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Access Virus Powercore and TDM Virus Indigo Synthesizer Review

Synth Morph access virus synthesizer synthesizer review

As you probably know, Access Virus synthesizers exist not just in physical form, but also as virtual instruments. Most of you know the latest – combined physical and integrated virtual – versions (the Virus TI / TI2 / Snow synthesizers) due to their popularity, amazing sound, tactile control, the possibility to use them as a standalone instrument and they look good on the stage anyway.

But Access has recognized the importance of computer integration much earlier and realized it already in the early 2000s'. This solution was primarily for power users who appreciated the quick operation and instant project recalls in pro studio environment, always working around the clock. All virtual Viruses explained below were based on the same principle: one or more dedicated DSP (digital signal processor) cards with several DSP chips on board were responsible for the computation of the sound generation / alteration, while the actual sound appeared on the output of the system audio interface. 

Virus TDM

The Virus A synthesizer was released in 1997, and three years later its virtual counterpart, the Access Virus TDM turned up too. It was a software synthesizer plug-in for the Digidesign Pro Tools TDM professional audio production systems, both for Mac and Windows. The different TDM systems used the same kind of Motorola 56k DSP chips that were used in the Virus A (a single Motorola 56303), so migrating the code was relatively painless. 

Virus TDM

 Access Virus TDM, based on a Virus A

The original Virus TDM was essentially a Virus A adhering the TDM specifications, yet with all its restrictions, like having only two main oscillators, only two LFOs, and a limited number of effects, compared to later models. While the Virus A had 12 voice polyphony the TDM version managed to squeeze 16 out of a DSP, a standard Pro Tools|24 MIXplus system with 5 DSP chips was able to run 5x16=80 voices at 40 multi-timbral channels, while being able to automate around 150 synthesizer parameters. It was definitely a well-spent ($795) for that synth at that time. 

Virus Indigo TDM

Parallel with the release of Virus b in 2002, its virtualized version called Virus Indigo TDM (still $795) became available. It was identical with the Virus b in terms of features. As the sound was coming directly from the Pro Tools audio interface output, the sound quality was not in question: it had a cleaner, more dynamic and a bit more spacious sound than the original synth. Add the ability to run a maximum of 160 voices total at 48 kHz (or 80 voices at 96 kHz) on a Pro Tools|HD DSP, the ability to read the presets of the hardware version - it was a clear winner in the ProTools environment. 

Virus Indigo TDM

Virus Indigo TDM, based on Virus B

You can still buy the Access Virus Indigo TDM these days, but contrary to the slow die off of the TDM platform there is not even the slightest sign of releasing an AAX version of this invaluable virtual Virus. 

Virus Powercore

The virtualized Virus finally became available for a wider range of musicians at NAMM 2004 where Access Music and TC Electronic announced their cooperation to release the Virus synthesizer for the TC Powercore DSP cards (again, cards based on Motorola 56k DSPs). 

The Virus Powercore is fully identical with the Virus b sound engine and works with all Powercore devices, be it PCI, PCI Express or Firewire based.

It was available in two versions:

- the Base license ($399) provided a single Virus instance (always occupying 100% of a single DSP) with 16 polyphony and 4 part multi-timbral,

- the additional Extended license (at extra $249) allowed to use all available DSP chips in a system, up to 256 voices and 64 part multi-timbral parts – in case of the maximum four Powercore devices used simultaneously. The typical user scenario (a single card with 4 DSP chip) results 64 voices and 16 parts. 

Virus Powercore Easy page

 Virus Powercore - Easy page

Virus Powercore Oscillator page

Virus Powercore - Oscillator page

Together with the Extended license the Virus Powercore costed around $650 (without the price of the DSP card), so it is the probable winner of the most expensive synthesis-based VSTi out there.

The original enthusiasm and commitment was encouraging: 'With this announcement we would like to send a clear signal to the market. DSP-platforms such as TC PowerCore are very viable concepts and we will strongly support them!' says Christoph Kemper, CEO of Access Music.   

Virus Powercore Filter and Envelope page

Virus Powercore - Filter / Envelope page 

Virus Powercore LFO page

Virus Powercore - LFO page 

The gratification was a bit too early, just a year later dramatic changes were introduced: in 2005 Access discontinued their flagship Virus C and simplified their inflated product range to the brand new Virus TI synths and the Virus Classic (which was essentially a Virus b in red.) Both the TDM and the Powercore Virus were Digidesign and TC Electronics products while Access provided the code of the synth. Virtual Viruses were left there just to cannibalize their own hardware market and to reduce turnover by paying share for the aforementioned two companies. 

Virus Powercore FX1 page

Virus Powercore - FX-1 page 

It became obvious that Access would focus all their efforts on the TI line at the expense of everything else. It led to the unfortunate situation that Virus Powercore did not achieve a real production stability yet and remained a buggy instrument for a long time, causing lots of problems for the users: loss of sync between the various synth sections, inaccurate timing, hanging notes, disappearing GUI, pops and glitches, problems with external firewire-based Powercore interfaces due to low bandwidth, multi-license problems, lack of working program change, etc. Support requests were actually inefficient as most of the time companies blamed the users, their computer setup or other companies involved in the situation. Virus Powercore became unstable occasionally, but I would not say it was unusable when using it on a daily basis.


Virus Powercore FX2 page

Virus Powercore - FX-2 page 

Increased disaffection ended in a widespread on-line petition in 2008 (Petition to fix Virus Powercore), drawing attention of both Access Music and TC Electronic to these permanent problems. As a result, companies started to investigate the source of the issues and a bit later started fixing the bugs, even running a short public beta test period. The outcome of the process was the Virus Powercore 2.0 that fixed most of the problems and shortcomings successfully and made the virtual Virus much more stable on the Powercore platform. 

Virus Powercore Modulation Matrix page

Virus Powercore - Modulation matrix page 

Plus points of the Virus Powercore:

  • 100% Virus sound in-the-box, while it does not put any strain on the host CPU.
  • Fully compatible with all Virus b / c  presets, however does not recognize and load TI banks.
  • Unlimited number of presets can be stored / loaded without any sysex juggling.
  • It does not take up space on your desk.
  • No cabling, no mixer, no MIDI interface, no MIDI bandwith bottleneck, no 'where is the sound?'-type annoyances.
  • It is not just a synth editor, this is the VST instrument itself: there are no hidden functions and menus, all parameter appears as a dedicated knob / switch, so using this interface is way faster for sound design compared to the hardware.
  • The only Virus where off-line (accelerated) freeze / bouncing works.
  • Host and MIDI automation are both available, in my experience MIDI automation works more reliable.
  • Up to 256 polyphony with the Multi-license, which is enough for complex song arrangements or fat sound layer sampling.
  • Separate multiple outputs per part are possible with the Multi-Out version of the plug-in.
  • Each DSP chip in Powercore allows you to apply separate global reverb / delay settings, as opposed to the hardware Virus b where you have just a single reverb or delay.
  • Total recall of all preset settings in the DAW project.
  • It is recommended to use at 44 / 48 kHz, but works fine at 88 / 96 / 192 kHz sample rate if that's your workflow. The output sound quality is limited only by your audio interface.
  • The audio input plug-in version of Virus is part of the package, so you can use it as a real-time FX processor or as an effect plug-in on any track.
  • You can put any of your favourite effect plug-in onto its channel to color and spice up your Virus sound right inside the box.
  • If you have a hardware Virus you can control the virtual Virus directly from the hardware. 

Virus Powercore red flags :

  • Both the Powercore platform and the Virus Powercore synth were terminated in 2011. Since then they are unsupported and are not available to purchase anymore.
  • There is no 64-bit version, however the 32-bit Virus Powercore plug-in (even the separate audio input plug-in) works seamlessly in any host using jBridge.
  • The steady problem of any Virus affects the Virtual Powercore as well: as one instance of Virus can not handle more than 16 voices, this is usually insufficient for even four parts. Without the multi-license it is not an attractive choice for composers.
  • Unfortunately it never got any of Virus C features like the 1/2/3/4 pole Moog filters, undo / redo, Random Patch Generator, hermode / pure tuning or the expanded modulation matrix.
  • Preset Browser is just so-so: its usability is far from the Browser section of TI Virus Control. For example, you can not delete a patch, just overwrite it... or you have to mouse over and scroll long lists of drop-down menus to load non-consecuitve patches...quite tedious until you get accustomed to it. Despite its own praise in the manual, this part is old-fashioned and not user-friendly at all.
  • Occasionally there are still some stability problems even with the new fixed version, like disappearing GUI or easy-to-fix tuning problems when using DSP 3 and 4. They can be fixed using the Reset function of the TC Powercore Control Panel. In order to get the best Virus performance, you have to make sure that the sound card buffer is set to 128, 256 or 512 samples (or the power of two). Any other puffer size may result less accurate timing or artifacts in sound. I am using it at 128 samples latency with a Powercore driver that works pretty stable in Windows 10 64-bit. I even tried newer drivers earlier and they rendered the Virus useless, so no more trial and error... will be using this one only.

Overall, the Virus Powercore is still a great workhorse VSTi with a diverse sonic range and decent computer integration (after debugging the possible initial driver problems). After ten years it still delivers that famous, unpredictable and cool sound and the fast synth editing experience.

Thanks to Carlo Demichelis for this great Virus Powercore overview video:

My rating: 8/10

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