Search Gear


January 1, 2003

Joining the likes of Image-Line Software FruityLoops, PropellerheadReason, Arturia Storm, and VirSyn TERA, Synapse Audio Software's Orionis one of the newer contenders in the category of loop-orientedsoftware workstations. Like the others, it provides a variety ofsynths, a step-sequencer built in to each synth, and an overallsong-sequencer for arranging the step sequences. Orion's twist on thetheme is to center its workspace around a virtual mixing desk ratherthan step-sequencers or sound generators, as is more common. Though thedifference is largely stylistic, it does affect the way you work.

Orion comes in three flavors: Basic, Pro, and Platinum. All versionshave a complement of sound generators with built-in pattern sequencers,a collection of effects processors, and the ability to host instrumentand effects plug-ins in VST, DirectX, VSTi, and DXi formats. Pro addsASIO support; additional and enhanced sound generators; a built-in beatslicer, groove templatizer, and arpeggiator; more effects; andaudio-track playback. Platinum adds ReWire support, multitrack WAVexport, multisample mapping, and more generators and effects. Basic andPro are only available as downloads, whereas Platinum comes on CD-ROMwith a printed getting-started manual. Orion Pro 3.03 was used for thisreview.

Not surprisingly, the more tracks and effects you use, the biggerthe bite Orion takes out of your CPU. Six tracks and three effectspretty much pushed my Pentium III/700 MHz laptop to the limit. But whenyou start to run out of gas, you can bounce submixes to disk as WAVfiles and, in the Pro and Platinum versions, load them back into Orionas audio tracks. For audio I used an Emagic EMI 2|6 USB interface withthe latest ASIO drivers and was able to get latency down to severalmilliseconds without audio breakup.

Example 1:

"Ritard" was created entirely within Orion using built-in synths andeffects. Orion's Tempo editor was used to create the ritardando at theend.

Listen to RitardMP3


Orion Pro comes with eight built-in sound generators — sixsynths and two sample players. You can have multiple instances of anygenerator, and each instance is represented by its own channel strip inOrion's Mixer. Fig. 1 shows the Mixer on the left and thecontrol panels for three of the synth generators on the right. (Orion'smain toolbar is shown at the top.)

In addition to the built-in generators, you can use anything in yourkit of VSTi- and DXi-instrument plug-ins, and each gets its own channelstrip as well. Finally, there are a built-in WAV-file player calledAudioTrack and a MIDI output device called MidiOut that allow you toplay back sound files (bounced tracks, for example) and controlexternal MIDI devices with Orion's sequencers.

Orion's built-in synths cover all the bases, but you will mostlikely be reaching into your VSTi and DXi collection to go beyond thebasics. Bazzline (shown at the top-right of Fig. 1) is a one-oscillatorsynth offering sawtooth and square waveforms. The oscillator isfollowed by a resonant lowpass filter and a decay envelope thatcontrols filter cutoff and amplitude. One nice feature of Bazzline isthat the envelope has alternate settings for normal and accented notes.(Accents are set in the pattern sequencer.) It also has a slide(portamento) feature that can be applied on a note-by-note basis. Allthat, of course, adds up to a synth designed for electronic basslines.

Plucked String (shown at the middle-right of Fig. 1) is aphysical-modeling synth for plucked-string sounds. Wasp (at thebottom-right of Fig. 1) is a straightforward subtractive synth(licensed to Image-Line Software for use in FruityLoops.) It featuresthree oscillators, a multimode resonant filter, dual LFOs, ADSRenvelopes for the filter and amp, an overdrive-distortion output stage,and provisions for frequency, pulse-width, and ring modulation. Waspcan produce all the usual analog lead, bass, and polysynth sounds.

WaveDream is another three-oscillator synth, but it uses wavetablesas its sound source. Several wavetables are provided, and you can alsocreate your own as simple text files. WaveDream features a multimoderesonant filter and three LFOs that, between them, can modulatevirtually every WaveDream parameter, including wavetable position.WaveDream is well suited for ambient and pad sounds and features aDouble Dose mode that uses separate voices for the left and rightstereo channels with optional detuning for rich six-oscillatortextures.

Two drum synths round out the built-in collection. Tomcat isdesigned for kick and tom sounds. It has two oscillator-filter-ampsections, and each oscillator has a decay envelope for controllingpitch. XR-909 is a 10-track model of an analog drum machine. Eight ofthe tracks are dedicated to standard drum sounds, and two allow you toload your own samples. XR-909 comes in two models: the Stereo modelmixes the 10 sounds to a stereo image, and the 10×Mono modelprovides separate channel strips in the Mixer for each drum sound. Thatmeans you can have individual insert effects and separate send amountsto global effects for each sound, making XR-909 a very flexibleinstrument.

When you can't synthesize your way to loop heaven, you can drop inOrion's two sample-based generators: Sampler and Drums. Sampler isprimarily designed for playing individual samples and loops, althoughit will import sample maps in SoundFont 2.0 and Kurzweil formats. (Youcan't build your own sample maps in the Basic and Pro versions.) Itsspecial features include a sidechain function (which is undocumented)for frequency modulating the sound by another generator's output and abuilt-in beat slicer for slicing up loops and generatingpattern-sequencer patterns matching the slices. The beat slicer, calledGroove View, is a welcome addition that makes it unnecessary to go tothird-party software to regroove your beat loops (see Fig. 2).Oddly, however, although you can adjust the detected slice points,Groove View will not automatically regenerate a matching patternsequence for you.

Drums is a 12-track drum-sample player. It has a limited number ofcontrols, but it features automatic sample-reversing andtime-stretching. The time-stretching is “classic style,”altering the loop time by changing the playback speed and, therefore,the pitch. Both Sampler and Drums come in Stereo and xMono models,which provide separate Mixer channel strips for two and four outputs,respectively.

Orion comes with a nice complement of effects processors dividedinto five categories: Delay/Echo, Reverb, Dynamics, Filter, and Misc.Like the synths, most are not out of the ordinary but will get the jobdone. (Platinum has a more complete set of effects and also providesmore parameters for each.) Especially notable are the four effects— Compressor, Trance Gate, SC Filter, and SC RingMod — thatprovide sidechain inputs for modifying their effect according to theoutput of another generator. Of course, everything in your kit of VSTand DirectX effects is also available.

Orion effects can be used in three ways. They can be inserted intoany generator's channel strip in the Mixer, assigned to any of foursend buses, and inserted into any of four slots in the Master Outputsection. Plug-in management is flexible and easy, and once a plug-inhas been instantiated, it's no problem to move it from one location(for example, an insert or a bus) to another.


Each Orion generator (including MidiOut, but excluding AudioTrack)has a built-in pattern sequencer that can hold as many as 64 patterns(8 banks of 8 patterns). Each pattern can have 999 steps, and a stepcan be anything from a whole note to a 64th note. The number of stepsand the step size apply to all patterns for a given generator, but canvary from generator to generator. Pattern-sequencer features differslightly to accommodate the specific generator, but their basicoperation is the same.

Each pattern sequencer has a piano-roll editor (see the bottom-leftof Fig. 3) where notes can be entered with the mouse or inreal-time using MIDI. (Unfortunately, there is no step-entry usingMIDI.) A pencil tool makes it easy to enter, delete, move, and changethe length of individual notes, and a lasso tool allows you to move andcopy selections of notes. When the piano-roll editor was sized to fillthe screen, I found the lasso tool almost unusable because for somereason, its screen-refresh rate was agonizingly slow on my machine.(The manufacturer claims that this is a very rare problem that has beennoted by only a small number of users.) The drum-oriented synths alsofeature button-style entry for 16-step patterns. (Drum patterns thatare entered using the buttons are always mirrored in the piano-rolleditor.)

The piano-roll editors have a controller lane along the bottom thatcan be hidden or set to display Velocity or any generator parameter.Controller-lane events can be entered with the mouse or recorded inreal time. Virtually any Mixer or generator parameter can be assignedto a MIDI controller by means of a flexible MIDI-learn function. As aconsequence, control automation can be recorded in real time either bymousing the onscreen controls or using MIDI.

Each generator also has its own arpeggiator. The arpeggiators arevery flexible, allowing for five predefined note-direction options aswell as a user-definable option (which is undocumented). Timing fromquarter to 128th notes is provided, the arpeggio can be extended overfive octaves, and individual quarter-note positions can be toggled onand off. The arpeggiator includes a chord maker that will cycle througha maximum of eight chords, with each chord lasting the length of a fullpattern. When both the arpeggiator and the chord maker are turned on,the chord is arpeggiated. Conveniently, the arpeggio (but not thechord-maker) output can be rendered to the piano-roll editor forfurther modification.

Orion's song sequencer, which is called the Song Playlist, has atrack for each generator (see the top of Fig. 3). You create a song byactivating patterns at various time positions on the tracks. Thepatterns do not have to be quantized to bar divisions, and when youinsert a pattern, its length is automatically accounted for. The SongPlaylist offers the same pencil and lasso tools as the patternsequencers. Song creation is very easy except that changing the patternnumber is a bit touchy, and the large, four-way cursor icon obscuresthe pattern number as it changes. A separate Tempo Editor allows you toeasily draw in song-tempo changes. In Fig. 3, you can see the SongPlaylist, the Tempo Editor, and the Bazzline pattern for the MP3 fileRitard, which is available at the EM Web site. The song was madeentirely with Orion synthesizers and effects.

Orion allows you to automate any parameter on both the song andpattern level. You open controller lanes for specific controls byright-clicking the onscreen knobs and selecting whether to edit song orpattern events. As with the pattern sequencers, control changes can bemoused in or recorded in real time using the onscreen controls or MIDI.In short, automation on the pattern or song level is a piece of cake inOrion.


Orion has a number of nice features that I don't have space to coverin detail. A Groove Templatizer allows you to apply swing and shufflegrooves to your patterns. A number of templates are provided, and youcan also create your own. Automatic pattern-editing options includehumanize, quantize, transpose, and scale Velocity. You can import andexport standard MIDI files, and you can save your songs bundled withall used sample files. Finally, there is unlimited Undo/Redo.

Orion's weakest point is probably its documentation. Alldocumentation is contained in the help file, and some features aresimply not documented or are explained in so little detail that you'releft with no idea how to actually implement them. On top of that, nopresets are supplied for many of the generators with only a minimalselection for the rest. (The Platinum CD contains a large collection ofpresets and samples.) These are not unusual problems for a smallcompany with an evolving product, and the situation may significantlyimprove in the future. In any case, the beginners' tutorial andsupplied example songs are enough to get you going.

Overall, Orion is a very nice software synth workstation suitablefor making loops as well as entire songs. It has a few quirks to workaround, and you'll definitely want to complement its generators andeffects with your own plug-ins. At $99, the Pro version is priced inline with the competition and clearly has some standout features.

Len Sasso can be contacted through his Web site at

Minimum System Requirements

Orion Pro 3.03
Pentium II/400 MHz; 64 MB RAM; Windows 95/98/2000/ME/NT/XP


Synapse Audio Software
Orion Pro 3.03 (Win)
software synth workstation
$49 Basic (download)
$99 Pro (download)
$199 Platinum (CD-ROM)


PROS: Robust sequencer implementation. Full complement ofbasic synths and effects. Total automation with MIDI control andrecording.

CONS: Weak documentation. Data entry and selection touchy insome cases. Few synth presets.


Synapse Audio Software

Show Comments

These are my comments.

Reader Poll

Do you make more money songwriting, recording, or performing?

See results without voting »