U-he Zebralette is a great little free VST instrument from u-he, a cut-down version of their flagship Zebra2 synthesizer. Despite of the fact that several components were removed I always liked it from the first moment I started using, and here is why.
It employs a single window interface where you can inspect and edit all the settings of a sound within seconds (except the effects settings, but that's also a click away). What's more, it is resizable between 70 and 200 percent, so you can optimize it to the size of your computer display.
It is serious stuff! Despite the relatively simple structure, it is a deep instrument soundwise, while offering enough constraints that allows you to focus tightly on making impressive presets and music. In my experience this is quite a unique synthesizer, because its simplicity and constraints removes the chance of over-complicating the sound design process. To sum it up, limitations make you creative - you may feel this after working with Zebralette for some time.
Its strength lies in the single very flexible digital oscillator: the Spectral FX timbral modifiers together with its wavetable capabilities makes it a little sound monster. As we have a rather limited filter here, Zebralette may not be your first choice for ordinary subtractive analog patches (it can even be if you want!). But it delivers the digital character resembling the typical wavetable sound (similar to PPG, Waldorf Microwave series) while opening literally unlimited ways for musical explorations through its custom waveforms, so you are not limited at all in terms of sound sources.
The purpose of this writing is to help you to avoid some of the difficulties I faced when worked with Zebralette and made the Zebralette MARS Synthmorph soundset, and guiding you with some short tips to help designing patches and make better music using this baby Zebra.
Layer multiple instances
Filtering without a filter
Generate transitions between waveforms
Disable loop in MSEG - really...
Get the most out of the few LFO's
Bipolar modulation with MSEG
Ways to get stereo width
Create your own Zebralette skin (with a warning…)
TIP 1 Layer multiple instances
The big Zebra 2 has four times all the major sections (like four times the osc, FM osc, envelopes, mixers) plus arpeggiator, much more effects, XY Pads, etc. While the single oscillator Zebralette is not comparable to Zebra 2 alone, it can still deliver the more complex type of sound of Zebra 2. Just try to imitate the composite patches of Zebra by layering multiple Zebralette instances in your DAW and playing unisono, getting some absolutely gorgeous layers.
There is no dedicated filter in Zebralette, but using the Spectral FX called "Filter" you can simulate a lowpass / highpass filter. Modulate the filter with an MSEG (abbreaviation of the versatile Multi Segment Envelope Generator) and you'll have a complete filter with its corresponding filter envelope.
Technically this is not a filter either, but you can also simulate the continuous change of overtone content by sweeping through the different waves using the Wave editor (also see Tip 5). This is a kind of pseudo-filtering, sounds like a filter, but it is wavetable synthesis actually.
TIP 3 Use micro-modulation
You can modulate 10 parameters with all the possible modulation sources, (including Velocity, Keyfollow, Pressure Touch, etc). It is always worth to apply a very tiny amount of modulations to any of these destinations. Use the Shift + mouse scroll wheel to set extremely small amount of modulations, what you do not necessarily hear every time, but it adds a subtle change or movement that makes the sound more alive and organic.
TIP 4 Parameter Lock
It is a semi-random but fast sound design technique to create presets that keep the essentials of the original root sound. It means that you can lock certain parameters at the root sound that will be kept intact when browsing through the presets, while all other unlocked parameter values will be updated from new preset. See the top video for audio demonstration.
There are two problems with this parameter lock:
First, I'd prefer to have a faster way to set this up, it is quite tedious to lock each parameter one by one. A multi selection of parameters or a section-related single lock / unlock (like locking all Waveform or Tune setting) would be much more practical and faster.
My other problem was that I did not find a way to unlock all parameters at once, so after locking them one-by-one I have to unlock them one-by-one again... very clumsy. I found it much faster just to reload the plug-in in order to get rid of these locked parameters.
TIP 5 Generate transitions between waveforms
It is about the oscillator of Zebralette, and there are two kinds of morph modes and two kinds of blend modes to change the oscillator timbre over time.
If you are really interested what the difference between these modes, read it in the manual, but the main point is:
GeoMorph and SpectroMorph - these are morphing shapes defined by points, and you can morph through different state of these nodes.
GeoBlend and SpectroBlend - Instead of nodes you can draw or import wavetables with different harmonic content. It is not a real morph, it just blends between the shapes, crossfades between the different waveforms.
The cool thing is that both the morph and blend modes allow you to generate transitions by selecting any waveform in the waveselector then press Alt/Cmd and click to a different wave - it will create transitions depending on the Oscillator mode. This one option provides merely an unlimited source of unique wave transitions.
TIP 6 Disable loop in MSEG - really...
The Multi Segment Envelope Generator (MSEG) allows you to loop between the set nodes, but sometimes you do not want any looping. Unfortunately the phrasing of the manual is a bit cloudy on how to achieve this.
To make it short: you can not switch off the loop or get rid of it, but you can essentially deactivate its effect.
The fastest way is to drag the left or the right part of the bar range and move them to the same point one after each other - the loop has gone! If you are doing at exactly at the last point, then it will be an exact one-shot envelope. Technically it is still looping the very last segment of the envelope, but you do not hear it and this is what you want.
Sometimes you may not see this pointer moving in the MSEG display. Animation occurs only if
you assign MSEG as a source modulator to any destination AND at the same time
right click > Pointer animation is set to "coarse" or "fine".
If any of these two are missing, the pointer will not animate, so check these two things in case you miss it.
TIP 7 Get the most out of the few LFO's
Compared to Zebra2 (which has something like six LFOs), we will find only two LFOs in Zebralette:
LfoG1 - a monophonic Global LFO, which impacts all played voices
Lfo1 - a polyphonic LFO, affecting per voice. If you want, you can change this LFO1 to monophonic as well, just set the Restart > to Single and it becomes monophonic.
If you run out of the two LFOs, you can convert the MSEG into a third LFO by drawing a basic waveform like sine, pulse, triangle, saw and set it to full length loop. In the video you'll see and hear an example of the triangle MSEG waveform modulating the main pitch, like an LFO.
If you want to make the this MSEG LFO rate faster, just apply the half size option multiple times and fine tune the modulation amount.
How to create Vibrato (modulating the pitch in a musical way)? Thanks to the Vibrato (LFO1) amount in the Tune (Osc) section it is very easy.
How to create a Tremolo (rhytmically modulating the volume)? Set the Volume Mod to any LFO or the MSEG1 with a rhytmic looping waveform.
TIP 8 Bipolar modulation with MSEG
The MSEG (Multi Segment Envelope Generator) is usually used as a unipolar modulator, which means here that it sends modulation values only to the positive direction. But with a little trick it is possible to use it as a bipolar modulator as well, which means that it sends modulation to both positive and negative directions.
Here is a simple step-by-step example where I will modulate the pitch with MSEG:
First set the Osc Tune to -3
Set the pitch modulation to MSEG1 and double the amount of tune (which -3) but with the opposite sign, so 2 times three results is 6. Why 6? Just observe the relationship: from the middle it goes up 3 and down 3 so the whole range spans 6 semitones. Now following the same principle try with -18 for the Osc Tune and 36 for the modulation amount - it works the same but the result is a more extreme pitch bend.
Now let's see how to setup this MSEG! Just right click on the MSEG area and select the Value Snap 12. Actually this is the vertical snapping, the pitch in our case, and you can snap the nodes to the exact pitches of the twelve note tempered scale. It means it divides the vertical range to 12 equal spaces.
Now put the first and the last MSEG node right to middle, at position 6 of the vertical range, to have a symmetric orientation. In order to avoid the pitch deviation just make sure that the first and the last node stay exactly aligned to the middle.
Use the half size option multiple times and you'll hear this little scream (the pitch modulation) at the beginning of the sound.
It is probably a good idea if you save your creation as an MSEG preset, so you can reuse it later very quickly without any setup steps.
Also, to manipulate only the nodes in-between, select the right edit mode, Draw which restricts movements to vertical only. Make sure not to touch the last point, as the pitch has to arrive back to the original pitch, in case of a harmonic sound.
Now we have a nice pitch modulation envelope that bends the pitch not just up or just down, but up and down at the same time! Worth experimenting with the bipolar MSEG modulator with other destinations like WaveWarp or Spectral FX1/2.
TIP 9 Ways to get stereo width
If you want to make a wide sound in Zebralette, you can achieve it at several levels:
At oscillator / synthesis level: VCA section > Width setting, but it only works if you set the stacking modes to Dual (2 oscillators), Quad or Eleven.
At the higher effect level: just try any of the Modulation FX (Chorus, Phorus or Phaser) all these creates a nice moving sound in the stereo field. Finally any of the delays (stereo 2, multitap 4, dubby 2+2, serial 2) creates subtle stereo movements when the Pan parts set to off-centre.
TIP 10 Create your own Zebralette skin
It seems that most u-he synths come with a flexible skin system with a built-in editor, so you could make your own!
These are the steps to activate the internal editor:
In a basic text editor like Notepad create an empty text file.
Insert this single line: !EDITOR=YES
Save this text file under the name default.h2p
Copy this file into the main preset folder of Zebralette, next to the factory patches.
Restart your DAW, create a project and load a new Zebralette instance.
Now when you open the synth interface, it will appear with an activated editor inside.
Now you can select elements, move, resize, use the right click over any element or outside of the main interface and you get a list of possible functions... But the problem is that this editor has no documentation, so if you have enough time to reverse engineer its operation through a trial-and-error process then feel free to experiment.
Also there are some Zebralette skins available for download from u-he website or vstskins.com.