Field Test: Native Instruments Absynth 2 and Reaktor 4

Feb 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By John McJunkin

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Berlin-based Native Instruments is known for its innovative approach to software synthesis, with unique sound creation tools that appeal across the professional spectrum, from producer to sound designer to DJ. The company recently released upgrades of two of its most popular applications, Absynth 2 and Reaktor 4. Both are reviewed here; first, we'll take a look at Absynth.

HAVE A LITTLE SHOT OF ABSYNTH


Absynth is a quasi-modular synth created by Brian Clevinger. Version 1.x has become one of the most popular instruments in the world, but if you haven't toyed with it yet, allow me to explain. It's conventional in some ways and unconventional in others. It has three double oscillators, each with a big collection of waveforms and a Double mode, in which the two elements are mixed, frequency-modulated or ring-modulated. Your own hand-drawn waveforms are available to you in addition to the factory presets and imported samples. Granular synthesis can be used to modify your samples, too. Absynth sports conventional but high-quality filters and LFOs for modulation of many parameters.

Envelopes are one of Absynth's more unconventional features. Up to 68 breakpoints can be drawn in, and because the envelopes can be synched to tempo, a snap-to-grid feature is available, as well. Another unconventional feature is the Waveshaper, which adds nonlinear warmth and punch to your sound. There's also an unorthodox effects section, which offers traditional delays, but the Pipe feature is the real news: It enables swirling, Doppler-esque motion, and really adds to the timbre.

ABSYNTH 2.0: A NEW FLAVOR


Absynth 2.0 ($299, upgrades range from free to $99) debuted almost a year ago. A major new feature in the revision is OS X compatibility, although Absynth is a cross-platform product, having been available for Windows for quite some time now. As with numerous other apps, porting Absynth to OS X brings compatibility with CoreAudio, which results in much higher efficiency and quality. Latency is reduced, and CoreMIDI is now implemented in the app, as well. Other good news: Previous versions allowed you to import a tiny piece of a sample, but 2.0 facilitates the import of any-sized sample you like for further tweaking with Absynth's powerful modules. Don't think of it as a sample player, though. I played with this feature and discovered that it's a great way to invent new timbres and textures.

A Sample Jump feature allows you to retrigger from any point in your user-developed envelope. This can be very interesting for live performance. Granular sampling has also been added. Various parameters of the Granulation algorithm such as the grain length or density can be modulated, which can create wild textures. For that matter, nearly any parameter can be assigned a continuous controller, and I achieved some very innovative sounds by modulating these parameters; sound designers will love this. I introduced a sample of an ARP synth string section and tweaked the granulation to arrive at some downright frightening sounds. (Absynth was used extensively in the Matrix Reloaded soundtrack, by the way!) Synchronization to the host is included, and effect times, LFOs and envelopes can now be automatically synched with song tempo. (Absynth 1 users had to attempt this type of sync manually.) I love being able to easily create loops with very specific timbres that can be creatively modulated. It has profoundly impacted the way I think about loops.

Clevinger's superpowerful 68-point envelope has been one of Absynth's most attractive features since V. 1, but now becomes eminently more powerful with new control modes in V. 2. In control-driven mode, a MIDI controller now has the ability to modify envelopes. In Link mode, multiple envelopes can be linked together. By linking to the master envelope, you can affect tweaks that have a universal effect. Say you've developed a loop and you want to make the whole thing brighten over the course of four bars. This new feature enables you to create a swelling envelope four bars in length and effectively “add” it to the existing envelope, assigned to filter cutoff. The result is that your original filter modulation just gets brighter over those four bars.

LFOs can now be introduced and microscopically edited in envelopes. I found this feature handy for creating rhythmic features in my envelopes. Envelope breakpoints can also be affected by MIDI controllers, and the envelopes themselves can now control many new parameters. At a more fundamental level, the filters have been improved to sound better, and the oscillators have a new anti-aliasing mode that makes the waveforms superrealistic throughout the frequency range. By switching the anti-aliasing mode on and off, I found different and useful timbres, because even aliasing creates an interesting digital jitter. Of course, it's also nice to turn the anti-aliasing on when you're trying to emulate more traditional synth sounds. Each oscillator is independent in the stereo image, resulting in really cool sound design. I was able to create very wide stereo patches that exhibit motion in the stereo field. And, of course, this can be exacerbated by the effects section. Version 2 also includes 128 new presets. It bears mention that many, if not most, of the upgrades in V. 2 are user-motivated as they are based on feedback from the Yahoo Absynth user group.

A SONIC SUPERSTAR


To the aforementioned features, add deep and comprehensive MIDI implementation, a powerful note-scaling utility, user-defined tunings, and the fact that many parameters, such as waves, envelopes and the like, can be stored in a library, and it becomes eminently clear that Absynth is much more than just another semimodular soft synth. The factory patches feature a boatload of very realistic acoustical instrument sounds; a nice selection of traditional, subtractive, analog-style ploinky synthesizer sounds; ambient patches that play out and evolve over time; and even speech synthesis. This synth proves to be a very complete tool kit for sound and patch design and presents a unique sonic flavor that's not available elsewhere. There's a reason why Native Instruments was so keen to connect with Clevinger and make this product one of the most sought-after soft synths in the world.

THE REAKTOR CORE


Reaktor is a powerful solution for anyone who wishes to create their own software synthesizer, sampler, drum machine or signal processor. And that's a bit of an understatement, in that Reaktor can do even more than that. From a library of modules—oscillators, filters, envelopes, LFOs and various other modulators and mathematical operators—you can construct any design your brain can conceive. This might seem like overkill, but imagine how much better your previous projects could have been if you had the ability to develop an instrument that behaved and sounded exactly as you wished. That's what Reaktor does.

The fundamental building block in Reaktor is the module, and indeed, hundreds of modules ship with the product. Modules are developed from instruments, which can, in turn, be combined into “ensembles.” For example, you could have a suite of analog drum synths controlled by a sequencer. Ensembles can be stored and edited by anyone with the application. There is also a version of the product known as Reaktor Session, which essentially only lacks the ability to design your own stuff. You can use any ensemble developed by anyone else. And there are a lot of ensembles available—well in excess of 1,000. Almost any classic synthesizer you could want is successfully emulated by someone out there, and you can download them from Native's Website and elsewhere.

THE NEW REAKTOR

Reaktor 4 ($499, upgrades ranging from $19 to $279) is the latest revision of this world-class, “roll-your-own” virtual synth application. Among other things, V. 4 updates the application for Apple's OS X, which places the speed and quality of audio very high on the priority list, and the result for Reaktor users is high-quality, low-latency audio. Reaktor 4 is compatible with Mac OS 9 and OS X; Windows 98 through XP; and VST 2.0, DXi, ASIO, AudioUnits, Core Audio and OMS interfaces.

Version 4 also offers improved VST support, enabling automation of all parameters by your host sequencer, and Mac users finally have multiple instances available, limited only by CPU overhead. It also improves the way snapshots are handled, enabling morphing from one snapshot to another (a very powerful feature) and randomization, which is a nice sound design tool. You can create new patches by inserting randomized values into the parameters. There is actually a dedicated Snapshot window that free-floats on-screen and gives you the ability to take a snapshot at any given moment to preserve what you're currently doing.

Version 4 integrates elements from the powerful sample-mapping technology from the company's Kontakt sampler. Overlapping zones and crossfades are not available as they are in Kontakt, but velocity splits are. I'm a Kontakt user, but I find myself turning to Reaktor when I need to engage in wild, nontraditional twisting and bending of my samples. In V. 3, only 16-bit samples were usable; now, 32-bit samples can be used. Another feature new to V. 4 is the anti-aliasing oscillator borrowed from NI's Pro-53. Aliasing has been the bane of soft synth designers who are forced, de facto, to work in the digital domain. Higher resolution enables the elimination of the phenomenon, and it's a very welcome improvement here, allowing for near-perfect emulation of traditional analog circuits. For that matter, NI ships Reaktor 4 with a whole new library of improved modules with the idea of creating the highest-quality sounds possible.

Version 4 also brings a grain-cloud granular delay module with freezing and live sampling. This opens a whole new world for the growing number of people who use Reaktor in live situations. There are a number of wonderful grain-oriented ensembles available. Traditionally, I have avoided working with granular synthesis because it was difficult to achieve usable results. However, with Reaktor, I could create very useful and fresh timbres very quickly. It's going to have a profound impact on all of my future projects. Also available are advanced filters, saturation and signal routing, as well as new mathematical functions and support for “C”-style code writing for event processing. Open Sound Control (OSC) is supported, allowing multiple applications or even computers to communicate in a much more sophisticated way than what is possible with MIDI.

There are also many new modules or improvements on existing versions. The user interface is enhanced, which makes operating Reaktor much easier. There are many new graphic options, including the ability to display image sequences. There is even a “Pong” ensemble, approximating the classic Atari game. Reaktor's all-important toolbar has been streamlined and only takes up half as much vertical space as before. Ensembles can be minimized on screen, which is important when many windows are open. Free-floating browser windows are also implemented allowing for quick navigation.

COULD THIS BE THE FINAL WORD?


An issue to consider with Reaktor is CPU overhead. As one might imagine, a sophisticated ensemble in Reaktor can chew up and spit out your CPU, leaving only bones and gristle for other open applications. With my G4 dual 1GHz machine, Pro Tools got a little squirrelly (and actually crashed a few times) when I opened large, complicated Reaktor ensembles, so be prepared with as much host horsepower as you can muster. You might even consider a multi-CPU setup, dedicating a computer to CPU-hogging soft synths.

So, is Reaktor the only synth you need? For the moment, other products still exhibit quirky personality traits that Reaktor (or any other roll-your-own synth product) cannot perfectly emulate. Don't kid yourself, though—Native Instruments is knocking on the door. The meticulous control over every tiny detail will get continually more sophisticated and microscopic, and eventually you'll be able to successfully knock off any existing product you'd like, given enough time and motivation. You can already build in things like thermal drift or noise. As computers and operating systems get faster and more efficient, hardware will become obsolete, and I would submit that Reaktor is getting marvelously close to making this happen. One of the included ensembles is called Junatik, which is a revved-up version of Roland's classic Juno 6 (or 60, which has patch memory). I compared Junatik parameter for parameter with my Juno-60, and it's pretty much smack on the money, right down to the cheesy (and noisy) chorus effect. I'll put it this way: Reaktor may not be the only synth that you need, but if you have a robust CPU, you won't need much more.

Native Instruments USA, 323/467-5260, www.native-instruments.com.


John McJunkin is the principal of Avalon Audio Services in Phoenix, and is now struggling to convince his wife that he needs all that space for real synthesizers when the virtual synths sound just as good.






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