I think it’s fair to say that, of all the digital, sampling behemoths of the late 70s and early 80s, the New England Digital Synclavier was probably the biggest, most expensive, most desirable of all. Why? Well, it was, arguably, far superior sonically than its competitors and had a far higher level of specification in many ways. That’s not to take anything away from the mighty Fairlight, that, whilst still costing two arms and two legs, did much the same but for somewhat less.
I won’t get into any comparison between the two because each has their respective following and I don’t fancy a flame war in the comments section! 😉 But, suffice to say, the Synclavier holds an important place in music technology history, just like the Fairlight, and is revered and desired in equal measure.
So, what exactly was the Synclavier? Well, it was a digital workstation that was computer based, using its own operating system (ABLE) and had three iterations, namely the I, II & III as well as the 3200, 6400, 9600 and Tapeless Studio versions. However, each iteration could be configured in a myriad ways, with different functions and boards, capable of different things. This meant that very few Synclaviers were the same, making the used marketplace a bit of a minefield, because you can never be quite sure of what you’re getting.
In terms of hardware, it came with a musical keyboard, mainframe and computer terminal. Other components could be added to the rack unit that the Synclavier normally came housed in. What set it apart from the Fairlight was the sheer power that this beast had. Aside from its sampling capability, it had additive and FM synthesis engines, 32MB of RAM as standard which could be expanded to a (then) whopping 768MB, an audio recorder and sequencer capable of recording audio on to hard disk at 100MHz and up to 200 tracks, music notation printing, 32 outputs and 64 voice polyphony. All of this was dependent on what boards and features you had fitted and the version of the OS that you were running, but back in 1984, when the third iteration came out, this was probably the most advanced computer based music production device ever made. It was also the most expensive. Which, like the Fairlight, made it the plaything of the elite. Trevor Horn had one, favouring it over the Fairlight pretty quickly. It was used extensively in movie post production and can be heard on numerous records of the day. Artists that were known for using it included Frank Zappa (who made entire albums on it), Depeche Mode, Geoff Downes, Stevie Wonder (natch), Tony Banks of Genesis and of course anything that came out of ZTT in the 80s! It was so advanced that it was even used by NASA and other government agencies in research and development. It also served in the US Navy! This was a truly versatile and awesome machine.
Unlike the Fairlight, which became well known for its sampling capabilities, the Synclavier was known sonically for its FM synthesis more than anything, but it was viewed as an exclusive production tool that could have massive compositions built on it with impeccable audio fidelity. But, just like the Fairlight, it was prohibitively expensive and once technology began to shrink in both size and cost, the Synclavier was quickly surpassed and NED ceased to be in 1993. However, via DEMAS, enthusiasts that include ex-employees, fans & former customers have kept not only the name but the technology alive by constantly updating software that runs on a Mac to control the Synclavier hardware. Of course, this means you have to have the expensive parts of a Synclavier to start with, but it keeps the system alive. You can find more out about the Synclavier at 500sound.com.
But, for musicians on a real world budget, like me, if you wanted the sounds of the Synclavier, you had to dig around various “retro sampler” type libraries to get your hands on a few, select sounds. Not at all dissimilar to what we used to have to do with Fairlight sounds. But, as chronicled on this blog many times, the Fairlight has been more than well catered for in recent years. And now, finally, we have something to give us a Synclavier audio experience in UVI‘s new library, The Beast.
The Beast is the latest chapter in UVI’s range of sample libraries based on these legendary sampling synths of the late 70s and early 80s. Quite why it’s called “The Beast”, I’m not sure. One can only assume that it is a reference to the size, cost and complexity of the Synclavier. And like the other libraries that UVI has produced in homage to these giants of music technology, this is not an official library, there is no affiliation with NED and the Synclavier is only mentioned in the disclaimers 😉
The instrument is divided into three distinct sections. Two of them focus on chromatic sounds and the other focuses on rhythm patterns. FMII, has the look and feel of the front panel of the original Synclavier keyboard controller, with it’s wood panelling and red illuminated buttons (The buttons on the original Synclavier were the same as those used on the B52 bomber!) on a black, brushed aluminium surface. And, slap bang on the left, is the distinctive silver rotary controller. On the Synclavier, this was a data entry wheel, but here on the Beast, it has been given a new task, called the FMizer. Essentially, this control increases or decreases the FM nature of the patches. An interesting feature that gives you something extra to tinker with. If you’ve read or watched any of my other UVI reviews, you will know that they follow a similar pattern when it comes to sound shaping controls. The Beast is no different except UVI have utilised the design ethic of the original instrument. But where the original didn’t have any other rotary encoders, UVI have made some of the red “buttons” into rotary controls that glow brighter red the higher you turn them. It’s a clever approach that satisfies both the visual and practical aspects.
FMII claims to integrate true FM and additive synthesis although there is no immediate control over these functions other than the FMizer knob which gives you control over the harmonicity of the FM oscillator. This is, at its heart, a sample based instrument so don’t expect any kind of deep FM or additive sound design control. One thing I did find myself getting lost in was the SparkVerb™ effect that comes with the UVI Workstation and MachFive 3. This reverb effect was introduced earlier this year, but I only started to explore its capabilities in The Beast. And my word, does it do some lovely things to your sounds! I strongly recommend you have a play around with this. If you download the free UVI Workstation and the free sound packs too, you can see for yourself what it can do for zero £/$/€ down 😉
The range of presets for the FMII is pretty impressive, with many familiar sounds, all of which bear the hallmarks of FM synthesis with its metallic and bell like qualities, but there are some lovely, rich sounds here, coupled with some wild and crazy screaming affairs. Plenty to satisfy a wide range of tastes. And yes, that sound used at the beginning of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” is there 😉
Next up is Terminal. The design of this segment is based on the Mk.II’s command Terminal unit and contains a lot of the sample based sounds. Again, divided up into the usual categories, there are some great sounds in here. It’s when you start digging about in here that you understand how many records of the era featured the sounds of the Synclavier. Once more, the usual UVI controls are all present, looking identical to the “green on black” interpretation of the Fairlight in their DarkLight package. There are a lot of sounds to keep you occupied here, all of which sound amazing. Of course, this is no surprise given UVI’s typically impeccable standards of sampling.
The final section is called Beast Box and is a rhythm box in the tried and tested UVI style. Using the visual cues of the keyboard controller again, this unit follows the UVI tradition of having a set of step sequencers that you can assign a range of sounds to. Each of the sequencers, of which Beast Box has 12, has its own set of controls covering accent, filter, pan, tune, volume, drive, decay, delay & reverb. Due to the limitations of the front panel, you have to “flick” a virtual switch to access all of the sequencers, with there being four on each page. Using the massive amount of drum and percussion sounds, you can build up some cracking drum loops or use one of the huge amount of presets provided. And given that you can control the sound shaping parameters per voice, it can make for a very expressive instrument. You can trigger the loop from the keyboard or, if you prefer to make your patterns outside of the instrument, say in your sequencer, all samples are assigned across the keyboard between B1 and C#2.
All in all, this is another hit from UVI. Great sounds, both in range and quality, coupled with an impressively scripted UI and a bunch of neat and clever tricks to shape the sounds means you get a lot for your money. There really isn’t any other decent Synclavier library out there, certainly not with the same degree of control as you find here. Sure, there are some sample CDs but these are unwieldy and require work to get them into anything useable.
As ever, what you are NOT getting here is a replication of a Synclavier in a VSTi. This is a sample library. nothing more. A very good sample library with a great selection of sonic manipulation, but it’s not a Synclavier in a VST wrapper. What it is though, is the best Synclavier based instrument currently out there. Moreover, unlike what is already out there, you don’t need to buy an expensive sampler/rompler to play it. This library, as with all UVI libraries, works with the free UVI Workstation. It also works with MachFive 3 and for the first time, I have reviewed this library on that platform. It’s been a great experience and I hope to do a review of MachFive 3 very soon.
Now for the nitty gritty. The Beast is available direct from UVI for £199. It works with either the UVI Workstation, which makes it useable as a VST/AU/RTAS/MAS plugin, or MOTU’s MachFive 3 sampler. It’s available as a 4GB download or on DVD and is out now! As ever, an iLok is required.
Here’s the video review…
Download the manual HERE