Review: Plugin Boutique VirtualCZ

Ahhh, the good old Casio CZ synthesizer, how we miss you. But wait. Plugin Boutique's VirtualCZ wants to bring those sonic memories back to your DAW. Noah Pred takes a trip down memory lane.  

Plugin Boutique have unleashed a faithful recreation of Casio's beloved CZ synth series, employing the original's unique Phase Distortion architecture to provide distinctive sounds through a compact GUI. Reviving this arcane synthesis technique offers a novel approach to sound design which, after surmounting the initial learning curve, delivers a fresh range of sonic potential.

The main Virtual CZ editor.

The main Virtual CZ editor.

Pushing the Envelopes

VirtualCZ offers two Phase Distortion oscillators, labeled as Lines, each of which can be balanced between an A/B split of eight selectable waveforms: Saw, Square, Pulse, Double Sine, Double Pulse, and three Resonant shapes—but all of the intricate sound design takes place primarily amidst the envelopes.

Each Line has a set of three envelopes to shape its properties over time: Pitch, DCW, and Amp. The first and last are familiar and self-explanatory, while the DCW envelope is the instrument's primary timbral tool—more on that in a moment.

All three envelopes can be set to the classic CZ multistage mode with up to eight stages, or set to function as more conventional ADSR envelopes—but it's all or nothing, as the chosen mode applies universally to all envelopes for both Lines.

The MSEG mode offers the most pliable control, with a slider determining the value of each step, and a knob beneath it to adjust the onset time in milliseconds; this mode also offers a bipolar depth control, along with velocity sensitivity and the ability to loop each envelope.

The DCW, or Digitally Controlled Waveshaping envelope, is what determines the timbral contour of the waveform. Each stage determines when and how much each line is distorted from a basic sine wave to the selected waveform—or waveform combination—for that Line, allowing for a range of harmonically rich and temporally dynamic tones.

To kick-start the sound design process, each envelope's settings can be randomized by right-clicking the envelope's title and selecting “randomize” from the attendant context menu, which also allows MSEG envelope settings to be copied and pasted.


Whether you're looking for vintage pads, stabs and leads, massive organs, tuned percussion, or dystopian drones, VirtualCZ can do them all. 

For those accustomed to traditional subtractive or even FM synthesis styles, VirtualCZ may seem an odd beast. There's no filter per se—but each Line's dedicated DCW amount knob provides a corresponding sweep through available harmonic frequencies. There's no LFO beside the hardwired, host-syncable Vibrato—but that's what the envelope looping modes are for. 

It also boasts an impressively rich unison option in mono or legato mode, convincing vintage chorus and stereo width effects, and microtonal tuning support for people working outside conventional western scales. If you're lucky enough to own a Casio original, VirtualCZ also functions as a SysEx editor and librarian for CZ-1, CZ-101, CZ-1000, CZ-3000 and CZ-5000 models.

Whether you're looking for vintage pads, stabs and leads, massive organs, tuned percussion, or dystopian drones, VirtualCZ can do them all. It may take some extra massaging to achieve the results you're looking for, and you may need a few tries to truly get the hang of it—but there's no doubt VirtualCZ can be a powerful tool in the right hands.

Price: $93.25 USD

Pros: Great sound; unique approach; convenient randomization to kick start sound design projects.

Cons: Unison only available in mono modes; envelope stage times not host-syncable; GUI not designed for Retina displays; generally not ideal for beginners.

Noah Pred is a Canadian record producer, sound designer, technologist, DJ, and Ableton Certified Trainer living in Berlin, Germany. Releasing dozens of records and touring extensively since the '90s, he currently teaches a wide variety of techniques for stage and studio at the BIMM Institute. For more information, please visit: http://... Read More


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