By the end of the last century, I had amassed an awful lot of synthesizer hardware. Analog, FM, PCM, VAST, additive, vector, physical modeling — I had all the bases covered in terms of synth engines. All that gear took up too much space, but I had no cause to complain.
FIG. 1: Ultimate Sound Bank sampled a roomful of synthesizer hardware and designed an easy-to-use user interface to create Ultra Focus, an expandable instrument plug-in that supplies more than 2,000 electronic sounds.
Then I got married. My wife hung a sign on my studio door that read, “Everything must go!” Since then, I've gradually sold off the lion's share of my synth collection. Luckily, I've been able to replace most of those instruments with software emulations that covered the same bases. The virtual studio came along just in time for me to maintain my multiple-architecture synthesis habit and still satisfy my wife's need for an orderly existence. Still, I sometimes miss the days when I could switch on my Prophet-600, DX7IIFD, or Matrix-12 and just play. Why can't someone create a virtual instrument that gives me all the best sounds of my old favorites?
Ultra Focus, a sample-playback plug-in from Ultimate Sound Bank (USB), aims to make my wish come true. It combines more than 8 GB of 16- and 32-bit sample data with a user interface that offers hands-on access to a variety of synthesis parameters. Its developers sampled classic gear ranging from analog and FM synths to additive and PCM-based instruments to create a virtual instrument marketed as a “synthesis anthology.”
Ultra Focus's minimum system requirements are a 500 MHz computer, 512 MB of RAM, and 8.4 GB of free disk space. I ran Ultra Focus on my dual-processor Mac G4/1 GHz with Mac OS X 10.3.5, 1.5 GB of RAM, and a PCI-424 card connected to a MOTU 2408mkII audio interface. My audio sequencers were Apple Logic Pro 7, Steinberg Cubase SX 2.2, and Digital Performer 4.5. Ultra Focus supports five plug-in formats: VST, RTAS, DXi, MAS, and Audio Units (AU). I used the AU, VST, and MAS versions.
Installation and authorization were painless. I copied two massive data files and a 28 MB folder full of presets from a double-sided DVD-ROM to my external hard disk and then ran the installer on my main hard drive. Ultra Focus's copy protection uses the familiar challenge-and-response method; I received the response by email almost immediately after I pasted the challenge into USB's Web site.
Ultra Focus's single-window user interface has the look of three-dimensional hardware, but it doesn't look like any synth I've ever seen (see Fig. 1). Thanks to its well-designed ergonomics, I quickly learned my way around. Most real-time parameter controls are knobs and others are sliders (where appropriate), and MIDI Control Change (CC) assignments are fixed; you can't reassign them. Most buttons have associated LEDs to indicate when they're engaged. Tiny but convenient displays showing parameter names and values are scattered across the panel, making it easy to see what's what at a glance. I wish a button were available for auditioning sounds, because Ultra Focus has no onscreen keyboard.
Ultra Focus's architecture is straightforward and easy to grasp. Presets can have two multisampled layers that you can edit either together or separately. Each layer contains a multisample of a single program recorded from a hardware-based synth. You can change either layer's level, tuning, and pan position. You can also assign a mod wheel or other source to crossfade between layers, which is a nice feature. Using two layers cuts the polyphony in half.
The top display shows the names of the current preset and its two layers. You select presets by scrolling with arrow buttons, typing in a number, or selecting from a hierarchical pop-up menu. Clicking on a button beside the layer's name selects that layer for editing. Clicking on the layer name itself summons a menu of all the multisamples. To mix and match sounds, you can select any multisample from any inactive preset or layer.
Each layer is routed through one of four filters (three lowpass and one highpass). Two ADSR generators shape cutoff and amplitude, and Velocity can affect attack time, decay time, or both. Velocity also controls the attack rate of a pitch envelope, which has only Depth and Time knobs.
The Modulation section provides five routings, each with a knob to control depth. You can assign one of 20 sources, including four LFOs that can sync to tempo, to each of five fixed destinations: pitch, filter cutoff, overdrive, amplifier, and pan. The greatest advantage that a really fine synthesizer has over most samplers is its malleable nature, and Ultra Focus's flexibility would increase tremendously if the mod destination were user-assignable‥
One of the 20 assignable mod sources is a single MIDI CC of your choosing. Unfortunately, modulation depth is not among the fixed MIDI CC assignments, nor does mod depth respond to sequencer automation. In fact, none of the controls respond to automation. In a future version, I hope that more than one assignable MIDI CC routing will be available for controlling mod depth and that automation will be possible.
Certain parameters always affect both layers simultaneously. The master lowpass filter has three controls for cutoff, resonance, and timbre. I can't say for sure what parameters the Timbre slider affects, but it sounds like it makes the cutoff frequency beat in the same manner that detuning oscillators causes them to beat (see Web Clip 1). At any setting, it doesn't sound like it contributes much to improving the sound.
Two effects processors, called FX01 and FX02, are common to both layers. Each has an off-on switch and a button that syncs time parameters to sequencer tempo. Clicking on an effect's name lets you select from more than 125 effects presets in 29 categories, ranging from Simple Delay to a lo-fi effect called UVI Destructor and a ring-mod effect called Robotizer. Five soft knobs for each effects processor change their parameter assignments when you select a new effects preset. The selection and quality of effects are impressive, and they're useful for subtly or radically altering timbre.
The Glide section has a choice of four portamento curves optimized for different types of keyboards. Although the two layers share the same curve, you can control their portamento depths independently.
Several parameters that affect both layers have increment and decrement buttons to select their values. Those parameters include polyphony (from 1 to 128 notes), octave, bend range (up to 24 semitones), and which MIDI CC you assign as a modulation source. Another button selects whether samples are loaded in 16-bit or native 32-bit format.
Ultra Focus supplies sounds sampled from a variety of electronic musical instruments. The manual lists the synths that were sampled such as Moog Minimoog and Memorymoog, Sequential Prophet 5 and Prophet VS, Oberheim Xpander and Four-Voice, Korg M1 and DW8000, and Yamaha CS80 and TX802 (but no DX7); the list goes on and on. Less obvious choices are the Technos Acxel, PPG Waveterm B, and the Casio VZ-1. A Kawai K5000 was the source of additive sounds, and a Mellotron M400 supplied taped strings, choir, and the like.
On your computer's desktop, the folders within the Ultra Focus Presets directory determine what menu groups and subgroups appear in the Presets menu. When you install Ultra Focus, ten groups are available and are primarily divided by synthesis type. These groups have categories such as Classic Analog, FM & Formant Synthesis, Additive Sounds, and Bonus Machines. Those are further divided by subgroups such as Ethereal & Atmosphere, Synth Bass, Bells, and Musical & Strange (see Web Clip 2). You can rearrange and reorganize presets by changing the contents of the folders. You can add a folder for your own presets or for any you download from USB's Web site, which is occasionally updated with new dual-layer presets for registered users. When you edit and save a preset, Ultra Focus prompts you to specify its location.
FIG. 2: Presets are arranged in folders and accessed using a hierarchical pop-up menu. Master Presets are organized into two banks, each with 32 dual-layer selections.
I was surprised to learn that only 64 of the installed presets use both layers. Those are the Master Presets, which are organized into two banks and have names such as Angel Sweep, Google Bells, and Smoothly Persian (see Fig. 2). The remaining presets, which total more than 2,000, are single-layer sounds.
One menu group contains Pure Waveforms and organizes them by synthesizer type: Xpand, MiniM, German Analog, and so on. According to the manual, Ultra Focus's developers sampled every note of almost every waveform generated by all the synths in their collection. Then they trimmed and looped them to give users the basic materials they need to roll their own sounds from scratch.
It would be nice if it were possible to add your own samples to Ultra Focus's library of sounds, but I suppose that's what soft samplers are for. You can, however, save presets that you create using the factory samples. Ultra Focus is not multitimbral, but if your computer has enough processing power, you can open multiple instances. I wish that the plug-in responded to Program Change messages, but at least you can load a preset simply by typing in its number.
Focus on the Future
Ultra Focus is certainly comprehensive. With so many outstanding timbres, it's difficult to pinpoint only a few as my favorites. I really like dozens, if not hundreds of them. One of my favorite categories is Stack-Chords, which has nice atmospheric textures (see Web Clip 3). I would like to have heard more sounds that respond to Aftertouch, but the one-source-per-mod-destination restriction limits that possibility.
The user interface allows for access to plenty of real-time controls, but I would like to see a future version go further in its editing capabilities. If you want lots of control over the building blocks of synthesis, you're still going to need a real synthesizer instead of a sample-playback engine. But if you want quick access to thousands of high-quality sounds produced by dozens of synths, Ultra Focus is a worthwhile and convenient source.
EM associate editor Geary Yelton has been playing synthesizers for more than 30 years and writing about them for almost as long.
ULTIMATE SOUND BANK
Ultra Focus 1.1.1
OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 4
PROS: Hundreds of great sounds. Comprehensive coverage of many synthesis techniques. Intuitive user interface. Very good effects.
CONS: Limited modulation capabilities. No automation.
Ultimate Sound Bank/Ilio Entertainments (distributor)