ACCESS VIRUS TI
The Totally Integrated Virus synthesizer has arrived. Time to don the biohazard suit and muck in!
Text: Derek Johnson
If you’re going to be a one-product company, you’d better make it one hell of a product. Fortunately for Access, its Virus family of analogue synth modelling has established itself as a modern classic since its launch nearly a decade ago.
Rather than continuously revamping its product line and introduce new instruments, Access has chosen evolution. Each new release (and interim firmware update) develops the basic model – every new instrument has been a Virus of some kind. The core engine and sound are both instantly recognisable as a Virus, and the user interface of the latest instrument would be accessible to an owner of the very first Viral strain.
The Virus has also appeared in plug-in format – for ProTools. The latest release, the Virus TI, blurs the line between plug-in and hardware. Hence the suffix: ‘TI’ which stands for Total Integration and indicates a step forward for both the developer and user of Access technology: in many ways the Virus TI hardware becomes the plug-in, accessed by compatible host Mac or PC software, with sample accurate audio streaming, through an on-screen shell. Strangely, the plug-in is in VST and Audio Units (for Mac OSX) formats only.
Taking this hardware/software approach is great for the user: it offers a much more powerful synth than would otherwise be replicated using the DSP resources of even the most advanced computers by off-lining that processing to the hardware. That hardware also functions as a fully editable Virus when not interfaced with a computer. For the developer, too, this tying of plug-in to hardware is a positive step: having the DSP guts of the plug-in mounted in what amounts to a very large dongle stops software piracy in its tracks.
Physically, the Virus TI comes in one of three packages. On my review table is the Virus TI Desktop. It’s got chunky mahogany-style end cheeks (that can be swapped for rack ears) and lots of knobs (more than older Viruses), not to mention a larger display than previous Virus examples, and plenty of really bright (but dimmable) LEDs – it’s an exciting yet slightly daunting array of controls. Add a 61-note velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive keyboard and you have the VTI Keyboard; we’re still talking mahogany-style end cheeks but add an internal PSU (rather than the Desktop’s external lump).
There’s just a whiff of mahogany styling with the Virus TI Pølar. The vibe here is contemporary futuristic ice white aesthetics, plus a 37-note keyboard (with a discreet mahogany strip under the keyboard!). If it had strap buttons like Roland’s classic SH101, this could be a real pose item on stage. As it is, it’s perhaps the most visually striking Virus to yet appear. All three units share a bizarre multi-button-push power on/off routine.
All three VTIs have USB connectivity (1.1, rather than 2.0), three sets of assignable stereo audio output jacks, a stereo audio input, a headphone output, a pair of controller sockets and full Midi complement. Coaxial S/PDIF I/O is also standard. Before we go further, you might like to know that the USB link makes VTI audio and Midi hardware (plus its controls) available to host software. Nice touch! A Virus TI could potentially be the main multitimbral synth, hardware control surface and audio and Midi I/O for your desktop music system.
Internally, all variants are identical. The signal path is largely similar to the last generation Virus, but a new dual-DSP approach adopted by the VTI means that it can be truly used as a 16-part multitimbral synth for creating complex layers or multi-channel playback (previous Viruses could struggle when loaded with 16 complex multi-oscillator patches). Given the potential complexity of a basic Virus patch, there is a spectre of excess here that could be rather intoxicating!
Polyphony should be improved with the new dual-DSP, but a firm figure is hard to estimate since the number of oscillators, effects, simultaneous voices and so on have a big impact on the final number. Access quotes 80 voices under average conditions, but perhaps think of that as an upper limit in most circumstances.
Briefly, the Virus TI architecture is as follows. A voice has up to three oscillators (plus sub-oscillator and noise), each of which can generate a continuously variable analogue-style waveform from sine to square wave, with pulse width modulation; or select from 63 spectral, and distinctly non-analogue, waveforms. The TI oscillators also have two new choices. First of all, the Hypersaw sawtooth oscillator can generate up to nine parallel detunable examples of itself simultaneously, with unison option (remember what we said about usable polyphony!). The other newbie is a Wavetable oscillator: 72 wavetables add even more digital synthesis and textural options, mainly in the industrial and grungy side of the sonic spectrum. Virus’s FM feature can really be hammered if a Wavetable is selected as part of a frequency modulated patch. Add oscillator sync and ring modulation to the stew, too.
The remainder of the signal path includes meaty, dual resonant multi-mode filters that can be linked in many interesting ways, and which feature a nifty Moog emulation option. Then there are three LFOs and two envelope generators. Putting it all together will inevitably involve the fabulous Virus modulation matrix. It’s been enhanced on the new TIs: six mod sources and 18 destinations are now available. Mod sources could be anything from LFOs and envelope generators to the on-board arpeggiator – I forgot to mention the arp earlier… but it’s brilliant.
And that’s before we add effects. Standard delay and reverb treatments sit alongside comprehensive EQ and a host of distortion and modulation treatment. Add a vocoder and audio input ring modulator and you have a streamlined and comprehensive collection. One of the TI’s big innovations is to make more effects available to each voice in a multitimbral setup – no doubt due to the dual DSP.
What we’re here for, obviously, is the ‘I’ in TI – integration. And this works amazingly well, right from the straightforward installation of the software.
The main face of Total Integration is the plug-in in your host software. This provides a graphical approach to Virus editing that’s much more approachable than on the hardware alone – just look at the screen dumps! Communication is tight, and there’s even instant recall of tweaked VTI setups when recalling a host song file – you don’t need to save your work. What’s particularly noticeable is the TI’s huge preset collection when working on screen – there are no less than 2176 presets before you start your own programming.
The plug-in does have some impact on your system – rather more than I’d expected, actually – but modern computers with enough RAM shouldn’t whinge too much. The alternative would have been a fully virtual Virus, which would have been challenging! Only one instance at a time can be loaded but since the Virus TI is 16-part multitimbral this shouldn’t be an issue for most users.
And as an audio interface… the TI’s hardware is top notch, the driver serviceable, and I recommend it to you as a basic source of audio I/O if you’re away from your desktop, or haven’t enough money for anything else after buying the TI. It’s a great audio output for any software. As a Midi interface, it’s also fine. Add control surface noodling, busy external Midi, audio I/O and normal TI plug-in streaming and you’ll find the USB connection overheating. Think of the extras as extras and you’ll do fine.
Virus TI is an inspiring synth that offers a wide range of sonic opportunities – just like its predecessors. The Virus sound is generally rich, aggressive or upfront, but it’s just as capable of scintillating, mysterious or delicate – as well as percussive. It’s a real synth-nut’s instrument.
The tight link to your software of choice (as long as it hosts VST or AU plug-ins, that is) is a taste of the future. Many other developers are taking this approach, and I guess the only downside is that you may have to again start making room for hardware in your, until now, increasingly virtual studio! ‘Out-sourcing’ the CPU overheads of demanding synth technology back to the hardware world is a logical way to go, and has its attractions – not least, in this case, that the hardware can function 100% as a stand-alone synth. The package doesn’t come cheap, but it’s not astronomical either – $3899 for the Desktop version. Besides, you can throw in audio and Midi interfacing and hardware controller options as useful extras.
But the sound, allied to the new dual DSPs, makes the TI the best Virus yet. And that means a synth that takes some beating.