Twenty years ago, polyphonic analogue synthesizers came in heavy wooden cases, cost around £3,000 and played five notes at a time. Two years ago, manufacturers like Korg, Yamaha, Roland and Nord used proprietary DSP chips to create keyboards which ‘modelled’ this retro sound and typically these increased the polyphony to ten notes for £1,000-£1,500.
Today’s Macs have become so powerful that DSP software synths can deliver the same modelled vintage synthesis with no additional hardware. The appropriately-named Retro AS-1 is one such program and while by no means the cheapest at £129, is one of the best sounding fully-featured ones. Dependant on CPU power, it can generate up to 32 different notes at once using different timbres for each of 16 MIDI Channels and two insert and two master effects (a bonus original analogue synths never offered).
On a 266MHz G3 Mac, it continuously produced in excess of 20 voices when run alone and more than ten when triggered via OMS from Cubase or Logic sequencers run on the same Mac. Such is the warmth and ‘phatness’ of its sounds that this never seemed insufficient, but as clock speeds increase, the full polyphony should become available even when used simultaneously with a triggering sequencer.
In the meantime, an indispensable power usage parameter in the AS-1 Control Panel lets you limit the percentage of CPU power it can take (to prevent your MIDI sequencer from being starved of power), while a separate AS-1 Status app lets you monitor polyphony and CPU usage in realtime. MIDI Drivers are provided for direct Serial port control or for OMS or FreeMIDI, so configuring it with an onboard sequencer or external MIDI set-up is a breeze.
Performance is controlled via the AS-1 Keyboard app (which lets you play from an on-screen keyboard via the mouse if you don’t have a MIDI keyboard or interface to hand), while the AS-1 Mixer app lets you set different sounds, volumes, pans and effect amounts for all sixteen MIDI channels (ideal for using Retro with a sequencer).
For those familiar with analogue synth terminology, it offers three oscillators, two multi-pole filters (with numerous different configurations), three envelopes and dozens of LFOs per voice, but if all that’s Greek to you, don’t worry, it comes with over a 1,000 pre-programmed sounds that auto-install from the CD. These are categorized into handy banks of 128 patches, so whether you’re looking for that screaming acid lead/bass or a Moog/Sequential/Oberheim timbre that Mssrs Wakeman, Emerson or Banks might have used 20 years ago, you’ll find it quickly.
All edits in the authentic slider/switch programming windows can be heard in realtime and if the mouse is not your idea of performance control, Retro responds to Continuous Controllers from a MIDI keyboard so you can control your filter cut-off, resonance or any other parameter from your keyboard playing.
Sound quality is good even from the Mac’s mini-jack, but routing the Sound Manager output through a PCI sound card (we tried the Korg 1212I/O and Digital Media’s DIGI 32/8) really brings out the excellent frequency response and the powerful bottom end (those with Digidesign hardware can achieve this through their Direct IO protocol).
Retro AS-1 wouldn’t be out of place in the most professional production set-up, which is why vintage synth aficionados like Howard Jones and Depeche Mode producer Daniel Miller have found their way to it. But to get the most out of the program in terms of polyphony and multi-timbrality, treat this program as the excuse you’ve been looking for to trade up to a powerful G3.