Recreating the modular synthesiser experience in a software format is a growing trend. In recent times, we've seen the release of OSCiLLOT, Reaktor Blocks and U-He Bazille. Developers are working hard to lower the barrier of entry for producers seeking the power of expensive modular gear at a fraction of the price. Given the number of choices out there, you'd imagine that any newcomer to the market would need to significantly differentiate themselves to be worthy of consideration. Swedish software manufacturer Softube did just that at this year's Musikmesse, announcing a modular plug-in based on real-world Eurorack modules from hardware companies like Dopefer and Intellijel.
As with all Softube plug-ins, the monolithic installer mentioned in previous reviews is required to activate Modular and its additional modules. While the $99 base package includes a selection of Doepfer A-series modules and some of Softube's own creations, you can purchase other modules separately. The prices for these currently range from $29 for the Intellijel uFold II to $49 for the Rubicon, Korgasmatron and other Intellijel modules. Softube plans to release more modules in the future, but unless they change the installation procedure, you're going to be downloading a gig's worth of installer each time you purchase one. These add-ons are individually licensed products in iLok and are subject to their own $25 transfer fee, so selling them in the future could become cost prohibitive for some.
After you've installed Modular, you may face a problem if you're running Ableton Live or Presonus Studio One on Windows 10. There's an issue with Softube's iLok implementation that has the unfortunate effect of crashing the 64-bit version of these DAWs on startup, unless you run them in Windows 8 compatibility mode. Although this was identified last fall, the issue still persists with Softube's current installers.
When you open Softube Modular, you're greeted with a surprising sight. Unlike many plug-ins, the default preset for Softube Modular is an empty rack, encouraging you to build your own creations from scratch. This process begins on the centre row, which houses all of Modular's main function controls and input/output jacks. Clicking the Add button causes the Module Select view to pop up, providing a pictorial choice of all of the possible modules to choose from. I'm not sure why Softube chose this visual selection over a simpler text-based option. While it looks cool, in some cases it's more of a hindrance than a blessing. When you're trying to quickly locate one of the Doepfer modules—which all look similar—the menu commands an unwieldy amount of screen space. The experience of dealing with modules in your rack is a bit awkward as well. There's no way to copy and paste modules and moving them around requires you to first click the Move/Delete button, select a module, then click in the desired open space. A module duplicate function and drag-and-drop capabilities would go a long way towards streamlining the user experience.
Once you've got your modules in the right place, patching them is as easy as click-and-dragging patch cables from one open jack to another. In a break from real-world limitations, output jacks can be routed to multiple destinations but inputs can only take one cable. All of the cables disappear when you move your mouse away from the jacks—according to Softube, this is to reduce visual clutter. I didn't have an issue with this but I could see it becoming a source of confusion when trying to trace connections in larger patches, especially since there's no way to zoom in or out. However, there are some nice visual touches built into the cable system. For example, the jacks are highlighted to differentiate inputs from outputs when you're in the process of patching.
Modular really shines where it counts: the sound. The DSP engineers at Softube have ample experience recreating devices from the ground up by modelling the individual circuits, and when you start patching the Doepfer modules together, it really shows. The A-110 VCO and A-108 VCF in particular behave and sound like physical modules rather than software, handling audio rate modulation with ease and including all of the characteristic quirks of the originals, all with a notable but manageable CPU hit. Once Softube's selection of modules fills out a bit more, I could foresee many modular synth owners building virtual counterparts of their rack to take on the go or for ease of project recall in a DAW. But even despite the installation issues, I was very impressed with the base package. Hopefully Softube will be able to iron out some of its UX wrinkles in future versions.
Ease of use: 3.1