- It's funny how certain synthesizers develop an iconic status over time. For all of the Moogs, Prophets and Jupiters, though, there's a second tier of lesser-known classics which turn up less regularly on eBay and which escape the attention of plug-in developers more readily. Into this category, one could certainly have placed EMS' (Electronic Music Studios) VCS3, a curious synth which was originally released in 1969. Relying on a patch panel matrix where the synth's modules were connected via special pins, this instrument found favour with a number of eminent musicians throughout the '70s. In particular, Jean-Michel Jarre. Fast forward to the here and now and XILS Lab has developed a plug-in tribute to this wonderful and quirky instrument in the form of the XILS 3 which, they're keen to point out, has been released without any official endorsement from EMS themselves. Operating as a plug-in within any VST, AU or RTAS host, the only installation quirk is that your serial number will be emailed to you up to four days after you've placed your order and authorization, via a 'soft' iLok license (no iLok key required), which can't be completed without it as there's no demo grace period.
The "3" in VCS3's model number refers to its three-oscillator architecture and the XILS 3 faithfully models this approach, with adjustable waveform shape between sine, square, ramp and triangle waveforms, each with adjustable tuning (coarse and fine), shape and level dials. These are enhanced by a separate noise generator, which features Color and Level knobs. Tone-wise, the plug-in provides 2 and 4-pole filter within the main synth section whilst also offering separate high and low-pass options for the left and right output channels lower down, which is a thoroughly welcome addition. The envelope shaper provides classic ADSR-style volume control whilst there's also the option to control the volume of incoming audio signals as the XILS 3 can also be used as an effect for other sounds in your tracks. These main synth components are covered by the upper section of the right-hand panel of the GUI, while the lower section is dominated by the matrix, which is where the modular aspect of this instrument is put into practice. Down the left hand side, you'll find the main synth components, while the upper panel displays both the signal and control inputs into which these can be plugged, so at the most basic level, you can patch an oscillator into the filter and the filter then into one or both outputs and, hey presto, there's sound. You can go much further, of course, as the XILS boasts more than 450 possible connection options. What I like so much here is that sound design takes a little time and being forced to slow down and think about how you want your sound to develop and change is welcome in a world where plug-ins often sound so great immediately. It's refreshing to take a little longer to consider your options.
As with several other plug-ins which aim to reproduce the hallmark sound of classic gear, the XILS 3 has a few modern tricks up its sleeve which you won't find anywhere near the original hardware. These are accessed via the left-hand side of the GUI, in a series of separate tabs marked Matrix, Keyboard, Sequencer, Input and Effects. Matrix provides a second 'pin-style' control surface where you can assign controls including the mod wheel, velocity and aftertouch to the parameters of your choice, while Keyboard controls functions such as portamento, pitch bend range, mode (poly, mono and three flavours of unison). Input allows you to set transient, gate, pitch and envelope tracking for incoming audio signals, while Effects provides stereo delay and chorus effects to add to the reverberation unit available within the main synth section. The Sequencer is perhaps the most exciting addition, however, with XILS 3 boasting a fully-configurable 128-step internal sequencer. This means a single key press will generate a bubbling, bouncing pattern which is great for basslines and sequencer style parts. Used in conjunction with the matrix, it's possible to use this sequencer not just to create variations in pitch but also pulse width, filter cutoff, decay, reverb and even the output level, with ranges to set how wide these movements will be controlled via dedicated dials beneath. All of this means that myriad effects can be produced, from classic running sequences, to gated or even spatial patterns enhancing the notes you play within your tracks. Again, the nature of plugging these options in via a matrix means that you're likely to make some mistakes along the way but rather than this being a bad thing, the results are often surprising and more impressive than your original intentions.
There's no doubt about it, you should buy XILS 3 immediately. This plug-in currently costs just $20, so to ignore it really would be looking a gift horse in the mouth. The sound is lovely, it's warm and rich and the matrix provides hundreds of ways to help shape it to the demands of your tracks. Stylistically, it's capable of anything from monstrous analog-style basslines to soaring leads, delicate pads and a unique collection of weird and wonderful effects, to say nothing of genuine analog percussion sounds too. But that's where comparisons to the original hardware end, as the XILS 3 then brings more modern plug-in design to bear on its capabilities, with flexible internal effects and a sequencer to get sounds grooving just two of many enhancements. It's true that its feature set doesn't match the all-singing, all-dancing options of some other contemporary synth plug-ins but in terms of providing a sound reminiscent of the original VCS3 it does a great job, with plenty of modern tricks to boot. They say you get what you pay for but with this particular plug-in, you get much more besides.
EASE OF USE: 4/5