My 2012 Go To Virtual Synthesizers


I own a lot of virtual synths :^)  As part of a voluntary simplification exercise I started in January,  I’ve been limiting myself to a smaller number of instruments over the last year so I could go deeper and create more expressive and unique signature sounds for compositions and live performance. The image above (click to go to interactive map and then click branches learn more about these synths) shows a mindmap of synths I’ve been most drawn to over the last year. In other words, these are the instruments that consistantly make into my tracks like “And What do the Trees Hear When the Wind Blows”, “Orbiting Miranda”, and “Now is Now Remix”.

When narrowing down to this list, I worked to find a very complimentary set of instruments with great workflow. The instruments range in character from pure synthesis instruments (Zebra and Predator), to sample-based instruments (Sampler, Iris), to hybrids (Alchemy, ElextraX) to virtual drum machines (utonic). The instruments with green dots in front are ones I’ve been spending 100s of hours with working to create signature "patches” from scratch that I’ll use in future compositions, productions, and live performances. I should also note that I’m also using many of these synths as effects processors allowing me to capitalize on the investment I made learning the synth workflows (here is a post on this notion) .


For those not familiar with some of these synths checkout some audio samples from past sound design experiments. First is a clip with Alchemy (download MP3) where I use granular synthesis to repurpose the field recording of a fluorescent light bulb.

Here is a little behind-the-scenes video on the creation of this patch.

Here is another example where I use Alchemy (download mp3) to repurpose crowd noise from a CU bastkeball game, a morse code key, and add in something called factalized waveforms.

Next is a Zebrify patch where I slowly pitch up and then process this incoming signal of a Theremin with two comb filters with the pitch of filters being modualted by a step LFO (download mp3)?

Next Steps – Deeper with the Top 3

As I go into the fall I’m going to be spending a lot more time with Zebra and Alchemy. They are both extremely deep and very complimentary. They nicely cover the entire spectrum from pure synthesis to sample mangling. Absynth, which I bought in 2002, is the first virtual synth I ever owned so holds a special place in my rig. I’ll be doing some synth work with it as well but will focus heavily on using it as an effects processor.

Which Should You Pick?

If you have limited funds or time and just want to go deep with one synth, you can't go wrong if you pick one of the three mentioned in the previous paragraph. Again, Zebra is pure synthesis (no samples) and semi-modular. Alchemy is great at resynthesis and sample mangling so if you are into field recordings this is your best bet. Absynth is somewhere between the two and is a great pick if you want to work with extreme multi-segment envelopes and very interesting and unusually effects. I give them all 10/10 and the deeper you go, the more you’ll be rewarded.

If you are looking for a fantastic subtractive that can also be used as an effects processor Predator is fantastic choice. If you want a hybrid with subtractive workflow with visual feedbak, ElectraX is a good bet.

Controllerism with the Top 4

Now that I’ve further narrowed my list, I’m working on templates for various controllers to get even more expressive results with Zebra, Alchemy, Absynth and Predator. I’m using the Alchemy Mobile to control Alchemy on my computer, I’m working on a custom Lemur template for Zebra and Absynth. I’ll also be working on mappings for my Novation Remote SL and refining my AudioCube patches for these synths.

I’ll leave you with a video I did some time ago showing the use of one Percussa AudioCube face in sensor mode to play a note plus send MIDI CC info to control the XY of Alchemy.

Mark Mosher
Electronic Musician, Boulder CO

How To Change Sonic Charge uTonic Drum Machine Patterns on the Fly Within Ableton Live


I love Ableton Live’s workflow and while I’m a big fan of Ableton Sampler, Operator, Impulse, Drum Racks etc… I do heavily utilize VST’s to extend Live’s range even further.  I try to find plugins that not only sound great, but also integrate into and compliment Live’s workflow. One recent addition to my software rig is Sonic Charge’s fantastic pattern based drum-machine synth uTonic.

In this post, I’ll show you how to use MIDI to change patterns on the fly within uTonic. This will allow you to use uTonic as a drum machine in conjunction with your other Live clips and scenes.


SNAGHTML3897a4fuTonic’s pattern engine can play one of 12 different rhytmic patterns (a-l) in sync with the Live (or any host). Thankfully, uTonic supports pattern selection via MIDI. To select Pattern “a” you need to send  MIDI note C3 to uTonic. To select Pattern “b” send note C#3 and so on.


STEP 1 – Insert uTonic into a MIDI Track

STEP 2 – Use the “Open Program” menu button to load a program. I picked “Alpha Blipp”

Step 3 – Create a MIDI clip, rename it “Pattern a”, and enter a MIDI note for C#. Playing the clip will select “Pattern a”.


Step 4 – Create a MIDI clip in Scene 2, rename it to “Pattern b”, and enter a MIDI note for C#3. Playing the clip will select “Pattern b”.


Now when you switch from Scene 1 to Scene 2, uTonic will switch patterns as well.

Of course you could also use a MIDI keyboard or program a matrix controller to send these notes as well.

You can also edit MIDI mappings within uTonic using the menu “Edit MIDI Controller/Keys”.


You’ll see an overlay for existing mappings.


Here is a little excerpt from the manual on mapping:

Rectangular markers (like those on top of the drum channel selection buttons) indicate assignable MIDI keys, while oval markers indicate that you can assign MIDI controllers. Click once in a marker to quickly enter MIDI learn for a button or controller (you will see a flashing MIDI connector symbol). Now, simply, press the desired key or turn the desired knob on your hardware controller and you should see a note name or a controller number in the little marker.

Lastly, you can use Ableton Live’ 8’s device mapping feature to map expose parameters to the device.

Step 1 – Click the triangle
Step 2 – Click the “Configure” button
Step 3 – Move a control on uTonic you want to map
Step 4 – You’ll see the corresponding parameter appear in the device. You can now MIDI map this using CTRL-M.



Mark Mosher
Electronic Musician, Synth Programmer, Boulder CO