UNIFY — an amazing new software-synth host

I almost never review products here, but UNIFY is an exception. Technically, UNIFY is a software application that lets you mix and manage one or several software music synthesizers. If you’re not into that kind of thing, then this review will probably be largely meaningless. If you do, then you will surely enjoy finding out about UNIFY. It’s sold by PluginGuru, where you can find lots of details about what it is and how it works. Oh, and it’s < $80, and probably worth about $300.

First of all, UNIFY is indispensable, inexpensive, wonderfully functional, stable, and anyone working with computer music in any genre will be delighted and amazed at the truly unprecedented spectrum of things this tool can do.

There are two ways that come to mind to describe where UNIFY fits into the universe of soft synths.


First, lots of people still use Hermann Seib’s wonderful little utility called SaviHost, which is essentially a VST host app. Its main claim to fame is in providing a tiny platform for any VST synth you might want to play in stand-alone mode — even though that VST might not have a stand-alone feature, or even an on-screen keyboard. I’ve been using SaviHost for decades to gain access to various soft-synths without the complexities and bother of launching a DAW and configuring an entire project. Sometimes I just want to play. For example, I ran Omnisphere (before it had a stand-alone capability) for years in SaviHost and got deleriously lost in it. Or Xtreme-FX, which has no keyboard and has to be hosted. Or a dozen others.

UNIFY is like SaviHost taken to the 10th power. Yes, you can effortlessly use it to load any VST so you can immediately just noodle around in the VST’s GUI, so it’s a terrific replacement for SaviHost. (The only things I still like about SaviHost are (1) that it always loads the same VST, so you can have several tiny instances of it, one for each of your favorite synths, and (2) it can save my improvisations direct to an audio file on disc.) However, UNIFY is so idiotically simple  that you can use it almost the same way, to get into any VST and start playing with a grand total of about 4 clicks. I probably won’t be using SaviHost anymore, at least not after UNIFY has the ability to write audio to disc, bypassing the need for a DAW completely, when you’re just exploring sounds and you aren’t interested in multitracking.

The other product that comes to mind is Native Instruments’ ongoing quest for the ultimate universal synth host. They got part way there with Kore, and Kore2, but the system involved both hardware and software, was pretty expensive, and the GUI side of things was surprisingly hard to use. The GUI design was super-compact, but ended up just too inscrutable for ease of use, unless you logged quite a few hours grappling with it. And the docs weren’t all that great either — more encyclopedic than helpful (a common problem with complex software). More recently, NI has improved in their quest substantially with Komplete Kontrol, a VST host and patch management environment that nicely integrates all of the dozens of NI synths, samplers, ROMplers, FX processors, etc., along with deep integration into their line of dedicated keyboards. But again, it’s hardware and software, complexity, learning curve, and not something you’ll just whip open so you can play NOW.

UNIFY is Komplete Kontrol from a diametrically opposite vision of what VST synth players actually need. It does everything KK can do, but with a devilishly simple GUI that, arguably, isn’t even a “G” UI — it’s so simple it’s barely there. As a result, you can build insanely complex layers of synths and processors on one screen (OK, it scrolls if you go seriously nuts adding stuff). And of course it happily loads all the same Native Instruments synths, samplers, ROMplers, and FX that KK does. Along with almost any other VST you can think of.

But the point is, here is a VST host so simple that reminded me of SaviHost, yet able to do pretty much anything a full-blown DAW can do — with a shockingly light footprint on your screen, or on your CPU. It’s as if the “yankee ingenuity” school of engineering got down on the whole idea of hosting synths, and went completely over the top. UNIFY is excruciatingly simple, but astonishingly powerful. It’s truly basic, yet also supports extraordinary complexity — but the complexity is realized in a clean, unembelished UI (no 3D VU meters with animated needles, no sculpted rack-mount chassis designs) that’s really easy to follow — even after you’ve loaded a dozen synths, FX units, MIDI processors, and routing maps. It effortlessly sets up configurations that, sure, you could do in a DAW, but not without serious expertise in that DAW, a dozen tracks, numerous FX busses, and fiendishly clever signal routing (some of which a lot of DAWs can’t do anyway).

So I guess I’m comparing UNIFY three ways — to a tiny no-brainer VST host utility, to an elaborate German masterpiece of standardization and integration, and to a full-blown DAW in the hands of an expert. In all cases, UNIFY excels, if not taking the crown. Obviously, there are plenty of scenarios where any of these tools would reign supreme, and I’m certainly not suggesting UNIFY will replace all the DAWs or even all the other VST hosts — it’s not designed to do that anyway. But what it is designed to do is stunning, and in large part unparalleled, in spite of my comparisons. It’s really a new paradigm — ease of use taking total precedence over everything else.

Skippy (the functional designer) and Shane (the software architect and programmer) have eons of experience in this area, and Skippy brings decades of crafting patches for major synths from major manufacturers, so the sheer functionality of UNIFY is a wonder to behold. I’d love to outline “what you can do” in this review, but ten minutes messing with a demo copy will reveal far more than ten thousand words trying to explain how to layer synths and manage their behavior from a synth keyboard. Suffice to say that there is already a lot that UNIFY can do, simply and easily, that DAWs would be hard-pressed to duplicate, and UNIFY is — at the time of this writing — only about two weeks old. The thing is, trying to set up a DAW to do what UNIFY so easily accomplishes is just too inconvenient in the first place. Instead of trying these things in a DAW, most people just layer a few tracks, and then add some FX, and skip all the elaborate keyboard splitting, side-chaining, FX buss manipulation, and such. With UNIFY, you can’t help digging in and experimenting. It’s quick, fun, and productive. UNIFY doesn’t get in your way.

In case you haven’t guessed, I recommend UNIFY with extreme prejudice. It’s a masterpiece, and Skippy and Shane, bless ’em, are just getting started. They’ve already changed how I work with computer synthesis, and I’ve been making electronic music since 1954. Incredible. Bravissimo!

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