January 31st, 2012
It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a synth, but honestly, I haven’t bought much lately. Typically, there’s a revolving door of music gear in my life. Normally, I’ll pick-up some old digital synth via Craigslist and then sell it six months later after deciding I don’t like the way it works and/or sounds. But my current line-up is pretty stable. Most synth work is handled by my faithful Kurzweil K2000. The Nord Micro Modular has been used quite a bit as well now that I’ve finally got my head around the software editor. And even my lowly Yamaha TX81Z has seen some regular talkbox use. One other piece of gear that I’ve been trying to dive into is my Use Audio Plugiator synth module, which I purchased used off eBay about a year ago for around $250. First off, I hate the name “Plugiator”. I like the way companies named synths back in the ’70s — Plugiator leads to smirks when people see it emblazoned on the case. Anyway, the name is suppose to provide a hint as to how the module functions, since it’s basically a host for computer plugin similar to what the Muse Receptor does for VSTs. Unfortunately, the Plugiator isn’t an open-ended host like those boxes from Muse, rather, only Use Audio plugins can be slotted into the available plugin destinations, of which there are eight. So I should back up a bit and explain that Use Audio was born when the German company Creamware crashed and burned around 2006. Creamware had developed a number of successful software based synths during their run, so basically the Plugiator is a standalone host for these. In the Plugiator, four of these softare based synths are preinstalled out-of-box: A Moog Mini emulation called the Minimax, a Hammond B-3 emulation called B4000, and a completely new synth called Lightwave, which doesn’t apparently emulate any historic synthesizer of note. The fourth slot is for a vocoder plugin, but I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet. The remaining four slots are empty, but are reserved for plugins available for purchase from Use Audio. These include a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 and ARP Odyssey emulations along with a rudimentary FM synth and a drum machine. Here’s a rundown of my impression of the plugins I currently have installed:
Minimax: As mentioned above, this is a Mini Moog emulation. It’s a nice sounding clone, although nobody would likely mistake this for the real thing since it sounds pretty sterile. As with all the plugins, there are two digital effects that can be applied to a plugin and those are limited to delay and chorus. Unfortunately, nearly all of the presets have effects applied to them. I went through and turned the effects off for all of the sounds and resaved, since I felt they really detracted from the overall punch of the Plugiator. Here’s what a I really like about the Minimax plugin though: polyphony! The real Mini Moog is single voice, meaning; only one note can be played at a time. The Minimax doesn’t have this limitation, so you can play chords, so it’s more like a Poly Moog or Memory Moog.
B4000: This is a pretty weak imitation of the Hammond B-3, but it also doesn’t sound terrible in its own right. I typically use it for dirty organ sounds by running it through a distortion preset in one of my effects boxes.
Lightwave: I use to have an Ensoniq SQ-R, which was a hardware synth from the ’80s. This plugin reminds me a lot of this old synth. The Lightwave is not really a wavetable synth like my Korg Wavestation, which is a disappointment, but like the SQ-R, the Lightwave has a bunch of waveforms you can select for the four oscillators with all sorts of modulation options. It’s an extremely fun plugin to play around with, but I haven’t programmed any fantastic sounds with it yet, which was also true of my old SQ-R. I think I just need to spend some more time with this plugin.
Pro-12: Being someone who has never used a Prophet 5, I can’t say the Pro-12 is a good emulation. This plugin sounds great though — once the effects are disabled. I really like some of the bass presets the plugin came with. Haven’t had a chance to try my hand at programming completely new sounds, but I think this will be a pretty useful plugin. This one did cost extra money and was not included in the module I purchased. How could this plugin be better? An arpeggiator would be nice. And a spring reverb option would be nice for this, and any of the other plugins.
One of the great things about the Plugiator is there are no latency issues — something that can be a complete nightmare with VSTs running on a laptop or on the Muse Receptor. Latency is related to the time someone hits a key to when the sound plays. In some VST plugins, you have to reduce the number of notes you can play to get acceptable latency. No worries of that with the Plugiator, which is great. One of the things that really sucks about the Plugiator is the unclear process required to purchase additional plugins, like the Pro-12 I downloaded. The software that comes with the Plugiator also includes a connection to the Use Audio online store where plugins can be purchased. My expectation is once you complete the transaction via PayPal, the needed activation codes would show-up in the interface. Not so in my case. It took multiple emails to Use Audio support before I was able to install the plugin in the module. This should be seamless and simple, but was anything but. Because of this, I would caution anyone considering buying a Plugiator since Use Audio seems a bit scattered and possibly not long for this world (the Creamware curse). Unlike some other small companies I’ve dealt with, Elektron back when I had my Sid Station comes to mind, Use Audio is not very responsive. And they don’t seem to offer any user forums. Hell, it doesn’t even look like they’ve updated their website in the past couple of years. Even the modest Meeblip synth is better supported. On the plus side, the physical construction of the Plugiator is quite nice. The rotary knobs are solid and don’t feel cheap and the all the audio connections are heavy duty. I’ve lugged my Plugiator back-and-forth between work and home and it’s held up well.
Entry Filed under: Electronic Music