Review: Zebra Valis by Sonic Underworld/Luftrum


A beautiful melancholy is at play with the latest soundset for Zebra from Sonic Underworld, this time teaming up with Luftrum on curation duties. Aimed firmly at the sci-fi, dark drama and thriller genres, Valis is a bounty of future retro cinematic treasures that still glows in the darkness.

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Review: Zebra Valis by Sonic Underworld/Luftrum

Always on a quest to push his sounds to the next level, this time Stephan Baer from Sonic Underworld has joined forces once again with Luftrum. Previously they have done 50/50 collaborations, but this time Luftrum is acting a a curator and has selected and possibly slightly tweaked the very best 180 patches that most fit the theme of the release. For those that are not aware, Luftrum is an exceptionally well respected sound designer in his own right and with him curating another superbly talented sound designer it is a match made in soft synth heaven!

Influences cited include the Stranger Things composers, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein as well as electronica artist Apparat and cinematic synth pioneer Vangelis. With that in mind you can expect a fair bit of twisted darkness, suspense and nods to vintage hardware synths along the way.

Zebra Valis sells for $35.00 from Sonic Underworld/Luftrum


The more playable preset libraries that I am getting my mileage from these days seem to be the ones that come loaded with intuitive and extensive modulation control. It’s really helpful to not only be able to tweak the sound quickly, but also to easily morph it over time. For modern TV and film a simple, repeating part with a complex and evolving timbre can really help build excitement and tension and Valis works superbly in this regard. We are not simply opening up a filter here – there is interesting programming going on for the modwheel and aftertouch, as well as X/Y assignments for each patch. On this occasion the latter are standardised across the library with pads for timbre, filter, modulation and effects. I was also pleased to discover a few dB of headroom for each patch. In so many collections I have reviewed there seems to be a habit for maxing out the volume, which can mean that when you start opening a filter or increasing some other parameters you get clipping straight away.

Sonic Underworld are big on sequences and Valis continues this penchant for the arpeggiator with three categories of one key wonders. The arps have a lovely retro quality often with quite bright sounds. They veer from single note affairs to really beautiful melodies (Radiancy is amazing!). Keys To Amar shows off what I mentioned above really well.


Keys To Amar Preset

Here we have the modwheel subtly controlling one filter and the second oscillator’s phase, with aftertouch on a second filter. One of the X/Y pads is then set up to warp the first oscillator wave so you get this wavetable type sweep that is gentle enough to retain the main signature of the sound, yet wide enough to add just enough variance to the timbre. What could be a fairly static arp can then be manipulated into something organic and shape shifting.

The basslines embrace the sound of analogue synths being both big and bold. Many have exciting driving sequences to get pulses racing and a couple have a really cool glide between notes which acts as a distinctive sonic hook. The third type of sequence in Valis are the pulses which are more percussive and sinister in feel. Although only fifteen in number they cover a wide gamut of sound types, from short noisy plucks to future 808s and talky FM synthesis to brooding reverses.

Leaving the arpeggiator behind brings us to the basses. Here the spirit of classic analogue synthesisers is really embraced. With the superb FX engine in Zebra it can be tempting to use it quite heavily and whilst it always yields great results it is not always used more subtly. But that is what Sonic Underworld are doing for the bass presets especially, leaving the sounds more or less naked, mostly with just a bit of EQ shaping. This leaves us with a varied bunch of pure and dry synth bass presets that are really playable. Again, to add variation get on that modwheel and the timbre X/Y pad as they work wonders.

There are a sprinkling of drum presets, including a really brutal 808 type kick called Taft, before we get to the more ambient side of the library. The pads are lush, smooth and often with a hint of melancholy. I noticed a significant stereo spread to many of these, sometimes by panning the separate lanes or by other less obvious methods that when combined with delays and reverbs gives them an epic and sometimes dreamy quality. Of all the sound types in Valis perhaps the pads best evoke the Stranger Things vibe of having that modern retro kind of feel – familiar yet new. Partly this might be due to some special sauce getting added early on with some extensive Osc FX at work (a feature across many of the patches in Valis), which helps to make the raw oscillator sounds just a little bit more unique. Satin Dreams is a good example.


Satin Dreams Preset

As you can see at the core it is pretty simple – two dual oscillators, each with a filter. However it is the fact that the oscillators are not regular waveforms, the addition of subtle Osc FX, panning of the two lanes, a good dose of delay and the mod wheel doing just enough on the filter cutoffs that gives it a modern edge.

If the pads were melancholy then the soundscapes take that a step further and take us into unnerving darkness. There is plenty of undulation and detuning at work that can be amplified with the mod wheel and aftertouch.

This collection is finished off, somewhat fittingly, with 30 synth patches. In the absence of a specific leads category many of these can fulfil that role of a distinctive monophonic synth line. That said they all work equally well as poly synths and are capable of both punchy chords or sustained playing. Like the basses they are light on the effects with nothing more than EQ and various amount of French polish using delay, reverb and chorus where appropriate. Fans of that golden era of Oberheim, Sequential Circuits, Roland, Moog and more will have much to enjoy here. There are bold bells, bright oscillator stacked leads, mellow flutes and dark filtered plucks. Pearly Gates grabbed me for some reason.


Pearly Gates Preset

It’s only a single square wave with the pulse width decreased, but again the Osc FX shift the basic sound quite a bit and two filters in serial further shape it to give a softened plucky sound with a nice release. Some EQ takes out the bottom end with a touch of chorus and reverb to give a little bit of mysterious ambience. My only very slight grumble is that any epic, powerful leads are rather thin on the ground, but as Valis is more geared for underscore that is likely intentional.

This pack will be of interest for anyone writing underscore for sci-fi, thrillers, certain dramas and potentially horror. It can also work well for main themes and if you are an electronica recording artist of the ilk of M83 and similar this is well worth checking out too.

Some of the preset packs from our leading u-he synth designers over the past couple of years have really pushed the boat out in terms of fresh and exciting new sounds. Valis also does this but with a foot firmly in the days of the classic synths of the 70s and 80s. Throughout the entire 180 patches it stays in that same place too, which might be one of the bonuses of having an experienced third party in Luftrum curate the sounds – lesser collections can veer off the original target, whilst Valis remains very consistent in its sonic ethos.

Although marketed as dark and evil for me the patches are more melancholic and many are a strange kind of beautiful. There is nothing too aggressive here and the various distortion modules of Zebra are very seldom used and generally the effects are employed sparingly. In practice more sonically complex presets can sound amazing in isolation, but don’t always fit so easily into an existing track, so in fact it is the pureness and directness of the sounds in Valis that I believe will make them very useful in the context of fitting into arrangements. For a modern, moody and emotive cinematic synth sound with an ample dose of retro goodness there are few better packs for Zebra 2 out there right now.


Valis consists of 180 patches for u-he Zebra 2 in eight different categories. Please note this is an add-on preset pack and will require a fully licensed copy of Zebra 2 to work.

Zebra Valis sells for $35.00 from Sonic Underworld/Luftrum


Demos of Zebra Valis by Sonic Underworld/Luftrum

Videos of Zebra Valis by Sonic Underworld/Luftrum


Contributor Sam Burt reviews Zebra Valis by Sonic Underworld/Luftrum
“A beautiful melancholy is at play with the latest soundset for Zebra from Sonic Underworld, this time teaming up with Luftrum on curation duties. Aimed firmly at the sci-fi, dark drama and thriller genres, Valis is a bounty of future retro cinematic treasure that still glows in the darkness.”