Review: Zebra Nyah & Repro-5 Metropolis by Sonic Underworld


Sonic Underworld is a prolific synth programmer who for the last few years has been rapidly gaining a superb reputation for his dark, emotional and cinematic sounds across a range of software synths.

Jump to the Videos of Zebra Nyah
Repro-5 Metropolis by Sonic Underworld

Jump to the Demos of Zebra Nyah
Repro-5 Metropolis by Sonic Underworld


Review: Zebra Nyah & Repro-5 Metropolis by Sonic Underworld

This feature is the second in our new series where we meet our favourite sound designers and sample library developers and see what makes them tick. Along the way we will also be checking out their latest releases and finding out what to expect from them in the future.

This time we are with the wizard behind Sonic Underworld, Stephan Baer. He is among a small and elite group of sound designers creating composer friendly presets for a range of software from u-he, Spectrasonics and TAL.

Zebra Nyah & Repro-5 Metropolis sells for $35 each from Sonic Underworld


It’s often interesting to find out how people got interested in their particular niche. For Stephan it was a fascination with synths coupled with disappointment with the presets they came with. Whilst running a studio in LA in the eighties he took matters into his own hands and started making his own patches. Being a composer himself, he knew what he wanted sound wise and having access to all those synths in his own studio was like being a kid in a candy store. He may have started out with hardware synths, but these days it’s mostly about software synths, although there are plans for him to return to his hardware roots and release sound sets for them too.

Over the past few years Stephan has made an name for himself focusing primarily on u-he synths and joins a small but dedicated community of sound designers making presets with distinctly cinematic sensibilities. A key feature of this growing band of programming brothers is how much they support each other, often teaming up on releases or helping in other ways. Sonic Underworld has worked closely with Luftrum and is also a big supporter of Heartwood Soundware (Jonathan Sharp). Stephan believes strongly in supporting his friends in the community and does demos for quite a few of them. Since requiring demos for his own releases he feels it is only fair to do them for his demo team as well. Although this business keeps him pretty busy he is keen to try to accommodate this as much as possible.

Having personally used plenty of his sounds in my own compositions I can vouch for how well they fit in with existing arrangements and much of this I think comes from the fact that Stephan is keen to keep his hand in on the composing side too. When asked about this connection he had this to say, “I feel being a composer and a sound designer is going hand in hand. As you approach writing, there is always that sound in your head and it is a tremendous help, knowing how to get there, rather than relying on presets. For me, it just works that way. This goes back to being frustrated with presets, as I mentioned before. Having done this for a while, you do get better and faster at it, so it does not really get in the way of composing anymore.”

He is keen to highlight that one of the things he has learnt from doing this is that less is more. Limiting yourself sometimes to one synth can be very rewarding and lets him work faster. With this comes the essential deep understanding of the particular synth you happen to work with. From doing countless demos over the years it still amazes Stephan how much you can get out of just one piece of gear. This has directly led to increased musical output enabling him to write between 6 to 10 minutes of music a day.

To demonstrate just how varied the sounds are from a single piece of software Stephan kindly gave us copies of two of his most interesting collections. Nyah for u-he’s Zebra pushes a synthetic starting point as far to organic and natural as possible, focusing on ethnic sounds. It still has the Sonic Underworld cinematic signature and can work well for trailers and film, but also lends itself probably best towards TV scoring for nature and cultural documentaries. There are some amazing recreations of ethnic percussion like bamboo sticks and hybrid creations such as the Kalma bass.

Kalma Preset

Playing quick notes gives the impression of a tongue drum and then if you hold the note past the attack stage it becomes a more synthetic subby drone. A variety of factors go into this sound, such as a custom oscillator shape and nifty programming of a comb filter. Other patches retain more of a distinct synth sound yet also incorporate organic tones. Nyah has a higher proportion of shorter percussives than most of his other packs with plenty of evocative mallets, drums and percussive sounds, making it a great choice for fresh sounding rhythm based cues. They show off the highly creative programming typical of Stephan, with many only using a combination of comb filters and VCFs – not an oscillator or noise generator in sight! Of course, pads, soundscapes and poly synths are not neglected and take us into darker and more mysterious ancient forests. All in all this is a very unique pack that can help give a composer an alternative angle to using the same old ethnic cliches.

In contrast, Metropolis for u-he’s Repro-5 takes us right to the other end of the spectrum with its dark, industrial and atmospheric feel. Inspired by the likes of Jon Hopkins, M83, Tom Raybould and Anthony Gonzales you can expect a huge sense of drama. I loved the epic sci-fi atmospheres that ooze with a wistful quality that creates an instant mood. There are also pumped up basses, ethereal keyboards, disturbing pulses, bizarre FX and colossal poly synths. The pads expand on the more drone-esque nature of the atmospheres, giving instant celestial gravitas but in more playable patches. All of them incorporate interesting modwheel assignments and this attention to detail in having a number of midi cc’s hardwired into the patches is a key feature across Stephan’s work, especially in Zebra where the XY pads come into play. It enables sounds to be easily tweaked and/or to evolve in timbre, regardless of what actual notes are being played. My favourite part of Metropolis and something which Stephan seems to have a real skill for are the lead presets. Damask Orchid (and her darker sister, Damask Rose) had me noodling for ages!

Damask Orchid Preset

It’s a gentle and flowing float amongst the stars, with quite heavy effects processing using delay and reverb. Again, it’s really expressive as the modwheel adds vibrato and aftertouch opens up the filter. Like all the best presets it just makes you want to play and leads you to melodies you might otherwise not find.

Of course, amazing presets are only possible given amazing tools with which to create them and Stephan is keen to profess his deep admiration for u-he’s exceptional products saying, “they simply make the best emulations and original products on the market, with great support as well”. His relationship and involvement with them goes back many years, since he was an early adopter of their products. Over this time he has discovered their key appeal is what they sound like and the infinite possibilities they allow.

So, what is next for the ever busy Sonic Underworld? Well, Stephan also releases sound sets for other manufacturers, namely Spectrasonics and TAL, and is now planning on releasing for other platforms too. A big chunk of his work is doing custom sound design so he has used other synths (hardware and software) to accommodate the composers that he works with. Keep your eyes on his website and social media accounts for updates on forays into new synths and also new sound sets for his tried and tested old favourites. Here at Sample Library Review we will continue to cover as many as we can and keep spreading the word about the exciting, inspiring and exquisitely crafted sound design work of Sonic Underworld.


Nyah has 180 patches for u-he’s Zebra and Metropolis consists of 150 for u-he’s Repro-5. You will need a fully licensed copy of the corresponding synth to use these soundsets..

Zebra Nyah & Repro-5 Metropolis sells for $35 each from Sonic Underworld


Demos of Zebra Nyah
Repro-5 Metropolis by Sonic Underworld

Videos of Zebra Nyah
Repro-5 Metropolis by Sonic Underworld


Contributor Sam Burt reviews Zebra Nyah
Repro-5 Metropolis by Sonic Underworld
“Sonic Underworld is a prolific synth programmer who for the last few years has been rapidly gaining a superb reputation for his dark, emotional and cinematic sounds across a range of software synths.”