Synapse Audio may not be the biggest name in the industry, but it does have a solid reputation going back many years, so we were excited to hear that the company had a new soft synth with an exotic name on the way.
On the surface, however, Dune looks rather plain, offering up two oscillators, a sub-oscillator, LFOs, filters and envelopes. So, a standard subtractive synth, then. But dig a little deeper and an impressive arsenal of secret weapons is revealed…
The two main oscillators are identical, each offering sawtooth, pulse and sine waveforms, along with a wavetable mode featuring 69 further wave shapes. The wavetable position can be modulated, thank goodness, and there's a sync option too.
The Fat control further excites proceedings, offering seven extra oscillators stacked for each oscillator, which, when you factor in the sub oscillator and the unison mode, means that Dune can issue forth a whopping 120 voices with a single keypress.
We just mentioned the unison mode, and if the synth has a headline feature, this is it. Where most synths' unison modes simply stack voices and apply panning and detuning to thicken the sound, here you can target individual unison voices (or groups thereof) in the modulation matrix, which turns out to be pivotal to much of the synth's fun. Synapse dubs this the Differential Unison Engine, and this is where the name Dune is derived from.
Lead by example
It's all made possible by an extra Voice column in the mod matrix, where you designate each modulation to the desired voices - leave it blank and it applies to all voices, like any normal synth. You can solo unison voices from the front panel, which aids sound design.
As an example, you could set up an eight-voice unison patch and apply filter modulation to only the even-numbered voices, while applying pitch modulation to, say, voices 1 and 2.
We particularly like being able to set oscillator phase individually per unison voice. This makes it possible to have the attack of each new note sound the same, unlike almost every other synth, where unison voices are free running.
Oscillator 3 is the sub-oscillator, and it's fixed at an octave below the first one. While it has no wavetable capability, it does give you a triangle waveform instead of a sine. And on top of that, it also offers a rudimentary noise generator.
For further sound-jiggering there's an FM mode that's very easy to dial in, and that can be applied to the filter, too.
Speaking of which, the filter has 18 different modes, including 12 and 24dB/oct low-passes, serial modes (eg, comb filter into low-pass), a bunch with additional effects like distortion, and other filter arrangements, such as separate filters for each main oscillator.
The envelopes and filters are basic but effective. At first, we were perturbed by the lack of an LFO phase control, but it turns out you can set it in the mod matrix - hurrah!
Won't get fooled again
Dune fools you into thinking it's simple. But flip through the presets and you'll hear classic wavetable and FM sounds rubbing shoulders with subtractive tones. There are close to 400 presets, and you can expect to hear everything from searing trance leads and Kraftwerk-style sequences, to highly convincing special effects and sounds based on classic synth patches.
There are some spot-on analogue-esque drums in there, too. Patch after patch leaps out at you, egging you on to start a new track. Another great touch is the comment window, which gives details of the current patch, and often suggests how to modulate it.
If we have one criticism, it's that there are a few too many soft string pads and a lack of convincing subs.
Finally, we get to the effects section, opened with a little tab at the bottom left. It's pretty standard stuff and the effects are well chosen for each preset. We'd like the industry to start issuing fines for any synth released without a global effects off control, but until that day, you'll have to flick off the effects for each patch manually if you want to hear it dry.
We have some other minor grumbles. First off, we'd have liked a global master tune control in a highly visible spot (ie, not buried in the mod matrix), as the richer the sound, the less useful conventional tuning settings can become in a track.
It's also frustrating that you can't tempo sync the phaser/chorus, and a few more effects-related destinations in the mod matrix wouldn't go amiss. There's also no unipolar mode for LFOs, although you can fudge it with some mod matrix trickery.
Dune's arpeggiator/sequencing functions deserve a special mention. Selling point number one for us is the swing function, which completely transforms the vibe.
It's crazy that you don't see this more often, as it stops arpeggios and sequences sounding like soulless '80s soundtrack music.
There are five rather nifty modes. Chord rhythmically pumps out the chord you play, creating an energetic accompanying part (and a funky one, too, if you elect to use swing).
Duophonic is based around two notes. Mod doesn't trigger note information - rather, it's designed to be a modulation source (with obviously powerful possibilities).
Dynamic is quite original - it generates the pattern based on the lowest played key, but any additional keys pressed replace specified notes in the sequence, enabling an exciting and spontaneous mix of sequence and live play, and all in perfect time.
Finally, there are three types of Simple mode - one that plays back the sequence on a loop, a single-shot mode that plays it through once (ideal for creating strum sounds or chip music blips), and a mode that only affects the even-numbered voices in a patch. There's no traditional arpeggiation (up, down, etc), however.
A synth of many voices
So what are Dune's strengths? We'd say its splendid sound, wide-ranging sonic possibilities, approachable layout and awesome presets.
It's not a particularly analogue-sounding synth, and the bottom end isn't the phattest, but it does sound very pleasing and polished in a way that's slightly reminiscent of reFX's Nexus (even though that instrument is predominantly sample-based). It's surprisingly light on the CPU, too, even with all those unison voices.
No matter what kind of music you make, we think you'll find something useful here. Dune inspires you to start new projects, and is great when added to an existing project.
With its detailed and informative manual and easy interface, we reckon it's a fine choice for less skilled synth programmers wanting to take a step up, while seasoned synth fiends will relish the novel unison features. Whichever category you fall into, picking up Dune could be just the way to start 2011 on a creative footing.
Now listen to our audio demos to hear some of Dune's presets in action:
Beauty Of Simplicity