There's plenty of pros who recommend Serum, and for good reason.
This is the synth I didn't even know I needed.
Having been guilty of G.A.S. before, I was skeptical at first, but once I opened it up in my DAW I could tell it was something special.
First off, it looks amazing. The GUI is top-notch, with spectacular animation for all modulation, and the ability to view the wavetables in 2D and 3D is something special.
It's a breeze to add modulations, which is becoming a nice standard it seems as there's a lot of movement away from the dependency on typical mod matrices and more like a classic modular drag and drop approach.
It's one of those synths that makes experimenting fun, and not a chore or a bore.
The ability to use custom wavetables, and edit them within is exceptional! No need for any external editor, as Serum's own editor is quite usable.
Even the huge list of filters and FX sound great.
I'm just going to go back to Serum now, it's too good to be more than 10 minutes away from, I swear.
If you're unsure if you should buy it, just do it. It's not going to disappoint. I will definitely check out the other Xfer products too now, it's that impressive.
First off, I own licenses to probably 25 of the "top rated" VST synths on the market, so I've had a chance to work with a lot of the big ones out there, and each are different, they are all good in their own right. I only point this out so people have a reference point.
So first off, almost ALL of the functions in Serum are on 5 screens, and most of the important ones are on 1 screen.
The screens are:
Main synthesis page Wavetable editor Effects rack Modulation Matrix Global Page.
Serum doesn't suffer from a lot of shortcomings.
First, and often overlooked is the patch browser. The browser has a very "Rob Papen" multilevel style to it. One click gets you access to all of the sound folders in your presets folder, and they are organized exactly the same way on your hard drive.
Next, programming Serum is really as easy as I have found anywhere else, and where it concerns the main oscillators or the wavetables themselves, Serum is HUGELY visual. You can see the wavetable, and see exactly how the oscillator is cycling through the wavetable's frames as it's playing in real time.
Serum also sounds incredible. It's not trying to sound like "real" analogue, but you can get really good analogue sounding results with it. (Like Sylenth1, DUNE 2 or even Diva good.) You can also get sounds that sound NOTHING like analogue because it is a wavetable synth.
The two main oscillators can be set to use a single wave frame (like a saw, or square... or 150+ others!). These oscillators can also be run through the filter just like a subtractive synth. It sounds really good doing this! Next, the unison controls are right there, so you can take a saw, turn it into a super saw, and then play with the DYNAMICS of the super saw's unison voices. It's visual, it's clear. Most importantly, you can have something that sounds amazing in seconds.
The sub oscillator has a much more limited range of wave types at 6, but it's clear that these 6 wave types were picked on purpose to BE the SUB, and are extremely popular in genres such as electro-house (among others), and the genius is that there is bypass function that shoots the (clear) sub signal past the filters and directly to the main sound bus meaning that you DON'T have to stack basses on a track any more! With two great oscillators and a punchy sub that can be routed separately means you can do all your bass patch design inside Serum. The end result is something that sounds great and is usable immediately.
You might expect the "noise" generator to be stuck with white, pink or blue noise, but there are around 100+ 'noises' that you can use for attacks, effects etc. It is a VERY versatile sound generator and is so useful, that it's actually worth using for things OTHER than snare drums or claps. (e.g bass transients).
Between these 4 sound generators there is almost limitless possibility. Add to that the fact that you can load in your own wavetables, and it just gets ridiculous. But all of it is SIMPLE.
Wave table editor.
You can only use the wave table editor with the main two oscillators, but the editor is powerful and easy to use. It has a host of drawing aids to make it easy to build precision wave forms, or you can load your own. I haven't completely dived into this section yet but did watch a tutorial video on it, and like the other parts of Serum, it is hugely flexible while being simple at the same time. You could spend hours in the wavetable editor just playing around. This screen is also BIG and easy to read. It's one of the 5 "main pages" of Serum, and visually it works.
Serum doesn't just have one filter, but two, and they are different. One filter is on the main synthesis page for immediate use and easy modulation from the envelopes and LFOs, but there is also a SECOND filter in the actual effects section. This section alone will keep you busy for HOURS because, like the oscillators, there are well over 100 filter presets! (See you next week.)Effects section.
I would say that this section has everything you need, and not anything more (or less) than what you need. By that, I mean that out of the 10 effects that are available, each are kept simple enough that they are EASY to work with. There are only a handful of controls on each, but those controls are powerful as well as simple. Also, routing is easy. You can drag and drop effects in the order you want them processed, and they are processed top to bottom. That's it! Like everything else in Serum, the filters and effects sound fantastic.
There are basically a couple of ways that other synths have put together modulation controls. On a synth like Sylenth1, a lot of it is done via a "modulation matrix" as it is with DUNE, or Albino. But in other synths, like Massive or Zebra, you can drag and drop modulation sources onto modulation targets. Serum has BOTH of these functionalities. Most of the important modulation is directly accessible from the main synthesis page. There are 3 envelopes (including the main envelope) and 4 LFOs. This may not sound like a lot, and it's certainly a lot less than Zebra, but again, the synth gives you what you are likely going to NEED and USE, and nothing to distract you. This is actually a good thing in my opinion because you can assign multiple modulation targets to a single LFO or ENV and keep your sound effects related and consistent.
Of course there are things that you can't drag and drop that you need a modulation matrix for, and that's why Serum has one included. If your style of sound design requires a matrix, you have one, and it's got some nice features like showing (in real time) exactly what your modulation is doing with the aid of some nifty little "dancing lights" that go back and forth over your modulation parameters, and it also has "velocity curves", for lack of a better term, to control how the modulation unfolds over time. Very cool and fun to watch. And it's EASY.
For those people who like Macro knobs, Serum comes with 4. It may not sound like a lot, but if you assign multiple modulation targets to the macro knob, you can get some great effects and again, there is enough for you to use, but not so much that you get distracted. I am picturing here that if you have a controller with 8 knobs on it, you can use those knobs to control 2 instances of Serum live. I think that was the thought behind it. Nice.
Of course there are hundreds of other features and buttons that do various things, but the sections I listed above comprise the bulk of the instrument. Since there are "mouse tips" EVERYWHERE (which you can turn on and off from the global page), it's easy to figure out what something is, and what it does.
Overall, I would say that this synth is very straightforward, hugely flexible, streamlined to keep you on task and not distracted, and it all sounds jaw-on-the-floor amazing.
Now, after having spent two solid nights with Serum, I am in LOVE with this synth! WOW.
Having said that, and in the interest of being FAIR, there are some DOWNSIDES that you need to consider (although not many!)
First, the synth uses a LOT of processing power. I hit a note on a super saw and saw my i7 dual core processor spike at 20%-30%. That's a lot of number crunching for one instrument! This can be mitigated somewhat by using effects to simulate "unison" voices and (MAYBE) using a lower draft quality global setting. It's just a function of math, if you want rich, fat, CLEAN sound, it's just something we have to live with. If your computer isn't beefy, you may have to drop your MIDI tracks to audio so you don't kill your CPU.
Worth the extra steps? You bet! Absolutely worth it.
Another minor nit I have is that the envelope timing is in milliseconds and seconds. Why Steve didn't include a toggle for note values is beyond me, it seems like a no brainer considering everything ELSE he put into this synth, but you can easily to work around by using an LFO instead of an envelope and then just setting the LFO to Envelope mode which cycles it once just like a regular envelope, and you can even set it to stop or set a loop point, so in the end it doesn't really matter.
You can get the job done, easily, and that's all that counts.
Finally, and this is REALLY IMPORTANT to understand, is WHY Serum doesn't have a built in arpeggiator. You would think that Serum, with so much else going for it, would have a built in arpeggiator. Right?! It seems like a massive oversight, but in reality, it's NOT.
Steve at Xfer has another tool that costs about $40 called Cthulhu. I would HIGHLY recommend getting Cthulhu along with Serum because it's also a great tool like Serum (simple, easy and powerful) and Cthulhu is BOTH an arpeggiator AND a chord browser. Using Cthulu in conjunction with Serum will get you the arpeggiation you are likely looking for.
So, that's about it! I keep trying to find out things I don't like about Serum and I'm drawing a blank at the moment. This is an instrument designed by someone who does music and sound design for a living but it's made to be worked with by total sound design idiots like myself. =)
If you are looking for a fantastic sounding synth that is easy as pie to work with, Serum should be near the top of the list, if not on top of that list.