The following is a review of Spectrasonics Atsmophere, by John M.
During the past several years, the industry has seen a significant and exciting change in the types of virtual instruments hitting the store shelves and internet. The initial wave of soft synths brought a number of renowned vintage pieces back to life in a cheap and reliable format. Now, it seems that the market is very populated with a new crop of instruments (both sample-based and modeling) that are making musicians question the very notion of reality.
At NAMM awhile back, I happened to drop by the Spectrasonics booth, and being the synth head that I am, I stepped up to see this new Atmosphere thing. From all outward appearances, it seemed like a sample-playback product. No big deal. I have every variety of soft sampler known to mankind — and lots and lots of samples. Boy, was I ever wrong. I couldn’t have possibly been more wrong. Now that I’ve had a chance to dig into Atmosphere, I’ve discovered a deep, beautiful and eminently useful synth that appears in practically everything I do now.
NOT EXACTLY A SAMPLE-PLAYER
Okay, so Atmosphere plays samples. In the strictest sense of the word, this is true. But there are a couple things you need to know about that. First, it doesn’t just play samples in the same old way in which you are accustomed: It gives you two layers, each with its own set of sophisticated modifiers, that enable you to easily accomplish whatever you’re trying to do. I emphasize the word easily because this is truly a no-fuss way to invent the exact sound you want — much more simple than any virtual sampler you’ve ever seen or used.
The second major distinction between Atmosphere and virtual samplers is the raw material courtesy of developer Eric Persing and Italian sound designer Diego Stocco. A legend in synthesizer circles, Persing has been a product-development consultant and chief sound designer for Roland since 1984 and developed patches for dozens of Roland’s major products, even going all the way back to the venerable Juno-106. When Persing developed Atmosphere, he and his team gathered a dream suite comprising virtually every coveted hardware and software synthesizer you’ve ever wanted or owned; a massive cache of signal processing, both hardware and software varieties; and even a nice collection of real acoustic sounds to lend an organic touch on occasion. They sat down and invented, sculpted, twisted and polished until they had a mammoth collection of 3.7 GB of samples.
Another important fact regarding this particular distinction is that every sample contains a ton of tender loving care. These aren’t just square, saw, sine and noise (although those waves are indeed available). Each is a masterpiece usable on its own, with vibrant motion, depth and life. This is why it’s easy to get the sound that you want. Choose two of the of already-polished fundamental timbres, then blend and modify them to accomplish your goal. These samples are so completely cultivated that you don’t need layer upon layer to accomplish the texture you want. This is not a Native Instruments Reaktor — esque thousand-knob behemoth; rather, it is a product that enables you to easily put together gorgeous, lush textures or blend a sharply transient timbre with a mellow, long string patch. The sounds are already nicely refined, and you can blend and tweak from there. If you’re looking for deep tweakability, this is not the product for you, and you will want to go with Native Instruments Absynth or Reaktor or Applied Acoustics Tassman, but if you seek to quickly and easily have beautiful sounds for any conceivable purpose, Atmosphere does that trick well.
When I read the list of toys that Persing and his crew used to create this product, it made me sick with envy and challenged the quietness of my Buddha nature. In the realm of hardware synths and samplers, they used vintage and new products from Roland, Oberheim, Moog, Korg, Sequential Circuits, Waldorf and ARP, among others. They used soft synths from Propellerhead, Emagic, Cycling ’74 and others. They even used both the übersophisticated Native Instruments version of Absynth, as well as Brian Clevinger’s original Rhizomatic version. The point here is that they dug in deep to come up with some really dope material. They also twisted, massaged, warmed and polished the sounds from those sources with a huge array of both software and hardware signal processing, including super-high-end reverbs, dynamics, EQs and more. Ultimately, I realized that my envy was for naught, because these people used these toys the same way that I would have, and the fruits of their labors are now at my fingertips. It’s almost as if I have all of this stuff in my studio now, with Persing there to program the timbres that my clients want. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of Atmosphere.
Most of the patches are useful in their natural state, but it’s nice to be able to change an attack or release time to work with tempo or to brighten or dull a timbre, for instance. The tweaking tools are identical for each layer. A mixer enables you to adjust level and panning for each of the two layers. Also shown are coarse- and fine-tuning knobs for each layer. An A/B switch determines which layer is being tweaked, and the Link mode applies your tweaking to both.
You have separate ADSR envelope generators for both amplitude and filter and a simpler envelope generator for pitch. There are four LFOs, the first two of which retrigger their excursion with each Note On command. The other two run freely. A modulation matrix allows you to apply any of 19 different modifiers to pitch, filter, amplitude and panning. Among these are pitch-wheel information, any of the three envelope generators, any of the four LFOs, MIDI continuous controllers and even a Random function. The resonant filters are versatile and sound quite nice. There is a highpass filter with a 12dB/octave slope; three lowpass filters with 12, 18 and 24dB/octave slopes, respectively; and an Off mode, which eliminates the algorithm altogether, conserving CPU overhead. There is also a Master filter, which acts as a global tone control. All knobs and sliders can be automated, adding an incredible amount of power to Atmosphere.
Obviously, I cannot even begin to describe every single one of the 1,000 patches that ship with Atmosphere, but I can break down the broad categories and give you an idea of what’s in store. First are Ambient patches, which are exactly that, yielding swirling, moody atmospheres. Belltones are mostly transient, hard-attack bell sounds, but soft-rising harmonic-laden bell sounds are included, as well. Big Swells contains big padlike patches that have a lengthy attack; one of those, Chariots CS-80, is the only one in the entire product that I found to be weak. My Roland JP-8000 does a much better job of emulating Vangelis’ old CS-80. And Persing probably wrote the JP-8000 patch. Evolving Moods live up to their name with slowly evolving, moody soundscapes. Intricate Motion is similar but with more transient and complex evolution. Noises is awesome, with even some downright scary human breathing sounds. Pads is divided into well-planned categories, some of which are incredibly lush and full. Solo gives you great leads, including some incredible Moog stuff. The Strings category was my favorite, with incredibly lush and gorgeous material, both synthetic and organic (and blends thereof). The Synth Bass group is full of nice deep and boomy basses, once again knocking off Moog nicely. The straight-up Synths category gives you a broad swath of great classic electronic sounds of every variety — there, the fun techno stuff lives. There is also Vinyl, which gives you ambience combined with realistic pops and noise, and, finally, Waveform Utility, with pure cyclical waveforms, test tones, white and pink noise and nice clicks. They thought of everything!
I guess I owe Spectrasonics a bit of an apology: I jumped to the same conclusion that a lot of people would, that Atmosphere is just a sample-player. It is truly much, much more. It’s incredibly easy to use but yields results that sound like you slaved for hours arriving at the perfect timbre. And the patches, which range from delightful to terrifying, are truly inspiring at a visceral, emotional level.
SPECTRASONICS ATMOSPHERE > $399.99
Pros: Amazing, Clean and Professional sound. Easy to use.
Cons: Lack of meticulous control for supertweakers.
Contact: tel. (818) 955-8481; e-mail [email protected]; Web www.spectrasonics.net
MAC: G3/500; 512 MB RAM; OS 9.0/10.2 or higher; 3.7 GB available hard-drive space; AU-, MAS-, RTAS- or VST-compatible host
PC: PIII/600; 512 MB RAM; Windows 98/98SE/2000/ME/XP; 3.7 GB available hard-drive space; VST-compatible host