Xfer Records Serum Synthesizer Plugin Review

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With various awards and some high profile users, does the Xfer Records “dream synthesizer” deserve all the hype?


For a few years, it seemed like there were too many sofware synthesizers on the market. That was until the bar was raised significantly by the likes of Native Instrments Massive and Uhe Zebra 2. Nowadays most of us want to slim down our VST folders and have versatile synths like the aforementioned stalwarts. These synths we can learn to master, rather than rely on a number of basic synthesizers with limited sonic potential. Peoples expectations have risen to the extent that we now demand synths with excellent oscillators, a varety of synthesis types, a choice of superb filters, and copious modulation possibilities. Enter Serum, the plugin that promises all that and more. Xfer do in fact claim that Serums oscillators are some of the best sounding, using “ultra high-precision resampling, yielding an astonishingly inaudible signal-to-noise”


Looking like the bastard son of Massive and Zebra, Serum is a semi modular hybrid beast that combines subtractive and wavetable synthesis with creative sampling and effects, all in an elegant, user friendly interface. With a torrent of praise from all corners of the internet, including some notable fans such as Deadmau5, this plugin could not be written off as just another synth, without further exploration.


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The first thing you’ll notice when you load Serum is the clear layout of the interface. Anyone familiar with soft-synths will know about 50% of Serums functions at just a glance of the deceptively simple GUI. The graphical piano keyboard on the bottom of the interface can be hidden from view, a nice touch.


Exploring the preset patches, it quickly becomes obvious how much sonic power Serum has. Everything is covered, from growling bass to enchanting pads and complex rhythmic sequences. You might also notice that while Serum sounds amazing, it is rather CPU hungry too. Some of the presets notched up around 35% CPU on my Core i7 processor. The more impressive presets are of course, quite complex and effects heavy. Most of the patches I programmed myself hovered around 15% CPU.


On to┬áthe oscillators, you’ll find a plethora of options from familiar analog waveforms to more unusual wave tables such as vocal, clangourous, plucky and squelshy sounds, all of which can be morphed, modulated, filtered, combined and twisted to produce a huge variety of contemporary timbres. The wavetables can be as complex as 256 levels. You can also import or create your own from scratch.


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Both oscillators have a unison mode which goes up to 16 and can be heavily detuned. There’s also a useful sub oscillator and versitile noise oscillator to help craft your sound. As claimed by Xfer, the oscillators do indeed sound pristine, with no noticeable artifacting, even at high or low notes.


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In the filter section, you’ll find the usual suspects, along with some more exotic varieties such comb, phase and formant filters. These filters all sound phenomenal, and the variety on offer encourages more experimental sound design. Any of the envelopes and LFOs can be used to modulate the oscillators or filters, with a simple drag and drop of the cursor. These modulations will then automatically appear in the (excellent) modulation matrix for deeper tweaking.


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The effects secton comes with 10 effects types including a very powerful distortion module and great sounding reverb. Again, like the oscillators and filters, any of the effects parameters can be modulated by the various envelopes and LFOs. Between the wavetables and effects, and the complex modulation options, it soon becomes clear what a bottomless pit of sonic exploration Serum is. Other software synthesizers such as Absynth, Massive and Zebra already gave us huge sonic potential, but none were ever as much fun as Serum. It is perhaps the most fun and inspiring synth I’ve used to date.


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In summary, Serum is a very obvious candidate for the single best synthesizer plugin right now. While it may be a touch greedy with CPU, the rewards are well worth it: A fun and intuitive interface, with unrivalled sonic potential. Steve Duda of Xfer Records, who spent 3 years creating Serum has also promised free lifetime updates. So far we’ve seen some great updates, inspired by a very active and enthusiastic Xfer user community. Serum is a powerful workhorse hybrid synth that you can learn in a few days, but take years to fully explore. The combination of addictive simplicity and sonic power is unmatched in any other virtual instrument.


Xfer Records Serum VST can be downloaded from PIB here