Hive by u-heU-he is a small developer from Berlin run by Urs Heckmann that makes software synths and effects processors. Among the software synths that u-he has developed are Zebra2, a wireless modular synth capable of an impressive array of sounds and enhanced by the Dark Zebra upgrade which features patches used in Han Zimmer’s Batman scores, Bazille, a modular system with patch cables that allows for extremely flexible patching, and Diva, a virtual analog synth with a high degree of sonic authenticity.

U-he’s latest release is a software synth called Hive. Hive is built around a relatively simple concept – a dual oscillator engine that allows the user to layer two voices in the tradition of synthesizers like the Yamaha CS80. But don’t let the sound of that fool you. Hive is capable of a wide variety of sounds ranging from lush pads to fat basses to electronic rhythmic sequences. In fact, the simplicity may be welcome, as Hive is significantly easier to program than Zebra2 or Bazille and has a smaller CPU footprint. Nevertheless, the sound quality is great and the synth comes with many presets that cover a wide range of synthetic sounds.

Media composers will probably find Zebra2 and Bazille the most intriguing of u-he’s synths due to their flexibility in programming and wide sonic range, however you really you can’t go wrong with any plug-in in the u-he product line as they all sound phenomenal. Hive is great choice for someone without much experience in synth programming who wants to get good sounding results quickly. For those with a bit more background in synthesis, Zebra2 and Bazille offer endless possibilities for new sounds.

Signal by Output
LA based Output has recently released a unique sample library in Kontakt format called Signal. Signal was conceived with the idea that rhythmic pulses are an important facet in music making and a library focusing on pulsing sounds was lacking in the world of sample libraries.

Signal comes over 700 presets ranging from aggressive distorted sounds to ambient ethereal ones. Patch selection can be filtered by keywords so if you need an epic organic sound with a triplet feel you can select on the appropriate adjective to select patches matching those descriptions, a great time saver for those working under fast deadlines. The sounds tend to be electronic in timbre, though there are some acoustic sources such as felt piano, harp and marimba, and if you have find a sound you like the feel of it is easy to change the sound source.

Each preset features four macro sliders to quickly change the basic characteristics of the patch and the sliders can be easily assigned to MIDI faders for real time morphing. For those looking for more control, all parameters and pulses can be adjusted by clicking on the “pulse engines” tab. This brings up an intuitively laid out interface that is easy to navigate, which is a good thing as Output doesn’t come with any documentation. The lack of documentation can make some more advanced editing a bit frustrating.

Signal is a great library for any media composer who has a need for pulses, arpeggiators and morphable rhythmic sounds in their music, which probably covers most of us. There is no danger in trying it out and risking disappointment since Ouput offers a 14-day money back guarantee for anyone who is unhappy with Signal.

Omnisphere 2 by Spectrasonics

If I had a desert island synth plugin, it would be Omnisphere. Omnisphere has everything you could ask for in a synthesizer: a huge library with over 8000 presets covering a wide variety of genres, incredible programming power, and a beautifully laid user interface the makes programming and editing a joy. Now they have made it even better.

Omnisphere 2 adds 4500 new patches and soundsources, over 400 new DSP waveforms, new arpeggiator features, an enhanced interface and the ability to use your own audio files as a soundsource, to name but a few. The new patches and soundsources alone would be worth it, but with all the other features this upgrade is a must.

For those who don’t own the original Omnisphere, this plugin is an essential part of a media composer’s arsenal. The sounds are stellar and cover a huge range of styles from hardcore electronic to very organic. The user interface is easy to navigate and it is simple to make the presets unique with programming features such as the “orb”, which allows a user with no programming background to drag a circle around to change the sound in interesting ways. For those who want to dive in deeper, the synth engine in Omnisphere is extremely powerful and customizable. Omnisphere 2 just makes one of the best synths on the market that much better.

Nugen MasterCheck and ISL2
I don’t really like to master my own music given the choice, but sometimes it is necessary to do some DIY mastering when sending tracks out for demos, submitting to music libraries or releasing music online. For a long time, the general mastering principle has been to make a track sound as loud as possible through compression because listeners will perceive a louder track as sounding better when compared to other pieces within the same genre. That paradigm appears to be changing with the advent of streaming music services.

Streaming services such as Spotify, iTunes Radio and YouTube are all using loudness normalization to match volume levels between different tracks in their catalogs. The basic idea is that their software analyzes each track and matches the volume level so that if a listener is playing a Beethoven symphony and then switches to a dance track, they won’t have to adjust the volume control on their playback device, the software will do it for them. This is a big deal because it means there is no longer any value in overcompressing tracks to make them sound louder. In fact, overcompressed tracks will sound lifeless in comparison to tracks with a wider dynamic range. I suspect this approach will be adopted across all music streaming services in the not too distant future.

Nugen Audio’s MasterCheck is a plugin you insert on the master buss of your DAW to monitor your mix levels and allows you to determine how your mix will sound when played back through various streaming formats. MasterCheck has several displays which provide useful information for mixing for targeted delivery platforms. The LKFS (Loudness, K-weighted, relative to full scale) meter displays the peak level of the track allowing one to easily monitor mix levels, while the PLR (Peak to Loudness ratio) meter monitors the peak level of a track relative to normalization which helps to give a sense of the overall dynamic content of the mix.

MasterCheck includes a number of presets so you can hear what your mix will sound like played back on various streaming services. By clicking the “offset to match” button, you can hear the results of Spotify, iTunes Radio and others’ loudness normalization on your mix in real time. You can even compare your mix to other tracks using the external reference feature.

For those in need of a high quality meter to assist with the mastering process, it is hard to beat MasterCheck.

Originally published in The Score, Volume XXX