Review: Zebra Aquatica by Sonic Underworld


Synth programming wizards Sonic Underworld take Zebra to an oceanic dream world with this superb collection of presets

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Review: Zebra Aquatica by Sonic Underworld

Sonic Underworld are one of the new breed of preset creators that are elevating synth programming to almost be an art form in itself by the way they present highly focused and emotive collections. Aquatica is one of their latest for the incredible u-he Zebra software synthesiser and as the name would suggest we are heading to the oceanic depths for 180 ambient and blissed out moods.

Preset List


Zebra Aquatica sells for $35 from Sonic Underworld


Even though the style of these presets is consistent throughout they are not restricted to one type of sound and there is a good balance across all the various types of synth categories. The first batch are forty arpeggiators which bounce gently, some of them being one note pulse types and others being fully developed melodic sequences. They vary between fairly straight rhythms and more complex patterns that skip along delicately. With Zebra arps it definitely pays to have good knowledge of programming the synth yourself so you get to easily tweak a few parameters to get it working well within your composition. There are also a handful of other arpy sounds in the pulse category, though these are less obviously melodic and more on the sound design side.

The bassline presets continue the arpeggiator theme, but here the sounds are far more designed to by played in the low end of the frequency spectrum. Moving on, there are twenty bass sounds and while they are all of a subby nature (no aggressive filtering or distortion here) they still maintain very individual characteristics. In ambient pieces these are powerful enough to stand alone, but I will also be employing them as sub bass layers in other genres as the weight they carry extends down to whale talking levels.


Next up are the drums which consist of ten presets and can give some soft and subtle accents to your rhythm parts – all of them good and just the right amount of them for such a collection. It comes perhaps as no surprise that a sound set based on the types of ambiences that Brian Eno would be proud off has a plethora of pads to choose from. They are watery and lush, with muted high frequencies and definitely err more towards calming or at most mild peril, as opposed to anything very tense or edgy. The soundscape presets continue this feel, but are a bit more atonal and tend to evolve over a period of time more. Both pads and soundscapes use plenty of comb filtering, which adds a glassy feel yet never becoming too metallic as comb filtering can sometimes do.

Aquatica is rounded off with 30 synth sounds, which might appear a touch confusing as these are all synth sounds of course, but really alludes to them being more typical keyboard sounds that are short enough to be easily played as chords or as a monophonic lead. They range from the tinkly variety to low-passed and drifting in pitch.

One of my favourite sounds is the Open Sea Pad. Like many of these sounds at first glance looking at the modules in the lanes it appears quite simple, but the real talent of this programming is in the subtle complexities under the hood. We have two stacked oscillators both playing a variation of a pure sine wave. Oscillator 1 is saturated by the wedge shaper which knocks off some low frequencies, which are then added back in a different way as it ring modulates with oscillator 2. Both lanes then pass through different types of low pass filters in parallel, which are panned at the output to give a wide soundstage. Some judicious FX processing using delay, reverb and compression adds to the ambient nature and fairly radical EQ gives the final polish to better balance the frequencies for a balanced bottom end. The modwheel controls the cutoff and all four XY pads are employed – these are beautifully nuanced so making bold moves only gives a slight movement to the sound, just enough to keep it interesting. On this preset they included a couple of optional custom waves for each oscillator and by changing those and the scrambler effect on oscillator 1 it enabled me to dial in a new sound that still retained the best bits of the original. It can really pay off sometimes to not automatically reach for the filters, LFOs and envelopes when tweaking Zebra.

Open Sea Preset

This soundset is exceptionally well curated with every sound bang on the theme – fluid, ethereal and soft. Lots of FM sounds are incorporated with customized wavetables and at times vast amounts of reverb. This results in wonderfully complex textures and can almost transport you to gently swimming around a beautiful coral reef! Nearly every patch employs the modwheel with the particular usage detailed in the preset browser window. In addition, a large proportion of the presets include up to four XY performance modulators set up to control varied parameters making real-time manipulation an absolute breeze.


Credit should also go to the naming of these, as they have somehow managed to come up with 180 preset names that all relate to water! Aquatica will be of great interest for anyone working in the ambient genre as an artist, whilst composers will find a myriad of uses for it both as underscore or as part of hybrid compositions that need a lush and evocative feel. It also works excellently as a composer chillout device – after a long day in the studio simply pick any pad, hit the root and fifth, turn the release to maximum and quaff a glass of your favourite tipple!


Aquatica consists of 180 presets for Zebra. There is a very comprehensive (and lengthy!) walkthrough on the Sonic Underworld website which plays through every preset, so I strongly recommend you check it out to decide if this soundset is for you.

Zebra Aquatica sells for $35 from Sonic Underworld


Demos of Zebra Aquatica by Sonic Underworld

Videos of Zebra Aquatica by Sonic Underworld