Known first and foremost for its dazzling and extensive V range of classic synthesiser emulations, Grenoble-based developer Arturia has never actually built a software synthesiser ‘of its own’, as it were - until now.
With the all-original Pigments (VST/AU/AAX/standalone), the immensely experienced industry heavyweight is laying down what it considers to be the new benchmark in modern softsynth design.
A dual-engine, dual-filter instrument with plentiful effects and a built-in sequencer, on paper Pigments doesn’t appear to offer anything categorically ‘new’. As is so often the case, though, the devil is in the details, which, in this case, are all about wavetables, workflow and a truly spectacular modulation system.
Hue and cry
As befits the name, Pigments’ resizable (50- 200%) GUI is eye-catchingly colourful, and full of informative animation, from the oscillator waveforms and filters to the colour-coded envelopes, LFOs and other modulation sources. More importantly, though, the layout is logical and intuitive, with the top section tabbing between Synth, FX and Sequencer pages, the bottom housing Keyboard and modulator controls, and the Modulation Overview strip in the middle used for assigning and viewing modulation signals. Experienced users will have no trouble finding their way around, and novices can get their bearings with two built-in tutorials.
The user-friendliness continues with the tagged and searchable preset browser, which shows the oscillator waveforms and filter shapes, and a brief description of each patch, and gives access to the four Macro knobs, for basic noodling without exiting back to the main interface. And Arturia’s new ‘sound design tips’ feature enables optimal ranges to be visually suggested for specific parameters by adjusting yellow collars around their knobs. Every factory preset makes use of these, and they’re freely editable. It’s a clever and useful system.
Each of Pigments’ two engines can be switched between Analog and Wavetable modes. The Analog engine comprises three oscillators, each outputting a sine, saw, triangle or square wave (the last two featuring PWM), and a noise generator that sweeps from Red through White to Blue noise. Osc 2 can sync to Osc 1; Oscs 2 and 3 can have keytracking disabled; and Oscs 1 and 2 can be frequency modulated by any mix of Osc 3 and Noise. The Drift control introduces random pitch fluctuations for a touch of analogue authenticity, should you want it.
The Wavetable engine draws upon more than 100 categorised wavetables (Natural, Processed, Synthesizers, etc). Each one of them consists of up to 256 waveforms, and the Position knob can be set to jump from one wave to the next, or to interpolate through them more smoothly. Phase Distortion and Wavefolding functions open up some serious destructive waveshaping possibilities, and both - along with Phase and Frequency - can be conveniently modulated by an ancillary (and, optionally, audible) analogue/ noise oscillator.
With the exception of certain FX parameters, every knob in Pigments can be modulated, from the Wavetable engine’s Phase Distortion amount to the Sequencer’s Rate. As well as the expected LFOs and envelopes (three of each, with selectable Reset and Gate triggers), Macro knobs (four) and MIDI sources (Velocity, Modwheel, etc), Pigments includes the more imaginative Functions, Random and Combinate modulators. The three Functions generators are 64-point envelopes/step sequencers, while the Turing, Sample & Hold and Binary Random sources each output their own brand of chaos, and the two Combinate modules merge pairs of sources using various mathematical processes.
Assignments are made by selecting a modulator in the Overview strip, then dragging the collars around each target parameter knob to set the depth. Alternatively, clicking the + button next to a knob switches the Overview strip to a bank of depth sliders: set the sliders to modulate the knob. Each pairing can have a Sidechain source assigned, too, for depth modulation.
The controls for the modulators themselves sit in the tabbed bottom window, and every signal is beautifully visualised there, in the Overview strip and in the collar around each knob.
The Wavetable engine can also stack up to eight unison voices, detuned freely or snapped to chords - we’re puzzled as to why the Analog engine can’t do the same. Import of external WAVs into the engine is permitted, but alas, there’s no wavetable editor.
The two engines feed into a pair of independently pan-able filters, routed in any blend of series and parallel via a continuous knob. Eight filter types are onboard: SEM, Matrix 12 and Minimoog emulations, the 64dB/octave Surgeon, Comb, Phaser, Formant, and the supremely versatile MultiMode. Between them these serve up a rich variety of modes and sonic styles, and we very much appreciate being able to select and apply an FM source directly from the filter panel.
With modulation covered in Colour me rad, we’ll head straight to the FX section, which houses three busses of three effects each, selected from a roster of 13 largely workaday essentials - Reverb, Delay, Compressor, Distortion, EQ, Flanger, Wavefolder, etc. Busses A and B are ‘inserts’, reorderable in series or parallel, while Bus B is a send/return, and the processors themselves sound great.
Finally, the Sequencer/Arpeggiator is all kinds of awesome, featuring scale snapping, a Trigger Probability lane, a powerful cyclically regenerating randomisation engine, and the best implementation of polyrhythmic sequencing we’ve seen in any synth to date.
The colour of sound
Ambitious, expansive and oozing quality from every pixel, Pigments easily earns a place at the top table of synthesis. The Wavetable engine, filters, sequencer and modulation stand out as headline features, but the whole thing impresses from end to end.
As the epic preset library ably demonstrates, there’s no area of synth sound design in which it doesn’t excel; phat basses, tearing leads, amorphous pads, kinetic sequences, ear-catching FX. Polychromatic, you could say. And given its depth and complexity, it’s hard to imagine how Arturia could have made it any easier to use - the work it has done in that regard is hugely commendable.
Our chief complaints are the lack of wavetable editing and Analog unison, but honestly, don’t let either of those omissions dissuade you from experiencing this incredible instrument for yourself.