I have fallen in love with a software synthesizer. I never thought it could happen to me. After long, fulfilling relationships with my analog synths (various Moogs, Rolands, etc.), I kinda brushed off most analog-modeling software synths as budget imitations, which is really snobbish and unfair, I know. But I guess I just didn't feel that most "virtual analog" synths had the almost inexpressible qualities I had come to associate with the real deal: warmth, fatness, depth... you know, the good stuff. Well, Arturia's CS-80V has melted away my snobbish perspective and made me think that someone is actually getting it right.
One important caveat before I launch into my soft-synth love fest: I have never come within reach of a real Yamaha CS-80, the famed, late-'70s, 220 lb polyphonic beast. There were purportedly less than 3000 made back in 1976. To say it's a rare (and expensive!) synth is an understatement. However, I don't feel this fact completely invalidates my review of the product; I've had the chance to spend many hours with most of Arturia's other classic-synth reproductions (the Minimoog V, the Moog Modular V, and the ARP2600 V) and can say that they all are frighteningly accurate reproductions of the originals. Something to do with Arturia's proprietary TAE (True Analog Emulation) technology? I guess so; a little digging in the manual and on their website reveals detailed explanations of how TAE oscillators produce "dynamically generated" waveforms in contrast to sampled or wavetable-based digital synths, which (among other things) nullifies aliasing in high frequencies. I could pretend that I fully understand all of that, but really, all that matters is that the sound coming out of my monitors is great. And it is. One more interesting thing about the TAE emulation; it simulates the instability present in most (if not all) analog synth circuits. Most analog synths have their quirks-pitch drift, oscillator glitches, distortion, etc.-and the quirks are what I love about analog synths. TAE apparently emulates these characteristics to some degree, and it translates as the aforementioned "warmth" and "fatness" of the real-world counterparts of these virtual synths.
CS-80V comes in a box with a fair-sized manual, which is well-written and detailed, if not a bit technical. The software is installed via CD, and product registration is easy. Copy protection is handled by a requirement to insert the original CD when installing updates or importing preset banks-do these things before you find yourself working on your laptop miles away from your install CD. I wish Arturia would get hip to iLok. They actually use a different type of USB dongle (Syncrosoft) for their newer products, including Prophet-V. A plea to developers: please no more USB dongles! If you must authorize your products using a USB dongle of some sort, let's all agree that iLok is a standard and move on. It's a hassle to have all my expensive authorizations spread out over three or four tiny plastic gumsticks.
The software works in pretty much every Mac and Windows plug-in format, so compatibility is more or less universal. But be advised that Arturia is still developing their Intel Mac updates, so those of you on the bleeding edge may want to wait a bit before buying. Also note that this is a CPU-intensive plug-in, but not unreasonably so. Its average CPU load on my system varied between 15-40% when playing through the various included presets, with that number increasing in 2-3% increments whenever adding another note to a chord. So yes, it's polyphonic (eight voices), but it'll cost you a little extra CPU to get your dominant eleventh on. MIDI mapping and control is easy; everything worked fine with my KORG MicroKONTROL.
After installation, I ran CS-80V in standalone mode, monitoring through some smallish computer speakers at home. Okay, cool sounds-running the gamut from gritty bass to smooth Blade Runner-esque pads and unique leads. It wasn't until I got CS-80V into my studio that my mind was properly blown. The low end is incredible! The highs are pleasant and so smooth. The depth-wow. And that crazy, subtle sense of unpredictability. I soon started playing with a couple of new features added to the original CS-80 feature set. The multi mode and modulation matrix are particularly cool, allowing you to play and layer several sounds simultaneously, plus route the synth voices to a variety of parameters. Very tweakable if that's what you're into. The interface is well-designed-a faithful graphic reproduction of the original CS-80-with options to reduce the window down to just the keyboard for reclamation of valuable screen space. There are some built-in effects, including a ring modulator, stereo delay, chorus, and tremolo. I found the delay to be pretty nice on most lead patches-adding some dimension to the sound-but watch that CPU meter bump up into the danger zone on slower computers.
I'll say it again. I love this soft synth. It really sounds huge and has so much tonal potential it's just ridiculous. Now if I could just find a hardware MIDI controller with enough sliders and knobs!
Just like CS-80V and other Arturia synths, Prophet-V is a fairly universal plug-in that runs on both Mac and Windows. It's a pretty unique and ambitious instrument in that it is actually three different synths in one: a recreation of Sequential Circuit's original Prophet-5 (popular in the late '70s and early '80s), a reproduction of the Prophet-VS (a digital synth introduced in 1986), plus a "hybrid" mode which incorporates elements from both of these rare synths to create entirely new sounds. The Prophet-V's interface is a visual replica of the 5 and VS, with a small navigation bar at the top of the window for preset selection, I/O, MIDI input, and mode switching. The software contains all of the 40 original presets from the Prophet-5, and Arturia has included the ability to import presets from the original SysEx sound data-really cool! There are dozens of websites dedicated to the archival of Prophet-5 user patches via SysEx, all of which can now be used by this soft synth.
The Prophet-5 sounds amazing, and all of the presets are well-designed and flexibly varied. Switching to the Prophet-VS transforms the synth into a late '80s digital monster. Think spooky John Carpenter soundtracks or early Depeche Mode-colder, more aggressive textures. The hybrid mode is essentially the two synths stacked on top of each other, with matrices provided to uniquely blend the analog and digital qualities of either synth (including filters!) and provide new modulation possibilities unavailable to either synth in its non-hybrid state. The end result is odd, somewhat unpredictable, and generally unlike any synth I've heard. I've made some cool percussion and drum sounds using hybrid mode that are either brilliant or cheesy-I can't decide which.
This is a deep bit of software which is clearly innovative and comes from a high-quality pedigree. And I really think this is a bargain, considering you can't find an original, working Prophet-VS for less than $1000. And good luck even finding a Prophet-5. ($249.00 MSRP each; www.arturia.com)
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