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Softube Modular

Softube Modular

4.75 4.75 out of 5, based on 1 Review

A software version of the awesome and increasingly popular Eurorack modular platform.


3rd September 2016

Softube Modular by Diogo C

Softube Modular

  • Product: Modular
  • Developer: Softube
  • Formats: VST2, VST3, Audio Unit and AAX for Mac and Windows
  • Demo: Fully functional for 20 days
  • DRM: iLok (no USB dongle required)
  • Price: $99

Quick scope: The Eurorack format is one of the most interesting breakthroughs in electronic music production and professional audio in general, with an open format that allows for facilitated development and deployment of various modules. The “scene” has experienced an enormous growth over the past as it keeps drawing in more users and developers. A software version of it was bound to happen at some point and it has finally happened as Softube partnered with the pioneers at Doepfer to take on the task. Softube opted for an initial package that comes with twenty six modules, featuring six modules from Doepfer that can build a complete synthesizer, fourteen “utility” modules to provides the necessary infrastructure and six “performance” modules that can be used to organize a patch by combining parameters under a single control. For the product launch and at the time of this review Softube also offers eight additional modules from their Heartbeat drum machine (which is free to Heartbeat owner) and three modules from Intellijel - one oscillator with FM capabilities, a hybrid filter/oscillator module and a foldback distortion module. These modules are purchased separately, each goes from $29 to $49 and in order to have the Heartbeat modules you need to buy the Heartbeat plugin ($99). Modular presents quite a substantial depth from the start and if you have all modules there’s a lot that can be done in terms of different sounds.

Sound quality: Modular sounds really good and it’s a remarkable software synth in terms of character and tone, it is really up there with the very best. In terms of authenticity my opinion is that Softube has definitely nailed it, and the fact that the Doepfer is endorsing it means a lot in terms of how far they went into the modelling process. I had some good experience with Doepfer Dark Energy (thanks Bruno!) and in terms of sound it’s pretty damn close and the character is spot on. Needless to say that tweaking real knobs and patching real cables is way more fun than fiddling around virtual controls with a mouse, but on the other hand with the software you can make some patches that would set you on back on some considerable dollars. Bottomline is that the Softube Modular is very close to the real thing and in the context of a song it’s just to close to call.

Ease of use: Modular synths are inherently complex things with an inevitable learning curve, which can be quite a steep one depending from where you are coming from. If you’re familiar with modular synthesizers you’re probably halfway there in terms of making a basic mono synth patch from scratch, and if you’re a (hardware) eurorack user then you’re even further in the game even though it doesn’t necessarily mean that your knowledge will translate 1:1 to the software. If this whole modular synthesizer is new ground to you then there will be some considerable learning ahead. Softube’s manual helps a bit in that regard, it covers all the modules with good detail and provides good examples for basic patch-making. Softube has recently opted for an unified manual for all their products and Modular occupies roughly 80 pages, which is a great deal of information but browsing the big pdf file is a bit clunky and I think that a dedicated manual with more synth-building information would be the better way to do it. The presets offered are also a good way of showing Modular’s capabilities and will help to get acquainted with it. There are nearly 200 presets (195 to be exact) and although that’s a substantial amount it lacks a bit in the educational aspect - something that could be tied hand-in-hand with the manual. That’s not the biggest problem however, the way presets are handled is the bigger issue - more on this below on “Features”. In terms of the user interface Modular scores high as Softube has done a good job on conciliating size, detail and resolution and it can be said that the interface is actually a bit too, but fortunately there is smaller interface option (which I think is too small but some might think otherwise depending on their circumstances). One thing that I particularly enjoy was how Softube managed to display all the cables, which even on the real world can get quite messy. The option of not displaying everything if you don’t hover your mouse over a connector was a very clever one, and the same can be said about their choice to highlight the cable where the cursor is located while keep all other cables slightly dimmed. This helps a lot when dealing with bigger patches with many modules and cables connected.

Features: The initial Modular package brings quite a substantial amount of modules, bringing all the pieces one needs to build interesting patches. The “utility” and “performance” modules were particularly good and they provide a very good foundation for future growth. I also appreciated the fact that multiple outputs are offered - a main stereo output and 4 stereo/8 mono auxiliary busses is quite a good number that will enable some interesting routing choices. Using it as an effect processor is also an interesting feature that extends its scope considerably. Perhaps the biggest setback for Modular in terms of features is the lack of a proper preset system - and an internal preset browser to go along with it. I can see this becoming sort of problematic further down the road as you start to gather more and more patches and further expand your collection. Currently it will use your DAW’s preset system which means I can’t take my presets from Pro Tools to Bitwig for example, which is a big bummer if you’re constantly switching from one software to another. An unified preset format would also enable preset sharing among users, perhaps it can spark some good community engagement if there’s a good system in place to facilitate it.

Bang for buck: The initial package works like an admission ticket and In that regard it is a very worthy ticket as it brings a complete working package with a handful of options. Given their track record I’d trust Softube to further develop this product and add more modules and features further down the road, which I think might play an important part in the decision to invest on this one. Nevertheless, I have to evaluate it right now “as it stands” and in that aspect there’s no shortage of bang for the buck here. Quite a no-brainer to be honest!

Recommended for any synthesizer aficionados and electronic music producers in general.

Pros
  • Sounds really good and very realistic.
  • Fun and rewarding once you overcome the learning curve.
  • Some surprisingly refreshing modules, such as the Intellijels and Penta-Sequenza.
  • Polyphonic, albeit requiring some quite complex wiring in order to achieve it.
  • Separate instrument and sound processing effect plugins.
Cons
  • The lack of a preset system and browser might hurt its future prospects and needs to be addressed i.e. please implement it as soon as possible!
  • Learning curve may be too steep for some.
  • A bit heavy on the CPU and older machines might struggle to run many instances or at higher sample rates.
  • No standalone version.

  • 2
20th May 2019

Softube Modular by Diogo C

  • Sound Quality 5 out of 5
  • Ease of use 5 out of 5
  • Features 5 out of 5
  • Bang for buck 4 out of 5
  • Overall: 4.75
Softube Modular

Update: It’s been almost two years since Softube Modular was released, and since the platform has received many updates and expansions it’s a good time to revisit it, evaluating its trajectory to bring some key points raised on my first review to the current day.

Let’s start by listing the new modules - free modules marked by asterisk and those with two asterisks are free for owners of each respective plug-in:

4MS: Spectral Multiband Resonator, Pingable Envelope Generator

Buchla: 296e Spectral Processor, 259e Twisted Waveform Generator

Doepfer: A-188-1 Bucket-Bridge Delay, A-101-2 Vactrol Low Pass Gate, A-114 RIng Mod

Mutable Instruments: Clouds, Braids, Rings

Softube: Quantizer*, Polarizing Mixer*, Saturation Knob*, ROLI Seaboard/Rise integration modules*, Sine OSC*, TSAR-1 Reverb**, Spring Reverb** and Tube Delay**

As noted above, some big names were brought to the platform, with acclaimed Eurorack manufacturers such as Mutable Instruments and 4MS and also the West Coast synth legend Buchla providing official virtual versions of some of their best creations. Alongside the new modules Modular also received a few but highly significant quality of life improvements:

  • Preset browser: Softube has introduced a preset browser that not only solves the problem pointed out on the previous review but greatly enhances the user experience with plenty of navigation options. It’s arguably one of the very best preset management systems out there, with a clean layout that is intuitive to use and that greatly facilitates finding the right sounds. Right now there are 400 included presets, and they’ll certainly make life easier for those that are learning the system or just looking for a quick fix to get the inspiration going.

  • Interface sizes: Despite being limited to two sizes (small and large) and therefore not as flexible as a fully scalable interface would be this is a welcome addition, but one that helps mostly those on smaller screens.

  • Drag and drop: modules can now be rearranged by simply clicking and dragging modules to their desired place. This feature does not replace the old “move” system so users can opt for whatever works best for them.

  • Improved performance: I can’t quantify how much it has been improved and Modular still is a heavy plug-in when complex patches are running, but it feels more snappy and crashes are rare, with VST and AU being rock-solid in my experience. AAX still needs a bit more work on both performance and stability, but the format has always been considered to be more prone to issues than the other two when it comes to virtual instruments, so that blame has to be shared with Avid to some extent.

  • Softube Central: although this is a global update for all Softube products, I think it’s worth bringing up since it affects Modular more than other plug-ins due to the fact that expansions are handled like separate products that needs to be installed and authorised, which was a bit of a mess during the Gobbler years with individual installers being offered as an alternative to those opting not to use it. The Gobbler app was handful to quickly install a bunch of products, definitely easier than grabbing a bunch of installers, but ultimately it was a layer of complication that added an extra step which seemed unnecessary since iLok is still required to authorise everything anyway. The recently introduced Softube Central app is neat, it only deals with installations and updates and facilitates life for those with many Softube plug-ins and/or Modular add-ons.
That’s a considerable number of modules plus many meaningful updates over the course of 20 months, which is worthy of praise and certainly points to Softube’s long-term commitment to the platform.

Updating the scores

Sound quality has not changed, the first modules were already good to begin with and earned our highest score, and it certainly deserves to keep it. I personally see no pressing need to update the code in order to make it sound “better” with “improved” modeling a la UAD MK2 plug-ins - although as a Gearslut I would happily take that! The current batch of modules is excellent sounding and can stand toe to toe with the best virtual synths out there so it’s hard to argue otherwise. What has been actually improved is the diversity aspect, with interesting new modules being added to the platform and greatly expanding the sound palette with the Buchla, 4MS and Mutable Instruments modules, which are all worthy checking out if you’re looking for more unconventional and complex sounds.

Ease of use has been substantially improved, with the quality of life aspects mentioned earlier playing a big role on facilitating the operation and speeding up our workflow. Softube has done a good job with updates and overall the continued support of the product has been top-notch, so now Modular is certainly worthy of our highest score - this inherently complicated beast might still be inaccessible to some, but with all the presets, documentation and tutorial videos it’s now easier to approach than it has ever been. I should also note that the CPU load has been improved but complex patches are still eating considerable chunks of processing power, so having a recent and decent processor is definitely good advice.

Features were also expanded, it’s a more well-rounded product now than it was on launch and important additions were introduced on most updates, with some of them coming free of charge, which is always a nice gesture from the developer. The updates are coming at a steady pace and on some occasions they are more than simple bug fixes, proving that the Softube team is putting the necessary work to constantly improve the platform. This score also gets a nod to earn Modular another set of five stars and that is despite the fact that a standalone version is still not available right now - come on Softube, DAW-less jamming is a thing now!

Bang for buck is where it gets complicated, and that’s due to three reasons: first is the model followed by Softube so far, with paid expansions coming out on a regular yet unscheduled basis, which means that the user who wants to keep up with all the available modular needs to make periodic investments. At first the model doesn’t sound necessarily bad, but costs were adding up to the point that a hefty sum is required if you want all modules that Softube has to offer, and right now it’s getting near to the $1k (USD) mark. That’s quite a hefty sum, and it’s a bit disheartening to see no incentives other than the usual intro offer - no loyalty program, no discounted bundled, no upgrade paths, nada. Moreover, Modular is being sold as “regular” plug-in when it shouldn’t be, so I think a change in long overdue on this subject, with more purchasing options and alternatives being offered to the user. Which takes us to our second point, which is the emerging competition coming from the open-source and mostly free to use VCV Rack and also from Native Instruments Reaktor Blocks. Back in 2016 Reaktor Blocks was still on its first stages and VCV was an incipient alpha at, but since then Native Instruments delivered a chunk of great updates for Blocks (not to mention all the user content) and VCV has become a reality despite a few rough edges, but at the moment it is more than stable enough and offers a great free starter pack that offers not only basic functionality but also some of the best parts of the Mutable Instruments catalog as well. Third and final reason is that at this point I think it’s best to evaluate the Modular platform as a whole and not only the base product. The base product by itself still provides excellent bang for the bucks but a big part of the modular experience is adding new modules to a setup, so I think that considering the bigger picture is more accurate way to evaluate costs. With all that said, it is hard for me to keep the highest award on this criteria, and a star is inevitably lost here until Softube decides to tweak the business model.

TLDR: It is impossible to deny that Modular is now a better product than it initially was, which shows on the higher average score for this second review. It’s more polished and well-rounded than two years ago, easier to grasp thanks to presets, and with a lot of depth to offer if you can afford to purchase a handful of extra modules.

Food for thought: Perhaps opening the platform would also be something to consider in the not so distant future, allowing for other developers to produce new modules and market them as they will.

Updated pros, cons and wish list

Pros:
  • Excellent sound quality and plenty of diversity with the expansions.
  • Highly interesting and engaging modules from 4MS, Buchla and Mutable Instruments.
  • Good long-term support with constant updates.
  • Useful preset browser and numerous presets to get one started.
Cons:
  • Relatively expensive to keep if you want more modules.
  • No standalone version.
Wishlist:
  • More purchasing options alongside other incentives such as loyalty discounts, bundle offers and/or upgrade paths.
  • A standalone version for DAW-less jamming.
  • Would be great to see other Softube plug-ins ported to Modular, notably their fine compressors and EQs.

  • 2
 
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