In the last half 2021, Expressive E released Imagine, a physical model based software synthesiser that works in Logic Pro X. I purchased a copy when the plug-in was still available at an introductory price of 83 EUR. Its normal sales price is 55% more, so I was very interested to see whether the list price would be worth it and if it would be suitable for creating soundscape sounds.
First off, a disclaimer: I am not a musician. I can dabble a bit on a piano but work and other business always came before pleasure, so I never got around to actually learning how to read, play and create music. To create presets though, Imagine doesn’t require you to learn music at all. All you need are your ears and the desire to try out the many different combinations between the two instruments that you combine with all sorts of magic in order to create a unique sound that is very difficult to obtain with any other synth.
Before I started testing, I visited a few websites that contained comments from other buyers and a few of them were unhappy about the interface being so dark. I personally have to wear glasses for computer work, but I didn’t feel like I couldn’t read any of the labels. On the contrary, some of the labels that act as buttons are big enough to read even as they are grey on a darker background.
The plug-in comes with a user guide but it lacks an explanation of one requirement that made me scratch my head for a few hours. Another criticism that I read is that Imagine uses labels and jargon that normally isn’t used with synthesisers. Indeed, you will find few references to “LFO” or “OSC” in the manual and the user interface, but that is only a problem if you have never worked with anything else but synthesisers.
Imagine is a plug-in with really nice dark design with two main “instrument slots” for you to either start playing immediately when you select a preset, or to experiment and make your own sound. The instruments are mute by themselves and need an “excitator” (from the Latin for “arouse”). This tool comes in three flavours: a mallet, a sequence and noise. The first lets you create single hit sounds that can be manipulated to become continuous. The latter two create continuous sounds mostly, but you can manipulate the instruments in such a way that they become less continuous.
That manipulation is called “expression” in Imagine and, depending on the instrument, allows you to create fluent sounds as well aggressive tones. The many presets that come with the plug-in offer a nice mixture of the two kinds of sound, with a slight preference for the kinder-to-the-ears type. If you want to hear what they sound like, do visit Expressive E’s web page and watch and listen to the YouTube presentation by one of their in-house artists.
When you start a new instrument, you’re greeted with three excitator icons, a bunch of categories for each group of physically modelled instruments (e.g. skin+tube, skin+strings, etc.) and a list of the actual instruments that you can click to hear a sample playing. Here the user guide is lacking in that it doesn’t tell you the need for an instrument slot to be what I would call “armed” by lack of a better word. Both mallet and noise instruments will play without any further ado. Sequence instruments, however, need the instrument expression set to at least a value of 1 in order for the sample to play.
Before discovering this, I thought the plug-in was buggy.
As soon as you’ve loaded your instruments and played with the properties of each, you can go to the FX tab where you will find a load of filters and effects that act on both instruments. The real magic of Imagine, though, is that it has four multi-stage envelop generators. These MSEGs reminded me of Alchemy, the powerful synthesiser that comes for free with Apple Logic Pro X.
The MSEG inside Imagine is much easier to work with, though, and lets you control every aspect of the instrument, as well as every effect and filter.
I could go on and on about Imagine, but at the end of the day it’s what you get out of it that matters. If you listen to samples on the Web I think you’ll agree it can be made to sound wonderful. After having tested Imagine, I can only say that getting there is an easier and more gratifying experience than with many other synthesisers. Imagine is great not only for music but also for soundscape sounds.