Regarded by many as the gold standard of grooveboxes, the Spectralis offers a top notch virtual analog synth that runs through dual analog filters. This section of the Spectralis is referred to by Radikal Technologies as an analog synth, Asynth or Hybrid synth and is easily the main attraction of this box. But it is also supplemented by 3 “Dsynth” parts and 11 drum parts that use samples. The Spectralis sports a very complex mod matrix that is intertwined with an equally complex sequencer.
First things first, the “Asynth.” As stated above, it is virtual analog in nature and it is a descendant of the old Quasimidi boxes such as the Polymorph. The synth is 4 osc and monophonic with waveforms that are continuously variable from sine to saw to triangle to square. Each osc also has settings for bitcrush, TLM (basically PWM for all wave shapes instead of just for square) and can be freely routed to different filters and a fixed filterbank. With the proper use of the sequencer and “trigger groups,” you could even play chords with the trade off of each voice having only one oscillator. But generally, it’s much easier to use the “Dsynth” when polyphony is needed.
Now, the Asynth is widely accepted as one of the greatest sounding synths there is but it does require quite a bit of menu diving to program it. It stands to reason because this thing would be enormous if it were knob per function. There are actually 27 “pages” to the editing menu with several of them having yet another level of submenus. Luckily, it is laid out logically (in my opinion). Every knob on the Spectralis is an endless rotary encoder and can also be pushed to double as a button. So for example, if you want to adjust filter settings, you push down on the appropriate encoder and it will bring up the top level of the filter submenu. Then you have page up/down buttons to move from page to page within each menu. Parameters are then edited by the four knobs under the screen. Same thing with envelopes, LFO, effects, etc. So, really, 27 pages of menus is not nearly as daunting as it sounds. Once you get used to where everything is, it really feels like a point and click interface in hardware form. If you get lost, there is an exit button that will back you out. For me, this way of working is not a problem and is, in fact, miles better than other menu driven interfaces where it takes several button presses to get where one encoder click takes you here.
A lot is made of how difficult it is to program the Asynth but I think it is more the routing than the interface that people have trouble with. It got a lot easier for me when I started thinking of it like this:
The filters and the filterbank are modules. Each of them has their own envelopes for cutoff and for volume. I think that this is where people get thrown, as most synths do not have a volume envelope for the filter. Say you route an oscillator to the low pass filter but the LPF has zero for all volume envelope settings. The result is that you won’t hear anything. Likewise, say you set the oscillator to have a long release time. It won’t happen unless the filter also has a long release time. Or, if you prefer, you can bypass the filters and route the oscillators to the main bus, in which case you would only need to worry about the oscillator’s envelope settings. And that’s it. Once your routing is set up, you just tweak away as you would with any other synthesizer.
As always, a little experimentation will take you a long way. Once you begin to understand the relationship the different sections have with each other, you will really grow to appreciate the flexibility. You can set the oscillators to modulate each other or the filter cutoff, you can route the filters into each other or into the filterbank and all of this can be sequenced. It’s not exactly like the P locks you find on Elektron gear but it is a similar concept. And that is the beauty of the Asynth: It sounds amazing and it allows you to do just about anything you can dream up. It really is like a modular synth in a box.
So, if you couldn’t tell, I love the Asynth. But I don’t mean to brush off the Dsynth parts either. The term “rompler” often carries a negative connotation in the synth world. But really, they do have their place and they do allow for things that you can’t do with other types of synthesis. You can use single cycle waveforms, one shots or set up multi-sampled instruments to use. From there, you have all the usual subtractive synthesis tools at your disposal. As an added bonus, you can route the Dsynth to the analog filters or run them through the fixed filterbank. The editing for these parts is not nearly as deep as it is for the Asynth part but it is definitely on par with most other rompler engines. As for sound quality, the Spectralis imparts a certain warmth and spaciousness to samples due to the analog filters and Burr-Brown DA converters.
The Dsynth section is made up of three separate parts and each part is polyphonic. You get 32 voices to use between them so it should be more than enough for most applications. The drum parts are also sample based but they are separate from the Dsynth. Each drum sound has its own sequencer line and has the same editing tools available as the Dsynth parts have.
So now we move on to the sequencer. Each instrument part (Asynth, Dsynth, Drums) has its own sequencer line and they are able to have different lengths. They can also be recorded in realtime or by step input. In addition to the lines for each of these parts, you also have assignable sequencer lines that can be made to control just about anything. You can take just about any parameter and sequence it or even assign a line as a midi part to sequence external gear. You can set each line to run forward, reversed or back and forth between start to end repeatedly. Also, something I’ve never seen anywhere else is probability per step. What this means is that whatever is supposed to happen on a given step can be given a probability of happening. You can set it in steps of 12.5%. In my workflow, I’ve found this to be particularly useful in mashing up breakbeats, jungle style. You can get a slightly different rhythm with each cycle of the sequencer. Throw in a small amount of pitch modulation and you can rival the detailed programming that people would generally use a DAW for.
Fitting the Spectralis into your midi setup can be a bit of a head scratcher at first and here is why. The sequencer is so capable and unique that it’s a downright shame to sequence the Spectralis externally. But on the other hand, it is a convoluted process to sequence external gear from the Spectralis so it probably won’t be the nerve center of your setup. It can be done but it is tedious. You must then also consider that you really need some type of midi controller to play the Spectralis properly, as the buttons on the front of it are far from the ideal way to play it. Simply plugging in a midi controller works great but then the midi in port is not available for the Spectralis to recieve a midi clock signal from your other gear.
So what I have done is pair it with a DSI Tempest which has excellent pads for playing but can control external gear on only one track. The Spectralis can be controlled per channel but it also has an omni mode where it takes whatever note messages come in on midi channel one and applies them to the part that you have selected. So that one track on the Tempest is simply used to play notes into the Spectralis’ sequencer and to send it transport messages. Then I just run the sequencers in parallel. I realize that the Tempest + Spectralis combination won’t suit everyone but I will say that there is a certain synergy between the two that rivals many all in one units I’ve used. It has really redefined my workflow and made me excited about my machines again like when I first started out.
The bottom line on the Spectralis, as I see it, is that it is one of the deepest, best sounding and most capable synths/grooveboxes that money can buy but you really need to be prepared to focus on it and put some effort into it. Personally, I find the interface to be extremely intuitive and did not have much trouble getting into it. But everybody is different and there are plenty of people who have found the opposite to be true. I would say that you should take all the negative appraisals of the Spectralis with a grain of salt though. That is not to say that they are unfounded or any less valid but I’ve found that, in many cases, they are colored by the fact that the Spectralis OS has taken a very long time to mature. If I was an early adopter and paid $2500 for a new Spectralis when it came out, I would probably be upset at features that were missing for a long time and it probably would give me a low opinion of the interface. But having just purchased mine in the last six months or so (and at an appropriate used price), I have only worked with the 1.04 OS which is quite stable and irons out a lot of rough spots. So I’m just saying, it’s not perfect but it’s not nearly as bad as a lot of people make it out to be. Though I can, respectfully, see where those people are coming from.
Just to give a little perspective, some of the main issues people have with it are:
1) LFO’s are not syncable (but there is a workaround for this)
2) There is no overdub recording
3) Sample uploading can be a fiddly affair
4) Some say the screen is too small for the amount of time you spend looking at it
5) There is no line-in sampling/resampling, though it was mentioned at some point that this would be added
6) Effects are limited to two separate delays, though the expectation was that more would be added. An overdrive/distortion and reverb would be nice, I must admit.