Xfer Records Serum Review
It took me much longer than it should have to finally get around to trying Serum. This unique software synth was all the rage among producers. It has been lauded as THE best VST-synth of all time by many producers. Since giving it a go, I must admit, I was totally missing out.
So, if this little plug-in somehow never made it on your radar, let me get you up to speed. Essentially, Serum is a beautifully-designed, multi-oscillator wavetable synth with enough bells, whistles, and capabilities to keep even the most voracious sound designers happy.
Out of the box you get access to roughly 450 preset patches of all varieties. Scintillating pads, juicy basses, and luscious strings are all just a click away. If, however, you’re a bit more hands-on with your production, Serum has enough oscillators, LFO’s, filters, and envelopes to keep you content for quite a while.
Two of the synth’s four sound sources are wavetable oscillators, one is a sub-oscillator, and the last is a very non-traditional noise generator. We’ll dive further into the two primary oscillators in just one moment. The sub-oscillator is nothing too far out of the ordinary, but the noise generator is very cool.
Firstly, it has practically every variation of noise you’d ever need, but what’s more unique is the fact that it’s a stereo sample player, too. Noise can be generated with the preloaded WAV files or you can import your own. Even better, the generator can run in single-shot mode or loop on itself. With looping, I’ve found it very trivial to come up with interesting sounding kicks and snares. But if you think that’s cool, then you’ll really love what the two primary oscillators can do.
I truly believe Serum is one of the cleanest sounding virtual synthesizers I’ve ever played. I’m serious. Even when I throw tons of distortion on a patch, something still feels very sterile. I find the cleanliness to be a good thing, it’s very refreshing. And don’t get me wrong, Serum can definably get grimy, but it’s a distinctive type of “pure” grime. That may go over your head, but once you hear this beast in action, you’ll have a better understanding.
I’m told much of Serum’s intriguing sound can be attributed to its proprietary software design patterns. Whatever’s in their secret sauce, in the end, we have two bright, unpolluted wavetable-oscillators, which provide a great foundation for building one-of-a-kind patches.
Users have well over 100 factory wavetables to choose from. The pre-made tables are split into categories including Analog, Digital, Spectral, and Vowel. While you could easily spend hours or days playing with the included wavetables, the fun doesn’t begin until you start editing or creating your own.
Serum has made the process of creating and revising tables incredibly intuitive. Xfer Records (the synth’s makers) has provided users with a fully-stocked, well-organized woodshop. What we create in the shop is only limited by our imagination. In less fanciful terms, we literally have every tool we need to make any sound we want.
New wavetables can be created by drawing, importing audio, or creating mathematical formulas. The nerd in me loves to create waveforms with mathematics, there’s something organic about doing it this way. But truthfully speaking, I don’t have enough brainpower to write 256 different formulae to supply each frame in the table. Thankfully, though, as long as I can provide a starting and finishing point, Serum will do the rest by filling in the gaps! And as expected, this dynamic interpolation works for drawings, too. What makes Serum even more special is these tables can be exported for use in other wavetable-based hardware or software.
Serum’s filter section is nearly a bit-for-bit clone of the filters included with Xfer Records’ LFOtool, the company’s flagship product before Serum came along. Expect to see traditional filters such as low-pass, high-pass, and band-pass, as well as a more modern variety including phasers, combs, and a very wacky type called sample-and-hold (S&H). I’ve seen other filters that produce these S&H type effects, but Xfer’s version is even wilder.
Speaking of effects, this review would be incomplete if I didn’t mention Serum’s effects rack. There about ten different modules in the effects section. Each module can be toggled on or off and easily reassigned in any order you wish. And like all other parameters in Serum, nearly all functions provided by each effect can be modulated by simply dragging and dropping one of the three envelops or four LFOs on to it. It’s a bit like witchcraft!
Since Serum made modulating parameters so easy, you’ll find yourself doing it a lot. To keep track of what’s being modulated, Xfer Records provides a very handy 16-slot modulation matrix. I can’t tell you how many times this panel has come in handy as things can get quite messy when you’re programming complex sounds.
Coming in at less than $200, Serum is a steal. For this price, you get a top-of-the-line VST and access to filters and modulators from the highly praised LFOtool. The 400+ presets will keep patch-surfers busy for quite some time. On the other hand, the powerful synth engine that powers this bad-boy will leave hardcore sound designers wanting for nothing. The only caveat is that Serum works best on higher-end computers.