U-He Bazille Review: U-he have produced a quite breathtaking virtual modular synth. Offering unparalleled audio quality, beautiful filters and huge amounts of creative control, Bazille is a game changer.
The brainchild of Urs Heckmann, U-he are, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, one of those developers whose soft synths tend to have that ‘magic’. What do I mean by this? Well, here’s the best way to describe it…. in fact, I can’t describe it. The best advice is to download the demo of one of their synths (for example ‘Diva’), and play around with a few of the preset sounds. In a blind A/B test with a well regarded, true analogue synth (the kind that would cost the price of a new car) - my belief is that for the vast majority it would be very difficult to spot which was virtual, and which was real. The character and realism coming out of the monitors when you play these things is, to me, ‘magic’. So, when I heard that Bazille (the German word for ‘a disease causing bacterium’, interestingly, and pronounced ‘Bat-Zilla’) was finally complete - it is not without a heightened sense of anticipation that I jumped in, ready for this thing to infect my eardrums. Hopes so high that I was surely setting myself up to be disappointed. So was I? Read on...
Back in 2009 Urs started work on a virtual modular system, inspired by his use of the legendary Roland System 100M which was stationed at his school. This has been an ongoing project, which in the last few years gathered pace after other projects he was working on started naturally feeding into the work. Many in the know have been tracking progress of Bazille, and anticipation has been building strongly in the last couple of years - particularly after the release of other excellent products from the team. Half a decade on from it’s original conception, it is finally complete.
Bazille works with Windows (XP or higher) and Mac OSX (10.5 or higher) and requires a trivial 30Mb of disc space. 1Gb of RAM is a baseline requirement, and CPU is quickly devoured - you will need a powerful multi core CPU to really get the most out of it, and Sandy Bridge-based architectures are recommended as a minimum.
The software runs as a plugin in either a 32-bit or 64-bit DAW that supports either VST 2, AAX or Audio Units. (Pro Tools 10 and 11 are fully supported). For this review, the package was run as a 32-bit VST 2 plugin in Ableton Live 9 (Windows 8.1)
Installation is simple - download and install the demo version from the U-he website, fire up the plugin and enter your username and registration code to unlock the software.
On first startup, Bazille is daunting, and positively screams ‘monster’ at you. We are of course looking at a recreation of a wall-filling modular system on the computer screen - and modular systems of this size in the flesh are, likewise, daunting, so this should not come as any great surprise. If you have any experience with U-he’s earlier incarnation of this modular concept, ‘ACE’, then things will be recognisable (and indeed, the virtual cable system will also be very familiar to users of ‘Reason’) - however, I suggest in preparation for the first time you are faced with Bazille you have a nice hot cup of tea or coffee by your side so you can sit back and take a few minutes to digest things!
It is wise at this point to explain a very simple routing in Bazille (just in case this kind of concept is new to you). A modular system is just that - a system of ‘modules’ - and traditionally each module is linked by cables (in this case, ‘virtual cables’ of course). A virtual cable can be created in Bazille by linking a red (out) and a grey (in) connector, simply by click-dragging the mouse.
For example, to route the sound of oscillator 1 into the filter, simply change the default signal path such that the sound from the ‘OSC 1’ module goes via the ‘FILTERS’ module, and then onto the output.
Take a look at the below diagram which shows a before and after - the left image shows how the output of ‘OSC 1’ is simply going straight into ‘OUT 1’. This routes the sound of oscillator 1 to the output (with no other processing). The right hand image shows how the cable from ‘OSC 1’ has now been sent to the ‘FILTERS’ module (instead of directly to the output). Now we must send the output of the filter onwards to ‘OUT 1’ (in order to hear anything).
Fundamentally, this is the core building block of how you construct sounds in a system like this. We may, for example, decide we want an LFO to modulate the cutoff of the filter, in which case we simply drag the output from an LFO module to the input of the cutoff parameter. Ultimately, as you can imagine, things can end up with a veritable spaghetti junction of cables routing the signal here, there and everywhere (see the main image at the top of the page for an example). Like everything else in this plugin, things go one step further than a traditional system and any cable can be sent anywhere, irrespective of what kind of signal it carries - using audio as a modulation source can lead to some very strange and interesting textures.
Bazille uses a lot of screen real estate, and is ideally suited to a dual (or more) monitor scenario. There are two display themes provided - an ‘Original’ theme, which uses multiple pages to display all the interface elements, and ‘Gearporn’, which shows everything on one page. ‘Gearporn’ crams a huge amount into one window (but is aesthetically more pleasing in my view) whereas the ‘Original’ theme is more simply laid out, and spins out some modules and interface elements to separate pages. Which one is best for workflow? Well, that is a subjective matter, but certainly I found it easiest sticking with ‘Original’ until everything was comfortable, and then moving onto ‘Gearporn’ for speed of use.
Bazille has 4 independent digital oscillators - simultaneously providing FM, PD (Phase Distortion) and the interesting ‘FR’ (Fractal Resonance). Alongside this, we have the filter module, which seems to provide a perfectly rounded contrast to the bright, beautiful oscillators.
The multiplex module can be patched in for ring modulation effects, for example, and there’s a powerful sequencer that can be used to modulate any parameter. Up to 8 sequences can be created and triggered in rotation or independently for different parameters. The ‘mapping generators’ provide a lot of creative control, and allow for hand-drawn graphs with which can be mapped to various parameters.
The effects section comprises 4 models - distortion, delay, phaser and spring reverb. These are individually excellent, and work very well in the context of the synth.
At the top of the screen is the oscilloscope display, which is not only extremely useful for viewing the results of your tweaks, but it also simulates the old vector glow very nicely indeed and looks great. (Urs if you are reading… a full screen independent plugin version of this please!)
It is more likely with Bazille than with any other synth, that you will spend some considerable time exploring the presets to get a feel for what this thing is capable of, as they are vital in the learning stages of understanding how certain sounds are constructed. In doing so you will be immediately struck by the simply stunning character and range of sounds it can deliver.
There are over 1700 presets, with some jaw-droppingly excellent pads, leads, keys and basses. This is no less than was expected, of course, from a developer with such a great pedigree in this kind of thing - but it is when venturing into wild and obscure territory that Bazille really comes into its own. The engine in this beast delivers some of the most incredible sounds - the oscillators ramp all the way from smooth and lush to super-gritty, fizzy and gnarly, whilst all the time retaining a beautiful, organic sense of character - there is an element of refinement and personality over even the most ‘out-there’ sounds. This machine simply lives and breathes, and is wholly absorbing.
A first foray into sound design will no doubt result from modifying or deconstructing the presets. Moving cables around within a predefined patch to witness the results is excellent practice during the learning stage - within an hour or so of doing this, I had produced a bank of a dozen excellent patches that all started off as internal presets. I recommend printing out the manual that accompanies the package - it is very well written, and an essential reference once you have dragged yourself away from the presets, and are looking into making Bazille your own.
There are of course downsides - the biggest of which is the amount of horsepower required to drive it. Bazille gobbles up CPU cycles at an alarming rate - on my i5 based system (which is no slouch), a simple chord played on some of the patches was enough to bring the system to its knees. There are ways to alleviate this - firstly by activating the MC (multi core) CPU option, and also by disabling HQ (high quality) when tracking (this can be re-enabled when doing a mix-down). That said, this is the price one has to pay currently for this kind of sound, and frankly, it is worth it. Getting into the habit of freezing tracks in your DAW is definitely a good idea if you can accommodate this into your workflow.
Another slight issue is the amount of screen real estate required. Bazille not only sounds big, it also looks big, and the plugin window for both supplied themes is quite a dominant presence. There are settings to zoom out to make things more comfortable, however, but using this on a laptop may prove to be a struggle. There isn’t really a way around this - the idea of compacting and expanding parts of the interface is not really viable, due to the cables.
These minor quibbles aside, Bazille is simply one of the most impressive, complex and beautiful plugins I have ever come across, and it pushes the envelope of what is possible in software. At times the sound has left me awestruck, in a way that no other synth (either real or virtual) has before.
Bazille is $129, which represents truly excellent value for money - I strongly recommend you download the demo, and have a listen for yourself. There are years and years of experimentation on offer here, and the sound quality is up there at the very top of the league.