IN MUSIC, YOU NEED TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE JOB. FM SYNTHESIS
is great at crisp detail, samples are great for realism, analog is great for fatness, and
additive synthesis is great at swirling animation. Sure, you can do “fat” with an FM
synth or “animated” with analog, but that’s the big picture. Rob Papen’s Blade does
additive. It completes the lineup next to Predator (virtual analog), Blue (FM), and
Punch (modeled and sampled drums and percussion). Blade has plenty of supporting
features, including a multimode filter, effects, and a flexible arpeggiator, but its additive
engine is where the action is.
Additive synthesis is a powerful technique. Ultimately,
you get individual control over each partial
in the frequency spectrum of the sound. Trouble is,
that’s a lot of partials. Nobody wants to go crazy
adjusting hundreds of envelope parameters. So
the folks who design additive instruments always
give the user high-level “macro” controls. These
controls shape the sound in useful ways, without
inducing tweakaholic paralysis.
Blade’s oscillator is called the Harmolator.
It’s ridiculously powerful, as you’re about to discover—
but to get the bad news out of the way,
there’s only one. Some other synths, such as
Camel Audio Alchemy (which costs about twice
as much) let you crossfade between two or more
additive sound sources in a single preset.
Blade’s resonant filter has 14 possible modes,
including various rolloff slopes. Stationed before
the filter is a per-voice distortion stage for beefing
up the tone. The distortion has 20 different
modes and a couple of knobs. The filter output
is stereo, with a separation knob that off sets the
left-side cutoff frequency from the right, again
for a richer sound.
Blade has five envelope generators, each with
an extra sustain fade time knob. There are four
LFOs: one for the Harmolator, one for vibrato,
and two general-purpose. Four general-purpose
modulation routings are available, plus two more
just for the Harmolator, plus two more for the
effects. The two effect processors have a choice of
25 algorithms, each with its own set of controls.
|Fig. 1. The Harmolator produces up to 96 harmonics, which can be displayed in the Spectrum panel. Other panes show realtime results of modulating the Harmolator, and the waveform produced by the current harmonic spectrum.|
The most important and interesting feature of
Blade is the X/Y Pad. By clicking and dragging, you
can record a two-dimensional modulation curve.
This curve has separate X (horizontal) and Y (vertical)
outputs, each of which can control numerous
parameters in the Harmolator and filter. X/Y pads
that record mouse moves aren’t exactly new—Native
Instruments Reaktor has had them for years. What’s
unusual about Blade’s pad is that you can edit your
curves (graphically, of course) after recording them.
Each sound preset stores only one curve, but if you
need more kinds of control over the Harmolator,
MIDI controller data can fill the gap.
Blade’s user interface is easy to work with.
Hovering the mouse over any knob displays its
current value in an info bar near the top of the
panel, and double-clicking a knob centers it.
Single knobs or entire modules can be switched
on or off with a single click. There’s room for
a bit of improvement in the preset manager,
which has no way to mark favorites, and organizes
the banks of presets by the author of the
sounds rather than by type (bass, arpeggio,
etc.), thus making it needlessly difficult to find
what you’re looking for.
If you’re new to the theory of harmonics, you
may find the Harmolator tough to grasp. Briefly,
anything our ears hear as a single sound can be
analyzed as a stack of sine waves, each with its
own frequency and amplitude envelope. There’s
a basic pitch, and other sine waves in the stack
are called partials. When the frequencies of the
partials are whole-number multiples of the basic
pitch (the fundamental), we call them harmonics.
[A sine wave is a pure tone with no harmonics of its
own, and sounds like an oversimplified flute. In fact,
the drawbars of a Hammond B-3 organ do very basic
additive synthesis, with each controlling the volume
of a sine wave. —Ed.]
Yes, the Harmolator produces harmonics, and
no, you can’t detune the partials to dissonant,
non-whole-number multiples, but there is a
Spread knob that creates two or three identical
Harmolators and detunes them from one another.
A “Sub” knob can introduce a sine or sawtooth
sub-octave, which you can also tune up or down
by a perfect fourth or fifth. Blade also has chord
memory, which is perfect for those techno-trance
minor-seventh chord stabs.
The Base knob chooses the loudest harmonic,
and the Range knob controls the width of the
spread around the base. You can think of these
two knobs as operating like a bandpass filter,
with the Base controlling the center frequency
and the Range the bandwidth of the filter. The
Symmetry knob “tilts” the range toward the
higher or lower harmonics.
The Timbre knob works with the Timbre
Type menu. The menu has 78 types (frequency
spectra) that boost or cut various combinations
of harmonics. The higher the knob, the more the
sound will change when you choose a different
type from the menu. The Even/Odd knob is a
similar but more basic control, attenuating either
the even-numbered or odd-numbered harmonics.
The Harmonic Shift knob introduces a secondary
portion of the spectrum, which can be
shifted up or down from the Base frequency.
There’s a knob for the volume of this secondary
spectrum. Just before press time, I got a sneak
peek at the Spectrum display (see Figure 1) that’s being added to the 1.0 release.
This gives immediate graphic feedback on what
happens to the harmonics when you twiddle the
knobs, which is extremely helpful.
The X/Y Pad
The idea of the X/Y Pad is simple, but the feature
list is long. Until you understand the Harmolator,
the controls in the pad won’t make a lot of sense,
though you may discover cool sounds just by
The central area is a record/playback surface
for a two-dimensional modulation shape. You can
record this shape by clicking the record button and
dragging with the mouse, or by choosing a shape
(circle, square, line, or spiral) from the right-click
menu. If you use the mouse, Blade will record
not only the shape of your moves, but the speed
changes, so you can mix fast, jittery movements
with long smooth ones in a single curve. As the sound
plays, an animated blob on the X/Y surface will
move around, showing you the current position.
For both the X and Y outputs, you can modulate
up to 12 different sound parameters in various positive
or negative amounts. Nine of the parameters
are on the Harmolator: Base, Range, Timbre, Even/
Odd, and so on. The other three are filter cutoff,
filter resonance, and output volume.
The X/Y shape can play back once per note or
looped (with either one-way or back-and-forth
looping). Each note can have its own instance
of the shape playing back, in which case you’ll
see as many animated blobs as the notes in the
chord you’re playing, all chasing one another
across the surface. Or, the X/Y pad can operate
monophonically, so that all of the voices in a
chord share a single X/Y output. In the latter
scenario, the shape can start over with each new
note, or it can free-run. If it’s free-running, you
can play a line and get a different tone on each
note, which is cool for adding nuance.
The playback speed can be synced to your host
sequencer, and can go as long as 16 or 24 bars
per loop, so a free-running curve can generate
those long modulation curves familiar from electronica.
The Speed knob is independent of the
sync setting, so the actual speed can be faster or
slower than the nominal length of the sync rate.
The speed can also be modulated in real time.
Want more? How about editing? The
modulation curve can be displayed on the X/Y
surface, and you can click and drag to add new
bits to it. There’s room for improvement here,
though. For instance, graphic editing doesn’t
add time to the length of the shape—there
doesn’t seem to be any way to do this—so if you
add, say, a couple of new peaks or dips to the
shape, the sound will zip through them quite
rapidly. But most sound designers will probably
get along fine using either manual recording or
the preset circle and spiral shapes.
To see if Blade could cut it, I recorded a sketch in
Image-Line FL Studio using 11 Blades, plus one
Punch for the drums, and you can hear it online.
The factory sound set is large and inspiring, but
it doesn’t have as many lead sounds as I’d like. A
smooth chorused lead tone complemented my
groove, so I settled for it. By layering two or three
arpeggio patterns or shimmering pads, I got a
couple of rich, animated soundscapes.
Adding a complex mod wheel response to
the bass tone was easy, but doing a long, smooth
fadeout to the final bass note using Blade’s own
envelope generator proved difficult, as its envelope
times seem to be biased toward tight control
of short times. I ended up using FL Studio’s
mixer automation for the fadeout.
Programming a few new presets was great
fun, and I’m sure I’ve barely touched the surface
of what Blade can do. I’ll need a little more time
to understand exactly how the controls in the
Harmolator interact with one another, or how
best to use the X/Y pad in sound design, but I’m
sure it will be fun finding out.
I encountered only one minor bug in the version
1.0 release: Occasionally, when I exited the
preset manager, the front panel wasn’t redrawn
properly. Going back to the preset manager and
then exiting it again got rid of the glitch.
Blade is a deep and well-designed synthesizer,
with more features than we’ve had space to
cover in this review. Its sound palette has a
wonderful and sometimes surprising character.
The Harmolator additive oscillator can’t
detune individual harmonics, and that’s a
limitation, but the features in the Harmolator
are both extensive and useful—and the modulation
possibilities of the X/Y pad invite you to
discover new kinds of sound.
No matter how you slice it, Blade is a worthy
addition to Rob Papen’s already impressive set of
PROS Amazing range of
tone modulation, including
recordable mouse moves.
CONS Only one additive
oscillator. Harmonics can’t
Powerful tools for making rich
sounds with additive synthesis.
$139 list | $119 street