OUT OF THE VOID
04-02-11 | Virus Like VSTs

Inevitably, someone on an internet forum somewhere, will ask “what VST sounds the most like a Virus?” The Virus itself seems to be somewhat of a mythical item, shrouded in hype and mystery. It’s price, even on the used market, continues to keep it just out of reach for the average consumer. Frequently showing up on dance hit after hit, the mystique and appeal of the Virus only continues to grow.

In the synth community, there’s a thing called GAS. Not to be confused with the Taco Bell variety, this GAS is a different gas altogether. GAS stands for Gear Acquisition Syndrome and it’s power can drive men (and some women) mad. However, like most bogeymen, GAS tends to quickly evaporate when exposed to the light of reason and critical thinking. So let’s begin by seeing if we can’t vanquish the bogey man by taking a deeper look at the Virus itself.

The Virus itself exists in no less than 4 incarnations: A, B, C, and the TI. The Virus is like any other off the shelf VA in that it’s built around a CPU core and DSP chips. It’s been said that each one is merely an update of the last, released when the previous operating system had reached maturity. A process that should be instantly familiar to any Windows user. It’s also been said that the last OS update to the B will bring it up to the specs of the C, minus one 4 pole filter. However that’s not exactly true, as we’ll see in a bit.

The first thing one will notice about the Viruses is the cost, they don’t come cheap. And the reason for the cost can be seen as the single advantage of the Virus over other hardware synths. Synthesizers and keyboards (sometimes called ROMplers) normally have two operating modes: monotimbral and multimbral. You can read more about that if you like in my Intro to MIDI feature. But in short form, what that means is that in multimbral mode, synthesizers decrease the quality of, or even completely omit, the effects on each individual part to reduce the load on the CPU. A common technique is to write a song in multimbral mode and then record each sound individually in monotimbral mode with the benefit of having all the effects.

The second thing you’ll notice about the Viruses is that they are heavy. This is due to the fact that when in multitimbral mode, the Virus is able to maintain full effects (as well as LFOs and arpeggiators) on each part across each of the 16 MIDI channels. What this means is that each Virus contains enough extra circuitry for 16 monotimbral synths. That’s a huge advantage in that it’s possible to compose entire songs or perform them live from one instrument. However one could easily argue that the value of such a feature has been rendered academic by the advancement of VSTs and the ability to simply open as many instances as you need with the only real limitation being the amount of processing power that your computer has.

What about the sound? Surely that must account for most of the interest and the hype in owning a Virus. I’m probably going to put myself on the hit list of many a Virus purist by saying this, but I think it’s largely overrated. Most of the sound is due to the high quality effects that come built into the Virus. In fact many people use Viruses as effect processors on the buses of their mixers. Most of the basic sounds (trance leads and basses) people want from the Viruses can be accomplished on just about anything along with a few good effects plug ins. Don’t believe me? Take a listen to the patches offered by Vengeance Sound and Adam Szabo if you don’t. Most, if not all of them, have the same sound and quality no matter the instrument they came from. And that’s including both hardware and software. Shocking isn’t it? If you liked what you heard from any of those patches, I encourage you to research the synthesizers they were created for. However we also have to consider that most, if not all of those sounds that you just heard were reminiscent of the A, B and TI Viruses.

The C is actually a bit of a departure in terms of sound from the Virus line and can easily be considered the most sought after hardware unit previous to the TI. It could very well be because there is something inherently different in the timbre of the C compared to the rest of the line. Especially as we have just seen that Virus like sounds can be replicated on a variety of instruments.

The C can really be described as a strange beast, almost a chimera. One one hand the C can be light and dreamy, reminiscent of Tangerine Dream and Boards of Canada. And then on the other hand, it can be warm and punchy with a dark, misty sound that seems to almost hover above a black abyss. It’s an overall sound that’s proven to be elusive in trying to recreate. For this reason alone it’s become a highly coveted instrument. If it were as easy as upgrading the B to the latest OS, as popular theory holds, it would be more well known as a poor man’s C, but alas, it is not. There’s something inherent about it that makes it special.

The closest we’ve been able to come to date is Lin Plug’s Albino 3, created by the man that also created most of the patches on the C, Rob Papen. Rob has done an excellent job of recreating the light and analog feel of the C as well as translating quite a few of his patches to it. I own Albino 3 myself and use it frequently for strings and pads.

Unfortunately, it lacks the ability to thump properly when you need it to in the basses or just sound as deep as the C does for drones and pads. I had all but given up hope in finding something that would adequately emulate the deep and foreboding nature of the lower end of the C until I bumped into Dune, by Synapse Audio, entirely by accident.

Synapse Audio is best known for their sequencing and VST environment Orion. But generally, they manage to stay off the radar, so bumping into was an experience that left me floored. Straight away from the GUI, you can tell Dune looks like the C; the audio demos on the page are also equally convincing. Downloading the demo quickly had me convinced that I had found a VST that manages to capture the deep and powerful lower end of the C. Many of the presets have that warm and evocative swelling that I like about the C. I have yet to buy Dune, but it’s certainly next on my list.

Having been a C user for over four years (that’s my C in the photo up top) I can easily say that between these two VSTs, they will get you 99% of the way there. What’s interesting is that each synth manages to capture a particular aspect of the sound. It’s almost fun being able to separate the dual character of the C into two synths so that you can focus on one at a time. Deep, complex and evolving analog like timbres from Albino 3 and a more focused, MiniMoog like approach from Dune that let’s you keep it fast and simple for basses and pads. Add in a high quality reverb and delay, and you’ll have nothing left on your wish list for years to come.