Virtual Analog Love

August 1st, 2009

I’ve purchase two used late model digital synths over the past couple of months: the Novation XioSynth and the Waldorf MicroQ. Both of these create their sounds using a synthesis method called “Virtual Analog” or VA for short. This basically means software on a little chip models classic analog technology. Both of these synths have pretty much the same architecture, three oscillators w/ various waveforms, multiple filter types, digital effects, etc., but the Waldorf adds some nice extras which I’ll explain in a second. Both of these synths are cool in their own special way, so I’ll do two mini reviews.


Novation XioSynth

This is actually three devices in one: A controller, a synth, and an audio interface. I bought it because I’ve always liked Novation’s VAs and I wanted a battery powered controller (the XioSynth can also run off a USB connection)…the audio interface is just a nice additional feature. Novation deserves credit their great documentation and website, which has up-to-date drivers and additional sounds. Getting the XioSynth to work w/ computer applications has been easy so far. Numerous audio and MIDI programs recognize it without a lot of fuss, an unusual Windows experience for me. There is a nice Java based editor that makes it easy to program sounds, but that can also be done using the handful of knobs along the top of the keyboard. Still, there is a fair amount of menu diving if you really want to the program this thing without a computer. The LCD certainly helps here though. So one of the great things about the XioSynth is the arpeggiator and the X-Gator, a sort of jazzed-up step sequencer that I think is really just an audio gate, which may explain why I can’t get it to transmit over MIDI like the arpeggiator (I can be so dense sometimes). Both of these are pretty awesome, but you have to be creative in using them or everything just sounds like awful Euro-Trance™. The keyboard action is quite nice for a synth this cheap — far better than the action on my old 49 key controller I bought over a decade ago. So how does this thing sound? Pretty good really, but nothing spectacular. Many of the presets are drenched in digital effects, which I think are of pretty mediocre quality. I tend to just disable the internal effects and us outboard processing. This synth sounds great running through analog guitar pedals or older digital effects.


Waldorf MicroQ

This is a cut-down version of Waldorf’s Q series, part of a long legacy of synths designed by German legend Wolfgang Palm of PPG fame (think Rush circa Power Windows). What has been excluded from it’s big brother are dedicated knobs for every function, a step sequencer, and less polyphony; although the everything else pretty much stays the same. I wanted to get the newer Blofeld, which is sort of an updated version of the MicroQ but w/ user sample memory and an amazing interface, but MicroQs are really cheap these days. Like the XioSynth, the MicroQ is a virtual analog synth, meaning the sound is generated by software. Waldorf mixes things up a bit though by adding wavetables. So what are wavetables? It depends on the design and manufacture, but typically this means a number of small audio samples stored in ROM controlled by a table that points to the ROM sounds. It’s kind of hard to explain how this works, but it basically means a larger sound pallet to draw from when building a patch. Wavetable can also be used to create evolving sounds since the samples can be “scanned” — jumping from one sample to another. The MicroQ also adds in FM and ring modulation, which is great for producing bell-like sounds (think Yamaha’s DX-7 from the ’80s). Really, the MicroQ has a lot of sonic potential under the hood. But all that potential is useless if you can’t tap it, and the MicroQ, despite it’s lack of knobs, offers some pretty intuitive programming thanks to its matrix borrowed from the long discontinued Waldorf Pulse. There is also a Windows based software editor, but I have yet to try it since I’ve been able to do most of my basic programming from the four matrix knobs. Like the XioSynth, the MicroQ also has an arpeggiator, which can often make things way to trancy. But it’s also programmable, so you can do more abstract things w/ it as well. Perhaps one of the most intriguing features, and one I haven’t used yet, is the vocoder. I won’t go into the technical details of what a vocoder is, but if you’ve listened to Air or late ’70s ELO, you know what it sounds like. I just need to go through all the hassles of setting up a microphone to experiment w/ this, but I might finally get around to it this weekend. Overall I really like the sound of the MicroQ — more than the XioSynth, although that synth sounds perfectly fine in most contexts. The MicroQ reeks of a certain “sparkly” character that is quite pleasing to my ears. Oh, I forgot to mention the random patch generating function — every synth should have this feature.

My time spent w/ the MicroQ has gotten me lusting after the Waldorf Microwave II, which often goes for pretty cheap on eBay these days. It lacks a lot of knobs (unless you get the more expensive XT), but it still offers the matrix programming, which I think is adequate for basic sound design. The Waldorf company is quite interesting, having gone into bankruptcy a couple of years ago only to emerge strong and vibrant.

MicroQ Gripes

- Power button: You have to hold the power button down to turn the thing off. This is really annoying — should just be a standard power switch like on most synths.

- No audio input on the front: I love the fact there is an audio in at all, but I wish they would have put a jack on the front as well as the back.

- Screen saver: When I updated the OS to 2.2, I noticed this new screen saver that comes on when not in use. It freaks me out, because I think the thing is spontaneously resetting itself like my old SidStation. And I don’t thing there is any real need for a screen saver — the chances of characters “burning” into the screen during prolonged stretches of discuss are probably pretty low.

XioSynth Gripes

- Interface: I can’t complain about the interface being complicated too much, since Novation was trying to squeeze a lot of functionality into a small form factor. But just trying to get the arpeggiator to send a MIDI signal necessitated grabbing the manual a couple of times.

- Lettering: In low light situations it virtually impossible to see the labels above the knobs. It would be nice to see a higher contrast color used on those fonts.

- Internal effects: You can use a bunch of effects at once, but the quality, to my ears, is not all that great. I usually rely on outboard processing (XioSynth + Boss Super Chorus + Lexicon Reverb = Hot!)

- No MIDI in: Well, it not really a big issues, since I do patch editing via USB, but without a USB connection there is no way to send patches via system exclusive. Not a big deal, just annoying.

Entry Filed under: Electronic Music

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. admin  |  August 13th, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    I forgot to mention the XioSynth also have nine samples you can choose from for your OSC waveforms. Nothing really special there, but a nice feature for such a modest VA synth.

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