LinPlug have been part of the plug-in synth scene from the very start. Their products are designed to give artists the tools they need to get on with making music and don't faff about with convoluted algorithms or complex and befuddling structures.
If it says LinPlug on the interface, you know you're going to get an instrument that sounds great and offers plenty of flexibility but won't leave you scratching your head.
The Alpha synth is a fine case in point. It's never been hyped as much as some of LinPlug's collaborative products, but it's quietly attracted a considerable number of fans. This is due in no small part to its agreeable price and the numerous free versions that have cropped up over the years.
Alpha 3 – the new full version of the synth – is a cross-platform instrument that supports the VST and AU standards.
The paltry asking fee gets you a subtractive synthesizer with all the trimmings: dual oscillators, multimode filtering, built-in chorus and more. Partly inspired by the classic polysynths of the 80s, Alpha 3 is ideal for everything from piercing leads and fulsome basses to viscous pads and evocative effects.
The first link in the Alpha 3 chain is that pair of oscillators; each of these offers 30 waveforms and users can select two distinct waveforms per oscillator and blend between the two. Oscillator 1 can be detuned, and you can also bring some amplitude or ring modulation to the party.
You can apply pulse width modulation to tweak the symmetry of all the onboard waveforms, not just the square waves. As of version 2.2, both of Alpha's oscillators have a switchable 'free running' mode.
In a real analogue synthesizer, the oscillators are running all the time, so when a note is played and the envelope generators open a VCA, the start position of the waveform pushing through is anyone's guess. Many modern instruments eschew this bit of chaos and lose a little grit in the process.
Free running oscillators such as those found here can provide a more convincing and lively sound. One of the most significant additions to version 3 is the noise generator.
Noise is an important element of many synthesized sounds, and its inclusion here ups the tonal ante significantly, giving you the ability to create far more convincing drums, effects and more.
Noise is to a sound designer what white paint is to an artist: it may not be terribly vibrant on its own, but when applied judiciously to the other available colours, the image can burst brilliantly to life.
We've always been keen on LinPlug's filter designs. Where some developers seem intent on creating filters that maximise the possibility of speaker damage, LinPlug have always focused on the musical aspects of filtering.
Like the popular Curtis chip filters of the 80s, LinPlug's are less about destruction and more about crafting rich, musically useful tones. Alpha 3 features a wide variety of filter modes, including low-, high- and band-pass (the first of which comes in both 12 and 24dB guises).
As before, a dedicated filter envelope is onboard, and there's an overdrive knob you can reach for in those moments where aggressive behaviour is appropriate. In this new version, the filter cutoff can be modulated by the oscillators or the noise generator.
This enables you to produce the types of unusual textures that are more commonly associated with modular synthesizers, and we got some excellent results by applying these various modulation sources to the filter FM destination.
There's plenty more to love about Alpha 3. Modulation fans can now avail themselves of three LFOs – all of which are syncable to the host's tempo – and these can be slotted into the new and improved mod matrix, which now displays seven slots.
It's the little touches like these that give Alpha 3 its power, but this would be compromised if it were not so damned easy to tap – this is an instrument that doesn't get in the way when your inspiration is sparked.
Instead, it gives you the fuel to ignite that spark rather than bogging you down with 1001 features that only a lab-coated technician could love.
Even more importantly, the thing sounds terrific, and is certainly a step up from Alpha 2 in this department. It isn't a 'gee whiz' synth full of overwhelming, reverb-drenched presets that twist and turn but would never actually fit in a mix.
Rather, it comes with a generous 900 sounds, most of which could be used in a range of musical styles. It's as much a musician's instrument as it is a synthesist's tool, if you get our meaning, and that's not something that can be said of every plug-in we review. This one's a keeper.