U-he follow their fiendishly complex Bazille synth with a much more straightforward plugin. Greg Scarth puts HIVE to the test.
One of the strengths of U-he’s plugin range is the way that each synth has a clearly defined speciality. With DIVA, you get an instrument designed to create vintage analogue sounds; with ACE, versatile modular synthesis; with Bazille, CPU-melting digital modular power. In the case of the company’s newest synth, HIVE, the USP can be summed up in a simple word: simplicity. U-he’s Urs Heckman explains that HIVE “started off as a bit of weekend fun exploring supersaws”, but snowballed into a permanent addition to the product range. HIVE has been developed over the course of an extensive beta testing period, lasting over a year. The result is a relatively straightforward synth by U-he’s normal standards, designed to be user-friendly and easy on processing power without sacrificing the kind of sound quality the company’s products have become known for.
The synth architecture of HIVE is a traditional two-oscillator subtractive setup, with each oscillator offering the usual analogue-inspired waves, unison/detune options, plus a sub-oscillator. There’s no dedicated noise source, but either of the oscillators or their respective sub-oscillators can generate white or pink noise. The dual filters are a little more advanced, each offering eight modes (all resonant), plus input gain for overdriven effects, key tracking, and modulation from four sources: the synth’s two LFOs and two modulation envelopes. Audio signal routing is handled via buttons alongside the two filters. The outputs from both oscillators and sub-oscillators can be fed into either of the two filters or both simultaneously (individual volume controls are found in the oscillator section), while the output of Filter 1 can also be fed into Filter 2. It’s a simple setup, but one that’s hugely effective. The filters sound great and the oscillators are surprisingly versatile. The sub-oscillators can be tuned up or down by two octaves, which in practice means that you can use them as additional oscillators.
The user interface prioritises ease of use above all else, with intuitive signal routing and a simple modulation matrix linking everything together. U-he’s trademark user-friendly touches are scattered throughout the synth, such as the fact there are ten undo/redo levels when editing sounds (including preset changes), while right-clicking the controls for individual parameters also allows you to lock them when changing presets. Each of the oscillators and filters has its own solo button, allowing you to focus in on exactly what it’s contributing to the overall patch. You can also store and recall presets independently for each of the oscillator, filter, LFO, envelope and modulation routing sections. That’s particularly useful for setting up things like basic oscillator combinations and commonly used modulation routings (filter cutoff assigned to the mod wheel, PWM via an LFO, and so on). The presets for each of the sections are relatively simple, but the library of presets for the synth as a whole is extensive (160+ bass patches, 130+ pads and strings, 140+ chord patches…), covering most of the staples for dance production plus plenty more advanced sounds.
One of the most unusual features of HIVE is the switchable audio engine, with three modes each offering subtly different sounds. The differences between the three modes are quite technical. Normal mode offers “exponential oscillator detune, s-shaped envelope attack, short decay, oversampled self-oscillating ‘ladder’ filter model with non-linear resonance”, Dirty mode uses “evenly-spaced oscillator detune, exponential envelope stages [and] oversampled self-oscillating ‘diode ring’ filter”, while Clean mode employs “slightly wider oscillator detune, linear envelope attack, exponential decay and release, linear (non-distorting) ‘state variable’ filters, no oversampling”.
One of the most unusual features of HIVE is the switchable audio engine, with three modes each offering subtly different sounds.
In practice, the difference between the three modes isn’t always substantial. On some patches, the change in sound when flicking between the modes is negligible. In others, however, the difference is immediately obvious. Take the ‘Aow Bass’ preset, which uses a peaking filter with extreme resonance to create an effect similar to a vowel filter. In Normal mode (the default for the preset), the sound is punchy and in-your-face without being overly bright. In Dirty mode it becomes dark and veiled, with much more prominent bass frequencies and less pronounced resonance. In Clean mode it becomes almost aggressively bright with an altogether different resonance to the filter.
For further sound shaping you’ll find a solid effects section in the hexagonal central panel, whose modules (EQ, distortion, phaser, chorus, reverb, compressor and delay) can be chained together in any order, but the more interesting part is the arpeggiator and step sequencer found in the same section. It’s relatively simple, but it allows for some very effective tempo-synced effects thanks to the CC sequencing option, which can be routed via the modulation matrix to most parameters in the synth.
HIVE isn’t the most complex synth you’ll come across, but that’s precisely the point. The clear interface means that almost all functions and parameters are visible at any given moment, with the exceptions of the two modulation matrices (hidden by default, but accessible in place of the keyboard at the bottom of the plugin window) and the central hexagonal panel. The obvious comparisons are LennarDigital’s Sylenth1 and Reveal Sound’s Spire, both of which have become go-to options for dance production and both of which are priced at €139 excluding VAT. HIVE deserves to join those synths as one of the obvious choices for dance producers. It’s a straightforward, user-friendly synth with superb sound quality and an interesting sonic range thanks to the switchable audio engine.
Price: $149 (+VAT in EU)
The Final Word
A simple, straightforward synth with excellent sound. HIVE is a great choice as an all-rounder.