It’s funny how, after so many years of not really getting into big virtual instrument collections, I am sat here now, reviewing my second iteration of Arturia’s V Collection in less than a year! Ok, so I may have been late to the V Collection 4 game, but I’m back up to speed again and V Collection was launched just a week or so ago, and Arturia were very kind enough to furnish me with a copy to go through and review.
Before i sat down to write this, I felt it pertinent to go over my review of V Collection 4, specifically to refresh my memory about the overall conclusion I had reached on that product. In a nutshell, whilst I lauded the fact that you were getting a vast array of synthesis methods and sound generation tools for a very fair price, I singled out the following areas for criticism:
Whilst I found it impossible to criticise the variety of synths on offer, the small GUIs, and moreover the inconsistency in how a user interacted with those GUIs from instrument to instrument, were really stand-out failings of the entire package. The CPU usage may, or may not, have been down to my hardware. Since I reviewed V Collection 4, I’ve upgraded to a brand new, 27″ iMac with 32GB RAM and an Intel i5 3.4GHz processor. Pretty much everything I run now has delightfully low CPU usage, but it might be interesting to try out V Collection 5 on my previous iMac (which I still use) and see how they fare. But, as I stated in my review of V Collection 4;
“It’s these inconsistencies that undermine the cohesive expectancy of a suite of instruments. If you’re going to bundle up your gear and sell it as such, surely it makes sense to ensure that aside from their own individual characteristics, you’d get the universal UI features working the same. Doing so makes it more appealing to stick with the instruments as a sole source of sounds, because it’s just more comfortable to do so. Arturia’s French neighbours, UVI, achieve this with their libraries. All of them have their unique visual designs, but they all, to a man, feature the same, consistent approach to the GUI specifications. Switching between instruments is made that much easier when you don’t have to keep switching mental templates in order to use them.”
I also said;
“I guess it also needs saying here that the size of some of the instruments on the screen could do with addressing. Large screens with high resolutions are far more common and it is the older instruments in the collection that suffer from tiny interfaces, laden with knobs, slider and switches. Again, newer instruments seem to embrace the norm. Come on, Arturia! Address this simple stuff. We’re no longer locked in a world where 800 by 600 is the standard. We are now in a world of 4 or 5K ready displays. It can’t be that hard, can it?”
So, it was with rapturous delight and much loud applause that I opened up V Collection 5 to find that not only do all the instruments now feature a consistent, easy to use UI across the board, but all GUIs are now presented in high resolution panels with scalable sizes throughout! I wouldn’t want to claim any credit whatsoever for inspiring these changes, but it is almost as if the guys and gals at Arturia read that criticism and completely acted on it!
And that is where I will begin this review, by focusing on these significant changes.
Computer displays have gone in two distinct directions in recent years. With the advent of compact, portable notebooks that weigh as much as a Snickers bar and pack serious computing punch, screen sizes have shrunk down to 10″-12″, and we seem to like this as it closely mirrors the screen sizes of today’s most common tablets. Conversely, desktop screen sizes have shot the other way, with 19″ being considered quite small by today’s standards. I have a dual display set up for my work computer, with 24″ and 19″ monitors. The 19″ looks decidedly small on my desk, especially next to the 27″ iMac which seems distinctly average in size by today’s standards. And with more of us favouring the big screen desktops in our studios, anything that doesn’t let the user make the most of this embarrassment of screen real-estate riches stands out a mile and for all the wrong reasons. And V Collection 4 certainly did that. So I was delighted to discover that V Collection 5 had addressed this issue. But how exactly does it do it?
Well, in an ideal world, a user should simply have to click on the frame of the window and drag until a desired size is reached, stretching the window across the X & Y axis until it fitted in with the rest of what was being displayed. However, with such detailed interfaces, choc full of uniquely designed button, pots and sliders, not to mention mini displays and other such controls, I imagine this might be incredibly difficult, maybe even impossible, to do. So what Arturia have done is to offer the user a range of options to choose from, starting at 60% and going through to 200% via 10% increments up to 100% and 20% increments thereafter. The changes are instant and cover all possible options. I can’t begin to say how happy I am about this. With my eyesight progressively getting worse, and my screen resolutions getting progressively higher, the inclusion of this simple option has made a world of difference to my usage of V Collection. Whilst some of the GUIs are decidedly vertical in their design (ARP2600 V3 and Modular V3, for example), I don’t mind a bit of scrolling so long as I can easily read and interact with the controls. Once selected, the desired screen size is remembered until you change it again. Arturia claim that all the GUIs are now Retina/4K compatible, and on my non-5K Retina iMac, they do look incredibly good.
Next up, what about those inconsistencies with the GUI between instruments? Well, THEY”RE GONE!! I am overjoyed at this development in particular! Every instrument, whilst retaining their own unique and specific interfaces, is now contained within a brilliantly simple and uniform wrapper that delivers consistency, functionality and usability by the lorry load.
First up, from left to right, we have, what some might call, the “File” drop down. Contained in here are things like the Save, Import and Export options, as well as the Resize Window, Audio Settings and About options. Next, there is a small button whose icon is the ever increasingly common Library image, that of a set of book spines, the last one at a slightly jaunty angle 😉 Clicking on this brings up a fantastic patch browser. Divided into three sections, you are offered a search column, where you can search by your own words or by Types, Banks, Characteristics and Playlists. Clicking on any of these dynamically changes the results offered in the central column and clicking on any of the results instantly recalls the patch so you can play and audition it. The third column displays the patch details, such as name, type, bank, designer, characteristics and comments as well as allowing you to favourite it for later recall. I can’t begin to tell you how very useful and intuitive this search feature is!
Next up is a quick filter option. You can explore Arturia’s own top picks, as well as filter by sound type or category. Of course, you can choose ALL to see everything that is supplied out of the box. And the next option across allows you to select your patch by name. A couple of arrow buttons enable movement back and forth through the patch library. Further to the right is, if available, the view expansion button that reveals the extra, hidden programming panels. Certain instruments, like the Prophet V3, also have dedicated buttons to switch between modes, such as the 5, VS and 5VS hybrid, each panel smoothly gliding into view upon request. Then there’s a MIDI button that allows the user to assign almost every available parameter to a dedicated MIDI controller, and next to that, a dropdown menu that allows you to save and recall your MIDI controller configs.
Finally, at the bottom of the wrapper are displays to show MIDI input channel, CPU usage and the MIDI Panic button, as well as tooltips based on wherever your pointer is hovering on the screen.
This is a significant, and hugely welcome advancement on Arturia’s design of their instruments and delivers that much sought after familiarity and consistency that I have been after for ages. Each instrument remains unique but wrapped up in a consistent framework that enables quick and easy navigation. It is also worth mentioning that every single GUI has received a full on make-over from their previous incarnations, making them look even sweeter than before.
I’ve read many comments since the launch of V Collection 5 that bemoan the fact that V Collection 4 users will simply be paying for a GUI update, but it is so much more than that. What Arturia have done is redefine the way their instruments work and improved the usability of every element in the package. It is intuitive and consistent and totally works.
But of course, these GUI changes are not all that has changed in the V Collection since VC4. V Collection 5 has received some incredible additions, not to mention a few enhancements. And, it has to be said, a minor loss too. Here’s what you get for your money…
ARP 2600 V3
Oberheim SEM V2
Vox Continental V2
Matrix 12 V2
Analog Lab 2
Arturia Software Center
So what’s changed? Well, Spark has been dropped from the package. This is a bit disappointing as it kinda made V Collection a one-stop-shop that you could create an entire piece with. Sure, you can create drum sounds within some of the other V Collection tools, but Spark is actually a very neat drum machine and so its removal from VC5 is a sad one. But this is more than made up for by the additions of B-3 V, Farfisa V, Piano V, Stage 73 V and Synclavier V, the latter creating quite the stir in certain circles! More on Synclavier later.
B-3 V is a superb recreation of a Hammond, resplendent with a range of FX pedals and a convolution reverb box to deliver a huge range of classic and new Hammond tones. Naturally, all the tonewheels are adjustable and the Leslie is there in all its glory. Farfisa V recreates that distinctive tone of the classic combo organ, and will have you sounding like Clint Boon in all his Inspiral Carpets glory in no time! But don’t think it’s limited to scratchy, rasping organ tones. Oh, no. This thing can deliver some lush pads and other textures that transcend its plasticky shell.
Stage 73 V is, as its name suggests, a Rhodes emulation, delivering not only a Suitcase Rhodes, but also a Stage Rhodes too, again complete with amp and FX pedals to further enhance the tones. You can also tinker with things like damper distance, hammer hardness and pickup alignment to further customise your sound.
Piano V is a slight curveball in as much as it isn’t an electronic instrument, a first for Arturia, I believe. But they’ve done a great job of modelling a number of pianos (yes, modelled, not sampled!) and you have a choice of a number of grands and uprights to choose from, along with numerous settings to adjust tunings, mechanical noises (you all should know how important that is to me!), microphone positioning, room reverb and equalisation. Piano V is, if nothing else, VERY comprehensive.
And finally we come to Synclavier V (it’s almost like I’ve been saving myself for this one!). You should all know by know, if you are a regular reader, that I have a penchant for the classic synth and sampling behemoths of the late 70s and early 80s, particularly the Fairlight, but also machines like the Emulator, AudioFrame WaveFrame and, of course, the NED Synclavier. It is fair to say that, at the beginning of the 80s, the two big machines that defined the sound of that era were the Fairlight and the Synclavier, and people were often divided into two camps. I say “people”, but most ordinary folks couldn’t afford either of these machines, but most high-end studios were often only equipped with one or the other, given their cost, and that seemed to divide most artists into favouring the machine from Australia or the machine from New England, USA. Very few studios, and even fewer artists, owned both.
What set the two machines apart was the functionality. Surprisingly, sampling was a feature on both that had originally been considered secondary to its main function, but the Fairlight soon became the premier sampler, with its powerful synthesis technology taking a back seat. The Synclavier, on the other hand, was renowned for its incredibly powerful FM synthesis, as well as its advanced hard disk recording functionality. It also had a powerful sampler but the Fairlight had pretty much stolen the march on that front. What people found unique about the Synclavier was its FM sound generation, something that Yamaha would successfully, and more affordably, package up in the legendary DX series. Like the Fairlight, it also featured a comprehensive sequencer and soon found its way into the heart of many groundbreaking recordings. Frank Zappa recorded an entire album, 1986’s “Jazz From Hell” using his own Synclavier, which he used liberally over his albums at that time. Trevor Horn soon shunned the Fairlight in favour of the Synclavier, setting up his entire studio around one and using it to great effect on albums such as Frankie’s “Welcome To The Pleasuredome”, Propaganda’s “A Secret Wish”, Grace Jones’ “Slave To The Rhythm” and Act’s “Laughter, Tears & Rage” amongst others. Paul Hardcastle’s Vietnam themed hit “19” was almost entirely made on a Synclavier.
So, it was with some amazement and a shed load of surprise that Arturia announced Synclavier V, built in conjunction with one of the original Synclavier programmers, Cameron Jones. Jones has been keeping the Synclavier torch alight through his development of modern hardware add ons to deliver Synclavier features to modern computers, and had recently promised a VST version, as well as a browser based version. The VST version he was referring to was the Arturia collaboration and so I was delighted to get my hands on this. You may also recall that I am a big fan of UVI’s Synclavier based sample library, “The Beast” and so I was equally keen to see how the two compared.
What Jones and Arturia have done is to take the FM synthesis element of the Synclavier and focus on that, recreating every aspect of the original and enhancing it further. For example, the original had four “Partials”, which are essentially layers. Each voice comprises of one or more partials that can be individually manipulated via settings on the panel and via the replica green screen monitor that makes up the Synclavier V. But this new version triples the amount of partials to twelve, enabling far more complex patches to be created. On top of that, as well as the standard FM sine waves, Jones was now able to build in additional additive waveforms to further expand the sonic capabilities.
But the improvements don’t just lie within the sound generating capabilities of the Synclavier V, as wonderful and as numerous as they are. They have taken the interface and updated that for the 21st century, making everything a lot clearer and much more immediate. Like the Fairlight, the original Synclavier featured a lovely monochrome, green on black screen, and that screen has been retained in Synclavier V, albeit in a much improved form. A simple click reveals the “monitor” which exposes all the partials which can be graphically edited, key dynamics settings, the rather brilliant and consuming Time Slice page, the Partials mixer and a modulation matrix page, as well as an FX page and a global settings page. To fully explain the functionality of these pages would take some time, but thankfully, the wonderful Glen Darcey at Arturia has put together a tutorial video…
It’s when you’re using this replica interface that Arturia’s welcome fix of the GUI size really becomes apparent. There is no way this would’ve worked on this smaller GUIs. It’s an utter delight to use and reminiscent of the UVI approach to their GUIs. Maybe it’s a French thing? 😉 What is also nice about the Synclavier interface is the redesign of the keyboard panel. The original hardware featured rows and rows of illuminated buttons, the very same buttons used in the B-52 bomber, and one large, silver rotary controller to the left. To access a function, you needed to select the right button or buttons and then use the single rotary controller to adjust the values. On Synclavier V, whilst there are still replicas of the buttons, there are many more smaller silver knobs, allowing for a more direct and immediate approach to tweaking the settings. As with many Arturia interfaces, there is an extra panel that can be exposed or hidden at the click of a button. This extra panel tends to give direct access to Partial settings, whereas the main panel is more centred on global and performance settings.
Amongst the presets are many classic and factory sounds, as well as some superb recreations of “signature” Synclavier FM sounds. There is plenty here to inspire and many that can easily form the foundation for your own noodling.
So what of the package overall?
Well, as with V Collection 4, it is my opinion that this is a superb collection of stunning, powerful, versatile and unique instruments that will cover as many bases as most modern musicians require. The five new additions to the collection more than make up for the omission of Spark. In fact, it wasn’t that long before I didn’t miss it that much. With the addition of Piano V, VC5 now covers mechanical, electro-mechanical, subtractive, virtual analog, digital, FM, additive and modular sound generation and it does so with aplomb. But we’ve never doubted Arturia’s value for money when it comes to the quality and quantity of its V Collections. What sets the fifth iteration apart is the fact that they have finally addressed its biggest drawback and given us the interfaces these great synths deserve. Adaptable, clear, faithful and consistent, they free the user from the stresses and struggles of fiddly mouse manoeuvres and make for a far more satisfying and rewarding user experience. One that is both practical as it is beautiful. It works as good as it looks and never disappoints. In my opinion, these improvements are worth the price of the upgrade alone. That you get five new instruments in the bargain, and one of those being one of the most coveted synth giants of the last 40 years, is nothing short of embarrassingly generous! This is completed with a superb new version of the Analog Lab that delivers quick and easy access to all the patches and presets in an efficient, performance-friendly interface.
Arturia’s download, installation and authorisation system is slick and simple too, meaning you will be up and running in no time, with the ability to install and activate on up to five unique devices. The update process, of which there have been a few since launch is completely painless and very simple.
Overall, it is hard to find any fault with this package. You may find that one or two of the devices aren’t to your taste, but then, for the price, if ten of them weren’t to your taste, you’d still not have overpaid for the ones that you DO like! The killer feature for me is the GUI and how Arturia have addressed that issue for me in a slick, intuitive manner. Up to v4, I was somewhat reluctant to break out the Arturia stuff because that GUI annoyed me, but now that’s gone, they’re pretty much my first or second stop when looking for a sound. You won’t find a more capable and comprehensive suite of soft synths on the market today.