Posted by Matt Loose on 17 June 2014

Whenever I try out a new soft synth for the first time I ask myself a few questions, starting with wondering whether it sounds any good. If it does, then I think about the unique problems that face a musician playing on a Sunday in a church. It’s forty minutes away from the start of the service and you’re doing a new song for the first time when the worship leader turns to you and says, “We need a cool keyboard line in this one. Can you find one?”

At this point I think about the 10,000+ sounds on my laptop. And I panic. How long will it take to find a cool one? A whole lot more than forty minutes, that’s for sure.

Of course we should all design our own sounds from scratch and instantly be able to coax any sound from our armoury of synths, but the reality is that most of us rely on finding a good template to speed up the process.

Blue II - The new soft synth from Rob Papen - has plenty of cool about it, which is hardly surprising given his long pedigree of cool. He has created numerous soft synths, some of which have become legends in certain genres of music. “Predator” became a standard go-to instrument in dance music and a quick browse of the artist list at the Rob Papen website demonstrates how well established the Rob Papen sound is (http://www.robpapen.com/artist.html).

 

Screenshot 1

(Screenshot 1)

When it comes to Blue II, let’s deal with the panic question first; can I find a cool sound quickly? It sounds great sonically and contains a lot of presets, arranged in named banks. Some are named by type (‘Pads’ or ‘Analog Bass’ and there are more than one of each of these!) whilst others are titled by genre (‘Dub Step’ or even by the name of notable sound designers like Andrew Skelton (see Screenshot 1)). This isn’t a bad system for browsing through sounds. If you are looking for a Pad or Lead sound you can find them pretty quickly by selecting the appropriate bank. But to find these same sounds in the ‘designer’ banks is a little slower. You can click on the ‘Find’ option in the MAN (short for Bank Manager) page and type in a word and it will return a list of all the sounds which include that term in the title. This will return most of the sounds, but there are a few hidden gems which I only found by going through the presets one at a time. I also found that you can add presets to a favourites list, which is worth doing. Other soft synths have more advanced sound finding capabilities but this is a lot to ask forfrom a smaller developer. When in a hurry you will be able to find sounds quickly but perhaps not the perfect sound.

 

Screenshot 2

(Screenshot 2)

This brings me on to where Blue II shines: editing and playing with sounds to adjust them to your liking. Blue II provides six oscillators, each of which is identical (see Screenshot 2). These oscillators can provide virtual analogue sounds (sine, saw, square, triangle etc) through to a range of more complex sample based waveforms. The oscillators can be routed in a number of different ways to reach the two virtual analogue filters available within Blue II. The output from the filters can then be routed to four effects units which can also be connected in a multitude of different ways. Basically, Blue II is big; really big, but because it is organised in blocks, each of which is similar (the 6 oscillators, the 2 filters and the 4 effects units) you can learn each block and then work out how they interact with one another.

Because of the way Blue II is configured you can also set up FM synthesis (think yamaha DX7 territory), Phase Distortion and Wave Synthesis. Once you move beyond basic sound synthesis you also have an arpeggiator and a sequencer which are both extremely useable. There is also the innovative XY controller. This box of tricks allows you to use the XY controller (think a laptop trackpad) to control multiple different parameters of the synth as you move through the XY pad. You can even record patterns of movement on the XY pad and then sync these movements to an external midi clock. This is a lot of fun - just assigning different parameters to sounds, drawing a random pattern on the XY pad and listen to what happens (see Screenshot 3)! Then there are the four FX busses each of which can run one of 35 different effects in a variety of different signal paths…

 

Screenshot 3

(Screenshot 3)

 

If all of this sounds complicated, Blue II also comes equipped with an “Easy” editing screen which lets you just play with just a subset of key parameters. Furthermore, you can load a sound, tweak it to your hearts content and then click the “original” button to get back where to you started. This is a plugin designed to get you tweaking it!

There is an awful lot to Blue II/. It will take a long time to master, but it is capable of producing some great sounds with an analog feel. The presets alone take hours to explore and are all extremely impressive. The best part is that Blue II is only £109 (give or take a few pennies!) and gives you an awful lot for the money!

 

Reviewed by Matt Loose: Keyboard player for Trent, one of the bands that lead worship at Trent Vineyard in Nottingham. Check out their Facebook page here or their band page here.

 

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Special thanks to Time+Space. For more details and to get your copy of Rob Papen II - click here.

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