I'm a big fan of the work of Patrick Kunz, who creates soft-synths and FX under the name Togu Audio Line (TAL), his work has always illustrated the point that free plugins are not necessarily inferior to their commercial counterparts. It's not just me either, I've watched many Producer Masterclass videos where TAL plugins are being used by successful artists with more than adequate funds to purchase whatever plugins they desire.
Last year Patrick released his first commercial product in the form of a fully re-written and considerably improved version of his venerable free Juno emulator. At the time I had a Juno 60 to directly compare with and I have to say the differences to me were no more significant than the likely differences between two individual vintage Junos, even down to the amazingly authentic noise when you switched the chorus on.
TAL's new addition to their commercial offerings is another Roland emulation, this time the target is the ubiquitous analog studio staple: the SH-101.
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I won't go too much into the specs as these are on TAL's website but basically as per the Roland we have a single oscillator (mixable saw/pulse/noise) with a square or 25% pulse sub oscillator 1 or 2 octaves below the main osc. These feed into a single 24db lowpass filter which will self-resonate. A single (very snappy) envelope controls either the filter, the VCA or both and further modulation comes from a single sync-able LFO with triangle/square/random and noise shapes. We have portamento, either normal or a legato mode for 303 style glides and the glide curve can be switched from original to linear. The pitch wheel can be routed in varying amounts to oscillator pitch and the filter and the mod wheel controls the LFO modulation amount sent to pitch, i.e. vibrato. Finally there is a powerful little arpeggiator/sequencer with up to 96 steps which has the ability to record a pattern from the keyboard and also export a pattern to midi.
Bassline 101 ships with a fairly modest 300 presets but as with a real 101 it is so clearly laid out and easy to use that it's more fun to just dive in and start tweaking and programming your own sounds. That being said the quality of the presets is generally high and more are appearing already if you prefer to leave the tweaking to others.
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Sound So to the sound. I don't normally like to get drawn into the debate around whether virtual analog sounds anything like analog but in the case of a VA like this where a specific synth is being emulated I think it's only fair to make some comparisons. The default startup patch is suitably buzzy and analog-sounding, with the filter wide open so you get a sense of the character of the oscillator straightaway and this is not a static, boring, sterile sounding oscillator. I decided to check the waveform out of curiosity. I do have a real oscilloscope kindly donated to the studio recently but hit a stumbling block when I realized I had no recollection whatsoever of what all the buttons and knobs do since it's been, let's say a while, since I used one at school.
My usual choice for this is the pleasingly orange and delightfully free s(M)exoscope from Bram at Smartelectronix.com. Dialing in the sawtooth and playing a single note while watching the scope it was clear that the waveform is far from static with constant tiny variations in the shape, much as you would get with analog circuitry. A similar amount of variation and movement can be seen in the square/pulse waveshapes for the main and sub oscillator also. This is a great start for me as so many soft-synths don't really come alive until you start moving the filter or adding other modulation or effects. Moving onto the filter then, this is somewhere else that Patrick has put in a lot of work in, implementing zero feedback delay into the filter algorithm. I've read a bit about feedback delay and I'll admit the fine details of the coding are a bit (well ok, considerably) above my head but suffice to say that achieving zero feedback delay in the filter model is a considerable part of accurately modeling the behavior of a real analog filter.
CPU With greater efforts in this area also comes, as you would expect, a greater CPU hit and for what is on the face of it a fairly simple synth I found Bassline101 quite a CPU eater. It's not quite in the same league as U-He Diva in this respect but on my 2010 2.4Ghz Core2 Duo Macbook a simple poly patch is hitting 30-50% CPU and 3 poly tracks with short release times are pretty much maxing it out. I'm aware the CPU in my Macbook is getting a bit long in the tooth, it certainly struggles with Diva and it is possible that the code is optimized more for the current crop of Intel multi-core chips so ymmv here. However I do have many soft-synths that would cope with much higher track counts using considerably more complex patches. Such is the cost of the desire for the holy grail of accurate analog emulation though. The filter certainly sounds nice, a slow sweep with some resonance dialed in sounds pleasantly musical and a bit of envelope action leads into bouncy rubbery bass line territory in no time.
Bass One thing I did notice when designing some bass patches was that this doesn't feel a particularly bassy synth. The sub oscillator is suitably meaty but I felt a lack of that really deep sub that you get with some synths, an absence of sheer low frequency extension. I haven't played a real SH101 to compare but I felt a synth with the name Bassline should perhaps be capable of punching out a bit more bass.
As previously mentioned the envelope is very snappy as per the original 101, so much so in fact that there is a little button under the envelope controls which removes the tiny click from the attack/release segments that you can get with super fast envelopes. Again as per the Roland one of the options for triggering the envelope is the LFO clock and for what seems a small detail this does give a lot of options for interesting synced rhythmic modulation, especially if you add the arpeggiator into the mix. All of which brings us neatly onto the arp/sequencer section.
Firstly as you'd expect these days this is syncable to your host DAW or alternatively to a midi note-on message on channel 16 which I guess opens up more options for syncing to external hardware.
For the full details on operation of the arp and sequencer I'd recommend a quick look on page 9 of the excellent manual as there is more to it than is immediately obvious at a glance. What you have though is a basic sequencer which can record a sequence you play in from the keyboard and then spit it back out, just like on the Roland. Unlike the Roland though you then have plenty of options for tweaking this sequence, note velocities etc. and even exporting the sequence out into your DAW. You also have the option to load a sequence you may like from another preset without overwriting the rest of the settings on the synth which is a nice touch.
With the note slide and configurable velocity per step I found I was knocking up 303 style sequences pretty quickly and what's more I was having plenty of fun doing it. That really sums up my whole experience of playing with this synth actually, that it's fun. On the face of it, it's fairly basic in its spec but as often with these things it has plenty of ability to produce a surprisingly large range of sounds with a bit of inventive programming. Plus the simplicity invites experimentation, no endless menus to dive into just knobs and sliders to tweak and sounds to be discovered which for me is something akin to the experience of using a vintage analog synth or something like a MiniBrute.
Some may complain that TAL have not stepped far enough outside the spec of the original SH-101 but I applaud them for not messing too much with a classic recipe and in the process maintaining the fun factor of the original while doing a damn good job of capturing its sound. Some additional options have been added though which take the behavior of Bassline 101 outside the original spec of the SH-101, according to the manual these are:
Snap to note – allowing you to constrain the LFO to note values
White noise – as opposed to what sounds like pink noise as the default.
Volume Comp – compensates for drop in volume when you turn the resonance up
Full range envelope – extends the range of envelope mod on the filter to the whole cutoff range
These are all activated by little "led" switches under the relevant sections.
Poly Mode One addition which is not mentioned in this section is the 6 note poly mode. I have mixed feelings about emulations of monosynths offering a poly mode, on the one hand it dramatically moves away from the spec of the original but on the other hand the opportunity to take the sound of a classic monosynth and play chords on it is something many owners of Minimoogs, 101s, CS15s etc. etc. surely lust after. I definitely found the poly mode on Bassline 101 to be a great addition and found it particularly capable of some beautiful pad sounds with a distinctly Roland character, especially when enhanced by TAL's free Juno chorus emulation and a bit of their free Reverb ii and Dub delay.
So to sum up, I enjoyed the time I spent with the demo version of Bassline, the only restriction is the inability to save or load patches so with no timeouts you have plenty of time to find out if Bassline is the synth for you. Obviously comparisons will be drawn between Bassline and D16's behemoth 101 emulation Lush101 but I feel they take the concept in different directions and a musician friend of mine has purchased both and feels they compliment each other well. If you're in the market for a characterful vintage mono emulation with a few well thought out bells and whistles to spice it up then I'd highly recommend downloading the demo and spending a while having a play.
TAL Bassline 101 is available for Windows 32/64bit VST and OSX AU and VST, both 32&64 bit.
Price is $40 for 2 months after release, rising to $60 thereafter.
Greg Cole is an electronic musician, budding writer, photographer, occasional reluctant IT geek and all round hippy. A life-long synth enthusiast he firmly believes that a good synth is a good synth whether analog or digital, software or hardware. He records music as Octopus Empire, claiming it is "genre-spanning", which is an excuse for not being able to settle on one particular style. He's also a firm believer in the effectiveness of a small studio setup, limitations and knowing your gear well and programming in preference to use of presets. His favourite colour is orange.