Spectrasonics Omnisphere 1.5Review by: Tony Grund
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Omnisphere is no exception to this trend. Through a hefty palette of sampled sounds and a killer real-time synth engine, this plug-in satisfies keyboard players in virtually every sonic regard. It's also friendly to use, and comes with numerous presets that provide a good starting point for creativity.
Omnisphere is an eight-part, multitimbral high resolution sample player with real-time hybrid synthesis that includes roughly 48 GB of samples, tons of effects, and plenty of modulation parameters to really make the patches come alive.
Each MIDI channel can play an instrument, and each instrument can be made up of one or two sounds (called Layers) which can be mixed together in real time to create an organic, flowing soundscape. These layers can be constructed from samples (the bread and butter of Omnisphere) or real-time generated synth waveforms. This means that, yes, an Omnisphere patch can be entirely soft-synth comprised, with no samples used at all. But of course, doing so would mean completely bypassing one huge strength of the soft-synth. To be sure, you can also use both the real-time synthesis AND the samples simultaneously!
There are several windows in Omnisphere: Main, Edit, FX, and ARP. The Main window presents a general overview of everything in the particular patch you're editing, along with some cool tricks (like ORB and Visualizer). There is also an Info section here, and, for editing the basics of a patch, the Controls section. This last area enables you to change the scale of the patch, the velocity curve, the mix between the two layers, the portamento, and the main filter.
The Edit window is where you perform the main editing of the sounds. As you'll spend most of your time here, this section will receive the most attention throughout this review. There is also an FX window, which we'll cover in more detail later, as well as an Arp window, which holds the very formidable and complete Omnisphere arpeggiator.
There are two filters for each part, with the same 24 types being selectable for each: thirteen Low Pass filters, four High Pass filters, three Band Pass filters, and four miscellaneous filters. The two filters can be run in parallel or series with each other, and a mix fader allows selection between the two.
Aside from the filters, there are other sound editing tools built right into the main interface that are separate from the effects (which we'll get to in a minute, be patient). These are in the form of more modern or experimental sound tweaks such as FM synthesis, ring modulation, Wave Shaper, Harmonia, Unison, and Granular. As you can see, some of the above are more experimental (or proprietary) than others, and some are quite modern. Granular is only available when you're using a sample as the sound source, but the others can be used on any sound.
Effects have presets for each individual effect, as well as for the rack as a whole. These are numerous and useful, and a good starting place for trying new sounds. If you're looking for something new, but are not exactly sure what that something is, just scroll through the presets until you find something nice, then tweak from there. The setup here allows an easy way to do that from both the macro (full effect rack) and micro (individual effects) levels.
A nice additional feature within Omnisphere is its powerful arpeggiator. This goes well beyond the basic Octave Up/Down of traditional arpeggiators. Although it doesn't change pitch (as that is supplied by the musician), it does have a complex velocity programmer that is 32 steps long. As with everything else in Omnisphere, there are a large number of presets to get you going. One really cool feature of the arpeggiator is that it can use external MIDI files to lock the groove to. If you own StylusRMX, these files can also be used to create a grid that controls the arpeggiator in Omnisphere. This is a very cool trick that can lead to some cool new grooves. Each of the eight parts in a multi setup can have its own arpeggiator, leading to highly complex grooves at just the push of a key.
In Multi mode, Omnisphere acts like a powerful combi-synth with layers that can be played simultaneously or independently of one another. In this mode, you have eight parts, with each part having its own effects and filters. With a maximum of twelve effects per part (four effects per layer, plus four common effects), we’re talking about as many as 96 different simultaneous effects! But even that isn’t enough for the sound design gurus at Spectrasonics!
When using Multis in Omnisphere, they've also given users the opportunity to add four more Aux effects racks (yes, with four effects in each rack), plus a Master effects rack for the final output of the whole synth. Add these effects to the 96 individual part effects, and you get a whopping 116 effects in use at once (potentially). Will you ever use this many effects? Well, we probably won't, but it's interesting to know that this kind of potential power exists.
All in all, there is so much going on in Omnisphere feature-wise that it is reasonable to assume it will take a while before you get bored with this thing — we can pretty much guarantee that. If you do find yourself getting bored with it, though, you probably haven't explored everything there is to offer. In that case, please email us your license key and move on.
Finding patches in Omnisphere is easy — just open up the patch browser and select a genre, style of instrument, and type of sound you want. As you select from each category, the instruments to choose from are narrowed down. You can select an instrument at any time, and use as many or as few patch parameters as you like.
Once you've found the perfect patch, editing is easy if you have any previous experience tweaking sounds in a synthesizer. For the most part, parameters are laid out well and are quick to access. Filters, Envelopes and LFOs are all right there in the main Edit window. The main parts of each of these are front and center, with deeper edits being accessible through a little plus sign on the top right of each area. This plus sign opens up another window (Zoom) that allows access to other edit options. For example, the Filter Zoom window allows access to both filters for each part, the Modulation Zoom window allows access to the modulation routings, and so on.
Effects are just as easy to tweak. These are accessed through the FX tab at the top of the edit area. The effects look like a rack, and are easy to switch out and change presets within. Our only complaint with the way the effects presets are implemented is that there is no way too scroll through the presets. To select a new preset, you have to pull down the drop-down menu, a real drag.
One more word about presets in Omnisphere: they are everywhere. LFOs, Filters and Envelopes: these all have presets that can be used to spark creativity. And of course setting these presets is just as easy as selecting the appropriate one in the appropriate place.
The filters are easy to tweak through the Zoom window. A quick word about using the filter section: Each of the two filters can be set independently of the other, but there are master cutoff and resonance knobs to control the two together. This means that the two filters really function as one, which is great for complex sound design.
The sound from Omnisphere is nothing short of amazing. The folks at Spectrasonics went above and beyond with their samples, recording everything that they know you want to hear, plus things you didn't even know you wanted. But the company went a step further, and took the time to create amazing patches with those samples. These patches really show off the sound design capabilities of the team behind the synth and also give you, the user, a great idea of what you can do with it. If sound design is something you want to do, this is easily the synth for you!
On the flip side, if all you're interested in is picking out a patch and playing it, then this is also a great match, as there is sure to be something inspirational to be found within the thousands of patches provided.
Going into all of the sounds in detail would take up way too much time, so we won't even try, but there are instruments here from all categories. A lot of people (ourselves included) tend to think about Omnisphere as an atmospheric, soundscape synth, but there is enough source material here, along with a powerful synth engine, to create much more than just atmospheres and textures. Omnisphere can be used to make nasty and obnoxious leads just as easily as it can turn out dreamy pads and eerie drones.
A lot of the filters cover very similar territory as you can see from reading through the list above in the Features section, but these prove to have very different sounds in practice. There are definite differences between all the styles of Low Pass filters, which range from slight to drastic. To really get a feel for these changes, we applied different filters to a basic saw-tooth synth waveform and went from there. With this basic setup, you can really get a feel for what each filter does, and take it from us — it's pretty impressive! Spectrasonics have done a great job creating really rich filters in Omnisphere. What does this mean for you? Well, it means that Omnisphere can not only be used for creating atmospheric sounds, but can also be used to create leads and basses that really bite and cut through a mix.
The synthesis effects area can provide for a lot of good, sonic, fun times. For the most part, these will be pretty straightforward for anyone who has used a synth in the last thirty years. But there are a couple of cool tricks in here, especially in the furthest tab to the right (MULT): Harmonia, Unison and Granular live here. Harmonia is a cool pitch shifter-type effect that adds nice depth to the sound. If your bag is making dance tracks, we recommend trying out the Unison effect, as that is pretty much a recipe for insta-phat. If you're more of the soundscape design type, then you'll want to head right over to the Granular tab and give that a go, because that's what all good sound designers should be using: granular effects.As we stated above, with 116 potential effects at your fingertips, the possibility for obnoxious sound design runs deep with Omnisphere. Try to restrain yourself, because less is often more. But rest easy knowing that you can wreak havoc and bust out the big guns if you really need to.
Documentation and Product Support
Omnisphere's manual is a combination of host-based HTML and web-based parts. This means that it opens in your web browser, but you don't need to be connected to the Internet to read it. The cool part is that there are links to videos within the code, so if you are connected to the Internet, you gain access to great tutorial videos for the various sections. The upside of all of this is a cool layer of interactivity that we haven't seen in too many manuals. The downside is you have to be connected to the Internet to use most of the functionality. Also, Spectrasonics didn't really put much effort into making the manual look nice. It's a very bland presentation, but it does get the job done.Plus, if you're into killing trees, they did put a handy Print button right at the top of each section, so you can more easily satiate your inner wood-nymph genocidal maniac. No, we’re not bitter.
At $499.99 with slight discounts from online retailers, Omnisphere doesn’t come cheap, but it's money well spent if you need to stay competitive in the movie and television music production world.
When you shell out the cash for this behemoth, what you're paying for is really three things: painstakingly sampled sounds, hours and hours of expert sound design with those sounds, and the ability to design your own sounds with these tools. In a keyboard workstation, this power would easily set you back a few thousand dollars.
If you're really hip and up on things, you may have noticed that we didn't cover the ORB, or the iPad's OmniTR app for controlling Omnisphere. You're so clever and observant that you deserve a cookie. Unfortunately we can't send you a cookie through your computer — not the kind you eat, anyway, but what we can do is provide a link to our review of OmniTR. Maybe that will keep you happy until your cookie arrives in the mail.
Some of the features we covered in this review were only just added in the relatively recent version 1.5 upgrade, which is free to registered users. If, for some reason you're reading this and haven't upgraded your Omnisphere to version 1.5, stop reading this review right now and go upgrade. We'll even help you along by ending the review now, so you can get the update already.
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