Field Test: Antares Kantos Plug-In

Jan 1, 2003 12:00 PM, BY ERIK HAWKINS

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From the company that brought us Auto-Tune and Mic Modeler comes a brand-new mind-warping, sound-bending plug-in, Kantos. The basic function of this sci-fi-looking plug-in is to convert audio into synthesized sounds. (For example, feed it a dry lead vocal and output a warped synth line.) Kantos is different from your typical pitch-to-MIDI converter and sound module combination because its integrated synth engine actually derives its sound from the incoming audio signal's harmonic and formant content. The effects you can cook up range from simple earthbound sounds to out-of-this-world resonations.

At the time of this field test, Kantos was available as a MAS, VST and RTAS plug-in for Mac; the PC versions should be available by the time you are reading this and will also include DirectX. All of the different plug-in formats ship on the same CD-ROM, which is especially appreciated if you regularly employ different digital audio-host applications. Copy protection is via challenge and response. (If you'd like to try out Kantos before buying it, the software will run for a 10-day trial period and can be downloaded directly from the Antares Website, www.antarestech.com.) Suggested MSRP is $299.

Kantos' interface looks like a control panel from a Borg ship on Star Trek. Its black surface is covered with glowing sliders and indicators, and interwoven between these controls are what look like green-plasma veins. The interface is certainly entertaining to stare at, but because the design is busy, understanding the plug-in's many parameters and signal flow are difficult to grasp at first glance. Many of the parameter labels are tough to read because of their size; making them a tad larger would be a big improvement.

Kantos operates as a typical effects plug-in: Insert it on an audio channel and send it some signal. An input-level control is immediately followed by the Gate Generator, a combination noise gate and trigger generator. Setting the control's threshold, hold, note on and off values determines when and how the plug-in's oscillators are triggered. A real-time waveform display shows the gate and trigger parameters as overlaid dash-ed lines that can be freely moved about. This set up is a great visual aid to adjust trigger and gate values in relation to the incoming signal's waveform. If you don't like the incoming waveform's envelope, an ADSR-type amplitude envelope (the Amp envelope) can be set to open at your trigger points.

Two wavetable oscillators make up the synthesizer's tone generators. A good selection of wavetables comes with Kantos, and Antares has promised that more will be available for download from its Website, or you can concoct your own using standard .AIFF and .WAV audio files. Each oscillator has its own fine-tuned, keyboard-style pitch-constrain control, a filter and chorus effect. The pitch-constrain feature is perfect for tuning an out-of-key input or creating vocoder-like effects. The filter is solid with a choice of two- and four-pole settings of the lowpass, bandpass and highpass varieties. Chorus rate and depth are adjustable.

Both oscillators, along with a noise generator, are routed to the heart of Kantos, a module dubbed the Articulator. Here, the incoming signals' formant information and harmonic content are used to shape the oscilattor's and the noise's sound. A bi-axial control lets you adjust Q and amount parameters simultaneously to affect the harmonic processing's depth and character. A formant offset control and a 3-band graphic EQ are also part of this section. The Articulator, I found, is powerful, innovative and darn fun.

An 8×8 modulation matrix allows any one of seven different sources to be routed to any one of 35 destinations. Input sources include dynamics, timbre, pitch, envelopes and LFOs. Destinations include filters, fine-tune, articulation, formant offset, chorus, delay and the modulation matrix' own modulation amount settings. There are two LFOs that are designed to be used with the modulation matrix. You can choose from a variety of periodic waves for each LFO, and rates can be locked to your project's tempo. An ADSR-type envelope (the Mod envelope) is also available as a modulation source, independent of the Amp envelope. The modulation matrix is deep and offers a lot of options for serious sound tweakers.

A submixer and mixer head up the final output stage. The submixer lets you mix each oscillator output with its own unprocessed sine wave that's based on the input signal's fundamental frequency. This is a valuable feature to anchor pitch or the bottom end of highly processed sounds. The noise generator's output has a level control in the submixer, as well. The mixer lets you set the plug-in's overall synth level in relation to a simple delay and your dry input signal. Both mixers have handy Mute and Solo buttons for each element, and the mixer's channels also include panning. A final aggregate level control falls after the mixer.

Kantos is no lightweight plug-in; it requires some serious processing power to work its magic. Three mono-to-stereo VST instances on my G4 400MHz machine peaked the CPU. If you have a superfast dual-processor computer, the plug-in's processing requirements won't be that big of a deal, but beware if you have something slower, like the minimum-recommended Mac G3 233MHz machine. A nice solution to the processing problem would be to offer an offline version of the plug-in, á la Digidesign's Audio Suite.

I found that because Kantos' algorithm is so complex, there is a significant delay introduced to its processed signal. For example, a bass line generated from a kick drum ends up sounding like it's really dragging behind the beat. Luckily, with today's digital audio host applications, it's a snap to nudge the input audio forward in time and compensate for any processing delays. Or, you can always bounce the effect to disk and then manually line up the resulting audio file for a really tight sync.

Kantos produces wonderfully organic-sounding tones and textures — the types of sounds that make you ask, “What instrument is that?” I had a blast running my guitar through the plug-in and creating new types of aboriginal wind instruments and never-before-heard tribal percussion sounds. Hitting Kantos with voice and drum loops can be equally exciting. Sing the melody lines you hear in your head directly into Kantos, constrain the oscillators' outputs to whole notes and it's possible to concoct amazing synth leads. A drum loop's harmonic content can even be used to generate viable musical parts. For sound-design innovation, Kantos is tops. It also packs over 50 great-sounding presets if parameter tweaking is not your forte. And, of course, the plug-in can be automated for even more twisted control.

Kantos is fun and useful, always a good combination. However, it's not necessarily one of those plug-ins that pumps out perfect sounds right out of the box. It does require some experimenting to really appreciate its potential. The synth engine is amazingly cool-sounding. I just wish I could play it from my keyboard, which would give it more sex appeal, making it a no-brainer for musicians and sound designer alike. I mentioned this feature to Antares and they reminded me that this is only Version 1.0, hinting that such a feature was planned for the future — I can't wait.

Antares, 231 Technology Circle, Scotts Valley, CA 95066; 831/461-7800; fax 831/461-7801; www.antarestech.com.


Visit Erik Hawkins' indie label at www.muzicali.com to hear music made with today's hottest studio gizmos.






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