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Bring in the Noise
by Thad Brown
7/11/98

VIBRA 9000 and VIBRA 7000 Software synth.

-What it is and what it does-

The digital audio revolution has brought with it both an inevitable knee jerk analog backlash, and a slightly healthier tendency toward respect for what good analog gear can do for sound. Recently this trend has shown up in that previously unabashedly digital world of synthesizers. European trip hop, techno, and ambient, along with Stateside hip hop and folks like Beck have helped bring the analog fetish to the synth world. Guitar players have long known that sometimes just the right guitar tone can make a tune, and synth players are finding that same kind of "killer tone" can be had from the right (usually analog) synth. The first time I noticed just how much a really great analog synth sound could make a tune was when I heard "The Chonic" by Dr. Dre. Nearly every song had the unmistakable whistling Mini Moog, and it pretty much always sounded great, and helped make that record sound new, unique and killer.

The Koblo Vibra package is one of the newest attempts to get this kind of sound and feel from a computer. Various other companies are working in the same waters, but it is still a fairly wide open field. The Vibra 9000 is a true stereo software synth with two oscilators, three envelopes, six selectable filters, two LFOs, an extensive Modulation matrix and an arpegiator. You can save and load presets on the fly, export your sonic madness to a Sound Designer II file to load into your sampler or multi track app, and control pretty much everything via MIDI if you wish. The Vibra 7000 (included) is exactly the same thing, but it's mono, so you can do your wacky panning instead of having a stereo field, and it takes only half the DSP horsepower. Both synths have every parameter on one screen, and you can twist and turn anything on the screen via the mouse or MIDI and get immediate feedback, just like an old analog monster. You can get more info at www.koblo.com.

Click for 116k Full Size Version
Vibra Screen Shot

-The test system and ratings scale-

My audio machine is a soon-to-be-replaced Power Computing Powerbase running system 8.0, with only 80 MB of RAM, the stock 200Mhz 603e card, a Seagate Barracuda, and an ATI Xclaim VR card to take some load off of the CPU. My primary sequencing/recording environment is Cubase, working with a minimal MIDI setup of a master controller, a Roland U-220, and an Alesis Nanosynth. Routing and monitoring is via the ubiquitous Mackie, with a Yamaha power amp and Tannoy PBM 6.5II monitors. I prefer single malts to blends but I'm not religious about it or anything, there's nothing wrong with a nice tumbler of Johnny Walker Red. For all reviews on this site I will use the internal analog to digital and digital to analog converters on whatever computer I am using, unless otherwise noted. For better or worse, that's what most of my readers will use so I will as well.

Basically, my rig is a lot weaker than what many xlr8 readers use. [He's just upgraded to a Umax S900 and PF 220 G3 running 300+ Mhz-Mike]

I decided to use a weighted ratings system with six categories, where the total points possible are an easy to value 100. They are

1. Installation and configuration. 10 points

2. Audio features and quality. What can it do and does it sound good while doing it. 30 points.

3. GUI. I sometimes spend hours in a row for days in a row working with the same app. Will the interface be frustrating, tiring, or unintuitve after all those hours? 20 points.

4. Compatibility. Will the app integrate with other appplications and support files from other apps and platforms. 10 points.

5. Documentation. 10 points

6. Overall value. I have no choice but to spend my audio dollars carefully, is this app worth it? 20 points.

INSTALLATION AND CONFIGURATION

The Vibra 9000 and Vibra 7000 synths run on top of an audio programming language called Tokyo, and in fact when they are running, the app menu reads "Tokyo" and not "Vibra." According to koblo, the Vibra is actually a Tokyo document, though it works like an application, presumably that is why there are not one but two authorization floppies that have to be inserted into the floppy drive during installation. The Vibra system requirements are the first I have seen that demand you use system 8, and in fact already list 8.1 as preferable.

Once installed, the app would not boot. I consulted some of the included e-documentation to find that due to the way the copy protection works, a slew of Open Transport extensions need to be loaded. With those extensions added, my mac would no longer boot. A dozen reboots later, it turns out "Serial built-in" and "Open Transport Serial Arbitrator" also need to be active, presumably to get the other Open Transport extensions to run. As a long time and relentless proponent of running the cleanest system possible, I don't like to be forced to run twelve networking extensions so I can use an audio app. Word to koblo, your code seems clean, none of this junk is for the audio end of the app, do a little work on your copy protection when you get a chance.

Once that bit of unpleasantness was over, things were smooth sailing. OMS is included to allow the Vibra to talk to other OMS compatible software and hardware, and the configuration went VERY easily- not something that can always be said for OMS setups. Cubase and the Vibra were conversing happily in about 15 minutes. Non-OMS configuration was even easier, just select a receive MIDI channel and off you go. The Modulators all responded to mod wheel data right away, and we all had a real good time.

Installation and configuration were smooth, but all those extensions cost me a lot of time and hassle. 6 points out of 10.

AUDIO FEATURES AND QUALITY

What the Vibra is designed to do can be summed up in three words, Retro, Retro, and Retro. It's not "full featured" in the generally accepted sense of that word, it doesn't do a lot of different kinds of synthesis, in fact it only does one. It's monophonic, or in other words, it only plays one note at a time, though there is an arpeggiator, and that one note can be in stereo. In my experience, though, the Vibra sets the standard for what it DOES do.

The manual provides a very useful flow chart for how the synth routes MIDI data. In addition to the plain old note on message going to the pair of oscillators and the three envelopes, every knob on the synth can be controlled with MIDI controllers mapped to the proper number, giving the synth a very interactive/reactive feel, much like the old synths it is trying to emulate. There is not the place to discuss analog style synthesis, but the basics are as follows. In the good old days, huge machines would burp and burble with weird sounds that were supposed to sound like "real" instruments. The idea was to allow control of some variables in the sound production and make the thing produce a sound like an instrument. In doing so, users were given control of what kind of waveform the oscillator (or oscillators) would put out, what the envelope of the sound would be, and what it's tonal characteristics would be, and sometimes other things as well. These two variables of envelope and tone need some explanation, because they are really the heart of this kind of synthesis. What synthesists call the envelope of a sound is it's dynamic structure, how fast it reaches its loudest point and then how long it sustains and decays away. Think of it this way, if you look at a waveform of a drum and a violin playing a note they will be very different, the envelope controls this dynamic structure. The Vibra has three envelopes which usually control amplitude (volume) of the note and cutoff, though of course then can control other things as well. On the old synths, the tonal characteristic of the sound was controlled by analog filters, which could boost, cut or otherwise manipulate user defineable frequencies in a sound. Think of them as seriosly tweaked and huge sounding versions of the bass and treble controls on your stereo. These analog filters contained much of what is now sought in those older synths, the big fat "alive" sound. I would call it "mojo." The Vibra lets you choose from one of six filters, with most having six controllable parameters, and they sound fantastic, with as much mojo as I have heard from a digital synth.

Most importantly, though, the Vibra is just flat out fun to use and serves up amazingly authentic old synth noise. Think of the sound that the mad scientist makes in the sixties sci-fi flick when he starts up his new time travel weapon. You'll make six of those sounds within an hour of starting the Vibra. How about the huge distorted, comb filtered sounds on the latest brit big beat mix? They are in here as well. Strange alien bleeps and burps? Atmospheric bass rumbles a la a nearby power station or the Starship Enteprise? Those sounds will all come out of the Vibra with startling ease just by spinning a few knobs and seeing what they do. Not only will they come out of the Vibra easily, but it's so fun that the most likely reason you will STOP making Martian cocktail lounge big band noises is your neighbors complaining.

The sound quality throughout the program is excellent, really out of sight. In fact, it shames every other virtual analog synth I have heard. The filters in particular sound amazing, you would swear somone came in overnight while you were sleeping and stuck a bunch of caps and resistors in your mac. The Vibra also does not babysit your soundmaking, you can do things quite easiliy that are "undesirable." For instance, it is very easy to set the filters so that they filter out everything and the synth makes no noise at all until you turn off the filter or change their settings. Like the real old thing, you can do lots of stuff "wrong" if you wish.

The far right of the screen is a mighty Modulation matrix, allowing you to map control of nearly everything on the synth to either the synth's own programmable controllers or the standard MIDI controls like mod wheel, aftertouch and so on. All of these modulation possibilites make the basic sounds of the synth sound even more alive.

The automated arpeggiator is the icing on the already quite rich cake. With presets available for 16 different patterns and amounts of slide between notes, and control over octave transposition and the order notes are played. If you want a real good Vibrarific time, hold down about eight notes that are somewhat related to each other with the arpeggiator set to do two or three octaves of transposition. It'll shake your booty I assure you.

Finally, when you get something you really like, push the "record" button and the Vibra will ask for a name and length of recording, and spit out a 16 bit, 44.1 file on your hard drive. This can be loaded into your favorite sampler, multitrack, or editor. Very cool.

The only complaints I have is that I would like even more filter options. If they make these sound so good, why not more? Also, it would be better to have some control over the word length of the files that are generated. Still, these are small complaints. The Vibra gets a whoppping 27 out of 30 points for sound and features

THE GUI

As good as the Vibra sounds, it looks and feels better. Koblo very wisely made the entire synth available from one screen, letting the player play the keys and manipulate parameters while seeing the entire synthesis picture. The screen itself is either green anodized aluminum or green painted wood, depending on how old you think the synth is. The color scheme is very easy on the eyes, though it may not be "pretty." Presets can be loaded and saved on the fly, just hit Command-T and you get a prompt for a name. Presets live in a folder and can be exchanged, added and downloaded at will.

The knobs are "grabbed" by clicking on them and then holding down the mouse button while moving vertically, not in a circular motion. This is the first time I have used an audio app where the knobs behaved this way and it is VASTLY preferrable to the usual circular motion on other apps. It also lets the user manipulate the knobs without looking at the screen. Sometimes it is necessary to grab a knob twice because the screen room runs out, but it is so much better than spinnning around in totally inaccurate circles that I hope other developers start to design their own knobs this way.

Setting up sounds is incredibly simple. When you boot the VIbra it loads a great sounding, arpeggiated, percolating patch. The front panel includes a "trigger" button which sends a MIDI note to the input without you having to do a thing. Punch that button, grab a knob and go to town.

The Vibra is so easy and intuitive to use that it is an excellent teaching aid for how analog synthesis works. Play with it for a while and envelope, LFO, and cutoff begin to make lots of sense.

Small complaints? The Vibra is so interactive that saving presets can slow things down, it would be great to have a "quick capture" option where you could store ten presets and name them later. The ability to sort the presets into sub-menus instead of having them all in a row would also be nice. Still, these are minor complaints considering how easy and fun the Vibra is to play. 19 out of 20 points, and mostly because I am a tough grader.

COMPATIBILITY

As mentioned previously, the Vibra installed under OMS with no problem at all. All I had to do was select the IAC bus in the OMS setup app, add the Vibra, and Cubase was happily sending data to the green synth. Of course I had to use the Sound Manager driver for Cubase, which is much lower performing than the ASIO driver, but that is an unfortunate fact of life whenever two or more audio apps are used simultaneously on a mac. I guess I should be happy this works so well, since Windoze Yoozers only recently got similar capability.

The ease of integration into a MIDI rig would tempt me to try to use the Vibra live, if the MacOS were a little more stable with audio apps. Particularly with OMS and other audio things going on, there were occasional crashes, and I would hate to accidentally make the mac boot noise in the middle of a tune because my Powerbook crashed, though I guess that could be cool. If the Vibra could export .wav files and exported at 24 bit with selectable sample rates, it would get a perfect 10, but for those (generally unimportant) ommissions I knock off a point for 9 out of 10.

DOCUMENTATION

It has become acceptable among audio reviewers to complain about manuals in non-standard or poorly translated english. In some cases, reviews include generous mocking of the manual that someone probably translated into english for free. I find this totally repulsive and chauvinistic, particularly since I have lived abroad and butchered numerous venerable and beautiful central European languages, often after consuming numerous venerable central European beverages. It's not easy folks, let me tell ya. The Vibra manual was obviously written by someone for whom english is not the first language. However, it is very informative and useful. It includes a section on OMS setup, a description of each knob and setting on the synth, and most importantly a few jokes. All modern MIDI devices have a "panic" button which turn off all MIDI notes and mute audio playback when something has gone terribly wrong and the machine is about to break the monitors. The manual description under PANIC is "Don't Panic! We do it for you." Anyone who reads my column will know how important I think it is to have a sense of humor. It even has a bunch of graphs explaining how the filters and other parameters work.

The Vibra manual might not get by your high school English teacher, but it packs an astonishing amount of important information into about 25 pages. Would that every native English speaking technical writer did such a good job. 10 out of 10.

VALUE

Now we come to the tough part. How is value defined for an audio app? An old anolog synth that may or may not work next week, has no presets, and (literally) can sound lousy on humid days can cost thousands and thousands of dollars. The Vibra retails for $350. Then again, a very decent Alesis or Yamaha synth module that plays back 32 or 64 notes at a time from 16 different instruments can be had for less. What is value in this case?

If you write electronic music or techno, go buy it, right now. It will change your life. If you do sound design, sound effects, or need to add atmospheric effects to multimedia or video, give it a very serious listen. Regular readers know how much I admire the sound design and soundtrack work by Mark Snow and the X-Files sound team--there are LOTS of great X-Files type sounds waiting in the Vibra. If you are looking to add sounds to R&B and hip hop tunes, the Vibra may still be very useful, depending on your tastes, it's certainly worth a look. Same goes for non-electro-phobic rockers. If you are looking to practice your classical piano or run Band in a Box apps, this is clearly not the thing for you, unless you want to hear how Lizst would sound when played by Romulans.

I don't like giving a numerical score for this, but that's my job.17 out of 20, but with the above caveats

SUMMARY

The Vibra package quite simply raises the bar a few notches for everyone else. It sounds as good or better than anything similar that I have heard, and it's a blast to use. Koblo is now working on a whole group of products based on the language underlying the Vibra, and if they are as good as this, the new kid on the block may be in charge of it soon. I personally would dedicate my Powerbase to working as a sampler if Koblo can get the latency down far enough. Their web site also claims they are working on integrating the Vibra with Cubase more closely, which I certainly think is a fine idea.

The only things keeping the Vibra from an even higher score than a very impressive 88 are a few rough edges in the installation department and it's somewhat specialized nature. I sent a copy of this review to the koblo crew in case they wanted to respond to anything,and they sent me a new module to make the knob grabbing even easier, if that's they way the treat customers, it's a good sign as well. If you are fishing anywhere near the waters where the Vibra lives, though, it is a no brainer. It will do the classic synth things so well it'll rock your world. Things like the Vibra are what makes being an computer musician right now REALLY cool.

Send Thad Feedback or new links at: xlr8youraudio@yahoo.com


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