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News - January 2007

Native Instruments Absynth 4                                      (Audiomidi, January 2007)

A Little Review…

I am reviewing version 4 of Absynth; to get the deep panorama of the program’s nuts and bolts, I recommend reading Richard Zvonar’s excellent and comprehensive review of Abysnth 3.

For those who would like a quick once-over, read on: Absynth is described by Native Instruments as a “semi-modular” (that term that gets my programming juices flowing!) synth. There are 3 channels which have 3 modules each: an oscillator module (always first in line in the Patch Window), then 2 modules, each of which can be configured as filter, mod (ringmod or frequency shifter) or waveshaper (the input signal is given the character of one of a variety of waveforms; the resultant sound can get real abrasive). The 3 channels are then routed through 2 master modules (choice of filter, mod or waveshaper) and an effects module, which offers the choice of pipe, multicomb, multitap, echoes, or resonators. There are 14 filter types, an envelope page (a lot of programming and modulation possibilities – not your father’s EG), an intense and very programmable LF0 page (with 3 LFOs), a wave drawing page, macro controller editing, and a well-designed browser page. The envelopes, which in many ways are Absynth’s most unique feature, can have multiple breakpoints added, and can be used to create motion sounds.
As I started playing with Absynth 4, I was immediately reminded (on the hardware synth end of things) of the sound of Waldorf Microwave and Q synthesizers, as well as Kurzweil’s VAST series, with some Kawai K5000 thrown in: lots of airy, fat, grainy, smooth, metallic AND sweet sounds. A lot of opposites in the description here, to be sure, but that’s the magic of Absynth 4.

Figure 1. Stand-alone version Browser Window

So, What’s New?

…since Version 3? Well, the first noticeable thing is the updated, more-streamlined GUI. First up: there is now a KORE-ready Sound Browser (1200 sounds come with the program). A “File Tree View” browser is on the left hand side or the screen, complete with the old Absynth 3 presets, brand-new version 4 presets, a folder for your own sounds, and a favorites folder. The patch list has the date of the last modification, a rating system, a color selection (a small rectangular button that defaults to white; you can pick from a selection of 10 colors to categorize them visually), and the patch author. Sounds created in Absynth are referred to as KoreSounds (.ksd), as they can be loaded by NI’s KORE application. This new organizing of Native Instrument’s patch names in their soft synth products is really a brilliant idea, and if you decide to use the optional KORE hardware controller live or in the studio, the hands-on aspect of the knobs will help to speed up the sound selection process, not to mention navigating around other KoreSound libraries that may be on your computer.

At the top of the screen is the Navigation Bar, which contains the Window Selection Area: here you pick which of Absynth’s eight windows to call up: browser, perform, patch, effect, attributes, wave, envelope, and LFO. Next to this is a CPU meter, input and output meters, and a panic button. The standalone version has a record button that calls up a sequencer capable of recording up to 10 minutes of music. Different tracks can be overdubbed, but there is no way to edit them individually. The more overdubs, the quieter the original tracks become. The result can be saved as an AIFF file. If you don’t go overboard on the number of tracks, this could be a quick way to create your own loop library.

At the bottom of the screen is a keyboard, pitch wheel, hold button, and sustain pedal button. The sustain pedal button, like its hardware counterpart, will sustain all pitches as they are clicked on the keyboard while the hold button is selected. Handy when editing sounds without having an actual MIDI keyboard around.

The browser works like this: click the “sounds” button, and then 5 columns of “attributes” appear. The first column, “Instrument”, gives you a broad list of instrument types: piano/keys, organ, synth, soundscapes, etc. Pick one of these, then on to “source”, which will give more of a description of the instrument type: acoustic, electric, physical model, big, processed, etc. Then there is “timbre”, or tone: high, low, distorted, soft, muted, etc. After that, “articulation”, or how the sound moves from attack to finish (if there is indeed an end to some of the evolving soundscapes…). Finally, “genre”, a choice of musical styles: film music, house, industrial, jazz, etc. This browser would work great in any synth program, but in a program like Absynth, where the patches have names like “Aleatoric”, “Corallix” and “Devine Working Rework”(and strange, ambient tones to match), narrowing down on the different characteristics can be a time saver in a studio recording, stage or other deadline-oriented situation.

Another new feature: Wave Morphing. In an oscillator module, select a Morph Wave (as opposed to a simple wave) in the waveform selection menu, then click on “new” (as in create a new wave), which will then create a new morph wave based on the characteristics of the original selection (which have descriptions like vocal, formantique, LFO stepper, abrasive formants, etc). When that transpires, you are whisked to the “Wave” page, with a diagram of the 2-morph waves and the ensuing composite wave showing. There you can toggle between varying amounts of each wave to create your hybrid “Frankenwave.” There are anchor points (shown in Fig. 2 as “A and B”), which are akin visually to markers in your DAW, and are used to change the curve of the resultant morphed waves. There is a Spectrum window that allows altering the amplitude and phase of the harmonics of the wave, and a transform menu with nifty editing tools like reverse, filter, fractalize, FM, etc. The transform menu also allows you to save your edits as a template, load templates, and import audio files. The Wave Morph can be controlled by Macro Controls, which we will look at later.

Fig. 2 Wave Morph.

Another new feature is the “Sync Granular Mode,” found in the waveform menu of the oscillator module. The difference between the “standard” Granular Mode and the Sync Granular Mode is thus: the Granular Mode works with samples from your hard drive, whereas the Sync Granular Mode imports waves from the waveform library. The waveform is divided in to grains, creating a “grain cloud,” then reconstituted. There is a balance control (how much of the original waveform we hear, versus the grains), density (how the grains overlap), scatter (just like a buckshot pattern…) It has an almost a noise-like quality, good for creating blowing sounds, a little chiff on the edge of a reed sound, that type of thing.

There is a sample library of over 400 samples to draw on for the sample and granular modes. These include various drum samples, voices, guitars, soundscapes, a broad variety for your sound sculpting pleasure. I loaded a couple into the arrange window of Logic Pro. These are sampled as one shot, so not useful for traditional orchestral type playing (in the case of woodwinds and other “tonal” instruments), as they are not multi-samples mapped across the keyboard. The sound effects and percussion hits are quite good. Where the samples really shine in Absynth: being exploded into grains or other such mayhem. There is a bank with multisample waves that can be used when programming envelopes that are designed to play further into the sample, etc.

In the effects section, the Resonators now have distortion. The Resonator effect is actually 3, wherein you create different hall reverb and delay settings. The three types of what NI calls resonating bodies are: natural, resonant and synthetic. The new distortion parameter is more of the digital kind, similar to the type found in a synth like the Access Virus or Novation Xio. This does not have the all out crunch and destruction of a guitar amp or of some of the sound-mangling processors on the market, but it can get pretty gnarly, and comes in handy when yer feelin’ some rudeness coming on.

The Audio Mod feature is a powerful new goodie in the Perform Window. As defined by NI’s online tutorial (an excellent resource to get you up and running, by the way): Audio Mod “…has four envelope followers that derive a control signal from an audio signal’s amplitude envelope.” The modulation sources are any of the oscillators or modules from the Patch Window (that is filter, mod, waveshaper); the destination can be multiple parameters. The parameter list is huge, and includes the functions in the modules from the Patch Window, plus the 3 LFOs’ wave morph, depth, rate, and SH (sample and hold) rate. Audio Mod is a place you can park yourself for hours…or more. You can run external audio into an oscillator, and proceed to whack it out in the Audio Mod page. Lots of tonal madness can be had; it’s easy to start with one objective, and go…somewhere else. I loaded an acoustic drum loop sample into an oscillator, made that oscillator the modulation source in the Audio Mod, and by the time I was finished, there was no remnant of a drum sound to be found, at least, not an acoustic-sounding one. Audio Mod also has a Trigger Module: run external audio into Absynth, and you can set it to trigger a MIDI note. Any of the modules from the Patch Window can be set as the Trigger Module.

Control Freak

Macro Controls is a welcome new addition to Absynth. There are 16 of these, and they are set to work with the KORE hardware controller. They can be remapped to any controller keyboard. I say 16, in that they may be configured as 16 sliders, or pairs of controllers forming up to 8 X/Y pads. One of the features that drew me to my Korg Z1 keyboard back in 1998 (it was released in ’97) was the X/Y pad, and that has remained one of my favorite controllers to this day. Being able to manipulate harmonic frequency of a filter module, with, say, the echo feedback from the effect module with the X/Y pad is really cool, especially if you map the 2 axis to controllers 16 and 17 and use an actual hardware X/Y pad. Love my Z1! Easy to get lost in control heaven; I also used knobs on a Supernova to do the same thing. You can’t beat having an X/Y pad for working the software equivalent, but adjacent knobs on a control keyboard will work just fine. I mapped sliders and knobs on the Supernova to the Macro Control sliders, and they responded quickly and smoothly.

Both Audio Mod and Macro Controls will be of great use to film composers and ambient music lovers. The only problem for the composers is watching the clock because of the deadline, and you can get lost playing here…A lot of TV and film stuff has esoteric, ambient sounds pulsating in the score. Absynth 4 can deliver the goods here, and with the controller programming and the Audio Mod function, you can veer off the path easily (especially when mapping controllers to your hardware) to find something different and mysterious. Having alternate libraries is good for having choices, but the control over the sound in Absynth can take you far away from the original preset’s sound, and perhaps into the exotica needed for your track, without looking in those libraries. Twist those knobs!

And the envelope, Master

There is now a Master Envelope now for shaping the overall sound. When mapped to a controller keyboard’s knobs or sliders, you can adjust the attack, decay, sustain and release characteristics of the overall sound quickly in performance, rather than navigating the Envelope Window for each oscillator amplitude and filter envelope, etc. Speaking of the Envelope Window, multiple breakpoints (up to 68) can be added to any envelope. The Master ADSR knobs can be mapped to breakpoints for easy control. The Envelope Window is in many ways the heart of Absynth; a detailed explanation can be found in the Absynth 3 review.

Fig. 4 Expand to Rhythm

A new feature, Expand to Rhythm, has been added in the transform menu in the Envelope Window. First you should click on “grid”; its resolution can be 8th, 16th, or 32nd notes. When “Expand to Rhythm” is selected in the transform menu, a submenu pops up offering the choice of waveform, the number of beats, BPM, BPM duration control, and pattern (numbered squares are setup – select or deselect, kind of like an “old school” step sequencer).

“Generate AR Pulse” is a similar function. Attack and release points are generated in the envelope, with control over the number of beats, BPM, duration, attack, amplitude, and slope between breakpoints. Like its name suggests, pulsing rhythms are the result, similar to turning on the repeat switch in the mode section on the panel of a Sequential Pro One. More complexity in Absynth, of course; you can begin with a simple repeating pattern, start moving breakpoints, change the slope between breakpoints, etc.

Installation, etc.

Installation of Absynth 4 was quick; at the end of the process the NI Service Center was launched for registration purposes. This takes you into NI’s site, assigns you a user name and password, and keeps you up-to-date on your registrations (of Absynth and any other NI programs you might own) and update downloads. This is a welcome alternative to using a dongle. In any case, the registration was fast, and I was off and tweaking. The computer I used was an Apple G4 dual 1.25GHz CPU with 2GB ram. The DAWs were Apple Logic Pro with a MOTU 828mkII, and Pro Tools M-Powered with an M-Audio Firewire 410. While this machine was smoking hot when I got it in 2003, 2007 is a different story. The Mac started to balk after 5 instances of Absynth 4 on Logic Pro version 7.1.1. Before using Pro Tools M-Powered, I downloaded the new version 7.3; it is supposed to have improved handling of audio instruments, among many other features. As I started recording with Absynth 4, glitches started happening in instance 5. Not bad for an “old” machine…generally speaking, I find Logic Pro less of a CPU hog than PT Le. In any case, mixing down to audio, or using track freeze in Logic Pro enabled me to use more instances of Absynth and keep composing.

The manual is pretty good; it could stand to be more detailed, but what is there is lucid and seems to cover everything. The online tutorial is very basic, but well worth a look. I had no issues with Absynth to contact NI about, but in the past they have been very quick to respond on the email front (no later than the next day).

Tweaker's Delight

In C.S. Lewis’s novel, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” young Edmund encounters the White Witch in the icy, wintry world of Narnia, and asks her for the candy Turkish Delight. I’ve read comments online about Absynth having an icy sound…and it does, and does it well. But in addition to stark, icy tones, you also get full, rich, warm, mysterious soundscapes….etc., etc., etc. There is a robust amount of parameters to go crazy with, and hours of deep programming to be had. As a working composer, I find that Absynth is a must-have tool with a very unique character, useful for many applications from the subtle to the outrageous. Download the demo from Native Instruments site: after tasting this goodie, you won’t want Turkish Delight from a mythical kingdom, but instead, Tweakers Delight here in the real world. Absynth 4 will fill that need, and fill it abundantly.


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