If I ask you to imagine a synthesizer, the chances are that either you’ll think of an oblong box housing a plastic keyboard, various knobs, buttons and sliders, or you’ll think of the virtual software equivalent…though if you’re of a certain vintage…and still have the flares…(but no longer have the hair) to prove it, you might just imagine racks of electronic modules connected together with a spaghetti like jumble of patch leads, that looks more like the deranged experiment of some mad physicist, than a musical instrument, as, prior to the advent of the ‘integrated synthesizer’, that’s pretty much what a synthesizer was.
There were no factory preset sounds…because there was no memory in which to store them…and even if there had been, it wouldn’t have done much good because, unlike integrated keyboard synths, which, with a couple of notable exceptions, had internally hard wired signal paths, ‘modular synthesizers’ were synths made up of individual modules, each of which performed a specific task, e.g. an…EG (envelope generator), LFO (Low Frequency Oscillator), filter, 8 step sequencer, etc. If you wanted a sequence of 8 notes to be sent to an oscillator, via an envelope generator and then to a filter, you would have to physically patch together four different modules, using patch leads…which is how the library programs in synths later came to be known as patches.
The advantage these modular synths had over the integrated synthesizers that largely replaced them, was that you had complete freedom to create whatever kind of system architecture and sounds you wanted…provided you had the time…the budget…the patch leads…the modules…and an aircraft hanger in which to house your monophonic wonder…the disadvantage…well just imagine trying to find the dodgy patch lead…or going busking with your synth…
As we all know, integrated hardware synths were, in turn, eclipsed by virtual software based synths and at the forefront of soft synth technology are Native Instruments, who have brought things full circle with their modular soft synth ‘Reaktor‘….though calling Reaktor merely a modular soft synth, is like calling me merely Jewish, because just like I’m exponential to Jews…and everyone else…Reaktor is exponential to analogue modular synths…and most other electronic instruments…soft and hard.
For starters, unlike the modular synths of old, which offered only a limited number of different modules, Reaktor offers several hundred…and we’re not just talkin’ analogue synthesizer modules…there’s FM synthesis, samplers, effects units, granular (re)samplers, sequencers, oscilloscopes, mixers, tuners and even an entire library of prebuilt instruments that includes everything from weird ambient space drone machines to lush/harsh synthesizers and radikool grooveboxes…in short, almost every kind of sound creation/manipulation device, instrument, module, switch, button, knob and slider you can imagine…and if you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can build your own, then add them to the library for later use/reuse/sharing.
If you can
hum it imagine it, Reaktor will (pretty much) let you build it, from the simplest one oscillator mono synth or chorus effect, to weapons of mass sonic destruction (subject only to the constraints of your computer’s available power)…it will even allow you ‘skin’ your creations, letting you to change colour schemes and import your own graphics.
Creating an instrument/effects unit/module is relatively straightforward and involves two different windows, one named ‘structure’, the other named ‘panel’. Using a hierarchical menu, you place ensembles/modules/controllers/effects/whatever in the Structure window, then connect them together by dragging virtual cables between them.
This window is little more than a flowchart, sporting basic grey boxes with labels and i/o ports. As you place things in it, fancy shmancy graphics appear in the ‘Panel’ window…not, as you might imagine, neatly laid out next to each other…but stacked on top of each other…you then have to ‘unlock’ the relevant bit of the panel window, drag these graphics apart, rearrange them and ‘relock’ the panel. Oy…such hard work…
Having the facility to arrange front panel elements is cool, but being forced to manually drag everything apart from one big messy pile, is anything but. It would be far better if front panel elements automatically laid themselves out in the Panel window, according to the signal flow you create in the Structure window (naturally with the option to rearrange the front panel if desired). Failing that, even if Panel window elements appeared randomly adjacent to each other…instead of as an amorphous mass, it would still be a big improvement
With hundreds of different modules to choose from, many of which need to be connected in different ways that are not necessarily immediately obvious, it doesn’t help that the Structure window is so basic. Granted, it’s possible to turn on mouse hover ‘tips’, but the when you do, you quickly find out it wasn’t really worth bothering, as the information they provide rarely tells you what you need to know about making connections. So instead, you are forced to either learn every module’s i/o options, inside out, or you must keep referring to the manuals… yup…that’s manuals (plural).
Navigation in the Structure window is also a less than ideal experience and although the addition of a basic zoom in/out tool and proper hover tips would make a world of difference, I reckon that this whole setup is completely back to front. In 2006, I shouldn’t be expected to use a Windows ’95 paradigm of hierarchical menu structures, to create tiny representations of modules, but should be able to drag the actual modules/ensembles/controllers/whatever, in their full graphic glory, direct from a tabbed ‘Modules’ window, to exactly where I want them to appear in my Panel window…and when I do, they should, wherever possible, be automatically and intelligently connected to each other (if necessary, simultaneously appearing in a modernised Structure window), based upon the parameters I set up in my options menu, (unless I’m holding down a tab key whilst dragging, in which case modules should be left unconnected for subsequent manual wiring) in a Reason meets Dreamweaver stylee.
And talking of design applications, though you can ‘skin’ your creations, the provisions for doing so are even more last century. For example, changing the colour scheme requires you to enter RGB values…numerically…and if you want to use your own graphics with alpha transparencies, the only format on offer is Targas…Huh? A) give me a colour palette and picker…and B) hello…everyone is the design world is using PNGs.
If you’re wondering why I’m spending so much time bitching about the design (and interface) side of what is, after all, an audio application, it’s because the audio side of this application can’t be faulted. Put simply, Reaktor 5 is probably the most powerful and flexible plug-in ever made…by anyone, which explains why it’s many sound designer’s tool of choice. But you don’t need to be a sound designer to use it. In fact even if you have no intention of ever designing an instrument, effects unit or module in your life, it’s still a must have, because Reaktor is like having the best of everything NI have to offer in one application. To illustrate the point, it ships with no less than 23 totally diverse and incredibly useful instruments including 4 synths, 4 grooveboxes, 2 sound generators, 2 sample players, 4 sample transformers, 3 effects and 4 sequencers…download the recent 5.1 update (free to registered users) and you’ll bring the total number of pre-built sound generators and effects to a staggering 63…and if that’s still not enough for you, there’s more than 2100 instruments freely available for download to registered users, via NI’s web site. So the bottom line is this…for it’s sonic possibilities, a golden bagel…for its interface (and in particular it’s skinning controls)…a stale bagel…overall…if you only ever buy one plug in, make it Reaktor!
More info: http://www.nativeinstruments.com
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