I have an embarrassing number of synthesizers on my hard drive. It’s embarrassing mainly because I never had to pay for them. Not because they’re pirated software, I hasten to add. These are legal NFR (not for resale) installations that I’ve acquired over the years by writing product reviews, mostly for Keyboard.

A few companies give reviewers time-limited licenses, so that after a few months the instrument will no longer load. Thus I can no longer use Arturia’s ARP 2600 V2, darn it all. But most companies evidently figure it’s in their best interest for me to be aware of their software, and the best way to insure that is to give me the opportunity to use it. This is a very sensible view. When Cakewalk released Z3ta 2, for instance, I was able to write a review comparing it intelligently to the original Z3ta, because I still have the original installed.

High on my go-to list are three u-he instruments (the oddly named company is owned by Urs Heckmann) — Zebra 2.5, ACE, and Diva. Diva is pretty much a CPU hog, so I don’t always reach for it first, but it’s just as good as the other two. The patching in ACE is decidedly weird, but it’s a whole lot deeper than it looks. Following on the heels of u-he is Spectrasonics, whose Omnisphere is just plain stunning. Camel Audio Alchemy is seriously amazing too, though perhaps not quite as intuitive to do sound design on.

The Native Instruments plug-ins are all stupidly good. Reaktor 5 heads the list, of course. It’s a dozen instruments and sample-triggering beatboxes all rolled into one. FM8 is extremely versatile. Massive I use less often, but it’s brilliant too. The one weakness of NI synths is that they won’t load alternate tuning tables. FM8 does have a programmable 12-key tuning table, but such a limited implementation doesn’t meet my needs.

In the percussion category, it’s Spectrasonics Stylus RMX for beats and NI Battery 3 for individual drum hits. I’m running out of superlatives here, so let’s just say they’re both far beyond satisfactory.

My new discoveries include Rob Papen’s Blue and Predator. These instruments are awesome. And for electric pianos, you just can’t beat AAS Lounge Lizard 3.

Speaking of NFR licenses, one of the nicest favors anybody in the music industry has ever done for me was to take away a permanent NFR license. I had been a fairly contented Cubase user for about 20 years, but a few years back the new guy at Steinberg — I don’t remember his name offhand — decided he was going to issue only three-month licenses for Cubase. He would be happy to renew it as needed, he explained, but he wasn’t going to issue any permanent licenses. I pointed out to him that I was not willing to undertake any creative work in a program that would shortly stop working, but he wouldn’t budge. This gave me the impetus I needed to switch full-time to Image-Line FL Studio as my main creative platform. In spite of a couple of details that I miss (there’s no event list, for example), FL Studio is clearly superior to Cubase.

One of the chief reasons, though by no means the only one, is its suite of built-in instruments. I’m not sure which of these are standard and which are add-ons, but there are several that I never use because they launch in demo mode. I do have an authorization for Slicex, which is a brilliant and extremely powerful sample loop player. Load a REX file into it and you’re headed for town. At the other extreme is Autogun, a built-in teaser for their Ogun additive synth. Autogun boasts millions of presets (not kidding). They’re not programmable, but many are surprisingly useful.

Have I ever bought a synthesizer plug-in? Yes, I have. My personal rule is, I never ask for a license for an instrument unless I have a legitimate use for it — something to do with writing a product review. Gear lust is not a legitimate reason. Last year, for reasons that are no longer very relevant, I felt I needed the Korg Wavestation. I had owned a hardware Wavestation, back in the day. (And yes, I generally had to pay for hardware!) I had no legitimate reason to ask Korg for the Wavestation plug-in, so I spent $50 and downloaded it. It’s flawlessly authentic, as you might expect, and $50 for an instrument that cost $2,000 when it was hardware is too good a deal to pass up. Made me all nostalgic, it did.

The one bummer in all of this bounty is Steinberg Xphraze. It was a great instrument, but Steinberg had licensed the technology from Wizoo. When Peter Gorges, the owner of Wizoo, went to work for Digidesign, he and Steinberg severed ties. As a result, there was no way Xphraze could be updated to run under new versions of Windows. So it died. That was a great synth, I’ll tell you. There has never been anything quite like it.

I kind of wish Hal Leonard would ask me to produce a new edition of Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming. Unlikely; they can keep selling the old edition, and it’s pure profit for them. (Yeah, I get a small royalty check every six months too. Not complaining.) There’s a lot that could and should be added to the book, as the newer instruments are packed with features, some of them quite visionary. But the new edition will probably never happen. Anyway, right now I’d rather have fun with synthesizers than write another book.

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