Blamsoft’s VK-1 Viking Synthesizer Reviewed

Viking

Disclosure: Because I had used my trial on an earlier version, Blamsoft (very graciously) granted me a full license for this review.

From across a sea of synthesizer satire, indie developer Blamsoft invades the rack with the “authentic classic analog synthesizer experience,” or, VK-1 Viking. But is the horned helmet insignia enough to strike fear into the hearts of the English and Russian developers, such as its namesake? Let’s find out.

First, the elephant in the room:  Does it sound like a Moog?

I wasn’t able to do direct comparison with a Voyager but, to my ear, Viking is not an especially apt Moog substitute. That’s not to say that it’s not a nice sounding synth in its own right, however.

Overview

Viking is a three oscillator, single filter, not-quite-semi-modular virtual analog monosynth. It’s a time-tested design, to say the least. The architecture and controls will be familiar to most synth geeks but there are a few unusual features to take note of.

The oscillators offer continuously variable waveforms (triangle -> sawtooth -> square -> PWM). Oscillator one’s pitch is controlled by the master fine tuning, which has a 300 cent +/- range, in one cent increments. Oscillators two and three each have frequency knobs which may be used for coarse (+/- 700 cents in ten cent increments) OR fine (+/- seventy cents in one cent increments) tuning. Octave selections range from 32′ to 1′.

The oscillators can cross-modulate – oscillator two can be synced to one and oscillator one can be frequency modulated by three. The mod busses even allow a moderate amount of amplitude modulation. Additionally, keyboard tracking can be switched off for oscillator three, which also has a “Lo” setting, six octaves bellow the set footage. And there’s a rear panel control for stretch tuning. For each oscillator. And drift.

From there, the audio path hits a five-channel mixer, for the three oscillators, an external signal, and noise (“classic,” white, and pink). The mixer interacts nicely with the filter, allowing varying degrees of overdrive. (But not enough, I feel.)

The single filter has some very interesting modes and configurations. By default, it’s set to stereo low-pass, with the left and right channels filtered equally. But it can also be mono high pass (non-resonant) and low pass in series (variable width band pass). For either configuration, the spacing of the filters is variable. In the dual low pass, “Spacing” offsets the left filter by +/- three octaves; in band pass mode, the pass band can be widened from one octave to eight octaves.

The low pass filter has five modes: linear (least cycle hungry), nonlinear (modeled), and three overdriven variations on the nonlinear algorithm. Both the high pass and the low pass filters have variable pole settings, one through four. Cutoff frequencies range from twenty hz to 12,ooo hz (in pleasantly small increments) and the filter can be bypassed. And it self-oscillates. And has variable keyboard tracking. And the envelope input is invertable.

There is an external input for the filter and yes, the feedback trick works.

Internal modulation sources are two ADSR envelopes (one hardwired to volume) and an LFO. Modulation is controlled routed via two busses, to be discussed.

There are too many cv ins and outs to name. (But not enough, as discussed later.) There are two utility ins.

While this is a very nice feature set, there’s a light bulb moment when you realize that it can be almost completely replicated in Thor. Viking does not fill a glaring gap in the rack, in my opinion. Additionally,Viking is very cycle hungry. Playing any patch will cost at least one DSP bar on my i7 quad core – which is a disappointment.

One interesting thing Viking can do is convert midi to cv. Among the cv outs are gate, note, pitch bend, aftertouch, and sustain.

Sound

Viking can sound very, very good. It can also sound thin and weak. Viking leaves a lot up to the programmer.

Oscillator sync on Viking is very musical and can create some very interesting waveforms, sometimes reminiscent of talkboxes or a wavetable. FM can create some wonderful pitched sound effects. For general subtractive synthesis, Viking’s quite powerful. If I had to assign a single word to Viking, it would be ‘clean;’ I feel like I should wear a lab coat when I use it.

I wish Blamsoft hadn’t modeled the GUI after Moog Voyager’s, forcing the issue of their relation. Though there is a certain Mooginess to some sounds, Viking lacks the innate musicality and character of a Moog synthesizer. (I think filter drive and feedback controls might help, if the developer puts out a new version.) It’s a shame, really, as Viking does sound quite nice, just not always like a Moog.

Some of the presets are very nice but, sadly, many are in the wrong octave. Viking defaults to an octave below concert pitch and some sound designers forgot to change the oscillator octave settings before programming their sounds.

Ease of Use

One of the first things I noticed about Viking was that it’s quiet. Reason sound designers generally like to have patches peak at -12 db. For most synths, that means turning things down but for Viking, that means turning things up. This may seem churlish but it can be a pretty big problem. For some sounds, the master volume control doesn’t have enough range to get to -12 and turning up the oscillator levels in the mixer can change the timbre.

General programming is fine but where Viking fails, it fails quite badly. The two issues are cv modulation and polyphony and they’re cases of the developer being a bit too faithful to the original hardware synth.

The two modulation busses allow a decent number of sources and destinations but just one modulation path each and one is  hardwired to the mod wheel (scale). These can be supplemented by the cv jacks on the back panel but that’s a bit of a kludge.

Viking is quite obviously intended to have the option of polyphony, by way of Blamsoft’s Distributor (to be reviewed). If you do take this route of using multiple Vikings for polyphony you’ll find there are many cv ins but they are too few to make programming via Thor easy; one still has to adjust each Viking individually for many parameters.  Programming patches using this ‘virtual’ polyphony via Distributor can be a bit of a chore.

Summary

When I first tried Viking for this review, I wondered why I hadn’t bought it after my trial ended. It was about as much fun as I had ever had with a synthesizer – and it didn’t sound half bad, either. But then I tried to play two notes. And looked at the DSP meter. And thought about the other subtractive synths in Reason. And remembered that Noxious is just 10 USD more and that Revival has gone on sale for lesstwice. For all the things Viking is good at, somehow, it just misses its mark. You would be wrong to not try Viking because of this one lukewarm review, but it seems to me that you’d have to want that exact Viking sound to make it a worthwhile purchase.

Scorewww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
Nice-sounding but is outclassed by other choices, especially at its price point.

For reference, I would give Thor 4.9 stars and Subtractor, 4.8.

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colcifer is a multi-instrumentalist with a weakness for harmonies and waltzes. You are likely to find him trolling the Propellerhead forums, pretending to be a synthesizer expert.