Rob Papen’s – Blue
âI need something originalâ is the call I hear quite often from musicians who have grown weary of the glut of subtractive-only synthesis engines. Fortunately, it seems the hybrid synthesizer is the latest answer to the infestation of virtual analogs, and is a welcome change of pace.
But still, do we really need something âdifferentâ or just something well implemented by marrying a quality sound designer with a quality audio plug-in designer? Iâd be more inclined to say the latter, but a bit of the former is still welcome too.
So what do you get when you bring together sound designer Rob Papen and Concrete FX programmer Jon Ayers? Evidentially, they felt a little âBlue.â But will this marriage with Blue make you sad, or just make your pocketbook lonely of green? Read on!
What is Blue?
Blue is a plug-in provided in VSTi format for the PC, and AU format for the Macintosh. Besides the obvious of being a primary color, Blue is a 6 oscillator hybrid synthesizer with phase distortion, subtractive, wave-shaping, and FM synthesis. At its core, it provides 6 oscillators, 2 filters, a boat-load of modulation options, and version 1.5 added an arpeggiator, and handful of new effects to an already feature-rich synth.
Blue is probably one of the easiest plug-ins Iâve had the pleasure of installing. Click on the executable, plug in your serial number, click âNext >â a few times, and youâre finished. Blue is yet another breath of fresh air in the polluted sea of intrusive copy protection schemes.
Thanks Rob and Jon for not punishing the legit end-user from using their purchased tools.
The manual shows that the interface is divided into three distinct sections; the oscillator section at the top, the filter section in the middle and the multi-paned LCD read out for the various synthesis sections of the synthesizer along the bottom.
Technically, there is a forth section along the very bottom that displays parameters and volume information.
Blue offers 6 oscillator sections labeled A through F. Each oscillator has 15 analog, 39 additive and 32 spectral waveforms to choose from.
Each of the oscillator sections includes parameters to manipulate the phase, tuning, pitch tracking, wave shaping, frequency ratio, volume, and feedback. Both oscillator A and B offer 2 additional options of Pulse Width Modulation and Symmetry.
Oscillator interaction includes the ability to employ ring modulation, frequency modulation, or you can hard synch oscillators between each other. It would have been nice to have a key range per oscillator to help cut out some of the low frequency âcrudâ when you stack 6 oscillators on top of each other though.
One really nice and notable feature of the oscillators is the fact that you can skip over the filter and go straight to the effects, or skip the filter and effects altogether, pushing the raw oscillator sound to the main output. I certainly wish more plug-ins offered this feature. I still wouldnât mind seeing individual outputs in the mixer for each oscillator though so I could add my own insert effects as desired.
Unless youâve chosen to bypass the filter, each oscillator can be fed into one of the two provided resonant multimode filters. Whatâs nice is the filters can be run in either parallel or serially, routing one into the other.
The variety of filter types is quite nice with 3 different slopes (-6dB/-12dB/-24dB) of low pass, high pass, band pass, notch, ring, comb, and a very cool vowel/formant filter. From here, you can choose to bypass the effects section altogether, route to the FX A or B block, or route to both blocks at the same time.
The LCD Panel
The LCD panel is where the modulation and sound manipulation goodness lies. Blue has a total of 12 âpanelsâ that you can click through; Presets, Easy, Alg(orithm), PD/WS (Phase Distortion/Wave Shaper), Env(elope), Multi-Envelope, LFO, Mod(ulation), Step Seq(uencer), Sequencer, FX, and the Global Parameters.
The Preset section shows up to 32 presets per page. The right hand side allows you to select the various banks that are included with the plug-in. This is certainly a welcome step up from Robâs Albino in making patch selection easier.
The Easy section is exactly as described; easy to edit multiple and often used parameters. This is a great place to assign those MIDI knobs and faders that you hopefully have at your disposal to get going on real time sound sculpting.
The Algorithm section is simply your oscillator routing displayed graphically. From here, you can control where all 6 oscillators go to; whether itâs the output, or into another oscillator of your choice.
The Phase Distortion/Wave Shaper section allows you to visually see how your waveform has been manipulated and/or mangled. You can also edit the waveform from here with your mouse cursor.
The Envelope section provides your common ADHSR type functionality for each oscillator, both filters, and the volume.
The Multi-Envelope system is designed for the modulation section. You can create 4 separate 16-point envelopes then apply and loop them in a variety of ways.
The LFO section sports 10 LFOâs; two for PWM, 2 for the filter, one each for vibrato and tremolo, and 4 freely assignable LFOâs for the modulation matrix. There are a total of 6 common LFO wave-shapes to choose from; sine, triangle, saw up, saw down, square, and sample/hold. Aside from the standard LFO manipulation choices of LFO sync, rate, depth, etc.,
LFO attack and LFO decay times are included in this synth; a rare find indeed! Also something new that I havenât seen before, LFO Humanization, which slightly alters the LFO time period for a bit of âhuman touch.â
The Modulation section is where the magic happens. Blue sports a whopping 20 slots for modulation goodness per patch. A total of 13 synth sources and 23 MIDI sources can modulate a dizzying 91 synth destinations.
Blue has a total of 3 sixteen-step Step Sequencers to use in conjunction with the modulation matrix. Smoothing can also be applied to the steps as needed.
Blue comes with a 32-step monophonic Sequencer to trigger notes to be played or to trigger the filter frequency. This is the perfect way to build those moving textures in your piece.
The Arpeggiator, which is new to version 1.5, offers one of the most advanced arps Iâve had the pleasure to work with. With a total of 10 different playing orders, an often missed latch mode (thank you Jon!), speed, length, slide, swing, sync, tuning, velocity, and more, this feature will leave you busy for hours.
The FX section offers a total of 16 effects to choose from in two âblocksâ. While not as comprehensive as your host (the reason why Iâd like to see individual outs for each oscillator), the common delay, chorus, phaser, flanger, distortion, wah, reverb, comb filter, and more are all present and accounted for. Only effect really âmissingâ is a compressor.
Finally, the Global parameter page controls, you guessed it, parameters that are global to the synth.
While the presets of a synth is not always a testament to how good the actual synth is, it certainly is a source of inspiration to get straight away to writing music when they are good.
Blue has a wonderful array of striking presets, and made it difficult to pick just one to get a song started. Iâd find one I particularly enjoy, start a tune, and start digging for another sound to flesh out my arrangement.
The search usually ended with another enjoyable preset that started to inspire another song, and was left with the dilemma to either keep going with the current song, or start a fresh song. While somewhat annoying, itâs one of those pleasurable annoyances that I can deal with. After all, this âproblemâ is usually not an issue with most synthesizers.
The presets are a diverse crowd. There is enough variety here for everyone to enjoy. Version 1.5 comes with a total of 40 banks of 32 presets each.
The banks are divided into 11 âDiverseâ and 29 âFocusedâ banks. While 40 x 32 equals 1280 presets, do note that the 11 diverse banks have a lot (but not complete) overlap from the focused preset selections.
The way the banks are set up, I find this to be the âbest of both worlds.â Itâs sometimes nice to go preset hunting in a sea of various sounds, as you never know what you might turn up in the middle of your next inspiration. The focused banks were great when you know you needed a bass sound, for instance, and you can just find what you need without hassle.
My main gripe with the presets is itâs so light on leads and way top-heavy on bass patches. At least the bass patches give enough variety to sort though to find a patch that cuts through your mix well. Without a doubt, Robâs preset design work shines, but could we get a few more leads, please?
As Iâve come to expect with the new array of vastly complex hybrid synthesizers, a modern computer is required to really complete any song without being forced to bounce to audio tracks. I originally started this review with my old trusty Intel 2.53GHz machine.
After about 32 measure and 4 instances of Blue, my machine would clip the CPU at 100% with lots of crackles during its heaviest moments. Finally frustrated that my PC couldnât keep up with real time writing (I hate bouncing to audio if I donât have to), I purchased and built a brand new AMD X2 3800+ machine, and upgraded from Cubase SX 2.2 to Cubase SX 3.1.1.
My jaw hit the floor as I saw my CPU meter hovering at about 20-ish% maximum in the âworstâ part of the song now. I realize that Blue did make CPU improvements from its initial release that I started my song with, as well as SX 3 improved upon multi-core CPU with its handling.
Nonetheless, I find Blue can be fairly light on the CPU, even with multiple instances on a multi-core CPU. Feel free to take a listen to the piece for yourself.
Taking a queue from Native Instrumentâs FM7, an Easy page was incorporated into the GUI. Oh, how I wish more complex plug-ins included this feature. One step further Iâd love to see is a modifiable easy section that would allow you to select the parameters youâd like to have access to in one page. Still, no complaints as it does give you the parameters you most likely would modify.
I had also held off reviewing Blue until the release of version 1.5 because I wanted to check out the new feature-sets offered in the synth. Unfortunately, on first load, my GUI came to a screeching halt. Jon was fairly quick to work things out to get the GUI back up to speed.
A big plus for the tech support, which is one thing I rarely get to test out in a review. Later, I did come to realize testing out the Camel Audio effects plug-ins that I needed to have âbus masteringâ turned on for my Matrox G-550 AGP video card. (Back two machines ago, my Matrox card would cause pops and clicks in my audio when the mouse cursor was on the second display.
With the new AMD 3800+ X2 machine, the machine no longer exhibits this behavior with that feature on, much to my embarrassment.) Even though this is my own bumblings and realizing old habits die hard, I just wanted people to know about this problem, as itâs not just isolated to Blue, and is easy to fix.
While not immediately obvious from a quick glance at the interface, Blue is a very deep, programmable synthesizer. I particularly enjoy this type of layout; complex, yet easily accessible. I especially enjoy the Easy section to make a quick and easy tweak here or there to make a preset fit your song quickly and painlessly.
While the CPU load is fairly heavy on single core machines, those of you with dual core machines will really enjoy this piece of digital mastery. The variety of presets should certainly satisfy the needs of most synthesis enthusiasts out there. Why not check it out for yourself? Or are you afraid of being a little blue?
Review brought to you by: Devon Brent.