UVI SubCulture – Double-Edged Knife
Whenever we receive new UVI products over the Music Nation desk I fist pump in joy, I have enjoyed just about everything the company has released so far, especially the Falcon only expansion that really push the limitations of the platform. This month we have a copy of the latest SubCulture, a modern bass expansion that promises to expand my personal musical limitations a whole lot more than I’m probably comfortable with.
In real life, I am literally the polar opposite of a producer who would usually buy a title like SubCulture, so this review should be fun.
SubCulture is a $39 USD Falcon only expansion, priced the same as the others in the lineup, all representing amazing value so far. If you’re new to Falcon, it also includes a $100 USD voucher, so this is excellent value for newbies to the platform and existing users.
The website says SubCulture is a drum and bass, post-EDM and garage production device, which means almost nothing to me other than images of some backward cap-wearing teen driving past in a low-slung import with the sub so loud it rattles our windows. What does peak my interest, however, is the sound design for film and game scores capabilities, so I’m very keen to explore the deeper recesses of the software to see what we can find. With 110 patches split between 5 main categories (Classic, composite, effect, free and sync) to get you warmed up, SubCulture is surprisingly flexible with the noises its capable of creating before you even go near Falcon’s incredible synthesis engine.
The presets are mostly meaningless, as you might expect from such a crazy device, however, most make weird musical sense once you’ve played them. ‘Inflatable Bassoon’ kinda sounds like an inflated bassoon would, ‘Creeper’ certainly does, and ‘Blood & Concrete’ quite literally sounds like someone scrubbing blood off the concrete with a wire brush, excellent stuff.
The macro interface is typical UVI. Well designed controls with a 90’s grunge look, bits of sticky tape with control names and worn paint add to the lo-fi theme. For those unfamiliar with UVI Falcon, the platform allows developers to create front-end GUI’s that are basically scripted macro controls for the deeper workings of the synth. Though you have a lot of control with these macros there’s nothing stopping you digging in deeper to micromanaging any specific area of the synth you like. It is possible to open the scripting for the GUI and add your own macro controls if you like, really advanced stuff. It also makes Falcon more approachable for casual users who don’t have the time to delve too deep into the inner workings and just want a decent preset to get rolling with.
UVI really have a great thing going with their platform as all UVI products follow a similar global design, so if you’re familiar with any other UVI products you’ll be at home immediately here. SubCultures interface features typical synthesis filter and envelope ADSR, a dedicated reverb and delay control section, a three-channel mixer for balancing the samples used in each patch, and typical filter cutoff, resonance and depth controls. A custom FX area features patch-dependant controls that could affect punch, pitch, chorus, phase, x-fade or any number of specific controls specific to the patch. Though you may become familiar with the FX intention, the real-wolrd results are totally dependant on any number of factors resulting in wildly creative results. Every patch is capable of being totally transformed into something vastly different by messing with the custom patch FX, filters and ADSR controls. So anyone thinking whoopy-doo to 110 presets will find the level of customisation for each daunting.
SubCulture is primarily focused on low-end bass, sub-bass and evolving mutations. There are no ‘simple’ bass patches, everything takes time to evolve over time. Some patches are faster than others, but all share a similar trial and error approach to dialling in effects and modulation to see where it leads. This is not as haphazard as some other virtual instruments where everything is totally random, SubCulture has a good degree of intention behind the controls and effects presented in each patch. Also, since everything is scripted behind the scenes, it’s more grounded in regards to understanding the signal-flow. By this I mean if you stumble upon a happy mistake that tweaks your interest, you can open up the Falcon editor and trace the workings back to the oscillator or effect creating the sound you like, then continue to manipulate that device further if you desire. It feels more substantial than just hitting a randomise button and living with the results.
The downloadable manual for SubCulture is totally useless, with only a brief introduction and overview of the expansion. Presumably, you’re fairly perficient with Falcon by this stage if you’re buying expansions, so probably not a huge deal, this is the only area I can gripe about. There is no explanation of the controls, sound characteristics, any advice on its application or even basic signal flow. Pretty much ignore it and work it out for yourself. Fortunately, SubCulture UI is fairly self-explanatory, but I wish UVI would put more effort into this area.
So, the reason you’re probably reading this review – what does it sound like? It’s big, that’s for sure.
Each of the patches has been constructed in a way that the mix layers don’t mess too much with each others frequency space, meaning the basses are fat, the mids are intense and the top end is wide as heck. Sonically, everything is very spectrum-filling, especially once you start hitting the chorus and reverb effects harder. This could be problematic if your arrangments are already quite saturated with instruments or effects. You will need to be very careful of the material you layer with SubCulture since it’s so demanding of headroom. I found anything analog or too bassy played alongside tended to be swallowed up fairly quickly, with sharp, more digital synth sounds work better for cutting through. Keeping drum machine tracks simple and fairly tight with compression was fine, but overlaying real acoustic drums is a mess unless you compress the heck out of them. This is no slight on SubCulture, its just you’ll need some pretty big synths and percussion to compete with this monster.
I love the included effects, particularly the ‘Thorus’ chorus, wow, quite possibly the best such effect I’ve heard. UVI’s excellent SparkVerb is present of course, and then you have the absolute mind-blowing number of more standard affair FX included in the Falcon platform you can further mix in as you desire. Thanks to Falcon’s incredibly flexible synthesis engine you are spoilt for choice when adding more oscillators, modulation effects, arpeggiators – and then there’s the back catalogue of incredible synth add-on packs you can buy which all work beautifully as layered instruments. UVI still struggle a little with acoustic stringed libraries, but for synths, samplers and sound design devices like SubCulture, as a sandbox platform, Falcon really is streets ahead of anything else.
As a classical composer mostly, I feel I could be doing SubCulture a little bit of a disservice, as my natural tendency is to apply it as a very subtle underscore, here and there to enhance an orchestral passage. To my surprise, SubCulture sounds absolutely incredible as a supportive boost to cinematic arrangments.
Hans Zimmer, Junkie XL and others use synths like U-He Zebra and Xfer’s Serum to add the grit and power to orchestrations, even some of the old-school masters like Bernard Herrmann are well known for their use of synthesisers to create edgy and contemporary arrangements, so this is no pioneering process here. But where I found SubCulture particularly useful is it’s already quite emotive and evolving right out of the box, you don’t need a lot of editing with the synthesis engine to come up with some really interesting results. The last thing I want to be doing is programming some modular synth when I’m focused on a traditional orchestral arrangement. Though it’s not as in-depth as the likes of Spitfires Phobos, eDNA engines or the likes, it’s certainly a lot easier to drop in and come up with something fairly quickly that sits well.
If you’re lucky (or smart) enough to own UVI’s Cinematic Shades, Spectre or one of the other excellent Falcon only expansions, there is simply a lifetime of creative sound design ideas there if you start layering them all up.
As an EDM producer, this is most likely right up your alley, but from my point of view as a more traditional orchestral producer, this was a real surprise. Not only did I love the basic sound of SubCulture, but the simple to experiment interface is perfect for my compositions, even though admittedly I don’t push the device anywhere near as hard as the dubstep guys will, I’m sure.
Though I do enjoy tinkering around with other synths to achieve sound FXs and lines for my arrangments, SubCulture has been a real godsend as it’s dirty and gritty right out of the box. And since the patches are so widely varied, it’s surprisingly flexible as a companion for any cinematic work I do. Though the UI design and online promotion is clearing targeting SubCulture towards the younger EDM producers, and there is certainly a good number of dubstep ‘wub wub’ type presets I avoided, I really think this is actually one of the better film scoring and sound design tools out there. At full noise, SubCulture is like a bull in a china shop, but once you reign in the aggression a little and focus more on the excellent effects and filter controls, this is one of the best in the market.