The Blog

Dec 21, 2008

Mini Review: Access Virus TI Polar 

by Maxim Porges @ 11:02 PM | Link | Feedback (0)

I got a new toy recently. To paraphrase Lester Burnham from American Beauty: a 2006 Access Virus TI Polar. The synth I've always wanted and now I have it. I RULE! :)

Some People Who Know What They're Doing
If you can't be bothered to read my audio-nerd review, here's a few links to videos of the synth in action, and editorial reviews that you might find interesting if you are thinking about buying a Virus TI. Feel free to post questions here as well and I will do my best to answer them as my level of expertise matures.

The Atomizer demos are my favorite. It's like instant BT-stutter effect.

- Marc Schlaile demoing Atomizer (the best Atomizer demo I found so far)
- Rich Devine demoing the Atomizer plugin
- Nutty D&B Atomizer-plus-old skool-Roland TR-606 demo
- In-depth demo of Virus full-size keyboard with Ben Crossland from Access at NAMM 2005 (choose your player from the links at the top)
- People dicking around with a Virus TI Polar at Remix Hotel 2008 in Miami, FL

A Little History
Back in 1997, Access came out with the Virus A desktop, and some years later the very cool Indigo series of keyboards. They were renowned for their awesome synth engines and solid build quality, but like most European synths they were too pricey for the likes of me.

Then they went and upped the ante with the TI series, which stands for "Total Integration." Since Access manufactured both PCI audio hardware acceleration cards paired with software synths for PC musicians (the Powercore series) and hardware synths, they decided that they might as well combine the two and make keyboard synths that integrate directly in to software. This was a brilliant move, since anybody who has messed with getting hardware synths to play with computer sequencing packages knows how much of a pain it can be to deal with MIDI and latency issues. Of course, these models weren't any cheaper than their pure-hardware predecessors. It seemed like I would never own one; I more or less forgot about them.

The Acquisition
Then last weekend, after bouncing around some old music sites, I came across some articles on the TI series and decided to jump on eBay to see if any were on the market. As it turned out, there were two nearly-new Virus keyboard for sale at pretty reasonable markdowns. I decided to put a bid on one of them, and my top limit matched the reserve. I hit up the seller directly to see if he wanted to wrap up the sale that weekend, and within 15 minutes of making my bid we were on the phone. He agreed to drop his "buy it now" price to the reserve, and it showed up on my doorstep yesterday afternoon.

This is to date the most expensive piece of audio kit I have purchased, which is surprising in the sense that I never even fiddled with one in the store (they are pretty hard to find). Most of my prior purchases have involved several trips to a local music shop and much obsessing before pulling the trigger. However, things have changed a lot in the years since I originally loaded up my studio, and with so many resources at my disposal on YouTube, SonicState, and musicians forums, I got a great feel for what I was getting in to. But even with so much info at my fingertips prior to the acquisition, I've been blown away by this thing after only a few hours of use.

A Mini-Review
I've only had my Virus a little while, so there's only so much I can report on, but I intend to build upon this over time as I work my way through the manuals.

While you need a computer to take advantage of the full TI capabilities, you can also just turn the thing on, plug in a pair of headphones, and get cracking without hooking it up to a computer. As a standalone hardware synth, the quality of the audio engine is above and beyond any hardware or software synthesizers I have ever seen before, including the Nord Lead and Alesis Andromeda that I had coveted in the past. The filters on the Virus are amazingly rich, and the combination of access to almost every parameter from the control panel combined with a very intuitive menu system allows for a massive variety of sounds.

Out of the box, you get over 2,000 high-quality sounds distributed across a number of ROM and RAM banks. Within the first few patches I was starting to get ideas for tracks, since the quality is very high and the easy tweakability gives you a lot of creative expression. I also love the three-octave keyboard, which is just the right size for composition at the computer. It's the perfect width and height to sit in front of my 22" Dell monitor.

I spent most of the afternoon today getting familiar with the software integration. The Virus hooks up to a PC or Mac with a USB cable, after which integration is pretty much seamless. One of the benefits of the TI series is the flashable OS, so a quick trip to Access's support section lead me to the latest 2.7.5 release, along with related manuals and video tutorials. The software installed without a hitch, the longest part being the update of the keyboard itself, but after a quick reboot of both my new MacBook Pro and the Virus, I was ready to rock and roll.

Access provides a number of high-quality manuals to get you going, all in PDF format which worked out nicely since I now have a dual-monitor setup at the house. There were also sample projects for popular sequencer packages; I'm using Logic Express. I'll throw in a quick shout-out for Logic Express here: it's basically the same pro version that studio musicians use with a cap on the number of audio tracks, but the cap is something ridiculous like 192 audio tracks. After spending around $900 six years or so back on Cubase SX and a sampler package from Steinberg, I can't believe how powerful Logic Express was for a mere $300, especially considering that the software synths and samplers that you get in the basic bundle are sufficient for anybody to get far off the ground with music production. Although I liked Cubase a lot, I had to upgrade to get Leopard support, and decided to switch over to Logic Express rather than sticking with Steinberg's product line; I must say that I am glad that I did. I originally made the switch with Logic Express 7, but Apple completely revamped the interface for Logic 8 and it's now much more streamlined and intuitive than before.

In Action
Back to the Virus. Once you fire up your sequencer, the Virus shows up as an Audio Unit software instrument in addition to seamlessly infiltrating itself as the MIDI controller and audio interface. This was one of the fringe benefits of getting the TI: rather than spending several hundred on a new MIDI interface and then dicking around with setting it up, I get a MIDI interface right in the TI, along with audio inputs/outputs for recording and playback. This is great because I can use drum loops and other bits from Logic right alongside sound from the Virus, and hear it all mixed down through the Virus's headphone jack.

True to form for a German synth, the Virus is built like a tank, and has an excellent quality keyboard with velocity sensitivity and nice clicky aftertouch. The thing lights up like a Christmas tree when you turn it on, and has a number of lights that pulsate to the BPM setting, including a guide light above the LCD display (for usefulness) and an Access logo on the back (for showing off). Note that because of the software integration, the Virus is always at the same BPM as your sequencer, which is totally fabulous: your arpeggiators are always in sync no matter where you are! The pots have a smooth action, and the control surface layout is very logical. I was able to get going with basic editing of sounds without having to crack the manual, which is always nice.

The software integration is really pretty top-notch. Once you fire up Logic, you create the Virus in the Environment as a software synth with 16 MIDI channels. The Virus then shows up in the Mixer as a stereo audio channel, and each MIDI channel for the synth is split across the 16 available slots. The Virus hardware automatically goes in to "Sequencer" mode once you have it established in the sequencer, and then you can start the bi-directional manipulation through the software/hardware feedback loop.

I have been really impressed with the interface on the software. Not only is it attractive, but it's very intuitive. You can drag and poke just about every control, including grabbing ADSR envelopes graphs and filter slopes and moving them around. All the feedback is instantaneous regardless of which direction you are going in, meaning that the synth and software stay in total sync as you work.

One thing I noticed is that latency is still a minor issue, although they have a good way of working around it. When you are recording, you can set the Virus up to send the audio directly out of the headphone jack, so you don't suffer from the latency of the audio going from the Virus to Logic and back again. Then, once you have finished recording, you can flip the audio interface back so that it is routed through USB and the latency is handled in the software as usual. The only scenario where this is a little weird is when you are recording multiple MIDI tracks one after the other, since the tracks recorded earlier will be affected as you flip the audio mode back and forth between real-time and USB-routed. A simple solution for this is to either mute earlier tracks as you record later ones. You can also just bounce the audio for prior tracks to disk before you record new ones, removing latency for earlier tracks altogether.

One thing I did notice that required some getting used to was that MIDI muting and soloing happens in the TI plugin, while audio muting and processing happens in a single channel in Logic. This is because the Virus has 16 MIDI channels but only two stereo audio channels, which means you have to choose between the two audio channels when you are routing audio in to the mixer. I don't see this being a problem in practice since I see myself composing via MIDI and then bouncing all the audio to disk before mixing down, at which time each track will get a dedicated strip in the mixer and can have its own effects in Logic's audio channels as normal. However, if you were performing live with the Virus, you would have to make sure that you either used the on-board effects for each patch, or made careful use of the two channel strips in Logic for adding software effects.

Conclusion (for now...)
It's early days yet, but I am really excited with the possibilities my new Virus is bringing to my home studio.

My interest in digital audio and composition started in my teens. After finally getting a real job and buying a bunch of audio equipment in 2002, my interest waned back and forth since it used to be such a pain in the ass to get all the stuff working together (technical problems really stifle creativity), and as a result I had put this hobby on the back-burner for a while. My level of interest recently resurged when I started playing with Logic 8's new interface, and between the Virus making hardware integration so seamless and the awesome synth engine, I figured I would give music another spin.

While I lack the talent to be a professional musician, I am looking forward to writing sound libraries, remixing tracks from my favorite artists, and maybe even composing a track or two in my spare time. If I come up with anything half-decent I might even share it with the world... :)