Inspired by the grand old polyphonic beasts birthed by Roland, Korg, Sequential Circuits et al in the 80s, Super 8 is Native Instruments’ first virtual analogue polysynth since Pro-53, almost two decades ago.
It runs standalone or as a VST/AU/AAX plugin within Reaktor 6 or the free Reaktor Player ‘shell’, rather than natively, which has no significant ramifications apart from a bit of extra CPU usage.
Keeping it real
Super 8 will be immediately intuitive to anyone who’s ever been within spitting distance of an analogue synth, real or virtual. It’s clearly been designed for quick tweaking and hands-on manipulation via a MIDI controller, as all of its controls are housed in a single screen with no menus or secondary panels to get lost in.
It’s a two-oscillator instrument, and the ‘8’ refers to the maximum number of simultaneous voices it can produce, including those of the detuning and stereo spreading unison mode. In fact, with Unison off, the maximum polyphony is six voices, and when Unison exceeds five voices, the synth switches to mono mode automatically. NI could have upped the polyphony to 16, 32 or whatever, but we appreciate the intent to keep the whole affair ‘classic’ in style.
Each of the two oscillators outputs a mix of four waveforms - sine, triangle/sawtooth, pulse/ square and a choice of sub or white noise - the levels of which are set using the four red (Osc 1) and blue (Osc 2) sliders. This free mixing of waves was a defining part of the original polysynth sound, enabling complex analogue waves to be elicited, and it works a treat here.
All things in modulation
Super 8’s modulation system goes beyond the pre-assigned main panel controls with the ability to assign up to two mod sources to any control (except the effects), complete with ‘Sidechain’ input for modulating the mod depth with a secondary modulator. Phew! The list of sources and sidechains includes Modwheel and (Komplete Kontrol) touchstrip, Velocity and Aftertouch, Keytracking, ADSR Amp and Filter envelopes, Pitch Mod, and two LFOs (Mod 1 and 2). The LFOs can run at up to 100Hz unsynced or 32/1 to 1/96 synced, free-running or retriggered, in mono or polyphonic mode, and, like the oscillators, can mix four waveforms (triangle, saw, square and S+H).
Modulations are set up by clicking the top bar in the Modulation section, selecting the target parameter, then assigning sources and sidechains in the four menus, and dialling them in. That’s fine, but with no modulation matrix, the only way to access the mod routing for a given control after that is to select it again via the same two-click process, which is a bit long-winded.
Back on the bright side, every modulation is visually represented by animated oscillator waveform icons and markers adjacent to each control, showing their modulated positions.
Every waveform can be modified using its Shape control. For the sine, this introduces a second sine wave an octave above the main one; the sawtooth morphs from triangle (fully anticlockwise) through saw (centre), then applies pulse width modulation to the saw (clockwise from centre); and the pulse and sub (the second also a pulse, an octave down), unsurprisingly, get pulse width modulation. The Shape controls are pre-assigned for modulation by either of the two onboard LFOs or the filter envelope, but are also available as general mod targets - see All things in modulation.
The oscillators have a pitch range of +/- four octaves and 50 cents, and Osc 2 can have keytracking disabled, whereupon its frequency becomes adjustable in Hz. The output blend is set with the Mix knob, Osc 2 is syncable to Osc 1, and Osc 1 can have its frequency modulated by Osc 2 for FM effects. There’s also a hardwired pitch modulator that switches between an LFO (running at up to 30Hz, with variable fade-in) and a two-stage envelope, and is applied to each oscillator independently.
Super 8’s resonant filter offers low-pass, band-pass and high-pass modes, and can be overdriven for extra bite. Movement of the cutoff frequency is directly assignable to velocity, note pitch, a dedicated ADSR envelope, either of the synth’s two LFOs, and/or Osc 2. The latter, of course, introduces the potential for audio-rate modulation, which is a definite boon when it comes to FX and percussion patches. The filter is sharp, responsive and sounds superb; and as the development brief must have dictated, capable of self-oscillation - ie, with the Resonance cranked up, it can generate its own playable ‘whistling’ output. Sci-fi!
The effects section is the one point at which NI may have been a little too slavish in their nostalgic adherence. You get a choice of three modules - Chorus, Flanger or Delay - plus a reverb with ‘Small’, ‘Large’ and ‘Galactic’ algorithms. Yes, a choice - as in, you can only use one at a time. It’s easy enough to work around this with effects plugins, but given that there’s obviously no technical reason for such enforced modality, it does feel a bit bloody- minded. Anyway, the processors themselves sound wonderfully warm and expansive, and enable a good degree of parameter control.
In these days of overachieving ‘powersynths’ with their endless screens and controls, and mind-altering, hyper-real sonics, it’s quite amazing to think that Super 8’s relatively rudimentary feature set would once have been perceived as state-of-the-art. But that simplicity is a major part of the attraction: this is pure ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-get’ old-school synthesis, with no architectural distractions from the mixing, voice-stacking, modulating and filtering of analogue waveforms in the pursuit of massive basses, lustrous pads, searing leads, picturesque keys, chrome-plated percussion, and all those other quintessential monophonic and polyphonic electronic tones.
In terms of sound, though, Super 8 beefs things up somewhat, yielding the kind of weight demanded by contemporary production without losing the essence of the 20th century synths that inform it. Sadly, that modernisation doesn’t extend to the effects, which frustrate a little in their modal nature; and we’re not fans of the modulation selection system, either.
All in all, then, a refreshingly modest proposition from one of the industry’s most ambitious, monolithic players, realised with only minor flaws, and at a very fair price.