Spectrasonics, led by synthesist Eric Persing, made a big splash in the world of virtual instruments with Atmosphere, a lush synthesizer renowned for its gorgeous ambient textures. Earlier this year, Spectrasonics released a series of teaser videos for a new synthesizer that promised to be both an evolution of Atmosphere and a deParture from reliance on third-Party technology for its DSP engine. On September 15th, the new synthesizer arrived, the first of its kind to use Spectrasonics new proprietary STEAM engine. The new technology introduces new and hybrid forms of synthesis not previously possible in a hardware or software instrument. Omnisphere, a monster synthesizer, sets the benchmark for sound design and manipulation very high. In the months ahead watch for this synthesizer to be talked about in most, if not all, of the major music magazines.
Omnisphere comes with a library of over 43 GB of sound sources in its library. The initial install, which comes on 6 DVDs, includes several thousand patches (with more in the patch updater). The library includes some 2700 sound sources, including unique psychoacoustic sounds (blowtorch, bicycle wheel, burning piano, to name a few of the more esoteric ones), and patches designed by a number of respected sound designers.
On my computer the installation was very slow, clocking in at just over 8 hours. This may be due to my DVD drive being four years old -- Spectrasonics reports that the installation usually takes around 3 hours. Regardless, make sure to block off some serious time when installing the synthesizer. Also, be sure to update both the sound source library and the patch library right away. The update includes 1,000 of the original Atmosphere patches (updated for Omnisphere functionality) as well as updates to the library and the reference manual. As well as fixes for a few patches that did not load with the original install, and additional content, I noticed a dramatic improvement in CPU usage with the update.
Belying the instrument's incredible complexity, Spectrasonics has designed the interface with progressive levels of sophistication. This means that a beginning user can load multi-instrument patches or individual "Parts" and use the synthesizer immediately, without having to learn about a lot of the deeper functionality right away. Experienced users can use the same interface to dig deeper into the sounds and customize them for a completely unique experience. All features are laid out in a simple, logical format, with access to deeper functionality readily available from the panels that support them.
At the top of every window is a panel that allows you to view the multi-instrument page as well as each individual Part slot. Also available are the system settings and a utility menu that allows you to clear an individual instrument (Part) or the entire multi, save settings, and access the reference manual. From here you can also view and assign the global auxiliary send effects and change the input MIDI channels and output audio channels (which are very important when the instrument is used as a multi-in and/or multi-out mode). From this window, you can also access any of the 8 available individual instrument ("Part") slots by clicking on the corresponding number of the Part from the top menu. When you click on the slot's number, you get a new panel for that Part (I want to briefly mention that what I referred to as an instrument, Spectrasonics refers to as a "Part". I used the terms multi-instrument and instrument, earlier, to differentiate between multi- and individual Parts. In Romplers and Samplers, this distinction is more often "multi-instrument / instrument" or "Ensemble / Instrument". Honestly, I don't like the term "Part" because of its ambiguity; once you understand that the word "Part" refers to the entire sound at the individual instrument level, you'll be fine. From here on, I will use the word "Part" exclusively).
Here is where things start to get really interesting. Each of the Part slots is comprised of two layers -- layer A and layer B. Each layer can use either a sound source (think sample here) or a synth. Each layer has separate volume, pan and pitch controls, as well as options that affect nearly everything in the chain (with the exception of modulation, tuning, and global Part controls). The options in each layer are laid out in a logical chain (e.g. modulation parameters, oscillator parameters, filters, and sound options). This is very useful because it allows you to zero in, very quickly, on whatever component of the sound you'd like to edit. I like, for example, that the modulation is listed first instead of on a separate page or after the oscillators and filters. The edit Part page is really the heart of the instrument because here is where you can access much of the features that set Omnisphere apart from the competition.
Some Key Features
One of the new features of Omnisphere is the Harmonia. Harmonia is similar to a pitch effect, but it's actually built into the synthesis engine (instead of as an effect) so it can be used for additional oscillation. Up to four of these can be used per layer, bringing the total of possible oscillators per Part to 10. The really cool thing about this is, because it is not an effect, its features can be modulated as well.
Filters, Envelopes and Chaos
Omnisphere takes a real unique approach to envelopes. There are up to 8 available envelopes per layer. There is a traditional ADSR setting as well as slots for complex filters; these can even be combined. The complex envelope filters allow you to add points to the envelope with assignable shapes. You can load and store preset envelopes, and you can combine ADSR elements in the complex envelopes.
Another cool feature of the envelopes is auto-Chaos. When this is active, it randomly adjusts points and curves in the grid, thereby creating a continually morphing and unpredictable behavior to the envelope. If you don't want the sound to continually change but just want a bit of unpredictability in sculpting a sound you can setup a filter and press the chaos button. It will redraw the envelope with a random variation of the filter you've created.
Omnisphere also sports a full-featured arpeggiator. I won't spend a lot of time talking about the arpeggiator because it is very similar to those you are probably familiar with on other instruments. One cool thing worth mentioning here, though, is a feature called Groove Lock, which allows the arp to sync the "groove" of a MIDI file, and when used with Stylus RMX, the MIDI file for the active loop can be dragged and dropped directly into the arp.
The effect slots can be applied to one or the other layer, in common for both layers on the Part level, and also as auxiliary sends for instruments / Parts on the multi-instrument edit page. The 33 effects, which range from emulated vintage effects to modern effects, are grouped by type ---limiter, compressor, gate, for example, in one section; EQs in another; delays in another, etc. The effects are highly tweakable, and like nearly everything in Omnisphere, can be assigned a MIDI parameter through the MIDI learn function and can be modulated as Part of a patch. The effects themselves are first-rate. My personal favorites are the tempo delays and the studio quality reverbs.
There are, literally, thousands of adjustable parameters in Omnisphere. Nearly all of them can be assigned to a MIDI controller by using the MIDI learn function and twiddling a knob or fader on your controller. This is really useful for live use because you can setup entire maps that you can save and recall.
Support and Training
As of this writing, there are 9 in-depth online video tutorials totaling just under 2 hours. These videos progress from a general overview to step-by-step guides to get the most of modulation routing, using the LFO filters, the envelopes, and other critical functions of the instrument. Another patch library update with over a thousand more patches is scheduled for release in early December, with more tutorials to follow. There is also a support forum to help solve technical issues. The instrument manual is easily accessed through the Utility Menu, which is available at the top of every page.
Price and upgrade availability
Omnisphere has a suggested retail price of $499.00. Upgrade paths are avavilable for owners of Atmosphere (Omnisphere's predecessor).
- 2GB or more of RAM
- Dual Layer compatible DVD-ROM drive
- 50GB of free hard drive space
- 2.0 GHz or higher processor
- G5 PowerPC compatible - Intel Core2Duo or higher recommended
- OSX 10.4.9 or higher
- AudioUnit, VST 2.4 or RTAS capable host software
- Native Universal Binary for Intel Macs
- Pentium 3.0 GHz or higher (Intel Core2Duo recommended)
- VST 2.4 or RTAS capable host software
- Microsoft XP SP2 or later
- Microsoft Vista compatible
Omnisphere is a beast. It comes with a comprehensive library of sound sources and amazing patches straight out of the box. Along with each patch, there is a description that explains a few key facts about how the patch is routed and what MIDI controllers are preset to dynamically change the sound. The patches can be located by mood, type, sound designer, and other variables that allow you to quickly zero in on a type of sound that may be applicable for your sound. This will be the virtual synthesizer by which all others will be judged for years to come.
Rating: Ten out of ten stars.
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