AIR Music Technology LOOM Soft Synth Reviewed

November 22, 2013
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Additive synthesis isn’t exactly a crowded field, but there are at least a few soft synths that tackle the issues that accompany the technique. For starters, full-bore additive synthesis would require an amplitude envelope for every single sine wave in the final sound you want to produce. Loom, from AIR Music Technology, takes a unique approach, combining the complexities of additive techniques with a modular synth design, while attempting to retain an approachable user interface—no mean feat.
 
 


PROS: Unique and inspiring take on additive synthesis. Easy to program. Capable of remarkably animated sounds. Modular approach with many sound-shaping tools.


CONS: Inadequate documentation. Factory patches don’t fully exploit capabilities. Some controls need a sharper visual contrast.


Bottom Line: A sound designer’s dream with a remarkably flexible, modular architecture.

$199 direct/street | airmusictech.com 

 

Overview

 Two main pages comprise Loom’s work area: the Morph and the Edit areas, with the Master section accessible from either page. Next, you can set up to 512 partials (harmonic frequencies) per voice. The more partials you add, the more complexity you can impart to the patch. That, of course, places more demand on the CPU. Next is a readout of the number of partials your notes are consuming. You can toggle the synchronization of partials for each note on or off. On is basically oscillator sync, in which all partials start at once; when set to off, partials play freely, which generally latter imparts a cloudier sonic texture. Next is the Octave setting, which is handy when I want to set up a playable range for my MIDI guitar, fine-tune keyboard modulation, or explore the outer ranges of the patch. You can set glide time by clicking and dragging in a small bar to the right of the Octave setting. Therein lies a minor gripe: Some of the controls would benefit from slightly higher contrast with their background.

Next up are a save button, a patch selection area that displays the current patch and opens to a hierarchical pull-down menu; a patch randomizer; and a settings bar that (among other things) lets you adjust pitch-bend range, save and load controller settings, and choose Economy mode if your processor is getting hit hard.

The Patch Randomizer isn’t quite hit-or-miss—there isn’t any selective randomization, but you can choose to simply randomize parameters by holding the Shift key while clicking the button; otherwise, parameters change, and the synth randomly swaps out modules. The randomizing coupled with Loom’s formidable synthesis architecture is occasionally capable of some truly exotic audio fireworks (listen to Audio Clip 1 below). The ability to filter specific modules for randomization would make for more consistently worthwhile results.

 

Macro Controls
The Morph Page divides into two main areas: a Macro control area and an X/Y pad. Either area can change your sound in radical ways. Macro assignment names remain the same whatever patch you select, but in reality—depending on the patch—and because of Loom’s modular architecture, those macros can comprise a number of different modules.

Macros come in four main groups: Sound, Dynamics, Modulation, and Master FX, each with a set of relevant knobs. For instance, the Sound category has knobs labeled Character, Complexity, Tone, Emphasis, and Contour. A positive twist of the character knob altered the module that changed the relative volume of odd-to-even harmonics, the damping of upper harmonics, and the gain of the EQ module. Changing Punch in the Dynamics area altered the overall attack time. In short, Macros are programming shortcuts. Generally, you can observe any macro-based changes in modulation on the edit page, called out in orange highlighting. If you want your new settings to be a starting point for your next patch, you can hit the “Apply” button on the right of the Macro section.

Morph X/Y Pad
At the lower left side of the page is the Morph X/Y Pad. Here, by shift-clicking, you can embed the state of the macro settings at the four corners of the window. Once you have done at least two corners, you can drag back and forth between points and modulate macro settings. With the Auto/Morph button engaged, it’s easy to add tempo-synced, rhythmic animation to patches. Double-clicking at any point within the axes provides a transitional segment between morph settings, and even when synced, you can scale the transition time to taste. The pad is a tremendous resource for animating patches (Audio Clip 2 below). A large-size window to the pad’s right graphically portrays the frequency changes as they dance to your tune (see image at left).

 
 
 
 


The Edit Page
One of the keys to making Loom’s additive synthesis engine more approachable is that it presents frequency content as a whole, rather than as a palette of individual sine waves with associated envelopes. The conundrum for most synths of this kind is the creation of non-harmonically related frequencies; Loom’s Edit page tackles this in a novel way, although you may need to rely on your ear, rather than calculating a particular index of values (see image below left).
 
 

The very first pair of modules: Spectral Distortion and Spectral Modulation, are “hardwired” into Loom’s architecture, and produce a raw waveform based on the number of harmonics you’ve specified in the Master section. These two modules affect the level of inharmonicity, and it’s easy to add bell-like, glassy, and metallic artifacts ranging from subtle to very discordant. Spectral Modulation lets you mediate and control the depth, speed, and starting time of harmonic distortions with envelopes LFOs, and Control-Change messages. MIDI learn is available to practically any parameter.

The default, initialized patch includes an Odd/Even oscillator module. This reminds me of my old Oberheim Matrix-6, with a knob that goes from a nasal pulse-wave sound at left to a sawtooth in the center to a square wave at right. For additional choices, there’s a pull-down menu of oscillator frequency templates including one that mimics hard sync, another that emulates organ tones, and more. You aren’t restricted to generating waveform templates from that slot; you can choose from an interesting variety of objects, including filters, time-based and rhythmic manipulations, mathematical functions, and even a module to load audio files which are then used to create vocoder effects. Suffice it to say that Loom provides a hefty and creative sound designer’s toolbox.

Documentation
For all its ease of use and its generous array of sound-shaping tools, Loom’s documentation doesn’t quite do it justice. The PDF user manual is barely a walk-through, with no details on the modules or how they affect the sound. That task is left to the information buttons, which in most cases (but not always), fill in the gaps. From the info supplied, there’s often no way to tell (for instance) what modules are tied to the macros. Some modules, such as the Tone and most of the Dynamics macros, were obvious, but other than their names, there’s little else to guide you. The Loom website links to a bundle of third-party video tutorials you can download for $20, though it might have been better to build that into the product price and simply have the videos up there for free.

Conclusions

Loom provides tons of gosh-wow patches, and these can seed plenty of creative synthesis adventures. There are a few emulative patches of organs and harpsichords, but that’s hardly the point of this synth. I was surprised to find quite a few emulations of analog-style synthesizers, wobbles, and “super saw”-style, dance-oriented patches. These sound great and are arguably what people browsing in a music store want to hear, but Loom is capable of so much more that restricting yourself to the factory patches is like taking the starship Enterprise for a spin around Brooklyn. In any case, Loom is one of the most innovative and exciting virtual instruments to emerge in some time.


 

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