Arturia does it again with a software emulation of a classic analogue synthesiser. We turn 17 again and play with the CS-80V…
Price: $129 Download: $99
You may be forgiven – or simply be so damnably young – if you haven’t heard of the CS-80. It was a mega synth manufactured by Yamaha in 1978. Only around 3,000 were ever made and with a list price of almost five grand (that was about a year’s wages for most folk) it’s surprising they sold any at all.
Weighing in at 83kgs you also had to be able to afford not one, but two roadies! Its technology came from an even bigger instrument, the GX-1, released in 1973 which was as much an organ as a synth with three keyboards and a full set of pedals, and that rolled up at a cool $60,000. It was actually snapped up by several prominent musicians of the time including Stevie Wonder, Keith Emerson and Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.
The CS-80 also sold to many super stars including Paul McCartney, ELO, Vangelis and Jean Michel-Jarre and it was truly groundbreaking in its day.
Features included 16 oscillators using two oscillators per voice (eight-note polyphonic), key split and layering, a ribbon pitch controller that has passed into legend, and a velocity and after-touch sensitive keyboard which was weighted, too. It included presets and you could create your own, programming and storing four of them on miniature versions of the main control panel.
Innovative or what! For an analogue instrument with no digital storage features it certainly was.
The CS-80 had its own sound, often described as ‘cutting’ but, based on technology that is essentially 30 years old, it’s difficult to imagine what a virtual version could bring to the synthesis party. French music software developer Arturia has already created an impressive Moog synth emulation in the Moog Modular V and Minimoog V and the company has obviously looked at the CS-80 to see if it could be brought up to date. And it has, in several interesting and powerful ways.
To improve areas where the digital emulation of analogue circuitry can get a bit flaky, Arturia developed TAE (True Analog Emulation) technology that offers four main areas of improvement.
The main one is anti-aliasing oscillators that you can crank up to the highest pitches without generating unwanted frequencies or distortion. Also, digital technology can create perfect waveforms but analogue waves are not perfect and have ’rounded’ edges, generally making them warmer and fatter. TAE emulates these waveforms, too. Digital and analogue filters have different responses and TAE mimics the CS-80 filters with close accuracy. The final area of improvement is the ring modulation circuitry. Ring modulation adds harmonics to a sound which can easily create aliasing. TAE includes aliasing-correction circuitry to prevent this.
The nett result is, indeed, a sound that is very analogue, without distortion, and the technology has captured well the idiosyncrasies of analogue synthesis.
The box includes PC and Mac plug-in and stand-alone versions. Installation is easy, using a serial number for copy-protection, and you’re offered a choice of plug-in formats to install.
There’s one main screen, a rather neat recreation of the CS-80 front panel. One of the problems with bit mapped images is that you need to run them at a resolution such as 1024 by 768 in order to clearly see the legend and detail on the fascia. If you use a low screen resolution the detail is difficult to read. However, once you become familiar with the controls this becomes less of a concern.
The core of the instrument is built around eight two-oscillator voices. They follow a fairly simple and standard analogue synth layout of VCO, VCF and VCA, and the bulk of the main panel is taken up with two identical sets of controls for the two oscillators. This makes it easy to adjust and compare the two settings. Much of the uniqueness of the CS-80 came from being able to create two sounds from the two oscillators and combining them, more of which in a moment.
The VCOs can generate square, triangle, sawtooth and sine waves, and the square and triangle waves can be adjusted with a pulse width control which, in turn can be modulated by an LFO. An improvement over the original here is the ability to select six LFO waveforms rather than just a sine wave.
There are high pass and low pass filters each with resonance controls which the signal passes through in series. You can select a 12dB or 24dB filter curve and additional control is possible through a filter envelope with attack, decay and release sliders. The total filter output can be further adjusted with a volume slider as the signal makes its way to the VCA section. This has the four standard controls – Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release – and that essentially concludes the main sound-generation section although there are many additional controls that can radically affect the sound as we’ll see.
The pitch of the oscillators is set with Feet sliders, a throwback to the days of organs stops when pitches were determined by the length of the organ pipes. Settings include 16′ (one octave below), 8′ (normal pitch), 5 1/3′ (fifth higher), 4′ (octave above), 2 1/3′ (octave and a fifth higher) and 2′ (two octaves higher).
The 1/3 settings are interesting as they let you play simple intervals which can be used melodically or, depending on the sound the oscillator is generating, to create more complex tones. You can detune the second oscillator to create thicker sounds and there’s a mix slider to balance the output of the two oscillators. The sync button synchronises the start of the first oscillator to the second one so you would mainly hear the second oscillator with the first one generating harmonics. You can also direct the second oscillator to the filter and VCA of the first.
There’s a Sub Oscillator section which you might imagine adds a tone below the pitch of the main oscillators but it doesn’t; it’s actually another LFO which can be applied to the VCA, VCF and VCA individually or all at the same time. There is a speed control and a choice of six waveforms.
The Ring Modulator was another major feature of the CS-80. It multiplies the output signal with a sine wave creating additional harmonics, often with a metallic edge. The curiously-named Mod control sets the balance between the dry signal and the ring modulated one while the Speed slider sets the sine wave pitch. There’s a Depth control and also Attack and Decay envelope controls. Ring modulation definitely adds an extra dimension to standard analogue synthesis and although the type of sounds it can create are taken for granted today it was not a feature found on all synths back in the 70s.
There are also three effects – tremolo and chorus with speed and depth controls, and stereo delay with speed, depth and mix controls. You can sync the delays to the tempo when running the instrument as a plug-in with a MIDI sequencer. You can further tweak the overall output with brilliance and resonance sliders.
But we’re still not finished with the modulations yet. One of the major attractions of the CS-80 was its controllability, starting with the keyboard which was velocity-sensitive and supported polyphonic aftertouch allowing different amounts of vibrato, for example, to be applied to individual notes. Unlike the original, the CS-80V is, of course, MIDI compatible and will respond to all the controls your keyboard supports. Several Touch Response controls link the keyboard’s aftertouch to the Sub Oscillator to control the VCO and VCF and you can create wha and pitch bend effects with it.
A set of Keyboard Control levers link brilliance and level settings to the keyboard pitch, essentially a ‘key follow’ function which lets higher notes sound brighter and louder, mimicking the response of natural acoustic sounds.
Another major features of the CS-80 was the ribbon controller, a touch strip above the keyboard which changes the pitch of the notes as you run your finger up and down it. Essentially, it’s a pitch bend control. In the virtual version we have to be content with using the mouse. You can create Theramin-type sounds with it but you can’t do some of the tricks you could do with the hardware such as playing it with two fingers.
One of the major improvements Arturia has added to the original is Multi mode. The normal playing mode is Single mode in which one sound or timbre is played across the entire keyboard. This is how the CS-80 works. In Multi mode, a group of single timbres can be distributed across four zones of the keyboard (this is known as split mode) or several single timbres can be superimposed across the entire keyboard (known as unison mode).
Multi mode is activated by ‘opening’ the grill panel at the top of the instrument. This reveals a matrix arrangement where you can assign up to eight voices to four keyboard zones, each controlled via a different MIDI channel. If you look closely you can see rotating fans at the extreme left and right of the matrix. Cool!
This feature alone makes the CS-80V far more powerful than the original hardware. Another power feature is the modulation matrix, revealed again by ‘opening’ the panel, to the left of the oscillator controls. This greatly expands the CS-80’s modulation options by letting you select ten modulation sources and destinations for them to modulate.
Sources include the LFOs, the Sub Oscillator, the EG filters, and parameters such as velocity, aftertouch and the ribbon controller. Destinations include all the major ‘adjustable’ parameters such as the VCOs, filters, VCAs, LFO speed, and the EG filters and VCAs. An Amount knob sits between source and destination so you can control how much modulation is applied.
Ups and downs
Another new addition to the virtual version is the Arpeggiator. It’s quite basic by most standards, basically converting chords into individual notes in various up, down and random patterns. You can adjust the speed, spread the notes over four octaves and sync playback to a sequencer. In spite of its simplicity, it can create some excellent and very usable effects. You can use it with Multi mode and the manual explains how to turn it into an eight-note step sequencer.
One of the strong points of the CS-80V is the presets. You’re not limited to the handful available on the original instrument and the virtual version comes with over 400. They are neatly arranged by Bank, Sub Bank and Preset, selected from menus at the top of the screen. Sub Banks are categories such as basses, horns, keyboard, pads, ambient and so on. An excellent feature is the ability to see all the sounds in any particular Sub Bank category from the main menu, not a feature found in many soft synths but it’s incredibly useful and should be universally adopted.
What a performance
You can’t help but notice how many performance controls the instrument has. Using them was part of the joy of playing the original, and unless you have an equally-equipped MIDI keyboard you’ll miss out on many of the CS-80V’s strengths. Using the plug-in version to playback notes from a sequencer which were not recorded with performance attributes is to not use a major feature of the instrument.
When you move a virtual lever or slider on an instrument it can be difficult to see its value on the screen. The CS-80V gets around this by popping up a box much like a Tool Tip when you click on a lever, giving you its name and also showing its exact value which changes as you move the lever up and down.
The graphics are stunning and very evocative of the original machine. However, this instrument, perhaps more than others, may lead you into the hardware emulation debate where you wonder if a little poetic license with the design would improve software operation. For example, the oscillator waveforms are selected with two rocker switches and a slider. While this is like the original, it would be far clearer to use a single multi-position slider, for example.
The Touch Response section of the original perversely uses the top position of the levers to indicate no modulation and the software accurately emulates this albeit noting the oddity in the manual. Authentic or not, this is opposite to convention and to the way most of the other levers work although Arturia obviously considered the situation and took a position on it. And while the ribbon controller is probably emulated as accurately as it could be, it is still not as usable as the original. Although by no means major issues, these sort of considerations may lead to you speculate over the relative benefits and advantages of trying to emulate a tactile 3D surface in 2D software. The arguments can be applied to many real-synth emulations not just this one although the modus operandi of Yamaha’s levers and the sloping front panel of the original synth perhaps give this instrument its own particular graphics design and operation problems.
But aesthetics and programming considerations aside – and they’re nothing a little familiarisation won’t put right – there’s no doubt that the CS-80V captures the classic analogue sound of the original instrument, popular on many recordings even today. The additional features Arturia has added stands the virtual instrument well above the shoulders of the hardware version. Although the retro brigade might drool while running their hands over an original CS-80, it’s many restrictions, limitations and lack of MIDI severely limit its use to the modern musician.
Arturia has taken all the good bits, enhanced them, and created a classy, high-quality synth with great appeal to those with an interest in analogue synthesisers. As with all good software, there’s a demo on the company’s web site so you can try before you buy.
Far cheaper than a 1978 CS-80!
Classic retro analogue sounds
Flexible programming and modulation routing
Over 400 presets
Not stunningly original sounds
Only eight-note polyphonic
An excellent, seriously-enhanced emulation of a synth classic.
Minimum system requirements
PC: Pentium II 500MHz processor, 128Mb RAM, Windows 95/98/Me/2000/XP
Mac: G3 500MHz processor, 128Mb RAM, Mac OS 9.x or OS X 10.2
PC and Mac plug-ins and stand-alone version
Over 400 presets
Chorus and stereo delay FX