Xfer Serum (Quicker Review)
What Steve Duda (Xfer Records CEO) describes as the “dream synth” is quite possibly the closest that anyone has gotten to that title.
With 6 years of growth behind the plug-in, its hard to find an up-to-date analysis. So we decided it was about time someone gave an updated opinion.
In this review, we’re going to cover, why it’s still one of the most powerful VST instruments in 2021.
What is Serum?
Serum at its core is a wavetable synthesizer and an extremely flexible one at that.
If you’re new to this whole synthesis thing, let us break it down a little bit.
Unlike other types of synthesizers, that are based on simple sine, triangle and saw waves – wavetable synthesizers achieve their unique sound using groups of digital waveforms, collectively known as wavetables.
The advantages of wavetable synths are quite clear.
Instead of having to choose from the very most basic wave shapes there are and modulating them to fit the sound you like, you can choose from thousands of unique wavetable combinations, taking your sound design to new heights.
And what’s even more amazing is that, you can actually test Serum for 3 days (the full version) with this free serum download link.
Serum’s sound engine is ultra clean & Xfer Records have done an impeccable job of making it as high quality as possible!
It runs 4 separate oscillators, including:
- Two main wavetable oscillators.
- A flexible noise generator.
- And a dirty sub-oscillator.
The two wavetable oscillators are the focus of this VST. Serum comes bundled with over 150 different wavetable shapes, which is a formidable amount of different sounds to choose from.
But those 150 wavetables are pretty much the tip of the iceberg for sound design newbies & veterans alike.
Aside from being able to morph between wavetables and import external ones, Serum’s party piece is the external audio function.
Using any audio file, you can create completely new and unique sounding wavetables using Serums built-in wavetable editor.
The editor features a large number of customization tools, yet remains an intuitive and easy to use environment suitable for experimentation and detailed tweaking of the wavetable at hand.
And did we mention you can also use pictures to create a waveform?
TIP: Try dragging and dropping a PNG into the wavetable editor in Serum, to use it as a wavetable.
The built-in wavetables are neatly sorted into four categories by type.
The analog section features numerous variants of the classic VCO style single cycle waveforms (sine, triangle, saw), along with some iconic sounds such as the TB-303 acid bass
The digital, spectral and vowel sections feature numerous complex and abstract wavetables which are perfect for crafting a wide range of modern leads and bass sounds, as well as pads, drones, and pretty much everything else you could want from a wavetable synth.
The noise and sub oscillators are somewhat less exciting than the two wavetable OSCs, but they both pack a few bonus traits which make them equally useful and an essential addition to Serum’s sound engine.
For example, the sub oscillator can be routed directly to the output section, which is an easy way to fully build a bass patch inside Serum, without having to reach for an external sub source to be layered underneath.
Similarly, the noise oscillator is more than just a standard white noise generator. It packs a wide variety of organic and abstract noises, as well as a large selection of clicks which can be used to enhance synthesized drums and percussive hits.
Serum also features a couple of multi-mode filters. Both filters come with dozens upon dozens of different filter types, ranging from a wide variety of classic LP and HP filters to various comb filters, vowel filters, etc.
The second filter can be placed anywhere in the FX chain, making your workflow even more straight-forward.
You can get a free download of serum (a 3 day free trial), on the Splice rent to own website.
The FX Chain
No Xfer Serum VST review would be complete without mentioning the amazing FX unit.
The entire FX section is almost too good to be true, with ten great sounding effects that can be modulated, combined and freely re-arranged in the effects signal path.
It’s quite a shame that Serum can’t process Live Audio, as it would make a stellar multi-fx unit, but this is what the standalone “Serum FX” VST is for
The raw power of Serum’s native effects is downright impressive. I’m pretty sure nobody needs 13 different distortion types in a synthesizer, but it’s there, whenever you might need it to spice up your sounds.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these effects units.
Serums distortion unit is an absolute beast.
With 14 different styles of distortion onboard, ranging from characterful tube saturation all the way through to harsh sine shaping, there’s no sound you can’t get with this effects rack.
There’s also some incredibly high quality, switchable high/low/band-pass effects filter that can be placed pre or post distortion, with separate Drive and wet/dry Mix controls that can be modulated.
Though appearing relatively basic, Serum’s Flanger can be tuned to pinpoint the sound you’re after.
The LFO-driven flanging Rate can either be set manually or synced to the BPM of your song, while the Depth control lets you alter the amount of LFO modulation.
You can increase the effect’s strength using the Feedback control, while the Phase dial lets you adjust phase position.
The Phaser offers a rich sound that can be tweaked endlessly.
As with the Flanger, you can either set the phasing Rate locked or unclocked to your DAW’s BPM.
The Depth control increases the intensity of the phasing, while the Freq dial sets the phaser’s frequency. Feedback lets the effect ring out more, with Phase controlling stereo spread.
TIP: Unlike other Phaser/Flanger/Chorus units, in Serum you can set the rate to 0, allows you to modulate the parameters yourself instead of using the built in LFO.
As with the Flanger and Phaser, Serum FX’s Chorus features an adjustable modulation Rate.
The Delay 1 and 2 dials let you change the timing of the left and right chorus signals, and Depth heightens the strength of the effect.
The Feedback dial lets you boost the effect’s resonance, and the handy LP filter is used to calm down the wet signal’s high frequencies.
Serum’s Delay unit is a great tool for dialing in a wide variety of delay and echo effects.
You can link the Left and Right delay times, or adjust them independently. One of three delay modes are on offer: Normal, Ping Pong or Tap+Delay.
The Feedback dial increases the delay repetitions, while the onboard EQ allows you to sculpt the sound & tone of the wet delay signal.
The compressor works in a similar way to most compression plugins.
Threshold sets the volume level at which the compressor starts operating, with Ratio dictating the strength of gain reduction.
Attack and Release govern the onset and release of gain reduction, and the Multi band button engages a three-band multi band mode.
TIP: Turn the Compressors ratio all the way up to “Limit” to turn this compressor unit into a limiter
The onboard Reverb offers either Plate or Hall algorithms and they sound brilliant.
You can alter the reverb Room Size, and tweak the amount of Pre-Delay to offset the time before the reverberation signal occurs.
Low- and High-Cut controls let you adjust the reverb’s low and high frequencies, and Damping allows adjustment of high frequency attenuation.
You can also control the reverb signal’s stereo spread using the Width control.
Boasting only two bands, Serum’s parametric EQ is very compact, but don’t write it off.
The EQ allows you to switch both the low and high bands between Shelf, Peak or Filter, giving you a surprising number of options for shaping the tone of your input signal.
As with most other EQs, you can set the Frequency, Q (ie, Resonance) and Gain of each band.
TIP: Try using the high- and low-pass effects filters in tandem to create a band-pass filter.
Functionally identical to the main filter found on Serum’s main Oscillator panel, the effect version of the Filter offers over 50 filter types.
Ranging from simple high- and low-pass effects filters through to exotic types such as multimode band-pass flavours, flanging and even reverb.
You can adjust the Cutoff frequency, Resonance and Pan position, and dial in extra oompf with the Drive knob.
The Hyper/Dimension effect is best described as two awesome sound effects rolled into one.
The Hyper part of the package lets you add unison detune to your audio, which is ideal for thickening and widening synthetic basslines and leads.
Meanwhile, the Dimension section – (not so secretly) inspired by NI Massive’s Dimension Expander – provides more transparent, controllable pseudo-stereo width.
Up to this point, we’ve not mentioned much on the the modulation system of the synth.
The Modulation matrix is where all the fun begins.
Essentially, you can modulate anything inside of Serum.
With tons of preset LFO’s and Envelopes. as well as an intuitive way of making your own, the modulation possibilities of Serum are seemingly endless.
Modulation sources and targets can be connected via drag and drop, or in the dedicated modulation matrix tab which sports a handy 16-slot setting.
The modulation matrix actually offers quite a bit of additional control over the active modulation connections, such as combining different modulation sources via the AUX modulation input, editing the modulation curve, mod inversion, and so on.
After spending time exploring the vast modulation capabilities, it becomes clear that using drag and drop for initial modulation setup, then switching tab to the mod matrix for precise control is an incredibly efficient and hassle free workflow.
(Especially while working on complex patches with multiple active modulations going on).
TIP: Hold “Shift” to turn your LFO drawing tool into a stepper, to create beautiful arps and sequences.
If you’re the kind of person who plays more with knobs than keys, Serum has an incredibly well implemented system of macros, which can be used to tweak multiple parameters in real time.
The macro controls are easy to set up and are editable from within the main panel, as well as the Matrix tab.
Quite a few of the factory presets actually come with already configured macro control sets, which is a nice touch.
Ableton users might not care too much, with their stellar max4live LFO device, however, LFO tool by Xfer is a great addition to the wavetable synthesizer.
On the surface, this unassuming LFO unit is nothing special, and honestly super similar to what Serum already has.
It’s got a pretty cool party trick however. There are 12 LFOs and only four destinations, sounds confusing, but bear with me for a second.
You can select new routing sources for the LFO in real-time by sending midi-notes to LFo tool, making it a must-have for performers.
Although Xfer’s LFO tool isn’t bundled with Serum, Serum FX is, and it duplicates a lot of LFO tools functionality.
(though no MIDI out support + oscilloscope, for instance)
Serum packs over 400 expertly crafted patches & sounds, suitable for use in everything starting from modern electronica, to cinematic soundtracks.
The patch browser inside the synth is easy to use and is fully editable via the presets folder on your hard drive.
The patches folder makes building multiple collections of your favourite patches or preparing a preset sets of synth sounds for live use, a breeze.
Putting aside the built-in presets and sounds, talking about Serum and not mentioning the sheer amount of third party content available, would do it disservice.
In the 6 years of Serum’s celebrated existence, third party companies and individuals have collectively released hundreds, if not thousands of Preset and Modulation packs.
With a plethora of both free and paid options to choose from, it’s almost impossible to get bored of the synth.
With a short google search, you could expand your preset and modulation libraries tenfold, all for free.
And that is only the tip of the iceberg for the amount of content produced for this insane synthesizer.
Arguably one of the more polarising things about Serum is the GUI.
There are just as many people calling it the peak of synth design, and there are people calling it one of the ugliest VST synths out there.
Truthfully, at a time before I was well acquainted with Serum, I fell closer to the latter.
Let’s face it, comparing to more recent synthesizers like Native Instruments’ Massive X and Arturia’s Pigments, Serum’s synth design definitely looks a little dated.
For a first time user, it probably looks more like a tacky WinAmp skin (remember those?) than the darling of the VST synth world, that it is.
Luckily, if you REAALLY don’t like how Serum looks, there are a tonne of third party skins and redesigns for the plug-in for you to choose from.
We prefer the simple Antidote skin (it’s free)
Once you acquaint yourself with the synth however, the GUI is simple, straightforward, and very obviously designed to better your workflow.
And let me tell you, the workflow of Serum is unmatched.
Nothing on the plug-in is more than a couple clicks away, creating a patch from scratch is incredibly fun and easy to do.
Most of the modulation is just a drag and drop away, and the most necessary features of the plugin are either laid out in front of you on the main screen, or hidden behind a single button.
The only negative about Xfer’s synth design, is the menus, of which there are quite a few.
Admiteddly, drop-down menu’s aren’t the worst thing in the world, but it certainly isn’t the peak for ease of use.
To put it in perspective. Drop-down menu’s are like drawers in a cupboard, you tend to forget what’s in them and then end up spending a lot of time looking for the thing you need.
In Xfer’s defence however, there aren’t too many good options to replace drop-down menus, without cluttering your GUI.
All in all, the GUI of the synth is very well designed, easy to use and workflow focused, if not a little dated.
Just see for yourself and use Serum with this free 3 day trial!
I mean, we’ve already covered everything from the GUI to the effects and the engine, but none of it matters, if the plugin doesn’t sound that nice, right?
Well, don’t be a dingus, of course Serum sounds incredible, why do you think it’s so widely used?
Serum’s sound is solid and organic, despite the fact that this synthesizer is strictly digital in nature.
It can sound convincingly analog, as well as abstractly synthetic and digital, providing a truly versatile workhorse synthesizer experience.
The oscillators are perfectly smooth, which, in combination with the solid filters and exceptional FX section results in one of the best sound engines we’ve ever had the pleasure of using.
Popular producers like Martin Garrix, Marshmello, Deadmau5, Flume and honestly everybody else use Serum, and that should be enough proof for how great this plugin sounds.
Not to mention, Serum is arguably the best tool to achieve your perfect mid 2010 Dubstep growls.
So what about performance? What are the serum vst system requirements?
The acclaimed sound of Serum does come at the price of a CPU hit (kinda).
Back in the distant year of 2014, when Serum was released, there was a lot of talk surrounding the CPU usage for the plug-in, which at the time somewhat more than it’s competitors.
But, for modern machines, Serum isn’t even that taxing.
Comparing Serum vs Massive X and especially Kilohearts’ flagship Phase Plant, Serum has the least CPU hungry engine of the bunch.
To use Serum, you’ll need to have these specifications:
- CPU with SSE2
- Windows 7 SP1, or Mac OS X 10.8 or greater
- 64 bit VST2.4, AU or AAX compatible host software
In laymen’s terms, you need 64-bit Windows or Mac plus a workstation that supports VST, AU, or AAX plugins.
So, now that we’ve gone through the possibilities and quirks of Serum as a software synthesizer, what’s our verdict?
Serum is a workhorse.
It’s easily our “desert island” software synthesizer, with unmatched versatility.
To be completely honest, there are issues with Serum, but the amount of things Serum does right, outweigh the things it does wrong by 100:1. (Serum on Splice is definitely a big positive)
Aside from the slightly dated and… green… GUI, Serum does most everything right.
The amount of features other developers have poached off of Xfer’s design, is testament enough, to what this plugin has been and continues to be.
You can also use Serum for free for 3 days! Try out Splice’s 3 day free trial!
Serum gets a solid 4.4/5 from us!
Do you think differently, or have anything to add to this Xfer Serum VST review? Leave your thoughts down below!
Also check out our list of the top 50 plugins of 2020.