Organic MIDI & Preset Design for Synthesizers
Cart 0

The Good Gets Excellent: Steinberg Retrologue 2 Review

retrologue 2 synthesizer review

With the release of Cubase 8.5 Steinberg introduced the successor of the Retrologue (one), the Retrologue 2. Experienced synth programmers and producers all know that practice and the deep knowledge of a specific instrument weighs much more than the dozens of hyped instrument features. Steinberg Retrologue (one) may already have been a heaven for them - the precise parameter control and good sound was already given, but some things were still missing to rank Retrologue (one) into the higher league. Let's see that after three years what Retrologue 2 delivers!

As usual, the instrument comes with Cubase Artist or Cubase Pro 8.5 as a VST3 instrument or can be purchased separately or part of the Absolute 2 Instrument Collection (in VST3/2.4 and AU formats). It is very important that the Cubase 8.5 installation or the standalone Retrologue 2 installer will overwrite the original Retrologue 1, so you can not use it anymore. Theoretically, they are compatible, so you won't need the old one. Maintaining compatibility was a major concern, so this incremental update is able to load and edit all presets made with the previous version with a few minor changes in sound, see below.

This review is about the new Retrologue 2 exclusive features. If you want to see the full picture of 'Retrologia', start by reading the Retrologue (one) review first as it still applies in nearly all parts.

The looks

Fortunately Steinberg listens to his customers and prospects these days, so they addressed not just nearly all missing points of Retrologue (one) but considerably extended the instrument features: Retrologue 2 is a different universe. The most obvious change: the single window concept is replaced by three separate pages (see red 0. three top buttons on the header). The Synth page contains all sound generation and modulation functions, the Arp page has a very complex arpeggiator with parameter control and finally you can work with the extended set of effects on the FX page.

Retrologue 2 graphic user interface guiChanges on the synth engine

Synth engine improvements

  1. With the new Main > Keyfollow knob you can scale the pitch effect of the notes. The default setting 100 is the total tempered scale with 12 notes in an octave, so you can double it or gradually decrease it until the sound stop to react to pitch changes at 0%. I found it especially useful for drums and percussive sounds where you can fine-tune them to the key of the song.

  2. We got a third oscillator, which is an exact replica of the previous two. Now the 3 osc + subOsc + Noise +  Ringmod + internal oscillator modes will satisfy the needs of the most demanding snyth junkies.

  3. In Retrologue (one) you could not set the starting behaviour of the oscillator phase when pressing the key, so the oscillators always worked in free-running mode. Certain presets (like analog percussion, steady bass, sound fx) may demand to sound always the same without any movement. The solution is here with the adjustable Phase dropdown, where you can choose from three options: Free (the original R1 free-running behaviour), Random (the oscillator starts at different phases by every press of the key) and Fixed Phase, which sticks the starting oscillator phase to the same value, defined between 0 and 360 degrees. No more excuse to make that fat progressive psy bassline or percussion sounds to be sampled!

  4. After the powerful Single, Sync, Cross and Multi oscillator modes we have a new one in R2 called 'XOR'. No, this is not the name of the dark lord of a 80s' sci-fi movie: exclusive OR (XOR) is a logical operator, where we continuously get a true or false result by comparing two internal hidden square oscillators. The resulting flow of true and false values modulates the pitch of the basic waveform. The sound generated by XOR oscillator mode resembles the Sync modulation, albeit it is a bit less robust spectrum shaping tool.

  5. As we can use 3+1 oscillators, this increased the available ring modulation combinations as well: now you can multiply the Osc1 +Sub or the Osc2 + Osc3 oscillator pairs.

  6. Surprisingly, the developers have changed the sensitivity range of the Random Pitch knob: now the edge of the musical range is around 1%, at 0.5% you get pretty stable yet musically valuable pitch fluctuations. Every Retrologue (one) preset need readjustments here, otherwise they will sound horribly out-of-tune!

  7. New filters, see explanation below

  8. New distortion modes, see below

  9. New polyphonic LFOs' and an additional bipoar envelope, see below

  10. More modulation matrix slots

Filters

The number of filters is doubled compared to Retrologue (one): now you can pick from 24 filters of your choice. Please read the Retrologue (one) review to know more about the Retrologue filters. The 12 new filters (see them in the red rectangles) are the combinations of different poles (6, 12, 18 dB/octave) and characters (HP, LP, BR, AP) that drastically expand the sound sculpting potential!

I especially like the Allpass (AP) and its combinations that change the phase relationships across the frequency spectrum - very musical phaser-like sweeps with high resonance setting and added distortion - try them!

Retrologue 2 new filters

see the new filters in red

The old Retrologue did not impressed us with a wide range of distortion types, fortunately this has been touched up as well: three new distortion types appeared next to the original Tube and Clip distortion.

Bit Red is the pathway to send your sound into a digital chaos by applying the popular bit-crusher effect. Rate adds aliasing by a well controllable digital sample rate reduction distortion, while Rate KF is the same but employs a fix positive keyfollow: the higher you play on the keyboard the less distorted the sound you get. But even playing high notes at extreme resonance and cutoff settings will not prevent your sound to drown into a massive digital chaos affecting even the pitch relations!

The mixture of the 5 distortion types together with the 24 filter types provides us incredibly versatile sound shaping options. Do you respect those scratched, wonky, organic sequences and effects coming from the modular synths? Master the filter section first but... do not forget to read on yet... there is still more inside!

Modulations

However Retrologue (one) had two general monophonic LFOs' (read more about them here in details) there was a place for improvement here. So we got two new additional LFOs' called LFO 3 and 4, packed with the requested new features:

  • both are polyphonic LFOs', so they affect each voice separately.

  • Both use a Fade In parameter that defines the time needed to reach the maximum modulation impact.

  • The Retrigger is just an On/Off switch: when switched on the LFO phase restarts at every note - essential for e.g. sound effects that should always sounds the same.

Next to the two standard envelopes (Filter and Amplifier) the new envelope called 'Env3' is unique in all respects:

Retrolouge 2 bipolar envelope 3

  • not hardwired to any parameter, so you have to assign it to any sensible destination in the modulation matrix

  • it is a multi-segment envelope with 7 adjustable points - as opposed to the ADSR envelopes where ADR means time and S is a level, here you can set the Start and End Levels (L0, L4) and the Attack level (L1) separately. As the time and level parameters are controlled by using the same type of faders, and this envelope has also negative levels, it is quite hard to follow visually how this envelope really shapes the destination parameter. It may be clear in e.g. pitches, but much harder to predict when assigned to a less audible sound parameter.

    The envelope outline above the sliders may operate in an interactive way if it is already there... but being just a static image this is a missing point. It fits well into the retro design concept (like the plate of a real analog synth or physical modular block), but is absolutely not user friendly at all.

  • It is a bipolar envelope so you can use effectively for any modulation starting at the center, e.g. for panorama.

Retrologue 2 improved the modulation matrix options:

  • instead of the 10 you have 16 modulations slots now

  • the number of modulation sources and destinations has been grown (e.g. finally it is possible to modulation the LFO frequency or shapes in case of LFO 3/4)

  • you can establish modulation connections using the mouse: just drag any of the modulation sources (the three horizontal lines) and drop it to the parameter you would like to modulate - a green overlay circle appears over the destinations available (as not all parameters can be modulated). When you release the mouse button, the connection is being created in the modulation matrix with a default 50% modulation amount, so you can hear its effect instantly.

Retrologue 2 drag and drop modulation

the drag and drop modulation in Retrologue 2

  • three arpeggiator control sequences are available as modulation sources (see more below)

  • finally we got the option to delete any or all modulation slots setting by right clicking over the matrix

The Arpeggiator

I never get exicted by the built in arpeggiators of instruments as nine out of ten have a very basic set of tools to create something exciting. Hence I personally did not miss it in Retrologue (one) at all as most DAW come with built-in arpeggiators that are more than adequate for making sophisticated arpeggios.

Retrologue 2 - the Arpeggiator page

the Arpeggiator page

But.. before saying 'meh' to Retrologue 2 arpeggiator I made a test drive... and I am glad that I did! This is an arpeggiator monster not just for music tasks but for serious sound design too. It is packed with so many features that I will highlight only the most interesting ones

  • You can choose between nine classic arpeggiator modes - you can use it as a monophonic step sequencer or as a polyphonic chord playing machine a'la classic Access Virus 'Chord Arp' mode.

  • You can transpose the note pitch per step, adjustable up to a maximum of 32 steps (steps can be tied to create TB303-style glides) with individual legato and note length editing.

  • Sweeten your sequences with additional performance controls: Swing, Gate Scale, Velocity Scale, Octave - try to automate e.g. Gate Scale while playing to get impressive rhythmic variations.

  • You have three special controller lanes for drawing continuous controller MIDI events (the reserved control changes are: cc 110, 111, 112). These events can be unipolar or bipolar, with selectable modulation destinations (the same as the ones used in modulation matrix) and modifiers. E.g. the higher you move up the modwheel the more gradually you modulate the Osc Pitch with the control sequence.

  • You can internally record all arpeggiator notes and MIDI controller lanes by activating / deactivating the REC button then export the complete sequence with drag & drop to your host.

  • In 'Key Mode > Direct' you can play notes and only the three continuous controller event series are sent out parallel (like a modular sequencer with three separate CV output) - this is an additional sound animation tool over 32 steps at any tempo and tempo scales between 4/4 and 1/128 (including triplet and dotted variations). A secret weapon for sound design!

  • You can drag & drop a MIDI file to the Groove Quantize slot and match its timing to the arp sequence using a depth value. E.g extract the MIDI timing of an audio or drum loop, MIDI drum or any melody as a source and apply it 100% to exactly match the feel of the groove or... just 50% to approximate it.

  • Save your own presets or select from the 190 categorized factory preset phrases.

  • You can lock the current arpeggiator settings by clicking on the lock icon on the Arp page button (it becomes red when active). Now just browse through the presets while the arpeggiator (with the control sequences) plays the same riff - again a vast source for instant creative ideas!

Effects

The rather basic effect set based on Retrolouge (one) has been expanded to the degree it required to create a dedicated FX page.   

Retrologue two - the Effects page

the FX Page

What's new in the FX section of Steinberg Retrologue 2?

  • The Chain section on the top allows you to reorganize the six effects in any serial order by drag&drop, plus you can enable/disable any of them by clicking on the boxes.

  • Now we have six main effect, the new ones are:

    • Resonator (see more below),

    • Phaser,

    • Vintage Ensemble (this is actually a new algorithm within the ModFX section),

    • Reverb,

    • and finally a 4-band parametric EQ, where you can switch on/off each band to save CPU power. Do you want to filter out only the low rumble of a patch? Activate just the Low Band switch and you are there!

  • You can now save presets for each effect, consequently you can rely on your well crafted sounds or use the factory patches.

The most interesting effect in the R2 arsenal is the Resonator effect. What is this?

This is a special device that produces resonant behaviour at certain frequencies (the resonant frequencies) with greater amplitude than at other frequencies. That is, it oscillates faster at those certain frequencies.

Resonance happens in all types of vibration of waves. Even in musical instruments there are different type of resonators: ones that generate resonances (e.g. a guitar) and the ones that modify the current sound spectrum by picking out specific frequencies from the complex vibration containing many frequencies (these are e.g. filters). The Resonator FX in Retrologue 2 is the latter, so think of it as a very powerful additional filter module that allows you to create extreme sound variations of a sound using 3 parallel filters in the 3 frequency bands: low, mid, high.

Retrologue 2 resonator filters

Each band can use any of the 14 filter resonator shapes, so always three filters are running parallel simultaneously. E.g. one of the filter resonator shape is called 'Bat 2', which is a HP12/BP12/LP12 filter in the low/mid/high frequency bands. 

You can easily dial in human voice dyphtong (dyphtong: a sound formed by the combination of two vowels in a single syllable, in which the sound begins as one vowel and moves towards another [as in 'coin', 'loud', and 'side']) characteristic when adjusting these self-oscillating multi-band filters. It it too easy to self-oscillate them, so whenever you are hearing this sine wave effect infinitely, just lower the Resonance a bit to prevent continuous ringing.

Each filter band can be modulated with

  • the 3 separate LFO modules (see red A to set amounts) or
  • the 3 Arp controller lanes in step-sequencer style (see red B to set amounts)
  • and do not forget the possible mod-wheel modulation assignment of any Resonator knob, switch or slider that gives you total freedom of any number of extra manual modulations.

Retrologue 2 resonator modulation

While the Resonator theoretically could help to achieve realistic brass, strings and choir sounds, this is still probably a territory to be explored in Retrologue 2 because just a very few factory presets use it this way.

Overall, I found the Resonator a bit less impressive to create faithful simulations of human voice character or the instruments mentioned above. Contrarily, this is an incredible tool to add a 'fresh layer' of animation for any sound: creating screaming and bubbling resonances, swirling phasers and sweeping flangers with adjustable stereo movement (Spread) per frequency band. All this sounds especially musical at moderate Resonator Mix levels, so make sure not to overdo it.

Future improvement ideas after working extensively with Retrologue 2

  • The 'reset parameter' function by Ctrl+click any knob works fine, however it always requires both hands which is very uncomfortable! The 'double click on a knob' reset method is a faster and proven way used by many great VSTi makers. One hand for playing the keyboard while moving knobs with the other using mouse or phyiscal controller is much easier. A small but invaluable accelerator when making synth presets many hours a day!
  • Setting transposition with mouse is quite tedious in the Arp page as Tab currently moves across parameters fields only, but not between arpeggiator steps. Tab and Ctlr/Cmd +Tab should move the focus forth and back across the 32 arpeggiator steps as well, while accepting any transposition value numerically entered from the computer keyboard.
  • The new drag & drop modulation is a great direction to make connections easier but unfortunately not fully unified: you can access the 9 most popular modulation sources, the rest 31 is only available in the modulation matrix, the LFO1/2 parameters are still not available as destinations. Despite the 'retro' origin, a unified and easy to set visual system may help. 
  • The lack of one-click modulation bypass in the modulation matrix is unintelligible (even if that still fits into the 'retro concept').
  • Similarly, there is no one-click method to solo certain synth sections, (e.g. Alt/Cmd+click on the Osc1 On/Off button to solo Osc1 only or temporarily 'mute' LFOs' or any modulators)
  • Major omission is the lack of proper visual feedback of modulations like an additional visual layer (a ring) to show modulations in real-time around the knobs.
  • Some visual elements and functionality of the Modwheel Modulation could be improved:
    • Define modwheel morph range / directions graphically with mouse instead of the tedious right click method (currently you need three separate right clicks to set one modwheel morph range!). 
    • visual indication of the modwheel modulation range and direction would be welcome (rings around knobs, whatever...)
    • scale up / down the modulation range by a modifier key, e.g Shift
    • offset modulation range using a modifier, e.g. Alt/Cmd
    • a simple 'Reverse' function may swap the start and end point of modulation (hence the direction of the modulation) without the need to set them manually again
    • a quick 'Suspend' function to temporarily disable / enable Modwheel modulation (otherwise the user has to trash it in order to disable and re-set again when needed, which is rather clumsy).



  • The current user interface is clear and perfectly visible, however with the advent of ultra high monitor resolutions I'd prefer to work with a user-scalable GUI that keeps razor sharp at any magnification level.

Verdict

If you invest some time and efforts, Retrologue 2 may become a very inspiring and flexible top quality synthesizer in your hands. It is already way beyond the standard 2-osc polysynth architecture, a foolproof workhorse not just for all kind of analog sound but covers a wider range of electronic soundscapes. I personally look at it as a powerful semi-modular synthesizer equipped with 16 patch cables and flexible routing options plus the added advantages of the plug-in format. Nearly all factory presets use the modulations, so never forget to move the modwheel or press aftertouch! It can deliver shrill, deep, fat, piercing or noisy sounds, can emit both very musical yet precise tones or a slightly out-of-tune smoky, dusty vintage character. Sounds 100% like a real retro analog? Very close, but its main point is the distinct musicality and character.

If you want to get an impression about his sonic universe thorugh some organic sounds and special sequences showing the dark side of Retrologue 2 then listen to my collections synthesizer presets from below, which is part of the Galactic Trip for Retrologue sound set:

 

Overall, Steinberg Retrologue 2 is a user-friendly, stable synthesizer, a source of excellent, versatile sounds with a unique vibe in the studio. It is not the cheapest VSTi out there if you had bought it separately (lucky Cubase users get it free with the 8.5 upgrade), so give it a chance by trying the 30 day trial available at here: Retrologue 2 trial

Plus:

+ a powerful semi-modular gear with 16 patch-cables plus a dozen of hidden modulations due to the special oscillator modes.
+ Steinberg has made it a mature, full-featured product, a major step forward compared to the previous Retrologue (one)
+ modwheel modulation offers you microscopic-level control for nearly all parameters in real-time, creating expressive morphed sounds is a breeze!
+ intuitive drag-and-drop modulation - a step forward to better visualization on what's going on
+ comes free with the Cubase 8.5 upgrade

Minus:

- Built in reverb sounds a bit limited
- No modulation matrix bypass
- Env3 envelope should have a proper real-time visual feedback

My rating: 9/10



Older Post Newer Post


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published