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ROB PAPEN

December 1, 2005
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Virtual-synth designer Rob Papen has collaborated with programmer Jon Ayres to create Blue ($199.95), a 16-voice polyphonic synth plug-in for VST 2.0 and Audio Units hosts. Although primarily a 6-operator FM synthesizer, Blue also includes phase distortion (PD), wave shaping, and subtractive synthesis capabilities. The GUI, which resembles a hardware synthesizer, is straight forward and easy to use (see Fig. 1).

Operators are Standing By

At the top of the screen are six oscillator modules, each with independent shape and volume controls. The first two oscillators also include PWM (pulse width modulation) and Symmetry controls. Below the oscillators are two multimode filter modules. The filter types include 6 dB lowpass and highpass; 12 dB and 24 dB lowpass, highpass, bandpass, and notch; ring modulation; comb filtering; and formant filtering.

The lower part of the interface, which resembles an LCD, shows the editing window you've selected using one of the twelve tabs: Presets, Easy, Alg, PD/WS, Env, Multi-Env, LFO, Mods, Step Seq, Sequencer, FX, and Global. At the bottom of the screen is a master volume control and parameter windows.

Blue comes with several banks of sounds and effects, exhibiting many different chapters from the FM synth canon. The Algorithm tab shows the arrangement of the operators, giving you a choice of 16 2+4 operator arrangements, ten 1+5 arrangements, or six 6-operator sets, very much like a Yamaha DX7 or TX81Z. Each operator has its own envelope controls and can be set for phase distortion or wave shaping. The filter modules and overall volume also have their own envelope controls.

Blue has nine 6-stage envelopes, ten LFOs that sync to MIDI, and three step sequencers for modulation purposes. The Multi-Env tab has a 16-section envelope that connects through the modulation matrix to various synth controls. The Step Sequencer is also connected to various parameters using the modulation matrix. The Sequencer can be used to create pitch sequences of up to 32 notes.

The FX tab lets you edit two sets of parallel or serial effects — delay, chorus, flanger, distortion, low-fi, stereo width, and reverb. The last tab, Global, controls tuning and portamento, as well as a per-oscillator “exprecision” setting that creates slight imperfections in the tuning of the operators to more accurately mimic analog synthesizers.

Four on the Floor

So with all those controls, what does Blue sound like? It sounds like a classic noisy-FM electro/techno/dance-music synth. In fact, the overall interface — click the logo to flip it over and see the credits on the back — resembles the aluminum housing of a Korg Electribe groove box.

Blue includes a diverse collection of patches organized into seven banks: pads, synth lead, percussion, and two each of “analog” and “digital” bass sounds. Nearly every factory preset seems destined to spice up the dance floor. (Rob Papen released version 1.1 of the synth just before this review went to press; included are new banks with hip hop and R&B presets.)

If you spend some time programming Blue, you can create purer tones, but that's not it's best suit: Blue excels at making those rocking, high-index FM tones that can coexist nicely with a super-strong beat. The sequencer and delays sync to the host application, and the delay times are adjusted by parts of a beat rather than actual time, making delay-based rhythms easy to set up.

The factory lead-synth patches are full of high-portamento squeal, and the pads remind me strongly of my old DX7. Several of the analog bass patches bring to mind the Roland TB-303 bass sound, as well as the Propellerhead Software Rebirth soft synth.

Big Blue

Overall, Blue is a well-made, multi-operator FM synthesizer that seems well suited to be a software replacement for many of those hardware synths you've been using for the past decade or two. If you're looking for a synth that can make sounds you haven't heard before, you should look elsewhere. However, if you're looking for a strong FM synth for use as a VSTi or Audio Units instrument (see Web Clip 1), Blue is the perfect candidate.


Overall EM Meter (1 through 5): 3
Rob Papen Inspiration Soundware/EastWest (distributor)
www.robpapen.com

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