“Expressive control” has largely translated to “wiggly keyboards” and “squishy grids,” with one notable exception – the unique, paddle-like Touché from Expressive E. And while keeping essentially the same design, they’ve gotten the price down to just US$/EUR229, making this potentially a no-brainer.
The result: add this little device to your rig, and play gesturally with a whole bunch of instruments, either using provided examples or creating your own.
Expressive E’s approach has set itself apart in two key ways. First, they’ve gone with a design that’s completely different than anyone else working in expressive control. It’s not a ribbon, not a grid, not an X/Y pad, and not a keyboard, in other words.
The Touché is best described as a paddle, a standalone object that you sit next to your computer or instrument. There’s a patented mechanism in there that responds to mechanical movements, so with the slightest pressure or tap, you can activate it, or push harder for multi-axis control.
And that, in turn, opens this up to lots of different control applications. Expressive E market this mainly for controlling instruments, like synthesizers, but any music or visual performance input could be relevant.
The second clever element in Expressive E’s approach is to bundle a whole bunch of presets. The first Touché had loads of support even for hardware synths. The new one is focused more on software. But together, this means that while you can map your own ideas, you’ve got a load of places to start.
The original Touché is US$/EUR 399.
Touché SE is just $/EUR 229.
Here’s the cool thing about that price break: the only real sacrifice here is the standalone operation with hardware. (The SE works with bus-powered USB only.)
Other than that, it’s the same hardware as before, though with a polycarbonate touch plate.
In fact, otherwise you get more:
Lié hosting software, with VST hosting so you can use your own plug-ins
UVI-powered internal sound engine with leads and mallets and loads of other things
200 ready-to-play internal sounds, which you can call up using dedicated buttons on the device
200+ presets for popular plug-ins (like Native Instruments’ Massive and Prism, Serum, Arturia software, etc.)
So connect this USB bus-powered device (they put a huge four-foot cable in the box), and you get multi-dimensional gestural control.
Standalone, VST, AU, Mac, Windows. (Would love to see a Linux/Raspi version!)
I’ve been playing one for a bit and – it’s hugely powerful, likely of appeal both to plug-in and synth lovers and DIYers alike.
Native Instruments just dumped a whole bunch of product news today – almost too much to follow. Here’s all of it in a nutshell. Spoiler: a new Massive synth is coming, TRAKTOR 3 is here, and it’ll cost less to get into their DJ, Maschine, and keyboard ranges.
There are two things coming that are really, really cool. One is the Massive synth, the power plug-in that sort of accidentally helped launched EDM, is back. And maybe to make up for EDM, now there’s a bunch of new features everyone will love. (Please, please try not to make another giant American/European dance genre with them.)
And on the DJ side, as I wrote separately, you get a new version of TRAKTOR plus a controller with moving, “haptic” wheels that’s more fun to play.
Other than that, this is mostly just about refreshing the product range and adding some more cost-effective entry points. Let’s follow along:
MASSIVE X: Roughly a decade later, we get an all new flagship NI synth. Massive X has a new sound engine that takes advantage of today’s CPUs, new subtractive filters, lots of new effects, and a big modular engine for routing everything together. We should get more of the grimy, analog-modeled sound Reaktor Blocks and Monark and their ilk have given us, but despite “Monark” appearing on the filters, NI’s engineers tell me they wrote new code. Massive X is interesting, though: it seems both simpler and more understandable on first glance, but deeper and more modular under the hood.
Unfortunately, you’re going to have to wait to see more – Massive X is due in February, and the screenshots I’ve seen aren’t yet available to the public.
It’ll lead Komplete 12, though, across all editions. The existing Massive remains bundled with Maschine, and will continue to see updates – as it’s far lighter on CPU usage.
KONTAKT’s new Creator Tools promise to be a major boon to sound library developers and power users.
Same UI, but new effects in the new KONTAKT 6.
New KONTAKT. Kontakt 6 is another long-awaited update. For end users, there are new instruments: Analog Dreams (retro synths), Ethereal Earth (hybrid traditional/synthesized instruments), and Hybrid Keys (digital/keyboard combos).
But it’s really the behind-the scenes stuff that matters here. You can add three new reverbs, Replika delay, wah-wah, and a new wavetable engine to your instrument creations. There’s also a powerful Creator Tools app for people building sound libraries for their ecosystem, including instrument editing and debugging.
In other words, what you’ll really want to do with Kontakt 6 is play around with that wavetable module and make your own instruments.
KOMPLETE KONTROL A-Series – the cheaper ones. Like the NI keyboards and their easy navigation / mapping, but don’t like the higher price and don’t need (or want) those light-up colors? The A-Series is for you. The display is tiny, but the encoders are still usable and touch sensitivity means you can see which parameters are mapped to each encoder. NI have also developed their own semi-weighted keyboard action – and it feels pretty good. In return, prices are way lower – US$/EUR 149 (25-key), 199 (49-key), and 249 (61-key). Seems like it’ll be a huge hit.
KOMPLETE KONTROL S88 – the hammer one. The fully-weighted, hammer-action S88 gets an overdue MK2 refresh (it was one generation behind all the other sizes), so with the new displays and control features, plus wheels and not just touchpads. Also, while it’s a Fatar keybed, they’ve chosen a different one with a slightly faster action. I like this one better, for sure – it’s on par with some of the better liked hammer keys in recent years (feeling to me indistinguishable from the Kawaii keyboards, for instance). USD/EUR 999.
MASCHINE MIKRO The new MIKRO lets you access Maschine without hooking up a larger controller. That seems ideal for tight spaces and tight budgets. It doesn’t have exactly the same pads as the MK3, and losing those big displays is definitely a tradeoff. But I’ve got one in to test to see how the pads compare, and I personally relish the idea of keeping the MIKRO hooked up at all times in my shared studio rather than constantly swapping the larger controller with other machines.
The software bundle is where this gets really nice: Maschine Factory Selection (still a full 1.6G of sounds), Massive, Monark, and Reaktor Prism, and of course a MIDI mode for use with other software. Price for all of this is US$/EUR 249, with all that software no one else has.
TRAKTOR 3. The latest Traktor Pro 3 is a major rebuild, with a slick, flat new look, and a much easier, more powerful interface. Mixer FX are more direct one-knob effect and filter controls that are made ready for live jamming. Audio quality is improved, too, with the ability to route mixer audio entirely externally and a new time stretching algorithm. More on this soon.
TRAKTOR S4. Haptic wheels, an updated controller setup, dirt-resistant faders, and full inputs and outputs for $899 makes this the flagship controller to beat. Full preview:
TRAKTOR S2. The S2 looks and feels a lot like the S4. Sure, it lacks the S4’s fancy haptic wheels, but at least the build is similar. The S2 is still a capable entry-level controller, though it will have to go up against Pioneer offerings that work with their CDJ and Rekordbox ecosystems (aka “pack only USB sticks and go to the club” ecossytems). I’m also curious how it compares to Roland’s new controllers, which work with Serato and feature low-latency operation and some 808-inspired drum extras. But it looks like it brings a lot of what was great about the Z1, only with the ability to beat match on wheels.
Note that this promises future iOS compatibility, though. Time for an updated mobile TRAKTOR, no doubt. US$/EUR 299.
Online platforms. Sounds.com itself looks largely as we’ve seen it – so we’re still waiting on how this will integrate with NI’s products or what other features it will bring. But it is expanding internationally to more countries and adding new content. The Loop Loft soundware site and Metapop online collaboration/community hub meanwhile, each recent NI acquisitions, see their own updates. I hope to talk to Mate Gallic from NI about how this is all fitting together.
KOMPLETE 12. A lot of these products center around the new Komplete bundle. This year’s edition includes the all-new Kontakt 6 and electric sunburst Session Guitarist, Massive X (later on, when it’s done), and TRK-01, the Reaktor-powered kick/bass synth. (TRK-01 came out this summer and is stupidly cool, like dangerously so. More on that another time.)
When they’re available
NI don’t normally announce products this far ahead of shipping, so it’s worth just putting this on a timeline.
For all the great sounds they can make, software synths eventually fit a repetitive mold: lots of knobs onscreen, simplistic keyboard controls when you actually play. ROLI’s Cypher2 could change that. Lead developer Angus chats with us about why.
Angus Hewlett has been in the plug-in synth game a while, having founded his own FXpansion, maker of various wonderful software instruments and drums. That London company is now part of another London company, fast-paced ROLI, and thus has a unique charge to make instruments that can exploit the additional control potential of ROLI’s controllers. The old MIDI model – note on, note off, and wheels and aftertouch that impact all notes at once – gives way to something that maps more of the synth’s sounds to the gestures you make with your hands.
So let’s nerd out with Angus a bit about what they’ve done with Cypher2, the new instrument. Background:
Peter: Okay, Cypher2 is sounding terrific! Who made the demos and so on?
Angus: Demos – Rafael Szaban, Heen-Wah Wai, Rory Dow. Sound Design – Rory Dow, Mayur Maha, Lawrence King & Rafael Szaban
Can you tell us a little bit about what architecture lies under the hood here?
Sure – think of it as a multi-oscillator subtractive synth. Three oscillators with audio-rate intermodulation (FM, S&H, waveshape modulation and ring mod), each switchable between Saw and Sin cores. Then you’ve got two waveshapers (each with a selection of analogue circuit models and tone controls, and a couple of digital wavefolders), and two filters, each with a choice of five different analogue filter circuit models – two variations on the diode ladder type, OTA ladder, state variable, Sallen-Key – and a digital comb filter. Finally, you’ve got a polyphonic, twin stereo output amp stage which gives you a lot of control over how the signal hits the effects chain – for example, you can send just the attack of every note to the “A” chain and the sustain/release phase to the “B” chain, all manner of possibilities there.
Controlling all of that, you’ve got our most powerful TransMod yet. 16 assignable modulation slots, each with over a hundred possible sources to choose from, everything from basics like Velocity and LFO through to function processors, step sequencers, paraphonic mod sources and other exotics. Then there’s eight fixed-function mod slots to support the five dimensions of MPE control and the three performance macros. So 24 TransMods in total, three times as many as v1.
Okay, so Cypher2 is built around MPE, or MIDI Polyphonic Expression. For those readers just joining us, this is a development of the existing MIDI specification that standardizes additional control around polyphonic inputs – that is, instead of adding expression to the whole sound all at once, you can get control under each finger, which makes way more sense and is more fun to play. What does it mean to build a synth around MPE control? How did you think about that in designing it?
It’s all about giving the sound designers maximum possibility to create expressive sound, and to manage how their sound behaves across the instrument’s range. When you’re patching for a conventional synth, you really only need to think about pitch and velocity: does the sound play nicely across the keyboard. With 5D MPE sounds, sound designers start having to think more like a software engineer or a game world designer – there’s so many possibilities for how the player might interact with the sound, and they’ve got to have the tools to make it sound musical and believable across the whole range.
What this translates to in the specific case of Cypher2 is adapting our TransMod system (which is, at its heart, a sophisticated modulation matrix) to make it easy for sound designers to map the various MPE control inputs, via dynamically controllable transfer function curves, on to any and every parameter on the synth.
How does this relate to your past line of instruments?
Clearly, Cypher2 is a successor to the original Cypher which was one of the DCAM Synth Squad synths; it inherits many of the same functional upgrades that Strobe 2 gained over its predecessor a couple of years ago – the extended TransMod system, the effects engine, the Retina-friendly, scalable, skinnable GUI – but goes further, and builds on a lot of user and sound-designer feedback we had from Strobe2. So the modulation system is friendlier, the effects engine is more powerful, and it’s got a brand new and much more powerful step-sequencer and arpeggiator. In terms of its relationship to the original Cypher – the overall layout is similar, but the oscillator section has been upgraded with the sine cores and additional FM paths; the shaper section gains wavefolders and tone controls; the filters have six circuits to chose from, up from two in the original, so there’s a much wider range of tones available there; the envelopes give you more choice of curve responses; the LFOs each have a sub oscillator and quadrature outputs; and obviously there’s MPE as described above.
Of course, ROLI hope that folks will use this with their hardware, naturally. But since part of the beauty is that this is open on MPE, any interesting applications working with some other MPE hardware; have you tried it out on non-ROLI stuff (or with testers, etc.)?
Yes, we’ve tried it (with Linnstrument, mainly), and yes, it very much works – although with one caveat. Namely, MPE, as with MIDI, is a protocol which specifies how devices should talk to one another – but it doesn’t specify, at a higher level, what the interaction between the musician and their sound should feel like.
That’s a problem that I actually first encountered during the development of BFD2 in the mid-2000s: “MIDI Velocity 0-127” is adequate to specify the interaction between a basic keyboard and a sound module, and some of the more sophisticated stage controller boards (Kurzweil, etc.) have had velocity curves at least since the 90s. But as you increase the realism and resolution of the sounds – and BFD2 was the first time we really did so in software to the extent that it became a problem – it becomes apparent that MIDI doesn’t specify how velocity should map on to dB, or foot-pounds-per-second force equivalent, or any real-world units.
That’s tolerable for a keyboard, where a discerning user can set one range for the whole instrument, but when you’re dealing with a V-Drums kit with, potentially, ten or twelve pads, of different types, to set up, and little in the way of a standard curve to aim for, the process becomes cumbersome and off-putting for the end-user. What does “Velocity 72” actually mean from Manufacturer A’s snare drum controller, at a sensitivity setting B, via drum brain C triggering sample D?
Essentially, you run into something of an Uncanny Valley effect (a term from the world of movies / games where, as computer generated graphics moved from obviously artificial 8-bit pixel art to today’s motion-captured, super-sampled cinematic epics, paradoxically audiences would in some cases be less satisfied with the result). So it’s certainly a necessary step to get expressive hardware and software talking to one another – and MPE accomplishes that very nicely indeed – but it’s not sufficient to guarantee that a patch will result in a satisfactory, believable playing experience OOTB.
Some sound-synth-controller-player combinations will be fine, others may not quite live up to expectations, but right now I think it’s natural to expect that it may be a bit hit-and-miss. Feedback on this is something I’d like to actively encourage, we have a great dialogue with the other hardware vendors and are keen for to achieve a high standard of interoperation, but it’s a learning process for all involved.
Thanks, Angus! I’ll be playing with Cypher2 and seeing what I can do with it – but fascinating to hear this take on synths and control mapping. More food for thought.
That headline isn’t a mistake. If you’ve ever wanted a plug-in to f*** up your mixes, sabotage you, insult you, or “get passive aggressive,” this free collection of Max for Live Devices is for you.
Not to completely spoil the results here, but as I write this, my screen is covered with virtual bees. I cannot make the bees go away. I thought the “bees” instrument was going to make some sounds, but instead it has brought bees onto my screen, both inside and outside Ableton Live.
That’s the sort of results you can expect from Really Useful Plugins.
ru.bomb will take your mix and completely f*** it up, as my headline promises.
ru.no is basically an onscreen version of the nagging doubts inside your head.
That is way too much f***ing reverb.
And that’s just the beginning.
Simon Kitmine and David Synth bring you 12 instruments, audio effects and midi effects for Ableton Live, featuring:
Ways to magically sound like everyone else!
The Chuckle Brothers!
Reverbs can mimic real spaces (precisely or loosely), or sound like springs, or sound like thickened delays. Luminance goes somewhere else: unreal, shimmering spaces full of glimmering reflections. And it’s already taking off.
Shimmer-y reverbs are perhaps a zeitgeist now, as developers return to digital effects and new twists on those ideas. From the team formerly at CamelAudio, we saw ChromaVerb in the Logic Pro X 10.4 update at the start of this year, and a couple of Max for Live devices have gone a similar direction.
Luminance has the advantage of sounding unique, utterly beautiful, and with a clear, simple interface – one that lets you dial in just the amount of effect you want, while always producing lovely results. It’s probably the most accessible take I’ve seen on the idea, and the results sound modern and fresh without being too unfamiliar.
In short: it’s some dreamy sauce you can add easily to anything. And that may explain its runaway sales. Mac-only developer Sinevibes has a strong following, but this particular plugin, the developer told us, has already far exceeded any other launch, even in its first 24 hours in the world.
Here’s how Artemiy describes it:
Luminance is a plugin for creating “shimmer reverb” effects – unreal acoustic space simulations which gradually pitch-shift the reverberation tail. It’s a novel take on this coveted effect, here based on a modern “feedback delay network” design with high-quality interpolation – plus quite a few original tricks such as phase-inverted time modulation, special configurations for damping and signal blending. All this gives Luminance a fresh and highly musical character: it smoothly follows the original melodies and harmonies and creates a lush background sound layer reminiscent of a dreamy symphony of strings or pipe organs. And to ensure highest possible day-to-day usability, Luminance has an easy-to-understand set of finely-tuned parameters.
There’s a really nice demo video that gets the point across (probably also helped sales):
An update since launch has added compatibility fixes all the way back to Mac OS X 10.6 – there’s something you don’t hear often these days.
Universal Audio have dropped another of their semi-annual releases of high-end digital sound toys. And this one is revealing of how studio production is becoming more accessible. Plus, you get to steal Bill Putnam’s mic collection. Well, virtually.
A handful of players in this space always stand out – the likes of Universal Audio, WAVES, Eventide, Softube, Soundtoys, and more recently Slate Digital are all competing to give you clever digital emulations of studio gear. These tools command premium prices, at least compared to the stuff bundled with your DAW, but they also deliver results that can match massively expensive studio access or used equipment. UA’s value proposition has always been tying its stuff to hardware. And on audio interfaces in particular, that has advantages, like real-time tracking (no latency!) and gain behaviors that act more like the real thing.
The thing is, while these things aren’t terribly cheap, they’re also not outside the budget of a lot of producers. So developers now find themselves appealing to both seasoned producers and engineers – even those with a fair number of hours on the original equipment, or maybe a Grammy or two in the closet – alongside musicians who have decided to pretend they know what the knobs do. (Trust me, I’ve been in that latter category – I feel you.)
This could go horribly wrong. You could get a giant knob that says “make more loud.” But oddly enough, if you maintain a commitment to sound and ease of use can make both groups happier. The absolute beginner still wants stuff that sounds like their favorite records. And the person who produced those favorite records is the least likely to have time to deal with unfriendly user interfaces. (We’re all getting older. Yeah, those producers even often use presets – of course, because they know what the presets actually do and how to adjust them to taste.)
So, all of that is to say, I have to notice the Century Tube Channel Strip looks a lot simpler than a lot of high-end channel strips.
Century Channel Strip – hardware-style controls and behavior, simple UI, classic sound, and works in real-time with UA’s audio interfaces.
One singular channel strip
It’s actually ridiculously simple. But funny enough, that simplicity comes from UA’s experience with modeling decades of vintage gear, which in the days of analog circuits and higher per-component prices (to say nothing of real knobs instead of computer screens), tended to economize.
So it just looks like one channel strip with a vintage-style tube microphone preamp, equalizationfor sound shaping, and dynamics control (a compressor/limiter). It’s skeuomorphic – sorry Jony Ives – but with the general effect that things are easier to see and relatable in a general sense to hardware you may have used before.
One plug-in just does the bulk of what you need, in one interface. This contrasts with Arturia’s (completely excellent, by the way) “Preamps You’ll Actually Use,” which have sprawling UIs – here, the model is still vintage gear, but the controls are far simpler.
UA wants to do more than say you can use this with their real-time tracking. They want to tell you why:
You’ll use real-time tracking so you’re more likely to get the sound you want on the first take, as you play/sing, and then keep that take without second-guessing it.
At EUR/USD 149, this looks like an instant hit for UA owners, and with the Apollo Arrow a lower-cost, more portable hardware entry, I think the combination could be grand.
Vintage mics, in the box
The other nice news in this update is the Bill Putnam microphone collection. That’s Bill Putnam, Sr., the legendary engineer without whose contributions modern recording is hard to imagine. And yes, apart from being the guy who founded UA, Mr. Putnam worked with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Ray Charles.
So, here’s the cool part: now you can track through models of his actual mics, including the Telefunken Ela M 251E, AKG C12A, Neumann U47, RCA 44, and others, with all the controls over proximity and pattern, before or after the fact.
Again, UA have a case for making you spend more on their software and combined hardware, because the payoff is that you can get near-zero latencies and hear the effects as you work. Computers could pull that off, but until they do so reliably, you’ve got this.
The magic of this working is all the work of the Townsend Labs Sphere L22 microphone. Short, non-engineering explanation – that mic picks up everything, so that then software can model the unique frequency and spatial response of a particular mic.
Just get ready: the list price of the L22 is US$1,799. Hey, you want a bunch of classic mics, you’re going to have to pay for one good mic.
That UI means you can choose the behavior of the mics, virtually. Just don’t smoke, kids. Bill Putnam, Sr. (pictured at right) smoked, and he’s not alive any more.
Also out in this release is a Suhr PT100 amplifier. That’s notable not only for the Suhr moniker, but also plug-in effects capabilities included – syncable lo-fi delay, noise gate, tight and smooth filters and power soak, plus a preamp. And yes, there’s a bypass switch – thank you. I’m… mostly eager to try this one on drums. I’ll get back to you on that! US$149.
Plus, from Brainworx, there’s the rather nice all-in-one analog-style mastering chain bx_masterdesk, at $299. Also notable for Arrow users, the DSP usage on this will work on just one DSP chip. Brainworx makes some great stuff; there’s a ton of competition for mastering, but this still looks like a solid option.
We’ve seen lots of new controllers that are designed to be more responsive to gestures. But can they actually make new sounds, to match? ROLI and FXpansion have a new soft synth that’s designed for that.
It’s called Cypher2, and it builds on the past (award-winning, no less) software instruments from FXpansion, but now built from scratch so that you can access all those deep sound parameters just by moving your hands – not only by messing around with on-screen parameters.
And it sounds lovely:
ROLI have joined smaller makers like Madrona Labs, Roger Linn Instruments, and others in making new controllers that respond to more than just plucking keys or hitting drum pads. But the London-based company sets itself apart with something else – funding. So they’ve got Pharell Williams as a creative office, partnerships with the likes of Apple retail, and they bought up some of the unique, weird talent that makes music technology – including plug-in developer FXpansion, who also call London home. (That buyout took place in 2016.)
Now, when Apple go buy a plug-in maker, you can bet you’ll watch its products become exclusives for Logic and GarageBand. But when ROLI buy someone, you instead get interoperable software that takes advantage of ROLI’s forward-thinking instruments.
Translation: now when you prod and slide about the squishy keys of a ROLI Seaboard RISE or Seaboard Block, you can make fabulous sounds. Dig into your computer screen, and you can shape those sounds yourself.
And now that expressive control is part of MIDI (in the form of a protocol called MPE), this software sees both host support (Bitwig Studio, Cubase) and hardware support beyond just what ROLI make (like the Linnstrument, if you like).
ROLI and FXpansion call these sounds “5D,” but that is to say, many aspects of the sound are there underneath your hands. And that’s of course the way of things with acoustic instruments – even the acoustic piano responds with nuanced sound to the ways you press and release keys, even if this has been grossly simplified in the piano as represented in digital form.
This isn’t the first ROLI synth, but if you weren’t won over by Strobe2 and Equator, Cypher2 offers a bunch of new sound horizons and what ROLI say are the largest-ever bank of MPE-specific sounds. And you get a rich set of physically modeled and analog modeled sounds, producing lots of organic sounding instruments that are both familiar and futuristic.
I mean, it just sounds great. It’s been a while since I was this interested in a soft synth – and to me it’s the first new soft synth to really get excited about using MPE.
And if you want a cheaper / more portable solution, yes it works with the Blocks line, too:
Specs: VST, AAX, AU, Mac, Windows, 64-bit.
Cost: “$199 (£159, €179) on fxpansion.com. Existing owners of DCAM Synth Squad, Strobe2, a ROLI Seaboard or BLOCKS can purchase Cypher2 at a discounted price of $79 on fxpansion.com until 7th September 2018, or for $99 thereafter.”
What’s inside? Modeled analog circuitry and FM, deep modular-style synthesis capabilities, and loads and loads of modulation – again, normally stuff you’d find only on big modular rigs, but here with all the conveniences and powers of digital.
It’s kind of an in-the-box producer’s dream, only now made more accessible to actually playing that depth with controllers.
Modulate the master sequencer with 3 mod sequencers and an expanded control matrix
Improved interface with real-time animated modulation, full signal flow visuals and preset descriptions
Default MIDI CC mappings for both 2D and 5D controller types
6 circuit-modelled filter types, each with a varied set of responses, including a comb filter model with 8 comb types
Scalable interface for 4K/retina screens with a variety of themes
LFOs are expanded with clock-divided sub-LFOs for synchronisation or free-running modulation
Updated envelope shapes for precise control
Feed your creativity with preset morphing and randomisation
Support for microtonal Scala .TUN files
Full hands-on coming soon, as well as a chat with FXpansion guru Angus Hewlett.
“What would Bob Moog do” is normally a tough question to answer – but not so with the Minimoog. We know exactly what Dr. Moog thought would improve the Minimoog – and that’s all the more reason to try it for free on your Mac or Windows machine.
Robert Moog was principle designer of the 2002 Minimoog Voyager, the instrument that brought the Moog name back to life. And here’s the thing: while the original was a classic, and maybe is worth experiencing in its “pure” form, it’s possible to recommend the Voyager as a genuine improvement.
Apart from preset storage (you wimps), the Voyager maintains the original Minimoog architecture but allows deeper access to sound design. So there’s a dedicated LFO, so you have a modulation source. There are two dedicated modulation buses, allowing you to shape the sound. You get separate envelopes for filter and amplitude.
And all of these features are recreated on Blamsoft’s VK-1 Viking synth. (Available as a VST2 plug-in, compatible with macOS 10.11 or newer and 64-bit Windows XP or newer.) Now, whether this is the best Minimoog emulation ever is perhaps besides the point. It sounds great – enough so that I don’t mind just saving time doing an elaborate A/B comparison, and would get straight to music. It adds all the Voyager features. And, oh yeah, they let you set the price you want to pay.
That’s great. You can actually try this as an instrument, then support the developer with the amount of money you’ve got, not the amount of money they think you should have.
If you’re a Reason user, the VK-1 is also available as a (still very reasonably-priced) 59 $/EUR Rack Extension – which is great, because then you get all the advantages of Reason. They’ve also completed a big update, version 1.5:
Synth Anatomy just went through a nice video tour:
You get 228 presets, but honestly, this thing is really fun to program – thanks to the LFO and two modulation buses. You can choose drive modes for the filter, which escalates the ladder filter from kinda normal to kinda awesome. An there’s enough modeling of instability to make this thing feel alive.
Now, someone needs to make a nice iPad touch template for it – Bob unintentionally predicted the iPad with the Voyager’s X/Y modulation panel, right?
Here are a bunch of sound examples from the developer:
But if those don’t appeal to you musically, a nice little community has formed around the VK-1 with tons of other music made just with this one synth.
I’d been often returning to Native Instruments’ Minimoog-inspired synth Monark – especially now that it has a Reaktor Blocks edition, so you can break it apart and use it as modules. But it’s really nice having the architectural additions of the Voyager, and the pay-what-you-will nature of the VK-1 makes it ideal for exchanging projects with others.
If you don’t have a studio, four cellists, amps and recording equipment plus an engineer handy, try this — it’s free.
“Amplified Cello” is the latest instrument in the ongoing LABS series from our friends at Spitfire Audio, a boutique sample house in the UK. They promised some more “experimental” content, after the soft piano and strings and drums, and here you go.
Not only do these cellos get routed through amps for extra edge, but Spitfire founder Christian Henson and engineer Harry Wilson actually did that processing live during recording – cellos in one room, tracking through the amps in another.
But what really makes this interesting to play around with is, they’ve put a bunch of different articulations and gestures in the library. My graduate level musicology education here wants to use words like glissandi and tremolo, but actually, their words “evil,” “wobbly,” and “tension” are both more descriptive of the music and, let’s be honest, truer to our lives sometimes.
And there’s quite a selection:
Now, LABS are really easy and fun to play with, but here we do run up against a limitation: there are a bunch of different samples for various articulations here, and you can only get at them one at a time. Do try out the minimalist controls, as they have more of an impact on the result. It might also be worth setting up a multi-instrument to play with these. (Might get back to you on that!)
These minimal controls may confuse long-time sample users, but – don’t think too much; have a play.
To install, as before you head to the LABS page, login or register, and then click “GET” for each library you want. You can then choose where your plug-ins go, where to store the sample content (as on an external drive), and then download from the Spitfire app:
That app also has updates for Spitfire’s other LABS instruments.
Spitfire’s audio app has also improved. You can finally set a default path for VST2 (essential on Windows) and choose default install paths and plug-in paths, plus log in automatically.
I’m still surprised at readers’ resistance to these sorts of apps, but I’m guessing that means you’ve had a bad experience with some developers. (That part, I understand.) This app for me is reducing frustration, not adding to it, and I’ve tried on both Mac and Windows machines.
Software modulars are the new hardware modulars. And a steeply discounted summer sale from Softube might mean it’s time to reconsider their offering.
Softube Modular is a beautiful, complete emulation of modular tools on a computer screen. It’s demanding – you’ll want a recent computer with decent specs and updated software – but stable. The problem is, even though it’s a lot cheaper than buying “Eurocrack” hardware, I suspect the price turned some off. A hundred bucks is actually a great deal for a bunch of modules in software, but then some add-on modules cost nearly as much as just the base platform. And a lot of users may already have something like Reaktor already installed, with its free user library, or the free VCV Rack and its free and inexpensive add-ons.
But wait a minute – now all those prices are slashed for summer, presumably because normal people in the northern hemisphere are out, like, at the beach or something.
And now it’s worth giving Modular a second look. US$89 is great; $45 is must-buy. And some of those lavish modules you might have thought were out of reach start to look tempting, too.
So here’s why you might want to think about Modular, even with other offerings available.
All those modules are available virtually, via a friendly selector.
It’s the most stable, polished software, coming closest to the hardware experience. Nothing comes this close to hardware, down to the Doepfer modules that defined the Eurorack format. And while Reaktor is also stable and mature, it doesn’t have front panel patching or other expected modular features. VCV Rack is wonderful, but it’s also a bit of a Wild West of weird developer modules, constant updates, and frequent development. (In some sense, maybe it should be that way, as the open source and experimental offering – but then Softube is worth investigating when you need something stable and reliable.) And tools like Pd and SuperCollider are just, well, geekier and more DIY. (Also nice, but a different experience.)
It’s got all the basics. This isn’t in Reaktor or VCV. Doepfer’s modules are vanilla, but by design – they’re ideal for learning synthesis and getting creative with your actual patch rather than the module designer doing it for you. In addition to Softube’s built in utility modules for dealing with clock and control signal and MIDI and the like, you also get the full range of Doepfer essentials. (A-110-1 VCO, A-108 VCF, A-132-3 Dual VCA, A-140 ADSR, A-118 Noise/Random, A-147 VCLFO, A-114 Ring Modulator)
There’s full plug-in support. VST, VST3, Audio Unit, and AAX Native formats for Mac and Windows mean you can drop it in your existing DAW.
You can set it up for live performance. There are a lot of interface details that make this, bar none, the easiest-to-use computer implementation of modular environment – and arguably far easier and more convenient than actual hardware. (Ducks) But one of the most important is the ability to design your own performance panels and consolidate lots of parameters into a few – essentially combining the performance friendliness of desktop synths with the patchability of modular.
It might be worth splurging on deluxe add-ons. It’s a bit funny to buy a software module for the price of a decent, say, guitar pedal in the real world. But if Softube wanted our money, they sure picked some nice ones – Mutable Instruments Clouds, the Buchla 259e Twisted Waveform Generator, and the gorgeous 4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator (SMR) are on a lot of our “if I only had money” hardware wishlist. So whereas the prices might have stopped you before, now at $29, $69, and $35, respectively, you might change your mind. (There are some fine Intellijel offerings, too.)
There’s integrated hardware control with NI and ROLI gear. Support for Native Instruments’ NKS format means you can dial up presets and parameter controls – with on-screen text labels – on both the Komplete Kontrol and Maschine. (Maschine might be ideal, actually, because it also includes handy scene and pattern support, making Softube viable live.) ROLI’s Seaboard RISE – the squishy futuristic keyboard – might seem bonkers when you just want to play a grand piano solo, but out-of-box support here with modulars totally makes sense, too.
Softube have equipped some of their other tools to run inside Modular. Buy Softube’s EQ tools or their lovely Heartbeat drum synth, and you can use them in the Modular environment, too.
All in all, it’s a lovely package; I hope to spend more time in the rest of summer and fall diving in myself, so I’ll try to write y’all back if I can tear myself away from the patches. (Uh oh.)