Article from Issue 248/2021

After watching Ubuntu help NASA with its first controlled flight on another planet, Graham spent far too much time this month visiting Mars in Elite Dangerous, via Proton on Linux.

Wavetable synthesizer


This is an incredible open source software synthesizer, created by Matt Tytel. He's the developer behind Helm, the former best open source synthesizer you could run on Linux, and Vital improves on Helm in every single way. It now competes directly with the hugely popular and influential (and costly proprietary) Serum synth, which has been used on countless tracks to provide everything from phased string stabs to the repeating motifs of Stockhausen's musique concrète. That Vital has been released under GPLv3 is a testament to Matt's commitment to open source and his faith in committed users purchasing a subscription to fund development. We sincerely hope it works, because this is an unprecedented step and paying for Vital is absolutely worth it.

Vital does everything a traditional synth does and more. What makes Vital unique, though, is its sound engine. And it sounds amazing. In any synth, the origin of all sound is one or more oscillators, either voltage controlled (VCO) in analog synths or digitally controlled (DCO) in digital and software types. The vast majority of oscillators generate waveforms with either a triangle, sawtooth, or square (aka pulse) shape. But Vital is a wavetable synthesizer, and that means the shape of any of its three oscillators comes from a 2D or 3D matrix of data. A 2D wavetable could have a triangle, sawtooth, or square shape plotted on the X and Y axes, but it could equally be a sample, a drawing, or something entirely algorithmic. A 3D wavetable adds to this a Z axis of data, which can be selected manually or moved through via a modulation source.

The previous paragraph might sound complex, but the most important thing about Vital is that it always seems to produce great results. The user interface does a brilliant job of showing what's happening with its animated and informative style. Wavetables are shown in 2D or 3D, for instance, with the selected Z always highlighted and animated if it changes. The three envelopes and four LFOs show their current positions and the two filters even as they change shape. Best of all, you can drag and drop between control sources and destinations, allowing you to experiment and play, such as changing the filter depth from an LFO. It's even possible to create bipolar modulation sources and negative output to inverse values, which is perfect for changing an envelope's attach value according to velocity, for instance.

Vital is also one of the few synths to support MPE, allowing you to control the sound from a physical device in unprecedented ways. It adds per-note pitch, slide, and pressure control, all of which can be sent to whatever destination you want via the drag and drop modulation routing. With no extra hardware, you can still play notes from your computer keyboard. The sound engine is also well integrated into the Linux desktop, with support for ALSA, PulseAudio, and JACK in the standalone version and for LV2 and VST3 in the plugin variation. The free download includes dozens of sounds and wavetables, and you can easily create or import your own from any source. But whatever sound you play, it always sounds incredible.

Project Website

1. Open source: Everything but the presets and wavetables of the commercial version are included. 2. Spectral wavetables: Generate simple and complex audio from spectral wavetable data. 3. Effects: Add reverb, chorus, delay, compressor, distortion, eq, filter, flanger, and phaser effects. 4. Oscilloscopes: View the output waveforms of the sounds you're generating. 5. Envelopes and LFOs: Control anything with these modulation sources. 6. MIDI input: See incoming signals and assign them to modulation destinations. 7. CPU management: Manually adjust the output quality and number of voices to control CPU usage. 8. MPE: Full per-note pitch bend and modulation control. 9. Rich filters: Use formant and complex comb filters alongside traditional analog models.

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