Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Virtual String Machine

The VSM is a sample-based software synthesizer from Gforce Software, recreating those beloved old-fashioned string machines from the 70’s and early 80’s (pictured below, the Eminent 310 theatre version, adding rhythm functions... the original version famously provided the atmospheric strings of Oxygène and Equinoxe).

It is sample-based, in that the VSM don’t emulate these instruments from scratch, but starts with recordings, which you can then retune, pan and modify with filters (lowpass, highpass and bandpass) and LFO.

The list of instruments is quite rich, featuring not only classic string machines like the Eminent 310 or the Roland RS-202, but also regular synthesizers capable of high quality string sounds (for instance, the Oberheim Xpander). Each instrument has its own flavor… the ARP Quartet and Xpander will sound quite smooth and lush, whereas the Freeman and Logan have a grittier, more lo-fi quality.

Given that you can layer up two instruments, and modify each one independently, the VSM allows for a great deal of audio manipulation, and is a lot more versatile than you would probably expect from a string machine plugin. The VSM isn’t just a sample database, but a self-contained instrument. You aren’t limited to a clinical - but perhaps sterile after some point – rendition of the original machines. You can create a whole new batch of hybrid string machines, and playing around with the filters, the split mode, the envelopes, you may easily go from low underwater drones and lush spacey Pink Floyd-ish strings to sharp 1985 stabs and funky phased licks.

No string machine would be complete without effects. You’ve got your classic ensemble effect, that is, a 2-to-8 voices chorus, and the obligatory 6 and 12 stage phaser. The ensemble effect can be detuned, and the phaser, sync’d to the LFO. These two I found to be excellent.. The ensemble gives depth and warmth to the strings, while the phaser has a very pleasant vintage quality.

Now a valid question : wouldn’t you be able to do that with a regular synth, hardware or software? In some cases, you could, given clever programming, but there’s still some special quality about these old school string machines that eludes even the most sophisticated electronic instrument, and probably has to do with their very peculiar sound architecture. Nothing sounds exactly like an Eminent or a Freeman, and if you don’t want to crowd your studio with a dozen of these big (and nowadays ridiculously expensive) beasts, a sample-based instrument is the best approximation.

How close is it? Well, I can’t of course do a scientific A/B comparison. What I can tell you is that I’ve been listening (and I’m still listening) to a frightening amount of obscure 1970’s electro/disco/weirdo music, featuring a number of these machines. The VSM does an excellent job of instilling that nice retro sound in your mixes, and not only the result sounds accurate enough to my ears, but the instrument is a powerful synthesizer in its own right, which doesn’t sound like any other soft synth.

The next question of course is : how relevant is the commercial VSM in regard of the freeware alternatives, such as Cheeze Machine ? The answer here depends on what your needs are. While the freewares and sharewares I had the opportunity to test sounded quite good, if you plan to use that kind of sound extensively, then you’re better off with the VSM. It will provide you with better quality sounds and a more powerful engine. Given the originality of the product, and the aforementioned craziness of some of the prices asked for these machines these days (I just saw today a 1500€ Yamaha SK20, a price that made me think the owner suffered some kind of neurological disorder), the VSM is reasonably priced to my opinion (by the way, yes, I've bought it).

To conclude, what about the cons? Well, frankly I found none. There’s no such thing as perfection, but I can’t really think of any issue with the VSM. Maybe there could be more samples? Well, there can always be more (and surely will, with further expansions), but what you get is enough already to program interesting sounds. The interface is well conceived, logically laid and clear. The VSM is elegant and tasteful, in an old school sort of way. It doesn’t follow the current trend of overcrowding soft synths with options. It is simple enough to be straightforward and fun to use, with enough functions to be a rich, versatile tool.

List of instruments :

ARP Omni
ARP Quartet
Crumar Multiman
Elka Rhapsody
Eminent 310
Freeman String Symphonizer
Junost 21
Korg PE-2000
Logan String Melody
Oberheim OB-8
Oberheim Xpander
Moog Opus 3
Roland RS202
Yamaha SK-15
Yamaha SS-30

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