility, control, and value, which is well nigh impossible to beat. I love the patch-selection filters and the way the keyboard integrates with the onscreen browser. You may never play all 3,500 sounds, but they'll be available when you need them. Combine AFE with a laptop, and you have a worthy batch of authentic-sounding vintage synths at your fingertips. Download the demo software from Arturia's Web site and see for yourself.


Marty Cutler's favorite vintage instrument is David Grisman's Gibson Granada Mastertone banjo; he's still waiting for the software version.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

soft synth and controller $349
upgrade from Analog Factory 2.0 $249

PROS: Solidly built keyboard. Nice keyboard action. Convenient shift functions for patch selection. Addition of Jupiter-8V offers more timbres.

CONS: No MIDI In or Thru ports on keyboard. No user-programmable Pitch Bend. Fixed MIDI-channel transmission.

FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5
SOUND QUALITY 1 2 3 4 5
EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5
VALUE 1 2 3 4 5

Arturia
arturia.com

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