Last updated on July 21st, 2015 at 03:01 pm
Xfer Records shows us their version of the “dream synthesizer” concept with Serum, a powerful wavetable synthesizer with a clear goal to become one of the go-to virtual instruments in the electronic music community. We are taking a closer look at this versatile workhorse instrument and giving away one free license which was kindly provided by Xfer Records!
After the simple installation process and quick initial set-up, the user is welcomed by a clean looking GUI which (as it turns out after several hours of use) is very well optimized for deep and complex sound design. Making quick bass and lead patches is a simple task thanks to the well organized main panel, however digging deeper into Serum’s complex sound engine is equally fun and non-confusing as tweaking knobs on a classic subtractive synth. Multi-panel GUIs can be quite a hassle to use in some instances, but Serum’s workflow oriented interface is a shining example of UX design done well. All of the main controls are available on the front panel, whereas all of the less commonly used parameters are still just a couple of mouse clicks away.
Serum packs a set of four separate sound generators, including two powerful wavetable oscillators, an unusually flexible noise generator and a handy sub oscillator. The two wavetable oscillators are the key element of Serum’s versatile synthesis engine, sporting a collection of over 150 built-in wavetables and the ability to morph between snapshots, as well as the option to import third party wavetables. On top of that, it is possible to edit existing wavetables, or import external audio files and create new wavetables from scratch in Serum’s dedicated wavetable editor. The editor features a large number of customization tools, yet remains an intuitive and easy to use environment suitable for experimentation and detailed tweaking of the wavetable at hand.
The built-in wavetables are neatly sorted into four categories by type. The analog section features numerous variants of the classic VCO style single cycle waveforms, along with some iconic sounds such as the TB-303 acid bass and the fat pulse-width modulated SID chip signature sound. The digital, spectral and vowel sections feature numerous complex and abstract wavetables which are perfect for crafting a wide range of modern leads and bass sounds, as well as pads, drones, etc. The loaded wavetable can be displayed in isometric 2D view, which is quite helpful for easier visualization of its content.
The noise and sub oscillators are somewhat less exciting than the two wavetable OSCs, but they both pack a few carefully picked bonus traits which make them equally useful and an essential addition to Serum’s sound engine. For example, the sub oscillator can be routed directly to the output section (around the main filter and FX panel), which is a brilliant way to fully build a bass patch inside Serum without having to reach for an external sub source to be layered underneath. Similarly, the noise oscillator is more than just a standard white noise generator. It packs a wide variety of organic and abstract noises, as well as a large selection of clicks (with the ability to operate in one shot mode) which can be used to enhance synthesized drums and percussive hits.
Serum features a couple of multi-mode filters, one on the main panel and one in the FX section. Both filters come with dozens upon dozens of different filter types, ranging from a wide variety of classic LP and HP filters to various comb filters, vowel filters, etc. The second filter can be placed anywhere in the FX chain, providing a huge boost in terms of flexibility. The entire FX section is almost too good to be true actually, with ten great sounding effects that can be modulated, combined and freely re-arranged in the FX signal path. The sheer power of built-in effects is nothing short of amazing (thirteen different distortion types in a synth, anyone?) and it’s quite a shame that Serum can’t process live audio, as the FX section would make a brilliant multi-FX unit.
The real fun begins once you start exploring Serum’s modulation system, though. Modulation sources and targets can be connected via drag and drop, or in the dedicated modulation tab (labeled Matrix on the GUI) which sports a handy 16-slot modulation matrix. The mod matrix actually offers quite a bit of additional control over the active modulation connections, such as combining different modulation sources via the AUX modulation input, editing the modulation curve, mod inversion, and so on. After spending some time with Serum and exploring its vast modulation capabilities, it becomes clear that using drag and drop for the initial modulation setup and then the mod matrix for precise control is an incredibly efficient and hassle free workflow, especially while working on complex patches with multiple active modulations going on.
Being the kind of “keyboardist” who prefers fiddling with knobs than playing the actual keys, I also liked the well-implemented macro controls system which can be used to tweak multiple parameters of Serum’s synthesis engine at the same time during a performance. The macro controls are easy to set up and are editable from within the main panel, as well as the aforementioned Matrix tab. Quite a few of the factory presets actually come with pre-configured macro control sets, which is a nice touch.
Speaking of the factory presets, Serum packs over 400 expertly crafted patches, suitable for use in modern styles of electronic music, as well as classic electronica and cinematic sound design. The patch browser is easy to use and is fully editable via the presets folder on your hard drive. In other words, the patches folder can be organized as easily as any other document folder on your computer, making it a breeze to build multiple collections of your favorite patches or to prepare preset sets for a live performance.
Most importantly, Serum’s sound is solid and organic, despite the fact that this synthesizer is strictly digital in nature. It can sound convincingly analog, as well as abstractly synthetic and digital, providing a truly versatile workhorse synthesizer experience. The oscillators are perfectly smooth and alias free, which, in combination with the solid filters and exceptionally good FX section results in one of the best sound engines I’ve ever had the pleasure of using.
This kind of sound quality comes at the price of a somewhat higher CPU hit, but it’s nothing that current multi-core processors won’t be able to handle without much trouble. If your DAW of choice supports multi-core processing, multiple instances of Serum will be spread across your CPU’s cores and you’ll be able to run quite a few instances in a single project without having to use track freeze or other methods of CPU saving. On our fairly humble quad-core based test machine, Serum was perfectly stable and not noticeably more resource hungry than other modern high profile workhorse synthesizers.
Serum is a modern workhorse virtual instrument that successfully bridges the sonic gap between digital and analog. It performs equally well as a VA synthesizer suitable for crafting classic analog synth style patches and a modern hybrid instrument capable of generating a vast variety of contemporary bass sounds, leads, pads, drones and all sorts of abstract noises. It is a rare example of a complex instrument that is easy to use and a powerful instrument which is equally enjoyable for beginners and sound design experts. Packing an impressive preset library, a large set of built-in wavetables and almost limitless synthesis capabilities inside an intuitive user interface, Serum is definitely one of the finest synthesis packages in the software world today.
More info: Xfer Serum ($189)
Xfer Records are kindly giving away one free Serum license to one lucky BPB reader! Would you like to get one of the finest virtual instruments of today for FREE? Simply leave a comment below to enter the draw. We will pick one comment using the random.org number generator on July 20th and announce the winner on this page. Only one comment per person is allowed!
The giveaway is now CLOSED. The winner is (picked by a random draw) Marcus Rasseli! Congrats! :)
Thank you everyone for joining in and for reading BPB. Also, many thanks to Steve Duda and Xfer Records for providing such a fantastic prize! We’re going on a 15-day vacation now and we’ll be bringing you lots more freebies and great giveaways when we return. In the meanwhile, have a great summer everyone!
Xfer Serum Review
Serum is a modern workhorse virtual instrument which successfully bridges the sonic gap between digital and analog. It is a rare example of a complex instrument which is simple to use and a powerful instrument which is equally enjoyable for beginners and sound design experts.