Synth1 - Blessing or Curse?
Synth1 is one of the most popular long time free choice for aspiring producers to create music with a plug-in synthesizer. I've used it in some of my songs and created a patch bank for it, and I still have a very controversial and mixed feeling about it. It is a decent synthesis powerhouse with lots of potential on one side, and also a source of swear, unexpected trouble and missed opportunities on the other.
Synth1 vs. Nord Lead 2 - Do They Blend?
Synth1, the creation of Ichiro Toda originally started as a Nord Lead 2 clone in around 2002 to deliver that magic the first real virtual analogue hardware, the original Clavia Nord Lead delivers since 1995. Using the long standing basic subtractive '2 osc + noise polysynth Prophet 5 architecture made the Nord Lead an instant hit right from the start, but with some added advantages when compared to Prophet 5, like MIDI connection, more polyphony, multiple channels (slots), more memory, reliable operation and that powerful exclusive Nord sound. There are multiple Prophet and Nord Lead clones in the software synthesizer realm, but let's focus on Synth1 here alone.
How does Synth1 compare to Nord Lead 2? Surprisingly, there are some rare moments when you could not differentiate the sound, so powerful Synth1 can be. However, it is different from the Nord Lead in multiple aspects. At first sight sonically Synth1 has a much wider potential than Nord Lead 2 thanks to its additional features like oscillator phase can be fixed, has additional sub oscillator, variable saturation, more filters and built-in effects.
On the other side, one of the top yet hardly used feature of the Nord Lead, the morph velocity / based modulation is completely missing (however there is a mention in early Synth1 documentation that it used to exists or was planned, not sure about this), so you have to live with really thin modulation options on Synth1: a powerful mod matrix with two slots only, two LFOs and two hardwired velocity modulators – that's it! Nord Lead excels in getting instant great sounding layers out-of-box through its multitimbral Performance operation - you may approximate this using multiple Synth1 instances but there is no inherent multi-channel operation. Although the synthesis engine of the Nord Lead 2 is not flawless from a musician's point of view, still fine-tuned with much more attention to details. Finally the Nord subjective sound quality is especially pleasing – even with its lovely aliasing here and there...
Synth1 In Focus
The look of Synth1 is a bit rough visually but very functional and well organized. It is re-sizable up to 250 %, so perfect for modern high-resolution displays, plus you can set the color of the panel and the text separately.
In terms of the synthesis – without going into the dry explanation of the specifications, etc. – the engine of Synth1 is far from perfect. The annoying issues listed below are preset dependent, so not reproducible every time, but once you have been working with Synth1 for a while, you will face them eventually:
incorrect parameter ranges: instead of a continuous change when moving a knob, you will hear continuous stepping in the sound.
Patches with effects applied often start to behave unpredictable, especially when applying some of the distortion modes and the decimator. Sure, these effects exist to create some intentional 'mess', but they often make very sharp, sudden changes and weird noises (without any transition) even if you move the knob a little bit.
Filter envelope velocity changes may cause drastic volume changes, hence distort a preset quickly. There is literally no internal gain optimization, so you have to reduce the volume at certain sections to avoid instant distortion caused by unnatural gain increases - this is a great lesson for you when it comes to 'manual gain management in digital environment' anyway. I recommend leaving the main volume at its default 64 setting and increase it only when you really need to.
I even run into sudden changes in sound sometimes without any reason. I do not touch anything and the patch sounded different than some seconds ago. Whoaa....
I find it especially painful that there is no way to reset a knob parameter (like double click or Ctrl +click, etc.), or at least I did not find any.
Synth1 updates are very rare (the last one arrived mid 2014 for Windows, and it is still called 'beta' today), but the Japanese author keeps adding charming new features and GUI optimizations: last time a new LPDL (low pass diode ladder) filter arrived, and the synth became future proof with the release of the 64-bit VST / AU formats. I managed to run it without a single crash in DAW projects using 25-30 Synth1 instances on Windows 10, but surprisingly I had to face several stability issues when running it in Logic and Cubase on Mac OS El Capitan. Unfortunately I can not recommend it (version 1.13 beta8) on Mac now.
I sent some bug reports to the public email address of the author, but Ichiro San does not respond to emails at all. The Synth1 VSTi development is very accidental, so you can not expect help when running into some problems (like I did, and had to spend too much time to find workarounds...)
The online manual is rather dated, but if you tinker away the history of changes a bit you'll find the majority of new features listed there.
Enough to be negative: Synth1 has an astonishing abundance of presets. After a quick Google search you can literally download tens of thousands presets in huge organized preset packs. It is worth to skip the basic factory presets / banks and spend some time to find those little inspiring gems. Add to this that you can load 100 banks of 128 presets, so essentially 12800 presets (!) are at your fingertips any time (most of the banks contain less than 127 presets, so this is a theoretical number). You do not even have to unzip the banks, Synth1 can read the individual patch files from a compressed zip bank file. It is very likely that you will find something that fits to your song perfectly.
Is Synth1 a good instrument? Absolutely, has a lovely character with a huge range of possible sounds. Can by dirty, fat, super clean and mesmerizing, it can surprise you in a positive way. My purpose with the Synth1 Pluto Box project was to show that with proper modulations you can drive this free synth with limited modulation options to the max and get very vivid, breathing single sounds ascribed to 'hardware instruments only' (which is a major misconception I think, but that's another story...).
It is not my go-to synth, but find it quite usable and delivers great sounds for any genre. It is considered to be the best free vst synth with low CPU usage and decent quality up to now, but some major free players (like the free u-he digital synthesizers) probably competes successfully for the lead recently.
To sum it up, if you do not want or be able to spend for any paid virtual instrument, and Windows is your main operating system, Synth1 will do the job and there is a chance that you'll become a better programmer over time and write better music 'using' its limitations. It can be surprisingly effective in the right hands - here comes your creativity to overcome its inbuilt weaknesses and use it the way that fits the best to your track, like e.g layering multiple instances or automating it to the extreme.
Putting my criticism aside, I can not stress enough that we are talking about a free instrument here and this persistent and controversial one-man project called Synth1 positively contributes a lot to the everyday joy of music production.
So...is Synth1 a blessing... or...curse?
Blessing AND Curse!
+ easy to use
+ a great learning tool for subtractive synthesis
+ very wide sonic palette
+ huge amount of preset library
+ very stable (on Windows only)
+ low CPU usage
+ it is free
- unexpected audio artifacts
- missed opportunity: modulation options are limited
- parameter reset is not possible
- unstable on Mac OS
- rare updates
- no support
My rating: 5/10
Another down for synth1: attacks don’t always work.