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Old 5th October 2014
Lives for gear
Synth80s's Avatar

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You all need to buy a Solaris. No, seriously, you just do. :)

Please pardon the tongue in cheek title, but after waiting a long time for a Solaris and having now played it for a couple months, it's time to heap some well-deserved public praise on John Bowen's truly excellent creation. This isn't intended to serve as a full review of the Solaris, but rather a celebration of its existence (which is not to be taken for granted given its history) and my take on what Bowen's niche instrument means in the context of the larger synth landscape.

Before getting to the good stuff, let's first get the major negatives out of the way:
  • No, you can't simply play or buy a Solaris at your local MI store. If you really want a Solaris, prepare to take a leap of faith, cough up some cash, then settle in for a wait.
  • Yes, polyphony is currently limited to 10 voices (which, FWIW, is 2-5 more voices than many of the most highly sought after polysynths).
  • Yes, there are a number of known bugs, though none of them are showstoppers for my purposes. If you're concerned, read up on the details on the Solaris forums -- there are no secrets there.
  • No, it's not cheap. More on that in a bit...
  • Yes, there's a decent learning curve, but it's not excessive in light of the Solaris' vast power.

So, no, it's not perfect -- what instrument is? -- but all of that goes out the window when you finally hear the thing. I'm not one for hyperbole, but I can safely say that the sound quality of the Solaris bests any hardware VA or VST instrument I've previously played over the years. And though the Solaris is capable of far more than subtractive analog emulation, it is undoubtedly adept at creating classic, warm analog sounds.

Regardless of which synthesis types and component models are employed, the Solaris always exudes fidelity. Playing the Solaris back to back with a Virus TI is an ear-opening experience, and that's coming from someone who admires and enjoys the Virus. The Solaris just leaps out of the speakers with obvious clarity -- it put a huge smile on my face the first time I heard it -- and it achieves a rare balance of sounding precise and detailed without also sounding clinical, sterile or boring. It's organic and lively, and I think that's quite a feat for any digital instrument (it reminds me of some of Kurzweil's best gear in that regard). I was more critical of the Solaris' limited polyphony until I heard it, but I now understand Bowen's decision to run the Solaris at 96kHz/24-bit. His reasoning and priorities are hard to fault once you recognize the consistently impressive sound quality.

Best of all, the Solaris feels like an instrument with its own identity. It's clearly intended to be a sonic chameleon and it's tremendously deep -- I've probably only touched on 25% of its capabilities by this point -- but it's not just another VA and the interface welcomes gradual, natural learning. There's a lot going on with the multiple screens, but I found it relatively easy to develop a quick workflow after a few hours of tweaking. Eventually you get beyond thinking "can the Solaris do X?" and you find yourself asking more powerful questions like "what's the best way to do X?" and "what would happen if I tried Y?" I think many synthheads weaned on modulars could really take to the Solaris and its workflow.

I'm not going to try to convince anyone that the Solaris is worth it's asking price even though I think it is. Certainly you can easily get a lot more bang for the buck with a mix of other hardware and software, but I would urge any doubters not to fall into the trap of thinking of the Solaris as a mere VST in a fancy wrapper. Without diving into the philosophical or semantic battles of what the Solaris is or isn't at its DSP-based core, I'll simply say that the Solaris is the classic example of something being more than the sum of its parts. It's also worth mentioning that it's a beautifully built instrument and, as such, it feels special in hand.

In an age where people openly bemoan the price of classic analog polysynths and lament the dearth of modern analog polysynths, I think the Solaris deserves more attention and credit than it gets. While I predict that people will still drool over Jupiter 8s, Prophet 5s and OB-Xas 20+ years from now, I won't be surprised if they look back and consider the Solaris to be a classic polysynth in its own right. It's good enough to serve as an analog polysynth replacement in many situations, but it also stands on its own as a far more capable instrument with its own sound and vibe. Bravo, John Bowen!