Friday, August 30, 2013

Synthmaster Thumbnail Review

Advertising must work because the ubiquitous banner ads on KVR wore me down and I bought Synthmaster at the eleventh hour just before the 30% off summer sale expired. Since I decided to go 64 bit in my DAW I've been looking for a good 64 bit bread and butter workhorse synth. Believe me, I looked at a LOT of different options. Nothing else seemed to have a good balance of versatility and character.

Speaking of versatility and character - this thing is way beyond bread and butter workhorse territory. CPU usage is low to moderate on most patches, lower than you'd guess from the sounds (some patches can eat a lot of CPU - details below).

And what do you get in return for system resources? Synthmaster has two layers, and each layer has two oscillators, a flexible and easy to program arpeggiator, two filters that can be split between the oscillators or run in series or parallel, a variety of filter modes including an analog sounding lowpass with variable slope, many per-layer envelopes including multi-stage and "2D" ones, LFOs and keyscaling, and per-layer effects and filter saturation. To tie the two layers together there are four global LFOs, a master effects section with flexible bussing and sends for the layers, and a mod matrix. Pretty much every destination can be modulated by every source.

Each oscillator in each layer can be basic - which allows you to load custom waveshapes and comes with tons, including many from classic synths and modulars -  additive, wavescan (think wavetable), vector, and audio-in. Basic mode can also load SFZ patches. Each basic, additive and wavetable oscillator can be AM and FM modulated by four modulator oscillators, each of which can load custom waveshapes (including SFZ!) and be modulated by the other modulators. So that's sixteen (!) FM and AM modulators altogether, four for each oscillator in each layer.

Getting an idea of how massive this monster is? It's almost impossible to describe briefly. You might think this is a "throw everything against the wall and see what sticks" approach, except in this case everything sticks and sounds good and you'll hear this in the demos and presets. However, you don't have to use every ingredient in every patch to make it sound good and full. A simple patch with one osc, one filter and a couple of envelopes and LFOs can sound great on its own, even before adding any effects.

The final trigger that put me in buy mode was Nori Ubukata's vintage sound design. I bought the package that included three expansions and chose the Floyd / Genesis, the Tomita / Wendy Carlos / Jarre and the "art rock basics", the last one giving me all the SFZ-based mellotron I figure I'll ever need. It's not that I'm a huge fan of prog / classic rock but the timbres in these packs are gorgeous and unusually well programmed, and I figure they'll serve as better starting points for warping and twisting than some of the other options on the table. What's that, you say? I'm rationalizing? I didn't have to pay a couple bucks extra for the package deal with three expansion packs? [stands up and points to the door] Out. OUT.

mind = blown

Update a few weeks later: I'm even more enthusiastic about this synth now that I've had some time to explore it in depth. The most remarkable aspect is the sound quality. Doing a few A / B tests with other synth plugs puts many of them to shame. Not gonna name any names, but BIG names. (No, not Reaktor. That is still godly.) Synthmaster has a clarity and presence that works well with other elements in a track, making itself known without adding mud or blowing out the mix.

Having had time to explore the factory patches, I find many of them are as good in their areas as Nori Ubukata's are in the vintage arena. There are lots of lovely and very usable sounds from Aiyn Zahev, Bigtone, Frank Neumann, Michael Kastrup, Insigna, Rob Lee, Xenos and others. The expansion packs are great but you'd have plenty of sounds with just the "factory" package.

I do have some criticisms. The SFZ sampling engine uses more CPU than you'd expect.  One of the reasons I bought Synthmaster was Ubukata's great SFZ based Mellotron patches. I still love those sounds but this area of Synthmaster could do with a little optimization.

More importantly from a sound design perspective, the synth sometimes generates clicks and other artifacts when manipulating the envelope parameters in realtime.  One of the coolest dynamic features of an arpeggiated VA sound is the ability to modulate attack and decay while it's playing so the sound goes from TAKTAKTAK to THUPTHUPTHUPTHUP (not sure if those are the standard ASCII onomatopoeic representations. ;-) ). I hope this gets looked at in an update of Synthmaster.

To sum up:
  • Synthmaster sounds huge and gorgeous, but doesn't muddy up a mix.
  • It will make some of your previously beloved synth plugins sound cheap in comparison. 
  • CPU usage can be anywhere from negligible to high depending on the patch - adjust number of voices and quality (oversampling) if necessary. Many patches sound just fine in draft mode. (more than half of them are already in draft mode by default)
  • A few small bugs but nothing that should hold you back from playing and enjoying this synth
Spend some time with the demo.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Supercollider Video Tutorials

I'm having second, third and fourth thoughts about Supercollider versus Pure Data after listening to some very awesome Supercollider tracks on Soundcloud, like this drone piece -

Also check out these:

Click through on Victor Bombi and listen to ALL of his Supercollider stuff. It's far more "traditionally" musical than a lot of SC creations; he's using his own Lua client to communicate with the Supercollider server. Cool beans.

The amazing Eli Fieldsteel has done a series of up to date video tutorials on Supercollider. Here's a playlist of all 8. Listen carefully - he's a great teacher but there's lots of information in these - if you're like me you'll find yourself rewinding a fair bit. There's no filler here, nothing you can blip over, so put down the phone and the game controller and the coffee and the TV remote.

You can get Supercollider here for Windows, Mac and Linux.

It's GPL so you can't up and embed it in a closed source commercial project but everything else about it is completely tempting. It uses OSC natively, you can network multiple servers on different computers, the language seems expressive... because of the OSC I figure you could design control panels for it in Reaktor. Which would be one way to integrate it with a DAW workflow - have Reaktor running as a plugin sending control signals to SC, and the DAW timeline could do program changes and stuff.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Pure Data and Musical / Sound Quality

Is it just me or are there big differences between the quality of music created by users of Pure Data, Supercollider and Csound? I'd have to put Pure Data at the top, in terms of sound quality and the structure and appeal of music created in it.

This one is actually created in NetPD, a realtime network collaborative framework for Pure Data. Anyhow, I'm looking at open source frameworks for rapid development then eventual incorporation into plugin formats, and in terms of the musicality of the end product, I'd rank Pure Data first, then Supercollider, then Csound. Maybe I'm missing the good stuff but most Csound output I've heard is dreck.

Here's another nice Pure Data creation, this one a little more IDM-y:

I understand there are some problems with global variables that hinder development of VST and AU plugins with libpd but those are being worked on and I'm drawn towards it on the strength of the music it's been used to create.