by Craig Anderton
I've always liked Arturia's soft synth plug-ins - not because they slavishly imitate vintage synths, but because they take intelligent liberties with the classics while retaining the original "soul." Their Moog Modular remains one of my favorite soft synths, and their re-working of the Prophet-5/Prophet VS into the Prophet V turned two great pieces of hardware into a single great piece of software.
An Arturia story: They wanted to do an emulation of the Minimoog, so they did. And they sent it to Bob Moog for his blessing. But instead, Bob sent them a list of things they had to do to make the emulation meet his standards. They made the changes, Bob was satisfied, and he endorsed it.
Okay, let's talk about the Analog Factory Experience. It's based on the original Analog Factory software, and is sort of a "greatest hits" of their many soft synths that includes sounds from the Moog Modular V, CS-80V, Minimoog V, ARP 2600 V, Prophet V, and Jupiter-8 V. It's ideal for those who just want a bunch of useful presets, without having to get into programming or deal with complexities. The Analog Factory Experience (AFE for short) offers version 2.0 of the Analog Factory software, but more importantly, the extra hundred bucks compared to the software alone provides a 2.5 octave (32 note keyboard) made by CME. As someone who owns a CME 88-key controller, I can vouch for their keybeds and the one in AFE is just as good - this is not your standard flimsy, plastic mini-keyboard (although note that the keys are very, very slightly narrower than normal).
But it doesn't end there, as the keyboard has several knobs, switches, and two wheels (pitch and modulation), all of which let you tweak the Analog Factory sounds. That's the "experience" part - you get to experience some of the physical control elements of a synth, without being overwhelmed by controls for every single parameter. As you'd expect with a keyboard at this price, there's velocity but no aftertouch.
Before going any further, if you want the specs, click here for information on compatibility, system requirements, and the like. Meanwhile, let's move on to...well, the "experience" of using AFE.
The AFE package includes a CD-ROM with the Analog Factory software, a USB cable, printed manual, and the keyboard itself. Copy protection is done through a Syncrosoft eLicenser, which is both good news and bad news. The good news is that you can authorize without a hardware USB dongle, but if you do, then the license is "wedded" to your particular computer and hard drive. And now the bad news: We all know that hard drives and computers can die when you least expect it, which will take your authorization down with it.
However, you can transfer the virtual license to a hardware USB dongle, which I recommend doing. You can buy a Syncrosoft dongle from numerous sources, including the Arturia web site - but if you use (among others) Steinberg, IK Multimedia, or Korg software products, you probably have one sitting around that you can use anyway. Just make sure you've downloaded the latest version of the Syncrosoft License Control Center software from their web site, as earlier versions may not authorize Analog Factory properly, or have the ability to transfer the virtual license to the USB dongle.
Whether used as a plug-in or stand-alone application, the software is identical except that when in stand-alone mode, there's a File menu for choosing interface preferences. Referring to the screen shot, the upper section consists of a browser/preset selection screen, while the lower part mirrors what's happening with the keyboard.
The browser lets you limit the presets shown to particular instruments, instrument types, and characteristics. For example, suppose you want to find an "aggressive" bass sound created with the Jupiter-8V; click on "Jupiter-8V," "Bass," and "Aggressive" in the browser, and your options pop up - 17 in all, incidentally. If you select just "Jupiter-8V" and "Bass," all Jupiter-8V-based bass presets will appear.
The preset selection area to the right shows preset names, the instrument used in the presets, sound type, CPU load, and whether it's a "favorite" (Fav) or not. If you tag a preset as a Favorite, then that's another element that can be added to the browser - i.e., choose only presets fitting particular specs that you have previously tagged as a favorite.
To check how effective the browser was, I thought of several specific sounds I'd want to use, and tried to find them. Surprisingly, it didn't take long to find a sound I'd use in a recording - although given that there are 3,500 presets, it's not much of a stretch to think you could find what you'd want in there. It's also fun just to browse to see what's available. For example, while looking for a Moog bass sound, I thought I'd see what the Jupter-8V had to offer. As it turned out, it had some bass sounds that were very cool, and I would certainly use in other projects.
While the AFE's main strength is the collection of patches, it's the ability to tweak sounds with the keyboard that sets AFE apart from other software synths. The only comparable product I can think of offhand is when Korg bundled a mini-MS-20 controller with their original Legacy Collection of soft synths.
Consider tweaking envelopes. There are four sliders, corresponding to the traditional Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release parameters. Their positions are also reflected on the screen, but with a twist.
Four sliders adjust envelope parameters. Also note the hardware controls for Chorus and Delay.
Note how the physical position of the sliders is "ghosted" along with the preset positions, and a blue "ring" indicates the Delay control's current position.
With any controller that doesn't use motorized faders, a major issue is what happens if you call up a preset where a parameter's value is different compared to the physical position of the hardware controlling that parameter. Some devices "jump" - change the hardware, and the parameter value jumps instantly to the value set by the hardware. Others require that the hardware "match" the existing parameter value, at which point the parameter follows the hardware setting. For example, suppose a parameter is set to half of maximum, but the knob controlling the parameter is set to minimum. As you turn up the knob, nothing happens until the knob reaches half of the maximum value, at which point it "matches" the parameter value. From here on, when you move the knob the parameter value will follow along.
Yet another method, "add/subtract," requires continuous knobs (i.e., data encoder knobs that have no beginning or end, but rotate continuously). When you call up a preset, regardless of where the knob position is, turning it clockwise adds to the preset value, and turning it counter-clockwise subtracts from the preset value.
AFE does both, with the "add/subtract" method used for knobs, and the "match" method for the sliders (which control envelope parameters). When you call up a preset, the software shows the current slider parameter value as solid, and the physical slider position as "ghosted." This makes it easy to see the differential between the two, and is a cool trick that other manufacturers should steal...uh, I mean, "be inspired by." In the same screen shot, also note the Delay control: The blue ring around the outside of the virtual knob shows the current setting.
Of course, you can tweak more than envelopes.
As expected, you can adjust the filter Cutoff and Resonance, two very strategic controls. Also as expected, LFO Rate and Amount are editable.
This shot shows the pitch bend and mod wheels, octave buttons, dedicated knobs for filter Cutoff and Resonance, and a "shift" key that allows for additional, secondary functions.
The Key Parameters adjust four separate parameters per patch, chosen specifically for that patch.
However, there are also four general-purpose knobs called Key Parameters. Arturia has chosen four parameters per patch that these affect, which can be different per patch. These are all parameters that make a significant difference to the sound and were chosen specifically to make your life easier, by bringing out the four most important parameters under hands-on control.
The FX mix controls are pretty self-explanatory - turn up Chorus to add more chorus effect to the mix, and Delay to add delay. When used as a plug-in, Delay synchronizes to the host sequencer's tempo.
In the previous picture, also note the eight Snapshot buttons. These are more for live performance, as you can save particular presets (edited or not) then recall them with the touch of a button. These settings are saved after powering-down so they're ready next time you power-up.
That MIDI out jack has more uses than you might think.
The rear panel actually has quite a few connections. There's a power on/off switch, USB connector, and jack for a power supply. The keyboard is bus-powered, but if you're using it as a MIDI controller without a computer, then you can use a suitable power supply (not included with the unit).
The Expression and Sustain 1/4" connections accept standard Expression and Sustain pedals. But also note the physical MIDI out - yes, this is a nifty little MIDI controller that becomes even better when you realize that the controls and switches all produce MIDI control messages. For example, I found this made a great controller for tweaking Waves' GTR Solo software - I used the knobs for editing various parameters, and the switches for bypassing or enabling effects. Pretty neat.
I was delighted by the keyboard construction. CME makes sturdy controllers, and the heft and weight of the AFE keyboard are both impressive. It doesn't feel cheap - quite the opposite - and if a drunk hassles you at a gig, you could probably deck the dude if it connected with his head. And by golly, since they took the effort to put real wood ends on the keyboard, the least we can do is show you a picture of same.
As to the sounds, Arturia knows good sounds, period. And there are 3,500 of them. Enough said.
Regarding control, I will say the knobs are more for tweaking parameters than going nuts in live performance. The knobs are fairly close together, and have a certain amount of "resistance." That gives them a solid, tight feel, but you generally want something with a little lighter action for live performance. If you want to change a sound here and there, no problem. But if you want to, say, work the filter control in real time as you play, you'd likely be better off with a fader box patched to the computer interface's MIDI in, and then to the AFE.
Let's also consider price. Given the keyboard quality, I could see some musicians buying AFE just to have a keyboard with a solid feel they can use with their computer. Sure, there are lots of mini-keyboards out there, but some feel cheap when put side-by-side with AFE. I think Arturia made a good decision not to skimp on the keyboard. After all, if you're going to be selling the idea of an "experience," you want it to be a positive one.
And that's exactly what AFE delivers. You get a bunch of great sounds and some physical control to go with it. Sure, it's more limited than their flagship software synths - AFE is nowhere near as editable. But that's not the point. If you're getting into synthesis and have a limited amount of bucks to spend, AFE represents serious value. And frankly, even though I have a great collection of soft synths (including those from Arturia), there are times when what matters most is getting the sounds I want within seconds, not minutes. AFE is about as good as it gets in that respect.
At first, I thought this was kind of an oddball product: After all, you can buy Analog Factory by itself, and there are plenty of keyboards available. But the keyboard/software integration is cool, and the combination does provide a unique "experience" at a bargain basement price - but with quality that takes it way out of the basement.
Bottom line: Analog Factory Experience is a clever product that fills a unique niche - at a lower-than-expected price. Thumbs up.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.