The Outer Limits of Sound Design
Some synthesizers are like great big friendly puppies, all warm and snuggly and panting to be played with. Absynth is not like that. Absynth is scary. And that’s a good thing. If your music cries out for edgy sound design, the kind that leaves listeners wide awake and a little nervous, Absynth will do the job.
Version 5 doesn’t supply a huge raft of new features, but then, Absynth 4 (reviewed Dec. ’07) was already richly endowed. New in Absynth 5 are a granular effect module called the Aetherizer, a preset generator called the Mutator, new Granular Cloud and Supercomb filter modes, and the ability to insert waveshaping, ring modulation, or a frequency shifter into some of the resonant filters. Also, there’s support for 64-bit processors in Windows XP and Vista.
Click the image at left for large, annotated version.
1. The browser and main editing windows are accessed with these buttons.
2. Signals flow down; the oscillator modules are at the top.
3. Each oscillator can be followed by one or two processors.
4. Inactive modules are hollow.
5. Here’s the filter mode pop-up menu.
6. In the three master modules across the bottom, the signal flows from left to right.
7. Each module can have up to three small edit windows, accessed by tabs.
8. The effect module is so complex that it has its own window of settings instead of packing them in here.
9. Mouse up or down on the little hexagons to change the numbers.
Amazingly deep palette of cutting-edge sounds. Unlimited modulation, including a multi-segment envelope for each parameter. Unique granular filter and filter feedback processing. Waveform designer. Intelligent patch generator. Loads user samples.
User interface requires study. Factory sample library can’t be installed to external drive. Lacks standard effects processors.
NEED TO KNOWWhat is it? A feature-rich soft synth for sound design maniacs.
What types of synthesis does it do? Virtual analog (with user-designable waveforms), FM, basic sample-playback, and granular.
What do you get for filters? Sixteen different modes including comb and allpass. Uniquely, you can insert a waveshaper, frequency shifter, or ring modulator in the filter feedback loop.
What effects are included? The effect module has a choice of six modes, including a resonator, echoes, pipe, and the new Aetherizer granular effect.
Is it multitimbral? No — each instance can respond on only one MIDI channel, and will load only one preset.
Plug-in formats: Mac or PC: stand-alone, VST, AU (Mac only), RTAS.
Copy protection: Serial number/online authorization via Native Instruments Service Center app (supplied).
For those who just arrived, let’s take a quick tour of Absynth before turning the spotlight on the new features. The voice design is semi-modular: You can use up to three oscillators, each of which can send its signal through two more processing modules of your choice (filter, waveshaper, or ring mod). The three signals are then summed and sent through two more processing modules, followed by an effect module to finish off the signal path. There are 16 filter modes and nine oscillator modes. The oscillators will do both sample playback and FM, and their audio input mode turns Absynth into an effects processor.
Three LFOs can be assigned very flexibly. You can also use a separate looping multi-segment envelope for each parameter if you need to, so the number of LFOs is effectively unlimited. A handy utility is provided for setting up rhythmic attack-release envelope patterns, and each breakpoint of an envelope can be modulated from a MIDI controller. Surround mixing outputs, user-tunable scales, point-by-point editable keyboard scaling curves, and other precision tools are on call. You can design your own waveshapes using the slick features in the wave edit window, and use them in either the oscillators or the LFOs. A built-in audio recorder is available in stand-alone mode, to let you capture ideas on the fly.
What Absynth lacks — by design — is a standard multi-effects rack. Instead, Absynth has one effect processor, which can operate in any of half a dozen modes: pipe, multicomb, multitap, echoes, resonator, or Aetherizer. Basically, it’s a set of up to six fast delay lines with various parameters and modulation inputs. It will do phasing and reverb, but even these “normal” effects have an exotic edge.
Included with Absynth is a sample library of about 1GB. Absynth isn’t supposed to be a full-featured sampler: It doesn’t do multisample key layouts, and the loop editing is straight out of the ’80s. The included samples are intended mostly as attack transients and as sources for granular synthesis. You can use your own samples, however.
The sample library has to be installed on your system drive. Since the C: drive on my PC is nearly full, I used Absynth on my MacBook Pro, as an AU insert in Ableton Live 8. It was rock-solid: I encountered no glitches of any kind.
Random patch generators have been around since the late ’70s. The idea is to let the machine stir the pot and come up with a new sound that you can then fine-tune. Absynth’s Mutator takes this to a higher level. Using the built-in Browser, you select a few attribute keywords — for instance, sounds in the database that match “metallic” and “processed.” This produces a list of three to a few dozen patches.
You then adjust a pair of sliders to control how much randomness you want, click on oscillator and processor modules in a little graphic diagram to include them in the “mutation,” and click the Mutate button. Absynth will combine your current patch (which might be anything) with the patches in the list. A row of macro knobs lets you make basic adjustments without going over to the edit pages.
A history stores all of the mutations you’ve come up with, so you can save the ones you like. They won’t all be winners, but I came up with some great-sounding patches using the Mutator — click here for an audio example of them.
The Aetherizer (click image at left) adds granular processes to Absynth. It can add a subtle “cloudy” quality or spit out sparse and randomly repitched snippets, giving the input a glassy, robotic sound. Grains are randomly positioned in the stereo field for a spacious spread, and if you turn on the surround panner, you can control the spread’s width. You can’t control grain attack and release times, but the default grain envelope sounds great, with no clicking.
Like Absynth’s other effects, the Aetherizer has a single controller input for realtime MIDI control. The depth with which this affects eight separate Aetherizer parameters can be adjusted, and the control input can be inverted for any parameter. But having this input on the Effect page itself is just a convenience: In fact, all effect parameters are available as MIDI destinations in Absynth’s flexible Performance page. LFOs and envelopes can also modulate any effect parameter. I got an evocative tone by modulating grain transposition from one LFO and grain duration from another LFO at the same time.
FILTER FEEDBACK FUN
The ability to insert a waveshaper, frequency shifter, or ring modulator into a filter’s feedback (resonance) loop is unique. Other than Reaktor, I can’t think offhand of another synth that will do this. The results depend both on the waveform used for modulation and the amount of resonance. Turning up the resonance strengthens the effect.
Using a square wave for shaping gave me some tones reminiscent of soft sync. Frequency-shifting at an extremely low frequency produced bumpy gargling noises. The ring modulation was more traditional-sounding, but with a great ’50s sci-fi sound.
CONCLUSIONSAbsynth doesn’t just generate sounds — it evokes moods. If you want rich strings and a mellow Rhodes for a pop ballad, stay away! But if you’re doing film soundtracks of almost any kind (not just sci-fi), angst-ridden cyberpunk, or experimental concerts in a loft or at a university, Absynth is the secret weapon that will make you truly dangerous. It’s truly one of a kind.