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29 July 2015

SPECTRASONICS OMNISPHERE 2 Review | £285/$499/€399

Since launch, Omnisphere has proved to be a titan among software instruments. Back in 2008, California-based developer Spectrasonics rolled all manner of sound-generation methods into a high-quality, flexible, affordable package that rapidly assumed its place on the must-have lists of many pro-sumer and professional high-tech musicians, picking up numerous awards along the way.

There’s been a number of interim updates, but the whole-number step to version 2 has been a very long time coming. Then on April 30 this year, the latest incarnation of the cross-platform, VST/AU/AAX/RTAS sound-creation engine blew socks off far and wide, even picking up a Best of Show award at this year’s Winter NAMM. Why so?

Omnisphere 2 is not merely a step up from the original, it’s one giant leap for synth-kind, such is the wealth of sonic goodies on offer. In addition to a mind-boggling array of new synthesis methods, a host of audio manglers and some rocking performance features, this time we’ve audio import so that users can whack in their own WAVs/AIFFs at up to 192kHz/24-bit for a notionally infinite palette of sound sources.

Not that there’s a shortage of sounds already available, with more than 4,500 new patches and sources adding to the v1 library (the STEAM folder now occupies an immense 64GB disk space). Further new features include in excess of 400 new DSP waveforms for the Synth Oscillator, a new granular synthesis engine, eight new filter types, polysynth-a-like Unison Drift models, deep FM/ring-mod capabilities, extended modulation assignments… it goes on. Let’s get extra gen, and have a listen to Omnisphere 2 in action, courtesy of producer Eric Persing…

As you can see, Omnisphere retains the business-like front-end design which served well enough for the original. And while there have been many tweaks to other parts of the interface, the browser has seen the most radical makeover. It’s at the front! At least, there’s a Mini Browser on the front page, right where it should be at left, which means that the interface is a little wider, but it makes the process of tracking down the right patch way slicker than of yore.

Of course, you can still access the Patch Browser proper so as to home in on patches by category, type and genre, as well as by new categories Mood and Oscillator Type. Patches also appear to load more quickly thanks to Progressive Loading - while the old Omnisphere used to feel a little sluggardly in this respect, the newbie is as quick as you like.

While on the subject of loading patches, another pair of new features should help speed your workflow immensely. Sound Match, sitting to the right of the Attributes tab, takes a look at the patch currently loaded and displays related sounds - something already familiar to users of Toontrack EZdrummer 2 and its groove-matching facility. Then we’ve Sound Lock, offering the means to impose patch parameter attributes - like FX or the arpeggiator or filters - onto other patches to instantly create new, unique patches. Here’s a tip-style explanation, in video, from the developer…

You’ll doubtless have noticed that Spectrasonics has made a push to extend Omnisphere’s scope from more traditional synth timbres and soundtrack-style patches to the ‘very-now’ sonic mayhem of EDM. In fact, a big bunch of dance-friendly sounds is bundled in the new Spotlight EDM library and they’re pretty sharp, too.

As any dance-music producer will attest, EDM sound design evolves rapidly, so what might be the stab, pad, bass, rise or drop of the moment will be old hat in five minutes, hence there’s a frenetic race to generate new, ear-catching whiz-bangs. And Spotlight provides the chocks to help get you get going good and quick, while there’s the might of Omnisphere’s other audio-sculpting features providing further boost.

Another key highlight is the Granular algorithm, by which you can take a suitably juicy musical phrase or extended timbre and micro-slice it, whacking the sound back together in a characteristically grainy or diffuse way. While early granular synthesis engines took quite some head-scratching to drive, Omnisphere presents a straightforward bunch of transforming tools and, usefully, prefixes phrases in the library with ‘PHR’, so you can hop straight to those sounds that respond to granular re-jiggery.

Looking further at synthesis capabilities, Omnisphere 2 has in excess of 400 DSP waveforms for the Synth Oscillator, each a morphing wavetable; think about that for a moment. We’ve good old Sine, Triangle, Noise and Saw, then a whacking great library organised by Classic Waveforms, Analog Timbres and Digital Wavetables, with numerous subheadings in each. For all the variety on offer, whipping up synthetic sounds from scratch, or devising sample-based combinations, is a breeze thanks to friendly, menu-driven design.

Opportunities for envelope shaping, modulation and further filtering abound - again, selections are made via nested menus, which is an efficient way to present options. You could lose weeks tinkering with modulation assignments, Bandpass, Highpass, Lowpass and Speciality filters, plus jaw-droppingly numerous Rhymic Envelopes, and we haven’t even looked at the Arpeggiator yet.

To whit, along with note transposition, speed up/slow down facilities and new modulation capabilities, an important newbie is ‘arp pattern lock while browsing’. Like Sound Lock, it’s a simple, yet well-realised means of speeding workflow so you’re concentrating on music creation rather than battling with the instrument.

Then there are the FX - 25 new units - 16 of which can be applied per patch. All the usual suspects are there, along with some very tasty distortion stomp boxes and amplifier sims. A good many producers have woken up to the benefits of shoving a synth patch through a guitar rig, which can add useful grit and warm overtones to otherwise sterile-sounding patches. You’ve nine sims available, including takes on Fender, Vox and HiWatt classics, and they do appear lively.

And so to the ears. Omnisphere the First had quite the reputation for lush, organic sounds. Omnisphere 2 still has that depth of characterful timbre, but now totes a host of more modern, edgy sounds ready for dance-hall excursions, impactful videogame music and frenetic movie trailer soundtrackery. The new tools represent more than you’d expect from a whole-version upgrade and far from bloating, or breaking, an already excellent instrument, the developer capability has ramped Omnisphere’s capabilities to giddy heights.

Even The Orb, a dedicated iPad remote-control app enabling you to manipulate sounds on the fly, has had attention. It now features Attractor mode, which makes The Orb's cursor move like a non-linear pendulum. Not only is the remote device a boon in the studio when exploring sound-shaping options, it'll make you and your index finger look mighty impressive on stage.

If you’ve not used the original, then Omnisphere 2 should be firmly nailed near, or at the top of your must-have synth list (if it ain’t, grab a hammer). And if you already have the original, the upgrade is a no-brainer on a par with a double hemispherectomy.

There’s no demo, so you’ll just have to take the FellKlang word for it, although keep an eye on SpectrasonicsVIDEO on YouTube where are promised videos of usage tips. Compared with some sound creation tools, Omnisphere 2’s ticket may seem a little pricey, but take a look at the features and bear in mind the reputation of the original: This is one sound-creation tool you cannot afford to be without.

Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2 | £~285 / $499 / €399
Standard upgrade from v1: $249 or free if purchased after 1 Oct 2014
VIP upgrade for owners of Omnisphere, Trilian & Stylus RMX: $199
USA distribution: Ilio
UK distribution: Juno Medi, Music Matter, StudioCare, Time+Space

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