Review of Orion, by Synapse Audio

In the DAW world everyone knows who the big boys are — Sonar, Cubase, Pro Tools, Logic,

Mark of the Unicorn, and Samplitude. These come with big boy price tags. Are they needed in a project studio setting when there are a number of lower cost alternative host solutions available?

Orion is, admittedly, a lesser known host platform, but it is still a good DAW in several studio situations if you work primarily with VSTi or DXi instruments. It comes with a number of instruments (or "generators") and effects, including a convolution reverb. The generators, which include Toxic II and III (FM synthesizers), Tomcat (a drum synthesizer), Sampler (a multi-sample player with groove slicing capability), Ultran and Wasp (wave-based synthesizers), a drum rack, mono bass synthesizer and others are, if a bit older in the VST world, great sounding instruments.

orion_screenshot_350Orion is a simple straightforward host designed with a paradigm of constructing patterns in mind. In some ways, this resembles the tracker philosophy but is more of a hybrid between the ways trackers work and some of the pattern-based functionality in Reason. Each inserted generator comes with a set of empty pattern banks. When used in "Path" mode, users write patterns into the pattern slots. The patterns are adjustable and can be subdivided in traditional ways (representing note duration). The editor window is a breeze. Click to add, right click to remove. There's even a really cool feature that allows you to turn velocity on an off so you can quickly add notes, then tweak their values later.

In song mode, the generators then are "sequenced" by inserting a graphic that represents a pattern. These can be inserted anywhere in the song and any pattern can be used. In this way it differs from trackers (and other "sequence" type software) because it is done on the individual generator level, not the host level. Therefore you are free to create patterns of different lengths for different instruments and use the patterns freely in the song. On the one hand, this is very cool. It greatly speeds up the idea process, makes sequencing a breeze, and allows for very flexible compositions. On the other hand, all parameter automation is by pattern as well, which can be time consuming to edit if you have multiple patterns for the same type of automation control.

Orion is great for getting ideas down quickly, and it's really nice that it supports VSTi, DXi, and Rewire functionality. Whether you came from a Sonar / Sonic Foundry / Sony background or you came from a Cubase or Reason background, all your instruments are available and ready to use. You can also use Orion as a Rewire slave in another host that supports the Rewire protocol (which may, if you're concerned about the audio limitations, be a good two-host solution).

Orion has two separate console views, one for the main mixer, which contains the instruments and audio tracks, and another for the "mastering" section, which includes 4 effects sends, 4 busses, and a master out. Personally I like having dedicated busses and sends. It's just a nice way to keep things organized. I wish there were more -- 8 of each would be nice -- but it's tidy to have the two mixing consoles separate.

Now for the downside. Orion is not very feature rich in the audio department, and for me this is a huge drawback. I do a lot of work with audio. It does playback audio media items, but you won't find the feature-rich set of audio tools you'll find in most other hosts (Reason excluded). You cannot record audio with it, and you can't manipulate audio very well with it. If you do use audio, the files need to be manipulated before they are inserted (except, of course, adding insert effects and the like).

Like any host, there are things about it that are annoying. Any generator or effect added to a project creates a separate window, which is very annoying if you have a lot of effects and generators. You can minimize the windows, you can cascade them, but you can't hide them. On one hand this makes maneuvering between instruments and effects fairly easy; on the other hand it creates an extremely cluttered work surface. These smaller minimized windows go away when you are doing a task, such as editing, but they are always present on the main Orion window. In an app that is otherwise designed beautifully and simply, this is an item that seems in need of improvement.

Having said this, Orion is great to use as a sketch tool, whether to toy with ideas or actually create loops and songs. I find the drum rack particularly good for this environment. Drum rack, an included generator, can have up to four outs. You add as many rows to the rack as you need, and delete rows you don't use. You load the sample, tell the row which out to be directed to, and you're off. In fact, for electronic music, Orion is one of the fastest tools I've seen. You can insert most instruments and be tracking it in under five seconds -- no tracks to configure or enable for input (once you insert the generator, Orion automatically creates all of the connections and inserts the track in the mixer). Because you can use Orion as a rewire tool, you can load the application in a host that does have a feature-rich audio tool set and still use your song ideas. It's a flexible tool at a great price ($99 dollars as of this writing). I highly recommend it. It's too limited to be considered a full-fledged DAW, but it is an impressive task-minded tool that will aid in your composition process.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars.


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Music is the silence between the notes.”
Claude Debussy