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Steinberg Retrologue 1 Review

retrologue 1 synthesizer review

Being as a Cubase user I've always run across the built-in instruments of their DAW. I remember Steinberg first licensed the technology from 3rd party company (Waldorf A1) and it was a great sounding synth at that time. Later they introduced some new in-house developed VST synthesizers called Mystic, Spector and Prologue. I thought 'ok, let's give them a chance' and started using all three. They all had their strong points: the special oscillator set of Prologue or the spectrum editor in Spector and Mystics offered a lot of unique and interesting sounds. Their user interface were elaborated, but the overall experience was somewhat strange... or not enough inviting I would say. So when I run into some irritating bugs while using them they gradually faded out of my everyday work.

In July 2012 Steinberg introduced Cubase 6.5, with a new embedded synth called Retrologue. As the Cubase 6.x series was completely unnecessary for me, I did not update at all. Months later when I bought the 6.5 update and started using Retrologue I had to realize that now this one is a completely different beast, a distinctly higher level in its concept and quality compared to its predecessors.

So what Retrologue essentially is? A VST2 / VST3 / AU format virtual analogue software instrument with two multi-oscillators, a sub- and noise-oscillator, 10 slot modulation matrix, 12 filter types and a rather basic FX section. We are flooded with similar 'top 10 classic' virtual instruments, so nothing fancy is here... yet.

The interface

They changed the former sterile, computerish design of Prologue, Mystic, Spector and introduced a nice skeuomorph design ('skeuomorphism is the design concept of making items represented resemble their real-world counterparts' by Google) The name says it all: the word 'Retrologue' could be hardly matched with those futuristic knobs and faders in Prologue, etc. Instead we get nice shiny retro knobs and faders on a dark blue-grey scratched background that suits well the usual DAW dark colors and feels very comfortable and tactile.

Retrologue user interfacesteinberg-retrologue-one-gui

Thanks to the single window concept nearly all controls are on a single screen (a few exceptions are certain parts of the modulation matrix, the LFO1/2 and Effects pages), so you can access and edit all the parameters pretty fast.

Sound Generation

At first sight, Retrolouge follows the classic analog concept of '2 oscillators + 1 sub oscillator + noise' with the usual pitch modification parameters (Octave, Coarse, Fine). However the way it realizes and combines the four different oscillator modes goes beyond what most hardware or even software synth offer, see later.

Retrologue oscillatorsretrologue 1 oscillators

Both oscillators are free-running, so it is not possible to fix their start phase that somewhat limits the creation of steady percussion sounds or stable basses. Don't get me wrong, this gear is still capable of creating these kind of sounds, but the slight movement will always be felt even in cases when it is not desirable (e.g. in case of a psy bassline).

There is no audible aliasing by listening to the normal musical pitch range of the raw waveforms at 48 kHz, you can hear some minuscule artifacts at the square and triangle wave in the highest registers but it is very unlikely to reach those pitches during normal 'music use'. 

During the tweaking and testing period I noticed that the basic Saw and Square waveforms played at C3 seems to be rolled-off at around 17kHz. There are other popular VSTis' (like the top quality UVI Falcon) that has this same rolloff behaviour with these waveforms, so this is not a sign of quality but certainly a design decision (probably to decrease CPU consumption, reduce aliasing effect, or just to mimic some kind of vintage waveforms - devs could certainly answer).

You can use the oscillators in four different modes: Single / Sync / Cross and Multi.

The Single mode resembles the old stuff: you get the basic single waveforms (sine, triangle, saw, rectangle). The rectangle comes with a well scaled Pulsewidth Modulation, where you get nice transitions without loosing the wave at the edges. 

The Sync mode (hard-sync actually) is being realized by using a hidden internal oscillator: by moving the Shape knob you adjust the pitch of this hidden oscillator, thus giving you a sound rich in overtones. E.g. if you want to use Oscillator 1 in sync mode for that tortured lead sound, you do not have to sacrifice Oscillator 2 for being a slave, you can use it for whatever else you want. It may be obvious for the youth, but it was not usually the case in old synthesizers.

Cross modulation is my favorite here: again the invisible master-slave configuration, where the master oscillator modulates the pitch of the slave oscillator at audio rate. Try moving the Shape knob and you get a different FM-like sound at each different position. Perfect for all kind of cool wild metallic sharp sounds. For me this is the crucial point of the Retrologue signature sound!

The Multi oscillator can play max. 8 oscillators stacked. It is interesting that the number of oscillator could not be just whole numbers, but numbers after the decimal point as well, like 4.4. This case the 0.4 is the starting fifth oscillator with proportionally reduced volume. The Detune (where you can add the deviation in Cents) parameter handles both the number of oscillators and the amount of detune in an intelligent way: if you set e.g. 7 oscillators with Detune amount 14, then the first oscillator runs on the original pitch, and the rest are detuned by -42 -28 -14 and +14 +28 +42 cents while spreading it in the stereo field.
You'll also find a Sub Oscillator which is fixed one octave below the overall pitch, but you can select from three different waveforms (triangle, saw and square). The Noise generator offers not just the basic white noise and pink noise, but their bandpass variants as well, which may produce a more refined blend in tempered musical sounds. Finally there is a ring modulator: you have to activate both Osc 1 and Osc 2 to get some sounds from it. Use overtone rich waveforms, combine them with their sync or cross modulation, move their pitch while increase the ring modulator... instant machine room sound!

As in case of Retrologue we are talking about analog emulation, there should be something that deploys the 'random factor'. You will find the Rnd Pitch knob at the header, which can randomly vary the pitch in the +/- 6 semitone range. This is not a continuously fluctuating analog drift (however you can easily simulate this behaviour as well using the the modulation matrix buses, see below), just a simple per-note pitch randomization, which - in my experience - works musically in its very low range (0.2-2%). Beyond this range you will hear just more and more out-of-tune randomness.

Filter

Retrologue shares close similarity with Steinberg's flagship hybrid virtual instrument HALion, and it is very apparent in its choice of the digital filters: it borrows 12 single mode multi-pole filters from HALion (HALion has much-much more). Single mode means that you can select just one single filter at a time, from four main type with different number of poles (slope):

  • 4 low-pass (6, 12, 18, 24 db/oct),
  • 2 band-pass (12, 24 db/oct) ,
  • 4 high-pass (6, 12, 18, 24 db/oct) and
  • 2 band-reject (12, 24 db/oct). 
Retrologue filtersRetrologue 1 filter

The sound of the filters and resonance is always smooth and musical, and operates without any disturbing glitches at any settings. However, the sound of all filters is just one-of-a-kind character, so do not expect the whole historical range of analogue filters (e.g. from Moog to Roland or Korg) from the golden age of analogue synthesizers here.

There is a way to warm up and make the sounds more scratchy though: use the distortion knob, which has a fixed position in the signal path. Select between transistor-based clip and tube distortion and you instantly get overtones or some kind of warm yet musically pleasing sound. However the lack of more aggressive distortion modes will limit the creation of the real dirt and lo-fi in your patches.

Envelopes

The filter and the amplifier section both use the same traditional ADSR envelope, there is nothing special here. You can vary the time of the A, D and R points between 0 and 30 sec, with a logarithmic attack and exponential release characteristic (they are fixed, not adjustable).

Retrologue ADSR envelopeRetrologue1 envelopes VCA VCF

Despite of the shape of the attack you can still create 'very plucky' sounds by fine-tuning the filter and amplifier attack and filter envelope parameters. Both envelopes can be velocity sensitive by setting the Velocity knobs on the right of the faders, so the dynamic play is just a click and drag away.

Envelope characteristicRetrologue 1 exponential logarithmic envelope

Envelope characteristic of Retrologue

Is Retrologue a modulation heaven? Does not seem so… or does it?

Ironically, whereas modulation possibilities are probably the strongest parts of Retrologue, even when looking at its interface nothing refers to the fact that we are facing a real modulation monster. So much so that even the factory presets do not utilize its most advanced modulation concepts, which is a shame. And no, I am not talking about the capable modulation matrix or the LFOs' or such - read more.

Let's see the different levels of modulations in Retrologue!
1. Fix modulation sources and destinations

I've already discussed the Amplifier and Filter Envelope modulation destinations which are connected to Velocity as source if you wish and you can gradually increase the expressiveness of your play, works fine.

2. Two LFOs'

Retrologue provides two identical monophonic LFOs' that can be free-running or synced.

Retrologue LFOs'Retrologe one LFO

Monophonic means that LFO is calculated just once, affecting all notes being played at the same time. There are no polyphonic LFOs' in Retrologue.

Free-running means that you can not restart the start phase of the LFO for each key press, which may cause a problem in certain situations. As LFOs' are not restarted by each key press, they are just 'running-free' modulating multiple parameters, thus a patch will always sound a bit different when you press a key (depending on the actual LFO cycle point). It is a definitive advantage when you play an expressive lead solo (adding flow, realism and variations), but it may cause problems in case of e.g. a sound effect in the mix, which should always sound the same and still not tied to tempo, preferably. (Of course you can render it to audio and it will become a static sound or even simpler: switch it to LFO Sync mode).
If you enable LFO Sync, then LFO re-trigger becomes possible by DAW tempo or a key-press. In other words in Sync mode, LFO phase restarts at every beat or every key press based on your selection.

None of the synthesizer parameters are hardwired to any of the LFOs'. In order to use them as a modulation source, you have to assign them into the modulation matrix source first.

Regarding the LFO waveforms we have Sine, Triangle, Saw, Square and two kind of random S&H. And it goes further: you can extend the available waveforms by tweaking the Shape parameters, which will affect each LFO waveforms differently and morphs real-time between different shapes.

Look at the images below to see how turning the Shape parameter changes each of the LFO waveform over time:

Sine LFO wave shape from 0 (left) to 100% (right)

Retrologue sine LFORetrolouge 1 sine LFO

Triangle LFO wave shape from 0 (left) to 100% (right)

Retrologue triangle LFORetrolouge 1 triangle LFO

Saw LFO wave shape from 0 (left) to 100% (right)

Retrologue saw LFORetrolouge 1 saw LFO

Square LFO wave shape from 0 (left) to 100% (right) Notice the perfect square shape at the 50% setting.

Retrologue square LFORetrolouge 1 pulse LFO

S&H 1 LFO wave shape from 0 (left) to 100% (right)

Retrologue s&h 1 LFORetrolouge 1 sample and hold 1 LFO

S&H 2 LFO wave shape from 0 (left) to 100% (right)

Retrologue s&h 2 LFORetrolouge 1 sample and hold 2 LFO

The lowest LFO speed is 0.01 Hz (you can even stop it by setting it to 0.00 Hz!), the maximum one is 30 Hz - certainly not an audio rate but we get very strong oscillator modes (where the fast audio rate LFOs' would be really useful) so this has probably a less of importance.

3. Modulation Matrix

Retrologue comes with an advanced 10 slot modulation matrix. The reason it deserves the 'advanced' attribute is that you can set not just the source, destination and amount but an Offset (add or subtract to the output of the modulation source) and a Modifier. A Modifier allows to dynamically scale the amount of modulation using an additional source. An example: when you set the modwheel as a modifier in a LFO to Pitch modulation, modulation will occur gradually only when you move the modwheel.

You have a total of 34 sources and 45 destination parameters addressable in the matrix, but the most you'll use is 10 source and 29 destinations. What about the rest? 

On the one hand Retrolouge uses Note Expression. This is a Cubase specific feature that allows you to manipulate sound parameters at note level, so you can modulate the parameters of every single note of a chord separately. You can define 8 source and 8 destination Note Expression parameters, and all factory preset uses two, attached to Cutoff and Resonance.
On the other hand the synth uses the same Bus concept (similar to the multiple CV inputs on a modular synth module) introduced in all modern Steinberg instrument (HALion, Padshop, HALion Sonic, etc.). In the list of sources you'll see the 'Bus 1-16' entry and using them you can mix multiple sources resulting in a unique and complex modulation potential.

An example of bus modulation:

Retrologue modulation matrix
Retrologue 1 modulation matrix
  1. sum the waveform of LFO1 and LFO2 on Bus1, then
  2. Sum Noise and Amp Envelope on Bus2.
  3. Then mix the Bus1 and Bus2 compound signals to Bus 3
  4. and finally let the Bus3 modulate the overall pitch via the modwheel.

4. Quick Control and MIDI Learn

If you right click on a knob, you'll find additional modulation tool. Quick Control is well known for a long time amongst Cubase users (8 parameters are directly available for automation in the Cubase track inspector). 

By clicking on the Learn CC you can assign any parameter (not just the circular knobs) to you physical MIDI controller, and you can define its operation range using the 'Set Minimum' and 'Set Maximum', sweet.

But now comes my favourite...

5. …the Modwheel Modulation!

 Retrologue one Modwheel morph Synthmorph Retrologue modwheel modulation setup

Steps:

  1. Right click on a knob/fader/text box, go to Modulation Wheel menu and open its sub menu.
  2. Now click on the 'Enable Mod Wheel', which activates it.
  3. Now set this knob to a certain position and click the 'Set Minimum'.
  4. Move the knob to another position and now adjust 'Set Maximum'.
  5. Move the modwheel and you will notice that the knob/fader/text will change. Using the 'Set Minimum' and 'Set Maximum' you can define not just the range of movement, but the direction as well.

Do you aware of the fact that it works on all 82 parameters at the same time in a defined range and direction?

With a little bit of practice you can create smooth animated morphing sounds that are simply impossible to create on most electronic instruments at this level of control, just by moving the modwheel. This concept has been introduced in the first 'software-hardware' synthesizer starting the virtual analogue revolution, the Clavia Nord Lead 1.

Since then it has become a permanent feature of the Clavia brand, morphing can be found in all of their Nord synthesizers, yet it is possible to achieve it in some other popular software instruments as well (like e.g. in NI Massive or Disco DSP Discovery to name a few).

To sum it up, even if Retrologue is basically a fixed architecture synth, the clever combination of morphable LFO waveshapes, the Bus modulation and the Modwheel Modulation offers unmatched creativity for any musician who wants to make their own unique and dynamic sounds. 

Effects

This is pretty simple in Retrologue, but you can forgive it: it contains just those effects you would otherwise try first with any analog gear. You can run a modulation effect (chorus or flanger, one at a time) and a delay (stereo, cross or ping-pong delay) in parallel. There is not much room for improvement here in terms of control as you'll find all important and usual editing parameters of these individual effects and the sound is decent.

Preset Management

The Synth comes with a little more than 300 factory presets, categorized into Bass, Brass, Chromatic Perc, Drum&Perc, Musical FX, SoundFX, Synth Comp, Lead, and Pad sounds. In my view the choice of factory presets probably focus more on the bread-and-butter classic analogue sounds, but has several little hidden gems amongst them. You can instantly filter to different attributes, like name, category, author etc., so it is easy to go through all e.g. Bass patches if you want.
Strangely, none of the factory presets use the fantastic Modwheel modulation which is a shame. (I wonder if the reason for this is that one can read about this in the very last section of the manual...) 

To be improved…

  • I really miss the fixed oscillator phase. While the single option 'free-running' is certainly a retro feature and perfectly mimics the behavior of the old analogue world, I probably may expect a bit more flexibility from a VST synth and offer it as a future option.
  • The LFO section also deserves a face-lift, as the lack of polyphonic LFO, delay parameter and the adjustable phase is somewhat limited. Additional LFO sections would be awesome as well.
  • In the effect section I'd expect to extend its range with the characteristic vintage effects like phaser, Vintage Chorus and alike, plus some cooler distortion modes.
  • The 10 slot of the modulation matrix isn't enough for complex Bus modulation and the range of destinations may be increased as well (however they usually can be easily modulated by the modwheel modulation).

Conclusion

Retrologue is a surprisingly capable virtual instrument from the Steinberg VST team. Sure, it is retro in its name and it can deliver faithfully all kind of retro sounds. Though due to its advanced oscillator section, the multiple filters and the fascinating modulation system the overall picture surpasses the impact of traditional retro electronic instruments and may urge producers for more advanced sound design explorations in the studio.

In case you would come up with something original, I recommend to start with the Init preset. Worth experimenting with blending the different Cross / Sync / Multi oscillator configuration to get very unique textures, try different filter slopes with distortions and the extreme modulation variants aforementioned.

You'll be amazed.

Plus:
+ easy-to-use clean GUI
+ high quality synthesis, precise, yet vivid sound
+ great choice of filters
+ exceptional parallel modulation schemes give total control over the sound
+ very stable
+ CPU efficient
+ attractive price (and comes free with Cubase)
Minus:
- No fixed phase oscillators
- only conservative distortion modes
- both LFOs' are monophonic only
- LFO phase can not be set
- you can run out of modulation matrix slots quickly in case of intensive Bus modulations chains
- lack of visual feedback of certain modulation types
- synth presets hardly make use of the modwheel modulation
My rating: 7/10
Note: In the meantime Steinberg has released the successor of Retrologue, so so you can read my follow-up review here: Retrologue 2 review


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