Plugin Boutique VirtualCZ Review

All classic synths deserve a software emulation: ARP, Moog, Prophet and now… er… Casio. Andy Jones sees (or Cz) why…



Price £59.95
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Minimum System Requirements
PC: Windows XP+, Intel i5, 4GB RAM
Mac: OS X 10.6+, Intel i5, 4GB RAM

I’ve interviewed many hundreds of musicians over the last two or three decades and each one of them has a favourite classic synth or three. The most common names are, of course, Moog, Roland (Jupiter, Juno, TB, TR…), Prophet, Korg, Yamaha… all the old favourites.

But one name that comes up more than it should – especially given that its mother company is now perhaps unfairly known more for ‘home’ keyboards than anything else – is the ‘CZ range’. Or, more specifically, the ‘Casio CZ range’.

Yes, you might know Casio for the ‘Da Da Da’ VL-Tone (or the VL-1 – the mini keyboard used by the huge German novelty hit-makers Trio). You might know Casio for the keyboards with lit keys that we discussed in last month’s MusicTech.

Or you might know Casio for hundreds of keyboards with on-board speakers and accompaniment rhythms. Those properly ‘in the know’, though, will know Casio for the aforementioned CZ range. And Plugin Boutique, therefore, is clearly in the know…


See? It’s Easy…
The original hardware range employed phase distortion digital synthesis to fatten things up. It had up to 16 oscillators (eight on earlier models), and therefore 16 notes of polyphony depending on the sound used.

Analogue fans probably embraced the architecture because of the resonant waveforms that gave it an analogue edge and also the familiar modulators. Digital fans liked it because it was simple compared to, say, FM, which was the backbone of the engine in Yamaha’s DX series.

With VirtualCZ, Plugin Boutique has stuck with many of these features including the same phase distortion oscillator and (up to) 8-stage envelope. The software even acts as a SysEx editor/librarian if you are lucky enough to have the original hardware (CZ-1, CZ-101, CZ-1000, CZ-3000 and CZ-5000) and, of course, this being software, you get bonus features too.

These include full graphical displays for envelopes and velocity settings, 32 notes of polyphony, added effects and a couple of hundred (great) presets.

See Me
The front panel has been designed to be purely retro, and in that sense you wonder how much more welcoming it could have been at the expense of some of the realism. You get the impression that should you give VirtualCZ a hug you’ll come away with dust up your nose and feel a need to wash, such is the original, grey look of its GUI. But many, of course, will welcome this authenticity and secretly I prefer it marginally to some kind of souped-up C21 version.

Sound-wise it’s bang on the money. Rasping, ravey, phasey, and surprisingly beefy – all the elements that have made so many people admire the CZ range over the years. There are some great squelchy, almost analogue basses, a fantastically deep jungle sub bass or two, plenty of up-front lead sounds and many elements that are finding favour (again) in today’s brasher and bassier dance music. Just stepping through the five banks on offer greets you with everything from heavenly sonic pads to dirty in-your-face bass.

This variety is thanks largely to the synth’s architecture, which is well worth getting your head around. Lowering the polyphony by switching to one of the monophonic modes enables you to fatten sounds up with unison, and the 8-stage envelopes add enormous flexibility.

It will take a slight shift in understanding – we’re talking ‘lines’ of oscillators and Digitally Controlled Waveshaping rather than a filter – but you will start to understand how the engine can produce such varied results and therefore quickly realise why so many people hold the originals in such high esteem. (And it’s nowhere near as hard as other digital synthesis methods such as FM, so be happy to spend the time learning!)

And talking of the originals, the presets from all of the CZ range do not ship directly with the plug-in, but are widely available online along with many other downloadable sounds (and on the developer’s website).

If you’re sick of real analogue, virtual analogue and a sea of classic analogue emulations, this is a must-buy, if only to realise that digital wasn’t as bad as we all made out. This is an accessible, flexible and, most importantly, a hugely inspirational synth. And at just £59.95 it is the steal of the year. Get it now