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Spectrasonics Omnisphere

Dec 15, 2008
Well, lucky me! I've just finished installing all 40GB (yes, that's gigabytes, not megabytes) of Omnisphere, Spectrasonics' long anticipated successor to their Atmosphere "dream module" virtual synth. Omnisphere truly is bigger, badder and better-er in just about every way imaginable, not the least of which is its "core library" of samples that's ten times the size of its predecessor. Since Omnisphere is such a large and elaborate instrument, we'll be doing a couple of review installments to cover it. Here I'll talk about getting it up and running and offer some initial impressions of the preset sound banks.
Installation
    Firstly, the Omnisphere package includes six DVD's; the first disc contains the plug-in (Omnisphere supports Audio Units, VST and RTAS on the Mac side, and VST and RTAS for Windows XP and Vista), and all six discs contain the huge sample library. The install discs contain movies that guide you through the installation, and though they warn that it may take several hours to install (!), each disc took just under fifteen minutes on my Mac G5 dual 2 gHz machine. The first time Omnisphere is launched, it prompts you with a challenge/response authorization. Your web browser is launched, you cut and paste the challenge code and serial number, and a response code is generated. You then paste this into the plug-in window, remove the plug, re-instatiate it and you're off. It's relatively easy, and thankfully doesn't require pesky USB dongles (someone outta release a 28-port USB hub to accommodate this kind of nonsense!).
The Sounds
    Once up and running, you select a preset and say "wow". Repeatedly. Omnisphere is brimming with epic-film-score-ready patches, made to blow folks backward at the theatre. Ever pine for those spine tingling sub-bass THUNG blockbuster hits? They're here, in the world's widest stereo. Wisply, windy, delicate bell creations? Tons of 'em. Eerie processed pianos? In forward or backward flavors, thank you (or both at once!) The saddest choirs you've ever heard have reported for duty as well (Spectrasonics guru Eric Persing credits no less than four different choirs in the manual!). There's also a smorgasbord of arpeggiated layers that never repeat the same way twice, beat loopish things and tons of other-worldliness that simply defy description. I'm trying here! Surprisingly, Omnisphere also includes a fairly large number of traditional analog synths, many straight from the monster vintage modular Moog system perched in the Spectrasonics studio. They've cleverly managed to combine analog synth samples with Omnisphere's extensive internal synth parameters to create some very authenticly expressive pad and bass tones. In fact, the Moog basses are some of the most impressively fat and "3-D" sounding bass tones I've heard come out of a plug-in (and this is from a guy with a formidable analog modular synth sitting two feet away). There's so very much more (including all of the original Atmosphere patches), but I suppose you're getting the idea by now!
The Details...
    Now that we've checked out some of the myriad of included sound patches, let's dig deeper. There are so many great presets, one could easily think of Omnisphere like any other "sample instrument library" type plug-in. In fact, Spectrasonics has well accommodated this type of user- the MAIN default screen allows you to load patches that consist of two layers, just like its predecessor, Atmosphere. Here there are basic level sliders for each layer, "master" filter cutoff and resonance controls and a couple of other rudimentary controls for poly/solo modes, glide and the arpeggiator. This is the scaled-back "easy" screen. You could never leave this screen and get a whole lot of mileage out of Omnisphere. But Spectrasonics also accommodates the serious tweakheads with a bevy of extra editing tabs for serious sound surgery. Let's check 'em out...
The Synthesis Engine
    By clicking on the EDIT tab, it quickly becomes apparent that Omnisphere contains a no-compromise full synthesizer engine. The two layers both function as self-contained one-oscillator synth voices; you select the layer for editing with big "LAYER A" and "LAYER B" tabs.

    The oscillator section of each voice is pretty amazing; you can choose "synth" mode, which offers virtual analog synth waves (not sampled), with shape, symmetry and hard sync controls that let you skew the waves into shapes not typically found in analog synths (plus they sound really cool), or you can select the "sample" mode which lets you use any of Omnisphere's vast sample library as an "oscillator". Here's where things start getting crazy: The oscillator module includes FM mod, ring mod, waveshaping, and "mult" modes, all of which mutate and distort the virtual analog waves OR the sampled waves. The mult mode may be the most interesting; it has its own submodes that let you create huge detuned unison stacks and harmonies from one oscillator. The variations are endless, and all of the oscillator modulation tricks are separately selectable and usable simultaneously. Yikes! As you can see, this is a scary synth and we're still only at the oscillator level.

    Moving on to the filter section, it appears simple enough at first glance, but a click of the selector tab lets you choose from 38 different types of low-pass, high-bass and "specialty" filters, letting you shape your tones in a myriad of ways. I especially enjoyed the super fat "Moogie" lowpass filters... with these you can easily create super fat Moog bass tones (admittedly this is a horrific waste of synth potential, but they do sound great). And a sawtooth oscillator with the "mult" unison cranked up along with a rezzed-out "HPF crisp" filter yielded instant Goldfrapp in-your-face grit.

    Omnisphere contains standard ADSR envelopes for filter and amplitude mod, but throws in four (!) extra envelopes for modulating a ton of parameters. It also includes six LFO's (another exclamation point, please). The LFO's can free-run or be synced to MIDI in a number of ways. These are configured in the modulation window which contains simple pop-menus for mod routings, each with an amount slider beneath. Me loves a self-explanatory synth.
Selects Da Effects
    Clicking on the FX tab up top of course takes you to the effects section. Here, effects are shown in a four-space "rack"-type configuration that should be familiar to Reason users. Clicking on the small triangles in each "space" opens a pop menu displaying all available effects including various compressors, limiters, parametric and graphic EQ's (though the "graphic" EQ's had knobs... darn!), wah-wahs, distortions, choruses, flangers, phasers, delays and reverbs. And like all the synth parameters, control-clicking any of the knobs opens up a super easy MIDI learn window for assigning external controls. Cool! Each of the two voice layers has its own four-effect rack, and there's another four-effect rack labeled "common" for both voices, for a total of twelve simultaneous effects.
Arpeggiatte Me
    Next to the FX tab is the "ARP" tab. No, this doesn't make the synth sound like an out-of-tune 70's analog synth. It's short for arpeggiator, and the implementation strikes a nice balance between flexibility and ease of use. Its interface resembles classic Roland 808/909 drum machines with 32 on/off buttons, a length knob for setting the number of steps, octave range, clock division, and a mode flip menu with all of the standard arpeggio settings as well as some more creative ones. But it doesn't go too nuts; Spectrasonics wisely have gone with the "if you want an arpeggiator to do crazy things, use a sequencer" line of thinking.
Now How Much Would You Pay?
    Want more? Omnisphere contains a multi-mode which allows users to stack or split up to eight patches multi-timbrally. This contains a mixer with four more aux send effects and one more master in addition to the patch effects. I've totally lost count at this point of how many effects you can do at this point! The multi page also contains Omnisphere's LIVE mode, which lets you assign multiple patches for, well, live playing, sort of like a mini Apple MainStage. Finally there's a STACK mode with a nice graphic interface for creating mondo layered patches.

    As you can see, Omnisphere is incredibly deep. It might take years to fully explore its potential. Putting aside all of the synth, effects and layering features, the 40GB sample library alone is a formidable sound resource... keep in mind that things like Korg Tritons have around 160 MB of samples. 40GB is 250 times that size. Holy moly.
The Upshot
    Negatives? Well, my version had a small glitch where some of the samples wouldn't load, but I suspect that was a mistake on my part loading the DVD's. As virtual instruments go, $479 ain't cheap, but this is a virtual instrument with capabilities far beyond many hardware synths costing five times as much money, so it's really a great deal in light of its capabilities. The only real negative is that all that amazing synthesis power comes with the price of using a lot of computer resources. Some complex sounds really taxed my admittedly aging Mac G5 dual 2 gig machine. I couldn't realistically imagine running more than two instances of Omnisphere simultaneously. On the other hand, if you have a newer machine that's up to the task, you probably won't have much trouble. And there's always the option of "freezing" or converting tracks to audio. All in all, Omnisphere may be one of the most impressive virtual synths ever; it's that good!
This article has been proposed to you by MacMusic in association with AudioMIDI
AudioMIDI is a leading US relleser who also provides great information about a plethora of products commercially available for creating and recording music with a computer.
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