A synthesiser for 99 Euros that is used by one of the most famous composers of our times? Is that even possible? Zebra2 Legacy is a special offer from u-he, the company behind the Zebra and Hive synths. Zebra2 Legacy is actually a bundle containing Zebra2, Zebralette, a number of Zebra effects and ZebraHZ, a special version the company developed at the request of Hans Zimmer. In addition, you get close to a whopping 4000 presets. When I read the greatest composer of film music of our times actually used a mildly modified Zebra2 for some of his movies, I had to try it out, so I purchased a licence and started experimenting. I tried both Zebra2 and ZebraHZ, the latter which this review covers.
This review is not going to discuss the technical details of the Zebra2 Legacy components. You can read u-he’s Zebra2 Legacy webpage if you’re interested to know exactly what’s included (a hell of a lot!).
Suffice it to say that Zebra is in the same league of plugin synths as Alchemy, Surge XT, Serum, and Dune, and it allows for an enormous range of sounds and sound types. While I occasionally create my own patches for the music I ‘compose’, up till now I’ve been doing that with some success only using Hexeract and SurgeXT. I can’t get my head around Alchemy’s confusing (to me, at least) interface, although I read the user guide from cover to cover, always ending up with sounds that are OK, but far from what I want them to sound like.
Upon launching Zebra2 the first time, I therefore feared the worst as the plugin looks like an invitation to oscillator, modulator and filter indigestion.
Taking the plunge
I decided to immediately go with the ZebraHZ version as that has more of everything and also some unique modules. Both Zebras are modular synths, with wiring replaced by a central column where you put the modules in sort of a flow graph from top to bottom and four lanes that generate sound available to you. The control panel for each sound generator module appears in a left side bank, while the modulators, except for two, remain invisible until you actually start modulating. The two modulators that are always present are Envelope 1 and LFO 1. The synth also comes with a 4-lane effects matrix.
Of every generator as of every modulator, you have multiple instances — e.g. there are three oscillators, two comb filters in Zebra2 and four of them in ZebraHZ. You can modulate almost everything. The Zebras also come with a performance tab that works with X/Y pads (that also appear as regular modulation resources in ZebraHZ) and an arpeggiator. Finally, this synth comes with a full-scale presets management system.
Too much of a good thing
I’ll start with the frustrating part of the Zebras first, and that’s the presets management system. It is very complete, which is a good thing, but actually, it’s too complete. For example, you have local folders and user folders, smart folders and saved searches, and then there are bank folders, bank smart folders and favourite lists, and then you also have a MIDI Programs folder that can have up to 127 subfolders. You get the picture: you can drown in this preset system. It makes this part of the synth needlessly complex, in my opinion. I think by getting rid of a few levels of organisation, this could be much more user-friendly and still very powerful.
Much to my surprise, though — certainly in view of and despite its many generators, modulators, and effects — the workflow within the synth itself is very well organised, very simple and comfortable to use.
Of the close to 4000 presets, many of them are gorgeous and of exceptional quality, and I’m not just referring to the 400 Zimmer’s team created for one of the Batman movies. Many presets have a signature sound because some generators and modulators come close to the sound of famous analogue synths. For example, the FMO’s are closely related to the Yamaha DX7 sound and ZebraHZ’s Resonator effects can be used to closely resemble a Polymoog.
And so, what you create with Zebras will sound exactly as you heard it in your head — if you know what you’re doing. But I’ve now spent enough time with synth plugins to know that each and every one of them has some unique approaches to how they generate or modulate a sound, and some of those require you to know in which direction a manipulation will alter sound. I, for example, know the theory well but I feel comfortable only when I can see what’s going on, not just hear it.
The Zebras don’t offer fancy realtime moving spectrum graphs, but as it turned out, I didn’t need those after all and all praise for that accomplishment goes to the user guide and online tutorial Youtube movies.
The joy of creating patches the way you envisioned
If you have trouble understanding what sound you’ll get from a generator or modulator interacting with other modules — like I did — u-he’s people have explained it so clearly that going through the user guide page by page while trying out each component as you go forward, pays off big time.
For example, I wanted to create a mesmerising sound, preferably with a drone-like quality but with high-pitched bell-like ‘artefacts’ scattered throughout and increasing pitch with the notes you play. I couldn’t get the result I wanted until I read — not skimmed through — the chapters on the ModMap, spectralisation, and LFOs (they are polyphonic). Finally, by trying out one of the examples in the tips and tricks section, everything came together.
Of course, with 4000 presets, you can also take an existing one — there’s bound to be several you like — and change some parameters, and be happy with that.
At the end of the day, a synth is but as good as what you can create with it, and Zebra2/ZebraHZ allow you to create pretty much any sound type you can imagine. If you can’t make it with its VCF’s, DIVA-VCF’s, two types of waveforms (morphing and blending), cross-modulation filters and everything else really, you won’t be able to create it with any synth.
After having spent 14 days with ZebraHZ, I can see why it is one of Hans Zimmer’s preferred synthesisers — and understand why he and his team were able to create such unique sounds with it as the ones that are included with this special offer.