Access Virus Synthesizers – A ‘Rare Exception In A Festering Pit Of Mediocrity?’

San Francisco visual artist and musician Scott Hansen shared some interesting comments recently on the design of Access Virus TI synthesizers:

Of all the musical equipment manufacturers out there, I’d have to say that the Recklinghausen, Germany based outfit are making some of the most innovative and powerful sound synthesis tools available today. But aside from that, they’re incredibly beautiful and well-crafted machines.

I’ve owned several and have to say I’ve always been amazed at the build quality and attention to detail they put into their equipment. I love how they take subtle cues from the past — the perfectly measured application of wood is a perfect example — while still pushing the design forward. As I’ve said before, it doesn’t get any better than stainless steel and wood, and the TI2 KB features a stainless steel/wood sandwich on the endcaps.

But none of this comes cheap, these are also some of the most expensive synthesizers out there (probably the most expensive VA’s). I’d have to say they’re well worth the money though, the sound is unmatched and they’re built to last.

What I really admire about what Access is doing is that they’re doing it all from within the festering pit of mediocrity that is the music technology industry, an industry dominated by bad taste and terrible interface design.

I don’t know what it is that drives industrial design in music technology, but you’d swear every new keyboard was designed by the backup drummer from Ratt.

Access’s synths are gorgeous and intelligently designed – and this is too rare within the music industry. While synths have come a long way, in terms of usability, from the dark days of the 80s and 90s, few are as beautifully designed as the Virus line.

And while the sound of a keyboard ultimately makes or breaks it, instruments that are also gorgeous inspire.

What do you think of Hansens’ thoughts? Is the music industry a “festering pit of mediocrity”? And do manufacturers need to raise the bar on synth design?

31 thoughts on “Access Virus Synthesizers – A ‘Rare Exception In A Festering Pit Of Mediocrity?’

  1. Hansens claims to be a designer who highly values EFFICIENCY. However, I had to stop reading his blog after a few minutes because the font size he used is too small on my screen.

    For sure, using a small font leaves more empty space available – and that allows for a cleaner layout. But I'm not sure it's a wise choice, if it drives readers away from the content you wrote.

    This is not a good premise to be convinced by Hansens' words.

    [not an English person, apologizes for grammar errors]

  2. The industry is driven not by a desire for mediocrity, but a quest for the lowest common denominator. Truly innovative products are too often slagged off on websites (such as this) by "expert" users who try out a product at Guitar Center for 10 minutes and then take to the internet to post their "reviews".

    Just go back through the comments here and see how many times a new product is announced and someone is declaring it crap before it is even released. Or more likely to say they would buy if it cost a third of any realistic price one could imagine. Instruments are complicated machines to design and build. What manufacturer can afford to risk building hundreds of units and then not be able to sell them?

    One has only to go back to the Alesis Fusion for a good example of this. It was a beautiful, versatile, and innovative instrument. Powerful and unlike any of the standard ROMplers of the decade. It died a premature death for the very reason cited above.

  3. Of couse a beautiful or at least well crafted tool is nicer to work with but when push comes to shove no amount of stainless stell, wood, aluminum, glass, etc. will help you get the sound and action required. Anyway, in the original articles he goes on to cite Roland as an example of a manufacturer that used to produce well thought out and very useable machines. Excuse me, but some of the cult synths like the TB-303 are a nightmare to use, so much so that most of the original buyers sold their 303s very soon after purchasing it. The build quality is mediocre, no stainless stell and wood here. This goes to show you: Manufacturers had "crap" then and have "crap" now. But being "crap" says nothing about how things might pen out in the future for this day's ugly duckling of the synth world. Actually, the next paragraph is about the desireability of "crap": He says that better DA converters in a synth are worse because with lower definition the synh's got character and the sound comes through, you know the cliché. So to summarize: A synth with stainless steel and wood ends built out of aluminum and stainless steel with plastic knobs and switches and 12bit DA converters running at 32kHz would not be mediocre? Let me just say: Yes, it would be mediocre, it would be retro, but it could actually be cool if done right. Wait, there's this phrase "done right". Maybe it's not the industrial and user interface design, the converters and rest of the signal chain, etc. that by themselves make a great machine: The thing has to have conceptual cohesion instead of being strung together in the desire to minimize cost, and maximize the coverage of features the target audience deems desireable.

  4. I almost find that a plus. The Virus has become so associated with cheesy trance, that it's now become cool to bash the instrument as though it was an appendage of Tiesto himself. What I love about this is that it's a built in idiot detector. Anyone who thinks trance is the only sound that can come out of a virus obviously dosen't know anything about sound design.

  5. Visual design is subjective. For every person who thinks the Access Virus is "inspiring" and "gorgeous", there's going to be someone who says "it looks like a cheap 1970s Japanese stereo".

    Synthesizers are instruments, so the design criteria include "is the UI friendly?" Again, it's going to be subjective, because there are many ways to judge: is it better for performance, or programming?

    If programming, well, what KIND of programming? If you're the sort of person who wants the basics, you'll want different controls top-level and at-hand than someone who wants to spend a lot of time adjusting modulation. "I want a knob for every function" vs. "Too confusing/too small/too big" (e.g. Alesis Andromeda).

    Personally, I think Clavia's Nord Lead instruments are just as nice, if not nicer, than Access' Virus. The wood pitch stick feels good and is easy to use for performance. The knobs are tight. The red is distinctive. The instrument is light but substantial. I only wish they kept the slanting edge of the earliest designs.

  6. True story.
    A much older musician friend of mine loves Moog. its all he has ever used except for a short stint of some DX7 love in the 80s. Hates anything that is not "real" analog.

    He was in my studio once and started playing with the Virus TI. 4 HOURS later, he left. We never did record anything!
    The next day he called me and told me he got one.

    He sold one of his mini moogs to get it.
    To me, nothing says more than that.

    When I fire up my aging Jupiter 6, it feels like a synth. So does the TI.

    When I fire up my JP-8000, it feels like a toy.

  7. Of course, there are many pits of mediocrity that don't even have the energy and creative flair to fester – turntable manufacture, for a start.

  8. I wouldn't call it a pit of mediocrity either… Moog still produces great synths, so does DSI, Waldorf (despite the vaporware tendency), Clavia, Elektron, … and many others. Of course there is the big mass of arranger and workstation keyboards made out of plastic in appearance and sound… but who cares, there's enough great gear out there to deplete one's bank account anyway!

    Of course one loves to have a nice piece of gear, something that not only sounds good, but also looks good and feels good… but then I agree with what others have said, it's always a mix of things… a synth might be just have the right sound in the right time, and be a piece of junk build quality wise. In the end a cheap plastic toy can be fun to play as well…

  9. This seems an overly negative view.

    In the last couple of years, there have been a lot of interesting synths introduced that really have me drooling. The new Moog Voyager XL for example, the Dave Smith Mopho and the little Doepfer synth. These might not be as cool looking as the Virus, but they're definitely interesting synths.

    A bigger concern to me is that most synths seem to be very conservative in both their sound generation approaches and their interfaces. The innovation seems to be happening in software and on the iPad.

    Maybe that pit of mediocrity is more a reflection of what people are willing to pay for than of what companies would like to build.

  10. I agree with the original post comments, which is why after three months of researching everything going I bought one. It looks fantastic, it feels like quality, it's very, very powerful and it sounds utterly gorgeous. What's not to like?
    Of course I love the modular concept too and instruments like the Moog Voyager and the fabulous little DSI MonoEvolver. But for true musical inspiration rather than simply sonic fascination… I need more than one note 😉

  11. Dunno about this mediocrity. I have a Korg M3-88 and it is the best synth I have ever owned. Incredibly deep but accessible…amazing sonic power. Great keyboard feel, nice real-time controls, good interfacing with computer and sofsynths. My rig started with a Wurly and a Micromoog and I have used all sorts of vintage gear including Moog modulars, Putney and Synthi AKS, Electrocomp 101. The design aesthetic of the Virus is very nice, but I think the Little Phatty is just as impressive. Even the new Roland SH01 is functional although not beautiful.

    Anyway, I think it makes more sense to be enthusiastic about the quality or the Virus' design aesthetic without the contentious broad strokes of claiming mediocrity for all others. For pure aesthetics I'll pick my Alvarez classical with the burled walnut body, solid spruce top and rosewood fingerboard over a Virus any day.

  12. DSI instruments are beautiful, but the build quality is crap… the knobs have a tendency to randomly fall off in transport… the end cheeks get loose easily…. they use giant stickers instead of paint….

    BUT Moog makes some of the best quality instruments on the planet.

  13. For those of us that have no interest in extensive computer-based control (yeah okay a little bit of automation, but otherwise I got leads to compose!), the Virus TI's continued use of a meagre little dot matrix display in this day and age is one major strike against it. Access should examine Teenage Engineering's OP-1 very closely…

  14. The Access gear seems great, but I'm quite happy with my Clavia keyboards (specifically my Nord Lead 3). Solid build, well thought-out interface, and killer sound.

  15. I don't know. The TI aspect of the TI viruses is pretty mediocre in my opinion, massive loss of latency and sound quality while you use it. also no editor unless you are using TI is a big lose.

  16. whatever truth there is in his words, the TI being the bombdiggity and all, in the end it is just Boutique talk. I have played instruments that were cheap, expensive and inbetween and they all inspired and they all sucked and they all had endless possibilities and they all had limitations. It is just a lot of bullcrap in the end. To each his own, and it is the mind that makes the music in the end, not the machine. use a pair of friggin wooden sticks and a a string and voila you have a band. Access Virus TI, pffff….

  17. Well, I own a Ti2 and I think it's great but that article is a little much. How about Clavia, Waldorf, Dave Smith, Moog, Elektron etc.? Also, the Virus series is not without its issues. It is far from a perfect product and when considering the price I think it should be a lot closer to perfect. I too have come across bugs that I report to tech support (great by the way) that they acknowledge, but never seem to take care of in OS updates. Anyway, its a great synth, but there are many others and, yes, even after the advent of midi.

  18. Errr… When I said:

    I mean, it's the "fold

    …I must have been interrupted. 🙂 All I was going to say was "It's the 'gold standard' against which all soft-synths tend to be measured. How many times have you heard someone say 'buy (Zebra/Sylenth/Gladiator/z3ta+) and you basically have a Virus'?!?"

  19. depends on how you like to work…. virus is more inspiring for me… real knobs etc…. and I don't need to load multiple vsts to make tracks.

  20. Virus is the future,and analog is dead.It’s time for you Berkely guys,to cut off the pony tale,and try to fit in with digital.I laugh at analog instruments lol.They’re so oldschool and vinyl lol.Digital comes very close,and when you use effects,you can’t tell a difference between analog and digital lmfao.True story.

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