Native Instruments Molekular reviewed

August 27, 2014
Native Instruments’ Reaktor is arguably one of the most powerful software tools ever to grace the drives of countless producers; its ever-increasing array of sophisticated synths and effects is conclusive proof. From Razor’s ultra-intuitive additive synthesis workflow to Monark’s uncanny similarity to a real Moog, Reaktor is a true beast.
The latest Reaktor-based product is called Molekular, and though it’s not a synthesizer per se, it packs enough MIDI-controlled and truly musical features to warrant the attention of tech-savvy keyboardists and producers everywhere. Molekular is a completely new take on effects processing that has more in common with giant modular synths than any other product out there, and that alone is cause for putting it under the Keyboard microscope.

Molekular is so deep and complex that it’s worth taking a few steps back to look at the big picture before diving into all of its features. For starters, you have four simultaneous DSP modules for processing sounds. Each module specializes in a different area of signal processing. There’s an FFT-centric module, a time-based effect module, a modulation effect module, and a distortion module—each with its own collection of exotic processing modes. The arrangement of these modules can be organized into a dizzying array of both serial and parallel configurations, with extraordinary routing flexibility. And that’s just the signal flow side of things.
On the modulation side, Molekular includes four LFOs, four step sequencers, three triggered envelopes, an envelope follower, and four “logic” processors that combine various modulation inputs (including MIDI messages) to create even more sophisticated results. All of these modulators can be routed to pretty much any effect parameter and/or a complex X/Y vector matrix for morphing your patches.
If your head isn’t spinning yet, then throw in a bunch of dedicated pattern sequencers and the ability to quantize the pitch and timing of any relevant parameter. If Molekular was a synth, it would be absurdly powerful. Instead, it’s a MIDI-controlled, pitch-savvy effects processor that you can route anything into. Pianos, audio tracks, other synths, vocals, drum loops . . . everything is fair game, and the results are almost always mind-blowing.
Now that we have an aerial view of Molekular, let’s zoom in at ground level, starting with its DSP modules. For starters, all four DSP units include five common effects that can be selected, regardless of the module: dual delay, single-band EQ, multimode resonant filter, Metaverb (the same reverb as found in NI’s Maschine), and “level.” The first four effects are pretty self-explanatory, but the Level effect deserves a closer look. At first glance, it’s quite similar to Ableton Live’s Utility device, which includes control over volume, panning, stereo width, and phase. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a nifty integrated 16-step sequencer that offers discrete control over volume and panning, with an additional layer that lets you sequence the gate time of each step. It’s worth noting that Molekular sprinkles this type of amenity throughout its effects, so while there are four global assignable step-sequencers, there are also a number of dedicated ones, depending on the effect.

The first block is dedicated to what NI calls spectral effects. These include FFT tools, as well as more synth-like items like a vocoder and a couple of resonators. The Vokoder effect includes three tunable sawtooth oscillators that serve as the carrier, while the FFT applies the original audio input as the modulator. 
Another standout in DSP 1’s array of tools is the oddly named Plagiarism effect. This option applies an envelope follower to the audio input, which then triggers 16 envelopes that correlate with tunable tone generators that include sine and pulse options. These tunings are also variable. In sine-wave mode, they’re tuned to harmonics. In pulse mode, the tunings align with musical intervals. There are still five more effects in this module alone!
ReSonitarium and Dual Comb are generally similar in sound, with Dual Comb providing two tunable comb filters, while ReSonitarium includes four discrete resonators, each with tuning, delay time, and panning, along with overall brightness and harmonic parameters. These tools are great for juxtaposing dynamic ringing chordal artifacts on rhythmic material like drum hits and percussion loops.
Spektral Hold and Spektral Shift play Fourier games with the input that lean toward the glitchy, experimental side of things, but Spektral Smear is another standout. Without getting super-technical here, it splits the FFT analysis into two audio streams that have individual envelope controls. The end result sounds like a cross between a reverb, a flanger, and a physically modeled resonant cavity. Although it’s tempting to say these sounds are tailor-made for electronic music, they’re equally well suited to modern progressive rock as well as cinematic sound design. 

This module enters more familiar territory with its delay-based tools—or “temporal structure modifiers,” if you prefer NI’s terminology—including several multi-tap modes (up to 16 in the Angel Delay), a granular Cloud delay, and a wonderfully straightforward Dub delay, which does a fantastic job at both analog and tape-style simulations.
On the exotic side, there are Freezer, Iteratron, Reversoid, and Trails effects that cover looping, stuttering and buffer shuffling approaches in a manner that’s similar to iZotope’s StutterEdit and Ableton’s Beat Repeat, but with a more experimental flair, thanks to Molekular’s modulation amenities.
The final DSP 2 model, Ryuchi, was another favorite, with its combination of tempo-synched time and pitch-shifting algorithms. The results here were a lot more direct and intuitive than the other buffer-shuffling tools in this module, with more obvious and musical parameters.

The third DSP module focuses on modulation effects like chorus, flanging, and frequency shifting (which I like as an alternative to phasers for many applications). The chorus is especially lovely, as it includes a triple-tap delay with dual LFOs and phase offsets. I know that sounds technical, but hey, that’s the basic topology of the classic ARP Solina string synth, so if you’ve been looking for that sound, here it is.
The Phlanger effect crossbreeds the tonalities of both phasers and flangers. While the parameters are quite complex, it’s almost impossible to get this module to sound bad. 
The stereo frequency shifter is also implemented beautifully, capable of ’60s-style phasing, Doppler weirdness, or ring modulation-type effects. 
Naturally, there are bunch of cutting-edge processors in here, too, notably Dark Forces with its Demon, Witch, and Zombie modes (essentially four bizarre delay/pitch shifters with modulation), and Half Wave, which applies discrete band-pass filters to each polarity of the audio’s wave cycle.
Back in the real world, there are also excellent pitch-shifters, dual filters, and a Filterbank mode that’s reminiscent of the Moogerfooger MIDI MuRF pedal.

The final DSP module is devoted to distortion, saturation, bit-crushing, and compression, with modes that are optimized for straight-up digital mangling, as opposed to more warm, organic textures.
The two saturation effects—Modulo Fry and Wave Fold—bear a strong resemblance to the results you’d get with Ableton’s Saturator effect: filthy, shredded highs that sound like someone kicked in a speaker and filled it with broken glass. 
Slam Dunk is a compressor that adds new dimensions to the term “brick wall.” If you’re making hard music of any kind, be it rock or industrial, this could be your ticket to redline heaven.
Track OSC tracks both the pitch and dynamics of the input signal, kind of like the Moogerfooger FreqBox, but a lot more predictably.
My favorite of the bunch is Track Pulses, which does some crazy math on the input waveform. (I’ll spare you the details, but it involves flip-flop division and single sample pulses.). It adds a resonant filter and outputs a signal that sounds like a distorted TB-303, no matter what you feed it.

With the certifiably insane DSP blocks covered, let’s dig into how you can manipulate almost every parameter in real time using decidedly more familiar tools.
Molekular’s four LFOs can be approached with a minimum of head-scratching. All of the traditional waveforms are present, along with both Hertz-based and tempo-synced rates. If you dig deeper, there are some simple parameters for warping the waveforms in useful ways, as well as bipolar and unipolar options for each LFO. Assigning LFOs is a painless click-and-drag process, and you can modulate multiple destinations simultaneously from a single LFO’s output.
The three envelopes feature a really cool implementation. Remember, this is an audio processor, so the envelopes here are optimized for effects use, not key triggering. Essentially, each envelope is a simple attack-release affair, with hold time that’s triggered via a TR-808-style step sequencer synced to tempo. This means you can use each one for either triggering effects or LFO-type burbles if you set the attack and release parameters to longer times. Polyrhythms and unusual time signatures are a breeze, since each sequencer can have from one to 16 steps. Want to put one envelope pattern in 7/8 while the rest are in 5/4? Have at it! There’s an envelope follower in here, too, if you want to control specific parameters via the dynamics of your input signal.
The step sequencers are equally polyrhythmic, but with individual values for each step, as expected. You can set it to run forward, backward, or back and forth for added complexity.
Finally, there’s a “Logic” section (not to be confused with Apple’s DAW) for combining the properties of two modulation elements. While this sounds a bit complex, it’s easiest to think of it as the section where you can assign the mod wheel to control the depth of an LFO. Of course, you can apply math to these combined parameters as well, so if you want the values of a step sequencer to serve as, say, an exclusive-or gate for a sine-wave LFO, you can go there instead.
These modulation tools, combined with the vast processing resources of Molekular would be more than ample for an entire career’s worth of sound design, but there’s even more to consider. For one thing, you can set up four completely different values and a base state for almost every parameter in this system, then morph between the states using an X/Y vector, which can be controlled by MIDI or by any of the modulation resources. 
What’s more, you can pitch-quantize any relevant parameter (like pitch-shifters, the vocoder, FFT processes, and resonators) to up to eight different user-defined keys and scales, then switch between them in real time or with one of the modulation tools (see Figure 1 at left).
Finally, you can quantize the motion of any knob/parameter, whether it’s modulated or controlled in real time via MIDI, to a tempo-synced note value. This means if you turn a knob, or have a slow tempo-synced triangle LFO modulating a parameter, it will be stepped in time with your DAW. Unreal.

The level of detail and control in Molekular is absolutely mind-boggling. Just experimenting took more than a week before I got the hang of it. If you’re an instant-gratification sound designer, this software will drive you insane. But if you’re the kind of keyboardist who thinks that Keith Emerson’s modular rig could use a few more cables and another wall of synth modules, you’ll be in hog heaven. 
 In a lot of ways, Molekular reminds me of Symbolic Sound’s Kyma hardware DSP system, but at a much more approachable price. If you’re familiar with Kyma, you’ll be smiling right now. If not, then let me explain it this way: Molekular is the single most flexible effects processor I have ever used. 
That said, it has a sound that’s deep, cinematic, expansive, and decidedly digital. It doesn’t “ooze warmth” in any way, but that doesn’t mean it’s not absolutely brilliant, because it is. Whether you’re a die-hard progressive rock fan, a budding film composer, or an EDM freak, you can’t afford to ignore Molekular. With a little investment of time and patience, it could very well change the way you approach recorded sound and music. I don’t say that very often, but in this case, I can’t say it loud enough. All this processing power for $149 also makes it a clear winner of our Key Buy award for outstanding value.
PROS: Completely modular approach to effects processing. Tons of exotic DSP effects. Patch morphing. Pitch and timing quantization on relevant parameters. Totally unique sound.
CONS: FFT processes are CPU-intensive, even on a quad-core computer. Learning curve can be daunting for newcomers.
Bottom Line: The most sophisticated multi-effects plug-in we’ve seen yet.
$149 street/download | 

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