If memory serves, the Access Music Virus TI Desktop was my fifth physical synthesizer, and if Oto Machines
hadn't so graciously updated their firmware to allow for Biscuit to turn into the Der Oto monosynth, it would probably have been my last. The Virus really does cover a lot of bases. Not to mention… wait for it… basses. (I'll go grab my coat then.)
The 'TI' moniker stands for Total Integration and in essence, that's what you get. This digital synth sports the fairly common MIDI In, Out and Thru ports on the back, but the real treat reveals itself upon connecting it to your computer via USB. The Virus can actually function as a pretty complete audio interface, featuring 1 stereo input and 3 stereo outputs, as well as S/PDIF I/O, with 192 KHz D/A conversion. It's even got surround sound capabilities, if you're into that sort of fancy-pantsy stuff. But to be honest, I never gave a damn about all that stuff. I bought it as a studio noise-maker first and foremost, and holy bananas, Batman! - what a noise-maker I got. Lets hold that Total Integration thought for a bit while I ramble on about some of the core features, ok? THE LAYOUT
I'll caveat this right away and confess that I'm a synthesizer layman, at best. I turn dials and twist stuff around until the stuff pouring out is something I feel will upset someone, and then I save it as a preset. Simply put, I get by, but a lot of the techier talk flies well above my head. All this said, I have a sneaking suspicion you could concoct pretty much anything with the Virus TI if you dug in deep enough.
There's 3 oscillators and loads of oscillator models to kick off with, ranging from the classic bread & butter ones (sine, saw, pulse, triangle), to HyperSaw, wavetables, granular and formant stuff. I.e., there's no shortage of sources to play around with here. The dual multimode filters sound stunning (Low Pass, High Pass, Band Pass and Band Stop), including the Analog Mode: four MiniMoog lowpass filter emulations. There's also a filter saturation stage to get things nicely grittied up. Pretty much everything in the Virus world can also be neatly modulated to the moon and back again, should you so desire. Up to 6 control sources (e.g. the mod wheel, LFO 1 to 3 in uni- or bipolar mode etc.) can modulate up to 3 destinations each (that's 18 in total!) - you can even modulate the extensive mod matrix itself!
The effects included are no slouches; reverb and delays, including tape delay emulation; 6 chorus FX, including a rotary speaker emulation; a phaser with up to 6 stages; a frequency shifter module (modes: Ring Mod, Freq Shift, Vowel Filter and Comb Filter, that last one capable of some wonderful craziness when playing liberally with the Frequency and Resonance controls); 25 distortions and saturators ranging from mild overdrive to obliterating madness; 3 band EQ; and 9 'Character' processors, including a nifty speaker cabinet emulation. These are all high quality weapons, making sure you'll get far in your sound designing adventures without having to resort to additional plugins or hardware. You can apply these in separate effects chains to each of the 16 multimode parts as well, thus creating very complex sound layers, within the unit's DSP limitations.
It's worth mentioning that many of the current effects weren't there from the get-go - Access added them through free firmware updates. The effects can also be used to process external analogue and digital signals, thus the synth also serves as a multi-effects processor. For example, one of the more recently added effects, the Atomizer, lets you glitch up and mangle incoming audio by replacing it with looped slices of itself (the audio stream can also be reversed or gated) using your keyboard or MIDI input source, reflecting Access Music's intentions to not solely focus on 'internally' created noise.
Below the LCD, three user assignable 'Value' knobs allow for direct control over the settings and parameters you want to fiddle with the most when playing around with your newly designed patch. But if the mere thought of creating sounds from scratch is starting to give you a rash, you need not to fear - there's currently more than 7.000 presets available for free on the Virus website, created by professional synth junkies such as Depeche Mode, Richard Devine and many more. And the library's growing.
Oh, and it also comes with a customizable 32 pattern arpeggiator, which can also - as of the OS 4 firmware update - be used as a modulation source. TOTAL INTEGRATION?
Well, by now things are starting to get just a little bit complicated running and managing from the Virus' tiny LCD screen, and although theoretically possible, it would require a lot of menu diving while also probably taking up a disproportionate amount of your brain space trying to remember everything. And when in a complex mood, it's very easy to lose track and accidently mess up that Patch To Rule Them All you were just mere seconds away from creating.
Here's where that whole Total Integration thing conveniently slides in. The Virus Control plugin (AU/VST/RTAS) makes for a very useful interface for controlling the hardware right from your host. Combined with the helpful online tutorials, exploring the potential of the Virus becomes a joyful and rewarding journey that encourages experimentation. There's is no comparison from a design and tweak perspective; it's fun doing it directly on the hardware, but everything comes together so much faster and more powerful through the plugin interface that it becomes increasingly hard to go back clicking through those LCD menus. Simply put, the marriage between hardware and software is damned near perfected in this sense. The GUI is fairly simple to follow, and although I'd love to have more direct visual feedback (simple animations of the arpeggiator's progression and the current state of the Mod Matrix for example), most of it makes sense if you just think things through and don't stress too much.
However, and here comes my rant regarding the Virus TI: there are some issues with keeping things synced up and running properly with this plugin, especially if you're also streaming the generated audio through the Virus' USB connection. Although it still greatly irks me personally that Access has yet to add official plugin support for Reaper (it loads and kinda works in this mode, but it's iffy enough to be almost unusable for critical work), it's not 100% stable in Logic either, which is
a supported host; yes, it behaves far better than in Reaper, but even when following the recommendation to use the Virus on a dedicated USB bus, audio glitches and sync-losses are too frequent to write off as rare bugs on bigger projects with lots of other effects and virtual instruments. On top of this, DAW automation occasionally gets screwy, and in order for things to get up and running again it's usually wise to reload the plugin altogether. Playing around with the buffer setting usually mends the sync related ordeal to some extent, but that also makes it trickier to use Virus Control alongside effects and virtual instruments of the CPU-hungrier persuasion - and the maximum buffer setting that Virus Control can work at is 512, although less is usally more in this case, with regards to stability.
There are naturally workarounds, apart from using good ol' MIDI. The one I prefer - when sticking with Reaper - is to simply bypass the Virus Control plugin's USB audio streaming capabilities altogether and route everything through the unit's main physical outputs instead, which also have a dedicated section in my patchbay for further hardware mangling. Route the signal back to the audio interface you're using, and it behaves like any other hardware synth except it's being triggered by a sort of advanced hybrid MIDI bridge, freeing up the USB load considerably while still letting you access the plugin interface for programming and overview.
If I really want the 'complete' plugin experience, USB audio and all, this is one of the few times I much prefer Logic to Reaper; it's a totally different experience for the better there, and the sync issues are more occasional than omnipresent if the project isn't ridden with too much else going on. I would of course prefer the whole data stream issue stabilized and sorted out properly, with Reaper added to the official 'supported hosts' list, but to be honest it's usually more fun than inconvenient to route stuff out to the patchbay anyway, rather than just using the Virus as a DSP-boosted soft synth. PHYSICAL ASPECTS AND SUMMING IT UP
Now, onwards to some hardware practicality. The desktop version on review here is rack mountable, should you decide you don't want it cluttering up your… well, desktop. The procedure is easy and the little hex key needed to perform it is included inside the box. The whole I/O connection part on the back of the Virus TI can also be angled so it ends up facing 'into' the rack, rather than upwards. The latter I believe to be the case with pre-TI desktop models, so it's no longer necessary to leave a couple of Us or more free above the synth in order to fit your cables. Nicely sorted.
Being nitpicky, the plastic buttons have a somewhat 'dead' uninspiring feel to 'em, clicking quite hard and loudly when depressed. As with the buttons, all dials are identical and they too feel a bit cheap, but actually work quite nicely with smooth turning action. There are plenty of red LEDs on the panel to translate what's going on in the current patch, and a bright white LED in the middle of an Access logo lights up each time one of the parameters you're currently messing with end up at its patch-defaulted state. Nice touch.
All in all, the Virus TI is as far from being a one trick pony as I can imagine - leads, basses, pads, noise and FX: it does everything extremely well. The Virus Control plugin makes tweaking and patch designing a lot easier, and although it's easy enough to get started if you have at least a little experience with synthesizer topology, the reward lies in diving in deep and through experimenting lots. It's a remarkable machine with a fantastic post-purchase value, through constant free upgrades from a company that seems very focused on keeping their existing products constantly evolving. Sure, it isn't cheap off the shelf, but you're actually getting a lot of goodies packed into that box. And until Access decides otherwise, the box will keep evolving with no extra fees involved for the owner.
Digital or not, the Virus TI sounds amazing and you can lose yourself for hours just tweaking up your dream patch. It really is that much fun. Highly recommended. THE GOOD
- The potential! The flexibility! The sound!
- The frequent firmware updates adding new functionality.
- The online tutorials, the free updated patches… Access does it right. THE BAD
- Requires a whole USB 2.0 bus to itself for optimal performance in plugin mode, and even then it occasionally feels unstable.
- Limited number of officially supported DAWs.
- I should have ponied up and gotten the keyboard version.