Twenty years ago, it was considered revolutionary to put a digital computer inside a synthesizer. Now, we are doing the opposite: putting synthesizers into computers, at least on the software level.
Product PointsApplications: Audio processing; music creation and remixing; sample manipulation
Key Features: Open-ended modular connectivity; compatible with VST, Digidesign and others
Contact: Native Instruments at 800-665-0030; www.native-instruments.com;
+ Unprecedented flexibility in a software synth
+ Integrates with popular sequencing products
+ Granular synthesis without the big hardware
+ Mac and PC platforms
– That icky green screen
The Score: A powerful bundle of audio tools for Mac and PC.
For example, BitHeadz offers the Retro AS-1. Steinberg VST plug-in synthesizers emulate MiniMoogs and PPG Wave keyboards. The Internet is flooded with freebie software synthesizers that can make a junk Pentium 133 MHz sound like a classic ARP, only more stable.
There is one standout that combines a lot of instruments and possibilities into one package: Reaktor 2.3 from Native Instruments (NI) of Berlin, Germany ($499). To really appreciate Reaktor, put aside a lot of time. Having only a casual acquaintance with it compromises its possibilities.
Reaktor combines NI’s earlier Generator and Transformator software packages into one bundle, turning your computer and audio interface into a combination modular synthesizer, sampler and audio processing rack. It is adept at the heavily clipped, over-the-top synth loops needed in modern hit music, as well as atmospheric ambient pads and gentle beds or punchy analog-type drumbox tracks. It processes samples, granulates them and reassembles them into bizarre new effects for your projects.
The audio designer or musician is offered a large toy box of synth modules (both subtractive and FM), effects, filters, granular samplers – all infinitely patchable to each other for sounds as pure or as ugly as desired. Glue your own synthesizers together in the modular order you’ve always wanted, modify and play samples, or just use the existing library of instruments created by sound designers from around the world.
Reaktor works on either Macs or PCs, and can talk with your entire studio via ASIO multichannel audio interfaces, VST plug-in technology, Digidesign DirectConnect or the Logic MIDI Environment. At press time, MOTU announced that the newest version, Reaktor 2.3.2, also integrates seamlessly with FreeMIDI.
The software works on any computer with a feeble 32 MB RAM, a MIDI interface and a sound card compatible with Windows 95/98/2000. Mac users can get off the ground with a minimum Power PC 250, 32 MB, MacOS 8.0 and a Sound Manager-compatible audio interface.
I ran Reaktor on a Pentium 333 with 128 MB RAM, Win98 and a basic sound card. I recommend a much better rig than this, but Reaktor still turned in an admirable performance on this PC, even when Cubase VST was driving it. When the sound card, MIDI interface and buffers are properly optimized, latency is not an issue.
Installation is simple. You may at first believe the Reaktor CD-ROM to be damaged: two small holes appear to have been drilled into the disc. According to Native Instruments, this is part of the copy protection scheme. NI lets you install the program on more than one computer, provided you use only one computer at a time. To assure this, you are prompted occasionally to reinsert the installation CD-ROM during boot-ups – if you don’t comply, it won’t fly. Inconvenient, but at least it is one less dongle hanging off the parallel port.
No brushed-aluminum, faux woodgrains or authentic Moog-like knobs here. Reaktor’s basic GUI is a benign green screen with simple controls and bargraph level meters. The designers went more for function than flash.
The first stop inside Reaktor 2.3 is the NI Premium Library, consisting of preprogrammed synthesizers, samplers and beatboxes, all developed by programmers and musicians from around the world and ready to fire up and play immediately.
There are some good-sounding subtractive and FM synthesizers, including some extremely familiar rigs. For example, the ManyMood is a salute to the MiniMoog, even down to a 440 Hz “tuning fork” button and a close emulation of the old transistorized cascade LP filter.
The X-Y matrix pad on the Matrix Modular synthesizer recalls the EMS “Putney” synth of the mid-70s, but with a twist: sample playback and resynthesis modules in addition to the dual oscillators. SEM and Waldorf synths are also effectively emulated in the NI Premium Library, with new creations being added all the time to the NI Web site.
For instant drum sounds, pull up 6-Pack, Cyclane, Drumatik, NewsCool or DSQ32. Some beatboxes include FM synthesis and mini-sequencers for an experience that is almost a Re-Birth (pun intended).
Remember, the panels won’t look like the classic instruments you may be used to, so familiarity with the program becomes a must.
Ever noodle with granular synthesis? An audio signal is chopped up into coarse or fine “grains” that can be scrambled, reassembled and crossfaded with other grains or frozen in time during playback. Normally offered in big, pricey hardware systems such as the Kyma from Symbolic Sound, similar technology is found in Formantor, an included granular sample playback instrument.
Formantor lets you play back a sample on a MIDI keyboard, without the annoying tendency for sample length to increase or decrease on higher or lower notes. Play full chords or looped rhythm beds, without having to stretch playback time. Record your favorite vocal phrase and replay it as a tight choir. Shift formants or freeze a sample in mid-playback without the telltale clicking of loop points.
When you want to switch to sampling, you can move into the Reaktor Transformator series, offering the simple but powerful Impaktor; Simulant, with its extensive modulation capabilities; Vibrator, which adds FM synthesis; and 4Dex, which has four channels of sampling and sequenced playback.
If you wish to record and edit your own samples, open your favorite editor and work in that first. The strength of the Reaktor samplers lies in playback and manipulation. When you are itching to create your own special instrument, clear the screen and start building.
Reaktor works in a hierarchical structure. The Ensemble window offers an overhead view of the entire work surface. One level down is the Structure window, where you create new synthesizers and sound generators. Here you load Instruments, which are modules with self-contained MIDI processing and corresponding control panels that will appear in the finished ensemble.
Macros are like reusable ministructures. Write them once and then drop them into your project without having to repetitively build the same component every time it is needed.
Say you want a self-contained two-operator FM synth module that you could string into an ensemble a dozen times. Write it once as a macro, then just insert the macro rather than reinvent the wheel each time.
Like the relationship between molecules and atoms, Instruments and Macros are made up of the smaller Modules, the tiniest particle in the Reaktor universe. Here are the oscillators, filters, mixers and other primary components that comprise an electronic musical instrument. Some you may never have heard of before – when was the last time your music project called for a signal shaper with a third-order polynomial cubic parabolic input/output curve?
When creating your own synth in Reaktor, just grab, drag and drop some ready-made Instruments into a Structure window, click some interconnect lines like patch cords between the instruments, design your own Instruments with whatever Modules or Macros you wish, then hit your MIDI keyboard and marvel. You may then switch screens to see a made-to-measure synthesizer control panel with all the knobs, meters and scopes needed to make your creation run, all in glorious mint green.
If you want to see what makes some of the preset synths in the Library tick, click on the screen to open the Structure window. No secrets in this program.
Native Instruments has bundled its best programs and come up with a very powerful audio and music creation package in Reaktor 2.3.
Its compatibility with most “all-in-one” MIDI and audio editing/sequencing systems makes it an effective adjunct to whatever software synths already reside in your computer. Due to its low latency, it also excels as a real-time synth. But because you don’t want to be mousing during live performance, Native Instruments also offers a pair of optional hardware MIDI controllers to augment your rig.
Sound designers and radio production folks take note: Use Reaktor to help compose some slick music beds and to severely deconstruct and process audio samples for creative use. Check out some MP3 audio samples and download the free demo from the NI Web site to find out.
I hope NI someday does something about the bland green screen, or that a third party comes up with a way to “skin” Reaktor for a more attractive or customized appearance. It does not get in the way of using the program nor detract from it, but it would be a nice touch.